Relix - Music for the Mind
Back in the Saddle with Rick Moranis
He’s back. No, it’s not for another film sequel like Honey, I Made a Kid Out of a Stem Cell or even anything on celluloid. Rather, funny man Rick Moranis has recorded a sharp collection of songs called The Agoraphobic Cowboy with the help of downtown New York jazzman Tony Scherr. As much bluegrass as country, the album delivers 13 intelligent, humorous and philosophical ditties that juxtapose old-time ethos with 21st century modernity in a way that feels more genuine than kitsch.

What’s your first memory of singing? I don’t remember not singing. I’m bad at these kinds of questions. I do remember singing in Ms. Walker’s grade six class at a time when it was not politically incorrect to make Jewish kids sing Christmas carols, and I remember how much I enjoyed singing them because so many of them were, I thought, beautiful.

What was your first concert? I remember having to choose between staying at summer camp and giving up a ticket to see The Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1964. I wound up regrettably giving my ticket to a friend of my sister’s so I could stay at camp. I still haven’t quite gotten over it. I did see McCartney years ago but by then it was a little too late. I do remember early on in Toronto, I guess it was the very early ‘70s, at the old Masonic Temple, seeing Keith Emerson before he was Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That certainly was a powerful memory.

What’s your take on bands like Phish, moe., Widespread Panic or YMSB that your kids were playing for you? For years I had been unplugged from all that stuff because of the combination of living in the city and not being in a car—which is where I would have listened to most of the radio I had always listened to and therefore most of the music—and the fact of, I guess, my age… When I first got here in the mid ‘80s and there was a 24-hour jazz station, BGO, I was thrilled so I just listened to that for years. And then I would also listen to QXR for a while and literally after 9/11, I couldn’t listen to jazz for a long time and just switched over to QXR and I’m still listening to QXR. I’m a radio guy. I will listen to radio before I put on a CD. I rarely will listen to recorded music. I have just always loved listening to the radio.

I was a DJ for years in Toronto, working through high school and early college. I did different formats—I was an AM jock, a country jock for a short while. For a while I was an FM jock. In the mid ‘70s, FM was beginning to replace AM as the place where you’d hear hit music. But there was a transitional phase when it was strictly underground music and when it became what was called “album-oriented rock.” And that’s when I was there. I did a year at Chum FM, playing music on the FM station, and it a was combination of them trying to play hits which, at the time, was Frampton Comes Alive’s “Show Me the Way” and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. And then there was all the rest of the hour, which was album cuts. The most requested song, of course, was “Stairway to Heaven.”

One day, I was playing “Stairway to Heaven” and the request line rang and I picked up and the guy said, “Can you play ‘Stairway to Heaven?’” And I said, “I am playing it.” And he said, “I know. Can you play it again?” And I said, “Let me ask you something. You really like this song, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “I bet you have a copy of this, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah!” And I said, “Well, why don’t you put it on whenever you want to listen to it?” And guess what he said? He said, “Because I want to hear it on the radio.” What that told me, at that time, and still rings true, is… first of all, he didn’t want to listen to his own copy because he was afraid he might miss it on the radio because hearing it on the radio means he’s not alone listening to it. He couldn’t really enjoy it unless he was part of a community. And that’s really something that’s lost now because of where radio is at. I mean, people experience it at concerts, but that’s what it used to be. That was a throwback to what existed long before that. People always had record collections, they had albums of 78s and everything, but the family gathering around the radio and listening to things together was what that grew out of. I’m still a radio a guy.

So to answer your question, I was really unplugged from anything other than classical and jazz for a long time but had been reared on all forms of music: on rock, AOR, underground rock and in there everything else since I had worked on radio. So when I heard what the kids were playing me, some of it sounded like Grateful Dead, some of it sounded like The Band, Yonder sounded a little bit like Ricky Scaggs and Alison Krauss but a little bit younger and a little bit hungrier. It’s not that anything sounded radically original; I was just delighted that my kids found this stuff. I could totally relate to it and get into it. I think that’s something that’s different between my generation and my parents’ generation—my parents didn’t listen to the same music we did but in my generation we do listen to the same music as our kids. Especially my kids, who grew up listening to jazz and classical.

You mention that you, “just started singing these songs to a couple of friends on the phone.” Were you known, prior, as one who occasionally breaks into song? Music has always been a part of my career. I think I would have probably done it professionally had I not had the success in comedy. The very early standup I did, which was fortunately very brief, I used a guitar. I did a lot of musical bits. On SCTV I did a lot of musical stuff. I wasn’t just calling friends or random acquaintances going, “Hey listen to this!” I was calling a couple of my intimate friends who I speak to every day and who I read pretty much whatever I write to. So for me to call them and say, “Hey, listen to this. I wrote this song.” It was just like another day at the races for them.

As far as your voice, did that sort of country warble just come out or was it something that you had to work on? Not having done an enormous amount of singing professionally, I certainly do my share of shower singing like everyone else. I didn’t do this as a character. I did this as myself. But it’s myself singing music that fits into a country genre. So for example, when I sang the score of Little Shop of Horrors, I was singing it as this Brooklyn, nerdy guy that works in a plant store and it was ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll sound and it was half an octave higher, had a little bit of a New York accent and a little bit of a pleading whininess, if you will, and that’s very different than this stuff which is set a little bit lower dynamically, a different kind of narrative and lent itself to me finding where to put my voice in the midst of instruments like banjos and fiddles in a particular place. But yet there’s a couple of tunes which are a little quicker paced and have banjo on them One is bluegrass and one is kind of close to it, although it’s got a drum [“Three Days Rest,” ‘Mean Old Man”].

Would it be fair to call these songs of an entirely new genre? Something like “nouveau, indie, self-deprecating western”? Nouveau, I don’t know about. There’s a long tradition of this kind of narrative and this kind of comedy in country music. So I don’t know how nouveau it is. In terms of indie, well… that it’s not with a large label? I don’t know. In terms of western, I don’t hear that much anymore. You hear country but you don’t hear country and western. So I don’t know about. Self-deprecating? I guess there’s some self-deprecating in there but I’ve always written with a little bit of that. I’ll certainly derive some humor from self-deprecation. I like being my own foil.

Given that people know you through your largely comedic roles in film, did you consciously create music in a similar vein versus a more serious one or is this simply who you are? I’ve never, ever in my career, given that kind of forethought to anything. It’s not like I went, “Hmmm, if I do this then I could get such and such reaction.” As I was writing the stuff, it’s just my nature to want to be motivated to write something that there’s an idea behind. And often the idea behind it, for my purposes, is going to have some sort of comedic hook to it, some way. That isn’t to say I’m not capable of writing a straight song. I don’t know if the world wants to hear a straight song from me or not. I don’t know what the world wants to hear or even if they want to hear these songs. So, what’s really funny is that since I’ve released this the market has sort of… there’s been three different kinds of feedback.

The country world gets it and really likes it because they know there’s a long tradition of these kinds of songs in country music and what’s wrong with somebody like me attempting to do this? They just listen to the music for what it is.

Then there’s the vanilla world—the straight entertainment world—and the people that know I have a comedy background listen to it and they pick what they like and they don’t like what they don’t.

But then there’s the world where people don’t know I have a comedy background and they just think I was an actor in movies and they haven’t listened to it and they immediately condemn it. Like, how dare another actor do an album! Who does he think he is?! So, what it does is make the whole notion of forethought kind of moot because the audience is too large and too indefinable; it’s too amorphous an entity to try and be able to guess what they’re going to react to. And besides, I think you get into trouble when you try and second-guess the audience.

Maybe this is a question of the painfully obvious, but are you the agoraphobic cowboy? The title grew out of a couple of things. It grew out of the song “I Ain’t Going Nowhere,” which we were just playing with, that whole notion. I’m not agoraphobic nor am I a cowboy. I like the term of phrase. It came out of one evening when a couple of friends were trying to get me to go to a restaurant I didn’t really want to go to and deal with traffic I didn’t really want to fight. I just wanted to stay home and watch something on TV and have leftovers. And they were bitching about the fact that I didn’t want to go out and I was in the middle of recording all this country music and I said I’m going to call this album The Agoraphobic Cowboy. And it stuck.

Beyond that, I started to like it more and more because I like the incongruity of it. I like the idea that cowboy myth is associated with that kind of new frontier exploration. The idea of a cowboy being agoraphobic strikes me as being interesting and then again, all the futurists that I grew up with in the ‘50s and ‘60s—the Buckminster Fullers and McLuhans—said we’re going to do everything at home. We would all work from home, all of our entertainment would come into the house, everything would be delivered here. And sure enough, you have Amazon delivering your books, you don’t have to leave the house. You have 500 channels coming in. There’s no reason to leave the house nor is it necessarily desirable to leave the house. So the cowboy can actually explore new frontiers right at home.

Is there any plan to perform these songs live? The simple answer is, I don’t know. I didn’t do this to start a new career or to jump start an old one. I really just did it because it happened. And a couple of friends said you have to do something with them and then someone said you have to meet Tony [Scherr] and then Tony said you have to record them and really, that’s the honest to God truth. Once they were recorded and mixed, the next logical thing to do was master and manufacture them and that’s what we did. And now, here it is. And I’m just having a blast with it. I didn’t anticipate or expect this kind of reaction or having this much fun. But I’m just going to play it out.

Given how well this project seems to have gone, can we expect more music? I’ve completed a couple more songs and I have few halves and a couple of quarters. I’m sort of all over the place. The last couple of songs I’ve written complete are jazz songs. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if I’m going to convert them to bluegrass songs or what. In the same way I wasn’t trying to start a country music career, I just kind of wrote these songs. The last couple have been in a different genre and I don’t if that means I’m going to throw them away or record them or what. If I can get away with just playing around like this, then… you know? Why not do it?

How long did it take before people stopped asking you to say, “May the Schwartz be with you?” I never want people to stop asking me that. People never ask me to say lines. They’ll mention movies but they rarely say, “Can you say such-and-such?” But they’ll refer to specific movies or they’ll do a line. People will say, “How’s it going, eh?” to me from McKenzie stuff. What do Spaceballs people say? In the last few weeks I’ve heard people say their kid went out for Halloween attempting to be Darth Vader but because the helmet was too big on their head everyone thought they were Dark Helmet, which I think is hilarious. So cute.

Rick Moranis was interviewed by Josh Baron.  

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Relix Magazine - WideSpread Panic
September/October 2006
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