“If you asked me five years ago to do a full original album with this band, I’d say, ‘Tear my heart out and leave it on the floor,'” Yacht Rock Revue singer Nick Niespodziani says.
It’s hard to tell if he’s being hyperbolic.
The 41-year-old frontman of the Atlanta-based tribute band has always been conflicted about his gum-chewing, polyester-wearing, hair-feathering throwback group. In his eyes, it was a way to make a living, not a serious creative outlet. Besides, he had other projects to flex that muscle, like the psychedelic and experimental rock of Indianapolis Jones. But as he slowly came to accept, nothing had the reach of Yacht Rock Revue.
Since forming in 2008, the seasoned party band has graduated into a national touring act, packing clubs, anchoring corporate events, and setting sail on themed cruises with their note-perfect re-creations of soft-rock’s smoothest jams, from “Brandy” by Looking Glass and “Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs to Ace’s “How Long” and Toto’s irrepressible “Africa.” (Yacht Rock Revue cut it well before Weezer did.) Their crowds are far from passive too, buying tickets in advance and showing up in boat shoes, ascots, and aviators to recite aloud the sacred texts of saints Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, and Robbie Dupree. Captain’s hats are ubiquitous.
It’s not an oldies fan base either. “Kids, young people, are the ones who have adopted this music, and they’re there to have a good time,” says Dupree, who often performs his 1980 hit “Steal Away” with the band at their all-star “Yacht Rock Revival” shows. “The audience looks like they used to [when these records first came out] — only you got older. But it’s more exciting now because these people know every single song in the show.”
Still, Niespodziani could never fully get on board the boat he helped build. When he and the band took a stab at releasing original material in 2012 with the on-the-nose “Can’t Wait for Summer,” they did so sheepishly. “Our hearts weren’t all the way in it,” he says now. “We were kind of apologetic about it.”
As pop music evolved over the past eight years, however, so did Niespodziani’s perception of Yacht Rock Revue. The songs that make up the band’s set lists are now celebrated, “Yacht Rock” has transcended its gag tag to become a legitimate subgenre, and the icons of the scene are getting long-overdue recognition — in May, the Doobie Brothers will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Most important, Niespodziani peered over his onstage shades and recognized the happiness that he and his group were bringing to their crowds.
“When we started out, I wasn’t super proud of being in a cover band,” he says, “but as we’ve done this, I’ve seen that joy in people, which changed my thinking and changed my heart about it, and made me open to the vulnerability of doing an original album.”
In February, the seven-piece band of fortysomething musicians — along with Niespodziani, there’s fellow vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Peter Olson, bassist Greg Lee, sax player Dave Freeman, guitarist Mark Dannells, drummer Mark Cobb, and keys man Mark Bencuya — released its first full-length album of original music, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans. Like their live show, which features a vintage boutique’s worth of loud shirts and the titular constricting denim, there’s an element of humor to the record. But the 10 tracks aren’t parodies or goofs.
Songs like “The Doobie Bounce” and “Step,” with their layered production and Niespodziani’s sky-high falsetto, transform the staid notion of yacht rock — or, more broadly, soft rock — into something immersive and, dare one say, hip and cool. These are tracks that could slide in comfortably next to anything off Tame Impala’s latest, The Slow Rush. The sounds and tones employed by Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker actually served as validation for Niespodziani.
“We finished recording this album and were mixing it in spring and summer, and that’s when Tame Impala started to leak tracks from their new album,” he says. “They were really similar to the sounds we had on our record, and that made me feel really encouraged, that the sound that we had was not going to be throwaway or irrelevant.”
Olson, Niespodziani’s onstage foil in choreography (they’re experts at re-creating Paul Simon and Chevy Chase’s “You Can Call Me Al” routine), says the band aimed to expand the boundaries of what yacht rock is, or could be, while in the studio.
“We felt free to redefine the genre a little bit, as more of an attitude than a sound,” Olson, also 41, says. “We weren’t tied to just having Rhodes pianos and super-lush harmonies and sax solos, but there are elements of that. We weren’t afraid to sing about something meaningful and not just piña coladas. Although there is a song about tequila, so…”
“Bad Tequila,” with its pithy, made-for-merch payoff line — “when life gives you bad tequila/make a good margarita” — is insanely catchy but modern, more in line with something by Portugal. The Man and Daft Punk than Seals and Croft or Loggins and Messina. Yes, it has a yachty sax breakdown, but the woodwind fits in just as naturally as one of Lizzo’s flute solos.
The band credits producer Ben Allen with helping them connect the dots between yesteryear’s soft rock and contemporary flourish. The track “Another Song About California” opens with a synth line that nods to Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone” before spiraling off on its own psych-pop journey.
“Ben has been instrumental in finding the middle ground between staying true to what the band has always done in the yacht-rock vibe, but not being afraid to make a record that could fit in a playlist with Justin Timberlake or Lizzo,” says Niespodziani, who also challenged the way the band approaches its lyrics. He used yacht-rock buzzwords (think “sand,” “ocean,” “sun,” and “girl”) as a gateway to convey deeper thoughts and mindsets.
“I’d take little nuggets of the yacht-rock vibe or culture and look at it through my own lens,” he says, citing “The Doobie Bounce.” “That song sneaks in little nods to nihilism and things that have meaning to me.”
Currently on a U.S. tour with gigs scheduled at the Wiltern in L.A., Webster Hall in New York, and the House of Blues in Boston, Niespodziani, Olson and the band are hopeful that their core fans will embrace the “new” yacht rock. They’ve already been slotting “Step” and “Bad Tequila” alongside perennials like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and “Baker Street.” Who knows — perhaps their own 21st-century yacht jams will one day become a part of the genre’s core canon.
After years spent wondering and worrying when the yacht-rock wave would crash, Niespodziani and Olson have come to just enjoy the ride.
“We always thought the fad would end. But people don’t let go of these songs. It’s evident in the way that doctors’ offices, Home Depots, and Bed Bath & Beyonds haven’t let go of these songs either,” says Olson. “These are the playlists of public areas.”