John Corbett plugs in for new Denis Leary FX series
Credibility is one of those crucial elements viewers look for, particularly when it comes to television shows about the music industry. It’s something FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll has in spades. The half hour comedy series created by and starring Denis Leary is built around a fictional New York City-based band called the Heathens that was set to blow up in the early 1990s before breaking up on the night of their debut album’s release.
The show fast-forwards to the present-day, where Leary’s lead singer Johnny Rock has a last shot at reuniting the band and grabbing the brass ring—albeit, after his estranged daughter Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) shows up with $200,000 and a yearning for fame contingent on moving her father to the background while bankrolling and fronting her pop’s old band. John Corbett (Sex and the City; Northern Exposure) plays guitarist Flash, the Richards to Leary’s Jagger, who has to be lured back into the fray despite still being resentful that his former lead singer committed adultery with his wife.
As a musician who got his first guitar when he was seven and has recorded a pair of country-rock albums, Corbett welcomed the chance to be part of this project—particularly after seeing a proposed NCIS spinoff he was set to star in go south after CBS execs pulled the plug on it.
“This spinoff I’d done for NCIS was called Red, and [CBS] spent a ton of money on these two embedded episodes in NCIS: Los Angeles where they introduced our two characters. For one reason or another, it didn’t get picked up at the CBS upfronts,” he recalled. “I was kind of devastated, but literally three weeks later the call came that Leary had met me a couple of times and knew I was a musician and thought I’d be great as this character Flash. I asked what the title was and they said Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, and I liked the title right off the bat. I couldn’t wait to get it, and by the time I read the first two pages of this 35-page script, I knew I was in.”
While Corbett’s current musical project is in the country-rock vein, his musical roots went from being a huge fan of the likes of Wings, Cat Stevens, Styx, Kiss and Aerosmith while growing up in Wheeling, WV to making his way out to southern California right when the Sunset Strip hard rock scene was heating up. Add to that another move to Seattle for Northern Exposure in the early 1990s when grunge started blowing up and the pre-gaming for Corbett’s current role was nil.
“I didn’t do any preparation. Not a thing. I knew it, lived it and was on tour when I got the offer,” he said. “Even playing lead going back to the days when George Lynch was my neighbor and I was a roadie for Dokken. I used to be hanging with George when Warren DeMartini from Ratt would come over to get lessons. I can play air guitar with the best of them.”
Corbett is quick to credit Leary’s deep musical knowledge as being a key to the authenticity that resonates in a show that has a remarkably solid slate of original songs, many of which were co-written by the show’s lead star and creator. While Afghan Whigs founding member Greg Dulli has helped out behind the scenes, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll was dealt a major blow with the passing of ex-Del Fuegos guitarist Adam Roth after a nine-week bout with cancer. The longtime Leary friend was instrumental in helping out with the Heathens overall sound and serving as guitar guru for Corbett.
“[Adam] was Denis’ go-to guy/touchstone for creating all the music. He was a hell of a guitar player and was also on the set with us every day,” Corbett explained. “He was my guitar guy, and since I’m not really a lead guitar player, he was there every day. I spent so much time with Adam because in the first season, I had to learn three songs a day so we could shoot it in two days so I could look like I knew what I was doing.”
A lifelong rock and roll fan, Corbett admits that he watched every episode of Vinyl and is very much looking forward to checking out Roadies. But he also is frustrated by how much Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is flying under the radar compared to the recently canceled HBO series. He’s quick to acknowledge that this season is make-or-break for his show and that anemic ratings could sink it the way it did to The United States of Tara, another solid series he starred in for Showtime that was axed after three seasons of trying to find an audience.
“Every person who asks me what I’ve been doing, I’ve been saying Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll and they say they never heard of it and want to know what channel it’s on,” he said. “And then they ask me if I’ve seen Vinyl. Yet so many more people have FX than have a subscription to HBO, and every person I know seems to have seen Vinyl. We’ve got this great show, and now we’ve got a second shot. It’s a big year for us and it’s frustrating, trying to get people to watch when they say there’s nothing good on.”