Wielding serious musical chops and whimsical thrift shop fashions, Yacht Rock Revue serves up the smooth sounds of retro Top 40 radio along with original music that romps through decades of influences. More than just a hit-dispensing cover band, they made a splash with their debut album, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans, two years ago and are currently in the studio recording a follow-up.
Although yacht rock is typically defined as nautically themed easy listening, YRR pushes the boundaries of the genre with a repertoire of 600 songs, digging deep into the catalogs of bands like Toto, The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.
Their mission is to have fun with breezy staples from the past and spark conversations about which pieces of music fit the yacht label, according to guitarist-singer Peter Olson. The genre encompasses a broad spectrum of styles, from the buoyant R&B of “Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs to the wistful balladry of “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. There is actually a website, not affiliated with YRR, that ranks songs as Yacht or Nyacht.
Olson said he considers New Jersey a yacht rock landmark because it’s the home state of the Looking Glass, a Rutgers-formed band that topped the charts 50 years ago with “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” The tale of a lovesick barmaid in a seaport town, the song combines crooned verses with an exuberant, horn-flecked chorus, setting the standard for years of yacht hits to follow.
There are many ironies to the yacht rock genre. It is commercial music with a cult following. The yacht label suggests elitism but the appeal transcends class divisions and covers all degrees of musical sophistication. The genre has the trappings of parody (for example, YRR’s campy outfits) yet is really an homage to classic pop songcraft. Olson said the music is particularly popular right now because it creates a sense of community even as society becomes more divided.
Straight outta landlocked Atlanta, YRR was formerly a pop band called Y-O-U that would host weekly Vegas-style variety shows at a bar called the 10 High Club. One of their themes was yacht rock. The yacht setlist sprang from a compilation CD called The Dentist Office Mix that was created by band members to annoy co-workers at their day jobs. Surprisingly, the dentist music was a crowd-pleaser, so they began performing yacht rock exclusively, building an audience that enabled them to play bigger clubs and go on the road. Olson, a married father of three, quit working as a retirement community fitness instructor to become a full-time musician.
I spoke with Olson via phone about how he defines yacht rock, where he shops for leisure suits and what it’s like going back on tour after COVID.
Q: You’re recording in the studio now?
A: We’ve been writing and working on songs for a couple of years now anticipating that we would get to start recording. We started writing amid the pandemic.
Q: I was going to say the pandemic must have provided you with an opportunity to buckle down and do some writing.
A: It forced us into that realm because we had just released our first album when the world shut down. The universe told us it was time to look to the next.
Q: How would you say the new album compares with Hot Dads in Tight Jeans?
A: It’s more developed down the same path. We’re continuing to thread the needle between a modern-type sound and also staying true to what we’re good at and what we’re known for, and that is performing the soft rock from the ’70s and ’80s. We’re recording 20th century music in the 21st century.
Q: It’s interesting because obviously the band has a sense of humor but the songwriting is serious.
A: We are the furthest thing from parody as possible and we’re not necessarily trying to perform yacht rock. We’re doing what comes natural. Before we started the YRR, everyone was playing in different kinds of bands, everything from indie pop to metal to country, so there’s a variety of influences in there. A good song is a good song. That’s always the focal point for starting.
Q: I was thinking about the Huntington shows and Long Island and Billy Joel and I was wondering if a song like “Downeaster ‘Alexa’ ” is yacht rock? How do you define yacht rock? How do you determine whether a song is yacht rock?
A: That’s the beauty of it. The question of what is yacht rock or what is not yacht rock is always being asked. What qualifies? There is certainly a stable of songs that everybody agrees on. There’s a core to the yacht rock sound but the fringe is so wide and so gray that we’ve been able to determine it for ourselves. It might not be what you or the next person would consider to be yacht rock. On the summer tour, we were closing the show with “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie, which probably doesn’t make many yacht rock playlists but it fits our band and it fits the show and when it gets to that point in the night, everyone’s excited and no one is thinking about whether it’s yacht rock.
Q: I was wondering about the audience for your shows. You obviously must get people who remember the heyday but are you also getting younger people who learned this music from their parents?
A: We’re a hit with your parents and we’re a hit with your friends. One thing that’s kind of fascinating about kids discovering older music is that they’re doing it on their own. They don’t necessarily learn yacht rock from their parents. When you have access to the entire catalog of music ever made via a streaming app, stumbling upon Robbie Dupree or Player or Ambrosia is the same as when you discover LCD Soundsystem or Beck. There are certainly lots of people that are there for the nostalgia but it’s not exclusive to that.
Q: It must have been great to get back on the road and perform after COVID.
A: Four of us in the band are from Indiana University and one of the first shows back was a drive-in show in Indianapolis. We were in the parking lot of what used to be called Deer Creek Music Center. It was kind of surreal and certainly different than being in a theater packed with people. Instead of applause, we were hearing horns honk.
Q: You still got that sense performing in a theater even though you were playing for cars?
A: It was enough of it after spending six months in our houses. We squeezed in a pretty real summer tour in 2021 and that felt good but there was something just a little off-kilter. When we did our summer tour this year, our show at The Stone Pony was electric. That’s when we finally got the feeling that we’re really back.
Q: It seems like yacht rock is getting bigger and I’m wondering if it has something to do with the fact that the world is so crazy these days and yacht rock makes you think of a time when things made a little more sense … if because the world is so unstable that people are clamoring for something that gives them a sense of community.
A: It’s music that brings people together and whisks them away to somewhere else. It’s two hours of escape. The music is lighthearted and the fact that it is not too topical, it allows people to forget about the troubles of the world for that moment.
Q: What do you think contributes to the timelessness of this music? Even though, I remember in the ’80s and ’90s these songs were not getting a huge amount of respect.
A: The arrangements and the production and the musicianship on these recordings is actually at the highest caliber and the songs are accessible. Even though Steely Dan incorporated a lot of jazz into their music, it still remains light and airy and fun.
Q: What to you is the ultimate yacht rock anthem?
A: Probably the most consistent anthem that checks all of the boxes is “Africa” by Toto.
Q: During the ’80s and ’90s, I was really into metal and punk and grunge and all that stuff but I also loved Boz Scaggs and Gerry Rafferty and the Bee Gees unironically because the songs were so good. It’s also interesting because you have metal bands like Type O Negative and Mr. Bungle covering “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts. I feel like people who may have pretended they were too cool for this music secretly liked it.
A: Maybe this music wasn’t cool back then but now, people who liked it or secretly liked it … everyone is taking their guard down and enjoying it for what it is. We’re in an era where you can’t be too cool for anything. Radio doesn’t have the reach that it used to and so you can just fall into anything that you like and not have to be ashamed.
Q: That’s so true because the culture was different where you had to commit to one genre of music as part of your identity and now you can just explore any genre and it’s accepted. A good song is just a good song. In a way, the internet has gotten people to listen to a more eclectic range of music.
A: Mixed tapes were never as eclectic and spastic as playlists are now. Playlists can have so many different kinds of music whereas that wasn’t the case when somebody was collecting records.
Q: What do you think are some of the misconceptions people might still have about the genre, like it’s soft rock or it’s too commercial or too disposable? Do those stigmas still exist or has that all fallen away?
A: The idea that there are guidelines or it is specific to a certain set of songs or a required type of groove … I think that’s a misconception. Yet I also think one of the greatest things about it is that people love to have those conversations about what is and what is not yacht rock. I don’t want that to go away but ultimately the truth is that yacht rock is whatever you want it to be. You can get a general idea of it but then you can interpret it for yourself.
Q: What did you think of it back in the day? Were you too cool for it or were you, like, “This is really good music”?
A: I missed the late ’70s part of yacht rock but I can remember hearing Hall & Oates on the radio. I loved them and Toto. Eventually when I picked up the guitar in high school, grunge had become a thing so it kind of became forgotten for me. But I’ve always appreciated it and the beauty about forming the band is I’m learning some songs for the first time, especially the deeper cuts from Steely Dan or Ambrosia. There is the yacht rock that dominated the radio but there’s a lot more to it that people are still discovering.
Q: Are you surprised that yacht rock has caught on?
A: Yes. It isn’t exactly lightning in a bottle but you can feel the magic. It’s like you’re having a good bull ride and you just want to hang on and figure out how to make it last for as long as you can because you don’t know where it’s going or when it’s going to stop. That was our thinking for a long time, that this is a fad that won’t last forever. It has lasted much longer than we anticipated and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Q: Where do you get your clothes? Do you have a huge polyester shirt collection?
A: Oh yeah, it’s like half the closet. We go to vintage shops all over the country and a little bit of online shopping. It’s interesting to see the audience interpret what yacht rock attire is. It’s everybody from the guy in the orange life vest to someone in a disco outfit.
For more on the band, visit yachtrockrevue.com.
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