Danny McBride: Kenny Powers Jams Are the Soundtrack of My Life
The actor talks curating the soundtracks to his HBO shows, 'Eastbound and Down' and 'Vice Principals'
In addition to reckless drug use, anti-social behavior, and profanity elevated to Shakespearian heights, music is a constant in the TV work of comedian Danny McBride. On cult-favorite HBO show Eastbound & Down (2009-2013), McBride and director/co-conspirator Jody Hill chose to let music speak for the characters, lending pathos to narcissistic, down-but-never-out ballplayer protagonist Kenny Powers. The soundtrack plays like your coke-addled uncle’s vinyl collection, jumping from the classic country of George Jones and Kenny Rogers to the gritty beats of Too $hort and Juicy J. The schizophrenic nature of the soundtrack encompasses all that is Kenny Powers, a guy who takes his masculinity cues from ‘80s action films and glossy hip-hop videos. In beautifully drawn-out music sequences, often filmed as slow-mo emotional peaks, it’s immediately clear what a huge emphasis McBride and Hill put on their song choices.
For their new project, Vice Principals, McBride and Hill take us back to high school with a drumline score, heightening the rivalry between McBride’s Neal Gamby and his co-VP, Lee Russell (a wonderfully slimy Walton Goggins), with a constant military march. The quieter moments are throwbacks to mid-’80s coming-of-age movies, a moody synth score recalling Tangerine Dream-era Risky Business. SPIN caught up with McBride to discuss his love of Ween and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and how the songs that provide the musical cues on Eastbound and Down have been the soundtrack to his life.
What was the first song you fell in love with?
That Bee Gees song from the movie Grease. “Grease is the word!” I remember as a little kid, that song, the “William Tell Overture,” and the Lone Ranger theme song were my anthems. I used to have them on 45s. I would run around my room, just buzzing off those songs. The first album that I went out and bought with my own money was Thriller. I was born in 1976, so Thriller hit me really hard.
What kind of music surrounded you growing up in Virginia?
It was a lot of classic rock and country. I was never really into country music as a kid. My parents listened to a lot of ‘70s and early ‘80s country stuff, but I didn’t really dig it. It was a lot of that Kenny Rogers and Linda Ronstadt-type stuff. From an early age, I was really into movie soundtracks. I liked a lot of rock. The first concert I went to was INXS on the Kick tour.
So you weren’t into Kenny Rogers as a kid, but there’s that great Eastbound & Down scene set to “Love Will Turn You Around.”
Jody Hill, myself, and Devoe Yates, who’s our music supervisor, we all like a lot of different, random, weird s**t. That was always one of our favorite parts of [Eastbound], plowing through all of our music and finding the perfect track that elevated everything. We were having a tough time cracking the gentleness and the anarchy that was going on in that scene with Ashley Schaeffer [Will Ferrell]. I pulled that Kenny Rogers track up, and it all just seemed to make sense.
Are Kenny Powers jams basically the soundtrack of your life?
I think they are. A lot of the music that we used on the show is stuff that we personally like. Kenny, as a character, is such a product of pop culture. It’s like he’s learned everything in life from watching cable TV and movies. The idea that he’s influenced by so many different things influenced the soundtrack. You can go from Lee Hazlewood to Too $hort.
The Vice Principals score has a dreamy, synth-pop vibe.
When I first started writing the show, just trying to find the tone, I was listening to a lot of Tangerine Dream and a lot of ‘80s scores. Stuff like Risky Business and Three O’Clock High, but then a lot of marching-band music. We found our sound in there. Jody and I grew up on those ‘80s teen movies, so the idea of the score was to make it similar to something found in Risky Business, Pretty in Pink, or Sixteen Candles, but then make it ominous and dark. That really fit the tone of the show.
The marching-band music, with the heavy drums and percussion, scored this rivalry between these two guys, and how these guys look at their situation as some kind of grand war. In reality, it’s just this small-potatoes battle for a job position. Joey Stephens did our score and we’ve been working with him since [2006’s] The Foot Fist Way. He’s one of our good buddies. He wrote the music and then got a marching band to come in and record. It gives you that feel of walking around a football field on a Friday night in high school.
You were 13 in 1989. Did you have a Milli Vanilli tape, or were you too cool at that point?
I never got into Milli Vanilli, but my sister was into them. When I was in middle school, I was really into 2 Live Crew, Too $hort, and Eazy-E. I loved really dirty hip-hop. My parents would never let me buy any of that stuff, so all of my copies were dubs I made by putting my tape player next to my friend’s tape player. You can hear my family doing the dishes in the background as you’re also hearing “Boyz n the Hood.”
Remember the struggle to get away with Parental Advisory albums?
It was tough, man. Licensed to Ill came out around the time I was in fifth grade. I was really into that from an early age. I love those guys.
Did you have a cool college or high school friend who challenged you musically? Someone that turned you on to the underground stuff?
I did. I never was into electronic music, but I had someone that turned me onto that trip-hop s**t that came out in the ‘90s. I had a good buddy that went to London for the summer. He came back with all these crazy CDs, like DJ E.A.S.E. from Nightmares on Wax. That really opened my eyes to this whole other level of music that I still enjoy to this day. It also coincided with the fact that I started smoking way too much weed in college. It was the perfect soundtrack. [Laughs.]
What kind of high school kid were you?
I kind of just flew under the radar. I didn’t gravitate towards one group. I was friends with lots of different people. My head was always in the clouds because all I really wanted to do was write. Not really act per se, but I always wanted to write and direct movies. That was always my deal, even when I was a kid. A lot of times after school I’d be trying to make movies with my buddies. I was always looking to the future. I wasn’t trying to leave a gigantic mark at my school.
Was Virginia a nurturing place for a kid interested in film and art?
You know, it actually was. You wouldn’t think it would be, but I found it to be nurturing, because there weren’t a lot of kids like me there. I’d be telling different rednecks, “Hey, I’m gonna try and make a movie this afternoon.” The idea was so novel that they wouldn’t make fun of me, they’d be like, “Oh, really! A movie?” I could get a lot of involvement from people because there wasn’t anybody else around trying to do that stuff in my neighborhood.
My home movies got pretty intense. A kid broke his arm one time. We lit my friend’s house on fire. A lot of it got pretty out of hand. Most of the instances where I got in trouble as a kid had nothing to do with drugs or shoplifting. It was from making movies.
Is there a particular musical phase that you regret going through?
When I was in middle school, I kind of went through a They Might Be Giants phase. Maybe I regret that a little bit. I hadn’t heard anything like that at the time. I was still growing.
Are you a Ween fan?
I love Ween. I started on Pure Guava. I love “Ocean Man” and the whole Mollusk album. “Freedom of ’76” from Chocolate and Cheese. I love that album. Those were the ones that got the most play by me. I’m a humongous fan.
Is your son Declan showing any interest in music yet? Are you a Kidz Bop dad?
I don’t play him any of that kind of stuff, but I’ve let him listen to a little bit of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. He listens to the Star Wars and Peter Pan soundtracks. That’s what gets him off. I’ve also shown him the power of the “William Tell Overture” on the way to soccer practice. If you really listen to that, in a car, played loud, it really does hype you up. You feel like you just want to go f**king destroy something when you hear it.
Do you have a favorite smoking or drinking album?
Honestly, my favorite drinking album is Ween’s country album. 12 Golden Country Greats. That got a lot of play from us in college. We were also all into the Wu-Tang Clan, so we would smoke a lot to that. That’s real original, right?
What was the first dance at your wedding? Did you have a special song?
Jesus… we did. I do not know what the song was! I’m gonna get in trouble for this. [Laughs.] If it’s any consolation, you know it was a successful wedding when the next morning, the hotel manager knocks on our door to tell me they found my tux in the pool that morning. They brought it up to our hotel room.
If you could see one last concert, living or dead, what artist or band would it be?
I would have loved to have seen Creedence in concert. I f**king love those guys so much. They’re the one band that I never get tired of hearing. I still love all their albums just as much as the first time I heard them. With a lot of classic rock, it’s easy to get tired of it because it gets played out. But those guys just had an edge that is f**king dope.