Learn how the weirdest and most Internet-y thing of the year came together.
It’s afternoon on a snowy Sunday in Williamsburg. Most people are buying overpriced coffee, recovering from hangovers, and trying not to slip and fall on their asses. The crew pulling together The Pizza Underground’s first music video shoot have been at Acme studios since 6am. Inside it does actually smell like ass. A very doughy take on ass anyway. The set comprises of three walls covered in pizza slices, broken up by discs of pepperoni, all staple-gunned in neat lines. The budget cheese has congealed, the dough rigor mortised, only the pepperoni has anything else to give: an oily trail eking downwards.
Headed up by director Adrian Arredondo, the crew buzz about setting up the next shot. Meanwhile, The Pizza Underground—Matt Colbourn, Phoebe Kreutz, Deenah Vollmer, Austin Kilham, Macaulay Culkin (on percussion and kazoo)—are flopped out, lounging in the living room area. They’re wearing a regiment of black, topped off with black shades, because, you know, they’re a pizza-themed Velvet Underground band. Haven’t you heard the joke? It’s a one-liner that, as Culkin puts it, “melted the internet in cheesy, greasy goodness,” when their nine-song, eight-minute medley went viral.
Gif. by Jaime Chew.
Thus far they’ve played three shows, including a recent set at new Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, where the line coiled round the block. Inside the audience was treated to free pizza and an eight minute performance. Early last week a five minute video of Mac eating a slice—a straight up tribute to Andy Warhol chowing down on a burger—has clocked up over 250k views. Last time we saw the 33-year-old actor (outside of the tabloids anyway), was in Adam Green’s iPhone shot, self-described “ketamine classic,” The Wrong Ferrari, alongside everyone from Dev Hynes to Devendra to Sky Ferreira. Culkin remains a fascinating figure for two reasons: he’s tied to a selection of rose-tinted, 90-minute, feel-good moments from our collective childhood; and secondly, thanks to our enduring fascination with child stardom and its this way or that aftermath.
Of course The Pizza Underground would not have ended up on MTV, or Rolling Stone, USA Today, The Daily Mail or Noisey without Culkin. He is the most naturally extrovert of the bunch, as they goof around with some off the cuff choreography, he quips, repeatedly, “Look Mom! I made it!” Later he throws a mock tantrum, “I quit this band!” he exclaims, throwing down a stodgy slice. “I’m going solo! Onto lasagna!”
The band is a joke and no one is laughing harder than the quintet who constructed it. Deenah “plays” a pizza box,but this is not to say they’re not musicians. Husband and wife, Matt and Phoebe, have long been involved in New York’s antifolk scene, as has Deenah, who’s contributed articles to The New Yorker and Interview, among other publications. As it turns out these LOLs are lucrative: The Pizza Underground have an agent and a manager, and they’re going on tour this coming January. People are lining up for a slice. As for the true origins of the band? Deenah had this to say:
“It was a lot of different realities coinciding to create the reality that we’re in right now,” explains Deenah, her answer eliciting giggles from the rest of the group. “It started in Catalonia in February 2012 when Matt, Phoebe, and I were on tour playing a secret show that was so secret that nobody came. They were playing a Velvet Underground and Nico song in the café and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if all these songs were about pizza instead.’ Then it became a running tour joke.”
A beat later Deenah adds: “You know there’s this band called Nevermound who play Nirvana songs in the past tense? “Came As You Were,” “Raped Me,” “Smelt Like Teen Spirit.” They only played one show, it was in my backyard, but from that came the idea of the Nevermound award, which we take very seriously. It takes everything to the next level."
See what we’re saying? Jokes. Their favorite pizza joint is Joe’s Pizza (on either 14th Street or Carmine in the West Village), mushrooms are banned on account of Matt’s distaste for them, and they’re currently so swamped in doughy pies, eating sandwiches for lunch gets them excited. What’s next for TPU? Ideally playing a show with Fresno’s The MisShits. A Misfits cover band who sing about, you guessed it, shit.
As for the shows themselves, now that everyone’s in on it, the vibe is on the up. “At first we were met with blank hostility and groans,” says Culkin. “The crowd just didn’t know what to make of it. In an eight minute set it took them about six minutes to get into it. By the seventh minute we had them in the palm of our hand.”
And what makes the band tick? Culkin says with a wry smile, “We’re all completely humorless. That’s what makes it really work.”
As is customary with Behind the Lens, we caught up with director Adrian Arredondo, on set. After cutting his teeth working in documentaries and feature films (including Joe with Nicholas Cage), the University of Texas at Austin film grad talked about his vision for the video, meeting Macaulay, and the trouble with pizza masks. Turns out one of his most recent projects involved a lot of research on Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, so he was really primed for this pizza pop culture moment…
How did this happen?
When I heard they were a Velvet Underground cover band I already had the imagery and style of TVU’s video in mind. I thought it would be funny if someone recreated that with a wall of pizza. That was my pitch. I didn’t really think it was going to happen—I didn’t think they would want to do it!
What Velvet Underground video were you thinking of?
“I’m Waiting for The Man.” It felt very free flowing and fun. It’s about the band but the filmmaker and the shooter are experimenting and documenting the performance, learning and playing around with the focus and the zoom and the band’s just doing their thing. I thought that would be great, but just with a huge wall of pizza behind it.
Let’s talk pizza numbers.
We ordered 40 pizzas and spent $500. Forty pies at 18 inches from the cheapest pizza place we could possibly find—in Times Square. It was one of those 99cent slice places. They prepared 40 pies in two and half hours, just knocked them out. The pizza completely filled up my car. Because it was raining and snowing and the shoot wasn’t until the next day I had to put all the pizza in my room and sleep with it. It still smells. I don’t want pizza ever again!
Were you specific about wanting to do it on VHS?
My first thought regarding format was to use digital because that’s what’s most readily available. The Velvet Underground shot their videos on film because that’s what they had available at the time and to pay homage to that I wanted to shoot it on a more culturally relevant medium. But then everything I’ve seen on film about pizza, everything that I relate to about pizza, has come from VHS. That’s what I grew up on. As a kid, movies and TV and even Home Alone and Macaulay Culkin’s pizza scene I saw on VHS, all the Ninja Turtles stuff was on VHS. When I was a kid I had a few birthday parties in Texas at this place called Fun Time Pizza and all my home videos were on VHS, so it felt like the best medium for pizza to live on. It just feels right.
I was talking to someone the other day who said, “This is bullshit. Pizza’s so trendy right now.” I mean, pizza. Trendy? It’s pizza.
Pizza’s always trendy, it always has been it always will be. You can’t deny that.
Did you have any preconceptions before meeting these guys? How much did you really know about them other than that Macaulay got involved and then it exploded?
When I first heard about them all there was was their music and their tumblr which is a bunch of pizza images and them in black clothes. I didn’t know if it was a joke or it was serious and then there’s Macaulay Culkin, which is a whole other discussion. All of them—including Mac—turned out to be really nice and friendly. Just wanting to participate and they were serious about this. It was refreshing. I took this video seriously. It’s fun and it’s silly, but like any other piece of work you do it to the best of your ability.
What did you think of Mac?
He was really nice, a cool guy. He was… I don’t know how to describe him. All in all I liked him and being around him. I was excited to meet him: everybody’s a fan; everyone has an opinion. He was a little maybe louder than the others on set, but also maybe he has the most to lose from all of this, because of his history. He said this himself, he’s already a joke within a joke of himself. He’s very self-aware, he knows what he’s doing. He wasn’t as weird as I thought he was going to be, but he was unusual.
Were you surprised they were game to wear pizza masks?
Yeah I didn’t tell them ahead of time, because I thought they would just not come. Who the fuck wants to wear pizza on their face, onscreen, and sing or play solos? When I did tell them, they there was dead silence and no one said a word. I felt super awkward, but then Allen, our other producer/DP was like, “You guys! Trust us! It’s going to be great.” When Phoebe first put the pizza mask on, she was going to throw up—twice—because it smells like shit and it’s the cheapest pizza in New York! She had to hold it in. They were great sports.
It was funny how they would eat a bit and then spit it straight out.
Can you imagine how much they’re eating now? Pizza is their life.
The Pizza Underground Tour Dates
- Brooklyn @ Brooklyn Night Bazaar w/ French Horn Rebellion, Rush Midnight, Heavenly Beat & Seasick Mama
- Philadelphia @ PhilaMOCA (Early & Late Show!)
- New Brunswick @ Outworld
- Austin @ Breakpoint on The Boardwalk
- San Francisco @ Neck of The Woods
- West Hollywood @ Whisky A Go Go
- San Diego @ Ux31
- Tijuana @ Moustache
- Tucson @ 191 Warehouse
- El Paso @ The Lowbrow Palace
- Dallas @ Club Dada
, 14, 15 - Austin @ SXSW
- New Orleans @ Hi-Ho Lounge
- Mobile @ Alabama Music Box
- Atlanta @ Mammal Gallery
- Raleigh @ Kings
- Washington, DC @ Black Cat
- Brooklyn @ Baby's All Right w/ Total Slacker
Photo by Jamie Chew.