Jared Scharff: From Velvet Frogg to Pearl Lion (with SNL Along The Way)
by Matt Inman on June 28, 2017
You may not know the name Jared Scharff, but he’s been part of an iconic American tradition for a decade. The guitarist and songwriter is part of the Saturday Night Live house band, which opens and closes each week of the long-standing NBC sketch comedy show, along with providing supporting music for some of the sketches and even, at times, playing with the musical guests and hosts that pass through Studio 8H in New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Scharff has also had stints in more traditional groups over the years (including a high school jamband called Velvet Frogg), and now he’s releasing a new double EP—Light and Dark—under the name Pearl Lion. The dichotomous effort, which offers both a soft and airy side contrasted with a heavy-hitting attack, respectively, represents the kind of guitar-centric, instrumental music that has been a goal of Scharff’s for some time. Here, the guitarist talks about the new EPs and how they came to fruition, his history as a musician and as a New York City boy—born, bred and educated—and some of the highlights from his impressive tenure at SNL so far, including his favorite story of locking eyes onstage with Mick Jagger.
Was is tough to find time to record this album with what I assume is a busy schedule with Saturday Night Live?
So, for SNL—for the most part—I’m on call two days a week, and the show is one day a week. It’s only 21 or 22 shows a year, depending on the season. So, I have a lot of time off. The reason why this gig has really been really incredible for me is not only do I get to play in this awesome band and make a living playing music—which is next to impossible—it also allows me to spend time doing my own stuff, like creating and making music, producing, writing and doing all these other things that I really love to do. In 2017, it’s important; you gotta do multiple things anyway. The paradigm of guitarist-to-rock-band-to-success-in-life is over. It’s very rare that you can sustain a living from that, which is very different from when I was growing up, because that was the paradigm.
Did you see that paradigm as something that might be part of your life trajectory back then?
That was what I was hoping. I was playing drums in all the school bands—marching band, concert band, jazz band—but I was playing the rock bands outside of that as the more fun thing. I was seeing Allman Brothers at the Beacon in my first year of high school. My dad took me, and I was like, “Oh my God! This is what I want to do the rest of my life!” It was that whole feeling of wanting to be in the band, playing live. But, most importantly, it was about the fact that those guys were creating on stage. It wasn’t about just regurgitating. That really inspired me. Between that and my love of Zeppelin, and what Jimmy Page meant for the guitar to me—all these things—I just wanted to be in some sort of project where the guitar played a huge role, was a creative force and really could do interesting things. But I never really found those counterparts—I never found my Robert Plant.
So, I tried a whole bunch of different things. I was in this pop band called Carbondale that was signed to RCA for while when I graduated. I eventually quit that band because it wasn’t the right creative thing for me. Then I did my own project, Jared Scharff and the Royals, and I originally wrote a couple of instrumentals on a demo before I even started that project. I also had an instrumental on the first Velvet Frogg album, too. So, I’ve always been toying with that. I was producing a lot of pop music for a long time, and I was doing SNL. Eventually, I really missed doing my own artist thing. The beauty of SNL is all these bands come through every week, some of the best bands and artists in the world. So, I really took a hard look at why people were on the show, what made them special or unique, and the conclusion that I came to was that everybody has some sort of unique quality, some sort of magic that they possess in some way, whatever it was. And, I felt like, for me, the magic—that thing that you can’t really put your finger on—was when I would create with the guitar. I felt like that was where I was most unique, and it was coming from a more special place. So, if I was gonna try a project, or make music again, I wanted to do something that was gonna be truly unique, truly honest, and where I can shine in my best way.
I don’t think you can succeed anymore if you’re half-assing some shit. You look at even a band like The Strokes, you’re like, “What was so special about The Strokes?” Well, they weren’t great musicians, but they wrote these amazing songs, and Julian has an incredible voice, and the band has this special magic together. They just created magic, and it’s something that was so hard to describe. I was just looking to find that magic in my own way, because I didn’t have other people. I had to figure out where I felt that came from in me. So I started doing this project and started writing ideas and recording—very off-and-on, because it was just one of those fun projects where I was like, “Oh, I’m just gonna do this for fun! I have a job! I’m just gonna fuck around, because I can!” About a year later, after fucking around, I remember I finished a couple of songs, I got my first mix back, and it was from this guy, Miles Walker—he’s a big mixer, and he engineered the last Coldplay album and all this shit. It sounded incredible, and he’s amazing and I just remember hearing it back and I was like, “Oh my God, this is the thing!” As soon as I heard that, it kind of kickstarted me into going ham.
Was that one of the songs that’s on these two albums?
It’s actually the first song that opens the Light EP. It’s one of the chiller ones. But yeah, I was like, “This is it!” I wanted to work on this. I had always wanted to do an instrumental project my whole life, and do it in a way that was cool and interesting to normal people, not just guitar-heads. I didn’t want to do the shredder thing; I’m not a shredder. I love listening to people like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai here and there, but I wanted to do something that was kind of the opposite of what they did. So the process kept moving forward, I kept writing stuff and eventually, I came to the ridiculous conclusion of, instead of doing one EP, why not do two at the same time? Which was, maybe, the stupidest choice. Creatively, the right idea, but financially and time-wise, just a horrible idea. But I was creating these intense things and I was creating these mellow things—I just wanted to pursue both sides and not have to worry about making some sort of album arc. So, the idea was that these are kind of an album together, they just happen to be two separate EPs. They’re like the Yin Yang; that was kind of the vibe. I hope that comes across. Then I started making videos because, unfortunately, [the music] totally makes sense to me, but I know that instrumental music is not necessarily—not everyone is gonna understand it, or even want to give it a minute of time. So, knowing that I was going up against that, I felt that if I provided them with visuals—and some of these songs, they have visuals for the first time—when they see it, that will be really cool because I can at least spoon feed them an emotion, a feeling, something else to concentrate on, in hopes of tricking them into liking it and listening to it without the video, or being open to it.
This new music is obviously very different than what you were making with Jared Scarf and the Royals. Were you also messing around with this kind of music at that point?
On the first jamband CD I did, there was an instrumental, which totally set the stage. It was emotional and pretty and melodic and not shreddy, and it would fit right in on the Light EP. It was totally in that world. Then, when I started the Jared Scharff and the Royals project, I made a demo of four or five songs. There were a couple of instrumentals—one that I might, at some point, end up putting out—again, kind of the Light EP, with that melodic guitar thing, totally in that vein. And then, a couple more aggressive ones, but also melodic. At the time, I was into Mogwai and getting into some of that stuff. I didn’t know that that existed. When I heard Mogwai, I was like, “Holy shit! People also make the kind of music that I always thought I wanted to make.” So, it was a nice little “Oh, this does exist! Here’s some people that can help me a little bit with blueprints.” I did kind of do that, but I never ended up playing them out. The Royals thing became a little bit more of my Tom Petty meets Foo Fighters thing. I was just singing and doing that thing, so it didn’t really go to instrumental land. We did jam out a bit. Then, for this stuff, this was obviously just directly, “I want to do this.” Eventually, I’d like to have some vocal features here and there, fill it out a little bit. This was the first phase of what this project is. I have no idea what it’ll morph into, but I’m certainly open to collaborating with interesting creators, even someone like Skrillex, or a crazy vocalist—could be anybody.