Tim Heidecker’s Sincere Songs Expose L.A.’s Absurdity

Tim Heidecker

Tim Heidecker. (Cara Robbins)

Tim Heidecker looks ridiculous at The Standard, sitting in the salmon-colored sofa he’s taking interviews at all morning and wearing an L.A. Dodgers hat.

There are times when Heidecker looks silly on purpose, like when he’s appearing in one of his many short-form absurdist comedy-variety programs, but this is not one of those times.

One month later he’ll premiere his long-gestating Decker:Unclassified on Adult Swim, an evolution of his action film-lampooning Decker web series, and Season Four of John C. Reilly’s Tim and Eric spin-off, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule premieres on the same night. But on that cool spring day in May, Heidecker looks ridiculous because he’s about to release an album of music about the banalities of living, loving and making shit in Los Angeles—a cohesive, creative portrait of living like an everyman—and we’re talking about it under the High Line.

The aesthetically vibrant scene contrasts Heidecker’s simple platitudes perfectly, and the more we shoot the shit, the more I realize this same juxtaposition is precisely what his new album In Glendale portrays.

There’s a rich tradition of workingman, singer-songwriter music coming from Los Angeles, and such vibes can be hard to reconcile with the glitz, the glamour and the garbage. Heidecker’s released several records before, including a straight-faced classic-rock parody album on Drag City with The Yellow River Boys and two straight-faced, studio-polished soft-rock records with Tim and Eric composer Davin Wood.

More than just a continuation of prior cheeky forays into genre imitation, though, In Glendale perfectly captures the wit and the cynicism, the wry ambivalence of the songs that inspire him.

Much of this, he explains to me, comes down to being at a point in his life where he has stories to tell, and that they’re worth telling. Some of them are true, some of them are bullshit. But all of them come from a man who works across multiple disciplines, channeling his deft ability to mine comedy from the odd and unusual, illustrating the absurdities of his life and his city in the style of the music he loves.

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There was this DVD that was always at my house when I was a kid, this Frank Zappa concert DVD called Does Humor Belong In Music? And it’s a question that’s always been on my mind. What do you think, does humor belong in music?

Sure. Whether it belongs there or not, it’s certainly in it. It’s always been in it. It takes various forms—it can be overt like in a Weird Al Song or “Doo Dah Doo Doo” from our show, but the Beatles had humor in their music, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon…these guys that I love, you know, they’re not gonna make you slap your knee or anything, but it’s a different way of communicating.

Well, I thought of Zevon a lot on the new record, particularly “Central Air,” and there’s an L.A. flavor to his music that you capture on this album, too. He’s the dude who’s ‘in it but not of it,’ you’re there but you just live there, you’ve got a house but it’s next to the billionaires. Was that a conscious thing?

It was kind of…the name of the album is In Glendale, and when you say you “live in Glendale,” you’re saying you live in L.A. It’s a small suburb [where] in two seconds you’re in Los Angeles. So you can be a little bit of the outsider, I guess that’s the double meaning. You’re outside the L.A. experience. I’ve obviously been working in this business, deeply in this business for over 10 years, but at the same time I’m considered a total outsider, a total nutball, and I don’t fit into categories and all that stuff. But yet I’m in Bridesmaids!

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We’ve met before, and I didn’t remember until I was on the way over here, but it was at the UCB Theatre in LA by the Scientology Church. We sat next to each other in the audience, and then you got up and performed. It feels like in the comedy circle there may be a little more freedom to experiment as you do, to be your freak flag flying self. But how does that work elsewhere? You have a Tim & Eric moment on this album, too, you have a man-stare moment with Nic Cage. Is that the same thing? You’re at the party with David Gordon Green but you’re not present?

I bet most people in this business feel, at some part of their life, at some part of their career, like the outsider. Or don’t fit in with the cool kids, or aren’t relevant, or aren’t part of the whatever.

But Nic Cage might’ve just thought, “I know that dude!”

Yeah, you never know! That’s not a true story, I made it up, O.K.? [Laughs] It’s my right to do!

Well, he’s become part of our cultural fabric or whatever, Nic Cage the face, Nic Cage the dude. If you’re going to make up that story, what better dude to use?

Yeah, why not? It’s L.A. in the sense that, and I guess you could say this about New York too, but more in L.A. you do find yourself in very mundane encounters with famous people. You think you’d be starstruck, but no. He’s at Ralph’s, picking out cheap cheese.

That’s a thing in the media business, too, especially, where it feels like everybody who works together plays together. I call it socially incestuous. You have to go to this party for work, and you kind of don’t wanna be there, but there’s an open bar, then you run into Tim Heidecker, sitting on a salmon-colored chair…

That’s what I’m doing in New York! I feel stupid.

Tim Heidecker

Tim Heidecker (Cara Robbins)

No! That L.A./New York dichotomy is fascinating, too. No personality or lifestyle correlations, but I even think of that Papa John Phillips album, John, The Wolfking of L.A. In that last song “Holland Tunnel” he’s leaving New York on this journey, he stops for clams at a Holiday Inn and he’s L.A. bound. I thought about that on “Good Looking Babies.”

Well, as it’s an autobiographical record and a record about L.A., I thought it was nice to have that counterpoint about New York. One song about New York, you know? And it’s about my experience in New York, at least my observations.

You just unplug at the end of it though. You talk about all this shit that’s happening, and you just say “fuck it.”

[Laughs] I know.

That seems to be how a lot of people decide to move out to California.

Yeah, I was sort of doing a riff on that Billy Joel song [“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”], it’s so stupid it made me laugh. He goes, “that’s all I know about Brenda and Eddie, can’t tell you more than I told you already.” Well, fuck you! You don’t have an ending for your story?

It’s eight minutes long and then it just drops off.

Yeah. [He makes a pooping noise.]

With how banal the whole celebrity culture is, is there a special opportunity in Los Angeles to re-establish yourself? You’re kind of roots by proxy, the everyman by virtue of not becoming someone else. I think of the song “When the Cash Runs Out,” and there are obviously other projects around the bend, but is this something you want to transition into more? Are you putting together a band, and is this something you see as more than a novelty?

It’s definitely more than a novelty. I’m not abandoning any of my other pursuits to do this, I’m trying to do it all. It’s tricky because I play with this 10-piece band that I put together, and that’s very logistically tricky to tour. But I did this record release show last night at Other Music [RIP] with just me and a guitar, the signing, in-store thing, and that was good, too. So there’s a way to do it with just me, with my audience. They’re kind of up for a lot of different things. So I just try to block out time and do it when I can.

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Well you can live in that gray space with your work, too, if we’re talking about humor and seriousness in the context of the record. And even looking at your most comedy stuff, it’s very…you did that film—

The Comedy.

Yeah! The Comedy could be interpreted as a very serious picture.

Yeah, I think that’s what the director would like you to say. That laid some groundwork for me to feel O.K. to do this record. Eric and I got into this without really identifying ourselves as “comedians.” We made comedy and we made stuff that made us laugh, but we had all kinds of interests. We made all kinds of films, music, so the last thing we ever wanted was to feel constrained by just doing this one thing. Where we have to keep doing this one thing because that’s what the audience wants.

How do you work off of that in a business that thrives off of codifying people? You meet people at a party and it’s always “what do you do” in the singular.

Yeah, not “what are some of the things you do?” We try to come up with ideas that are gonna sell, that somebody like Adult Swim or Netflix is going to go, “I see how we can fund that, and it makes sense.” Hopefully we have something that we wanna say. We still wanna make people laugh, we still wanna make things that make us laugh. But if I have a bunch of songs lying around? I wanna put it out the best way possible, the most professional way.

When I put the Heidecker & Wood records out it didn’t even have this machine, the record label, so it kind of just plopped out. It kind of just came out. You put it out with a label and it couches it. They let people know that this is not an amateur home release; this is something you take a listen to. I don’t know what I mean, but when you put something out you want it to be put out in the best way possible, whatever that is.

Irrespective of the medium, I get the sense that all of your projects are approaching the place where you’re able to do that more. Even your short-form Adult Swim stuff. Is that just a matter of resources, these execs and people trust you more with your own beat?

Well, Adult Swim’s always trusted us and let us make our shit, then do the best they can to let people know about it. And you just get better at doing stuff as you do it more, you learn from your mistakes and stuff.

Tim Heidecker

Tim Heidecker (Cara Robbins)

You’re not working in a genre, but I even think of David Liebe Hart, who you guys provided a tremendous forum for. I guess “outsider art” would be the closest journalist label? Who knows how to describe what he does. But you’re facilitating something for the people who come under your umbrella.

Yeah, we’ve clearly created an umbrella or genre or whatever you wanna call it, of comedy, of whatever, that people can pick out and contrast with an episode of Two and a Half Men or something.

How do you talent source that? Do you just keep going to these UCB things, meeting weird people or do they send you shit?

It’s hard. I get sent some things. Somebody like Vic Burger who’s made a lot of great stuff online, he sends me videos. People send me videos, and a lot of times I don’t think they’re good. But sometimes I think, “This kid’s got a voice. He’s got talent!” And I try to help them out.

There’s a guy named Cole Kush, an animator. I’m so excited about his work, it makes me laugh. It’s funny, it’s dark and it’s so different. So now I’m calling him up asking, “How can I help? Let’s get a meeting and all that fun stuff, that Hollywood stuff, you know? Set a meeting, we’re gonna take this in and pitch it!” That part’s kind of fun.

Teaching them to get that muscle up.

Yeah. It’s also not my shit, so I can be braggadocios about it. “This is the best fucking shit I’ve ever seeen! It’s gotta go on TV! We’ll make it happen, we’ll be there for you!”

Like a mentorship.

Yeah.

My last question, kind of going back to the music thing—is there something happening with this West Coast Americana big-band craze right now? Father John Misty kind of fucks with it a little bit, but he’s so deadpan that I don’t laugh. I think what you said about the label and the press is dead on because Jacob sent it to me and I thought, “Oh, I like Tim Heidecker!” But it went in my queue and then he reminded me that this was a music album. Is this an opportune time, irrespective of you, for this type of sound to reach people the right way?

Well, I think what I don’t see in music a lot anymore is people writing songs where you should be listening to the lyrics. There are things being said that comment on the world, comment on personal experiences, tell stories.

Dog shit, baby shit.

Yeah! That’s a funny line, but it’s about my life, and I know there are guys out there my age who are living that same life in a way, you know?

And you’re smiling while you’re doing it.

I’m smiling and I’m saying, “Dude, I know you’re asking ‘why did I have a baby, I don’t want this baby anymore!’ when they’re three months old and they’re not sleeping.” And they listen and feel connected to that in some way. I don’t hear a lot of music where you can even hear the words. They’re buried in the mix. I would think somebody in a dream-pop group probably knows they don’t have much to say, and they don’t want to talk about anything in particular.

Well, there’s something to be said for the music where you can both listen to the music and zone out or focus on the lyrics, too.

That’s fine, too, yeah. But my guys, Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, they’re writing stories. They’re telling short stories, and you get to listen in. Tim Heidecker’s Sincere Songs Expose L.A.’s Absurdity