Lounge singers may be a dying breed, but habitués of the form needn’t worry: Richard Cheese is willing and more than able to take up the slack.
With a martini in one hand and suitcase in the other, the globe-trotting Mr. Cheese has single-handedly revived the art, cleverly initiating a new generation of converts by “swankifying” modern songs as unlikely and diverse as the Dead Kennedys “Holiday in Cambodia,” Radiohead’s “Creep” and Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”
With prestigious gigs including a tour as the house band on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly and regular appearances on the Man Show, CNN, MTV and SPIKE-TV, not to mention a song on the sound track of the zombie flick Dawn of the Dead,” you may wonder how Mr. Cheese manages to find time to drink at all.
Well, it just so happens he manages very well, thank you very much.
MDM: The credits of your second CD lists you as being responsible for the vocals and vodka. How do you take that vodka?
RC: Vodka is like a woman, you’ve got to get the right kind, and the right setting, and you got to get the right amount. I really enjoy vodka mixed with any one of the various fruit juices, I’m a fan of the cranberry, of the orange, of the pineapple juice. I am also a big fan of the vodka in a Russian Quaalude. Ever have one of those? Fabulous. Mostly it’s a quick belt, it’s boom! It’s a fast boom because if you don’t drink it fast, it’ll knock you right out. The brand is very important, I’ve been using a lot of Ketel One, but I would recommend any vodka company that is interested in sponsoring the Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine Tour. I will happily switch to that vodka, even if it’s—
RC: Yes, even if it’s that. My god, what is it?
MDM: It’s delicious. And not bad for stripping paint, either. Do you drink before going on stage?
RC: It’s funny because if I drink nothing before the show then it’s not a very good show, but if I drink everything before the show it’s not a very good show. So what I’ve found is I start drinking at the beginning of the show, and then I stop, and then I start again, then I stop, then I start again. It’s sort of like a traffic light. I would much rather prefer to drink constantly, but when the audience pays an admission price I feel obligated to actually perform, instead of standing there wobbling.
MDM: That never stopped Dean Martin.
RC: Hey, did you know there was once a big flood in Las Vegas?
RC: Yeah. They drained Dean Martin’s liver. People thought it was the rain but it was actually Dino.
MDM: Ah. Are you into Tiki drinks or any of that sort of culture?
RC: Absolutely. My favorite place to drink is Trader Vic’s. I was just there two days ago. I’m a big fan of a lot of drinks on the Trader Vic’s menu. There’s the Scorpion Bowl of course, there’s a Tiki Tiki Puka Puka, which comes with a little man in it. That’s one of my favorite drinks. Here at the house I have a bottle of Di Sarrano and a bottle of Kahlua next to the bed and I’m not kidding you. I have some Trader Vic’s tumblers from the 70s which I bought, and boy it would be great if I could get a chick to come over and drink with me.
MDM: You’re only one step from paradise.
RC: Yep. I also just recently picked up straws with miniature umbrellas in them. They’re great; I think I actually got them at Ikea. We are actually leaning towards doing some Hawaiian music on our next album of covers. Our first CD was called Lounge Against the Machine and the next was called Tuxicity. We are working on another CD, I’m not sure what it is going to be called, but we really enjoy the Arthur Limon and the Hawaiian hits. That might be the direction to go.
MDM: Do you drink a lot, Rich?
RC: Alcohol is something that should be drank in moderation several times a night. I mean, you should only have this much, but frequently throughout the evening. I think that alcohol is pretty much harmless. Thank goodness it’s there, because otherwise I’d be doing heroin.
MDM: Especially since they’ve found that alcohol is quite good for you.
MDM: What’s better than booze to get you through those difficult times?
RC: You know, I have found swimming is really good too, especially if you swim with a drink.
MDM: If you decided to create the perfect lounge, what would it look like?
RC: Boy, that’s tough when there’s a place like Trader Vic’s out there, it’s tough to compete. The Venus Lounge in Las Vegas used to be really cool. They sort of hip-hopped it up lately, but when it first opened it was incredible. There was a really great visionary named Marc Campbell—he designed the place and it was really faux fifties and retro. He’s got some real stuff in the room, real vintage lamps, not imitation. I just like a lot of Tiki stuff, my place is decorated with a lot of light-colored birch-veneer furniture and a lot of Hawaiian memorabilia, a lot of postcards from Hawaii. I actually have three or four cases of Hawaiiana stuff in storage. I’m waiting to open up a restaurant or a bar. If I could do a headlining gig, there’s a hotel in Vegas called the California Hotel, which really should be called the Hawaiian Hotel, but they don’t have a Hawaiian Hotel, so it’s called the California Hotel, but it’s in Vegas—it’s very confusing. There should be a Tiki casino, the Hard Rock Hotel is the closest thing in Vegas. I would love to set up a place like that, then I bring the Hawaiiana stuff out of storage and put it on display in a big cage, or get a glass stage and fill the stage with it. Something like that.
MDM: Do you have a bar in your apartment?
RC: Well, the stuff I have is in the kitchen, I don’t have a large place. Most of my apartment is filled with giant cases of unsold Richard Cheese Tuxcicity CDs, available now at www.iloverichardcheese.com. So there’s no room for a bar per se, but I’m a socialist. I really don’t think I should have a bar in my home when there are thousands of people who don’t have a bar. I call them the barless, and I really think more needs to be done to spread the wealth of bars to more people. So I wouldn’t feel right having a bar when there are people out there who do not have one. I’m all about, “Let’s give everybody a drink before we have a second one.” That’s a good way to live your life. I’m not paying for everyone’s drinks though.
MDM: Isn’t it weird though that back in the 50s and 60s you couldn’t throw a martini olive without hitting a great drunk icon like Frank, Dino, Trader Vic, Bogart, Gleason, Woody Woodbury or Don Ho? Now there are only a handful of celebrities that will actually admit to drinking, like Colin Farrell and Burt Reynolds.
RC: It’s too bad, because I know everyone drinks, they should because it’s good for you. I would rather see someone drinking than smoking. I’d rather see Britney Spears nude than drinking, so if she would please stop drinking and start stripping that would be a lot better. I mean let’s be honest, I like Modern Drunkard but I’d much rather have Modern Naked Britney Spears, that would be a better magazine. I hope you are aware that your readers want that. The liquor is just a fix until you roll out the Modern Naked Britney Spears Magazine, which we are all still waiting for, and I don’t know why you haven’t finished the first issue.
MDM: I’m going to put that right on the top of my To Do list. I noticed your obsession with Britney Spears on your last album.
RC: You call it an obsession, I call it breathing. I don’t know anyone who isn’t obsessed with Britney Spears. I think I just do it with more style than anyone else. We have a song on the Tuxicity album called “Drive Me Crazy” that was originally a Britney Spears song. We did a lounge version of it and I hope she hears it. So if anyone who is reading this knows her, please have her listen to the song and then call me. Or she can just call me and come listen to it at my house.
MDM: Do you remember your first drink, Richard?
RC: It was a screwdriver on a flight from Phoenix to New York, and I was with some chick who I did not know at the time I was going to have sex with. I had no idea I was getting laid. I was old enough to fly is all I remember. She was trying to get me drunk and I could have told her she didn’t need to.
MDM: Was she an older woman?
RC: Yeah, I think about seven years older. I had never really been that drunk, the best part of it was I was on a plane, so I got double vodkas.
MDM: What an introduction to alcohol—sex with an older woman.
RC: Yeah, that was good. I can’t complain about that. For those girls in the reading audience, if you would like to pretend I’ve never had a drink and go on a plane with me and have sex with me when we land I will play along. That’s my offer to you.
MDM: You’ve performed on The Man Show—is the beer they’re drinking real?
RC: Absolutely. When it was Jimmy and Adam on the show, what you saw is what you got. I don’t know what their offstage drinking habits are. The new hosts of The Man Show, Doug Stanhope and Joe Rogan—I think Doug doesn’t drink very much, but I think Joe Rogan drinks like a fish. (Ed. note: Doug drinks quite a lot. See MDM Oct. 2003) Beer is never my first choice; I don’t understand the fascination with beer. I think it’s pretty ineffective, and it doesn’t usually taste very good, and it’s stinky when it spills on the rubber floor at a bar.
MDM: Which Rat Pack personality is most comparable to you?
RC: I like to think I’m a little bit of each. Frank was my first influence as far as music, singing and performance obviously, because he’s the man, he set it all up. I like Dean primarily from the movie Rio Bravo, that’s when I realized I needed to start paying more attention to Dean. I’ve loved him for years, but the Rio Bravo performance, when he is getting over his liquor habit, is really gripping, and then when he sings “Purple Mountain.” “My rifle, my pony, and me.” That’s a lounge song, you know. Lounge singers are the cowboys of our day. As far as Sammy goes, I actually saw him in concert when I was 12 years old. This was in Arizona at Phoenix Symphony Hall, and I just remember “Candy Man,” because I was really into Willy Wonka at the time. I think Frank, Dean, then Sammy in that order.
MDM: How long does it take you to “swankify” a modern song?
RC: It depends. A lot of the songs are ready to go. All you need are good lyrics and a good melody, like “Buddy Holly” by Weezer.
MDM: Do you ever find yourself browsing through a bartender’s bible, just thinking about all the different drinks you haven’t tried?
RC: I really enjoy those bartender guides, but I don’t want to take someone’s job. I think some of that is information I shouldn’t have. I don’t want to walk into a bar and correct a bartender, usually they’re going to brew something up the way it’s supposed to be made. I rarely get bad drinks, I think most bartenders do a really good job. I experiment a lot with drinks, I was drinking a lot of Amaretto sours last month, that was a good place to go. There’s a lot to choose from, so why just drink a martini when you can have nine other more interesting drinks? But I really prefer Tiki drinks. I’m telling you, the Tiki Tiki Puka Puka. You can’t lose when you’re drinking those.
MDM: What’s on the horizon for Richard Cheese?
RC: When we get back to Vegas in August, we’re going to play at Sunset Station on the last Sunday of every month for the rest of the year. And then the last Monday of every month we’re playing at this other casino called the Santa Fe Station, in the new room called the Green Room. It’s a more intimate setting. You can check the iloverichardcheese.com schedule for our tour dates. We are going to be hitting Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, we’re going up north to San Jose, Sacramento, San Francisco. Anywhere that ends in an O we’ll play. We hope to get out to the East Coast and the Midwest, Denver is on the list, I just don’t know where and when. The hard part with this Richard Cheese band is that I spend a lot of money on liquor and there’s not a lot of money left over for transportation or hotel rooms. So if you know any really good looking girls with a spare, I wouldn’t say a bedroom, just a spare pillow. That’s what I need to find out, because I need to sleep there.
—Interview by Frank Rich
Richard’s Cheese’s latest CD I’d Like a Virgin is available at reputable music stores near you.