My Slice of Life with the Pizza Underground
Playing in a pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band with Macaulay Culkin taught me more about the nature of celebrity—and pizza—than I'd bargained for.
All photos by Adrian Arredondo
The Pizza Underground—our band that plays pizza-themed renditions of Velvet Underground songs—can barely sing in unison. We mostly don't play real instruments, and we don't even sound that good live.
And yet: We've gained enough attention to nab a Reddit cover story, a viral feature on BuzzFeed, and have connected with Rolling Stone, MTV, Subway, the New Yorker, Big Boi, Grub Hub, and Good Morning America. Five hundred people showed up to our first-ever show; later, when we toured the US, we played sold-out shows. We were booed and bottled off the stage in Nottingham, and we performed on a moving streetcar in Toronto. At some point, we had to ask ourselves, "Why?"
The band included Phoebe Kreutz, Matt Colbourn, Austin Kilham, and myself, but the immediately obvious reason people were paying money to see us was because of our band also counted Macaulay Culkin as a member, so covering us was a journalistic wet dream. Being a journalist myself, I know how lazy journalists are. The Pizza Underground had a gimmick and a celebrity attached, and the recent passing of Lou Reed—which was purely a coincidence—increased our timeliness. The public's collective boner for the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again arc of child stars like Culkin made us newsworthy to blogs and tabloids. The Home Alone movies he starred in are still ubiquitous Christmas classics, so he's not just famous to the 80s babies who grew up with him—he's renowned by all the babies who have been alive since.
Touring with Mack (that's what we call him) made me realize just how famous he is—which is, much more famous than I thought he was. In Alabama, a drunk young man attacked our tour van with a Home Alone VHS tape yelling, "I just want Macaulay Culkin to know I exist!" In the Monterrey, Mexico, airport, we played Red Rover through 30 stocky paparazzi, getting bonked and bruised by cameras while sprinting to a van we hoped would be waiting outside (it was). Every night, an aggressive posse of predominantly middle-aged men—also, sometimes, women and children—waited outside our shows with Talkboys, Macaulay Culkin dolls, headshots, and telephoto lenses.
A celebrity's presence can give a band with no real reason to be famous a serious publicity boost—just ask Jared Leto. Was there another reason they were coming to our shows, though? Some part of me had hoped they understood we were onto something brilliant—a post-postmodern joke that chewed up popular culture in a way that said "I'm Little Caesar's" instead of "I'll be your mirror." It was possible that such humor and insight would bring academics and music journalists to their doughy knees.
I was wrong. Our next-level meta-self-awareness wasn't the draw—it was the pizza. Pizza fans showed up not just because of Macaulay Culkin; pizza fans showed up because Macaulay Culkin was singing about and giving out free pizza. (In Home Alone, he famously exalted pizza with the oft-quoted line, "A plain cheese pizza just for me!") Lou Reed may have just died, but pizza was having a moment, too.
Of course, pizza was never not having a moment. Each year, approximately 3 billion pizzas are consumed in the US, with around 350 slices consumed each second. Pizza is very cheap—and it's very popular.
Being a journalist myself, I know how lazy journalists are. The Pizza Underground had a gimmick, a celebrity, and the recent passing of Lou Reed, which was purely a coincidence, made us timely.
Still, I didn't expect to see boys and girls at our shows in adult-size pizza costumes, pulling down their socks to show us pizza tattoos, dangling baked clay triangles from their ears, slices around their necks, wearing shirts with cheesy puns like "Rest in Pizza" or "Pizza Slut," chanting "PIZZA! PIZZA!" It's because of pizza fans that we found pizza-box collectors, pizza aerobics, pizza clothing designers, pizza artists, and many pizza dad-jokes, such as, "Why did the hipster burn his mouth? He ate the pizza before it was cool!" That joke doesn't make sense, though, because pizza's always been cool. No one can say they liked pizza before it was cool, except to literally mean that they like pizza when it's hot and fresh.
Over the course of the last three years, we added a bass player, got better at singing and playing our instruments, and worked other musical jokes into our repertoire. There was Nevermound, in which we performed Nirvana songs sung in the past tense; #PussyJoel, which was Billy Joel songs with lyrics about cats ("I can make a sound just like a ca-a-a-a-a-t, mew oughta know meow"); and Plop Dylan, which was Bob Dylan songs about poop ("Rainy Day Women #2," "One More Cup of Coffee for My Stool," "Tangled Up in Poo.") The Pizza Underground became not just a parody act, but a variety show.
The Pizza Underground was never meant to last forever, but it did last longer than people thought it should've. As Mack said to the Guardian in a recent, rare interview: "It's one of those good ideas you have when you're drunk, and you wake up and forget about it. But we're taking it to the end of the joke." So where does this joke end? Well, besides the pizza art show we're planning with Anchovy Warhol in New York this fall, Mack told the UK publication, "We have an album coming out, a vinyl pressing with a children's choir, a symphony orchestra. We're giving it away, our gift to the world." You're welcome, world.
These days, I live in LA and have a steady job. Do I miss getting free pizza every night? You bet. I also miss the attention (let's just be honest), being on tour, and the story fodder for parties—like the time we agreed to play an anime convention on the condition that the promoters threw in free tickets to Medieval Times. Or when a Macaulay Culkin death hoax went viral, and we responded the only way we knew how: with a full-on Weekend at Bernie's impression impression.
In Alabama, a drunk young man attacked our tour van with a Home Alone VHS tape yelling, "I just want Macaulay Culkin to know I exist!"
But at the risk of sounding, uh, cheesy, what I miss most is being weird and stupid with my friends: Playing Bananagrams, drawing on T-shirts with Sharpies, and thinking up synonyms for cheese. The band was important to me, and as much as I tried to escape it, a part of my identity was tied to it. Something that Mack used to say runs through my mind: "Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing with my life?" Without the band—and without New York—I'm not quite sure how to feel, although I do feel a bit less bloated.
So yes, I've been out walking. I don't do too much toppings these days. Or, as we sang on "Sicilian," to the tune of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin": "I don't know what shape my dough's in, but I want to try for a different shape of pan." I'm searching for that next weird thing that makes me feel like me and fits into this LA lifestyle. A French version of the California Raisins called the California Raisons? Je l'ai entendu par la vigne? Maybe. I don't know if I can do better than when we replaced the chorus of "Sweet Jane" with the words "Pizz-aaa, Pizzz-aaa-o-o, Pizz-aaa."