Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman on why he hates “Mambo No. 5”

Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman on why he hates “Mambo No. 5”

In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world. 

The hater: As the guitarist for Fall Out Boy, Joe Trohman is no stranger to haters. He’s also no stranger to super-fans. After three years on hiatus, Fall Out Boy got back together recently, endlessly thrilling its hordes of faithful devotees and drawing the mild ire of everyone else. Still, the band’s latest record, Save Rock And Roll, is out this week, pretty darn good, and will most assuredly end up toward the top of this week’s Billboard Top 200, so who cares what anyone thinks? 

Given that his band’s hated by so many people, The A.V. Club thought it would be interesting to see just what Trohman hates, so we talked to him about his least favorite song of all time.

The hated: Lou Bega, “Mambo No. 5” (1999)

The A.V. Club: Well, you picked a doozy.

Joe Trohman: Yeah, I picked a pretty bad one. And I could talk about terrible songs all day because I think I’m a pretty big snob, unfortunately. It’s to my own dismay because I think being a music snob is a terrible quality in a human being. 

AVC: Sometimes it comes back to bite you in the ass. 

JT: It comes back and bites you in the ass, and it also makes you look like a really curmudgeonly shit. It makes you the xenophobe or the white-power racist of music. It makes you very elitist and only “sieg heil” to certain artists because everything else is inferior in your mind.

AVC: One question before we get into Lou Bega: Some people feel about Fall Out Boy the way you feel about other bands. How do you feel about that?

JT: You have to realize we started this band when I was a kid. You went through those growing pains as a kid where you only thought certain things are cool, and you think other things aren’t cool. You’re not comfortable with yourself or who you are and what you’re doing. So it took me a long time to like me, love me, and just be cool with who I am and what I do. 

Now I’m at this point where I’m an adult. I love what I do and the music I make and the bands I’ve done, especially Fall Out Boy. I also love what I love, and I don’t care if other people like it. I don’t care about other people’s opinions. You get to that age where that’s hopefully where you’re at. You’re super-comfortable with yourself. I feel like I’ve become less of a music snob and less of a snob about a lot of things because I realize I came off as such a bad person because of that. And that’s how I see a lot of these people. 

I don’t care if you like our band. I really don’t. Some people do like our band and some people don’t like our band for non-musical reasons. You’re cheating yourself. That’s not to say that you would like our band if you sat down and listened to it, but you’re cheating when you don’t listen to music and don’t like things because of surface stuff, and I feel like 90 percent of the people hating music is because of surface reasons. 

I’m not saying our singles are bad songs, but singles, in general, are a weaker representation of a band’s catalog. I think people hear a single a million times, get annoyed by it, and have no reason to listen to the rest of our songs. So, in that regard, there are plenty of bands I hear 10 years after the fact and I wonder who is this band and someone is like, “Oh, it’s this band.” And I say, “I didn’t know they had songs like this.” That ends up being everything but the one song you’ve heard. 

AVC: Maybe Lou Bega’s catalog is fantastic. 

JT: [Laughs.] I’ve scoped it out. It’s very, very limited. 

I joke about this song all the time because I live in New York now, and New York has a lot of bodegas, but I call them “Lou Begas.” Like, “I’m going to stop by the Lou Bega and grab myself a little mambo drink.” Maybe a “Mambo No. Beer.” 

This is a goofy, shitty, annoying song. I was thinking about how, around the same time, The Black Eyed Peas existed as a cool kind of hip-hop band. They were nothing like they are now, and I feel like “Mambo No. 5” may have paved the way for that kind of candy pop. 

AVC: Looking at what was on the charts at that time, it was stuff like “Mambo No. 5,” “Blue” by Eiffel 65, Jessica Simpson, and the Vengaboys. It was a cavalcade of shit. 

JT: How much earlier was “Tootsee Roll” [by 69 Boyz]? I feel like it might be in that same category. I feel like “Mambo No. 5” is in that “Tootsee Roll” category of songs that will be played at a middle-school dance. 

AVC: “Tootsee Roll” came out in 1994, five years earlier than “Mambo No. 5.” 

JT: It set the trend. 

AVC: There are always big novelty singles that are popular like, “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train).” 

JT: “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

AVC: And some people might say “Gangnam Style.” We’ll see how that guy’s career pans out. 

JT: “Gangnam Style” is absolutely a novelty song that I kind of like. I have a weird respect for that dude in a way because he’s so savvy. 

AVC: Anyway, back to Lou Bega. I didn’t know he was from Germany. 

JT: I did. 

AVC: In college, whenever there was a theme party, no matter what the theme was, my friend would go as Lou Bega. It could be a post-apocalyptic party or a ’60s party, and he’d go as Lou Bega. I think it was because it was an easy costume to put together. It’s just a hat and a mustache. 

JT: That’s the one thing that makes this dude and that song goofier and cheesier: He has that one thing and that one moment. 

Have you ever heard the original “Mambo No. 5”? It’s a cool song. It’s what you think of when you think of mambo. Lou Bega just sampled it in the worst possible way. And I’ll be honest, there are a lot of songs I hear and think, “Oh, I’d like to sample that and take the kick drum out,” or, “I’d like to try to make a version of that thing to get inspired.” There’s nothing wrong with sampling when it’s done really well. But I feel like as cool as the original “Mambo No. 5” is, it’s not a song to sample. It’s a song to leave alone and let it be. There’s nothing that makes it this epic thing that I have to sample. The only thing you can do is degrade it. 

There was some weird piece of information where Lou Bega’s strangely related to somebody in a band from Chicago, Treaty Of Paris. Phil Kosch is his nephew, and he’s in Treaty Of Paris, who I’m not super familiar with, but I’ve heard of the band. Isn’t that strange?

AVC: I wonder if that’s true, or if it’s one of those Wikipedia facts. 

JT: I don’t know. It may very well not be true, but I want to believe it anyway. I want to believe there are only a few degrees of separation between either of us and Lou Bega, because I bet he’s a really cool guy to hang out with. I bet he’s really happy and German and trying to write Latin pop music and not really making it happen anymore. 

AVC: He seems amenable. He rewrote “Mambo No. 5” for Disney.

JT: He rewrote it with “a little bit of Donald Duck” or something like that. He’s a real artist and a real ham at the same time. 

AVC: He has to pay the bills. As we get older, we realize things are not as black and white. While we don’t like some song, we understand why people do. I think young people have an easier time making polarizing statements and choices.

JT: Yeah! There have to be a lot of people who like that song. It was a huge hit. Whether they have a lasting love with it or, whenever it pops up, they’re like, “I remember this song. I used to love it. Let’s pour a drink and dance.” I mean, whatever. At the end of the day, you have to look at it in several layers. Not everything has to be your thing. If other people like it, it’s okay. You don’t have to like it. What you like doesn’t define what’s good. 

I’ll be honest, though: There are probably a lot of people who’ll agree that maybe “Mambo No. 5” isn’t the pinnacle of art or music. 

AVC: Why, specifically, don’t you like it?

JT: It takes a really cool song and it degrades it. It degrades what it originally was and makes it into this goofy thing. And I think it paves the way for a kind of goofy pop that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s just hamming it up. You watch the video, and it’s just the biggest ham show of all time. There’s something indescribably grating about that. 

I wish I could describe it. Well, let me ask you. What don’t you like about it? Or do you like it?

AVC: Well at the time it came out, I actually really liked it. It was like, “Oh, I’m a freshman in college, this is a really fun song.”

JT: I was a really depressed, grunge, noise-rock dude. I was like, “Yo, it’s not stoner rock or noise rock, so I don’t want to hear it.”

AVC: Now I listen to it critically and realize that the listed names are grating, and the lyrics make absolutely no sense. It’s like it was written by someone in another language, then translated into English, or written by someone who doesn’t have comprehensive knowledge of English, which I suppose it was. 

JT: It’s like the goofy German dude just doesn’t get it. There are plenty of great German artists and plenty of great German music, Kraftwerk being one of my favorites, but he seems like the classic, [attempts German accent] “Yah, I’ll do it.” I don’t know how he talks, it doesn’t sound like he talks like that, but he seems like a guy more into going to clubs and things than writing music. I guess I can’t relate to that kind of guy. 

AVC: One thing that always comes up in this column is that if a song is too popular, people start to hate it. Maybe if you’d never heard the song or heard it just once, it wouldn’t be your most hated song. But it was so drilled into you that you just came to resent it. 

JT: It’s funny talking with you about it, because we’re older now and we can’t muster up the kind of hate that we used to be able to muster up. 

AVC: Or you kind of get it. You get why something was popular or why someone did what they did.

JT: Exactly! You get it! Not everything is in black and white. There are other bits and pieces to it, and you also learn to be happy for other people’s success. Even if it’s fleeting, you’re like, “You know what? At least you had it.” You’ll say to Lou Bega, “You know what, Lou Bega? At least you had that hit song in 1999.”

AVC: And you know he worked for it.

JT: He definitely worked for it. And you know he’s talented. 

I always say this about comedians: Think of one of the most atrocious comedians, like Larry the Cable Guy. He fucking sucks. Nobody at The Onion is influenced by Larry the Cable Guy, nobody I know likes him, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s kind of a piece of shit. Nonetheless, I bet if you put him in a room with a bunch of non-comedians, he might still be the funniest dude in the room. The reason I’m saying that is not because I think he’s funny, but a guy like Lou Bega—in the pantheon of music, he isn’t the most talented or deepest, but he’s probably a pretty talented guy in a room full of musicians. 

By no means am I saying I find Larry the Cable Guy talented, nor do I find Lou Bega’s wide swath of music really storied and rich. I’ll just say it’s not for me. 

AVC: One way to say that is to say, “He’s really good at what he does.” What he does might not be for you, but hey, he’s good at it.

JT: It’s a backhanded compliment, but it’s true. He’s great at this one thing that’s 14 years old now. 

I just hope that as goofy as that shtick is, and as widely hated as he may be by musicologists or real music fans or music makers, I hope he’s stoked about it. I hope he’s not like 17-year-old me, constantly questioning himself and not proud of his accomplishments, because he should be proud of that. That’s what a lot of musicians dream of doing. A lot of musicians dream of having at least one hit song and having people notice their talents for even a moment. And he probably has more talent than 69 Boyz. 

AVC: Well, who’s to say?

JT: It’s hard to say. 69 Boyz are good. 

AVC: Well, at least with Lou Bega, we know his actual name. 

JT: We don’t know the 69 Boyz. But we do know “Tootsee Roll,” and I feel like “Tootsee Roll” is a song where you almost have to be from a certain era. I don’t feel that song is played in as many places as “Mambo No. 5.” “Mambo No. 5” might end up in a Dairy Queen commercial next week. It has a lot of replay in it. 

AVC: Lou Bega might be one of those people that ends up in an Old Navy commercial. He’ll be there in a white fedora, and viewers will go, “Oh, I get it.” 

JT: He’s got an iconic look. Well, he’s got an iconic look that’s somebody else’s look. It’s completely co-opted. 

I kind of really love Lou Bega after this conversation. Now I just want to hang out with him. 

AVC: Maybe when you’re in Germany you can look him up. See if he wants to open for you guys

JT: Speaking of finding really old dinosaurs to play with—not that I find this guy untalented, because he’s really talented—a long time ago we played with Tommy Tutone. He opened and closed a set with “867-5309 (Jenny).”

AVC: Opened and closed? He played it twice?

JT: Oh, yeah. He knew, pretty much, he shouldn’t have been there. He knew this was the only way to get in and get out of this thing unscathed. 

He’s awesome. I guess he just plays jazz clubs in New York. I mean, he’s a talented dude who had one hit. Maybe two. 

AVC: We have this A.V. Undercover feature where bands come in and play other band’s songs, and I think sometimes they decide, “I’m going to do this song because it’s stupid,” but then they start playing it and realize, “This is kind of a hard song to play. There’s musicality to it.”

JT: It doesn’t mean it’s not well done. There are a lot of misconceptions about a simple-sounding song. I think it’s very difficult to write a simple song. It’s very difficult to cut the fat. That’s why people are bad at writing, and people are bad at making movies. They write too much or make too much shit, and they don’t know how to focus an idea. Having a hit song, no matter how grating it is, means you did something that not a lot of people can do. That’s a really specific talent. 

At the same time, let’s go back and realize that Lou Bega didn’t fully write that song. He had a lot of help from Pérez Prado. He had a lot of help from a guy in 1949. But if you listen to “Mambo No. 5” the original and you listen to Lou Bega’s version, he made it into his own goofball thing… Did he actually write “Mambo No. 5”? That’s a good question. [Searches Wikipedia.] It doesn’t say he didn’t write it. 

How was that song produced by three different people? Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of great hip-hop out there, but you look at a hip-hop song and there’s eight different producers and you think, “Oh, one guy brought the drum samples, one guy brought the synth sounds.” Each guy brought one thing; that’s what the producer does. It’s definitely different than rock production. 

AVC: Especially now that people realize that a producer credit is a big deal. 

JT: There are definitely people who get into the production biz for the wrong reasons.

[Reads.] “Lyrics by Lou Bega and Zippy Davids.” Do you know him? I have no idea who that is. I don’t know Zippy. The music is still listed by Pérez Prado, but if you listen to Lou Bega’s “A Little Bit Of…” and the original “Mambo No. 5,” there’s a very small semblance the way it was sampled. 

There’s definitely an art to sampling in not telling anybody what you sampled and never getting found out. That’s crazy good art. Then there’s an art to sampling where even though you’re splitting writing credits, you still make it into something different. And he did that. It may not be better, but that’s subjective. What makes it better? 

AVC: The mid-to-late ’90s was a hot time for sampling old tracks. That was when swing came back. 

JT: Absolutely. Sampling was less policed, I feel like. Now it’s really policed. If you sample something, you have to cut it up to the point where it is so different that there is no semblance of the original thing. You are treating it like an instrument or a synth.

Unfortunately, that’s something I really liked about hip-hop that’s really hard to do nowadays. I liked the old-school, backpacker hip-hop where they’d sample old soul records and stuff. I think that was one of the most exciting aspects, hearing some familiar melody and having someone put something really compelling over it to make it this whole new entity. 

AVC: The Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit)” is a good example of a song that just barely changes the original sample.

JT: If you’re doing that, why waste the energy? As a guy who likes to break music, I like to put a lot of work into creating something new. I don’t want it to be the exact same as something I’ve made before, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be satisfied with just shitting something out. 

AVC: Now I have so many questions for Lou Bega. 

JT: Yeah, when are you going to interview Lou Bega? What’s going on with that? Is he going to be the follow-up?

AVC: “Lou Bega, what’s your least favorite song?”

JT: “Mambo No. 5.” 

AVC: Robyn Hitchcock said one of his least favorite songs was a song that he wrote.

JT: Really? I can think of songs that Fall Out Boy wrote, some of our older songs, that are really not my favorite. I’ve learned to not try to throw myself under the bus too much, though. Or my band members. 

I’m also a guy who will make a record or a song, and I won’t be able to listen to it afterward. It doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it’s just—this is a really bad way to say it—but it’s like taking a shit. Like, “Oh that felt great! I’m so glad, that was so cathartic.” But I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to hang out with it. But here’s a difference: I do have to hang out with it. Often, I have to hang out with those little shits. 

At the end of the day, I like the music and am proud of that stuff, even the bad stuff. It’s like having tattoos. I have a lot of tattoos and probably, at the end of the day, regret the idea of having tattoos. But I have a lot of good tattoos, and I have my bad tattoos I started out with. I can’t have my good ones without my bad ones, so I kind appreciate the bad ones even more. And I feel that way about the worst songs I’ve been a part of making. I have to make those. I have to be completely naked in front of people and show my disgusting body to people so that I can learn to maybe tone it up a little bit. Maybe look a little better naked.

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