Megan Mullally on Being in a Band (With Greg Kuehn!): 'People Think They are Going to Get a 'Will & Grace' Experience--But it's Not That at All.'

Categories: Q&As
Danielle Bacher/ OC Weekly

Most people recognize Megan Mullally as the outrageous, booze-swilling Karen Walker from the hit sitcom Will & Grace. What you may not know is that she is a genre-straddling theater actress and singer as well. 

On Oct. 7-10 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Mullally and Supreme Music Program specialize in interpreting classic pop, jazz and country songs with an idiosyncratic twist. 

The band is made up of Mullally and Orange County punk stalwart, keyboardist Greg Kuehn from TSOL, drummer Joe Berdardi, multi-instrumentalists Doug Livingston and Stuart Mathis, violist/percussionist, violist Peter Jandula Hudson and trumpet player Larry Williams. As Megan Mullally and Supreme Music Program, the act will tackle tunes by everyone from Bobbie Gentry to Hoagy Carmichael. The old school songbook and brassy sound demonstrate a different dimension of Mullally's artistic pursuits. 

OC Weekly (Danielle Bacher): You perform with The Supreme Music Program and have released three albums. What inspired you to get into singing?
Megan Mullally: Well, I was always singing along to the radio when I was little. I knew every lyric to every song and I could sing them backward and forward from the time I was in kindergarten or first grade. I've done musical theater and I had this friend that I thought was really cool--I wanted to be just like her because she was taking a singing performance class and I never took an acting class per se. But since I thought my friend was cool, I wanted to try. I ended up in this class where you pick whichever song you wanted and then you perform it. The teacher was really cool and there were no rules. She was very supportive of everyone, even the people who couldn't sing at all. Sometimes those students were the best performers because they had an emotional take on the song that was more powerful than the people who could technically sing better. I was so inspired by that experience that I decided I wanted to do my own stage show--kind of like a performance art-ish show.

How did your band start?
Mullally: I was out with my friend Julie Ritter of Mary's Danish and I said, "I don't know any musicians here. Do you know anybody who plays keyboards?" and she said, "Yeah, I do. I know Greg Kuehn. I'll get hold of him and see if he'd be interested." We hit it off and we would get together every once in a while and work on some songs. The material that I was working on was off the Sweetheart record. I passionately loved that music for most of my life, and some of those songs spilled over to our second record. Greg found our guitarist Stewart, and I heard about our drummer Joe through someone who was a day planner on Will & Grace.
Greg Kuehn: Julie Ritter and I were friends because we did the music from the worst television show ever, Pauly Shore Is Dead. I was attracted to playing with Megan because we played Kurt Weill, and I never really played that music before. I played classical piano when I was in college, but I never got into theater music. Megan had a cool take on it--it wasn't just her saying, "Hey, lets play show tunes!" The songs were the dark underbelly of music.

The band performed a piece entitled Sweetheart at The Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles in 1999. How do you think that performance compares to what you are doing now?
Mullally: The four of us did a show at the Coast Playhouse to universally stunned audiences in all definitions of the word. I'll have people come up to me to this day and say, " I saw your show at the Playhouse and it changed my life." Then other people will just say, "Whatttt!"
Kuehn: There were some swings and harnesses involved in the show.
Mullally: I was in a harness crawling on the floor at one point. All the bandmates had to act in the show as well. We rehearsed at the Debbie Reynolds Studios in the Valley.
Kuehn: We had some serious drama coaches. Michael Patrick King from Sex and the City came in and helped us.
Mullally: It was a really crazy, weird and trippy show. There was no speaking. We had to tell a story with our faces and bodies--It was totally awesome. We got mixed reviews. I had a graphic designer friend of mine take the worst reviews and post it in an ad in the LA Times that featured only the really bad quotes about our act. Our next ad said, "Honey, what the fuck was that?" by Karen Walker [laughs and says quote in character].
Kuehn: Now the show is just a musical performance--it's not as dramatic.
Mullally: You know, it's either a theatrical stage show or a club. Since we were playing in clubs, we just added some instrumentation in the form of Peter on viola and Doug on pedal steel and Larry on trumpet. Everyone in the band plays quite a few instruments, except for me... I'm a loser.

Greg, you are the musical director, producer and pianist for the band. What is your process when collaborating on music?
Kuehn: It seemed like a great idea, but I was a little bit nervous about it. Once we met up, it was easy. Off and on through '97, Megan and I played and kept in touch. Once the band started to come together, we brought in other musicians. We would bounce ideas off each other back and forth. We played Decemberists and Tom Waits songs that I love. We do a lot of music sharing in this band. Then I'll sit down and figure out how the songs go and really deconstruct them. For instance, we did a PJ Harvey song, and I did a piano arrangement in the beginning that sets the tone of the piece. We will try and figure out a instrumental angle, harmonization or tempo and find what clicks for us. My approach was not typical, and I'm not a Broadway piano player. I like to interpret the songs and play around with the harmonies. Everyone in the band has their own way of playing and their own quirks, and Megan responds to that. It's really refreshing, because she's so open. She gets the interpretation and it makes it fun to play with her.

How would you describe your musical vibe?
Mullally: I wish I had a better word for it...but it's extremely eclectic. That's the only way to describe it [Loud noises coming from bandmates in the background]. Excuse me. [To bandmates] You guys, we are doing an interview that's going on tape, so shut the fuck up! [Everyone laughs] The band is about the songs. It's not about us; it's more about taking songs that we think are great and trying to show them off to their best advantage. Sometimes we deconstruct them and put a different spin on them. Sometimes we just do them pretty straightforward. The most remarkable thing about the band is how not a money-making proposition it is. I know for a fact that I have only ever lost money on it [laughs]
Kuehn: Our music isn't attached to what you are supposed to do. Like if you play a Billie Holiday song, you have an idea of what it's supposed to sound like. We don't want to play songs like everyone else plays the songs.
Mullally: Because I've done musicals on Broadway and I played Karen Walker, there is an expectation that I am going to be more fabulous and do a lot of show tunes and standards. We never do any show tunes and rarely do standards. 

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