Jeff Gorra speaks with Judd Apatow- on the power of music, the Beatles, writing and more.
Whether Judd Apatow is writing scripts, crafting jokes, producing, directing or performing stand-up, there is one constant companion embedded into his creative process. Music. While you will often see music play a prominent role within many of Apatow’s films (Walk Hard, This is 40, Begin Again), it’s the barrels of laughter that often take center stage. From an early age, Apatow saw how the depths of music can open up a world of creativity and lead you to the open fields of life to navigate as you design.
Even in between the belly laughs of Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there are moments where the accompanying music truly enhances what you see on the screen.
In addition to the recent success of producing shows such as Girls and Crashing, or creating the Netflix series, Love, Apatow has made a point to stay involved with music projects — like interviewing Pearl Jam for their Lightning Bolt promo or his new documentary on the Avett Brothers. Perhaps it’s this concept of staying true to your passions that has also kept Apatow hungry in the world of stand-up. Regardless, when you are proactively spinning multiple plates, it’s music that can simply calm you down and steer your focus.
Upon completing a stretch of stand-up performances in New York, in conjunction with the worldwide release of his new film The Big Sick (producer), I had the chance to interview Apatow to discuss his earliest music memories, his overall writing process and what he rocks out to before taking the stage.
How important is music to you?
It’s essential. My grandfather was a record producer. His name was Bobby Shad. He died when I was in high school, but he was a big influence. He was one of the first producers to go down south with a mobile recording machine and record a lot of blues artists at their homes. He produced Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and Janis Joplin. So, music has always been in the forefront of my world. It’s one of the two or three essential elements that get me through my life.
As a kid, where there any specific moments or experiences where you realized there’s a real emotion to music that you can connect to?
The conversation in my home was that there was nothing more important than music because it was the family business. I don’t think as a little kid people talked about it in intellectual terms, but to my grandparents, it was a great passion to their lives. Especially jazz and blues. It’s what they talked about constantly. They told all the stories about working with different people. That programmed me that it is a powerful part of life.
What were the first records and artists you gravitated towards?
I was born in 1967, the Beatles were still reverberating. It wasn’t long before that those records were coming out. Then came the first solo Beatles albums. I remember Paul McCartney touring America after Wings and The Speed of Sound was released. Those were big musical moments of my childhood. People were constantly telling me the Beatles were the best musical group of all time. So as a four, five and six-year-old, I was fascinated by everything Beatles.
I listen to the new Beatles channel on Sirius XM every day and I’m continuously fascinated by what they created and how profound their influence still is. The Beatles should be a mandatory class in school.
What was your first concert?
The first shows I went to when I was allowed to go without my parents were the Doobie Brothers when they were at their height and Fleetwood Mac around the time Tusk came out. But the concert that really blew me away and was most important to me growing up was Queen at Madison Square Garden. They were on tour promoting The Game. To this day, in my mind, that was the best concert I’ve ever been to.
My friends and I loved concerts though. We very actively sought out shows. I remember going to see Eric Clapton. I had a friend who sold beer at Nassau Coliseum and they had a uniform. We put on a similar uniform, pretending we were working, and snuck in to see the show.
What are some of your favorite records?
Loudon Wainright History and the last Warren Zevon record, The Wind. Eddie Vedder’s Into The Wild soundtrack gets played a lot at my house in addition to all the Pearl Jam albums. I still have a steady stream of the Beatles and I can never get enough of the Who. I play a lot of jazz too— I love John Coltrane and Dinah Washington.
Has music always been a part of your creative process regardless of what you are working on?
I always listen to music when I’m writing. I go through different periods where I listen to various types. Sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s distracting. Often it helps to listen to things you’ve heard a lot. You know them so well that you don’t hear it anymore. I remember writing The Cable Guy to Stone Temple Pilots Purple and the first Foo Fighters album. I’ll listen to classical music or soundtracks if I feel the words are distracting me. But I’m always listening to music.
You’ve done some work with Pearl Jam and now have a documentary on The Avett Brothers, how did that come to be?
I’m just generally interested in creative people and how they work. It’s fascinating for me to get to follow the Avett Brothers around for a while and see how they write songs, how they run their creative world, what their attitude is about why they write music and what’s important to them — I find all of that endlessly interesting. I’m also working on a documentary on Garry Shandling and in a lot of ways it’s very similar — people who choose to have a creative life. They are trying to find ways to express themselves. Some people do it with music and some people do it with laughter.
Are there any particular works of yours that you feel were elevated to another level because of the music that was in it?
Choosing the music is always one of my favorite parts. On Freaks and Geeks there was a lot of music. That was one of the things that worked best about the show, it really captured the era through music. There was music by the Who, an episode that had Grateful Dead music, and another that had Billy Joel. Those episodes are some of favorites.
Have you ever had a situation where the music that accompanied your writing of a show or film ultimately ended up changing the direction of the content?
I think we talk in terms of how they can support each other. We are also writing songs into the screenplay. The first episode of Freaks and Geeks when Sam is at the dance for example. He asks the girl to dance and wants it to be a slow dance and it’s “Come Sail Away” by Styx. Then it switches to the fast part of the song, and in a very embarrassing way he has to fast dance with her, which is something he really doesn’t know how to do. That was an essential part for the end of that episode.
What is your creative process for writing specifically for stand-up material? Is it a different environment?
I think it’s all the same. You go into a quiet room where you think about what you are trying to express. For me, a lot of it is just being open, making a ton of notes and trying not to sensor myself. Hopefully I hit some flow or some connection to creativity and something comes. If it doesn’t, I try not to get too frustrated and do it again the next day and make it a habit. It’s about discipline to get your ass in a chair every day. If you can do that, you have a much better chance of training your mind to go to that place when asked to.
Is performing stand-up a main passion of yours? What keeps you motivated to keep doing it?
I’m passionate about all of it. At any moment, I can be excited about any form of expression. Sometimes what I am thinking about is more appropriate to one medium than another. That’s all exciting to me.
You’re backstage in you dressing room, getting ready to step on stage and face the crowd. Is there a particular playlist in that moment you put on to get in the zone of performing?
I’m a grunge guy. I generally go to my Pearl Jam catalog, Stone Temple Pilots, Wilco — I listen to a lot of Wilco when I’m writing, Warren Zevon and Loudon Wainright as well. Those are my favorites. But I’ll also put on a random playlist and have it surprise me.
Catch Judd Apatow on tour:
Jul 23 – Ridgefield Playhouse @ 7:00pm Ridgefield, CT
Jul 24 – The Wilbur @ 7:30pm Boston, MA
Jul 24 – The Wilbur @ 10:00pm (Benefitting the Greater Boston After School Arts Fund) Boston, MA
Jul 25 – Columbus Theatre @ 7:00pm Providence, RI
Jul 25 – Columbus Theatre @ 9:30pm Providence, RI
Jul 27 – Cinquième Salle @ 8:00pm Montreal, Canada
Jul 28 – Cinquième Salle @ 7:00pm Montreal, Canada
Jul 28 – Cinquième Salle @ 9:30pm Montreal, Canada
Jul 29 – Cinquième Salle @ 7:00pm Montreal, Canada
Jul 29 – Cinquième Salle @ 9:30pm Montreal, Canada
For tickets an more information visit: JuddApatow.com
Watch the trailer for Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s documentary — MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS:
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