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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Photo: Cara Robbins

Tim Heidecker’s “Befuddling” Success: An Interview

The funnyman opens up about the question of “sincerity” and his new album, dealing with criticism, and a sneak preview of the just-premiered fourth seasons of Decker and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule.
Tim Heidecker
In Glendale

“With this record, we kind of hand-deliver an angle for writers to talk about it with.”

The comedian and singer-songwriter Tim Heidecker is referring to the question of the “sincerity” (or not) of the songs on his new album In Glendale, a question considered by fans, music journalists, and publicists alike. It’s an understandable question when you consider the performer’s work to date, spanning some of the most twisted, often brilliant comedy of the past decade. From the seminal Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, to the faux self-help tome Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory, to the hilariously perverse Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Heidecker isn’t exactly well-known for wearing his heart on his sleeve with his work, which makes his latest project all the more interesting.

Heidecker’s new album of piano-driven rock is more Warren Zevon than Andy Kaufman. In Glendale feels intimate, detailing the trials and tribulations — but more often the minutiae — of marriage, fatherhood, and domestic life. When listening to the songs that make up In Glendale, the question of “sincerity” seems pointless; many of them are funny, and several are just good songs, plain and simple: catchy, charming, and evocative of ’70s legends like Zevon and Randy Newman. Moreover, in this age of committee-driven corporate pop and AutoTune, who can say what’s “sincere” and what’s not?

The question of sincerity is less interesting than the question of how Heidecker manages to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. His resume since Awesome Show! ended in 2010 is overwhelming: the major motion picture Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie co-starring his frequent co-conspirator Eric Wareheim, the Lynchian Adult Swim series Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, the aforementioned Zone Theory (co-authored with Wareheim), five albums, innumerable YouTube videos, three seasons of the crime “drama” Decker, countless episodes of his film criticism show On Cinema with Gregg Turkington, several international tours as a comedian and musician, and multiple seasons of Check it Out!, to make no mention of the small matter of becoming a father.

PopMatters recently caught up with Heidecker via phone from a tour stop in Portland, where we had the chance to ask him about the nagging question of “sincerity” in his art, dealing with criticism, his prolificacy, politics, and priorities, and a sneak preview of what fans can expect from the just-premiered fourth seasons of Decker and Check It Out! on Adult Swim.

* * *

You’ve just started the tour in support of the new album. How’s it going so far?

It’s been great. Sasquatch Music Festival yesterday. And without sounding too boastful, we put on a really good show. We have a surprisingly good band, super talented and tight. And it’s not a goof. But it’s fun. It’s fun music, and people are dancing, and so it’s really fun.

You say it’s “not a goof.” What about that surprises you?

Well, I think I’ve created a body of work that [lends itself to] preconceived notions about the kind of show I’m going to put on, which is fair. But this is a slightly different experience than some of the work … at least some of the live work I’ve done in the past.

Is making music satisfying to you in the same way that making television or making movies is satisfying?

Yeah. It’s a different process, satisfies maybe a different part of my brain, or a different place in me. But it’s a very natural place for my creativity to take me. We’re on this tour, me and Rado [Jonathan Rado of Foxygen] who’s on the tour with me to play keyboards. […] As I would do with Eric or Gregg or anyone, we’re always goofing around, and folks are coming up with ideas. But at the same time we’re driving around, making up songs, and writing them down and making little memos. Yeah, it’s all coming from the same place I guess.

In my experience, hanging out with musicians and hanging out with comedians isn’t all that different. A lot of musicians tend to be naturally inclined to laugh at inappropriate things, and generally tend to be pretty funny people.

Yeah, all the musicians want to be comics, and all the comics want to be musicians. I guess that’s why I’ve found myself in this place.

I understand that there is that “think” that comes with, you know, Kevin Costner’s band or something. Where there’s this sort of feeling of you don’t want to see an actor, and you don’t want to see his band, you know? I get that. But at the same time, all of us are probably starting from a place where we like to do all of those things. When I was a kid, I made music and movies and I did all this creative stuff and the comedy, TV thing pulled me stronger, but that’s the same with a lot of musicians or people in creative fields. You have a variety of interests, and you’re going to connect [based] on that regardless of what lane you chose that became your career.

I’d like to know more about your relationship with your fans, coming back to this idea of preconceived notions. It always seems to come up, this question of “seriousness” or “sincerity.” Do you care if people take your music “seriously?” Are you frustrated by the fact that people are wondering if [In Glendale] is “sincere” or not?

I’m not too concerned about it. The way we released it, the press release and the interviews I do, I think we’re consciously trying our best to put it out in a straightforward way and say what it is, or what my intentions were. I think I always try to do that. I’m not trying to fool anyone too much.

There have been a few projects I’ve done that were meant to be completely confusing, or playing with truth. But those were like the thing I did with saying I was the editor of Rolling Stone magazine, you know? [Editor’s note: Heidecker made the dramatic and much-publicized announcement via Tumblr and Twitter back in 2012] Like, at the heart of that I knew that my audience knew where I was coming from. I wasn’t too worried there would be people really thinking I was the new head of Rolling Stone.

The prime objective isn’t to fool or confuse or get one over on somebody — but I think it makes it interesting that that ambiguity exists. And I think we were kind of laughing that with this record, we kind of hand-deliver an angle for writers to talk about it with because it really is […] As opposed to some indie rock band that might not have the most apparent angle right away, at least we’re giving you guys the first paragraph of the story. But that’s not why we’re doing it of course.

But yeah, I just don’t think too music about the choices I make. These songs kind of piled up and I felt weird not putting them out for the fact that they were not falling into a certain “place” in the kind of stuff I [usually] put out. So, I just felt it was time to not worry about that kind of stuff too much.

You’ve come up with a lot of creative projects. It seems like you’re always coming out with new, often disparate projects. What’s your process? How do you decide which of your ideas are worth pursuing?

First of all, I feel like I don’t have a giant reserve of ideas. I think ideas pop in and then they get noted and considered and then evaluated on time vs. reward metrics. If it’s something I can do very quickly, and plop out there, and it can be for not many people, then that’s one thing to consider.

But luckily, for the past few years I’ve had some big, centering projects that define the amount of energy and time I have to put toward something. So whether it’s Bedtime Stories with Eric, and now Decker and On Cinema with Gregg … I can put those in my [calendar] and fill it in with other stuff. The record was made almost two years ago at this point, or at least started. So you just put aside the things you want to do, and look at your calendar and figure out when you’re going to do all this stuff.

You don’t worry about the reception too much?

Well, no I’ve never really. I mean, you hope people like it. I’m happy to see that this record got some good reviews in general. My audience seems to like it, people are playing it on the radio, and it’s not just laughed out of the room. It’s not just panned as a disaster. That’s nice.

But I don’t go into a project calculating or considering if this is something people want or not. We never have done that. We’ve always made stuff for us, and thrown it out into the world, and it’s befuddling to me to this day that anyone likes it. I mean, I like it and people that I like like it, but it’s just … it’s disconnected from the work itself, for me.

Does criticism sting a little more with a project like In Glendale? It does seem as if you are singing a little more “from the heart” on this album. Are you a little more concerned about criticism?

Not really. With any bigger thing that I know is going to get reviewed, I do have a feeling of “Uh oh, here it comes” a little bit. I learned, when Billion Dollar Movie came out, that just got destroyed by the mainstream press. Just got really, really aggressively panned in a way that [suggests] they saw something else. They were not ready for that. And it was like “[Let’s] go back underground, this is not what we want.” And that sucks, because it effects your ability to do more [bigger projects] like that. It does have an impact, and I think certain reviews can probably effect sales and perception. And so I do hope that [In Glendale] gets considered thoughtfully, and it seems like it has. So that’s all I care about.

I think, as we get older, the people who write these kind of things get older, and they’ve grown up with us, or they’re more accustomed to what we’re trying to do. And so there’s a frame of reference. So it’s not just like Roger Ebert writing about Billion Dollar Movie, as a guy coming to that with no frame of reference, and his sensibility has not been trained to experience our work, not that it should be necessarily. But I think what’s happening lately is kids are growing up into being people like you, or whoever, who … we’ve been in their lives for years, and you can compare it stuff we’ve done, and it’s not coming out of the blue. So for a reviewer of my record, they know a little bit about me. They know it might be interesting to hear me singing about things I’m not used to singing about or talking about.

I’m laughing because I’m thinking about Roger Ebert sitting through Billion Dollar Movie.

You should read his review. It’s brutal. I also just found out he hated Brain Candy from The Kids in the Hall. He was like “I didn’t laugh once.” And so that made me feel better. I was like “Oh, he didn’t like Brain Candy? Then what do I care about what he thinks about anything?

The new season of Decker is about to come out. In the age of Trump, I was thinking that there has to be someone out there in their living room who takes Decker entirely seriously, playing “Our Values Are Under Attack” on loop.

[laughs] Yeah.

Have you ever considered that possibility? There has to be one guy.

There may be, and that’s got to be a really dumb guy, just a really dumb, shitty guy. But I’ve been talking to Vic Berger [from Super Deluxe] about it. There are fans of his videos that are Trumpheads, who think it’s, like, “cool.” He doesn’t understand it, really. But I think there might be a weird strain of young white guys who love Trump, but also love how crazy it all is. And there might be those that like Decker for that reason. They’re operating on a different level than it’s intended to be.

Watching the Trump campaign, so many elements of it feel like an extended Awesome Show sketch. The theatrics of it are insane. Do you feel like that? What’s it like watching it?

Yeah, I’m fascinated by it. I’ve been fascinated by it since really the last cycle of course, with the Herman Cain record.

We get it all the time. I get tweets from people saying “Tim and Eric are choreographing the 2016 election.” It’s absolutely frightening. It’s sad, it’s really sad to see it — this slow motion disaster movie … The damage is done. I don’t consider ourselves responsible for it or anything … [laughs]

[laughs] I’m not blaming you for Trump, to be clear. On the note of Decker and On Cinema, you are quite talented at portraying right-wing douchebags. What interests you about that type of character? Why are you drawn to play someone like that?

It’s fairly easy for me to slip into it. I think it’s fun to play a bad guy, it’s fun to play a piece of shit who can just make all the wrong choices. And the ideology of the right is informed by talk radio … It’s really easy to collect all of your thoughts into ten catchphrases, or like really simplistic zealous beliefs that you can just repeat, like “limited government,” “Constitution.”

“Our values are under attack.”

“Values.” All these are just codes for really sickening things that get covered in the American flag and fed out every day to these people. And it’s fun to play a dick, and it’s fun to play a dumb guy, and that’s what those people generally are. [laughs] So that’s an easy place for the character to go. It’s very easy to mould a mind in that way if you listen to that crap every morning. I listen to those shows for inspiration. You start getting like “Yeah, well that makes sense …”

But it’s just fun. The central conflict in that On Cinema universe is these two guys that really are this odd couple that shouldn’t be doing a show together, and it’s watching them fall apart and come back together again. The last thing Gregg wants to talk about is politics, so that’s what I’m going to talk about, you know what I mean? [laughs]

And for years and years and years, Eric and I consciously made that choice to not get anywhere near politics because we just wanted it to be a little more … not universally appealing, but not connected to a certain period of time or anything, and not ideological in any way. So this is just a different colour for me, something that I’m actually interested in, and a way for me to comment on it in kind of a sly way.

What can we expect from Dr. Steve Brule this season?

I hope you’ll just laugh until you piss yourself. Because to me … jokes per second, like, huge success rate for us.

It’s insane.

Yeah, it’s insane. I think it might be just a shade less dark than the last season. Everyone kept saying to me “Boy, that show got really dark.” Like, there’s a suicide in it, you know? If you’re taking any of that stuff seriously, I don’t get it. But it’s a little less dark, and it’s just so fucking silly. And [actor John C. Reilly] is just amazingly committed to this person. And I’m just really proud of it. And we’re always not sure if there’s any fuel left in that tank, you know? Like, “Is there really more stuff to do there?” when we go into a season. And then we come out of it just feeling so glad we made more, because there are some of the best episodes that we’ve made of the show …

And there’s one episode that’s a new format for Brule that’s really fucked up, that I think people who are fans of me, and some of Vic Berger’s work are going to connect with …

We watched [the new episodes] again the other day, and I got to tell you I was crying, just like rolling around on the ground. [laughs] And that’s a testament to John, and our editors, and everybody that helps make that show what it is. I think it’s great. I’m sure people are going to say “It’s not as good as it used to be,” there’s always that. But it feels fresh to me.