Jared Scharff has one of the best music gigs in television. As a longtime member of the Saturday Night Live band, the Rockland County-bred guitarist has regularly performed alongside his heroes and lent memorable riffs to sketches like “The Californians.” And since the show often only needs him on Saturdays, it’s given Scharff plenty of leeway to pursue session work with folks like Bruno Mars and Sara Bareilles; back up Sting and Bruce Springsteen at all-star charity shows like the Rainforest Foundation Concert and the Clearwater Concert; and even play in Madison Square Garden’s quasi-house band at New York Rangers games.
Lately he’s been recording his own instrumental tracks under the name Pearl Lion and later this year will release a pair of EPs titled Light (featuring pastoral Explosions In The Sky/Bon Iver-style soundscapes) and Dark (grimier, more electronic-oriented tracks). Today we’ve got the premiere of Dark’s “NYC” and its Falling Awake Films-directed video which was shot in some of the Scharff’s favorite neighborhoods. Check it out along with some Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: You just finished your 10th year on SNL. So how’d you get the job?
JARED SCHARFF: Dr. Luke recommended me and so basically at that point Lenny Pickett, the band leader, asked for some videos. I got called in to the office for a “hang,” which really meant this was an audition. And he was like, “Yeah why don’t you come in next week. Oh yeah, bring your guitar.” We talked for a bunch of hours, played through a couple of SNL Band songs, and it was really cool. Actually it’s one of the highlights of my SNL career because it was really awesome to just bro down and talk to Lenny about his life and my life. I got a call back after that to play with the rhythm section. … And then I basically got a call a couple weeks later that I got the job.
STEREOGUM: What had you been doing before that? Playing in bands?
SCHARFF: I was always trying to be a band guy. I was in a jam band type of thing in high school which eventually morphed into more of a rock/pop band in college. And then I joined this second band which eventually got signed right when I graduated NYU. That was called Carbondale. We got signed to RCA Records. The collapse of the music industry started happening and RCA merged with J Records at some point and after us doing a half-a-million-dollar album we got dropped and then I kinda eventually quit that band — me and the other guitar player quit together at the same time about a year later, after we got dropped. And then I started my own project called Jared Scharff & The Royals where I was singing and writing. It was kind of a Tom Petty/Foo Fighters type of thing, like jangly melodic tunes but some rock attitude. And I was doing that for a bunch of years and that’s when I got, in 2007, the SNL gig. And I started producing and writing some pop stuff and I was in LA all the time, but that’s what I had done prior to SNL.
As I got SNL I started doing a lot more hired-gun gigs, for house band things. I became the Sting and Trudie Styler Rainforest Foundation guitarist: I got to be in the guitar chair [next to] Nile Rodgers for a few years. Really honored to have a friendship with that dude, and play with all these crazy people like Sting and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen and fucking Debbie Harry and James Taylor and Paul Simon and Bruno Mars, it’s insane. And other house band stuff — I did the Pete Seeger concert at MSG, the 90th birthday thing. And I started doing a bit more session work for studio stuff. I did one for Bruno Mars, the most recent to date is the Sara Bareilles [What’s Inside: Songs From] Waitress album.
STEREOGUM: What Bruno Mars songs did you do?
SCHARFF: The session I did was for “Locked Out Of Heaven.”
STEREOGUM: One of his best songs.
SCHARFF: I have no idea what they used? Or what they kept? But I was there for a day and did the session there.
STEREOGUM: So when you were in the room, were they like, “Guys let’s try to sound like the Police”?
SCHARFF: That was never said! I was just really happy to be a part of it. Bruno had actually specifically asked me to do it. He played the Rainforest Benefit that year and I knew a lot of the same people he knew from the producer/writer world and we kind of chatted a bit and when it came time to do his stuff, one of his managers, or an assistant to his manager, like found me on Twitter. I got to spend the day and work with Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker and Bruno.
STEREOGUM: What’s your week like? You’re playing Saturday night obviously, and what, rehearsing on Friday?
SCHARFF: I’m on call Thursday and Fridays. Usually I get called in if there’s a sketch I need to play for, or there’s something I need to record for a digital sketch that they need soon. For example, those old sketches that Fred Armisen used to do, where he would be in a punk band playing at his daughter’s wedding. You know, like, I was playing guitar and Dave Grohl was on drums in that sketch. You know obviously the music is a huge part of that sketch so they want you there at rehearsals. Or sometimes there’s a big monologue that we need to work on so I’ll come in and do that. It depends. And then Saturday, that’s the big day. So there are some weeks that I don’t come in at all Thursday or Friday. But I always have to be there Saturday no matter what. So I leave the house at 10AM and I leave at 1AM.
STEREOGUM: It’s a long day.
SCHARFF: Friday night is like my Sunday, it’s like I don’t really go out on Friday nights.
— Jared Scharff (@ScharffIsHere) November 14, 2016
STEREOGUM: Is there a name for the SNL theme song?
SCHARFF: It’s called “Opening Theme” and it’s by Howard Shore, who wrote the opening and closing theme. Every couple years, Lenny revamps the theme. It just changes up the vibe of the show. I’ve played it a couple different ways since I’ve been there. I think maybe it’s the third or fourth version.
STEREOGUM: Is reading sheet music really well a requirement then?
SCHARFF: Exactly. You have to be able to read because there are things that change on the fly. For example, sometimes after dress rehearsal, one of our musical directors, Eli, who writes a lot of music for the show, will be talking to us in our ears during the cold open about the changes that we have to make to the monologue, musically, and we’re like writing down stuff on our paper and it’s like three, two, one and we’re into the monologue and we’re doing exactly what Eli just like told us to do… So you have to be able to read and change things and know exactly what’s going on and yeah, I get new music every week — besides the band stuff, which is all sight reading — ‘cause they have a catalog of thousands of songs, and you can’t remember that. So you have to read. I’m not a great reader but I’ve certainly been able to learn the style of the music that we do well enough to get through it decently.
STEREOGUM: You are upstage and center during the monologue, so right over the host’s shoulder. Or sometimes shredding into the camera going to the commercial. But when you’re just sitting there watching a monologue, do you have to remind yourself to smile, and not like, pick your nose?
SCHARFF: It’s a weird thing ‘cause you’re not doing anything but you know that people can see you and sometimes like I’ll have an itch and that’s when it’s like oh my god I can’t itch my face. It’s a really interesting mental moment.
STEREOGUM: That’s what I think about when I watch the monologue. I look at Lenny’s face… does he think this is funny?
SCHARFF: The itching thing is a challenge and I’ve gotten really good, like if I know the camera’s gonna pan to something else and I’m not on screen I’ll itch my face really quickly. Regarding laughing and all that stuff, you know, I’m there and I’m part of the show and I’m enjoying myself so you know, I’m just doing my thing.
STEREOGUM: There have been so many memorable music performances in the 10 years you’ve been a part of the show. Who sticks out for you?
SCHARFF: I think when Tom Petty played I was pretty much just freaking out. ‘Cause he was one of my idols and that was just such a special thing just to have them there. Coldplay’s been on a bunch, but they are so incredible that it always leaves a wonderful lasting impression. The sleeper hit for me, actually, was … do you remember when T-Pain performed?
STEREOGUM: I do not.
SCHARFF: I didn’t really know T-Pain. And I remember seeing his performance and for some reason I was so blown away. Just the song and his AutoTune and his dancing. He really impressed me. It’s not like a standard choice, but it was so good. That was one of my favorite performances ever.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk a little bit about the EPs you’ve got. There’s two, Light and Dark. I assume they’re coming out together?
SCHARFF: That’s the idea. I’m not totally sure about the release scenario yet, but they’re two halves of a whole.
STEREOGUM: This project is Pearl Lion. And Pearl was your grandma’s name?
SCHARFF: My grandmother was like this ray of light, completely positive, beautiful human. She had an incredible voice. She was a painter. Just pure sunshine. She passed away a little while ago from cancer, but fortunately I was able to fly to Florida and I was there those last couple of days. And I remember the last day she was in and out of consciousness in hospice, and I kind of made a promise to her, basically saying that I will keep your positivity and energy and that spirit, that loving, positive energy … that I’ll take that with me. Because I think at that time I maybe wasn’t that positive of a person. So when I started creating this music which has always been a dream for me, I wanted [a name] that meant something really significant. I wanted to put her name in that. So that was the first half. And then I got Lion from, I did a cranial sacral therapy session. My one and only I’ve ever one.
STEREOGUM: What is that?
SCHARFF: I don’t really know. It’s like some sort of massage/energy type of thing, where they don’t really touch you, but like it’s an energy-moving type of thing. You should check it out. I can’t really explain it. It’s probably better off being Googled. But it’s the first time I ever did anything in the energy realm … that wasn’t really on my radar. I had a shoulder problem for a while and she’s like, I can help you. And I’m starting to see all these things, these visions are popping into my head. I’ve never experienced anything like this. And I had this vision at one point of this lion laying in this field of grass. And because of where I saw it and what she was working on, the short story is that basically she’s like, that’s a protector and it’s protecting your heart.
SCHARFF: I wanted to make modern instrumental music accessible to people that didn’t necessarily listen to instrumental music. Like how do you make someone who likes Bon Iver and Sigur Rós and likes that emotion from the music … feel that from music without a vocal. Or the more aggressive stuff, you know like people who like Nine Inch Nails to Jack White to Smashing Pumpkins to Kanye West or whatever. I want it to connect with most people, not just guitar heads. So that’s why these songs are almost in kind of a pop format, because I’m also a pop producer and it’s just taking all these influences.
When I was thinking about the visuals, for the vibier stuff, I was always so captivated by the Bon Iver videos, I just felt like they were these moving, cinematic things, so I reached out to Dan Huiting, who does a lot of those videos, as a longshot pipe dream, and sent him a total cold email. So it was completely a surprise that he wanted to make it. We ended up shooting the “Big Sky” video and we have another video that he shot coming out that’ll probably be the last video called “Pearl.” So we have those two and then me and my buddy wrote a treatment for “ALPHA4,” and I had Dan film all the live action stuff and was able to get FOX ADHD on board to shoot all the digital content.
STEREOGUM: How did you hook up with the model Ashley Smith who stars in the “NYC” video?
SCHARFF: So I’ve never met her.
SCHARFF: Blaise [Beyhan] — who’s a good friend of mine and pretty much helps me on all visual things Pearl Lion; he had shot one of my videos for “Himalaya,” which is not out yet — [he] and I wanted to do a video for “NYC” as well, so I basically gave him carte blanche, just do something amazing that represents New York and the vibe of the song. And he came up with this crazy treatment, and he knew Ashley and he thought she’d be perfect for the kind of energy of the song, and she was into it and she did it. We got really lucky.
STEREOGUM: Before we wrap up, can you give me some of your most insane SNL moments?
SCHARFF: One of them is when Them Crooked Vultures played. So Dave Grohl was there and was watching the band do our warmup for dress rehearsal, and we typically play covers. So we were playing a Led Zeppelin song that night, “Out On The Tiles.” Grohl was out there watching our warmup which is already pretty exciting, so for the warmup during the live show, he brings out John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. So here I am playing a Led Zeppelin song with John Paul Jones watching me playing it. It was the most surreal moment. You can just never imagine as a kid growing up that you were going to have someone from Led Zeppelin see you play Led Zeppelin. That happened early on and that was pretty nuts.
STEREOGUM: And you got to play with Grohl in a sketch.
SCHARFF: I was a huge Pearl Jam fan. I was a big Foo Fighters fan. So I’m playing that [“Crisis Of Conformity”] sketch with Fred, Ashton Kutcher’s in it, Dave Grohl’s playing drums, and I was playing guitar. And at one point I’m just like I’m playing a rock thing with one of the most iconic drummers of all time. I remember talking to him after and he was like, “Yeah I was wondering who was playing that. ‘Cause like, Ashton was fake-playing …I wasn’t sure, but whoever was playing guitar I was like, ‘dude this guy’s like right on it.'” That was like a super high compliment coming from Dave Grohl, you know? Just getting to play with him on drums was just … who gets to do that anymore?
STEREOGUM: What about Mick Jagger? You got to play with him on the season finale a few years back.
SCHARFF: Well, Jeff Beck did a song with Jagger and we played as the backup band. So first of all, I’m getting to play with Jeff Beck. And the drummer was Vinnie Colaiuta, and I was a drummer originally, so that was exciting too. So Mick Jagger is doing his thing and we’re backing him up and Jeff Beck starts taking his solo and I’m kind of like almost laughing to myself about how incredible and insane this moment is. Mick Jagger kind of shimmies back to the right side of the stage and he just kind of like turns his head and we catch eyes … and I’m looking at him kind of laughing in disbelief. And he looks at me and gives me this shit-eating grin, like “this is pretty badass isn’t it?” And then he just turns away and he’s back into like, Mick Jagger land. It was like time stood still for one moment.