"Fighting What's Right in the World": An Interview with Tim Heidecker
Heidecker and Wood have now turned their form-rattling attention to a strictly musical genre: soft rock. Starting from Nowhere is a hilarious and totally authentic sounding collection of songs that could have been beamed in from the 1970s or 1980s AM dial.
As collaborators on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, show co-creator Tim Heidecker and composer Davin Wood provide the Adult Swim set with sights and sounds that amuse and disturb in equal measure. Like a possessed cable access channel, Awesome Show cycles through characters, sketches, and songs that extract parts of "legitimate" media and exaggerate or twist them to absurd degrees. The show's disquieting power comes from dissonance created by warping the recognizable into the unimaginable. Awesome Show taints our perception of local TV news, instructional videos, educational children's programming, telethons and dozens of other forms.
Heidecker and Wood have now turned their form-rattling attention to a strictly musical genre: soft rock. Starting from Nowhere is a hilarious and totally authentic sounding collection of songs that could have been beamed in from the 1970s or 1980s AM dial. Whereas Awesome Show often takes overstated measures to upend perceptions of media, Starting from Nowhere is the result of a much more subtle degree of variation. I spoke with Heidecker about the process of developing and recording these smooth songs and his expectations for how they will be received.
I know there are a lot of ways to consider this album, but I personally found it very funny. Do you classify it as a comedy album, and if so, what is its relationship to your other humor-based work?
I do classify it as a comedy record, but it can also be enjoyed on other, non-comedic levels. The production value is good and the songs are -- musically, a lot of them are good. We tried to make them as listenable as possible so it's not just jokes. As far as its relationship to my other comedy, I think a lot of the Tim and Eric stuff is very musical and we've always found that it's not just important to be funny but the songs should be good on their own and should be catchy and sing-able.
I find a lot of humor in the literalness of lyrics -- lines such as "Children come from me and you" come to mind. Is that a conscious part of your approach to song writing/comedy writing?
Yeah, I think writing the lyrics was ... they were written to sound like the right words. They kind of worked with the music, and if you weren't paying too close attention you would dismiss it as, "Okay, that sounds right." But if you really listen close enough, then you'll find that a lot of times they're absurd or meaningless or things that you would never say. Another example from the record is, "I cherish the love that I gave you last night." A friend of mine was like, "What the hell? What does that mean? That doesn't mean anything. How do you cherish your own love?" Some of that stuff is -- I don't know how conscious or deliberate it was -- but that's just part of what I do in writing. That's my natural instinct.
How did this process compare to writing and recording music for Awesome Show?
Initially this project was meant as a hobby or recording experiment project with Davin and me, where we would do it as a fun thing to do, not as a job, not as a work project. It was something that we really didn't have a time limit on. It wasn't something that needed to be delivered at a certain point for a while. We were really going for a certain sound which apparently is of high production value. That era of songs are really well crafted and are really well recorded and produced.
So once we got through a few songs and were writing songs the thought was, we have to make these sound as good as we possibly can, because if it sounds half done or half baked, then it's not going to be as funny or as interesting. With writing for the show, we're obviously under a much more constrained time limit and it's not quite as important that the songs just sound as good, and sometimes, it's way more important that they don't sound good at all -- that they sound amateurish and homemade.
At the moment, smooth rock seems to be everywhere, from the new Destroyer album to the Air Supply-soundtracked Animal Kingdom trailer. Is there something to be said for an ironic context? Do you think the execution is any different if you frame the music ironically?
I think there's a nostalgic element to it. I think a lot of that plays into people's childhoods and a lot of that music has warm feelings. You know, time has passed where that is classic rock -- older music from the 80s or the 70s. A lot of people that are making music now, that's their childhood music, that's the stuff they grew up with. For us, there's an element of that ... while we like a lot of it, we also acknowledge that there's a lot of pompousness about it, a self-seriousness, a lot of these qualities that I always funny in all kinds of things. People that take themselves too seriously, or music that is too serious, is inherently funny to me. It became for us a frame for us to make this music with. It was a point of reference. I think the record has lots of different kinds of songs on it. I don't think what we made was specifically a quote-unquote "yacht rock" record because there's just things that aren't in that genre that are on the record. It's a place for us to start making this kind of music.
I'd like to go through some of the songs more specifically. First track "Cross Country Skiing" covers the mundane details of a skiing experience. Could you talk about turning such trivial things into a song? If anything is up for inclusion, how do you decide what to leave out?
I don't think it is a very conscious thing, to be honest with you. I don't think we think about it too much. At least for this project there wasn't a lot of reflection. There was a lot of in the moment, in the spirit writing the song and writing lyrics. Once we knew that we were writing a song about cross-country skiing, it was forward progress, write as many verses as we could that told a little bit of a story and then record it and move on. There wasn't a lot of like, "Let's really think about 'raisins, nuts, and corn' and see if we want to think of funnier things than that." That was just what it became. To us, it was funny enough and didn't require too much more deliberation.
Because deliberation would dilute the effect?
In the initial writing phase, we try to keep the spirit of, this is the decisions we made, these are the lyrics we wrote and we're going to live with them. I think for most of the songs, there's some kind of story going on or some kind of theme in it that was there from the beginning of the writing.
In "Right or Wrong," the lyrics are especially inane by design. It made me consider that if a song is catchy enough, then people will look past lyrics that make no sense.
That's probably the most pungent example of writing nonsense lyrics that just sound right in the context of the music ... very much about the rhythm of the words and the way words sound. A lot of songs get written based on the opening line of the song and the rest is trying to make some sense of it all. Songs that refer to themselves in the first person or songs that refer to the song being sung, was kind of an initial idea, and then it just became nonsense: "You better be fighting what's right in the world." "You better be right or wrong," that's a terrible -- that's the most meaningless statement in the world. It's nothing that you'd ever say to anybody, that "you'd better be right or wrong".
Do you refer to any examples of that tendency within "serious" music?
A lot of Lennon's lyrics I think are pretty silly and he would probably admit that as well. You know, "Across the Universe" is one that's obvious. And "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey". Some of it is just fun wordplay and fun imagery.
I also appreciated the world music/Graceland ending to "Right or Wrong". What do you make of groups such as Vampire Weekend bringing that style back in earnest? Is the line between hip and passé beginning to disappear?
I suppose. I hope ours is stupid enough that it doesn't become legitimately hip in any way. That nobody starts wearing Heidecker and Wood T-shirts or anything. I don't know. I'll defend it a little bit, I'll defend them [Vampire Weekend] a little bit. I grew up with that music and if that influences the kind of music they're making, then I can understand it. I think for us it was funny to do that because it didn't make any sense in the context of the song. I think Paul Simon probably did it -- and I like that stuff and I'll admit it, I like it -- I think he did it carefully and with a lot of thought into how this would work with the music and whether it would work with the song. In our case we did it as a joke because it just didn't make any sense. I bet you there's a lot of music that came after that -- Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel and world-music kind of stuff --that used it inappropriately or used it without really much thought. Just like, "Oh that's a cool new sound. Let me put that in the music."
"Grandest Canyon" paints a pleasing picture, but by the end there is a dark transition. It reminded me of moments in Awesome Show when music cues would intentionally run just a bit too long. Is this part of that same impulse?
Yeah, definitely. Quickly back to "Right or Wrong"-- when we were cutting down the record or doing the finishing touches, one thing we cut down on was the ending. Originally we had that going on for like another 40 seconds. And then we just said, "Okay we get the joke," but yeah, timing is a huge part of what I do with this record and in Awesome Show, is just creating uncomfortableness, forcing people to experience things longer than they should be experienced.
For me, "Wedding Song" is one of the funniest songs on the album. It's definitely all about him, the groom. Yet again, like the other songs we've discussed, it would be functional as a wedding song. If someone actually chose this for a wedding, do you think they've missed the point?
They might be a fan of mine, then they might get the point and they would be super cool and play it ironically I suppose. But I don't know, it would definitely miss the point because the story of the song is a guy that clearly had some kind of a one night stand and is ready to go to the aisle with this person. This guy is being a real dope, you know? The singer of the song. That does not signal good judgment at all, you know? How could you know you have these feelings for this person after one night?
But musically, if you put that on in the background and you don't really listen to the lyrics too well, as we do with most music, I think it would work fine. I was at a party a while ago and a friend of mine, as a joke, put his iPod on that had that song on it. It came up and for a second I didn't really even recognize it. When you listen to it in a context, in a party or a bigger space, it just sounds like it belongs.
I guess that opens up a bigger discussion about the context for the album. It sounds so good and is executed so well within its genre, that people will enjoy it on those terms. If someone misses the comic undercurrent entirely, is the album still working?
Sure. I'm not too concerned about how people receive it. It was something we did for ourselves and wanted to share with people. I kind of want people to figure it out on their own, as it seems like you did. If people don't? Some people are going to hate it. Some people are going to be like, "I don't like that kind of music". I played it for my cousin, and he could not understand what the point of it was. He said, "Musically it's really good, but why don't you write real lyrics?" I don't know what to say, I just said this is how I express myself.
What were your main influences for the sound of the album, the compositions and performances?
I think, depending on the song: Steely Dan -- "Right or Wrong" is right out of Steely Dan, one of their records, I think. Davin and I kind of disagree with this because we have different musical influences as well, but a lot of Simon & Garfunkel, Eagles. Billy Joel I think was one of them -- the one about the life on the road is based off of "The Entertainer". But then [also] that whole pastiche of 70s soft rock that includes Dan Fogelberg and Air Supply and England Dan & John Ford Coley, Seals & Crofts. All of that stuff was very influential.
One of the biggest conventions you're dealing with is "Life on the Road". Why do you think bands are so intent with telling us about the road? Do you think life on the road is as dramatic as it sounds on these songs and your album?
No, it's not. We wrote it from the perspective of a guy who's really kind of a whiny, making things sound a lot worse than they are, kind of a person, which a lot of those songs sound like. But I guess ... what else are they going to write about? There's a self-important narcissism that comes with it. "Turn the Page", a Bob Seger song, is a big influence as well. I guess at some point those people thought that other people would care. One I really like that I think is good is Jackson Browne -- Jackson Browne was also a big influence. I think just in writing, because of the way I write, sitting at a piano, a lot of stuff I would play for Davin he was like ... I think we might get in trouble because it sounds like a Jackson Browne song, and then we'd move away from it. His song, "The Load Out" about the roadies is a great song about touring.
That is also an interesting example of a touring song that's not strictly about the artist himself.
Exactly. It's a well done version of that. But Billy Joel's [singing] "I am the entertainer" and "Piano Man" ... how hard it is to be a paid musician is so stupid.
"A Song for My Father" is very sentimental, like something you might hear in modern R&B or country music, but then it also takes a disturbing turn describing the kid wanting to be saved from the father. I always loved the way Awesome Show explored similar ideas in "Kid's Break" and elsewhere. Could you talk about the role of dads in your work? In a sense, is Starting from Nowhere music for dads?
Yeah, it's one of the tools in our arsenal I think is talking about dads. As the record demonstrates, there's more to be mined there. Eric and I have talked about this before. There's something intrinsically funny to me about dads and especially their relationship to their children. You get to this place where, your dad when you were young felt like this God sort of figure, in a benevolent way. I have a great dad and a great relationship with him. But there is this awkward moment when you become an adult and your relationship with your dad changes. This person doesn't have all that much to talk to you anymore because he's done a good job and he's gotten you to a place where you're your own man and now he's just this other man that you have a relationship with. And as guys get older, they sort of lose their sense of what's cool of what's going on in music and in fashion. I think my dad handles it really well, but certainly some dads either go off the deep end or they retreat into a conservative place. But it's just an interesting, awkward relationship and it's something that we enjoy exploiting.
I could see anthem "Million People" working in an advertising or political campaign. Would you ever license your work to a product or candidate?
Sure. I think that would be hilarious. Unless it was somebody I wouldn't want to be associated with in any way. But we're opening that door to seeing if anybody's interested in licensing the songs and if those people decide it is right for them, then cool, I don't really care. It'll be funny to the people that like the record or get it, to hear it. That would be an added bonus for them. Like I said, since this record isn't done by ... there's not a history to it, there aren't characters, it's not a Spinal Tap thing, as much as I love them. It's what Davin and I did in my bedroom and I'm not protective of it in the way that it needs to be only heard a certain way.
Finally, do you plan to tour with the album?
We're going to play a show here in L.A. I got a good band together. Some of the guys from Rilo Kiley. The guy that engineered the record [Pierre de Reeder] is the bass player from Rilo Kiley. So ... the drummer from that band, and him, and Davin, and me and another guitar player -- we're going to play a show and I'm going to see how that goes to see whether or not it's worth doing beyond that. I like playing music live. This music is particularly difficult to play live because it's so perfectionist-y in the way it was recorded. We've done some initial rehearsals and it sounds good but a lot of the production that was done on the record would be hard to do live. It's something we're exploring. I'm just so happy to have made the record and it's going to come out and people are going to hear it and maybe we'll make another one. But I also don't feel like I'm dying to start lugging amps around and changing strings and all that stuff that my character in "Life on the Road" so clearly despises.