Song Writing

Yacht Rock!

by Greg Prato

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Tribute bands can be a tricky proposition. From the handful of tribute acts I have caught over the years, the first few songs can be jolly good fun, but then after a while, I find myself wishing I was lucky enough to catch a performance by the actual artist. Yacht Rock Revue is an exception to the rule. The reason? Instead of "tributizing" a sole act, they offer a smorgasbord of soft rock hits of the '70s and '80s (aka "yacht rock") - many of which were penned by one-hit wonders, or from artists that had more than one hit, but were a bit, well, faceless.

And in addition to offering up spot-on renditions of the classics, the members also look like they took a time machine from 1978, as they are all decked out in snazzy polyester threads which would undoubtedly make Tony Manero green with envy.

Here at Songfacts, we have a pretty good handle on the genre, having interviewed the likes of Christopher Cross and Gerry Beckley of America. YRR's Nicholas Niespodziani, however, lives, breathes and sings this stuff (sometimes sharing the stage with the original artists), so we engaged him in a spirited discussion of all things Yacht Rock, including the most difficult tune to pull off live, and the greatest Yacht Rock song of all time.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How do you pay tribute to the genre without making fun of it?

Nicholas Niespodziani: We try to take the music seriously, but not take ourselves seriously. To approach these songs as though they were our own and really own them. When we started, a lot of people were coming for the kitsch factor, because they wanted to wear polyester like us and elbow each other in the ribs, like, "Yeah, this song, right?"

But I think that we've entered a post-irony phase with it, where everybody that comes to the shows now really loves this music. They're not doing it to be funny or not enjoying it to be ironic. They're genuinely into the songs, and that's how our band feels about it, too.

So making fun of it, it's a little bit past that. I think it was that at first, but it's not really that anymore. For us, we were never really making fun of it. We started and were like, "Let's try all these '70s one-hit wonder songs, because nobody's ever done anything like that." And being funny for us is part of it, like having characters and telling jokes and that kind of thing. But actually making fun of the music was not really our shtick from the beginning.

Songfacts: I'm impressed that some of the original performers/writers of these songs have joined Yacht Rock Revue on stage.

Nicholas: The first was either Walter Egan or Robbie Dupree, back when we were first starting out. All of them had the same question you did: "Are they making fun of this, or are they genuinely paying tribute to it?" And I think with each one of them that's joined us, they helped spread the word that we're not just being funny, that we're legit, and that fans are really excited to come to our shows, and there's a different kind of energy to it.

I think they revitalize us, because we're excited to play with the originals, and we kind of give them some younger energy that they don't usually get in the shows that they do on their own or with their own bands. There's an excitement to our shows that rubs off on both us and them, and makes it really fun. At first, it was so intimidating to play with somebody like Robbie Dupree, but now, he's become a good friend of ours, and we've played a few shows within the year.

We feel like we're the heirs to the music: They wrote it, but we get to continue performing it. And getting to share that experience with them has been really special and powerful for our band. Inspiring. Because almost every day, we're a tribute band, but when we're playing with the guy that wrote the song, we're not a tribute band anymore. We were warming up for Kool & the Gang last week in Illinois, and there are two original guys in Kool & the Gang - a trumpet player and a sax player. I think they're brothers. But the rest of the guys aren't original guys, and I was realizing how close our gig is to what they were doing. And they are Kool & the Gang.

Songfacts: And Al Stewart has joined the band on stage to do "Year of the Cat."

Nicholas: He did, that was out in LA. That was a surprise to us. We were friends with the Player guys - you know, "Baby Come Back." They've done a bunch of shows with us and had us over for drinks, and have become friends with our band. They knew Al, so they invited Al out when we played the House of Blues in LA.

That was a real trip - he comes in with his attitude. He's so light and easy to hang around with, and he just comes in, and is like, "Let's give this a try!," in his little British accent. And we didn't rehearse it or soundcheck it or anything - we just went out there the night of the show and played "Year of the Cat" with him, and nailed it. It was awesome. It was really fun.

Songfacts: Does the band have a wish list of artists you would like to play with on stage?
Nick on Karaoke

For karaoke, I would advise all men to stick to the material in the lower registers of yacht rock. All those stratospherically high songs that you think would crush it with the crowd? Only if you have the natural voice, training or falsetto to pull it off. If you don't know what falsetto is, don't try anything by the Bee Gees. That Hall & Oates song your girlfriend loves? She's not gonna love your version. That chorus of "Africa" that sounds great when you're drunk? It sounds like a Canadian Goose in heat when you sing it, I promise.

Ladies - Do whatever you want in karaoke, you can do no wrong.

As for me, I sing one song and one song only when engaging in karaoke: "I Will Always Love You" (the Whitney Houston version from The Bodyguard Soundtrack).
Nicholas: Yeah, we're trying to check them off one by one. We got to open for Kenny Loggins this summer in Hawaii. We didn't get to actually play with him - we got to open for him. So that was one of the big ones.

I guess the big guys, like Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs and Hall & Oates would be fun, although we played with Oates on a music cruise. He came and sat in with us, which was really fun. That was a trip.

Songfacts: Have you ever encountered any artists who didn't have a sense of humor about it?

Nicholas: I think the way Robbie Dupree said it was the best: It's not that they don't have a sense of humor, it's that a lot of them still think it's 1982. They don't realize their place in history, and that time is not necessarily now.

I don't want to name any names, because I don't want to put Robbie under the microscope for that, but I thought that was an interesting perspective. As far as the guys that we play with regularly, they all have a pretty good sense of humor about stuff. We've been really lucky - we've chosen the cool ones, I suppose.

Songfacts: What is the greatest yacht rock song of all time?

Nicholas: That's tough. I think our fans would tell you it is "Africa" or "Rich Girl," because those are the ones that are constantly shouted to us at shows. What would I say? My character often times says that "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" is the greatest of all time. Period. But I have to tell you that personally, I don't believe that to be true.

Nick's Top 5

1. "Steal Away" - Robbie Dupree (This song has the best vibrations ever.)

2. "You Make My Dreams" - Hall & Oates (Pop perfection.)

3. "Baby Come Back" - Player (Love these guys!)

4. "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" - Looking Glass (Yachty by nature.)

5. "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" - Rupert Holmes (The greatest work of art in the history of the western world?)
Songfacts: For some reason, I have a soft spot for "Steal Away" and "Baker Street."

Nicholas: Yeah, "Baker Street" is a popular one. You know, a song that I didn't really appreciate until our band did it is "My Old School" by Steely Dan. I just sing the backing vocals on that song, but I have a great time doing that. That one's really grown on me a lot.

Songfacts: How hard is it to play these songs and get them to sound just right?

Nicholas: At first, it was impossible, because they did not sound just right. We were kind of a garage band version of what we are now. But I think we took that energy and just kept applying it as we refined the technical side - the accuracy side of it. We're pretty lucky: All of our guys are ace musicians, and that's the secret sauce, because all these songs are extremely difficult to play from a music theory perspective and from a technical perspective.

And that's a high barrier of entry for other bands that want to try and do what we do. And I think that's worked to our favor, because the music is just genuinely really hard, especially all the harmonies.

These days, if we want to learn a tune, we just say, "Here's a tune, we're learning it." Everybody shows up, we do it at soundcheck and then we play it at the show. But that's because now it's our full-time job and you can give everybody that level of homework and they'll come ready to go.

Songfacts: When did it become a full-time gig for all the band members?

Nicholas: A couple of years into it - probably five or six years ago. It was a real gradual thing. When we started it, I was in law school, and some of the guys were doing different gigs. When it got to be more serious and more serious, I quit law school, and it was like, "Well, now we've got to get popular. We've got to get somebody to do our logistics and we've got to hire a sound engineer."

But we never set out to be a cover band, much less a soft rock cover band that plays corporate events and all these theaters. It just happened organically. It was strange.

Songfacts: You mentioned before that some of the songs are hard to play. Which is the one yacht rock song that is deceptively difficult to play?

Nicholas: I guess everybody probably knows that "Rosanna" is difficult to play, and it definitely is. The one that is deceptively difficult that we do is "Band on the Run" by Wings. It just has a lot of stops and starts and different twists, and then the vocals are really high at the end. So it's a pretty high level of difficulty I would say. I feel like when we finish it, you kind of stick the landing, like a gymnast or something that just did a triple back somersault with a twist.

Songfacts: As far as the musicians in the band, were any of them session musicians beforehand, or was it just friends that got together to play?

Nicholas: Three of us had an original band called Y-O-U that we had been traveling with and making records with for a while. We were kind of the core group, but then all the other guys had done different gigs and toured with Peter Searcy, Butch Walker, and our guitar player was a sub in Skid Row for a little while. So we weren't "session guys," per se.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few classic tunes that Yacht Rock Revue performs, starting with "Steal Away."

Nicholas: "Steal Away" is the yacht rock song that my wife insisted be played at our wedding. She loves that tune. So that one's got a real soft spot in my heart. Also, because Robbie has become such a dear friend of ours. He's a real kind of quiet guy when you meet him, but after you know him, he's got a really wicked sense of humor and he's just a gem to hang out with. One time, he took us out in Queens to like, this gangster restaurant that he used to go to when he was growing up. I just think about Robbie Dupree, because he is such a great dude - that's what I think about with "Steal Away."

Songfacts: "Baker Street."

Nicholas: "Baker Street" is really all about the sax riff, which actually, is not an exceedingly difficult sax riff to play, but one that brings out emotions in people that they didn't think they had. You play that in front of a crowd of dudes that hadn't heard it performed live before, and they get just wild. They get the crazy eye.

Songfacts: "Baby Come Back."

Nicholas: "Baby Come Back" is such a great tune melodically, and the emotion of it really connects with people. I noticed that when we do it, there's something undeniably sexy about it, and it still works for those dudes all these years later.

We're doing this revival show next week with all these guys, and we were doing this show last year with the Player guys, and somebody threw a bra on stage during the performance of it - just like it was 1978 all over again!

Songfacts: "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)."
Rupert Holmes may not be a poet laureate, but he's a wickedly clever and accomplished author, playwright and songwriter: His play The Mystery of Edwin Drood has won multiple Tony Awards, and his song "You Got It All" was a #3 hit for The Jets in 1987. He also wrote a song called "Timothy," which to date is the only Top 40 hit about cannibalism. Regarding his "Piña Colada" notoriety, Rupert told us, "I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they'd say, 'Aren't you the guy who wrote The Piña Colada Song?' It's tough when you have this one thing that pulls focus from all these other things that you've done, yet every songwriter lives to have a song that most everybody knows."
Nicholas: That song... I actually deep down in my soul hate that song. But I always announce it from stage, I keep trying to find bigger and bigger superlatives to describe it as the greatest song of all time. But every time before we play it, I talk about how this guy [Rupert Holmes] should have been poet laureate for the United States, and this is one of the greatest overall pieces of art that was ever created by anyone - including da Vinci. I go off on some random tangent about its greatness. It helps me deal with it.

I'll never forget one of my worst times on stage of all time. I'm a huge Green Bay Packers fan, and we were playing a gig at a casino in Baltimore. It was a really weird situation: The Packers were getting whipped by the 49ers in the playoffs, and I had to sing "The Piña Colada Song" and watch that happening on the televisions in the casino. I thought maybe that was the lowest point that you could possibly get to.

Songfacts: And "Sailing."

Nicholas: "Sailing," that song is exceptionally smooth. Everything we do is pretty smooth, but then there's like, a next level of smooth, that's just so vibed out. A lot of times, you can create excitement by being not excited, and that song is the perfect example of that: It's so chilled out that it gets people pretty amped up.

Songfacts: Lastly, where would one go to buy a good polyester suit or shirt?

Nicholas: Well, I couldn't tell you that, because I've got to keep my sources secret, so they don't get bought out by everybody else. I will tell you that the real secret to wearing clothes from the '70s is having a good tailor. You're not going to find it in your size, so you've got to get creative, and having a good tailor is the key.

September 14, 2015.
For more, visit yachtrockrevue.com.

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Comments: 2

  • David from Boston, MaGreat interview with a brilliant member of a truly brilliant band. I saw them with my wife once in Cambridge on a whim not knowing much other than they played songs from one of my favorite music genres and was blown the hell away by it all. I was one of the guy with his jaws dropped open when that Baker Street sax filled the room. Brandy has to be seen to be believed and Afternoon Delight was a true mind eff. These guys are not just in it for the kitsch, they are consummate professionals that are dedicated to honoring the exact sound of Yacht Rock. A term I'm not altogether clear on other than it deriving from that web series, but it does tend to encapsulate the relaxing vibe one gets from all the choice soft rock sounds. They deserve every bit of success they get. Hope to catch them again when they generously grace us Northeasters with their presence in October...
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaOK, please help me out here. I get the concept of "Yacht Rock". Not that I like it, mind you, but I get it. Rupert Holmes, Player, Ambrosia, Christopher Cross, Michael MacDonald I get. But Gerry Rafferty? How do you figure Baker Street is yacht Rock when it fits no standard Formula? It has no real Chorus, no Bridge The guitar Solo is at the end and it has a hook played by a very bluesy sounding Sax?
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