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We Interviewed John C. Reilly About Music Because, Hey, Why Not?

His favorite musician of all time is Elton John, and he used to be in a band called Shark Fighter.
March 27, 2014, 7:46pm

When John C. Reilly calls me up, he's recently finished meditating, and he's enjoying himself a cup of tea. The tea, which he describes to me as delicious, has pieces of fruit and rose petals in it.

"That sounds really pretentious," he jokes. "But you asked."

Reilly is on the phone to promote his hilariously bizarre and weird show on Adult Swim, Check It Out with Steve Brule (which airs tonight at 12:30am) but I've somehow convinced his publicist to let him do an interview with me about music. Because, hey, this guy played Dewey Cox. This guy has a band called John Reilly & Friends. This guy is behind motherfucking "Boats 'N Hoes."

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So yeah, why not? Let's talk about music. Turns out, dude has a lot to say, including that his favorite artists of all time are Elton John (who he's awkwardly met once) and the Rolling Stones (he once ate in the same restaurant as Mick Jagger), and he was once in a band called Shark Fighter, which is arguably the greatest band name of all time.

Noisey: How did your relationship with music develop?
John C. Reilly: Well, like most people, through my parents’ record collection. My dad was really into traditional Irish music—the Clancy Brothers. He was Irish. And that was a lot of the first music that was played around the house. We also had tons of 45s and albums from my brothers and sisters. I would listen to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and those ‘60s groups, but all I knew was from the 45s. So there would just be a name on there. I didn’t really know who the Beatles were. I didn’t have an image in my head of what they looked like, or the Beach Boys, it was just like, oh, that one record with that title. And then later when I was in my 20s, it was like, oh! The Beatles! Yeah! That sounds really dumb, but that’s really how it was.

What was the Beatles record you ended up latching onto most?
God, I don’t know. Probably one of those poppy ones from the beginning. My sisters used to listen to the Beatles in their room. For some reason, the only records I had when I was a kid were story records. I really loved listening to stories on records. And then anything else was just hand-me-downs from my brothers so it’d be like, Aerosmith or whatever tough kids on the south side of Chicago were listening to in the late ‘70s. But as I got older, my first love as an individual was Elton John. I listened to Elton John so much that people used to call me Elton. That was the smartass nickname for me in the neighborhood.

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What was it about Elton John that you loved so much?
I just remember getting that first greatest hits record and the songs were so evocative. It was a different kind of music compared to the other popular music at the time. It was really story based. The characters in those songs were so evocative, like “Daniel.” The lyrics really spoke to me. And his sense of melody was so sophisticated, and there weren’t a ton of people playing piano in popular music at that moment. You know, my mom was really into all the old standards, and we had a player piano, so that was another huge influence growing up. Anything you could get on a player roll for the player piano was a song I heard over and over again—like, “It Had to Be You,” or whatever, these old standards—and they’d randomly come in the house because you could get them on paper. Someone found them at the second hand store for piano rolls or whatever. So that was another thing that drew me to Elton John, that piano music, and there was a timeless quality. I still love Elton John to this day. Tumbleweed Connection is a perfect record in my mind.

Have you ever met him?
I did meet him once. [Laughs.] It wasn’t the greatest interaction, just because I’m such a fan. What the fuck do you say when you finally meet someone? I learned pretty early on after working with some famous people in movies that it’s best to just shut up and don’t try to make a personal connection, because whatever it is, the truth is going to be different than what you have in your head. So if you care about keeping what’s in your head there, just shut up and get on with your work, and smile. They’ll know what you mean by just smiling.

I was at some charity event. One of these big Oscar party type of things. And I think it was a party that Elton John throws for AIDS research or whatever, and it’s one of those parties where you go in and it’s super stressful because literally any time you bump into someone it’s Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks, or Kirk Douglas, one of those type of parties.

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Yeah, one of those types of parties.
People think, oh, you’re famous, so those are your type of people. But I really don’t feel like those are my type of people. I feel like an imposter in the room whenever I’m at anything like that, or ceremonies, or whatever. Those things stress me out. But we were invited so I went with my wife, and we walk in and we’re starving because we’d already been to a few other things before we had gotten there. So we’re like, “Let’s just get some food, and not freak out and try to talk to every single person we see. Let’s just get food, calm down, eat, and see if we know anyone here.” So we get big plates of food, and we’re looking for somewhere to sit. Everywhere was full, but we spotted two spots.

So we go and sit down and I slide over with my big plate of food and my wife sits next to me and I take a big bite of prime rib, and I turn, and I’m literally shoulder to shoulder with Elton John. He’s like, *adopts British Elton John voice*, “Oh, you’ve decided to sit down next to me with your plate of food.” And I was like, “Oh, FUCK! God damnit. This is not how I wanted this to go!” But I was starving, and it was like, what’s more awkward? Getting up with a plate of food and walking away? Or just trying to just calmly eat your food and at some point mid-plate full, I said something like, “I’m a huge fan.” And he was just like, “Oh, well, of course.” Like, yeah, that’s obvious, every single person says that to me almost every day.

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But I didn’t like him any less. I just wish something else happened, given the years and years and years of time I’ve spent thinking about him and what he’s like. I wish that interaction had gone a little better.

So growing up, what else happened with music?
This thing happened in the late ‘70s where disco and anything that was vaguely like disco was suddenly bad. And all the sudden Elton John intimated on the radio that he was bisexual—not that I even really knew what that was—but literally, one day to the next, Elton John ceased to exist in my neighborhood. This weird thing happened where everyone stopped listening, disco wasn’t cool, anything that was sexy like that wasn’t cool, and it was all about hard rock. More rock! Less talk! This weird, aggressive classic rock thing kicked in. And so I was like, okay, so I got into ACDC for a second. Which I still love. And then Some Girls came out. And it was right when I was coming into my sexuality, like was 13 or so, and I just remember finding this record. My brothers had a party in the house, one of those crazy parties when you’re parents are out of town for the night, and there were all these drunk, sleeping girls on the floor in the morning. The house is a mess. Your childhood sanctuary has been taken over by barbarians.

Red solo cups everywhere.
Yeah. And I wake up and I find this Some Girls record and I was like, I heard these guys are good, and I put it on, and “Miss You” comes on. And all of the sudden, it was like, oh my god, the Rolling Stone just made it cool to be sexy and disco again. Because I loved the BeeGees and shit when I was younger. I was super into the whole disco thing. I was too young for it, but I was into it. And so suddenly I was dancing in my underwear in this weird sexual way to “Miss You” in my living room while all these drunk people are passed out around me.

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So then that became a total obsession with the Rolling Stones. I almost didn’t listen to anything else. Because there was all this backlog to go through, too. And for one summer, I think it was that summer, I loved the song “Shattered” so much that I made a cassette recording of it, over and over again, probably like 15 times in a row. And then I’d just walk around with this portable cassette player and I’d just play the tape, obsessively listening to it over and over, to the point where I had every little grunt and half-word memorized.

Have you ever met any members of the Stones?
No. I sat in a restaurant once with Mick Jagger and just sort of stared. And I know he knows I was staring at him. So then after that, kids in the neighborhood started calling me Mick.

So how’d you get involved with doing music?
I did a lot of musicals when I was a kid, so there was that—almost every play I did were all musicals. That’s all anyone wanted to do or see in my neighborhood. And at the same time I was doing those musicals, my brother started a band called Shark Fighter.

That is a sick band name.
Yeah. And I was the lead singer of Shark Fighter. He played the drums and would not allow me to touch his drum kit.

Did you play any instruments?
I didn’t really play any instruments at the time. I didn’t teach myself guitar till late in college, around 19. But the guitarist in the band was this guy who lived across the street who had a Peavey Flying V guitar. It was pretty great, I have to say. We’d play block parties. Or we’d just start playing in the garage and open the door and people would start to collect in the alley and watch us.

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What was your best song?
Oh, well, we did a lot. I only wanted to do Rolling Stones songs. They were like, what do you know? And I was like, well, the only songs I have lyrics memorized to already are Rolling Stones songs. “Respectable,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Did you do a Mick walk?
Oh, no. I was still so young and kind of embarrassed to be that guy, but I could sing, so I wanted to do it. But it wasn’t like I was strutting around. I was just kind of paralyzed with fear. Because my brother and his friends were older than me, and these guys were the intense hooligans from the neighborhood. So I wasn’t really even one of them, I was just this weird kid who did plays and then sang in the band. However, my brother did do “Whole Lotta Rosie” by ACDC, and I would just kind of stand there and bob my head along. [Laughs.]

Did you ever want to try and pursue music versus pursuing acting?
Well, no. To tell you the truth, in my neighborhood I didn’t know anyone who was doing anything like that—acting or being in a band. It wasn’t like we were like, “We’re going to start a band. We’re going to do this many shows. We’re going to make a record. We’re going to get organized.” It was just like, “We’re gonna go do that thing we do in the garage, so let’s go do it.” We didn’t have any reference points for how you would have a life doing that. The same thing with acting. Acting was this thing that I just kept doing because it was fun and I liked the other people who were doing it, and then much later in life I realized—like this lightbulb went on—and I was like, oh, you can do this for a living. This can be your job.

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That had to be a pretty cool moment.
It was pretty cool. There was also a lot of relief, because for so long I was like, man, I gotta figure out what to do with my life. What’s my job going to be?

So then I kept doing movies, singing in a few things, playing guitar in other things, and I met this guy who played bass while making a movie called Georgia, so we started a blues band together, because I was always into the blues, being from the South Side of Chicago. We played blues covers of classic stuff, Muddy Waters and Little Walter and that kind of thing. I played harmonica in that band, and we did a few more things, but then the Prairie Home Companion movie was a big moment for me because I bought this vintage Gibson guitar that I still play, and it made me realize, oh, I’m a little too optimistic for the blues. I’m better at hillbilly music. And then we made Walk Hard and I met a ton of musicians through that movie, and I realized I have all these sub-categories that I’m doing with different people, like I’m singing country western duets with Becky Stark and I’m doing Everly Brothers duets with others, and so I just thought I should turn that into one thing, so that’s what John Reilly & Friends ended up being.

Do you see yourself pursuing music seriously?
I’m definitely pursuing it. The last few months I’ve had to take a break and, you know, get back to my day-job. [Laughs.] Like, oh yeah, that’s how I make a living. But we definitely have some dates coming up and we’re trying to make a record this summer if we can.

What do you tap into when you’re doing music that you maybe don’t get when you’re acting?
Number one, you get to be yourself on stage. I really envy stand-up comics for that reason. You can think of something during the day while you’re having breakfast and then that night, if you’re a stand-up comic, you can talk about it on stage, and give your point of view about it. During our music shows, it’s obviously mostly music but I do a lot of talking to the audience so it’s a chance to directly interact with people, and that’s really cool. I like singing these songs because it feels like there’s something spiritual about it. A lot of the songs we do are really old traditional music, that have been passed down, and these songs survive for a reason. There’s something magical about the way they are put together—people just remember them and want to sing them and pass them on. And then it goes back to what I said before, how there is great storytelling within these songs. It just feels like there’s a purity to the mission, a true labor of love, you know? When you’re doing a movie or a play, you’re advancing someone else’s agenda or you’re servicing a story that’s not necessarily your vision of what story needs to be told. But when you go out and play music with people you love, you can say, this is our story.

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Is it weird being famous?
Yeah. It’s weird. But it doesn’t have to be weird all the time. You can manage it really easily; you just have to careful. But it’s enough to make you paranoid. And my name has the “C” in it, so you can always hear people whispering it. John C. Reilly. John C. Reilly. So it’s like, okay, that person is talking about me right now. That other person is talking about me right now. So then there are other days where you’re like, “Am I imagining it?” The weirdest ones are when you’re having some interaction in a store or whatever and you’re like, “I’ll take a pack of gum and a bottle of water,” and they’re like, “Okay, that will be $3.37.” And I’m thinking to myself, thank god because up to this point, say I’m in an airport or something, and people have been coming up to me constantly saying hi and wanting photos and then this other person wants to say hi and I’m feeling a little scatterbrained like, oh man I don’t want to have any more random interactions. And then I go to the store and I’m buying the gum and the water and I let my guard down for a second and I’m like, “Thank god this person has no idea who I am.” It’s a relief. And then you pick up your gum and your water and you start to leave and they’re just like, “I’m a big fan!” And you realize the whole time they’ve been staring at you.

So that part of it is weird, but for the most part, it’s pretty unseemly to complain about it because the truth is it’s really love. Especially me. People have always been super, super nice and I’m really appreciative that they recognize I bring something weirder than normal.

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I have a theory that’s probably not true that once you reach a certain level of fame, there is a secret social media circle. Like, Kanye and Kim have private instagrams that only certain people know.
[Laughs.] If that’s true, I’m not plugged into that. I’m not plugged into any of that, actually, which is kind of a bummer sometimes. Tim and Eric will be getting all this feedback about Check It Out, and I’m in this bubble like, is anyone watching the show? And they’re like, “Are you fucking kidding? People are going nuts!” And I don’t do Twitter or any of it so on one hand it kind of protects your experience and your life but it also cuts you off from a larger social picture. I’m an old man!

You’re not that old.
Well, you feel old when you don’t do Instagram.

Eric Sundermann does Instagram but because he turns 27 in a couple months, he’s starting to feel old. He’s on Twitter@ericsundy

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