Coyote Shivers Revisits Empire Records 20 Years Later

The musician who played Berko looks back at the cult film ... hypothetically


lights camera music final Coyote Shivers Revisits Empire Records 20 Years LaterEver wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect.

When you’re an east-coaster like myself, interviews over a virtual red-eye to Cali can be time-zoned and very hit-or-miss. Thankfully, the advent of technologies like Twitfeed and Facebook alott for intimate moments across multiple state lines. On a hunt for some tie-ins to celebrate the 20th anniversary of seminal cult film hit, Empire Records, a name surfaced: Coyote Shivers — the quintessential rocker alongside Renee Zellweger who closed said classic with a rendition of acclaimed tune “Sugar High” atop the titular record store’s famous marquee in an attempt to save their music supplier from a chain purchase/absorption.

Before being escorted around Hollywood via mobile camera while DJ Casper runs through a gamut of Roky Erickson and The Cramps at St. Felix, Shivers was kind enough to let me pick his brain and better illustrate why Empire Records, as an experience both on-set and off, was hypothetical chaos.


Upon discussing musical acts like California natives Faith No More, the ball began to roll in every which way imaginable. We even get a big reveal on a long-awaited single release.

Coyote Shivers (CS): My wife [author Mayra Dias Gomes] just confirmed to me that Faith No More has more than one song, but I’m a bit out of it, so forgive me. I tend to be unaware of music that came out post-’85. Not out of snobbery, but because that’s when I started playing, and from that moment on, all I cared about was what I was doing. I stopped buying records and spent the money on guitar strings, etc. You get the idea. But as a kid, I was a rabid collector. It just ended in ’85 is all.

That’s cool. I pretty much live musically in anything prior to the new millennium, but I stay on top of the rest for journalistic purposes. I just got a vinyl of the soundtrack to Pet Sematary if that’s a clue.

CS: I love the public affection for vinyl thing. For like a million reasons. Ok, probably more like 10. But yeah, it’s a cool thing.

So, how did you end up with the part in Empire Records to begin with?

CS: The awesome Gail Levin was casting. They wanted a young “real” musician (not an actor playing a musician). Originally, they had considered Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, but it didn’t work out, so they got me instead, which is kind of a funny thing because I’ve done a couple movies where they first wanted someone else. In Dirty Love, with Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Elektra, I did a cameo as the DJ at a fashion show that was originally Dave Navarro, but then he couldn’t make it, so they called me. It’s like, “Oh, if you can’t get the huge rock star, then get Coyote.”

Hey, plenty of “other guys” got big. Look at Steve Buscemi.

CS: Also, I had lied about my age saying I was a teenager because that’s what they were aiming for, and I looked young anyway. They had no idea when they cast me that I was related to Liv Tyler. When they found out, I almost lost the gig, because it exposed the fact that I was well into my 20s. That coincidence also happened with a few other people on the film. Renee Zellweger and Rory Cochrane were living together as a couple but were cast completely independently. So were others in the crew, etc. It was interesting on the first day when we were all “introduced” to each other. It ended up being like a small family living on the beach in North Carolina while we filmed.


I actually had no idea you two were related. What relation?

CS: Well, I don’t know if I want to get into that, but Liv was my stepdaughter through her teenage years and rise to fame.

So, why do you think they picked NC as a setting for the shoot? Why not New York or something more along that era of young, hip films? I mean, this ain’t The Notebook.

CS: Wilmington, NC, has a miniature film industry. A couple studio lots, etc. So I guess it made sense to them. I think it was supposed to be a small town in Pennsylvania or something. Can’t remember, but it wasn’t set in NY or LA. It was a smaller city on the east coast. Somewhere Lucas could drive to Atlantic City overnight from.

True, I just thought NC always felt inconsistent with the trends back then. 

CS: It was actually written by someone who worked at Tower Records on Sunset Blvd in LA, but fictionally it was set in a smaller east coast city. There was actually a guy named Berko who worked there and had a band, Berko Pearce. He’s now my friend.

That explains a lot. I had it the other way around and worked at a chain store music shop once. The blandness nearly killed my soul until my manager, who looked like Donal Logue, turned out to be an Eddie & The Cruisers junkie.

CS: I also did briefly when I was younger, and I’ve used almost those exact words. Just could not do it. I loved music too much.

Now, I don’t know who had the creative control over the film soundtrack, but why wasn’t the Zellweger version of “Sugar High” on it originally? Clearly, there was a demand.

CS: Seriously, the song already existed. The “Gina” part was invented because the character in the movie gets up and sings. The lyrics she sings are insipid as fuck, because they are added after the fact with no real purpose other than an excuse for her to sing. The melody, however, admittedly did turn into its own hook. Also, the version on the soundtrack was not supposed to be the version released. There’s a story there.

Can you elaborate?

CS: There was conflict because the film company wanted the song on the soundtrack, obviously. Actually, that’s pretty much the only reason I did the film: the soundtrack. (I was kinda full of myself at that age and had no desire to pursue film). Anyway, the record company did NOT want it on the soundtrack, because it wasn’t a band they owned.

That would probably also explain why around 40 other tracks were left off, as well.

CS: During mastering, I got a call from the music supervisor saying they were trying to not have it on the album because the guitar solo was “too loud to master.” I told him to tell them to call up Danial Lanois, who produced it and was arguably the biggest record producer in the world at the time, and tell him that. Supposedly, they declined and the music supervisor had to scramble for any other mix, which happened to be the rough mix that was meant just for playback while filming. And the label put it as the last song on the record on the original pressing. When it was released, Billboard Magazine called “Sugar High” the standout track on the album. I faxed the review to the label. [laughs]

Success is the sweetest revenge. Since you weren’t really considering yourself an actor, you get a different perspective on set. Who, to you, was the most and least interesting to work with while filming?

CS: Thinking about it, my memories surround the overall filming, not the film itself. The studio got us each a house on the beach, all like in a row, and we lived there for three months, so it was like a little community, and everyone was really insane. In a good way, mostly, but a pretty insane lot. Hypothetically speaking, there was a lot of pot around at all times. Like a lot. Hypothetically speaking.


Hypothetically, of course.

CS: I tried to fuck with people’s heads. Like, I went and bought about 30 red light bulbs. And I would slowly swap a regular white one out and replace it with a red one. Then wait a few days. Then another. Slowly. For weeks, until my two-story house was just one big red glow at night. I never mentioned it, just did it so they would start to wonder like, “What’s up?” and then like, “WTF?” And eventually like, “WTF IS HE DOING IN THERE?” But I never mentioned it, just to make it weirder. I also hypothetically set up Brendan Sexton with a female extra to get his first blowjob, but that’s just hypothetical, too.

That’s the closest to a red light district that Coastal Carolina will ever get. Thank you, Nicholas Sparks.

CS: Ethan was always playing guitar, I remember. Ramones songs, mostly. And I would blast the Ramones every morning, as I drove in. Oh, I remember now … it was driving that outed me for being over 26. Because when the studio insured me for the car I had out there, they paid the “over 26” rate. [laughs]

There are worse ways to have an age outed, though. Ask Traci Lords.

CS: Have you seen the footage from the reunion?  Allan Moyle, the director, sort of explains that we weren’t all so happy at the time with how things kind of spiraled into retardedness.

(Read: News Editor Ben Kaye experiences the glorious nostalgia of Rex Manning Day)

How did that wind up affecting you most directly? This downward spiral, I mean. Other than the age thing.

CS: Oh, just everything fell apart. It was chaos from the beginning, almost purposefully, by Moyle, but a good kind of chaos at first. He wanted us to interact personally so it came off like a group of friends on film, so that’s why we were all out at the beach together for months and why everyone was pretty lazy about rules and the script got re-written a million times based on spontaneous ideas that appeared due to everyone being totally stoned. Hypothetically. But like all good things, Woodstock turned to Altamont. [laughs] The studio had one vision; the director had another. I did my best to not be in the film as much as possible. Like, every scene where there was dancing, which seemed like every other fucking scene, I would find a reason why “I think my character would be out back smoking during this.”

And after this series of chaotic events, the movie gets ripped apart by the highbrows of film critics. But fans have defended the fuck out of it for two decades. Why do you think they’re so passionate?

CS: Half of me truly understands now, in retrospect, why it’s so appealing, and also hearing people speak about how it touched them or inspired them when they were younger, I see why more. You have to remember at the time, like Alan says in that video, we all kinda just dispersed not feeling great about it at all. We didn’t even have a proper premiere, and so the cemetery screening with 4000 fans was our de facto premiere. But at the time, no, the vibes weren’t so positive. I hadn’t even watched it all the way through until two summers ago when Ethan and Johnny called me up and said there was an outdoor screening somewhere, and we went and heckled ourselves onscreen to the surprise of people there. But as we heckled it, I saw it and realized it wasn’t as bad as I had recalled.

Nostalgia works in mysterious ways, perhaps. I feel like that could easily be a Troll 2 meets Mystery Science Theater 3000 moment. Do you still stay in any active contact with the rest of the cast? Besides the reunion, that is.

CS: Some indeed. Seems like I can’t walk down the street without running into Johnny. [laughs]  He’s my neighbor. I see Ethan a bunch, too. It’s a small town, so sooner or later I run into just about everybody.

In the 20 years since it came out, what other projects have you been into? Was the movie, despite its critical slamming, helpful or hurtful to your later career?

CS: Oh, the critics I never care about, and anyway, I half agreed with them. [laughs] At the time, it was a bit limiting, I guess, but not really. It was separate from what I was doing musically. But over time it has been very good to me, and I can’t complain about that. I mean, if you had told me 20 years ago it would be called the “film of a generation” and spawn this cult-like following, I would have laughed. Now, there’s like an entire day dedicated to it (Rex Manning Day) and thousands of die-hard fans who can recite every line. Like, we couldn’t even recite all our lines when we filmed it, and these kids can do it in their sleep. It’s very touching, and I’m actually quite honored by some of it.

Not to reach for a cliché here, but do you have any closing words for the fanbase?

CS: If I’m incarcerated when this comes out, then please let them know how they can help. and #FreeCoyoteShivers. I am innocent, and the victim of what’s being called “the worst case of restraining order abuse in California state history.”

And on that note, damn the man. Save the Coyote.


New single “Don’t Believe a Word” arrived digitally on September 8th, while the vinyl edition b/w “Sugar High [Zellweger Edit]” is expected on October 20th to celebrate Empire Records’ 20th anniversary.