Long before he became a TV fixture as host of Morning Joe on MSNBC — even before he was elected to Congress (R-Fla.) in 1996 — Joe Scarborough wanted to be Paul McCartney. But unlike most fans, Scarborough, 53, actually has chops, and recently started entertaining crowds (including co-host Mika Brzezinski) with his rock band, Morning Joe Music. As election season heats up, the conservative pundit talks to Billboard about tunes, stage fright and the challenges of life as a Republican rock fan.
Your band has been playing around New York pretty regularly. How has the response been?
There’s an old Monty Python bit where Bob Dylan is playing in front of a crowd and says, “I suffered for my art for decades. Now it’s your turn.” Maybe that’s where I am: People are having to suffer from my love of music. But it has been great.
What’s the band like?
There’s nine of us and everybody’s obsessed with music, both writing and recording. Luckily, there aren’t a lot of other distractions. I spent my teens and 20s basically trying to play an entire set without someone passing out or having to stop the drummers from doing things that would get them arrested.
Given your persona and your politics, you don’t really seem like a music nerd.
Music has been a huge part of my life since I was 5 years old and my mom got me in front of a piano. I started writing songs when I was 13 or 14, and I had bands in high school and college. A few years back I decided that, since I had written 300 to 400 songs, it was time to actually get a band together and start playing them live.
Does your experience in politics and on camera help with performing live?
You know, I’m fine debating a Nobel Prize winner on TV, but putting a guitar on and singing on The View was a nightmare. I remember saying to Mika beforehand, “If I could dig a hole and bury myself in it right now, I would.” So it was a new feeling for me, and it wasn’t a good feeling. There always has been this dichotomy in my life where, when I was in Congress, I would find myself in the room with Bill Clinton, the vice president, the secretary of state, and not think twice about it. But being in front of Thom Yorke, or Paul McCartney, or even The New Pornographers, I would start shaking, because these are people I respect and whose craft I always have admired the most.
When you meet your music idols, how do they respond to your politics?
Sometimes I sneak up on them. I remember talking to Bono after the 2001 Grammys, and I was going on and on about everything from Rattle and Hum through How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and he’s like, “Man, you’re a Republican?” He was pretty surprised. But when I met Paul McCartney, it was a nightmare. Someone yelled, “He’s a Republican!” and Paul looked at me like I had leprosy.
So you’re a Beatles guy?
Growing up, I was always a British music fan. But in college, I remember going to this record store and saying, “Waddaya got?” And the guy said, “There’s this band out of Athens [Ga.] called R.E.M. You’ve got to listen to Murmur.” And I go home, and it was like Almost Famous — I listened to it for three days straight.
How did the music thing play with voters?
It’s funny — when I ran for Congress, my opponent put out a full-page ad attacking me for being too young. It had a screaming headline that said, “Do you want a rock star as your next congressman?” She had cut out this article that talked about how I played at CBGB, and described it as a sleazy, decrepit joint in New York. And it was the most exciting attack I ever had, like, “Hey, look! Somebody called me a rock star!”
So which convention will have better music? The Republicans or the Democrats?
It’s one of the great tragedies of my political life that Democrats get all the great musicians, whether it’s the Eagles performing for a fundraiser, or R.E.M. With the Republicans, maybe Wayne Newton will stumble into the ballroom, but I think I’m going to get to hear the good bands at the Democrats’ convention in Philadelphia.
This story originally appeared in the July 23 issue of Billboard.