However big a music geek you think you are, chances are James Gunn is a bigger one. The Guardians of the Galaxy/ The Suicide Squad director says he spends as much time — if not more — dreaming up the rock classics and deep-cut soundtracks for his films as he does plotting the over-the-top action sequences.
But his new HBO Max Squad spin-off series, Peacemaker, might be the pinnacle of his obsessive virtual crate-digging — thanks to its signature mix of forgotten old (and some brand new) mascara-and-AquaNet hair metal anthems. Each episode is jam-packed with deep-cut tracks from the 1980s Sunset Strip heyday, as well as some choice cuts from the modern sleaze metal acts Gunn can’t get enough of. Beyond the soundtrack, the show has also gained instant acclaim for its bananas opening credit sequence, in which star John Cena and the cast do a stilted, gonzo line dance to your new favorite song, “Do Ya Really Wanna Taste It,” by Norwegian hair metal 2.0 revivalists Wig Wam.
Billboard spoke to Gunn about his obsessive music list-making, the origin of Peacemaker’s metal mania and what it takes to make it into rotation on his Sonos.
You’re known for having a distinctive musical vibe for your movies and Peacemaker is no exception. You really dig into hair metal on the show (Pretty Boy Floyd, Faster Pussycat, Y&T, Quireboys) — what is it about that era and that sound that speaks to you?
First of all, it seemed like the kind of music Peacemaker would like. John and I talked a lot about who Peacemaker/Christopher Smith was back when we were doing Suicide Squad and we both kind of though he’d listen to hair metal. But also secretly I’ve been wanting to do a hair metal/glam metal soundtrack for a while, because I do think there are a lot of great songs out there.
It’s music that died in a few weeks after Nirvana came out and with the exception of Motley Crue and Bon Jovi and some of the monster acts was just completely gone, unfairly so. But there’s also some really good musicianship and some really good songs from that era that just stick with me. So finding those gems amidst the heap of glam metal was something that excited me and something I’ve been doing for years on my own anyway. There are so many great sleaze metal/glam rock bands today, especially out of Europe that are so good and actually much better, in general, than the old stuff.
There’s definitely a mix of bands people might know from that era s some newer ones (Santa Cruz, Bang Camaro) they might not know.
We have 3 songs by The Cruel Intentions in an episode, they have an endless amount of good songs. They might be my favorite of the modern era bands. This next episode features Hanoi Rocks, which are my favorite band from that era, period. And they really are the place where punk became glam metal. They did create the look, 100% — Guns N’ Roses were copying their look for sure.
Peacemaker loving hair metal also seems like a rebellion against his alt-right dad (Auggie Smith, played by Robert Patrick) no?
Absolutely. I think the androgyny of it, the Satanic aspect. It’s definitely the kind of thing Auggie Smith would hate. I think hair metal is where Christopher Smith claimed his own thing that had nothing to do with his father and something that his father hated.
What qualities does a song have to have to make it into the show? Is there a certain vibe it needs?
Some of the bands I’m having are more metal. I brought up [Swedish band] Dynazty in this upcoming episode, which is a band I really like a lot that is more metal. Some, like Hanoi Rocks are on the edge of punk more or glam metal and stuff like Foxy Shazam, which has that rock feel but is more experimental. But it all has that sort of rock and roll feel, and having an album that’s just completely pop/rock and roll is part of what I wanted. I don’t now exactly what it is, but I know when I hear it. First and foremost the songs needs to fit whatever the scene is.
What’s amazing is that even for the bands most of us causal hair metal fans may not have heard of (The Poodles, Tigertailz) — you manage to make them sound like forgotten classics the way you stage them within the action of the show. It’s clear you love these songs in the way you elevate them. Do you fit the song to the scene, or vice versa?
It works both ways. When I start working on something like this I have a list… I have a Peacemaker list that ended up being 400 songs that I felt fit the mold of the music I was looking for. And I listen to it all the time. I take a shower, I’m listening to it, washing dishes, I put it on the Sonos in my house. And I find my favorites out of that and I know that I want to use them. I gave a list to our main editor before we started cutting of my 100 favorites I’d love to find a place for but haven’t. So if we end up having a place that’s empty we can put a song in there. The last episode, one of the Cruel Intentions songs was not in the script — most all of these songs I write into the script, and we find a place for it. 95% of the songs are written into the script.
How long have you been compiling that Peacemaker metal list?
Truth is I’ve been keeping a hair metal list for a while. I was a punk rock kid, but I liked hair metal and was kind of part of that scene. I saw Guns N’ Roses at the Troubadour on the night they got signed, because I was a Hanoi Rocks fan — that’s why I went to see them when I was 18. I only know this because [GNR guitarist] Slash came to the set of Suicide Squad to hang out and I told him I’d seen them way back live on the Sunset Strip, and he said, “Yeah, that’s the night we got signed.”
I’d been keeping the hair metal list for a while because I wanted to do something with it, but also for my own enjoyment. I keep a lot of lists and I have some of them on my Spotify where the Peacemaker playlist is. I have old British punk rock, my favorite bands — compilations by the Replacements and Alice Cooper — I’m just a crazy, crazy list-maker with music in general.
It definitely shows. A lot of these bands haven’t had much shine lately, have you heard from any of the ones featured in the show who wanted to thank you, or maybe pitch you?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve talked to a lot of them. I’ve talked to Santa Cruz, Cruel Intentions, Faster Pussycat [Peacemaker does a dance to FP’s “House of Pain” while wearing the band’s shirt in last week’s episode], I’ve talked to Nashville Pussy quite a few times.
And what do they say? I assume they’re all a bit shocked, no?
I don’t know how the deals work out because I just give the songs to the guys and ask them to go get them, but we’ve gotten every song we asked for for the whole season except for one song I wanted to put in but couldn’t because the band had split up and there were rights issues. But I’m always surprised when these guys are like, “What the f–k?” Like, Nashville Pussy had no idea they were in the pilot episode until they came up in the trailer and they were like, “What?!”
Some of these bands, you go to their Spotify page and they have 7,000 plays on their song. Some of them are coming out of nowhere, others. Wig Wam had quite a few million plays on their two biggest hits, but still only a few million plays on “Do Ya Wanna Taste It?”
I spoke to Wig Wam and they said that their booking agent dropped them — and they were like, “Please, just wait three more days [for the trailer to drop].” And now things are taking off for them.
Oh my God, that’s amazing.
The intro has become an instant classic — and, like you said in interviews, has definitely gotten people to not skip. That’s a huge win in the streaming universe.
Yeah, that was part of the aim. But really I just wanted to create something that showed how fun the show was going to be and said, “we don’t have any f–king rules with this thing whatsoever.” We’re not just talking about sex and violence and boundaries people expect us to push, but we mean creatively, we don’t have any boundaries. We’re going to show that with this absolutely ludicrous dance scene up front.
Guilty. I watch it every time. I saw the choreographer [Charissa Barton] say that the movements in the intro were influenced by everything from Charlie Chaplin to claymation. It’s awkward on purpose right?
Yeah. The thing was to make the movements as odd as possible while keeping the cast completely f—ing serious about everything.
Did they get that right away?
Yeah. When I first talked to Charissa on Zoom I did little dances to show how ridiculous it is. It was a bit too much like how I dance anyway [laughs]. But I showed her the kind of thing I was talking about and she got it immediately. Charissa picked out the best influences and she seemed to really understand where I was coming from.
Did you really come up with the intro on the first day of writing the script?
I think I came up with it before I wrote the script. I percolate ideas in my head before I start writing things down. But, yeah, I knew from the beginning that there would be a dance sequence up front. I did the same thing in my movie  Super, except it was animated, so live action seemed to be obvious to me.
How did you even find the Wig Wam song? I’d never heard of them but now I wonder how that is because I can’t stop listening.
I knew about them for a while. I read a bunch of books on hair metal and I started searching sites where you go to find different types of music. I get really heavily into different types of music at different times. I was really, really into power pop for a while and I have hundreds and hundreds of obscure power pop albums on disc. I got really into Swedish rock for a while and I would write on the Swedish music blogs and talk to the guys putting them together… and then I got into this. I got into hair metal and Wig Wam, for that type of modern European sleaze rock, they are not that unknown. There are other bands like Crazy Lixx out there that are super fun. We have another one of Wig Wam’s songs in episode 7 that’s pretty cool.
I love that you have this massive hair metal Spotify list… do you do that for all your projects?
Yeah. I had a 500-song list for Suicide Squad that would fit that movie. And that was much more eclectic and I had hundreds of songs for Guardians and I have hundreds of songs for Guardians 3. Every time it’s very different, but my favorite thing to do is finding music. I don’t procrastinate much, but if I do, that’s why.
Music has played such an integral part in all your movies. I was going to ask if you spend as much time gathering songs as you do ideas for the script. But I think I know the answer.
[laughs] Probably more. I’m pretty crazy… it’s what I do for fun. I’ll take a whole day to find new music. There’s this site Album of the Year that has every new album and I go there every Sunday and I try to listen to every new album that’s coming out.
What is it about dance sequences in all your movies? Because they’re totally unexpected, but don’t feel out of place somehow.
I think it just makes people happy. I look back at movies I used to like like [1959 John Wayne western] Rio Bravo, where all of a sudden you have Ricky Nelson singing songs in the middle of a western. I love that stuff. I grew up on Hong Kong movies, where there’s not rules. Whatever you need to do to entertain the audience you can do it. There’s no boundaries and I love that lack of boundaries in entertainment.
Speaking of music, gotta ask, what’s the Guardians 3 mixtape look like?
Yeah, I just came from the set right now. Just that it comes from the brown Zune that Yondu gave to Peter Quill. They aren’t chosen by his mother, I can tell you that.
Watch the Peacemaker intro video below.