John Cusack

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Actor John Cusack reminisces about growing up punk in Chicago and learning how to funnel anger into art to change the world. He also talks to DJ Liza Richardson about the “dark, savage irony” of Ray Davies that serves as the soundtrack to a critical scene in his new film, War Inc., a collaboration of musical greats he describes as “apocalyptic carnival music,” and an epic track by The King. Cusack wrote, stars in, and produced War, Inc.

which is out in limited release May 23.

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Show Playlist


1. Clash-"Safe European Home", The Story Of The Clash Volume 1 (Epic)
2. Ray Davies-"The Tourist", Other People's Lives (V2)
3. Billy Bragg/Wilco-"Blood of the Lamb", Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra)
4. Strauss-"Blue Danube", Johann Strauss Jr.: The Waltz King (High Definition Classics)
5. Elvis Presley-"Battle Hymn of the Republic"'


Liza Richardson: Hi, I'm Liza Richardson from KCRW, and I am here with actor John Cusack. We're going to talk about some of the music that has inspired you over the years. Thank you for coming.

John Cusack: Hi Liza.

Liza Richardson: I really appreciate it. So, you're kind of famous for being really into music as an actor, and having a lot to do with the music in a lot of the films that you do. What are some of your earliest memories of being passionate or being crazy about music?

John Cusack: Well, I remember, you know, as you're growing up, it was just the record player, and you'd go to the record store, and you'd get 45s, but it was basically very, very commercial stuff. And then around the late 70s and early 80s, it was when the whole kind of punk and post punk scene was going on in Chicago, and as a teenager you could take the train down to the club that had the all ages show and go see, The Effigies, or The Dead Kennedys, and then you had The Clash on the scene and The Sex Pistols and it went on and on. I think it just had to do with some sense of your identity and growing up, learning how to think, and feel for yourself outside of the bubble of your home.

Liza Richardson: For you, it was being a part of something, being influenced by your friends and a scene, and living in Chicago and growing up.

John Cusack: Yeah, it had to do with seeing the world through a different lens and thinking for yourself. And then when you heard the Clash, and you heard them interviewed, and I realized that it wasn't just -- you know, as a white, suburban punk, or wannabe, myself at the time-- you realized, it wasn't just enough to rebel, but you had to use that anger, that rebellion as fuel to a higher world, and the price was thinking. You had to engage with the world and think, and it wasn't just enough to express.

Song, The Clash – Safe European Home

Liza Richardson: So what is the first song that inspired you?

John Cusack: Well there's a great song called “The Tourist” by Ray Davies, We were looking for a musical cue for this movie that I made called "War Inc." when the character I play is a mercenary who's landing in the next Green Zone. It's set about two weeks into the future, it's a movie about war profiteering and privatization and it's like a futuristic absurdist comedy. And so, we're looking for something that had that right kind of savage edge and somehow Ray Davies just keeps working for me whenever I try to make a film.

Liza Richardson: That's savage.

John Cusack: Yeah I don’t know what it is about his voice and his lyrics and arrangements, but there's some sort of dark savage irony to his stuff that I find I like, it just adjusts you in a fantastic way.

Liza Richardson: So describe the scene that “The Tourist” by Ray Davies is in in the film, what happens?

John Cusack: My character lands in Turakistan, in the Green Zone, which is the next place that the Neo-Cons would invade if this current crew would have their way and, as Naomi Klein calls the Green Zone in Iraq -- she calls it a Carnival Cruise ship amidst a sea of despair -- which I thought was a fantastic analogy. Anyway, it's a strange film as you can imagine.  So as he lands into it, he drives in from the airport through the burnt out city into this fortified Green Zone with all the products that they're bringing in. As they sort of liberate countries, it really sort of means 100% free reign for all these companies to come in and do what they want.  So, we play The Tourist by Ray Davies.

Song, Ray Davies’ The Tourist

Liza Richardson:  So the next one…I know we had a little trouble putting the list together but I think we narrowed it down to your next choice.

John Cusack: Yes

Liza Richardson: Which is?

JC: “Blood of the Lamb,” which was Wilco and Billy Bragg off of Mermaid Ave, I believe.  It has that same kind of edge that “The Tourist” has to me and, as we were making the film, what we tried to do is we wanted that….it's kind of like apocalyptic carnival music. I don’t know how it manages to be heartfelt and spiritual and completely whacked and savage irony at the same time.  So it has that sort of paradox in it where it contains all that and you can sort of ride that edge on these songs, a couple of 'em anyway. Certainly “The Tourist” and “Blood of the Lamb,” but I think this is just a brilliant record.

Song, Wilco And Billy Bragg’s Blood of the Lamb

Liza Richardson:  Ok so that's “Blood of the Lamb”, it's by Wilco and Billy Bragg and the choice of John Cusack, our guest here.  Let's move on to your next choice, which is?

John Cusack: I think “Blue Danube” is just a beautiful song and we put this in the movie at a time to sort of juxtapose the comic absurdity of a character’s violent past with the absurd kind of ballet of a choreographed fight. So I guess it was in a strange way an homage to Kubrick or some of the great filmmakers who have done that in the past, so it might have been a wink wink to that.

Liza Richardson: And this was your choice to put it in the film?

John Cusack: Uh huh, and we couldn't afford the version we're going to play right here.

Liza Richardson: Right but you were able to get like, Extreme Music, or somebody else to give you a version, right?

John Cusack: I don’t know how we got it, but whatever we got, it wasn't quite as good as this version.

Song, Blue Danube by Strauss

Liza Richardson:  So this is an excellent choice, thank you for picking it.  It's called Battle Hymn of the Republic and it's by Elvis Presley.

John Cusack:  Yes, by Elvis Presley but it also goes into Glory Glory Hallelujah and Dixieland. I guess the official title is Battle Hymn of the Republic but it's kind of all songs rolled into one and it's an epic, epic song – must be like a 100-piece orchestra, and so it's the biggest craziest and most absurd glorious, you know, 2001 Space Odyssey Elvis moment, battle hymn. And I love this song, so we put this in “War Inc.” -- the generic version at a reduced price.

Song, Elvis Presley - Battle Hymn of the Republic

Liza Richardson: John, thank you so much for joining us today.  I really appreciate the time you put into coming down and thinking of these 5 songs.

John Cusack: It would be impossible if you asked me to give you an all time top 5.

Liza Richardson: To do your whole life, I know, I know. So you have to come back.

John Cusack: I would love to.

Liza Richardson: Ok great, so John Cusack has been our guest today on  I'm Liza Richardson, thanks for joining us.