Spittin’ Rhymes with Champagne Jerry’s Neal Medlyn

Chad White

Neal Medlyn is a man of many faces. He plays the character of “Neal Medlyn,” a comedian that opens for Medlyn’s other persona, rapper Champagne Jerry. But he wasn’t named one of the top ten performers by Time Out New York because of his multiple personalities. He uses his performance as Champagne Jerry in order to create real, available for purchase music.

Last week, Medlyn released a new LP as Champagne Jerry called The Champagne Room. To celebrate, he and his crew of equally funny people including Bridget Everett, Ad-Rock and Max Tannone participated in a five day long residency at New York Live Arts. I got the chance to catch up with Medlyn during his off time. Here’s that conversation.

How’s the residency at New York Live Arts going?

It’s going great. It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve done the show a lot of times but we sort of run a new show. And also we’ve never had a run like this where we can just sort of set up shop in a room, decorate it and just kind of take over. It’s been awesome. We had a bunch of people fly up from Tampa, Florida who were in the crowd so that was pretty exciting.

Nice. Is it a packed house?

Yeah it’s been really full so it’s been really good.

You said you wrote the show. Is it a predetermined show? Like you guys are going to do this amount of songs or this amount of comedy? Or sometimes are you able to wing it?

It’s sort of like there are sign posts. We definitely have the set list worked out, which songs we’re going to do. It’s kind of like “We know something like this is supposed to happen at this point” – that sort of thing. But there’s a lot of room in there for us to kind of make up new things. And then the opening acts are different every night. It’s kind of both really. Which is kind of what I was hoping for because, in the past, I’ve sort of scripted out a show a little more. And then we’ve also done shows, certainly Champagne Jerry shows, where we just kind of go for it and just do whatever. And it’s kind of fun in the in between parts because we get the best of both worlds a little bit. We kind of relax into the structure.

Are you performing as Neal too or is it just Champagne Jerry?

Yeah. I’m performing as Neal too. “Neal Medlyn” is the opening act so I come out and perform as Neal for a while. And then I die and get resurrected as Champagne Jerry. And that solves the whole going off and coming back on thing.

[laughs] Wait, what do you mean by “die?”

[laughs] There’s like a problem; something goes wrong during the show, during one of Neal Medlyn’s songs, and I sort of pass out or die on stage. Then there’s this big – the room transforms and I rise as Champagne Jerry, change costumes in front of everybody and there’s this big, prophetic thing that gets read about me being the messiah and all that sort of stuff. It’s sort of a Neal-Medlyn-has-to-die-so-that-Champagne-Jerry-can-live sort of thing.

Is Champagne Jerry the Kanye West in the relationship?

[laughs] Yeah, I think so. We definitely get to say more of what we want to say sometimes in that sort of Kanye West way than I would have as Neal Medlyn.

What’s it like working with the likes of Ad-Rock, Max Tannone and Bridget Everett?

Oh it’s really awesome. I’ve been friends with them a long time and it’s just like…It’s super great because it’s the kind of thing where you walk out there – it’s if you were playing basketball with somebody who’s a professional basketball player and you’re like “Okay. I’ve got to try to really step this up.” You’re not necessarily trying to win the scenario. If I can go up there and do me, it’s more fun for me to do it around people like that who are so great. Because it makes you feel like “Okay, I’m going to try to hang with this. Plus, it’s super inspiring when I’m writing songs to think about them while I’m doing it. Like “Oh, what are they going to think about this?” It’s very inspiring to me. I love it.

Are you just doing vocals or are you also playing an instrument?

Mostly doing vocals. I’m too wiggly on stage to try to ever – I used to try to play guitar some. I play a little guitar on the album but, live, I always want to try to put it down and jump around or jump off of something. It’s hard for me to be bound to the guitar. When I played the drums, it was really out of control where I just kept knocking the drums over. I think all the other performers and everyone else in the and knows to watch out because my arms are going to fly around.

Do you have any big musical influences in hip hop, rock or anything that you’re trying to emulate or capture?

Definitely when I was growing up [it was] the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy that were a big deal to me and also Too Short. But performance wise, I was obsessed when I was a kid, just like everybody else was, with Michael Jackson. I also got into really wild performers. I was into Iggy Pop and Kathleen Hanna. And these various other punk performers like Lisa Carver and GG Allin and even Karen Finley. I loved all of the performers who really pushed it. When they were out there on stage, it felt like they might kill you or change your life or whatever.     I really would love that style of performing. I definitely try to go for that in my life. But I also grew up in the Pentecostal church where the preacher was sort of like that. Kind of sweating and saying all this hardcore stuff and everybody [would get] really excited about what he was saying. To me it was kind of like I was one of the kids surrounded by that kind of energy and I was like “I really love that. That’s what performing is.” Later on, I found out some people stand still but that was a later discovery.

You guys have been doing a couple of videos for a couple of the songs for the past two years now. How long have you been working on the album?

We’ve been working on it for about two years. As soon as the last album came out, we started working on this one. At first, it seemed like it was going to be an EP. There was three songs that Max had sent me    beats for and I wrote them really quickly. It’s happened to me a lot; once something is done, I still have all this excess energy but then there’s nothing to do because the show is over or the album is out and then I often make a whole bunch of things right after that. Then it kind of stalled and we were like “Do we put this out as an EP or what?” Soon, we had the idea for this show and the Champagne Room. I was like “Let’s really expand it.” I was talking to Adam [Horovitz] who was like “You should do some R&B songs this time.” Then we just really expanded it out and ended up with thirteen songs rather than three. We actually ended up with a couple more. Too many songs this time.

Getting back to the Champagne Room, the marketing for the album has been out there. [There are physical copies] that are on champagne shaped USB drives with different types of attributes. What kind of things can people expect on those USB drives and who came up with that?

That was my idea. It was one of those things where I was like “this will be awesome” but then I realized two days later how much work it was going to be to come up with fifty some odd unique items. A lot of them are songs or demos for songs that I made a long time ago. There’s little video clips. We shot a bunch of stuff when we were in Dallas working on the show a couple of weeks ago. There’s stuff from the tour we did from Maine to Texas. One person is also going to get a set of recipies that I made up.

[both laugh]

Just various champagne cocktails that I like to make. And my own personal way to make stuffs. You know, those burgers that you can put stuff in the middle. There really is a pretty wide range. Oh [there’s also] some of that interview that I did with Adam and Max for Interview Magazine. I chopped and screwed it. 250 is a high number it turns out. I would look into the folder and say “Oh my God! I only have fifty things!”

After the Champagne Room bout, are you going to go tour some more for the album?

Yes. On Sunday, actually, we go to play the final night of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. And then we’re doing a couple shows in Chicago early next week. And then we’re going to come home and rest for a minute. We’re definitely going to go to Florida later this spring. Back to Texas again- I’m really trying to go spend more time in the Midwest. We’ve never actually been out to the west coast but it’s sort of a trick because it’s kind of far for all of us that are here. It’s not really far but you have to make sure it’s a show where you’re going to make enough to do it. We’re planning on touring for basically the rest of the year. I don’t know it’ll be all in one chunk like last time. It might all be split up more where we go out to Cleveland and we come home. And we go down to Tampa and we come home. But right now, it’s Missouri and Chicago and some unconfirmed stuff in Texas and Florida.

You’re obviously keeping busy. Are you going to be able to do a second season of People Are Detectives with Carmine Covelli?

We definitely want to do that. I think there’s still a couple more episodes in the pipe if I’ve counted correctly. We really want to do that again. Carmine’s got a lot of ideas for the second season. Any reason to sit in a car with Carmine for eight hours is something I’m going to sign up for.

Did you help write the show?

I co-wrote one of the episodes – what is it called? “The Happiest Meal” I think. But most of them were things that Carmine had written a while ago. We tried to actually film it several years ago. WE went out on a shoot and shot the whole thing. It just looked bad. Then Jason Cacioppo who makes a lot of the Champagne Jerry videos too got involved. He’s a total genius. He was like “Yeah, we’re going to totally do it!” We hired a crew and went out and shot in these super…I mean there are parts of Brooklyn that I didn’t even know existed. I was like “Wow! This is like an unpaved street under a highway!” [laughs] that he found somehow. He’d edit them and he shot the intro thing which was something that Carmine always wanted it to be but we didn’t have time to shoot it. But Jason made it happen. He’s pretty special that guy.

Are you still teaching an advised theater class at Playwrights Horizons?

Yeah I do. I had a class on Wednesday before opening night. So it was kind of a long day. It’s pretty fun. I like teaching the class. I didn’t really go to school for this sort of thing. I know people just say this but I actually do get a lot out of it [as if] I’m taking the class. They’re all making stuff and I’ve only ever made my own things. I’ve worked people a few times but it’s kind of fascinating to watch all these kids make stuff for the first time.

Follow Neal Medlyn on Twitter, like him on Facebook and check out his YouTube channel.