Inside Champagne Jerry’s Champagne Room

Published February 25, 2016

Champagne Jerry’s forthcoming LP The Champagne Room is more than just an album release. It is also the title for a series of performances, the first time the artist has ever made a second project under the same name, and an extremely collaborative effort. The album, which epitomizes the phrase “NSFW,” includes beats by Ad-Rock and Max Tannone and guest vocals by Bridget Everett, Erin Markey, Murray Hill, Larry Krone, Jim Adralis, and more.

“There was that Kanye West song, ‘All of the Lights,’ where he features 11 people,” Champagne Jerry (aka Neal Medlyn, née Jerry Neal Medlyn) says. “I love the idea of one song featuring so many people.”

Champagne Jerry’s debut album, For Real, You Guys, was released in 2014, and since then his rap alias has taken a life of its own. On The Champagne Room, listeners hear more R&B inflections as well as more straightforward singing, as opposed to the purely rap elements of For Real—though he certainly retains the unique swagger for which we originally praised him.

Beginning next Wednesday, Neal Medlyn will open for Champagne Jerry (to be clear: yes, Medlyn will open for himself) during five performances at New York Live Arts. Each night, a rotating cast of artists will compose his posse, referred to as “The Champagne Club,” and a series of real and invented bands will also perform. Staying true to Champagne Jerry’s obsession with pop culture and all things Tampa, Florida, the guests who will appear all thrive of cheap gold, dance, and of course, those wonderful memories that last a lifetime.

As Neal Medlyn, the Texas-born, New York-based artist has become known for his “Pop Star Series,” performances based upon the music and multiple personalities of Lionel Richie, Prince, Britney Speaks, Miley Cyrus, and other icons. He’s performed at venues like The Kitchen and festivals such as Live Art Festival in Hamburg, Germany. Other works have been shown at institutions including the New Museum in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum.

Before the album’s release, Champagne Jerry, Max Tannone, and Ad-Rock (otherwise known as Adam Horovitz) sat down at Horovitz’s New York apartment. They spoke about all things The Champagne Room as well as Danimals drinkable yogurt, a vampire in a hot tub, and pie.

AD-ROCK: We’ve all worked together before, so how and when did we first meet each other? Why don’t we start there?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: We mostly all met through softball, I think.

MAX TANNONE: Adam is an old family friend. I started playing on his softball team in his softball league. That’s how I met Champagne Jerry.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: And I met you, Adam, through Ada [Calhoun], at an art opening.

AD-ROCK: My wife, Kathleen Hanna, had an art gallery for a minute. She did a couple shows, and Ada, Neal’s wife, came to interview Kathleen for a publication. When Ada and Kathleen met that’s when we all started being friends—and softball really brought out the best of us.

MAX TANNONE: Also out of softball, I got involved with Our Hit Parade, a monthly countdown music show that Neal was one of the founders of with Bridget Everett, who also played softball. I started performing for her backing band. That’s how we all musically got started.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Adam, were you there when you did the cover of “Paul Revere” dressed in revolutionary war clothes?

AD-ROCK: I never even heard that you did that until just now. Where, at Joe’s Pub?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Yeah, it was at Our Hit Parade. We were doing greatest hits of something…

AD-ROCK: Of the bicentennial?

MAX TANNONE: Yeah, I have a picture of us three from backstage. It was funny.

AD-ROCK: If this gets into the piece, the particular thing we’re looking at right now needs a link.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: That picture’s crazy. We did that skit, it was us being like, “What will we do?” and talking in old timey accents. But then I was at a party with Bridget, I drank a bottle of champagne, and the next day she was like “Whoa, you really became Champagne Jerry last night.” Bridget had just learned my first name was Jerry, and she called me Champagne Jerry. Both of you sent me beats [and that] was a really easy way to work because I used to cover people’s songs. I had a little bit of a problem when I would write songs, because I got so into how it felt to play it on the guitar.

AD-ROCK: Neal was just air guitaring.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Later I’d be like, “Wow, that song actually sounds terrible, but it feels so cool to play.” I don’t think any of them were any good. But this way, you’d send me a beat and it’s already this whole musical idea. Then I get to think about how I can react to what that sound is. I get to actually write words.

MAX TANNONE: Also when you record your demo or your vocals and send it back, I get ideas of how to change things in the music. It starts with me, goes to you, comes back to me, and ends as this weird other thing. Obviously Adam’s band’s always been one of my favorites and was very inspiring.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: You guys [The Beastie Boys] made me $3.75 because I used to rap the songs on the bus. I met this kid who would rap “I Need Love” by LL Cool J at football games and would charge everyone 25 cents. I was like, “That is a growth industry, I’m going to learn.” I had gone to a church lock-in and these teenagers drove us from the church to the bowling alley. In the car, they put Licensed to Ill in the tape player. Then I got it from a friend, learned a bunch of the songs, and I would charge people 50 cents on the bus to do “Paul Revere.” That was [your] main influence [on me]: You made me $3.75.

MAX TANNONE: Keeping it moving, let’s talk about the process of making The Champagne Room. The first album, For Real, You Guys, was Champagne Jerry, myself, Adam, and Carmine [Covelli] figuring out the process and what Champagne Jerry was. This time, I think things are more defined and the styles are a little more varied. There’s more singing and R&B. The writing process was somewhat similar, although I feel like there was more back and forth. The songs morphed more before they were done.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Yeah, I had various hooks and every few weeks I was changing what song they were in. For me, I had never made a second one of anything—I’ve never made a second album or a second project with the same name. It freaked me out for a while. I was like, “I don’t know how you do that. How do you not think too much about the first one?” But you want to think some about the first one, you don’t want to be like, “Oh, whatever.”

AD-ROCK: That’s interesting to have not done a second or a linear project or something like that. Hit Parade was definitely different because every week was a new idea. Have you ever taken Hit Parade stuff and used it in another project, or vice versa?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Yeah, a little. When I was making that Miley Cyrus show, I was like, “I’m going to work some Miley Cyrus songs into Hit Parade.” We also did it because we needed to do something every month for five years. After a while you’re kind of like, “I can try anything out.” I tried out some Miley Cyrus stuff, and then Michael Jackson.

AD-ROCK: Wait, someone’s at my door. Hold on. It’s the Fresh Direct guy.

MAX TANNONE: He’s going to want the other food back…

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: We just ate it. Guys, we’ve been eating Danimals, drinkable yogurt. It was delivered by accident to Adam’s house. Rockin’ Raspberry Danimals, delivered here by accident.

AD-ROCK: I wish I had something so we could do shots out of them or something.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I tried to find a liquor store.

MAX TANNONE: So… What do you have planned for the transformation of the New York Live Arts space into the Champagne Room?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: We’re going to do some witchcraft, call down various spirits, and transform the room using dark magic. But Larry Krone is changing the whole room. We’re going to build a little stage and some tables with bottle service, so you can get champagne at your table. We’ve got a 20-foot rain curtain, a semi-required step and repeat for the audience to go through, a series of invented opening bands—a band called Cocaine Dumbledore, a band called Childless, a band called Catch Club to the Music, a band called…[laughs] Bridget and Neal Are Fucking, Adam and Carmine Are Watching. Then Neal Medlyn performs and then Champagne Jerry performs, and then everybody’s lives change. That’s all you need to know.

MAX TANNONE: Is there a specific moment you will forever associate with the creation of The Champagne Room? Or any struggles you faced while making it?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: The struggle was the whole second album thing, and also that I wanted to make more of a stage show that we could do in bars and clubs, but also in galleries. I wanted to figure out a way to make the album match the live show, and make the live show match the album. I think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to be really good in bars and clubs when we go on tour, and I think it’s going to be great at New York Live Arts.

MAX TANNONE: How would you differentiate the first album from this album, stylistically or thematically?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: The big thing was the R&B and singing, that was something I really wanted to do. It also seems more spacy. In general, with this whole thing, I just keep making stuff. I made a tour film this time, we keep making videos, and we keep doing tours and going on the road. It’s fun to make things with your friends.

MAX TANNONE: I think making things with your friends is really what it’s all about. Of course you want other people to like it and to be interested in it, but ultimately it fun to make and we like it.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: …Whoa, what’d you get, a pie?

MAX TANNONE: Adam just walked in with some sort of pie…

AD-ROCK: The guy was like, “Yo, anyone ever tell you that you look like the guy from the Beastie Boys?” I was like “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I had to sign for the box and he’s like, “Yo, let me get your autograph.” I was like, “I just gave it to you!” He’s like, “Nah, you’re not the guy… Are you the guy?” But, it’s called a cowboy pie. It’s got coconut, chocolate chips. I got it from the fried chicken place. I’m not sharing. Sorry guys. I’m an awful host. This is mean.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: And they call it cowboy pie?

AD-ROCK: I think that’s what it was called. It’s very sweet. I don’t use coconut enough—in food, on my body… Coconut oils.

MAX TANNONE: I drank a whole thing of coconut water last night.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I’ve been getting into moisturizers.

MAX TANNONE: I just started moisturizing my face for the first time ever. I don’t know what that means in terms of me, like, as a man.

AD-ROCK: It means you’re gonna have soft skin.

MAX TANNONE: I’m into it. I think it’s a big step in my personal development.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I don’t see how I lived without it before. Moisture.

AD-ROCK: Like head to toe?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: No, mostly I moisturize my face and neck area.

AD-ROCK: You’re preserving your sexy.

MAX TANNONE: I dropped $42 at Keihls. It was a moment for me, but I did it.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I’m definitely at the age where they know the words to use, too. They’re like, “This has a wrinkle reducing thing in it.” Everything I got is age defying.

MAX TANNONE: That’s a good segue into this next question: Neal, in 2013, during your last interview for Interview you said, “I’m sort of obsessed with this concept I call Tampa realness. Tampa realness is just America: sinkholes, murders, neon underpants, Four Loko, 808 bass, and dreams. Champagne Jerry is all of those same things, plus champagne.” How has your obsession with this concept changed or developed?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Just hearing that quote makes me realize the difference between interviews I do when I’m drinking during the interview and other ones. I’m like, “Wow, murders and sinkholes? That’s a pretty good list.” I’m still very obsessed with all the Tampa stuff, for sure. We did a show in Tampa and there were vampires in the hot tub. The Ghost of Champagne Past went to get in the hot tub, it started to rain, and she was like, “I’ll just stay in here,” and then this guy was like, “I’m a professional vampire. I get hired and they fly me around Florida in a helicopter. I show up at these goth clubs.” I was like, “Wow this city is amazing”—we had been there for three hours and met a vampire in the hot tub.

MAX TANNONE: There was a vampire convention happening. We’re not joking, there was an actual vampire convention.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: None of this is hyperbole. It’s all totally true.

AD-ROCK: So a vampire and a ghost are in a hot tub in the rain…

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I hate that no one filmed it. There were no photographs taken. In general, I’m obsessed with America. All this stuff I’ve made, even my performance pieces, were all about America, popular music, and all the wackiness that entails. Then Florida, and Tampa specifically, are evocative of the whole “Spirit Airlines and drinking alcohol out of a Capri Sun bag.”

AD-ROCK: You would go to Florida every year.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: Definitely. We’d go to Florida all the time. Ninety percent of my costumes come from there. I find it very relaxing. You eat a full dinner at 5:00 PM—get appetizers and alcohol and dessert and everything—all for $75. And you feel really young because everyone’s much older. I love it. I can go and enjoy the full-blown craziness.

AD-ROCK: Never Miami, though.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I did go to Miami once. I had this crappy day job and my boss was like, “Will you perform at the Christmas party?” I’d just moved to New York, was performing in tiny little places and nobody was there, didn’t know anybody, and was like, “Whoa, yeah, this will be awesome, a paying gig.” I showed up at his house in Miami and everybody who works for the company was there around his pool. I was waiting in line for the bathroom and he was like, “It’s time, let’s go.” I went out but nobody introduced me, so I just started my thing, this dance to “Hey Ya” by Outkast. Everybody backed up because they thought I had just gotten super drunk super fast. The DJ played the song for me and I was running around with a salmon hat on acting crazy and dancing. I think everybody was super embarrassed for me, because nobody said anything the rest of the night. I went to the after-party in South Beach and no one ever said a word. I’d like to go back to Miami and perform, but not by a pool.

MAX TANNONE: The series of performances in March will feature performances by Neal and Champagne Jerry. What does the separation between each act feel like to you? How does your mindset change?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: On a super basic level, they’re both me. Only recently did I try to get into the idea of them being two separate characters. I’ve never really understood characters, but lately, I found it useful when I’m Champagne Jerry. I get to really be on the line between the stuff considered performance art and the stuff that’s more like a music show. It’s set up like a live show, except I’m opening for myself. In the show, Neal Medlyn is a semi-retired performance artist. The Neal Medlyn character is a little more pathetic, and the Champagne Jerry character is a little more triumphal.

Kathleen Hanna had this idea of Neal and Champagne Jerry [being] twins. They hate each other and Jerry’s always fucking up Neal’s life. It reminded me of when I was a little kid. I used to pretend I had an evil twin named Jerry. When I was doing the Prince show, I learned that he used to pretend he had a bad side of himself called Camille. When he got religious, he was like, “All those bad songs, those sex songs were written by Camille, I didn’t do that.” Then, of course, Miley Cyrus used to be Hannah Montana, and Michael Jackson was clearly, like, five different things. Beyoncé, what’s her alter ego? Sasha Fierce. [laughs] I like those stories and this is another version of that story.

AD-ROCK: If you’re separating Neal and Champagne Jerry, walk me through a usual Champagne Jerry day.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I think it’s a 10:30, 11:00 wake up time, and Champagne Jerry doesn’t live in an apartment. He lives in hotels, but not the Plaza—more like the Town Place Suites or the Marriott with the kitchen in it for extended stays. But one that also has a bar in the lobby.

AD-ROCK: The more you stay, the more you acquire those rewards.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: That’s how I justify it to myself: “I’m paying an exorbitant amount of rent, but two weeks out of the year are free, so it’s less than what it seems.”

AD-ROCK: And you get coffee, mini muffins, ice…

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: And they have activities, like Friday night get togethers. Then, I think hang out in the hotel room, watch New York 1 for several hours, or read emails but don’t answer any of them. [laughs] Then go get a lot of tacos and hot sauce. Then start furiously texting everyone else in the Champagne Club to see who wants to go to happy hour.

AD-ROCK: What kind of car? Just cabs?

MAX TANNONE: Does Champagne Jerry ride a hoverboard? Those are all the rage right now.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: No, I think he would hurt himself. I think it’s the same Chevette that I’ve had since I was 16. It’s all nice—it’s got a nice stereo in the back, it’s been repainted, has candy paint—but you can’t go in reverse because of this pipe hanging down from the bottom. You have to park in a parking lot like you’re a semi.

MAX TANNONE: How do you think a listener who isn’t familiar with your whole story will react to the songs? Or what kind of audience do you hope to reach? If I may, I hope it’s a big hit with Uber drivers because that’s a good way to spread the music virally. I think we’re really targeting the chauffeur market. And Lyft, the pink mustache one—not just Uber.

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: In passing, I don’t feel like anybody needs to know about performance art or stuff I’ve made before to watch my shows or hear the album. You don’t need the backstory, necessarily. You can just wander in, and you would maybe be kind of confused or upset or freaked out at various points, but the confusion is part of it; I’m down with that part.

AD-ROCK: Champagne Jerry records are definitely, in one way, on the very far end of the weird spectrum of rap music, then, in another way, very far on the weird punk spectrum. They meet at these two ends in this bizarre way. People don’t usually meet at the place where Champagne Jerry meets.

MAX TANNONE: I feel like people see Champagne Jerry and the music as comedic, but when I’m mixing the songs, I’m not thinking, “Let’s make this funny.” I’m just thinking, “Let’s make a song.” Yes, there are humor elements, but I think there are equally as serious songs. How do you feel about people thinking it’s a funny thing?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I don’t mind. I like I like to be funny and I think the songs are funny. I’m definitely not trying to hold back any jokes. I just like writing things I get really excited about, so if I get excited about it because it’s really crazy or weird or dirty or funny, then that’s the thing. Whereas I think if you’re a comedian-comedian, at the end of the day you want to have punchlines. My intention is slightly different. When I first started out, I was like, “Should I call myself a comedian?” but I wasn’t trying to specifically make a joke every time.

MAX TANNONE: This is a question I want to know personally: If you were not an artist and a performer what do you think you would’ve ended up doing? Do you think you would’ve even found yourself in New York?

CHAMPAGNE JERRY: I always wanted to live here. Whenever I would sit with my dad and watch reruns of Taxi, I was like, “I’ve got to live that life.” But also when I lived in Nacodoches, in Northeast Texas near the Louisiana boarder, in this little efficiency apartment, I just had a Jambox with cassettes and a bunch of keyboards and other weird instruments because I was really into experimental noise music. I sat in my apartment and made eight albums. I recorded them onto a cassette, gave it a number on the back, named all the tracks, and force Farris on the weekend to come sit in my apartment and listen to them. I would’ve definitely done this even if nobody cared because I did. I made all these concept albums. There was an album called All Fours, where everything had to be in multiples of four. I could use only four instruments in the song.

MAX TANNONE: Adam, if you were not a musician what would you end up doing?

AD-ROCK: No idea. I can’t do anything. I’d be in a different apartment, let’s just say that.

 CHAMPAGNE JERRY’S THE CHAMPAGNE ROOM WILL BE RELEASED MARCH 5. TO PURCHASE TICKETS TO HIS PERFORMANCES AT NEW YORK LIVE ARTS, CLICK HERE.