Rick Astley Plays Drums In a Sex Pistols Cover Band and Other Cool Facts

Mr. Rickroll himself.
Mr. Rickroll himself. Ignacio Galvez
Becoming a meme is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can turn you into a ubiquitous icon, invading people’s Facebook walls and feeds like a cold virus striking an office. Memes can resurrect dead careers, brush off the cobwebs on our collective memories, and turn a has-been into a hey-I-know-that-guy. But that’s also where memes can be a problem — once people now you as that guy, as that joke, it’s hard to break away from it. Some people, like Steve “Wrong Answer” Harvey, are able to shake it off. But then you have the Xzibits of the world, who aren’t so lucky.

Becoming a meme has been good to Rick Astley. His place in the pop culture canon was already assured with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a glorious piece of keyboard cheese that’s destined to live forever in karaoke bars, weddings, '80s dance nights and retro movie soundtracks. But thanks to the immortal “rickrolling” meme, Astley himself became an instantly recognizable figure in our cultural landscape. The earnest demeanor, the dance moves, the white trenchcoat: they all rickrolled their way into our hearts.

Thanks in part to the profile boost of rickrolling, Astley has had a creative and commercial resurgence over the last few years. His latest album, 50, hit the top of the U.K. pop charts. Last year, he toured the U.S. for the first time since 1989, playing one sold-out show after another. We talked to the singer as he prepared to embark on a new U.S. tour (including a stop in Tempe at the Marquee Theatre) about the making of his new record and his love for Morrissey.

New Times:
Last year you started playing shows in the U.S. again, the first shows you've done in the States since 1989. What was it like playing for such large audiences, after being away for so long?

Rick Astley: It still does feel exciting to play here. Some of my favorite artists and records came from America. We did our first, tiny little gig in New York. Everybody wants to play New York, I don’t care where you’re from! You have traditions here with music that we don’t have in the U.K. We love them, we just don’t have them. We don’t have gospel like you do — it’s not something you can find up and down the countryside! Or the blues. There’s always going to be something romantic about visiting the States if you’re British. It’s the place where Elvis was born, after all.

Out of all your gigs abroad, which country gave you the most enthusiastic reception?

I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I make pop music at the end of the day. It’s pretty, up, bright, and breezy, and something to dance to occasionally. A lot of the hits that I have are about getting people up and into it. So it's hard to say, really. Certain places are a bit more rowdy than others. What’s been happening to us in Britain over the last year has been crazy. We released the album there in June; it became a number one album, and it’s still kicking around in the top 10! There’s no why I would have believed anybody if they said that was going to happen.

What inspired you to make your latest album, 50?

It was something I did for myself as a kind of 50th birthday present. One could say it was a midlife crisis moment, but we’ll brush that under the carpet.

Speaking as someone with no musical aptitude or abilities, the thought of writing, playing, producing, and recording an entire album by yourself seems incredibly daunting. Was the process of making 50 overwhelming for you?

The thing is, I didn’t start out trying to record a whole record. I was just doing some songs, which turned into demos, which then turned into a bit more than that. I asked a friend, who was a mixing engineer, to come over for a few days to help mix the songs. One of the things he said early on to me was, “There’s nothing wrong with it — just keep your head down and keep going.” I thought to myself, well, OK, I'm going to make a record then. Playing all the instruments happened because I did it at home. I’m not a musician; I tell people that all the time! I've got a great band, I know a lot of great musicians. I know I'm not a musician, but I can play well enough to make it sound okay.

In past interviews, you've talked about how you'd love to cover The Smiths. If you could pick one song by them to do, which would it be?

There’s too many. "This Charming Man" was the first one I really noticed them on. There’s a song called "Please Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want." It’s a really amazing song, and it’s not a typical, jingly-jangly Smiths song. It’s something slightly different.

I play the drums, you see, in a three-piece rock band. We play Sex Pistols to Foo Fighters and everything in between. We do it for charity because we’re old men and we shouldn’t really be playing those songs. I absolutely love it. Just because I had "Never Gonna Give You Up" doesn’t mean that’s the only color I can be. But within the realms of being what I was back then, a worldwide-known artist blah-blah, all of that, it’s difficult to do something different. If Dave Grohl made an electronic record with a synthesizer and some weird robot person, we’re all gonna think, "What are you doing, Dave?" I mean, he can do it, he can do anything, but a lot of people would be freaked out and wouldn’t know how to handle it.

Obviously, I’m not in the position I was all those years ago. Having a little band on the side is one thing — we do it for fun and we always give the money to charity. That extends to something like the Smiths — one day I’d love to do a gig in Manchester, where I'd go and sing a lot of Smiths songs. I'd get crucified for it, but I don't care. I'm 50 — I'm past caring about shit like that.

You recently announced that you're partnering with Mikkeller to produce a craft beer. What brought on that collaboration?

They've done a few beers for different bands, mostly Danish ones. One of the guys there, when he was younger, was a fan of mine. We started chatting about doing a beer and I said what the hell, let’s do it! His passion reminds me of what it’s like when you’re in a band. He’s got that passion about it that I’ve only seen in a few people who do things a little left of center.

One last question, Rick. What are your karaoke go-tos?

Phil Collins is one. The Smiths, too, but you can't always find them at karaoke. If I'm going to do a duet, I like "Time Of My Life." I did karaoke a few weeks ago; I do a radio show in London, and we all went out and had a few too many drinks. You remember Kim Wilde, from "Kids In America"? She does a show on the same station. That's a bit weird, getting to pick songs for Kim Wilde to sing!

I have to confess: "Never Gonna Give You Up" is one of my karaoke jams.

That's lovely to hear.

You wouldn't say that if you heard me sing it. I butcher it every time.

That's all right — I've butchered it a few times myself.

Rick Astley is scheduled to play the Marquee Theatre on Sunday, January 22.

Correction: This article's headline incorrectly stated that Astley was in a Smiths cover band.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley Naftule