Yacht Rock Revue explain why they're charting a new course with original music
After nearly a dozen years confidently steering the S.S. Nostalgia, playing the beloved soft rock hits of the ’70s and ’80s to packed crowds wearing captain’s hats, Yacht Rock Revue are charting a new course by releasing their first album of original material. Hot Dads in Tight Jeans won’t be released until Feb. 21, but EW is bringing you the first single, “Step,” right here.
“We wanted to hit a note that was both retro and could be right now,” says shades-sporting co-frontman Nick Niespodziani of the synthy-smooth jam. “We wanted it to be outside of time.”
That musical mood dovetails nicely with the vibe of a group that began on a lark in 2007 and has steadily grown into an act that crisscrosses the country to play for its own devoted fans. The Atlanta septet can draw thousands of people to sing along to spot-on renditions of hits by Hall & Oates, Toto, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, and other artists whose names some in the audience have forgotten, or never knew, but whose hits have endured, such as “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” by Looking Glass. While there may have been an element of irony for some attendees at the beginning, the shows tend to be unabashedly joyous affairs.
Niespodziani, drummer Mark Cobb, and co-frontman Peter Olson were all in a band called Y-O-U in the early 2000s that enjoyed some regional success but ended up petering out. “We were all splitting off to do other things,” says Niespodziani. “Peter was thinking about moving to Colorado and I had started law school and we were all kind of ready for what was happening after music. Because when you’re 27 and you haven’t made it yet, you’re an ancient guy. And in the midst of that we did this one Yacht Rock show and then all of a sudden it became what it is now. We’ve got an office, and a band, and a 401k.”
Soon they will have that album of original material as well as a documentary detailing their unlikely route to success as they rose from bar band to amphitheater band.
In addition to sharing “Step,” the group also curated the ultimate Yacht Rock Spotify playlist for EW, and we chatted with Niespodziani about the band’s step toward original songwriting and mixing up the smooth classics in their set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve finally decided to make original music, again. How much anxiety do you have about fan reception since they’re used to you playing songs they love?
NICK NIESPODZIANI: We played it for the first time at our big Atlanta show in August at Chastain Park Amphitheater in front of 7,000 people. I was pretty nervous because all these songs that we play, everybody knows every word. Like, every song we play would be the encore for whatever artist it is that we’re covering. So how do you put up a song that people have never heard before, at all, against those songs? I was originally super nervous about it, but our fans really surprised me. I expected everybody to leave for the bathroom or the bros to start booing. But they stayed and they got into it, and the reception everywhere we’ve been with it has been awesome. People are into it. So I’m much less nervous now than I was before.
The album itself is not a “yacht rock” record but is obviously in a similar wheelhouse and has a cheeky humor to it. Do you get the sense that you’ve built up enough goodwill from the fans since you’ve been playing for so long that they’re open to original songs?
Yeah, and I’ve noticed, especially over the last three or four years, when we go places, whether it’s the people at the venue or the fans that we’ve talked to, they treat us like artists. In the beginning, I felt like a glorified stripper where people just wanted to pull my hair and see if it was real and it was more of a novelty thing. But now I feel like we’ve earned that respect from our fans and they’re open to it, or at least they have been so far. I’m hoping that that streak continues.
How did you decide that now was the time for you guys to try this?
I was kind of going through my midlife crisis checklist, choices like “I could wreck a red sports car” or “I could have an affair with a busty nurse.” And I was like, “You know what I really should do is make an album with my ’70s soft rock band.” So we threw the idea around and were like, “Why not try it,” talking about that goodwill we built up with our fans. The cool thing for me especially is that I’ve made a lot of records over the years, little side projects that had no budget and no hope for people to hear them. And this experience has been the opposite of that. We were able to get an incredible producer and make a cool video all with the power of the Yacht Rock machine that we’ve built behind it. And it’s been really inspiring and fun.
Who produced it?
Ben Allen, he’s from here in Atlanta. He produced Walk The Moon and Animal Collective’s big records and he just did the new Kaiser Chiefs record, which is [a hit] in the UK right now. He did Gnarls Barkley. He’s a close friend of mine and I was kind of nervous, even though we hang out and go to the gym together, to ask him about making a record with Yacht Rock because I thought there would be this stigma because he produces Deerhunter and all these super hipster bands. And he was immediately like, “Yeah, let’s do it. That sounds really fun.”
A song like “Step” could probably slip into your sets with relative ease since it has that blue-eyed soul falsetto thing happening that spans from disco, like a sliver of Giorgio Moroder, to a group like Hall & Oates to something like Beck’s song “Debra.”
Yeah, we definitely leaned on more on that ’80s side of the coin, Hall & Oates and even some ’80s David Bowie and some of the synthier stuff like Giorgio Moroder. That just strikes closer to our personal taste and I think it’s easier to see how that fits in with modern music. Whereas if you make something that’s just like a Steely Dan rip, that’s really a very segmented thing off to the side.
We didn’t want to come out with something that could maybe be viewed as a novelty single for the first thing. When you’re a cover band coming out with original music, getting taken seriously is the first hurdle that you have to leap over. So “Step” felt like the right choice because it’s a mission statement for the whole album in a way. It’s about deciding who you want to be and making the space for that in your life.
I guess in my view everyone is putting on an act of some sort. We pretend to be these coked-up ’70 dudes, but we are who we are inside and I’m inspired by people like Lizzo and Pete Buttigieg and Puddles The Clown. It’s definitely an act that all of them are doing, but the heart of what they’re doing is true. The center of it emotionally is honest and unapologetic. And that’s what “Step” is about. And that’s what this whole album is about for us. Because we are a bunch of 40-year-old dads who are trying to make our first record that people listen to, why not just bear hug it instead of run away from it?
Do you ever think how wild it is that you all have built a career out of this, particularly since you’re not a straight tribute band of one group?
All the time. It’s crazy. If you would’ve told me when we did the first show “that this is going to be your career,” I would have slapped you in the face. There’s just no way. I never imagined doing something like this. And it’s funny because I feel like in that early band, I thought music was all about what’s inside of you as an artist and that if I can find inside myself this great, soul-wrenching truth that will be the reason that I become famous and whatever. And I think over the years with Yacht Rock — grudgingly at first — I started to realize that music is actually about the shared experience and being there in the room together, having fun, and just escaping from life for a while. And I feel like it’s been this 11-year penance that I’ve gone through, and now I’ve come out on the other side and I have a completely different view of what music is and what it should be. That’s what inspired this record and it makes me so happy to do what I do now.
Which is funny on one level because probably for 90 percent of what you’re performing, the original artist is sick to death of playing that song. But you all have now performed some of these songs so many times that it is entirely possible that you are as sick of singing something like “Africa” as Toto is. And yet you always legitimately seem like you are having fun.
It’s funny you mention “Africa.” That’s the only song we have to play at every show. And I think it kind of goes through waves. It’s like a Saturday Night Live joke where they keep repeating the same thing and it gets really monotonous and not funny. And then if you repeat it for long enough, it becomes funny again. It got to where it got old for a while and now it’s really fun to sing that song, even though I’ve probably sung it 2,000 times, literally. It’s not a problem.
Coldplay has to sing “Yellow” every night no matter what. There are five or six other songs they have to sing every night no matter what. We don’t have to do that. We have thousands of songs to choose from. So, in some ways, it’s been a blessing that we can stay fresher because we can always change out songs and add new songs.
Let’s talk about this playlist. You have a pretty wide range here, including yacht rock staples like Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin'” but also songs from Lake Street Dive and “Juice” by Lizzo. How do you all even define yacht rock now?
For me, yacht rock is more of a vibe and an energy than necessarily “soft rock music made in Los Angeles between 1976 and 1984.” It’s more about when the song comes on, does it put a smile on your face in the first 10 seconds? If you use that as your first barrier to entry, then what can be considered yacht rock becomes a lot more wide. If you’re out cruising on your boat on Saturday afternoon, what’s going to feel good?
“Juice” is going to feel good.
Yeah. And it feels like the transition from “I Keep Forgettin'” into “Juice” doesn’t feel like a hard left turn. It feels natural. I guess our perspective is that people are going to need yacht rock now and in the future, and what it can be is a lot wider than the strict dictionary definition. Lake Street Dive, they’re a genre-bender for me. I think that they have a lot of different influences. And again, it’s the positive energy behind it is what makes it yacht rock.
How did you pick the classic ones to intersperse in there?
We wanted to make sure that anybody who hasn’t gotten familiar with the yacht rock yet — which I don’t know who that might be at this stage — got a good dose of the healthy vitamins of what real, 100-percent yacht rock is. So we picked the ones that felt right to us and then also had something in common with our record.
You’re in your forties now. Is this sustainable? Can you do this until you retire?
That’s a great question. If “Bad Tequila” [from the upcoming album] ends up being like “Steal Away” was for Robbie Dupree, then I definitely can. That’s what this move is, just to see if we could have one song that makes people feel the same way that I felt when I danced with my wife to “Steal Away” at my wedding. And I’ve talked to Robbie about that. And he has this relationship with that song where he got tired of it and he loves it again. But for us, in the next 20 years, I don’t want to get morbid about it, but a lot of these bands that we love and the classic rock artists are going to age out of touring. And there’s going to be a void there and I hope that we will be positioned to help fill it. It’s weird to think about but it is true. It gives us a little bit of job security.
In the last few years, several other bands in this vein have popped up. How do you feel about that? I imagine it’s hard to be mad about other cover bands when you’re a cover band.
It’s great that this music has become so popular and imitation is finest form of flattery, right? So when I see these bands doing our dance moves, or wearing the sailor outfits like we used to 10 years ago or adding the same songs to their setlists, that’s cool. Part of me wants to say, “Go get your own unoriginal idea.” But like you said, there’s no honor among thieves, really. So it’s fine. I got nothing but love for any of them. I think what we do stands on its own.
Yacht Rock Revue will hit the road for the Hot Dads in Tight Jeans tour Jan. 9 and will be pulling into ports across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles.