John Mulaney and musician Eric Hutchinson are old friends. While the comedian is best known for his stand-up specials (and recent Netflix special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch), Hutchinson has built a steady discography of soulful pop-rock, ever since his debut record Sounds Like This became the highest-charting album by an unsigned artist in iTunes history. In light of Hutchinson’s new album, Class Of 98, being all about looking back at that time of life (both were in high school that titular year, though Hutchinson was graduating), the pair decided to use the album’s release as a chance to reminisce. Mulaney spoke with Hutchinson recently for The A.V. Club, and the pair traded stories about high school, music, and the real burning question of ’90s albums: what to call the hidden bonus track at the end of a record.
John Mulaney: Eric, I love this album. I am not a music scholar or critic, as you know, but I felt like I heard a world of different influences in this, albeit ones you used to make your own sound. I personally heard traces of The Cars, Weezer, Robyn Hitchcock, and more. May I start by asking, what were you listening to when you were working on Class Of 98?
Eric Hutchinson: You are not the first person to reference Robyn Hitchcock, which is interesting, because I know literally none of his music. Weezer was definitely my north star for this album. I studied The Blue Album and Pinkerton, as well as Green Day’s Dookie and lots of other ’90s alternative. As you may or may not know, Ric Ocasek of The Cars produced The Blue Album by Weezer, so that all makes sense.
JM: I did not know that Ric Ocasek produced that. Wow.
EH: Ric was also my neighbor in NYC until he recently passed away. I used to see him parking his car on my street in one of the underground lots. He was always dressed in all black with dyed black hair and black sunglasses. I wanted to talk to him but never felt I had the right to stop him.
JM: You mentioned ’90s alternative music, I was curious how you chose what from 1998-ish to reference. Did you go through what you were into back then?
EH: Yeah, I found when I thought about high school, I could remember a lot of detailed information, even though I never kept a journal or anything. All these characters and people from my past came rushing back. It felt fun to try to tell all these stories. Did you enjoy high school? And remind me what year you graduated?
JM: I graduated in 2000. I enjoyed the friends I made, but I had no sense of self. I lived and died by whether my crush at that moment liked me back. I was not cool enough to ever hold emotions in. And I found the day-to-day of high school very oppressive. I went to a strict Jesuit Catholic School and we had staircases you could only walk up, and staircases you could only walk down. I, too, was sometimes drunk at lunch but I wanted to get out of school, not away from those that also got drunk. I should note that your lyric, “Get me out of here” [from Hutchinson’s “Drunk At Lunch”—Ed.] made me smile thinking about that old anthem of our generation, [Radiohead’s] “Creep,” and the lament, “What the hell am I doing here.” I often looked at the high school—and the students who loved high school—and thought, “Get me out of here,” and “What the hell am I doing here.”
EH: I’m glad you made a connection to Radiohead! I hired Paul Kolderie to mix this whole album, partially because he had produced and mixed the first two Radiohead albums, including “Creep.” [off of 1993’s Pablo Honey]. So far you are 100% on getting the references!
JM: I enjoy the [Class Of 98 album] cover photo very much, because while some people may see a high school photo of themselves and think, “Oh god, that’s so embarrassing,” this pic does capture that outwardly confident, occasionally intimidating presence you can have as an adult. What do you think when you look at that cover?
EH: I remember myself then. My brother took that picture in our bathroom at our childhood home, which my mom just sold last year. When I see the picture, I just think how badly I wanted to look and act cool.
JM: You do look cool. Few can stare down a camera like that at that age. You remind me of when my wife saw Lou Reed at the Angelika [Theater in Manhattan] and he gave her a look like, “Don’t even think of walking over here.”
JM: This brings me to the song “Sweet Little Baby Rock N Roller.” Can you tell me—and yes, these questions can be lame—but who is singing to who in that song?
EH: Well, I think I’m singing to a girl I had in my mind’s eye, that I remembered being in love with. I was really struck but how strongly I was able to summon up the love I felt for all these girls I had crushes on. I was able to write the songs and felt very current with the feelings.
JM: Well, there goes my theory that you are singing to young Eric Hutchinson growing his hair out and leaving his childhood self behind.
EH: Ooooh. I like your theory much more! Wow, you’ve just blown my mind. It fits quite well and makes total sense and I am now quite sure that’s what I was doing.
JM: Run with it!
EH: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I often feel there are two reasons I’m creating something: the reason I know of, and the subconscious one.
JM: Yeah, I find that at the end of a tour and filming a special I will, for the first time, see connections throughout an hour of stand-up that I never realized. Were there moments or memories you were writing about that you abandoned because of the emotional weight?
EH: I tried to change people’s names to protect the innocent. And there was one girl who I didn’t include because I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing I was still harboring feelings for her all these years later. But in general, I felt like anything I could remember was fair game.
JM: I agree. If people don’t want to be written about they should have been nicer to me.
EH: Yes, exactly.
JM: And/or shouldn’t have given birth to me.
EH: Only, I’m sure there are lots of unflattering songs people could write about me.
JM: But who’s to say they would be as good? Tell me about “Drunk At Lunch” and the friends you describe in that song.
EH: Well, I had my best friends from middle school and we did everything together. At least in my head, it seemed like when we got to high school, puberty really kicked in and rebellion ruled. My friends didn’t want to sit around and just be jokesters anymore, they wanted to be adults.
JM: Adults—meaning drinkers and drug-users?
EH: Yes, adults like that. There was an upperclassmen who was like the pied piper, and convinced all these little freshman to come hang with him at his grandma’s house where we could drink alcohol instead of eating lunch. I was so disappointed there in the dark basement, very hungry.
JM: Even as a high school booze bag, I would have been mighty miffed if there was no food. Lunch was the only good point of the day in high school. Now granted, I only ate crackers, but still…
EH: Knowing you now, it’s hard for me to picture you as a drunken child. Were you a friendly drunken high schooler? Or were you walking up the down staircase and so forth?
JM: No, I followed the rules of school strictly. It was a real headache to get in trouble there. It felt like when you got in trouble—detention was called JUG: “Justice Under God”—your whole day was ruined. And at JUG they would play favorites and let basketball players and pretty girls leave first. So even in detention—even in jail—you were reminded of the hierarchies. But I was secretly a little Tasmanian devil: taking pills, drinking, and doing drugs. Especially at school dances.
EH: “JUG”!? “JUG” sounds like something you’re doing to get thrown into detention.
JM: Yes, it sounds like old hobo slang on the rails. Let’s talk about “Good Things Come”—my favorite track. I have to say, this song was in my brain all day and I was trying to think, “There’s an album this should be on and I don’t know what it is.” And I realized I thought it sounded like a track from [John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s] Double Fantasy. Like a piece of rock nostalgia done very contemporary, like “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
EH: So funny, you mention that. I wrote this song with John Lennon!
JM: Wow! how is he?
JM: I have heard.
EH: “(Just Like) Starting Over” is a wonderful song and I gladly take that comparison.
JM: Please do. David Geffen has given me permission to bestow Double Fantasy comparisons on whatever I like.
EH: I found that a lot of the ’90s music by Weezer and Green Day seemed to owe a lot to ’60s surf-pop songwriting. So I felt it was okay to have a sort of older-sounding song, as long as we fuzzed it up with some guitars.
JM: Yes, it sounded like Elvin Bishop walked in at one point. Next question: You were the class of 1998, and graduates right now had their senior year cut short. I was wondering if you’ve thought about what it would have been like if you didn’t get to experience the end of high school. I think a lot of people already feel unfinished business with their high school and classmates, and you display some of that in the album, but I was curious if you’ve thought at all about being in high school and then walking out one day in March never to return…
EH: That’s an interesting question. I had never thought of high school as unfinished business, but it defines it quite well. I’m not really one for goodbyes, so I don’t really know if I would’ve minded so much if they just cancelled my senior year in March. I would’ve gotten by. I think this year has been so bizarre for everyone and I’m constantly amazed and depressed thinking about all the facets of people’s lives that have been upended. I’ve been involved with things I cared about deeply that got cancelled suddenly, and it was gut-wrenching and made me feel so small.
I remember the day my record label froze. I was staying in L.A. at the time, and they called me up and said, “We’re freezing the label and deciding which acts to keep. You can’t stay in your hotel past tonight and need to go home.”
JM: You were out there on their dime?
EH: Yes, I was staying there while I was recording. I’ve still never heard those recordings to this day.
JM: What an absolute drag.
EH: I guess I hope the seniors of 2020 will wear this as a badge of honor and choose to use this as just the beginning of doing things differently. In my better moments, I think that right now we all have an amazing amount of potential for extraordinary change.
JM: On the topic of not being one for goodbyes, I wonder if you still have contact with any of the people these tracks are based on?
EH: Yes, some of them. I plan to send them the album when it’s out. I think anyone who lived through this time period with me will find it warm and nostalgic and not mean or petty.
JM: It doesn’t come across mean or petty. It doesn’t seem like you, Eric Hutchinson, are singing “Cooler Than You” without irony.
EH: And I should be very clear that I’m not particularly proud of the person I was in high school, so I’m certainly not holding anyone else’s high school selves against them.
JM: What weren’t you proud of?
EH: I think I made fun of too many people and could have been kinder.
JM: I am right there with you.
EH: This has turned into a nice little therapy session.
JM: I think at the time I thought, “Everyone gives, everyone gets,” but there was no reason to take insecurity and hide from it by making fun of someone else. I’m impressed you can get in touch with those emotions from high school in such a raw way. Do you see a therapist?
EH: I have been seeing a therapist for a long time. I recommend it for everyone, at least for a little while.
JM: Do you talk about your songwriting in therapy? Or about your process at all?
EH: Yes. I’ve talked a lot about creativity in therapy. I even invited my therapist to my show on the last tour.
JM: How did that go?
EH: He was very kind and generous as an audience member.
JM: Could you see him?
EH: Yeah, I could see him standing in the back of the club, up against the wall with a friend. He paid attention and afterwards he texted me about how he couldn’t believe how honest I was on stage. Honesty is really the drive behind my creativity right now.
JM: What kind of honesty? Does that question make sense?
EH: Maybe authenticity is a better word? I’m always trying to write about real and true emotions, even if they’re coming through my prism of experience. I tried hard to be a reporter on Class Of 98. Just the facts.
JM: I love that. There’s a line about John O’Hara that I am reminded of, that I will find now… “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”—That was his epitaph.
EH: Beautiful. I have a question for you before we go. Has becoming such a prolific songwriter and lyricist yourself made it harder for you to enjoy listening to music?
EH: I’m being serious!
JM: I appreciate the titles of songwriter and lyricist. I am still an emulator and copier of styles and forms. But I really really enjoy writing song lyrics.
EH: I think every songwriter starts as an emulator and a copier, and the true geniuses are able to rise above that. You’re writing lots of music now and working on a musical. The songs in John Mulaney And The Sack Lunch Bunch were wholly impressive to me, and I thought, “Man, John can do whatever he likes”.
JM: Wow, and thank you. In Sack Lunch, I had a couple moments of songwriting —like in “Algebra Song!” or “I Saw A White Lady Standing On The Street Just Sobbing”—that communicated very personal ideas or communicated things I found very funny, and which sat very well on Eli Bolin’s music. I’m very proud of those. It’s made me all the more impressed by songs that have a twist or subtext to them. I have not yet tried that. Like, when we were working, we listened to “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and I was struck by how the narrator does not actually want to leave L.A. perhaps… and is putting the best face she can on this move back to San Jose. And I thought, those tricks in songs are—those layers of psychology in a lyric are fascinating.
EH: The unreliable narrator.
JM: Yes, a shorter already defined term would be an unreliable narrator.
EH: I love Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Truly some of my favorite songwriters.
JM: Last question, “She’s a Vegan Now”… the hidden track. Who are we listening to in that track, a teenager? An adult reconnecting with someone from high school?
EH: My friend said, “If you’re making an homage to the ’90s, you must have a hidden track on the album,” which I thought was very astute. “She’s A Vegan Now” is a little ode I wrote to my wife who was having a hard time using the V word after being vegetarian for many years. It’s not really about high school at all, just a fun afterthought.
JM: The best type of hidden track is a fun afterthought.
EH: I agree!
JM: What’s your favorite hidden track?
EH: The defining hidden tracks I remember from the ’90s were “All By Myself” by Green Day on Dookie and the long dramatic song Alanis sings a cappella at the end of Jagged Little Pill.
JM: Since hidden tracks are unnamed do you think we, the audience, have a right to name them?
EH: Only the man who wrote “Do Flowers Exist At Night” could ask a question like that.