In Conversation With: Tim Heidecker

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Within Tim Heidecker’s output of Lynchian comedy esoterica, like his four-hour-long On Cinema at the Cinema livestreams with Gregg Turkington during the Academy Awards or the litany of programs he produces for Adult Swim (including four separate series this year alone), has always been a focus on music. For his and Eric Wareheim’s mid-millennium masterwork Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Heidecker and Davin Wood created dozens of little songs that savaged modern advertising jingles. Over the last decade, he has also performed live around the country with Wood; his “Swamp Rock” band with Eric Wareheim, Pusswhip Banggang; and with The Yellow River Boys, for whom he wrote such Seger-inspired ballads as “Hot Piss,” “Slurp It Up,” and “Someone to Piss On Me.

But what these often surreal ventures have mostly concealed – with a few important exceptions, like his remarkable screenplay for Rick Alverson’s Entertainment and his upcoming role in Flying Lotus’s Sundance-selected feature debut Kuso – are Heidecker’s profound internal focus. These, and an unsurprising love for the real folk-rock he has effortlessly lampooned for years, are the decided anchors of the comedian’s first record to be released under his own name. In Glendale, produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and now available from Jagjaguwar and Secretly Store, is a collection of sharp, earnest ruminations on the eponymous city in Southern California where the artist lives with his family. An adventurous left-turn in a career full of them, these ten songs nonetheless warrant comparison to some of American rock music’s most accomplished singer-songwriters. Just before the record’s release, Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism and the Austin Chronicle spoke with Heidecker – in a grounded and forthright conversation, you should know – about those musicians, the city of Glendale, and picking up dog shit.

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Editor’s Note: This interview was produced in partnership with the Austin Chronicle.

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Sean Malin: When it comes to the city of Glendale, the word “pedestrian” does not do it justice. When I was growing up near there, it seemed like a former city, a little beaten down.

Tim Heidecker: I guess so, but it doesn’t seem that way to me now, at least not quite so much. It has actually become pretty nice. This is the place where people who make the stuff that we watch go home to at night. It is a suburb, but one that’s “spittin’ distance” from Hollywood. You can retreat there and be away from all of the possible stereotypes you can think of when thinking about Los Angeles. You don’t have to feel like you are living there, necessarily, which is, for me, a good thing.

SM: You said on Twitter that you took the photograph that is now your album cover from your actual home.

TH: Yeah, where we are now is very lovely. I moved up into the hills a little bit outside of the city. It’s quieter, more suburban. Trees and wildlife and older neighbors. It really is nice. But Los Angeles as a whole has its ups-and-downs. There is certainly a lot of ugliness, overpopulation, and terrible architecture. Yet we are all surrounded by beautiful oceans, mountains, beaches – the city has a lot of dimensions to it.

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SM: Listening to the album reminds me of the music that my father, who is a prog-rock musician, used to play for me while growing up in Los Angeles when we weren’t listening to Genesis. It was guys like Harry Chapin and Randy Newman, whom you have mentioned in a few interviews now as an inspiration for In Glendale. Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, too – all these songwriters whose lyrics have a pinch of humor amidst these great stories. Who’s missing from this list in terms of your influences here?

TH: You are very much in the wheelhouse. Joni Mitchell and Carole King are also my speed. I’m really glad you mentioned Jackson Browne, actually, because as I’ve been doing interviews, I forget to mention him. I was never a deep-cuts fan of his; but whenever I hear him, I think, “That is a lot…it’s very close to the songs I end up writing.” We are kind of within the same vocal range, too, so I just find myself making a lot of the same moves.

SM: You, he and Chapin all share a tone: wryness. It isn’t misery, per say, but sadness that is funny. The songs are mostly contemplations about your daily life: driving home from work, paying your mortgage. You are honestly ruminating without coming to any clear conclusions, it seems.

TH: That is fair. Yeah, I like that description. The way I have been saying that to myself is that while the record is not devoid of humor, it isn’t simply funny that it exists. That is something that cannot be said about certain other things I’ve done.

SM: Right. This is decisively not a comedy record. A lot of people have been programmed to expect a certain kind of behavior from you when it comes to interviews. Are you ready for them to react to your earnestness here with shock or disbelief? Or are you afraid that they’ll mess with you?

TH: In talking about this record, my approach is just to talk about it in the most matter-of-fact way possible. I do not necessarily want to turn the conversation around the record into a joke. But if I end up doing press where the person is clueless or disrespectful, then my instincts will probably change *Laughs*. Then I might have fun with [the interview] or take it into a different direction.

SM: You have made many records and performed with a number of different outfits, like Pusswhip Banggang and your band with Davin Wood. But you are using your own name here for the first time. Is this the first major effort you have put forth towards a musical career, or have people simply not recognized that you wanted to be taken seriously and earnestly before now?

TH: Early on, in my high school days, I think a musical career was something I aspired towards. I was in the marching band and I was in high school bands that made demos in our garages, that kind of stuff. Like everybody, I have a “variety of interests”; music just seemed like the most unattainable to a suburban kid, in terms of a career. So I dropped it when I decided to go to school to pursue film, but I have always dipped back in and out. I never consciously thought [at those times] of the music as a career move. They were always project-based or idea-based, where I thought, “What’s the best way to get this idea out of my head and into the world?”

With music, there is just no way I could have ever thought that it would become my career because there is basically no way to live off it and make money from it anymore. I’m just happy that someone can afford to pay for and distribute this record in its current state.

SM: Jagjaguwar is releasing the record. They work with Rick Alverson, the writer and director of The Comedy [in which Heidecker stars] and Entertainment, so the people who work at the label must be quite familiar with your work. Did they decide to release the record because of personal relationships you have there, or was it more a matter of sensing a musical fit between their label and Jonathan Rado’s production?

TH: This is a winding road of a story. Chris Swanson, who runs Jagjaguwar, is a friend of mine, and they had financed The Comedy. That is where I first knew him from. Well before this record was made, he suggested that I take my music a little more seriously. He thought it would be interesting to do something that wasn’t just a straight-up comedy record. [Swanson] gave me the confidence to do it in the first place. He also put me in touch with Rado, who helped to “class up” the songs and give them focus. Rado and I have a language together that lets us talk about music – we cut through a lot of the other talk. So we went off and made the record, but without any label involved.

When we began shopping it around, we knew it didn’t really fit into the Jagjaguwar family necessarily; but Rado was going to be starting his own label, Rado Records, and that [partnership] clicked. In Glendale is a hard sell for a lot of people because many people will have preconceived notions about what the record is, or what it should be, or what it can never be. This is a style of music that is not really that cool. So it has its challenges in terms of marketing or promoting it; but Jagjaguwar has been great about it.

SM: The word “cool” gets attached to much of the work you are known for, as if it is just a niche group of tastemakers or “cool kids” that like or pretend to like [your work as] Tim and Eric or Entertainment. When it comes to your shows and movies, people always seem to want to prove that they understand every level you are working on intellectually. But the same applies to people like Rado, or to Nick Thorburn, who cast you in a short film with Michael Cera: these young men define what’s cool now, especially in music.

TH: That’s true. Although those guys are exceptions in my life, they do look really cool. I will admit that the stuff that I make with Eric is some of the coolest stuff ever. I’m not saying “cool” like it’s a good thing or a bad thing either; it’s more of the way that you present yourself. I never personally perceive myself as cool. In fact, I personally perceive myself as very “not cool.”

SM: As you say in the record, you are the guy that “picks up the dog shit.” That is not cool.

TH: I pick up dog shit, my clothing sense is a little conservative, and I have a kid and a family. But maybe that is the coolest way to be. *Laughs*

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SM: Not only do you have a family now, but Abso Lutely Productions has grown significantly, and you produce a lot of other people’s shows – you have real responsibilities, both personal and professional. You pick up dog shit, you drive home to Glendale, you take care of your baby. That’s the central conceit of the record. Is it fair to call it a concept album about a person who lives in Glendale, California?

TH: Yes, everything is about myself at forty living in a real way in Los Angeles, all from the perspective of someone who has lived here for more than ten years. Most of the songs were written over a three-month period fairly recently before making the album. After I had one song, a bunch of the others just followed, like “Central Air” and “Cleaning Up the Dog Shit.” There were a lot of these records, especially in the seventies, that were about living in Los Angeles like this. Warren Zevon has written great songs about Echo Park. Like those, the concept behind the album was to be straight about where I’m at.

SM: At forty, are you living a sadder existence with the house and the family than when you were younger? Or are you somewhere between “#blessed” and completely contented?

TH: Contentment is something you aspire towards. And sometimes you hear, “Oh my god, I’m going to have a TV show!” or “I got cast in a movie!” or those things. There are all these perceptions about how that is supposed to make you feel. But if you’re smart, after ten years of those kinds of things happening to you, for which you can be very grateful and feel very fortunate, you still end up having to lead a fairly normal life that involves all kinds of problems and issues just like someone who manages a Pizza Hut might be dealing with. There isn’t ever a place where you can become settled, content, or happy in a perfectly aligned way, at least not to me. This doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy, miserable, and depressed; but I could never think of myself as content or complete, especially creatively.

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