Name: The Lonely Island
Progress Report: America’s mightiest novelty band slip on a Turtleneck & Chain
The genre known as “comedy music” is often regarded as the sad realm of the one-hit wonder. It’s fair to say that most comedy songs — no matter how clever or funny or particularly zeitgeisty they might be — tend to have a pretty short shelf life. Much like the very 21st century phenomenon known as the viral video (generally the necessary visual component to any kind of successful “comedy music”), most songs created for the sake of making people laugh tend to burn through the popular consciousness with the same fleeting intensity as a runaway grass fire. Much like a video of pandas slapping each other’s faces or, say, Beyoncé falling down a flight of stairs, intentionally funny songs are the things that burn up everyone’s inbox on a Monday morning only to be old hat three days later when everyone has moved on to watching parodies of the parody, or simply become fascinated with the latest video of a monkey peeing in its own face (or something equally awful/hilarious). Also, comedic songs often don’t age very well.
Luckily, these things cannot be said of the Lonely Island. The brainchild of comedy writers and longtime bros Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, the Lonely Island have managed to create some of the most hilarious (and insidiously catchy) pop songs of the past few years. Since the release of the first Lonely Island record Incredibad in 2009 — which included tracks that were first made famous as digital shorts on Saturday Night Live — the group established the kind of ubiquitous cultural influence that often eludes even the most successful pop bands or hip hop artists. You’d be hard pressed to find someone under the age of 40 who doesn’t know about “Lazy Sunday” or isn’t familiar with the comedic genius of “Dick in a Box.” (This is a fact made uncomfortably clear by my own experience of riding in a car with my 78 year old grandma who, out of nowhere, asked me if I’d seen that crazy video about those boys who were putting their “things” inside of Christmas presents. Yikes.)
So, given the popularity of Incredibad and the trio’s continued success with tapping superstar collaborators for their SNL Digital Shorts, it only makes sense that the Lonely Island would return with another album — the very long (19 tracks!) and very funny Turtleneck & Chain.
“Making this record was a much different experience from doing Incredibad,” explains Schaffer. “Mostly because we didn’t really know what we were doing the last time. We’d never professionally recorded a song before and we didn’t know about mixing or mastering or how to make things sound good. In some ways it was easier because we didn’t know any of that stuff. This time around we kind of knew what we were in for, which changes things.”
“Mostly now we just know what a massive nightmare the music business is,” says Samberg, “which has a way of making things less fun. Though, we still had a lot of fun.”
“Also, the first time around we were using ideas that we’d been carrying around for years,” explains Schaffer. “But with Turtleneck & Chain we had a shorter amount of time to come up with ideas and less of a back catalog of stuff to draw from. Not to make us sound like a real band or anything, but it was classic sophomore album kind of stuff.”
Turtleneck & Chain includes three tracks that premiered as Digital Shorts on SNL (the same number of SNL-approved tracks that appeared on Incredibad), but they guys are quick to explain that both Lonely Island records were written and conceptualized as albums, not simply as ways to further ride the wave created by the success of the SNL videos.
“The first record really came about because of the writers strike,” says Schaffer. “All of our side-projects fell apart because of the strike and we realized that we’d all have this time off during the summer, which was the perfect opportunity to go off and make the album we’d always been talking about. Because it went well and actually sold some copies, the record label told us they’d be willing to let us make another one. I guess we all thought … well, how long can you really go around making fake comedy songs and have people still care about it? We need to do this now while we still can.”
“People just kept asking us when we were going to make another record,” says Samberg. “So it seemed like a good idea to make another one while people still gave a shit about what we were doing.”
As they did while writing their first album, Schaffer, Samberg, and Taccone rented a house in LA and spent the better part of three months just endlessly writing music. Recording themselves with a makeshift studio setup and using basic ProTools, the group tried to embrace a less frenzied and stress-free approach to writing songs. “When we’d try to bring in outside producers or engineers, it wouldn’t really work,” says Taccone. “This way, we could work at our own pace without worrying that we might be wasting someone else’s time. On SNL there is this incredible time-constraint, which means you have to stay up all night and do things really fast if you want them to happen. At the house, we could just work at a normal pace. And if something wasn’t working, you could always just jump in the pool or go to bed.”
Unlike most bands, the Lonely Island are faced with the two-tiered task of making songs that are both catchy and operate as good songs (a task they take very seriously), but also with being funny. They obviously get a lot of credit for being funny dudes, but listening to the 19 tracks on Turtleneck & Chain it’s easy to see how the goofy nature of their music often overshadows just how clever and — dare it be said — smart these songs actually are. They wouldn’t be nearly as successful or funny if they didn’t also happen to be catchy as hell.
“Things come together in different ways,” says Samberg. “Sometimes it starts with a beat someone sent us and we’ll just listen to it over and over until someone has an idea that fits it, or sometimes we have a concept and we try to come up with music that will match it. Like, ’I Just Had Sex’ actually sounded kind of like an Akon song, which is why is made sense to ask Akon if he would be on the track. Obviously, we all feel a certain kinship with early ’90s R&B, so that comes up a lot.”
Also, if both Lonely Island records seem to go heavy on the hip hop and R&B, there’s a reason for that. “It just lends itself more easily to our kind of comedy,” says Schaffer. “It’s mostly because you can fit more words into a hip hop track than you can if you were trying to parody a rock song.”
“I’ve actually tried writing more traditional comedy songs,” says Samberg, “but it takes so much longer. The tempo is usually too slow and it takes longer to get to the jokes. It’s interesting, with comedy it’s usually about trying to keep someone laughing throughout the entire song from beginning to end, which means changing the words slightly throughout and not repeating yourself too much, but often it’s our more traditional songs with big hooks that are the most popular. I guess it’s that combination of making something funny that also sticks in people’s heads.”
If we actually played instruments there might be more indie-rock parodies on the record,” says Schaffer, “but sadly we don’t.”
Another big part of the Lonely Island’s success has to do with the impressive roster of artists and celebrities that have been willing to collaborate. “We generally try and ask people who we think will have a good sense of humor about it and will also probably say yes,” says Samberg. “Still, we’re surprised sometimes by the things people are willing to say and do. Usually if they know our history, they know what they are getting themselves into.”
On Turtleneck & Chain the guys managed to snag appearances from not only Akon, but from longtime friend/collaborator Justin Timberlake (on the amazingly nasty “Motherlover”), Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, John Waters, Santigold, Beck (nice to see him remembering his sense of humor) and, perhaps most weirdly/impressively, Michael Bolton.
“We had this initial meeting with him that was amazing,” says Taccone. “We all sat down and he just started reading aloud some of the lines that we had written for him. He would read like, two lines, and I’d just double over laughing. I couldn’t believe it. It’s hard not to fan out sometimes or just find yourself thinking, I’m a 33 year old man, I can’t even imagine what a 13 year old boy might think of this!”
“I hope we have improved as song makers,” says Schaffer. “I think we’ve gotten better at least with using the equipment and recording ourselves. The comedy aspect is always, by far, the number one priority for us when we make something, but if we can make something that actually sounds like a song on the radio then the better it is … and I think the funnier it is.”
Though their first priority is clearly to make people laugh, it’s also clear that all three members of the Lonely Island are serious music fans. They are all surprisingly deferent when it comes to discussing how their songs have been received.
“We talk about this all time,” says Samberg. “There seems to be this long-standing connection between the music world and the comedy world. There’s this weird thing where lots of musicians want to be comedians and tons of comedians actually want to be musicians. We are such big music fans ourselves, so we’ve been super happy that so many musicians have let us know that they listen to our album and enjoyed it. It’s also great to find out these people are fans because then we don’t have to feel weird about asking them to be a guest on one of our tracks, which is awesome.”