The Lonely Island explain their bonkers Bash Brothers visual album
When the Lonely Island teased on social media last week that they’d be releasing a secret project on Netflix in mere hours, the internet immediately began speculating about what it could be. Maybe their Fyre Festival-esque movie with Seth Rogen? Perhaps a much-needed sequel to Popstar? None of the above. Instead, it was a “visual poem” titled The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience, which seems like a fitting surprise from the same comedy trio who had Michael Bolton make a song about Jack Sparrow, put their dicks in a box for Christmas, and turned Natalie Portman into the world’s most intimidating rapper.
The 30-minute spoof features Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg in character as Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the artificially enhanced Oakland A’s duo who took baseball by storm in the late ’80s. With assists from Sia, Sterling K. Brown, Maya Rudolph, Jim O’Heir, Stephanie Beatriz, Haim, fellow Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone, and a lot of Kathy Ireland posters, Schaffer and Samberg spend 10 tracks rapping about steroid use, the price of fame, and IHOP.
You might have a lot of questions, as did we, so EW chatted with Schaffer and Samberg about why they did this, how Beyoncé inspired them, and how they convinced Sterling K. Brown to play Sia.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does one even think to do a visual album about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire?
AKIVA SCHAFFER: Last June, we did our very first concert at Clusterfest in San Francisco; we had never actually done a full-length concert before. Since we’re from the Bay, we wanted to do something special for the Bay that felt very Bay-specific. We decided that we’d dress up like the Bash Brothers and Jorma would dress up like Joe Montana. So Andy and I made the “Jose & Mark” song for that, and we kind of loved doing that, so over this last year any time Andy would have a day off from Brooklyn Nine-Nine or get off early, he’d just come by the office and we’d kind of be like, “Let’s just make some more songs as the Bash Brothers,” with no plan of why we were doing it. We were just having fun doing it. And then at the end of that, we had 10 songs and were like, “I wonder why we just did that?” [Laughs] When we made a few of them, we were like, “It’s funny to make a few, but it’s kind of just a sketch.” But then the more we made, the funnier it became to us that we were being so committed to it. And then after we had 10 or 11 songs, we thought, what’s the funniest thing to do with this? And we were like, “Well, a very serious visual album, a la Lemonade.” So this is the fullest extent of a joke we could think of.
You were aiming for a very, very particular audience with this. Was that part of the fun of it? It’s so specific.
ANDY SAMBERG: Everyone we knew kept asking what we were working on, and we’d be like, “This thing that we’re making for no one.” But we hoped that the general themes and the fun of the music and the specificities of the visuals would connect in at least a subconscious way. I would say anyone who fits into the Venn diagram of liking R&B and rap music, and the Bash Brothers, and Lemonade, and The Tree of Life will enjoy it the most, but we’ve had a lot of people who don’t know a lot of those things say that they still enjoyed it, which has been nice.
SCHAFFER: We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well-received it’s been. Our expectations were very narrow for that, and it seems better than we could have even hoped for.
- So was this the formative team for you guys growing up?
- SAMBERG: Oh yeah, 100 percent. And they’re still our team, we support and pull for the A’s. We all had the Bash Brothers posters on our wall, and we were the exact right age when they were great for them to be our heroes. So there’s a lot of nostalgia parts of it for us, and the visuals all feel very visceral for us.
- SCHAFFER: And I hope it comes through in the thing that we’re not necessarily just poking fun, that we actually really have genuine love for these guys. We’ve been told that it does by the A’s and Canseco tweeting at us.
The Canseco tweet was perfect. I love that he just shared his manager’s phone number right out in the open on Twitter.
SAMBERG: Yeah, we were thrilled.
Going back to when you first came up with “Jose & Mark,” how did you decide who would be whom?
SCHAFFER: I mean, we’re both dead ringers, so we couldn’t have had it any other way.
SAMBERG: Hair color is what decided it.
SCHAFFER: And you’re definitely more olive complexion, I’m a very pale guy, so I think it was a no-brainer which way we’d go.
Once you decided to keep moving forward with this, did you go back and further study them to fully get into that Bash Brothers mindset? Or were your childhood memories of them enough?
SAMBERG: It was a mix of both.
SCHAFFER: I read Canseco’s book, and there’s elements of insight from that book. If you read the book, you will recognize certain attitudes. But at one point, we even imagined maybe the album cover would be us as little kids in a childhood bedroom asleep with the poster above us, almost like the whole thing is our dream of what their lives are like. That was almost one of the ways in for us, like how it felt to be a kid and if you imagined what it was like to be them, this video is that dream.
SAMBERG: We didn’t want to make it too accurate, and we also wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t just a thing about them, it was more about that era and the culture surrounding it and the way it affected it. And what Akiva said was spot-on, which is part of the fun of it was reimagining those events through the lens of us as kids.
SCHAFFER: Also, on a musical level, similarly, we do some songs where we’re really trying to be in some of the styles from the late ’80s. Like “Uniform On,” we tried really to get close to an ’80s Beastie Boys vibe, and some of the others are very Bay Area-hyphy, and other things we just did whatever we felt like. So we weren’t strict on any of the rules, it was more a feel.
SAMBERG: Instinctively, when we got Mike Diva, who co-directed it with Akiva, we mostly discussed the styles of the song also being representative of the styles of the video, so it’s almost like you take a little bit of a journey through the last few decades of music video styles, especially rap music, which kept it interesting for us. So you have a more like Hype Williams one and then another is like a home video throwback.
Was the process of making the music any different this time around, as opposed to with Popstar or the other albums?
SCHAFFER: In the tradition of pop stars taking on alter egos for creative freedom, a la Sasha Fierce [Beyoncé] and Chris Gaines [Garth Brooks], we were just following in Sasha and Chris’ footsteps, feeling the freedom of inhabiting new versions of ourselves.
SAMBERG: [Laughs] Yeah, the freedom to step outside of ourselves.
So all this music was specifically made for Bash Brothers? Because something like “IHOP” seems like it easily could have just been a regular Lonely Island song.
SAMBERG: There’s a few that are more concept songs, like “Oakland Nights” or “Bikini Babe Workout” or “IHOP,” but since they came about in the Bash Brothers sessions, they had no choice but to be done through the Bash Brothers lens.
SHAFFER: We had no clue that the world would ever even hear or see these songs. At some point we talked about just putting them on SoundCloud under a fake name and then just have people find them and think, “What is this? This sounds like Lonely Island, but they didn’t make an entire concept album about the Bash Brothers.” We really had no intentions with this, we were just going where our muse led us. Which makes us, in your words, true artists.
SAMBERG: During the recording of the songs and the shooting of the special, we talked about how much art we were making and how artsy it was and how we were artists. [Laughs]
What was the filming like? Did it feel like just doing a bunch of individual shorts in a row?
SAMBERG: The budget was really small. We block-shot, so we didn’t shoot each individual video and move onto the next one. We picked up things wherever we could get them as we want.
SCHAFFER: A fair amount of stuff was shot with no crew and just sneaking off to like a park with just me, Andy, Mike, Aaron [Grasso, director of photography], and Jorma up in Griffith Park [in Los Angeles], getting out of the car and shooting shots. This is a very low-budget thing. Andy and I did not get paid and are actually still in the red. [Laughs]
SAMBERG: We definitely walked past a crew of dudes smoking weed in the park, just dressed up like Mark and Jose with a camera.
SCHAFFER: It’s like a student film.
Akiva, you referenced Lemonade, and that has been mentioned a lot with the release of this. Was that a big inspiration?
SCHAFFER: Visual albums have been around forever, but I think recently there’s been a resurgence. Like, G-Eazy had one, Drake had one, Solange just had one come out while we were making this, the National had one come out like days before ours. So it just feels like an art form that is alive and well. Most of all, it just seemed like, what’s the funniest thing to do with these 10 songs about the Bash Brothers? And it was, oh, make a full visual poem about it. Just take it all the way.
Do you think you’ll now be inspiring people? Is Houston native Beyoncé going to make a visual poem about the mid-’90s Rockets?
SAMBERG: We very much believe that. That’s for sure happening.
What makes Sterling K. Brown a perfect stand-in for Sia?
SAMBERG: It feels like there really was no other choice.
SCHAFFER: It’s just odd that it hadn’t happened sooner.
Was he instantly game? How do you pitch something like this to him?
SAMBERG: I’m going to look up on my phone to see what the text exchange was. Let’s see…
SCHAFFER: I’ll give background before it, which is that Andy knew him because he did a really good episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine that Sterling got an Emmy nomination for, so they had spent some time together. So at least they knew each other. But then I will wait for this great text exchange.
SAMBERG: I texted him and said, “Sterling, it’s Andy Samberg. Hello!!”
SCHAFFER: Great start.
SAMBERG: “Is now an okay time to chat about this bonkers Netflix thing we’re doing?” And he said, “Yeah man, maybe around 8?” And I said, “Perf. We’ll call you then.” Then I called him, don’t have a record of that. Then I sent him some video.
SCHAFFER: Oh right, so we shot this thing for four days, that’s where we did the bulk of it. But then we saved a tiny bit of money to do one more day a month later so that we could edit for a month, let it take its shape, and then figure out what else we needed. And one thing we knew we needed is that we had shot all the scenes with Jenny Slate and Hannah Simone for “Oakland Nights” but we hadn’t shot the choruses. We already had Sia on the song, but we didn’t know who would play her. So we had edited it together and Andy was able to just send him a video where the choruses were just missing so he didn’t have to use too much imagination.
SAMBERG: He said it was “Expletive hilarious. Hit me with those lyrics.” Which I did. And then I said, “The current plan for the chorus is to do a setup in some silk robes with you performing with a fan blowing TLC ‘Creep’ style.” [Laughs]
SCHAFFER: That’s accurate.
SAMBERG: “So we will get you a DeBarge-esque or whatever style that sounds fun to you wig that is split-colored down the middle like Sia.” And he said, “I’m in!” And that’s the whole story.
SCHAFFER: And everything you said was the truth. You didn’t lie once in that whole pitch.
SAMBERG: We come correct with our promises.
Speaking of casting, Jorma appears briefly as former A’s shortstop Walt Weiss, and then for an end-credits song as 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. Was Jorma talking up Weiss and retroactively trying to make him the third Bash Brother?
SAMBERG: They did win three Rookie of the Years in a row, McGwire, Canseco, Weiss.
SCHAFFER: The real deal is that Jorma lives in New York and Andy and I live in L.A. Jorma was doing Miracle Workers and The Last O.G. and wasn’t here, so we had to figure out how to get his magic in there. But Joe Montana is my favorite part, so he gets the last laugh.
SAMBERG: I can definitely hear like 20 more minutes of Montana.
You guys are about to set out on your first tour, so what has the preparation been like for that?
SCHAFFER: We spent a long time prepping for that one concert because it was an hour in front of 15,000 people, so we had to put together the whole show and figure out what the visuals were and what the costume changes were. And as soon as we got off stage, we were like, “Oh, we just put a lot of work into doing that one.” Most people would do it for a year or two of touring after putting together a whole show. So we’re adding stuff to it because these are our own shows and not part of a festival. A lot of it is being able to tour around with that show we put together a year ago — with some Bash Brothers.
And you have the number for Canseco’s manager now, so maybe you can get him to come out to a show.
SCHAFFER: Oh believe me, the number has been called already.
The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is now streaming on Netflix and iTunes.