Sail Away: The Oral History of 'Yacht Rock'

Complete behind-the-scenes story of the most popular history-of-smooth-music series ever made

Dave "Koko" Lyons, center, and Hunter "Messina" Stair regale some young women with tales of smooth-music adventures in 'Yacht Rock.' The viral Internet series celebrates its 10th anniversary.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, musical artists like Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Toto, Hall and Oates, and dozens of others regularly popped up on each other's records, creating a golden era of smooth-music collaboration.

And 10 years ago (June 26th, 2005), an internet phenomenon was born. In 12 short but memorable episodes — first via the the short-film series Channel 101 and then online — JD Ryznar, Hunter Stair, Dave Lyons, Lane Farnham and their friends redefined an era and coined a term for the sultry croonings of McDonald, Fagen, et al.: "yacht rock."

As "Hollywood" Steve might say, these guys docked a fleet of remarkable hits. This is the story of Yacht Rock, told from stem to stern — a reimagining of a bygone soft-rock renaissance, courtesy of hipsters with fake mustaches, impeccable record collections and a love of smoothness. Long may it sail.

The Michigan Connection
JD Ryznar (Director, "Michael McDonald"): I moved from Ann Arbor to L.A., and ended up making friends with all these other guys from Michigan, like "Hollywood" Steve Huey, Hunter Stair, and David Lyons. Pretty much every weekend I'd have "Chinese Thanksgiving" at my apartment — we'd eat BBQ chicken and burgers, drink beer and listen to records of what I called "yacht rock." You know, like Michael McDonald is singing background vocals and like there's guys on boats on the covers; it feels like you're on a yacht listening to it. And the guys were like, oh, we know this music.

Dave Lyons ("Koko"): You know how, in the Seventies, these big bands started playing arena rock? We liked the idea of these smooth bands playing "Marina Rock." I thought it was a better name.

"Hollywood" Steve Huey ("Hollywood Steve"): What I mostly remember is JD playing Journey records all the time. He was so into Journey that he had photocopied a photo of Steve Perry and pasted it onto his liquid soap dispenser. He wrote "Steve Perry Soap: Clean as all fuck" on it.

Lane Farnham (editor, "Jimmy Messina"): JD and I had talked about Journey for a year before we did Yacht Rock. In the third episode, that whole "you need to fly like a pilot" bit? Those are direct lines from Steve Perry in this crazy documentary we found. He's coked to the gills, in the Eighties, just blabbering about who knows what. We got a kick out of that stuff. 

Ryznar: My musical tastes are not that interesting, and they never were.

Huey: I turned 30 right before we started doing the series, and I thought, well, this is a nice round number. What do 30-year-olds do? I feel like it's time I get into Steely Dan. I bought most of the catalogue and was like, This is my new identity. I'm gonna unwind, start listening to Steely Dan, and leave parties early.

Channel 101
Hunter Stair ("Kenny Loggins"):
 At the time, JD had helped me get a job at a production company, and he asked if I wanted to shoot this thing they were doing for something called Channel 101. I didn't know anything about it, but I saw that it was started by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab — who I knew because I had a copy of Heat Vision and Jack [the failed 1999 pilot they wrote that became a huge underground hit, directed by Ben Stiller and starring Jack Black]. So I was super pumped.

Ryznar: It was a cool scene at the time: Justin Roiland had [Channel 101 series] House of Cosbys, Dan Harmon had Laser Fart. Our friends Drew Hancock and Wade Randolph, who would go on to play Hall and Oates, they had a show about a regular guy who got angry, and turned into a smaller, shirtless weaker guy who didn't turn green or anything.

Drew Hancock ("Oates"): That was called "Man to Man: Metamorphosis Ultra." It was the lowest stakes Incredible Hulk show you could possibly have.

Justin Roiland (co-creator of Rick & Morty and House of Cosbys, "Christopher Cross"): Every single month you're making something, and then you're testing it in front of a live audience. You see what works, what doesn't work.

Ryznar: It was a January 2005 screening where we started the school of Channel 101, where you're showing the stuff you made in front of 200, maybe 300 people. And then they put it on the "internet," which was very hard to do back then. There was no "YouTube." Listen to Old Man Ryznar here.

Farnham: JD and I would go down to the beach and play something called "smash ball" — there's no rules to the game, so we'd just make them up. And he said, this is fucking hilarious, we should make a short film about this. So we got Hunter to direct SmashBoys — and it was funny.

Lyons: Two paddles and a ball that you hit back and forth on the beach. We turned it into a soap opera.

Stair: We started playing Kenny Loggins' "Playing With the Boys" [from Top Gun] on repeat as we drove a convertible around Playa del Rey. Just to get in the mood.

Ryznar: There were some Phil Collins music cues, I think. A lot of sports music from Eighties movies — "You're the Best Around" and whatnot. We used a great Kenny Loggins song for the climax. It's from Caddyshack II. . .

Stair: "Nobody's Fool"! It ended up winning the Best Failed Pilot of that year; we lost by eight votes to the Lonely Island guys, who did "The 'Bu." They just stuck their middle fingers up at everybody and said, we didn't make a show but we made a hilarious music video. That was the night I had the idea for Yacht Rock.

Christening the Ship
Ryznar: Hunter and Dave Lyons came up with an idea for a show about a couple of jewel thieves who lived on a yacht and listened to that music.

Stair: That was actually called Steal Away.

Lyons: I believe Hunter and I were talking about a private eye detective team called Loggins & Loggins that lived on a houseboat and solved mysteries — like Simon & Simon.

Ryznar: I said: How about we play Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald as they co-write "What a Fool Believes" together? We had Stevie Nicks in there originally, for some reason. And then Drew Hancock and Wade Randolph said, we want to be Hall and Oates. I had gotten into the H&O song "Portable Radio" pretty hard. I needed to introduce it to the world. That was very important to me.

Stair: The seed of Koko the manager is . . . there's a Doobie Brothers album that has a sweet looking manager dude on it. I remember sitting there with JD and being like, look how awesome this guy is.

Ryznar: Dave Lyons invented the Koko character while out drinking with Hunter one night. He just put on a bunch of garbage Seventies clothes he had around the house, and had a little stupid whistle around his neck. All these little touches — that's what Dave is so great at. 

Lyons: No, [Dan Harmon] wasn't an immediate fan. That's because he doesn't get music. Just listen to the theme song for Community — it's terrible. Dan looks at things differently than most people, and I don't think he loves music the way we do. But he came around. He came to really enjoy it. [Harmon would eventually play record producer Ted Templeman in two episodes.]

Ryznar: We thought maybe people would get it, maybe they won't. But we submitted it. At the prime time panel, everybody but Dan Harmon like it. I think that because he'd never heard of the guys, he didn't realize how much that music had meant to other people. People knew who everybody was. That's why we put Hollywood Steve in there to say, hey, this is the deal. Hollywood Steve was a friend and an actual music critic. If you look up a lot of Nineties rap albums on All Music Guide, chances are Hollywood Steve wrote the review.

Huey: I was a published music writer, and that lent me a voice of authority that I might not have otherwise had amongst a hardcore group of music nerds. "Oh this guy's viewpoint has to be legitimate! He's published."

Steve Agee ("Steve Porcaro"): Channel 101 at that point in time was really known for people making videos kind of purposely shitty. So we couldn’t tell if it was made to look bad on purpose.

Hancock: When Wade and I saw the first episode, we were like, eh, this isn't very good. We didn't like it. I didn't understand it. So when it had this meteoric response, I was very surprised. 

Ryznar: So Yacht Rock got screened, we were very nervous, and it went over like gangbusters. Just bona fide love from beginning to end from the audience. And we got voted number one on our first try, which hadn't been done too often on Channel 101.

Stair: It got the biggest laugh of the night. As soon as it was over, we knew we were in. We weren't totally sure it was going to be number one, but we knew we'd be up there.

Ryznar: A lot of people wanted parts. People had ideas. So we got to work with people we wanted to work with. Before we even knew we were picked up for a second episode, Hunter came up to me and said, "Uh, just talking to Doug Benson. I told him he could play Peter Cetera in the next episode."

Lyons: The thing about the Channel 101 screenings, they're always at a place that serves lots of alcohol. And after we saw how well it went over, we're all drinking at the bar; Dan Harmon is doing a show with Sarah Silverman [The Sarah Silverman Program] at the time, and Doug was there with her. Yes, Hunter promised him the role of Peter Cetera. Which is great casting. 

Episode Two: The Songwriting Contest
In the second episode, Hall and Oates challenge Loggins and Messina to songwriting contest. It ends with the creation of some of the greatest smooth music ever.

Ryznar: I mean, imagine if you saw Hall and Oates where Oates, with all that hair and the mustache, was the top, and Hall was the bottom? They were sort of the opposite of the smooth California scene. So they sort of made the perfect antagonists.

Huey: The only reason they were picked as antagonists is because they're from Philadelphia, which is a mean place.

Hancock: The wigs we got from our friend Willy, who just happened to have two of the most perfect wigs ever.

Wade Randolph ("Daryl Hall"): The Hall wig is named the De Carlo. I don't know why.

Hancock: I remember for the mustache, I think I tried a regular handlebar mustache but it just wasn't thick enough. So I just ended up taking a lock of the wig and fashioning a mustache out of that.

Stair: And Justin Roiland coming in, doing "Sailing." The way the whole thing flowed, it's so fast and perfect. I think that was Yacht Rock's the finest hour.

Roiland: JD asked me, would you play Christopher Cross? I'd never heard "Sailing" before, believe it or not. I remember the first few listens going I don't get the appeal of this fucking song. It's an acquired taste.

Huey: We didn't quite know what we had at that point, and so you kind of had to establish the value system. Smoothness is the main value in this world. The second episode, when that screened for the live audience, I've never seen a Channel 101 audience go that apeshit for anything. I remember walking out of the screening going, we're rock stars! Granted, it's only this one room, with like 300 people in it, but in that one room of 300 people, I think we might be rock stars.

Koko Makes His Final Voyage
Lyons: As soon as we got in for the first one, JD called me and said here's the idea for the second one: I'm gonna kill off Koko. Well, thanks a pantload, JD. He's like, no it'll be great. You'll come back later as a ghost or something.

Stair: So JD wanted this guy Koko to have this totem at this fight; I suggested a trident, since it's more nautical. But Anchorman had come out, and they had the fight scene with the trident. We still needed something, so we settled on a harpoon.

Lyons: In the second one, I'm supposed to get run through with my own harpoon. And Hunter showed up with a child's little trident, taped to the handle of a barbecue fork. I was like Hunter, we can do better than this. So my roommates had a woodshop in the backyard; I went out there and drilled some holes, made some dowel rods, and wrapped the handle in rope. When I showed up with it, everyone said holy shit — you made a fucking harpoon, dude! It also split in the middle, so you could run it through someone. And that episode elevated Koko to this mythic level that nobody expected, least of all me.

Stair: You can't kill Loggins. You can't kill McDonald. These are real people. Koko had to die.

Lyons: My thought is that Koko fell on his own harpoon and martyred himself. I like to think that Koko was the Jesus Christ of Yacht Rock. [Pause] That's going to sound arrogant. How about: Koko died to deliver smooth music to the rest of the musicians.

Huey: I don't think it was ever decided who killed Koko until the very end. The important thing is, like Jesus, he died for a cause. Which, in this case, was smooth music. But you know what's gonna happen if you're in the middle of a melée with a bunch of guys from the mean streets of Philadelphia. You're going to die of a harpoon injury. That's why they call it the city of harpoon murders.

Randolph: I always assumed it was Oates.

Wyatt Cenac ("James Ingram"): Who killed Koko? You know, very good question. If I had to go with anybody... I'd say maybe Loggins and McDonald together. That's the secret twist. I think they'd been slowly poisoning him for years, and the harpoon was just to throw people of their scent. 

Ryznar: I don't know. Is Tony Soprano dead? Hollywood Steve took the "Koko" answer to his grave.

Stair: I would never name names. Only Hollywood Steve knows for sure, and someone would have to give him big Hollywood dollars to spill.

Any Port in a Storm
After 10 stellar installments, including a guest appearance by "Cleveland" Drew Careya case for Jethro Tull (the 18th century farmer, not the band) to be considered smooth and a primer on how Michael McDonald influenced Nineties G-Funk, Yacht Rock was canceled by Channel 101 after "FM" — about a gang war between the Eagles and Steely Dan. But help was on the horizon.

Ryznar: The record at the time was 12. We really wanted to beat it — but we didn't. There might have been Yacht Rock fatigue in the audience.

Lyons: It's not one of my favorites. I'm not a fan of the Eagles, and not a lot of people get Steely Dan.

Huey: Some people come back to Channel 101 month after month after month. But you always get some new people in there who don't know what's going on. You cross your fingers that general audience goodwill is enough to get you by this month. Unfortunately, in this case, it wasn't.

Ryznar: It was heartbreaking, man. Because the great thing about Channel 101 is, you can feel when the audience isn't into it. And the audience was not into this. I knew the 101 days were over as soon as the screening was done.

Stair: Nowadays, things have two- or three-year runs at Channel 101. Back then, 10 episodes was a lot.

Ryznar: Not even two weeks after we were canceled, I got an email from someone who booked a bar in Chicago — The Empty Bottle — and wanted to screen all the Yacht Rocks. I forget if they flew us out or if we just happened to be there, but we screened all the episodes back to back. There was a line down the block; the place was filled to capacity. People were quoting lines.

Huey: The show had started to go viral. Working lower level jobs in reality television, and then walking into a bar and being the most famous person in that room didn't match up with my everyday experience at all.

Cast Off . . . Again
After successfully touring the country, JD & co. starting making new episodes, beginning with Footloose. Featuring the likes of Jason Lee and Wyatt Cenac, it tells the story of how Loggins being kidnapped by Jimmy Buffett led to one of the Eighties' most rockin' soundtracks.

Huey: Yeah I was really excited to get back into it, because I didn't really have too much else going on at that point. Let's do that thing that made me semi-famous again!

Ryznar: We did the Footloose episode. And it turned out even better than I could have imagined. It was nice, since we weren't limited to five minutes, even though we tried to keep it close: one of the keys to Yacht Rock is jamming everything into five minutes. I had done some work with Jason Lee, who would quote lines every time I saw him. So I asked if he'd play Kevin Bacon, and he was throwing chairs around.

Lyons: We kept talking about the stories that we never got to tell, one of them being Footloose. And I hate Jimmy Buffett's music; I think it's a soundtrack to date rape. I think it's garbage music for people who have no interest in listening to anything good.

Ryznar: We portrayed parrotheads being brainwashed idiots. You kind of have to be if you're into Jimmy Buffett. Or just want to be so tuned out of life, that like hey, whatever — kick back with flip flops, drink some margs, listen to some sweet Jimmy Buffett music and let him paint a rosy picture of a reality that does not exist.

Lyons: I always like that artists like Bertie Higgins, Rupert Holmes and Andy Kim have an authentic longing in their music. Buffett is a rich dude getting richer off of the lack of taste of the poor and stupid. He represents the lowest common denominator in music, even worse than country singers profiting off of 9/11. To summarize: I'm not really a fan.

Ryznar: You might be able to argue that Jimmy Buffett music is about escaping from a dark place, but there's no soul in there. So we just wanted to make him an absolute idiot. Our good friend Vatche Panos, who is super funny, really hit a home run with that one.

Cenac: I remember when we were shooting that, I had no idea there was a song called "Cheeseburgers in Paradise." Much less that people actually listened to it and liked it.

Ryznar: I hope he doesn't mind me telling this story, but Wyatt Cenac had just auditioned for The Daily Show, and he was flat broke.

Cenac: Yeah, I was definitely very broke. That isn't why I did it. I did enjoy it. But there was also a part of being broke where you'll do anything.

Ryznar: And then a month later, he becomes Wyatt Cenac, the international sensation.

Cenac: Do I want to say that Yacht Rock was the thing that changed my life? Someone can say it. You can find someone to connect the dots and make that leap on the Internet. 

Huey: We did one more, and I didn't feel like the last episode came together as well as it could have for whatever reason. I think Footloose was a more cohesive episode. Also the original idea for the finale was Gene Balboa was going to kidnap all these people from the "We Are the World" session, take them to an island, and force them to write soundtrack hits for him. Anyone who tried to escape would get hunted down like in The Most Dangerous Game.

Ryznar: That was a hard one to write — the space battle, Hall and Oates shooting lasers, Loggins starting his soundtrack phase. I'm proud of killing off Hollywood Steve and making it a pain drug-induced hallucination. I think that let us go nuts with it. The "We Are the World" part was a fun shoot. You just look around and go, wow, I know so many talented people that are bringing so much to this thing.

Stair: The Hollywood Steve "character" was on morphine, not Huey. Well, he might have been on morphine, I don't know. That'd be an awesome salacious story about Yacht Rock. Just write that, it's even better.

Huey: When I was using, it did get increasingly harder to tell where the character stopped and I began. Once you've been on VH1's "100 Greatest Songs of the Nineties," the public expects you to maintain a certain image, and I guess I got caught up in a myth. [Pause] I'm kidding. But I did murder a homeless woman. Just to see what it felt like.

Farnham: One of my favorite moments of all of Yacht Rock is when Giorgio Moroder is whispering into Kenny Loggins' ear about "the Danger Zone." I love that. It's such a good moment.

Ryznar: Loggins going soundtrack is kind of like the end of Yacht Rock. If "Sailing" is one of the greatest yacht-rock songs ever, and that's in Episode Two, it's all death from then on. "Danger Zone" — there's just nothing smooth about that song at all. By 1985, Michael McDonald had released his last great album. The Doobie Brothers were done. Toto didn't have any more good songs in them. Steely Dan was broken up. It was over.

How did the actual musical artists react to their portrayal in the show?
John Oates (speaking to the Seattle Weekly in 2007): "I think Yacht Rock was the beginning of this whole Hall & Oates resurrection. They were the first ones to start to parody us and put us out there again, and a lot of things have happened because of Yacht Rock."

Ryznar: People actually contacted me and wanted to see if I wanted tickets to [their] shows at the Hollywood Bowl. We went backstage and met Hall and Oates. There's a picture out there somewhere of Drew Hancock and Wade Randolph with Hall and Oates — and it's awesome.

Randolph: I don't know who contacted who, but Oates had seen the show and was apparently a fan of it. Hall didn't give a fuck about us at all. He was just like whatever. 

Hancock: Oates actually understood what we were doing. First of all, he's the shortest dude on the planet. I'm 5'8, and he looked at me and said, man you're way too tall to play me. I think he's 5'4 and had thick heels on too.

Cenac: Oates is the unsung hero in that group. The moment he decides to turn the jets on, watch out.

Lyons: The only negative thing I've ever heard from any of the actual people we've portrayed was that Kenny Loggins wasn't a huge fan. My wife met him once, and said my husband played Koko in Yacht Rock. He just got all, huh. Not mean, not nasty. Just: Huh.

Stair: I'm not sure Loggins liked it, [but] I know his son did. A lot of the kids of the guys in the show like. You know, some serious artists. Michael McDonald, I'm pretty sure he liked it.

"I met Steve Porcaro at a book-release party, and he asked, 'Do you guys hate us?' We're writing a love letter to this music and we meant no ill will toward anybody. Except for Jimmy Buffett."

Michael McDonald (speaking to Time Out New York in 2008): "I thought Yacht Rock was hilarious. And uncannily, you know, those things always have a little bit of truth to them. It's kind of like when you get a letter from a stalker who's never met you. They somehow hit on something, and you have to admit they're pretty intuitive."

Lyons: Did JD tell you the story of when we went to see Steely Dan? We got contacted by somebody in their camp, I don't remember who, but they gave us four or five tickets to see them in Irvine. We were in the third or fourth row, and Michael McDonald was the opening act. Those guys got recognized at the concert. Later, when Michael McDonald came out to perform with Steely Dan, they were all wearing captain's hats. They were singing the song "Showbiz Kids": "Showbiz kids, showbiz kids making movies themselves/Showbiz kids, don't give a fuck about anybody else." And during that line they threw their hats on the ground and stomped on them. We just looked at each other and went, oh my god, they know who we are.

Agee: About a year ago, I was at Largo, and one of the guys that works there is married to Steve Porcaro's daughter. He was like, yeah, Steve is actually here tonight; he loves Yacht Rock, and said he wanted to meet me. I cut out early because I was honestly too nervous.

Stair: I met Steve Porcaro at a book-release party, and he kind of pulled me aside and asked, "Do you guys hate us?" And I was like, oh no, I hope that's not the impression we gave anybody. We're writing a love letter to this music and we meant no ill will toward anybody. Except for Jimmy Buffett.

Farnham: I actually worked with an editor who was good friends with the Toto folks, and they said it's uncanny how close some of these stories are. Apparently there's a lot more truth than we know.

Agee: So I can see how bands would be like, oh, they’re making fun of us. But I’ve known JD for awhile now, and I know for a fact that he loves that music. I don't think someone who hated what's now called yacht rock . . they wouldn't spend so much time making videos about it.

Stair: The way I always looked at Yacht Rock was that we kind of did what the Blues Brothers did. We took the music that we really loved that we weren't really part of, and reintroduced it to our own generation a little bit. The one thing that I hope we got across is that the music is really good, and that we were huge fans of it. The whole reason we did the show is because we loved it.

Lyons: I felt we always treated the music lovingly. It was always treated with respect; what we were trying to make fun of was all these guys hanging out and the ridiculous things they were into. I heard a story that Kenny Loggins got married in the nude. I don't know if it's true or not. But that's the kind of late Seventies/early Eighties Southern California horse shit that is so delightful about Yacht Rock. Like wanting to find out what your root chakra is. That's what's funny about it. [Pause] I mean of course Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry are going to be into karate!