Interview: Danny Masterson Talks Pearl Jam Fandom, Dead Sara & Playing Lollapalooza

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Danny Masterson has been in show business for over 35 years. Whether its commercials, musicals, plays, TV shows like That 70’s Show and The Ranch, films, writing, directing or any other element he’s touched upon since the ripe age of four, there has been one constant companion throughout – music.

Now working on the third and fourth seasons of his hit Netflix series, The Ranch, Masterson spend part of his summer on the road touring with his band Grandpa vs. Prowler, where he plays guitar. This type of touring was somewhat of new experience for Masterson, though performing music in front of a mass-crowd is not. He’s also been an active DJ since 1999.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Masterson to discuss the power of music in his life, the difference between being on stage vs. being on film and the process for songs getting into The Ranch.

All of this of course, after we spent sufficient time geeking out about our mutual love of Pearl Jam.

How much has music influenced you personally?
It’s almost more than an influence. It’s always just there. I wake up, shower, get in my car and music is playing. Then I get into my dressing room and put on my iTunes. I’ve basically spent my whole life with music always being in the background. That probably comes from my Mom. Since I was born, she was constantly playing records in the house. Even when we were eating dinner, there was a record playing in the living room. If I don’t have music on or playing, I get a little anxiety and nervous. It’s like the silence in a horror movie when you feel something strange because there’s no sound in the background. That’s exactly how I get when there’s not music playing.

I am the same way. I’m distracted if I don’t have music.
It’s exactly that. My wife will say, “How can you go see three of four concerts in a week?” And I’ll say, “How can you not want to go see someone perform live and see something new you’ve never seen before Even if it’s a band you seen 10 times before, you’ve never seen them play that riff that way.” Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know, I think I was just born with that need.

So music being something of true substance and not just background noise at a party dates back to your earliest memories?
Yeah, I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Dan Foggleberg, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and all of the Motown Records. Being born in ’76, I got lucky with having a lot of great music playing at that time. My first concert was Jackson Browne at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen came out and did the encore with him. I very much remember that night.

Growing up in the 80’s I was listening to all that hair metal. Then when hip-hop came around with Run DMC, I started listening to that a lot. When our favorite band, Pearl Jam, came out in ‘91, it was finally a genre of music for me. That Seattle scene just took me for years, really until the indie scene started getting good again with The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. It was away from grunge, but an ode to pioneer rock bands of the 60’s and 70’s. They were telling stories and painting pictures, but doing it with a good hook to keep you interested.

You started your career in musicals right?
I did. Well, I started modelling at four-years-old in New York. I was basically doing jobs every day in the summers when I wasn’t in school. I then did 150 commercials. After that, I did this musical called Dragons where I sang and performed. I sang in a bunch of plays until I hit puberty. Then my vocal chords said, “No, you don’t sound good anymore.” So I stopped.

In any line of your work; whether you are about to shoot a scene, writing or producing, do you have almost an athlete’s mentality of having your headphones on, cranking a specific playlist to get ready?
Because I’ve been DJ’ing for so long, I have 100 different playlists. I even have three different versions of mellow music; one is acoustic, one is more ethereal and one is more down-tempo. It really just depends on what I am doing and what I have to concentrate on. Indie dance rock like Rapture and Bloc Party, that’s the stuff I like working out to. I also have lists for old-school hip-hop. If we’re having a pool party I have an 80’s list with Billy Idol pumping. My music is so eclectic that people seem to like that I will play a million different hits within my DJ sets. I’ll play Chuck Berry or Little Walter into more rhythmic stuff into Run DMC into Jay Z into Bon Jovi. That’s why I am one of the last open-format DJ’s still going. I play stuff that I like to listen to. I always approach my DJ sets like – if this were a New Year’s party, what would be the most fun song to hear next?

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Masterson – DJ Mom Jeans

Within all you have going on in your acting world, it seems as if you always make sure you have your hands in something with music too, whether it’s a DJ gig or playing in your band Grandpa vs. Prowler.
Yeah, definitely. Basically with all TV shows, you work for eight or nine months then you have a couple months off. I’d usually do a movie or two during my hiatus, but this summer we had just worked for three years on The Ranch and finally just shot the full season. I have a two year old, so all I wanted to do was be with my family, hang out with my kid, go on vacation and relax. I thought I should probably do something creative though so I don’t go crazy and keep the juices flowing,. That was to go on a bus tour across the country with my band. I set that up for us to do almost all of August with Lollapalooza as a through run.

My band, Grandpa vs. Prowler, took out Dead Sara, which is one of my favorite bands in LA and probably one of the best live bands I’ve seen the past 20 years. We were going to do our own shows in small clubs, but grabbing Dead Sara, we were able to do 500-800 capacity venues. We played 15 shows in a row and it was incredible. So I had a little something in the arts before I went back to now shooting season three and four of The Ranch.

When did you start playing guitar?
Probably 10 years ago. I didn’t play as a kid. I played sports instead. Growing up in Long Island, music classes only lasted three lessons because you had to practice. To me, practice sucked when I could be outside playing roller hockey or stickball. I never had the attention span to concentrate on playing scales or learning how to read music. So at 30, after having been involved in a million bonfires or drinks on the beach at night, I thought it was so stupid that I could not pick up the guitar and play a Bob Dylan or Pearl Jam or Beatles song. I had a friend come over and told him I don’t need to be able to write music, I just want to be able to play any song I want. So we started and now I have a band where I get to play guitar next to Jonny Radke. It’s pretty fun.

It sounds like touring with Grandpa vs. Prowler was just a great overall experience?
It was an amazing three weeks. We played about 10 LA shows then we got to do that tour. It was nice having it not be just your 300-400 friends come and see you. We had to win over the crowd. You’d rip a song that you thought you played very well and people are barely clapping. For others, you’d think you played horribly and people loved it.

Will there be a record in the near future for Grandpa vs. Prowler?
There’s nothing official in the near future. There will be some stuff that we will release by the end of the year. The main issue is that we are all professionals in other areas. Everyone has a full-blown career. Going into a studio for a month to crank out a record is just never going to happen. Getting us to rehearse for three hours before we play a show is hard enough. Right now there’s mainly YouTube videos and Instagram stuff and we love it.

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Masterson with his band – Grandpa vs. Prowler

Being on stage with a band on tour, how does that compare to being on screen?
It’s a hell of a lot more fun being on stage. My job as an actor can be pretty boring. They say, you get paid to wait because you are basically sitting around all day waiting for the camera to move, to rehearse, for people to memorize their lines or waiting for the new dialog. When you are on stage shooting a show, it’s very exciting. You get a lot of adrenaline being in front of a live audience. You can manipulate the crowd with when you crack a joke and what kind of timing you put on it. It takes more mind work to make a scene work really well. Whereas being on stage, ripping a guitar and playing a song, you are basically just in your basement jumping up and down on a mattress. You think nobody can see you, but everyone’s staring at you.

How about from a writer’s perspective? Let’s say you have the itch to get something off your chest; you are feeling inspired and have something you want to express through a creative outlet. Are there different emotions within you that direct you to either pick up a guitar vs. writing the next season of The Ranch or a screenplay?
If I pick up the guitar by myself it’s because I have nothing else to do. I don’t consider myself a musician. There are people who live and breathe off making music, and I don’t do that. I love playing music, but it’s like my favorite hobby besides golf. If I’m sitting downstairs watching the golf channel and my guitar is there, I will pick it up and work on parts or learn a new song. I really enjoy that. But I don’t have that bug that other musicians have where they have to play. In terms of acting, I simply walk in, look at what my script it and I examine what I have to do, how I have to communicate and I just go ahead and do it. I’ve been doing it for so long that I barely have to even think about it. I don’t think either one takes too much brain power for me.

Do you work on music on set during your downtime? Do you have a guitar in your trailer?
Yes. I have a guitar lying around. I have this amazing guitar that my family got me for my birthday. It’s an old 60’s Gibson 330 that looks like it just came off the hand-maker’s shelf. I play that in my dressing room a little bit every day. I will go over my bands set or practice parts that are difficult for me. Then I have a studio in the back of my house called Bronson Island. We film bands, a lot of bands record there and there’s a bunch of cool things on YouTube under Bronson Island. We film live in the studio. We are back there late at night after shooting the show. It gets loud and late back in Bronson Island.

With The Ranch, do you have influence on what music is in there complimenting the show?
Yeah. There are four of us that own the show; (Ashton) Kutcher, Jim Patterson, Don Reo and myself. Kutcher and Jim are massive country fans. Our show is nothing but country music. We have music playing in just about every scene whether it’s in a car on the radio or in a bar. My knowledge in that area is a lot smaller than theirs. I have a lot of country artists that I love. For example I think this kid Colter Wall is the greatest thing coming since Johnny Cash. I know a lot of the cool indie country stuff, but I leave the scoring to our music supervisor, Kutcher and Jim. They know every Garth song. They know all the big stuff, I know all the little stuff. I had never heard of Florida Georgia Line until they brought their music into our show. Those guys know those songs so well, like you and I would know a Pearl Jam song. They know the exact song to play and when. They’ve never been wrong. It’s super cool to see.

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Five musicians who have had the biggest influence on your career?
Eddie Vedder, Julian Casablancas, Karen O, Perry Farrell, Mick Jagger.

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  • King Rhino

    …. Fucking love The Ranch

  • dakotablue

    How can I hire Danny to DJ my next party?!
    And I gotta say, Hyde was always the funniest among many super-funny people on 70s Show.