Tim Heidecker: Interview
“I kind of like the idea of releasing something that isn’t tied up in a neat package and explained to everyone.”
If Tim Heidecker becomes a dad some day, he will definitely know what kind of pants to wear. Along with Eric Wareheim, Heidecker is the co-creator of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tom Goes To The Mayor. Both projects, brilliant in their precise disjointedness, have garnered strong cult followings and all but completely avoided any form of mainstream recognition.
March 15 will see Little Record Company release Starting From Nowhere, an album written by Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood, a close friend responsible for trope-heavy music on TAEASGJ, and mixed by Pierre de Reeder of Rilo Kiley. The record is the stuff of an FM-radio classic rock station. It sounds a bit like a studio musician’s first solo project: all of the elements are in the right place, yet something feels missing. Upon closer listening, however, this record evidences an awareness no member of Toto ever achieved.
On January 3, Tiny Mix Tapes ran a news piece entitled, “Tim Heidecker is releasing an album for shits; meanwhile, no one will release yours! What a world!” (TMT News) This prompted Heidecker to respond via Twitter “This is mean and uninformed. Do I deserve it? I don’t know…” His fans certainly did not seem to think so, as the next 24 hours had indicated.
Given the circumstances, I was nervous and unsure what to expect as I dialed Heidecker’s phone number. I feared the sharp deconstruction of norms that powers Awesome Show and the harsh attack that it can deliver. Worse, Heidecker’s internet presence is largely characterized by dark humor and ruthless criticism (a recent tweet: “UN ordering seizure of all #yogibear film prints to prevent world war. #genocide”).
But on January 12, 2011, Tim Heidecker made for an extremely pleasant conversation.
I am a big fan of Tim and Eric Awesome Show. When I show it to other people, sometimes I lose them in what some people would describe as the “gross-out” moments. Is that something that you do on purpose?
We don’t mind it, but it’s not necessarily something we do on purpose. We just make the show that we want to make. We make the show that makes us laugh and aren’t too concerned about how it’s gonna be received. So, that’s the stuff that makes us laugh. That’s as simple as it is.
The accusations I generally see are “it’s bad for the sake of being bad” or it’s “awkward” or it’s “gross-out humor.” Do you think that there’s more to your sensibility?
I sure hope so. I don’t really like to intellectualize it too much. As artists and creators, all we’re really responsible for is creating it. It’s up to the audience and critics and everybody else to decide what it is.
I know that we don’t do anything flippantly. We don’t do anything without great care and thought and concern. It’s just a personal show. Everything we do comes from a really personal place. Most shows have a writing staff of 30 people, and their objective is to entertain as many people as possible. Our objective, like a lot of music and independent films, is just to basically get out of our heads what’s in our heads. That’s really all we’re concerned with doing.
What would you say is your goal?
Our goal is to produce content that we would want to watch. Simple as that. We have ideas and we want to execute those ideas. We’re compelled to create things. Just who we are.
There’s not a lot of money or time to deliberate too extensively on anything we do. We gotta make a show. I’m proud of most of the show, but sure there’s probably all kinds of things that get close to crossing the line or are too gross for me. We’re not in a vacuum, making perfect little snow globes or anything, for the record.
Wanna talk about the album for a little bit?
Yeah, let’s do that!
Where did this idea start? This style of album?
It started by Davin and I being writers of the music for the show and getting together and having some ideas that weren’t quite in the style of the show. They were just song ideas, kind of playing around with sounds.
We’re both fans of that kind of music. Not exclusively. Davin certainly has an encyclopedic knowledge of all these groups from the 1970s and 80s — “soft rock,” I guess you could call it or “singer-songwriter.” I’m a fan of that music. I can appreciate it on a couple of different levels, not that that makes me some kind of superhuman. I can listen to it and hear it for its retro goofiness or the self-seriousness about it, but it’s also smooth music, you know?
We started, almost as a hobby, collecting these songs. And we would get together and do this as a hobby, as a way to stretch a different kind of muscle that I don’t get to stretch on the show. We would do it for fun. We’d do it as a creative exercise. The songs began to add up over time. We felt we wanted to put it out.
“I’m a very dynamic, broad, interesting person! I’m a really interesting guy!”
Did you not have any plans of producing it as an album originally or releasing it?
Not originally. I guess everything starts small and this certainly started small. It’s so frustrating to just have an idea that sits out there and never gets produced, finished. So I think once we started — we recorded a song called “Weatherman” — because of how inexpensive and easy it is, with Logic and MIDI, to pretty affordably produce a good-sounding track without leaving your computer or your house… I think we got bit with the bug of “that was fun, let’s do that again.” And then after a couple of years, we had 15 songs that were just sitting on our hard drive.
It’s a weird thing because — I was just talking to a friend of mine about this — it sounds stupid, but we’re just compelled to produce things, create things. And it can be annoying because you end up having to do all this work to finish what you start.
How do you feel if you stop? Have you ever been at a point where, for either travel reasons or work reasons or family reasons, you’ve had to stop producing things for a while?
We were just on the road. I think you always find… I can also be incredibly lazy. I don’t want to come across as this workaholic that’s constantly crafting stuff in his head. I will happily sit and watch TV all day long too.
But there’s a difference between being hyper-prolific and having that need to be producing something at all times.
Yeah, but it’s really simple to produce things, at least ideas, because you don’t really need anything. Everyday I’m either writing some, a little idea, or writing a little piece of music or just doing something. I’ve never been hands-tied, forced to not use my brain to think about things creatively.
What would happen if you didn’t make something for a while?
I think I would like, you know, you’d start losing focus of your identity, probably. This is how, in a lot of ways, I define myself, by the things I create, whether they’re Twitter messages or sketches or songs.
You’re on Twitter a lot.
I am on Twitter a lot. It’s very addictive. And when you have an iPhone and a laptop and you’re always connected, you always are given the opportunity to comment. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. Sometimes it bites you in the ass. I might as well bring it up, the thing that you wrote about — did you write it or did somebody else write it?
No that was a different writer who goes under the handle “Nobodaddy.” I write under my own name, which is Nat Towsen.
I know that my reputation on Twitter can be, like, I can be a real jerk. That’s just the way I express myself on Twitter. You know, making fun of the Yogi Bear movie or making fun of Jay Leno. I can be really tough online about other people’s work, so I put the caveat, “Do I deserve this?” Do I deserve this kind of tone?
I was wondering if you were serious about that. Were you genuinely asking fans if you deserve it?
Yeah, a little bit. The main intention was, I wanted to throw the bait in the water and bloody the water a little bit, and probably get some positive reinforcement that the tone of the article wasn’t what the reality of the world is.
Are you saying you don’t get all the breaks?
No, I don’t know anybody that gets all the breaks. I’ve never met anybody like that.
Do you get any of the breaks?
No. Well, everybody gets breaks. I saw the email that someone sent to our publicist and said, “Oh, the tone was meant to be humorous.” I just missed, as many people miss my humor… I missed that humor.
I think, essentially, the joke was supposed to be that the article was petty and that it was undeserved. To be honest, when I first read it, I didn’t think it was exaggerated enough to make it seem absurd to the reader who doesn’t already read the rest of the site, so I could see how that could come off as just being mean-spirited.
I guess if you lived in the universe of that website and were familiar with that tone, it would make sense, but I wasn’t familiar with it. And I just felt like, “Am I the enemy?” I don’t know how we’re perceived. But I would think that the underground or the independent any-world, the independent film world or music world, should be doing whatever they can to support people who are trying to do weird stuff. That was my take on it. Isn’t there enough bad people out there? But I think it’s fine. If it was intended as humor, it’s fine. Who cares?
I wrote to the author. He writes under this pseudonym. He said “I was… trying to focus the article more in Nobodaddy being a jealous know-it-all than on Heidecker being talented/not talented. Nobodaddy’s an unqualified critic who gets things wrong a lot and gets easily ruffled because he’s insecure.”
“I totally think that the shots taken were cheap.” Etcetera.
More on the album: I think there’s a really obvious theme to this album that goes through every song. But I also think that every song is done in a different style. How would you describe the thread that ties all these together?
It certainly doesn’t leave the stable of FM rock radio from the 70s and 80s. It doesn’t get into jazz fusion and honky-tonk music. It stays in a genre that might include three or four sub-genres. Which isn’t a great answer. We would draw from 10 or 12 different groups that we would reference when discussing how to produce the song. “This should be a Steely Dan song” or “this would be more like an Eagles song or a Seals and Crofts song.” I think that music — you can call it “yacht rock,” you can call it “soft rock.” And then, it’s true that a lot of those bands mixed in that style as well. Those guys had some rockers and they had some really sweet, soft, pretty songs.
We were talking earlier about not as much trying to intellectualize it so much as just create something that you like and would want to listen to. Would you say that applies to this album?
Yeah. Our goals, looking back, were creating authentic-sounding tracks that were as good as we could get, and as professional as we could get; songs that were not just nonsense, that could stand on their own as songs, but then lyrically, since I don’t really have anything I want to say…
“I don’t know anybody that gets all the breaks. I’ve never met anybody like that.”
Ha! At all?
I don’t have anything earnestly that I want to express to an audience. I don’t want to be taken seriously as a lyricist. And my natural instinct is to deal in humor and to be funny. It wasn’t intended to be broad humor. It was just intended to be a little silly. If you listen to it a couple of times, there’ll be certain bizarre words or bizarre ideas that are also from that era, things that those guys might talk about, sing about.
You hit the nail on the head pretty frequently with this album. It’s so densely packed with — and this is going to be incredibly un-eloquent — things that I recognize.
You said a long time ago on an interview with AST Radio, “The one keystone of our sensibility is that it’s so self-reflective. It’s very much about us.” I know you were talking about your work with Eric [Wareheim] and not with Davin, so this is a little different. You said “We don’t really comment on the world or politics. It’s about our lives in one way or another, whether they’re characters or they’re real.” Does that come into this album? Or are you more mimicking these topics that you’ve seen and recognize?
In general, and this is true in everything anybody does, you’re only capable of drawing from your own personal experience in your life. That’s all you have to work with. In this album, it was more about finding lyrics that fit the style of music we were writing. I would say very little thought went into the lyrics. Davin and I are sitting around with an idea, like a lyric, like “Right or Wrong.” “Let’s write a song called ‘Right or Wrong’!” Then it just becomes an exercise in writing that song, and I’m just sitting there scribbling ideas down. They become stupid… The idea is to come up with stupid clichés. Those lyrics in particular make absolutely no sense, but they work rhythmically, and they work musically in the song.
It sounds like it would be…
It sounds right. It’s all about creating a sound that sounds genuine but, upon further inspection, is full of weird holes and weirdness. There’s a lyric, “You better be fighting what’s right in the world!” What the fuck is that? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s just things that make us laugh. “Song For My Father,” sure, that might be coming originally from a place of memories of growing up. But then you gotta fill three more verses, so you gotta make some stuff up, too.
“Life on the Road” has obvious clichés. That song is about the cliché of that kind of song. Other artists, whom you might make fun of, they were way more subtle and clever in dealing with the subject of touring than we were. We just flat out —“life on the road!” You couldn’t come up with a better analogy than… you couldn’t come up with an analogy at all? We’re always working in that kind of humor. Conceptually, how pathetic would these guys be that that’s the only thing they could come up with?
Do you consider this a comedy album, then?
I don’t know. I guess it has to be, because it shouldn’t be taken seriously. What else could it be then? We don’t really know. I wanted to release it because I’m proud of what we were able to do. I kind of like the idea of releasing something that isn’t tied up in a neat package and explained to everyone. There isn’t a biography there. There isn’t a Spinal Tap sort of story there. There’s not lyrics printed. It’s just like “here.” If you’re familiar with me and my work, there’s probably going to be an entrance to this, that you’re going to understand some of where we’re going. You know, discuss it amongst yourselves.
I think what’s interesting and is an accomplishment, and I think this is a real credit to Davin, is that the music is funny. Like, you think the song will end, and there’s one more self-indulgent lick. I laugh a lot when you’re also not singing.
It’s a record about music, very much so. There’s a little piece in the long Christmas suite… that goes like “DA-da-dah DA-da-dah DUM,” like a sitcom sting. It doesn’t belong in any kind of rock music. It’s so weird. That’s just Davin. He comes up with that stuff all the time. He knows that music so well that he knows how to get the right sound and how to just do it the right way, but then maybe do things one too many times…
A current I see in a lot of your work, especially in this album and Awesome Show, is this extreme recognition of tropes and clichés in different media. And a repetition or exaggeration, like isolating an element and exaggerating it or highlighting it to a certain degree. You seem like you have this encyclopedic knowledge of tropes and clichés in television and film and in music. Are you miserable?
[Laughs] Having that knowledge, you mean?
Yeah, I mean, do you watch TV?
Oh yeah. And that’s where a lot of ideas come from. I’m hyper-aware of the awful sea of shit that exists. Let me give you an example of something I find very entertaining. Yesterday, with a friend of mine, we watched this YouTube series that features Micky Dolenz of The Monkees doing this fantasy band camp thing; have you heard of this? People pay $5,000 to spend a weekend recording a song with Micky Dolenz. It’s watching a car wreck for an hour. There’s like 13 episodes. And we watch that like we’re watching South Park. We just can’t believe.
Am I miserable, though? Is that the question?
Do you find that you’re watching things for the reason that’s intended?
Not all. It depends. I enjoy, in fact, the same friend of mine, the man who portrays Neil Hamburger. This guy… I won’t say his name. I don’t think he likes being revealed. You can do your homework on that.
I know who it is. [It’s Gregg Turkington]
Him and I, a lot of times, get together and experience bad shit together. There’s a certain schadenfreude of watching that kind of stuff. I don’t know what it is. It makes us laugh. But we also, I said to him, “maybe we should get together and watch a great movie. Let’s watch Grand Illusion or something, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Let’s cleanse our palates every once in a while with some real art and culture.” Because, yeah, of course I like a lot of great stuff.
“I can be really tough online about other people’s work, so I put the caveat, “Do I deserve this?” Do I deserve this kind of tone?”
You do watch that stuff?
Of course. I’m a very dynamic, broad, interesting person! I’m a really interesting guy!
This interview is really panning out for you.
Yeah, I’m sure I’m gonna sound really good. You’ll have to put chortles after that remark. But no, the last thing anybody should do is judge me solely on the work I create, because there’s a whole other life going on. Dig?
You were talking about, with this album, how the music that it’s based on, you listen to on multiple levels. There’s this FM radio background music you’d hear in a cab or something. There’s an awareness of how stupid it can be. Is there also a genuine element to really enjoying that music?
Absolutely. I’m a Steely Dan fan, unironically. I’m a fan of Simon and Garfunkel and Paul Simon and a lot of that music that I would unironically, gladly listen to and prefer over a lot of shit. That’s the kind of music we listened to growing up… Tea For The Tillerman and Billy Joel and Elton John… all that stuff is very much a part of who I am. And now I can also see flaws in it and have a problem with a lot of it too. But a lot of that music is just nostalgic and makes me think of my youth. So it’s great music. I think a lot of it was really well recorded, really well played, and taken very seriously. There’s a lot to be said for it.
I think it’s interesting to listen to any record that was made before you were able to make it on your computer. People had to sit in a room together and record things onto tape. I just think it’s interesting that anybody really spent that much time and effort…
…and money. You know what I mean? That’s really cool to think that for years, whoever it is, they tried to make the best thing they could most of the time. It’s a little easier now.
Are you comfortable describing your work as ironic, at least on one level?
Definitely. I’m not a great English scholar, so I’m not gonna pretend to understand the full [meaning]. … We’re not doing anything earnestly… I’m trying to figure out why we do things. That’s the essence of it. The answer is that we do things for the sake of, we think it’s funny. And the reason that we think it’s funny is that it reflects something else that wasn’t intended to be funny. If that’s irony, then that’s what we’re doing. We’re not saying anything with any sincerity. We’re trying to create a mood, to create an atmosphere, that might remind you of something and then also expose that thing for being ridiculous or silly. I guess I stand behind that. I’ll also say that we don’t do any of this stuff consciously and we don’t discuss it at all. We just do it, and do it because it makes us happy.
In Awesome Show, the aesthetic seems to be based a lot on tape-to-tape VHS editing, local television… It’s a recognition of things that you almost didn’t realize you were aware of. Not everyone pays extreme attention to local TV commercials, but the second you see one parodied, you’re like “Oh my god! That’s so accurate!” This album, if I didn’t know what I was listening to, I would be almost sure I’d heard it before. I asked what that “thread” was. That thread seems to be this kind of music that you would have maybe not sought out intentionally, but everyone’s heard and listened to these full songs and you love them through recognition.
I’d be okay with that, for sure, if that’s the way people received it. That would be very flattering because that’s part of what we were trying to do is invoke a certain kind of music in a way that can be enjoyed on a couple different levels: you can laugh at it or you can sing along, and I do both. I can listen to it and enjoy it that those songs are really fun to sing. I like singing. I would sing church songs, because singing is fun to do. It makes you feel good!
That’s the essence of why we do all these things. But I can also listen to the lyrics and see that higher intellectual thing you were talking about as well. And there’s nostalgia. So there’s all sorts of reasons to buy three copies of the vinyl version.
Is it coming out on vinyl?
Yes. We’re going to do a small vinyl run because we’re doin’ it, so let’s do it. Let’s put it out, put the record out. In the business end of the record industry, that seems to be the only place where anything is going on. And it’s a record. From the beginning, once we started talking about [it], everybody was like “well you gotta put it on vinyl, because it’s a record.” It’s album rock. That’s what it is. It deserves to be on a big piece of vinyl.
Absolutely. I would love some day to be leafing through dollar records in a record shop and come across a copy of this album.
Definitely! We had a record party last night, just a few friends of ours. Some of my friends are pretty big record collectors and just have the weirdest shit, and stuff I’d never heard of. They were very excited to play me some things. And we were talking about this record, saying that the best we can hope for is that, in 30 years, people will be sitting around and be like, “Where did you get this? This is really weird,” and trying to think about when this came out and who this person is. That would make my day if that was going on in the future. I think that would be great, for people to be scouring through these in Salvation Army bins, for sure.