Michael Weatherly has serious singer/songwriter chops. Did you know so, about DiNozzo? He'd pursued a career in music long before he got sidetracked by acting and ended up on NCIS, which now, suddenly, in its seventh season, is the No. 1 show on television. (Story from Pepsi Music Blog)The overwhelming success of NCIS—the first dramatic show in years to be averaging over 20 million viewers a week—has prompted two soundtrack albums, the second of which features Weatherly's official debut as a recording artist. In this Q&A, the TV star talks about trying to seduce girls with Police songs as a teenager, his nearly lifelong idolization of Elvis Costello, and the sad personal circumstances that brought him to write "Bitter and Blue," his wry contribution to the NCIS CD.
And if "Bitter and Blue" isn't enough musical Michael for you, you can hear demos of that and a few more of his songs at www.MichaelWeatherlyMusic.com.
Q: How did your participation in the soundtrack album come about?
WEATHERLY: Being in your seventh season and having this kind of success that NCIS is having right now, it's like your seventh album suddenly does well. And maybe it affords you this silly opportunity to go and make a pop song, of something you wrote 15 years ago, representing some road that you chose not to take. You pull it out of your drawer and dust it off and you're like: Look at this dream—this is interesting. It's kind of like Westworld, when you get to go and record in a top-notch recording studio. All your Abbey Road fantasies come true.
Q: You don't really belt this song out. You sing in more of a hushed voice.
WEATHERLY: I didn't want to "sing." I'm not up there doing like [he launches into a Bono imitation] "I have run through the field...," where they're trying to pitch correct me. Because I think that's always painful, when you're like, "Why did he do that?" Or, they do that Scarlett Johanssen thing where you can't even hear her (in the mix)! "I think she's in there somewhere." Robert Downey Jr. did a good one. I don't know if you ever heard his album. But I think it's usually a disaster whenever actors try to (really go for it).
Q: But now you're living the dream—for one song only.
WEATHERLY: (NCIS producer) Josh Rexon came and said "Hey, CBS is doing this NCIS soundtrack. Do you want to go into a recording studio?" That's like saying, "You get to rob a bank, but nothing will happen to you. You don't have to do jail time, and no one gets hurt." So I got to see what it was like to walk into a recording studio and have a classy, first-class, high-powered engineer-producer dude...
Q: And it was satisfying?
WEATHERLY: I drove the poor producer up a wall, because I wanted more of a Michael Penn/Aimee Mann thing, or a fusion of Donovan meets something off of Magical Mystery Tour. Then after I heard the first mix, I of course was filled with dread, because it wasn't what I wanted, and I wanted to go in and re-record. And then this little voice in the back of my head was saying, "It's not real. No one gave you a recording contract. Your dream didn't actually come true. It's Westworld. These are all robots." [Laughs]
The vocal track, I have to take full responsibility for. That's the horrible thing, because if we watched an episode of NCIS, none of that would bother me. I'd be like, "Oh, I love it, that's great, look how much fun that is!" But listening to this, it's like the dentist, because you hear everything.
Q: Was it difficult to choose which song to do?
WEATHERLY: I did toy with doing a cover song. Then I was like, no, because then there's no BMI/ASCAP royalties. Elvis Costello doesn't need my money! I think I've bought My Aim is True 20 times.
Q: Let's talk about your musical influences a little.
WEATHERLY: What I realized in my mid-teens is that girls like music. But they didn't so much like the music that I liked. You've got Beatles guys, Stones guys, Who guys. I was a Kinks guy, which is not normal. And when you sing them "Lola," girls get confused. They cotton on that it's about a transsexual or something, and suddenly it's not as cool. My son has this wrapped up now; my son is very cool. But I was never cool. Unless you find that rare female creature that can watch Woody Allen movies and listen to you sing [he breaks into Elvis Costello's "Less Than Zero"]: "Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo/There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo.../When he's had enough of that maybe you'll take him to bed/To teach him he's alive before he wishes he was dead." I mean, you've just sent 99 percent of your 15-year-old possible female scoring options straight out the door.
That's when I discovered the Police. Because as much as you don't enjoy doing it, and as much as that ("Every Breath You Take") is a sick song about stalking, they don't know. For some reason, it's okay. And then I realized that you could do "Roxanne" and you didn't even have to sing it the way Sting sang it. You could change it to (your date's name), so it's "Jennifer..." And you're really calling her a prostitute, but again, [singing] "You don't have to wear that dress tonight and (sleep with) other guys, but it's okay, because I'm here and learned the chords to this complicated-sounding song. Jen-ni-fer..."
Q: And then you became a busker?
WEATHERLY: Then I went to New York and I tried to play some of these songs on the subway, and they all died, even my special how-to-get-laid rendition of "Roxanne." You can't go [singing] "Hey, lonely commuter, you don't have to wear that briefcase tonight..." It turns out they don't want to be mocked. They don't want you to be looking at them at all. But I discovered there are other songs that are tremendous on the subway, like that song "I send an SOS to the world" ("Message in a Bottle"). Everybody gives you a dollar, because you're basically saying, "Help me, I might be Suicidal Musician Guy—maybe a dollar would help me."
Q: And you made a serious try at becoming a recording artist?
WEATHERLY: And thus began a very long, tragic attempt at pop stardom. If you heard the original songs I was writing, it'd be obvious I listened to a lot of Crowded House. I was just trying to write a Squeeze song. I got a band together, tried to get people to listen to songs. We slowly built. We were playing the Limelight, and you're slaving away and people are talking while you're playing. Then I booked this job as an actor and started going to work.
And with acting, I didn't have to write it. I didn't have to face any rejection—other than "You're not a good actor." Which... that's fine with me! That somehow doesn't feel personal. [Laughs] That's like someone saying you're not a good liar. "Okay, then! I guess I'm just honest!" But with the music, I was very defensive about criticism.
Even then, I recorded 50 different songs in studios and went and hired session guys and played, and kept up with it. Went through life, had a child, got divorced, got engaged, got unengaged, met Jim Cameron... I had a lot to write about!
Q: What was the genesis of the song "Bitter and Blue"?
WEATHERLY: I wrote it when I was living in Malibu, and I had just gone through a breakup and was doing the first year of this show. I had a complete change of circumstance. I had moved out of the house I was in; I had got out of the relationship (with Jessica Alba). I had started this job (on NCIS), which began very quietly. It wasn't like NCIS: Los Angeles, where you have billboards plastered everywhere. They called us Navy NCIS, for starters (in the first season), which was slightly embarrassing, because "Navy Naval Criminal Investigating Service" seemed slightly repetitive. And also, everyone thought we were in the Navy! So people would see me dressed like you, and they'd be like "Okay, time to get into your uniform." And I'm like, [quietly] "I'm not actually supposed to wear a uniform." And the hours were really hard.I was going home and writing songs with titles like "Debris Field," or "In the Realm of the Senseless Left for Dead." Happy!
I remember the first girl I went on a date with after three months of being alone in my head, trying to play some of these songs to this poor, unsuspecting girl that I had lured back to my beach pad, and she was gone within 15 seconds. She was like "Yeah, that's interesting. So I guess you're still working through things?" (laughs)
I was completely depressed. My son lived in New York, because my ex-wife was working on All My Children at the time, so on weekends, we'd wrap at 7 a.m., I'd go straight to the airport, get on a plane, go see him for like four hours, get back on a plane and come back here (to L.A.) and go back to work. And we debuted to unimpressive numbers. Dark Angel (his previous series) was so (hyped), and then NCIS was initially kind of like: Are we still on the air? It was a slow rise—but very humbling and very good for me, probably, in the long run.
Q: How specific are the lyrics of the song?
WEATHERLY: "Bitter and Blue" I wrote at a crime scene, on location downtown. So it's kind of fitting that it's on the NCIS soundtrack. Surrounded by the ridiculousness of an NCIS crime scene, and at a pretty low seratonin level, historically, for me—because I'm generally a pretty ebullient and upbeat person—I started having a little bit of a conversation. I wondered if God was a drunk, and if there was a God, if he wasn't paying total attention, like maybe he shouldn't be driving the universe. I was having those kinds of thoughts—sort of Elvis Costello-y thoughts. "God's Comic" [from Costello's 1989 album Spike] comes to mind. "Bitter and Blue" and "God's Comic" have a couple of things in common. It's at the intersection of agnostic and atheist, if you want to know where on the map of spirituality this song is. I wanted to have almost a call and response thing, with a man talking to a mute, invisible, supposedly-there being. I thought, they are both feeling "bitter and blue"—the creator and the created. [Laughs]
Q: You had so many songs you'd written. How did you single out just one to finally release to the public after all this time?
WEATHERLY: The songs that we selected from were all written during that period, and we selected "Bitter and Blue" because it seemed kind of the least commercial. One of the things we wanted to be clear about was, this was Westworld, but I didn't actually think I was a gunslinger. You‘re not actually trying to do it [make a run at music stardom]. So we chose this very ‘60s, minor descending chord thing. Luckily for all of us, "Bitter and Blue" is no threat to the radio markets of the world. It's not hard to put it back in the drawer. The acting thing was the good call.
The one thing that escaped me completely is that the song chosen to record is called "Bitter and Blue." I finally got a mix of the song and sent it to my friend Adam in New York, who I've known since the 3rd grade and is a very trusted, drear friend. I said, what do you think? He said "Yeah, it's great. What do you have to be bitter and blue about?" (Laughs) I went, ohhhh... But at least I'm not singing about sunshine and happy bubbles.
I sent it to my friends in New York and they were like "Oh... It's pretty produced." I was like, "Well, yeah. Right." "Did you want to produce it that much?" "Like, dude, I would have preferred (a different sound) probably in retrospect..." So, maybe I'll do something else (musically). Maybe I'll pull out that Westworld dream one more time.
Q: Any regrets at all about the career path not taken?
WEATHERLY: If my original song "Another Wasted Weekend" had become a No. 1 hit in 1988—[adopts DJ voice] "Next up, Rick Astley and Mike Weatherly!"—back when I still had cheekbones and more of my hair, before I got encased in my 40-year-old-ness... I mean, sometimes you're very glad certain things didn't materialize, or you didn't get lucky in some way.
It was a choice, too. I saw nothing ahead in the world of music for myself but deep pain. And not in the composition and in the recording, because I continued to do that. In my head, the Kinks and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, they're the biggest artists of all time. (Laughs) I'm not quite sure who anyone else listens to, because those guys, it's the pantheon, like Greek gods to me. And also in that version of my head, I have like six albums out.
Q: It sounds like Costello is your true hero.
WEATHERLY: It was about 1984 or '85 when I started listening to Elvis. "Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired/You can have anyone that you have ever desired/All you gotta tell me now is why why why/Welcome to the working week..." I used to sit in my dorm room and I'd put the needle back. I'm like, did he just say that people are masturbating to her picture? But I also just loved his reverence for the history of music. Because Elvis is this encyclopedic guy, so he bought me to country music, he brought me to jazz, he brought me to orchestra, he brought me to the Brodsky Quartet, he brought me to opera.
And I had the big thick glasses, until I had the TV actor surgery to correct them. Now I have Ted vision... Ted Williams' vision. But my heroes were Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, Elvis Costello, Kurt Vonnegut. You know, I think I might be Jewish, actually. Now that I'm thinking: Michael Manning Weatherly Jr.—Jew.
Q: Elvis and Albert Brooks are a great combination.
WEATHERLY: Yeah. And that's why when they said "do you want to go record," I was like, do they know what (I'm into)? Because I wouldn't want to record with me. That's why I love my wife so much, because I wouldn't get involved with me. I mean, if I weren't stuck with me, I would not spend nearly as much time with me as I have to. And I do get sick of it! [Laughs] Because I mean, even if you weren't here, I'd be talking.
Q: On NCIS, after playing it a bit straighter during parts of the last season, you've gotten a lot more comedic again lately, in season 7.
WEATHERLY: I can imagine Rob Reiner in season 6 of All in the Family just being like, "Really? Meathead? Still?" Like, really? Because if you think about All in the Family episodes, Archie would come to some sort of conclusion with Mr. Jefferson, that maybe his reflex racism is something that he should maybe pay attention to and investigate, and then the next episode, he would be talking about the Polacks. Because it's television! Because we're gonna learn the same lesson every episode. [Laughs] There are variations on the theme, but...
It's frustrating, because even with my parents, I have to explain this to them. And then they'll watch another episode [like the season premiere] where they're like, "You just weren't convincing as The Guy, though. Gibbs had to fire the sniper bullet. He had to save you." It's like, "That was the plah-an! Don't you understand? That was the plan!" "Yeah, but I mean, couldn't you have escaped?" I'm like, "No, because it was not written that way, because the whole shape of the show is not that I am smarter than anyone else." Actually, I'm supposed to be the fourth smartest person in that room, after Gibbs, McGee, and Ziva. And I am arguably the eighth smartest person on the show, after Jimmy Palmer.