Dermot Mulroney’s Other Career: Playing Music With Cranky George
“If you can picture five busy guys with kids and other jobs, you can get why it would take that long,” says accomplished actor and musician Dermot Mulroney, talking about the long-awaited debut album from Cranky George: Fat Lot of Good.
The wait: five years, but worth it.
“It wasn’t for lack of interest or indifference,” Dermot explains. “We always knew we had something good, and wanted to do it right, and take the right amount of time.”
The something they have is indeed good. Unique too. The folk-influenced, indie-rock Los Angeles band includes Dermot, a steadily working film/TV actor, and his brother, Kieran, both of whom are classically trained musicians (you may also remember Kieran as “Timmy” on the classic Seinfeld episode, who reprimanded George about “double-dipping the chip.”).
The Mulroney bros are from a large Irish-American brood, originally based in Alexandria, VA – Dermot plays cello, mandolin and guitar; Kieran rocks the violin, ukulele, and tenor guitar.
Co-founding the group is accordionist James Fearnley of The Pogues, the London-Irish folk-punk band (yep, you read that right, and it’s as cool as it sounds). Also on board is Brad Wood on bass; he produced records for The Bangles, Ben Lee, Pete Yorn and Veruca Salt. On percussion is Sebastian Sheehan Visconti, a sound designer and sound-effects editor who works on television series.
Cutting an album is a new step; the band has been playing live in Los Angeles for a couple of years now, including awesome venues like Molly Malone’s in LA, which Cranky George calls its home base. No big – the shows are “just for fun.”
In breaking down what makes the band unique, Dermot attributes Kieran’s musical talent, among other things. He says, “Kieran plays violin, and he very much combines – in a way you rarely hear in rock and roll – or even in folk music—country, classical, Celtic, Appalachian all together, in sort of a classical music rock-and-roll violin. The one thing he brings to it that you rarely hear is his classical training. A lot of players may learn that way and then abandon it when it comes to playing in the band, but he brought it with him, which really defines our string sound. A lot of our melodic themes are really on the violin, so it really colors the album.”
Regarding The Pogues’ James Fearnley, Dermot says, “I met him through his wife, a wonderful actress and dear friend [Danielle von Zerneck]: The English/Irish punk folk rocker fell in love with the beautiful American ingénue actress. I really began to listen to the Pogues after I met James. We became neighbors, and we had other musician friends, so we would do what we called a hootenanny. We would just cram people into my living room and play whatever we could think of.”
Of the group’s influence, Dermot says, “The Pogues is one of the only bands where I know every word to every song. I’m a rabid fan. That was a very impacting sound in my life. To have a friend who is the greatest rock-and-roll accordion player who ever lived -- there just isn’t anybody else. His particular playing style is unusual for accordion players. You can hear accordion in other acts, but you won’t hear it played that way.”
According to Dermot, Brad Wood is the conduit that made the album possible: “He’s a bass player who is also this phenomenal -- and frankly, famous -- record producer. That’s why we were able to do the project with such quality. We had the great fortune of being with Brad, who is top dog and really just outdid himself on Fat Lot of Good.”
Dermot, who most all of us remember as the object of Julia Roberts’ affection in My Best Friend’s Wedding, doesn’t follow in the footsteps of actors who really, secretly want to sing and play. His film and television career spans decades, but of his musical career, he says, “I never pushed it forward, I never publicized it myself. I think it’s coming to people’s notice, and it will be interesting to see just how Cranky George does.”
Of course, among actors, we've heard this song before, but Cranky George is not a rerun.
“Let’s be honest, [many actors] try to make a go of it and it never really goes,” Dermot says. “It’s kind of a dumb cliché, or it feels that way to me, until I start playing with these guys. When I play with them, I don’t feel like one of those clichés. We come from a different source. I didn’t become a musician because I was an actor. I came at it from a different angle. Nobody out there is playing the music that we play.”
Dermot’s musical training goes back to childhood, growing up in Alexandria, VA as the son of a tax attorney, and long before it even occurred to him to become an actor.
“There were five kids,” he says, “and each played a string instrument. It sort of became just something that the Mulroney kids did. I’m third in line. By the time I was coming around, the cello was still available. It was part of our school program and just part of our lives. I’m sure I was vigorously encouraged to practice my instrument, but my memory is that I actually always wanted to. I was self-motivated as a kid.”
Yeah, but the cello?
“I was following the lead of my older brothers,” he explains. “It was just kind of what we did. It’s fun to play. You take it out of its case and you rosin your bow. It was fun as a kid to have my own instrument, and to carry it around and it had parts to maintain and to clean.”
“My dad is an esteemed emeritus professor at Villanova,” he continues, “but he has almost no musical ability. He’s a heck of a whistler though. You can tell that he has an ear. My mother’s the same way. She’s in her mid-80s, and her voice quality is not what it once was – but she too has a real ear. We can trace our real musical talent to her mother -- my grandmother – who was one of those piano players who was self-taught, and could play anything; she could hear it once and play it. There is something for real in our family tree. It may have skipped my parents, though.”
The musical influence also extended to the family’s record library.
“I may not be able to attribute our musical abilities to [my father], but I can certainly thank him for the musical influence,” Dermot says. “We were listening to Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. My parents were sort of non-hippie ‘60s eastern intelligentsia -- opera and Irish tenors, like John McCormack. We even had an album with Spanish Civil War ballads and the Russian Men’s Army chorus.”
While most of us were watching Dermot on movie and video screens since the 1980s, he was also playing live and building his musician’s cred. Through those years, he sharpened his musical chops with a former band called the Low & Sweet Orchestra.
“I’ve played in all of these clubs, playing live,” he recalls. “We hit every venue in Los Angeles, from back in the ‘90s on: The Universal Amphitheater, The Troubadour, The El Ray, The Roxy, The House of Blues. I sometimes can’t believe the experience that I’ve had, combining acting/performance with live stage work."
The offbeat sound of Cranky George may be a hard sell and not your typical mainstream, but Dermot welcomes the challenge.
“I’ve been in unconventional movies, and I’ve been in television shows that have a ‘new twist,’ and it’s not always the best thing,” he says. “It’s not always the thing that actually goes. Conventions exist for a reason. I’m testing this Cranky George because it will either be a great, groundbreaking thing, or people will miss it because it’s not something they already know.”
Stay tuned, and listen in. Dermot will keep his day job, but continue to follow his passion at night.
He says, “To keep music in my life this way, I’ll be always grateful.”