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Tim Heidecker is an interesting bunch of guys. There is Tim Heidecker, the inventive co-star of the pioneering Adult Swim program Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Good Job! There is Tim Heidecker, the egomaniacal co-host of the popular web series On Cinema. There is Tim Heidecker, the L.A.-based husband and father who oversees the amiable podcast Office Hours. And then there’s Tim Heidecker, character actor and surprisingly (even shockingly) earnest singer-songwriter.
On the forthcoming album High School, due June 24, Heidecker the singer-songwriter has made his most straightforward and autobiographical album yet. A song cycle that looks back on his early ’90s adolescence with the sort of wistful sensitivity and wry specificity associated with ’70s soft rock titans like Paul Simon and Randy Newman — both of whom Heidecker has cited as personal favorites — High School evokes a pre-internet, Middle American, suburban world buoyed by references to Kurt Vonnegut, fiscal conservatism, Gulf War-era CNN reporter Peter Arnett, and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” Depending on the age and background of the listener — Heidecker and I are around the same age and come from similar communities — it will feel eerily familiar and vivid 30 years after that world started to fade away forever.
Working with indie-rock ringers like Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile, Heidecker evinces none of the chaotic irreverence toward show business that characterizes his comedy. While his early output as a musician — in combos such as Heidecker & Wood and the Yellow River Boys — can be classified as either parodies or jokey, character-based musical bits, High School essentially is the work of a traditionalist proudly situating his songs in the continuum of iconic, confessional writers dating back to the ’60s and ’70s. He’s come to salute his inspirations, not savage them.
While Heidecker has been moving in this direction for several years now, dating back to 2016’s In Glendale (which was inspired by becoming a parent, an extremely singer-songwriter subject for a singer-songwriter), an album like High School still might strike some Tim And Eric fans as strange or confusing. After all, isn’t Tim Heidecker also the monstrous caricature of a hack stand-up who complains about taking his wife to the opera? On his upcoming tour in support of High School, he will further muddy the waters by performing both his satirical stand-up and his “serious” music, side by side, across two separate sets.
When I spoke with Heidecker on the phone last month, he admitted that always using his own name no matter the project might have been a mistake, though “there’s part of me that thinks that’s interesting at the end of the day, that it is on you to figure out what’s going on here,” he said. “And maybe that’s ultimately more satisfying.”
Either way, it’s too late to change course now. “I think it would be stupid,” he added, “if I had a singer-songwriter persona that was named Dave Sexton or something.”
In your comedy, a lot of the humor comes from taking conventions of the media and show business and deconstructing them and putting them back together in these surreal and even grotesque shapes. But as a musician, you go in the opposite direction. You have an obvious reverence for the continuum of singer-songwriters going back to the ’60s and ’70s. What is it about this lonely corner of show business that inspires such devotion?
I don’t know if I have a great answer. I think even in the Tim and Eric stuff, there’s love — you got to love it and know it to make fun of it. But it really is two completely different parts of my creative brain. Making fun of things and pointing out the hypocrisy or the grotesqueness of certain elements of media, that’s one part of how I have expressed myself. With the music, it is about trying to make a record that I’m genuinely proud of, that I would want to listen to. I enjoy working with very talented musicians who also like that kind of music. I’m letting another part of my personality come out in a less veiled way, though it still ends up being confusing because people don’t know if this is part of the joke or not.
I know you’re a fan of Randy Newman, who is among the best songwriters at melding humor with music. But generally speaking, that’s a really difficult combination to pull off. If you push too far in either direction, it’s either not funny or it rings false on an emotional level.
Newman’s songs generally come from a point of view that isn’t necessarily him. He’s playing characters a lot of the time, but sometimes he doesn’t, and that’s always interesting. I got to interview him a few months ago for Office Hours, and he was super nice. There’s a song of his called “My Country,” it’s on Bad Love, I think. There’s a line about how when his kids come over, he’s always happy to see them, but he’s also relieved when they leave. And I was like, “Is that you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s me checking in.”
Obviously, there’s Yellow River Boys and a few Trump songs of mine that are more like a character singing. But in my songs it’s more or less me, or at least the way I’m thinking that day. It’s not so much a character. The big mistake I made is that I have just adopted my own name in all these different parts of my expression. You have Tim Heidecker the standup comedian and Tim Heidecker the guy from On Cinema and Tim Heidecker from Tim and Eric. Some of them aren’t me at all, and some of them are closer to me.
You and I are around the same age, so the numerous references to very specific early ’90s pop culture on High School really hit home. First instance, in the song “Stupid Kid,” you write about seeing Neil Young on television playing “Harvest Moon” backed by a guy sweeping a broom, and being inspired by that to play music. Are you referring to a specific performance? I have clear memories of him playing that song on Saturday Night Live and MTV Unplugged.
What I realized later after writing it — and I didn’t go back and change it because it just worked out too well — is that I thought it was him on SNL, playing solo. But there was another version that was him with a small band. I think it was on The Tonight Show, and he did have a guy with the broom. Do you remember that? It was the percussion element of that song. And it was sort of like the brushes on a snare, but it was a broom. It was very memorable. I’m sure somebody had to mike the broom.
After doing some research I think it was actually MTV Unplugged.
Well, then that’s the unreliable narrator in the telling, a total mash of two different experiences. But the core of it is the same. It was back in the day before YouTube and places where you can find chord sheets and lyrics. You had to do it on your own and figure it out by watching it and writing the lyrics down. What he’s doing is in some ways very attainable. I could figure out those chords and I could do that cool harmonic thing he does. Though there’s an ocean of difference between me doing it as a 16-year-old kid and him doing it on TV.
There’s a funny line in that song about how you didn’t like the studio version of “Harvest Moon” at first because it sounded too slick. It made me think about the style of your own records, which really emulate that specific kind of impeccable ’70s SoCal studio craft. One of your collaborators, Jonathan Rado, is a real student of that production style. What do you like about that style?
When I started with Davin Wood, we were in my little studio garage with Logic and MIDI and simulated sounds. You can do fake organs or fake synths or fake strings or whatever. Hooking up with Jonathan, in his garage, he had an actual tape machine and he had microphones and a piano and a bunch of good, vintage instruments. It was how they used to make records. It was capturing a performance. You weren’t going in there and editing and changing and doing all this work — you were getting a few people together in a room, hitting record, playing it four times, getting the take and then going back and working on that take.
It’s so much fun to do it that way, because you’re playing together and looking at each other and reacting to each other. There’s a magic in that recording. Everything on the last three records I’ve done, you are listening to a moment in time when people came together. I just am so grateful and lucky that there is this community of players out here that love doing that, too, and are around. Rado gets really busy and he’s producing people like The Killers. This record was me and Drew Erickson, who did Fear Of Death with me, and Mac DeMarco, who also has a similar setup as Rado.
Kurt Vile is also on the new record. How have you formed relationships with all of these indie rock people?
I think I’m lucky in that I’ve done a body of work that all those people like and grew up with. Some of them are a little younger, some of them are around my age, but they all are coming from being fans. They appreciate what I do and they’re supportive. I sent my record to Kurt because I sent him my last record and I got to know him a few years ago through friends and him reaching out. And I like sharing my music with him because he’s very supportive of it and very positive about it. I feel safe with these people, I guess. We’re all trying to do the same thing and they have validated my journey a little bit. I’m in awe of them. Certainly Kurt, I think his past few records have been fantastic. Weyes Blood, in my opinion, she’s just a generational talent. Kevin Morby is another guy that I love who has been very supportive of my music. And I’m like, well, I’m a fan, too. Let’s figure it out, let’s do something together. It’s pretty organic. I’m trying not to be manipulative or strategic about it.
To go back to Neil Young for a second, the thing I find most fascinating about him is looking at the arc of his career and noting all the things he’s done, and just his willingness to fuck with his audience time after time. The same can also be said of Bob Dylan, obviously. I imagine that aspect of those old singer-songwriters must have been inspiring for you.
This is a joke on my podcast, because at one point I said, “I’m like Dylan.” And now the guys have that as a sample because every time I say anything, they play the clip of me saying, “I’m like Dylan.” But Dylan did make me understand what I wanted to do, and to not really worry about how it’s received, and to not cater to an audience or be afraid to step out of my boundaries, of what people expect from me. It’s not a guarantee of success, but you can’t think about what people expect from you or what you’re supposed to do. He did that so early in his career. Two years in, he’s already throwing out the playbook and starting over or giving people what they don’t think they want.
Some people are very comfortable and good at just doing this one thing. The example that makes the most sense to me is Larry David. Larry David is just Larry David and he’s been doing it for his whole life and it totally works. There’s no reason to expect him to do anything else. Good. But I’m not built that way. It’s depressing to me to think about getting stuck in a mode and just being that one thing over and over again. I’m much more interested in just exploring and experimenting and trying to grow and get better.
It’s hilarious to me that the Grammys gave Bob Dylan a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, a few months before he turned 50. The assumption at the time was that he was washed up. And here he is, more than 30 years later, still going.
I mean, the last 30 years, in a lot of ways, have been more interesting and better than his first 20 years.
Many of the songs on the record are vignettes from your childhood. What moved you to write about that period of your life?
What’s happened lately with music for me is there’ll be a song that really comes from out of nowhere. Like “Buddy,” for whatever reason that was in my head. There are some people from high school that I have not thought about or checked in with, and I wonder if they’re okay. They didn’t seem great last time I saw them. And then I’ll have some other songs that aren’t really about anything and I’ll realize, oh, maybe I should start thinking about those days. And then it gets pretty literal.
It was interesting to see what were some of the things that made me who I was that I hadn’t thought about for a while. Like Kurt Vonnegut — I hadn’t thought about or read Kurt Vonnegut in a long time. Or Neil Young and classic rock radio. Or my relationship with my parents and their supportiveness and their encouragement. Just all that stuff that with some distance, it’s not cringey anymore. It’s beautiful.
I grew up in the suburbs. I did not have a deep well of culture available to me. I had what was at the record store, what was on MTV and some older cousins and older friends who were into cool things. That turned me onto cool things.
I had a similar childhood around the same time. It’s pre-internet, not a lot of culture, there’s a couple record stores in town, but you’re really relying on MTV and music magazines. And it does seem maybe more precious now because that world is gone, and as bad as it was in a lot of ways, there’s that melancholy because you can’t go back.
I remember I would get Rolling Stone, and there would be an essential album section. And that’s where I heard about Pet Sounds. It’s where I heard about the first Velvet Underground record. And Astral Weeks. The records that are on all the lists, but they’re really great. And they blew my mind. Listening to the Andy Warhol Velvet Underground record, I really needed that record when I found it. It was really important to me. I wouldn’t have found it without Rolling Stone. Somebody might have turned me onto it, but that’s how I found out about that.
There are definitely downsides to having a music canon, but those lists really did have value at the time when you couldn’t just go online to learn about music.
I don’t even know if the internet is helpful in that regard. It’s not pointing people towards taste and it’s not shaping taste. It’s just there for you to learn more about something if you found it, but I don’t know how people discover the past or what was great in the past.
You reference Kurt Vonnegut in the song “Sirens Of Titan.” I wanted to ask you about this lyric: “I was a little shit, a little right wing / When he said he loved Clinton. I couldn’t help but disagree / I was fiscally conservative until I got that college degree.” That, again, seems like a relatable Middle American experience growing up in the ’90s.
I mean, I was at a Kurt Vonnegut lecture that he was giving at Lehigh University, and he did make a remark about voting for Clinton. And I booed. This was Clinton versus Bush. I did something that I think actually caused him to walk off stage. I was a product of my family at that point. My parents were always very cool about cultural issues for the most part. It wasn’t like a Christian fundamentalist home. But my dad was a Goldwater Republican — small government and business-minded.
I think the dam was about to break there a little bit for me. R.E.M. and that kind of activism liberal perspective was starting to seep into my brain and make me feel like, wait, what do I believe in? But it took a while and I think it really was going to Philly. I was assigned the Howard Zinn book and I was educated about history and about sociology and why people do things and it opened my mind to different points of view. It made me more empathetic and more hopeful that there can be civic-minded solutions to people’s problems.
I thought it was gutsy to write about that, because that’s a pretty common trajectory where you just adopt your parents’ politics until you get to a certain age.
It’s funny that when I am an outspoken critic of the right, people assign that to me being this Hollywood liberal and I’m like, I’ve been like this well before I had any breaks in this business.
You’re going to be playing music and doing standup on this tour. Do you find that the audience who likes your comedy also likes your music? Or are those separate constituencies?
The stand-up character is a character, a little one-act play. You’re going to see this awful, toxic, terrible person. What happened when I did the show in New York was fascinating, because the crowd was so on my side as a comedian and they were pretending to be on my side because you’d have to be an idiot to be entertained and enjoy his point of view. So, that’s the first half of the show. And then there’s a very short break, and I come out and play music. I’m not up there super serious, either. I’m able to tell jokes and be a little loose, but treat the music seriously. The band is fantastic. They’re really good players who are having fun. So it’s 45 minutes of stand-up and an hour and a half of music. Just for me and for the people I talked to at the show, it wasn’t confusing. I mean, I changed my outfit. When you look at the pictures, they do seem like two completely different people.
I guess you have to quickly unslick your hair?
I put a hat on and it’s a total magic show. It’s like a Clark Kent/Superman thing.