Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s Fake Yacht Rock Band Just Got a Real Music Video
(Originally appeared in Esquire, December 2015)
Helen Mirren claims that their music “lasts forever.” Writer Chuck Klosterman lauds their landmark 1974 album Catalina Breeze: “Every song was a single and every single was great.” Sure, The Blue Jean Committee has been forgotten over the years, but in their prime—the early to mid-1970s—their country-tinged, melodious sounds wafted dreamlike from convertibles, transistor radios, wedding halls, wending its way through the memories and experiences of an entire generation of music lovers.
They were everywhere.
You don’t remember them?
Good. They never existed.
Created by a group of brilliant comedic minds, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, writer Erik Kenward, and directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the faux band’s official story—complete with all the requisite fights, hugs and tears—was told this past summer on the IFC series, Documentary Now!, in a two-part episode called “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee.”
Now, continuing the aging band’s hot streak, comes the world-premiere release of their first-ever promotional video, for the song “Catalina Breeze,” the eponymous title to their 1974 LP, all two minutes and fourteen seconds of blissed-out AM golden ’70s smoothness.
In honor of this enormous privilege (after all, this is a WORLD PREMIERE EXCLUSIVE), Esquire spoke with Armisen and Hader by phone about many music-related topics, including both performers’ genuine love for that magical ’70s California sound, the digital advantage of AM over FM radio, and Bill’s not so peaceful, easy feelings about the Eagles.
ESQ: How did the entire Documentary Now! series begin?
Bill Hader: Seth [Meyers] and Fred wrote a sketch on SNL [in April 2013] called “The History of Punk.” It was about the one ’70s punk rocker in Britain who was pro Margaret Thatcher. Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Bruno], who direct a lot of the commercial parodies and shorts on SNL, did such a wonderful job of recreating that ’70s style. I was really knocked out. I was like, “We’re shooting this in video. How did you guys get it to look like that?” They knew how to do it. I loved it.
So after the sketch aired, at the party, I said to Seth, Rhys and Alex, “What if we did a whole show like that?” And they were like, “Yeah, that could be cool.”
How about the specific idea for The Blue Jean Committee?
Fred Armisen: We originally played these characters in [an SNL] sketch [in 2011] and the name just stuck. It just sounded right: The Blue Jean Committee. It sounded like the style of all those band names from that time. In the original sketch, it was a little different from what it eventually became. We were from Northampton, Massachusetts.
Right. You sang a song—with Jason Segel on keyboards—that was incredibly precise about Northampton. In fact, it was called “Massachusetts Afternoon.” And it had lyrics like, “You know when you drive into town and make the second right turn onto Locust Street. . . .”
Armisen: Yeah, but for this new version, we changed the hometown to Chicago; we thought that was a little more tough. Real working class. We were in the meat industry. Both characters come from families who’ve worked in Chicago sausage factories. It just fit.
That’s what I found so funny about the band. The two key members are blue-collar guys from Chicago who write about love and birds and the sun and sea, and yet they know nothing about any of that. Nor do they care. Bill’s character says at one point, “California was vibe. Feelin’ the breeze in the air and the sun on your skin, that kind of shit. Write music about that. It’s not that hard.”
Armisen: We liked the idea of these rough guys singing about a place where they weren’t from. That was based on [2013’s documentary] History of the Eagles. In it, the Eagles are very open about how they operate. We thought that was really interesting. It’s all just show business. That people could be so different from the music they make.
Hader: That’s one of the reasons I love documentaries. I love to watch for behavior. And in History of the Eagles, there’s just this subtext of all this bullshit going on with these guys. I find it really fascinating. You had Glenn Frey and Don Henley. And then another musician would join the band, and these two would immediately have a problem with him. They’d be out of the band—like that!
These very soft rock songs written by real alpha males: “IF YOU DON’T HIT THE HIGH NOTE ON ‘TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT,’ YOUR HEAD IS GOING THROUGH THE FUCKING WALL!!!” It’s so weird to me. It’s less about writing songs than it is about running a business. Meanwhile, these two guys just had this ability to write all these hits about “easy feelings.”
So, Bill, you based your character on that mentality? Your character is more of the businessman of the group.
Hader: You watch that documentary and you hear Glenn Frey saying, “I went and saw the Beatles and the girl in front of me was screaming, ‘Paul! Paul’! And then she faints!” And then he thought, I want that job! And you know what? He went and got that job! It was like, I want girls to like me, I want to write hit songs, I want to be a big star. And he goes ahead and does it!
That was my character. A businessman selling a product. It all comes down to: what do people want right now? Well, in the ’70s it was the California sound. And that’s the music my character decides to make, instead of the Chicago blues they had been making.
Fred’s character was more “I just want to make music but I lack that ambition to be big.”
I take it you’re not a fan of the Eagles?
Hader: [Laughs] I’m pretty sure the Eagles don’t like it when I tell the press that they’re a bunch of aggro guys playing pussy music. I’m sure they don’t appreciate it. I’m not a fan of the Eagles, but I’ve watched their documentary numerous times and everyone who’s watched it with me has sung along to the songs, much to my dismay.
And yet in the show, the Eagles’ actual manager, Irving Azoff, plays the role of the manager who makes The Blue Jean Committee into a household name.
Armisen: Actually, I’m a fan of everything. I feel that the older I get the more I like everything. I particularly love Joe Walsh. And I feel that with all of these bands, including the Eagles, it took all of that music to get to where we’re at now. It’s all valuable. I’m sure they inspired Fleetwood Mac in some ways. It all goes around.
What is it about the California soft rock sound that you love so much?
Armisen: The tempo and the chords. The chords aren’t folk and they’re not jazz. I don’t even know what to call it. But try listening to the very beginning of [the 1974 hit] “Tin Man” by the band America. What is that? It’s not heavy rock chords. Whatever that is, it reminds me of Southern California and it reminds me of that time. Something about that approach feels very unaffected. What possessed these people? This is not ’60s hippy music.
That’s always what fascinates me: why is it that a band will get together and decide, “This is what we’re going to do”?
You capture the look and feel of rock documentaries so accurately. For instance, I often notice in these docs that musicians will attempt to get a laugh for the camera, as if they’re actors or comedians.
Armisen: Don’t you always see that? All these scenes from backstage films, the musicians are always clowning around. And in a very specific way. It’s almost like silent-film acting. Maybe they’re used to home movies or something. Or they’re living in a world where they have this magic around them and everything they create is great, so they think they can do this with humor. Like, “I’m witty.” It’s a character trait of people who are surrounded all the times by fans. It’s like you’re royalty. You’re in a rock band. Everything is magical, and you expect a good reaction.
The ending to the episode is haunting. Fred’s character winds up working in a sausage factory, even though he was the writer for all of their hits. Bill’s character, meanwhile, is a multi-millionaire, having made his fortune by marketing band-related products, including a wine cooler called “Rhythm & Blueberry.” The two reunite after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but their reunion is awkward and a bit sad.
Armisen: Shooting that, you do a lot of takes and you don’t think about it too much. In my head, I’m only thinking, Okay, we have to do this scene and then that scene and then another scene after that. It wasn’t written as specifically as “This moment is going to be sad or happy.” You never know. You can’t manipulate how something is going to come out. We knew it was a reunion with Bill and me, and it would be a little awkward. But if you plan too much you’re going to be disappointed. When I saw the ending, it was a really nice surprise. It all ends up being these nice, lucky moments.
Hader: I have to be totally honest. When I saw the first cut, I got a bit concerned that it was too melancholy. I thought we had to make it funnier. I really give Reese and Alex [the directors] a lot of credit. That’s what we set out to do. And they stuck with it. I’m glad they did. That really was what we had set out to do.
You know, my character got what he wanted. And it’s really lonely. He fucked over everybody to get this California dream. You can’t get any bigger. There’s a line in that Eagles documentary where Don Henley says, “It’s very lonely and windy here at the top.” When we were on location at that house [in Malibu] overlooking the ocean, I kept thinking about Henley saying that. As so my character who lives in this huge house and he thinks, All right, I’ve made it. And meanwhile, he’s just putzing around alone. Beautiful house. Beautiful pool. Did he get what he wanted? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
And now here we are, premiering the band’s first-ever video. It’s not all sad.
Hader: You know, when I work on these things, I just think, Who is going to want to see this?! And it’s so great that people do want to see it. It’s nice that people connect with something like this.
So what’s next for The Blue Jean Committee?
Hader: [Laughing] I have absolutely no idea.