A Terrible Word Called Kismet :: Tim Heidecker on Fear of Death

We’re all going to die. It’s an uncomfortable, dreadful realization. Thus, our modern existence can be boiled down to a quest for alleviation. We seek comfort in myriad ways. Food, drugs, God, music, and comedy; our collective phantasm has many viable methods of escape. 

On Tim Heidecker‘s Fear of Death, one of the funniest, most absurd, surreal, and reliable entertainers on the planet gets serious, about life’s truest inevitability. But let’s be clear: Heidecker isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, the record’s rather buoyant and spirited, uniquely and retroactively American in a way—cynical and sharp as a Salem cigarette. Its vintage inflections owe to the pop-rock nucleus of 1970s LA—redolent of the warm grooves of Paul Simon, Byrds bravado, the thematic genius of Randy Newman, and the songwriting chops of Harry Nillson. Heidecker earnestly reminds us that life is really more of a comedy than a tragedy, that existence is absurdly and bleakly hilarious. That’s what he shares with the great songwriters of yore, his propensity for extravagant storytelling by a narrator unhinged and plagued by reality, one whose conviction may be spryly compromised by the rush of telling a more entertaining story in place of a truthful one. 

Fear of Death isn’t the comedian’s first pass in music. He’s shown glimpses of his musical inclination in his work on television and film, most recognisably on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! alongside co-creator Eric Wareheim. And though he’s been a musician for most of his life, Heidecker only recently earned public recognition with the release of 2016’s In Glendale and 2019’s What the Broken-Hearted Do,” both in collaboration with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, and the Trump-themed parody album Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs released in 2017. But what makes Fear of Death unique in Heidecker’s canon is his use of collaboration; the studio band, largely assembled by producer Drew Erickson, includes members of The Lemon Twigs, Warpaint, Foxygen, and Weyes Blood, the latter of which yielded songwriter Natalie Mering as a pivotal presence and sublime harmonic complement to Heidecker’s lead vocals throughout the album.

Comedians who venture into “serious” music, like Steve Martin or Donald Glover, often offer their work to skeptical and hesitant ears. For some, it can be difficult to take seriously the voice of someone whose job is to make you laugh. Others might compartmentalize such voices far and away from anything resembling emotional intimacy. What Tim Heidecker manages so effortlessly is inhabiting a familiar space without trying too hard to be earnest or wholehearted. When you hear the Zevon-esque “Come Away With Me,” or the Graham Nash-borne lament of “Backwards,” you know that it’s wholly Heidecker, both funny and dour, and inarguably and relatably human. 

On the heels of his upcoming release, we spoke with Tim Heidecker about the American backbone of Fear of Death, the likeness of Randy Newman and Paul Simon, harmonizing with Weyes Blood, the assemblage of the best studio band in LA, which Beatles songs are the best, and the repugnant political theater of modern America. | c ruddell

AD: Fear of Death is such a quintessentially American sounding record, but at its core, it feels more fatalistic and self-aware than other records of that ilk—the Harry Nilsson records, early Paul Simon, that kind of stuff. I think it really feels most akin to Randy Newman, if we’re referencing that era of songwriters, particularly on a song like “Property,” where the canned optimism found in a lot of ‘70s pop music is replaced with something more grim and honest.

Tim Heidecker: Yes, I can’t argue with anything you’ve said so far.  

AD: A record that came to mind after my first listen through of Fear of Death was Good Old Boys. They feel parallel in many ways—instrumentally, conceptually, compositionally. There’s a certain melancholy that reveals itself as so strikingly American to me. 

Tim Heidecker: I’m just sitting back and enjoying this! I came to Randy a little late in my life. I knew of him and I knew of his kind of pockets and stuff, but I think, Good Old Boys… about ten years ago I can remember reading about it in this book, this memoir that E from Eels wrote—that’s a great little read, and I don’t really know much about him either—I just heard it was a good memoir so I was reading it. He talked about being obsessed with Good Old Boys, so whenever I hear somebody going on and on and on about something, I think I’m like a lot of people: You want to find out what the hell they’re talking about. So I dug in and was just blown away, I had never thought of him in that way.

The [Fear of Death] band has that feeling of nostalgia for music I don’t even remember or I didn’t grow up with, but it feels so American, you know, country music and folk music, and even like Irish-English traditional folk music. And then lyrically I was like, “Wow he’s doing it all.” He’s got this real beauty and sadness, but he’s relying on himself to be funny and tell stories and all these things that I thought would be so cool to be able to do. My challenge is always to like “de-Randy” my music I guess, because I don’t want to sound like—it would be a parody, so I take only a little bit from him. I can’t play the piano like he plays it, I try not to make it that kind of ragtime music, but he’s certainly in the back of my head when I’m writing.

AD: It’s definitely not a parody, it’s the storytelling that’s the mirroring aspect. Who else of that era do you feel like is in this record? 

Tim Heidecker: Definitely. You know, he never comes up—people often bring up Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson when they talk about my songs, my “serious” songs—but to me, Paul Simon is such a big touchstone, especially his ‘70s period, the first solo album and Still Crazy After All These Years and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He’s got a great sense of humor too, and from reading about him I think he picked up some stuff from Randy Newman as well. I rip off a little chord thing in “Property” that’s right out of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Once you find those little things, you find that Paul will do them a lot, or you can see his little moves that he makes. Same with Randy and all those guys, they have their little things that they often repeat. So yeah, lyrically and musically, I think of those two guys. I always like to try and do a couple of classic Zevon things, like he always does this thing where he goes, “Huhh!” [Laughs] Right? I try to put those in a few places on the record.

AD: What I also found interesting about Fear of Death was the juxtaposition to make this warm, vintage sounding music with such a fresh cast. Natalie and the Weyes Blood crew play such a crucial role, the D’addario brothers from The Lemon Twigs, members from Warpaint and Foxygen and some pretty heavy LA studio cats are all in the rotation. What was behind the decision to bring in such a young supporting cast as opposed to some seasoned ‘70s era studio musicians?

Tim Heidecker: You know, it all happens—there’s a weird terrible word I could use here called kismet, which happened with this record. I knew The Lemon Twigs, the brothers, such a fan of their first record, and I knew them through [Jonathan] Rado. I knew them from even before that record came out. They’re all people I kind of knew and they were all so nice and such fans of my comedy, and also, I think they liked my music. So it just so happened when this guy Drew Erickson, who produced this with us, he was a fan, and he met me at a show and was like—I’m not kidding, this was a Thursday—the show’s at the Hollywood Cemetery and he came up to me afterwards and was like, “I heard you and Natalie on your podcast singing this song and we should go in the studio, if you ever want to do that, let me know, I’d love to help.” That was Thursday. And I said yes, and he went over to ask Natalie and she said yes, and he made calls over the weekend and on Monday we were at the studio with Stella from Warpaint and these other guys and The Lemon Twigs and then Rado came by and it was just this couple of crazy days where the perfect people just happened to be around and were interested in playing. So that’s how it kind of started, but so I had like four or five songs in my folder of songs that I thought were maybe worthy of this project.

I had “Fear of Death,” and I had the ballad “Someone Who Can Handle You” kind of sketched out, and “Say Yes” and a couple songs like that. I think I had “Come Away with Me,” which I had tried to record earlier with some friends and just kind of made this home demo that I wasn’t too happy with; I loved that song but it’d be cool to get a good version of it. I brought those in, and then after that session, which was two days, we got four or five songs that were really solid and we were all like, “Hey, this is working out really well so let’s try to do it again!” We figured out another time to do a few months later with a different group of players, also great players, and then it just felt like, well we have to finish this, we have to make an album. We met at my house a couple times. We got together in different ways, but it was very organic. And then Brian from Lemon Twigs was back in town and went in to overdub a bunch of stuff.

AD: Natalie, on this record, is like the Karen Carpenter to your Richard. 

Tim Heidecker: I was thinking of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.

AD: What’s the story of you two first meeting each other?

Tim Heidecker: We were doing a benefit show separately at the Ace Theatre for Father John Misty, he put together this wildfire relief show with all these great people and she was on before me. I didn’t know who she was, I had heard her name before, but she did this unbelievable cover of a Christmas carol—it was Christmas time—and she blew me away. Then she introduced me as “the star of the number one television show Decker,” and I was like, “Oh, so she’s cool, she actually gets it.” We talked after that and then I invited her to [Heidecker’s podcast] Office Hours. On that show we sang a little bit, we sang like some church songs together. I was just kind of like, “Oh she’s nice, she’s cool, she’s super talented.” I hadn’t really heard her records, but then I heard her new record and was like, “Oh my God, this is a major piece of work you got here.” 

AD: Did you go into the studio knowing that she would be playing this huge role? 

Tim Heidecker: Because we had like four songs, we weren’t sure what it was gonna come out to be. I was very conscious, or sort of sensitive to not ask—I hate asking people to do anything, it’s not comfortable for me and I’m sure most people can relate to that, like, “Do you wanna do this” or “I don’t wanna put pressure on anybody, I know you got your thing.” I always have that sort of feeling: Am I being annoying? So at every step I was like, “Feel free to bail on this, you can do as much as you want,” and she just seemed like she was having fun. There were fun people to be around, the songs were fun to sing, and the energy was really good. She was into it, and I think—I’m sure she had sort of conflicting feelings of like, “Well, I don’t want to pull focus from what I’m doing, I’m here to support you and your songs.” She’s just very smart about her career, as she should be, so you know, it was a little bit of figuring out how it would come out, when it would come out, being sensitive to that. But other than that, it’s been really great, you know, it feels like she can look at it as, “I can contribute to this and have fun and get nothing but compliments doing it,” because everyone seems to acknowledge how good she is and how good she sounds on the record.

AD: I kept thinking about how Jason Molina would have been a great feature on this record. 

Tim Heidecker: Yeah, I love him so much. I don’t go deep in with him, but that one Magnolia Electric Co. record, that’s gotta be for real one of my top five or ten records of all time. Drew [Erikson] kept trying to say, “Why don’t you reach out to Josh Tillman and get him to sing on ‘Property,’” and I thought—I love Josh, he’s got an incredible voice, but maybe he can just cover it. But it is probably the closest thing to sounding like a Father John Misty song I’ve done. 

AD: Of all the Beatles tunes to cover, why was “Let it Be” the right one for this record? 

Tim Heidecker: [The band] were doing this thing backstage at another benefit actually—after we recorded together, we met up at this benefit at the Ace and I was doing a couple of songs from the record. We got there super early to sound check and we’re backstage and I was just doing this fun game that I do occasionally, which is like, try to sing Beatles songs with totally different arrangements, different melodies. It becomes really hard because it puts two things together so closely. We did “Eleanor Rigby” and a couple other songs. I tried doing “Eleanor Rigby” as like a James Brown song or something, and then we just got into “Let It Be,” and I was like, “This actually sounds pretty good!” There was just something nice about it.

We put it on Instagram, we just did a quick acoustic version of it, but when we went back in the studio we were all like, “We should lay that one down too.” We kind of knew it, and it was so easy for the band to play once we worked it through. It just fit in nice. It was kind of one of those things like, none of this is too thought out, none of this is too overanalyzed, but looking back, it sits in nicely thematically on the record. It felt appropriate considering it was given to Paul from his dead mother [laughs]. I did a thing for the Beatles SiriusXM station where I had to give my four favorite Beatles songs, which is an insane and stupid thing to do, and the guy was like “I want to hear this ‘Let It Be’ cover,” and I was like “Oh yeah, I gotta get them to put that into their playlist.” 

AD: What were your Beatles songs?

Tim Heidecker: I picked “Please Mr. Postman” to be controversial and start with a cover. My argument there is that the sound of that recording is the sound of Beatlemania, it’s the sound of them at their self-conscious peak, of “I’m fucking cooler than this.” Then I picked “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul, and I picked that because, I mean anything from Rubber Soul is gonna be strong, it’s in that era where they’re writing more sophisticated lyrics and they’re kind of more adult, they’re writing like timeless kind of stuff. And there’s also some flubs on it, some pretty funny screw ups if you listen closely.

AD: Really?

Tim Heidecker: Yeah, there’s this guitar part that’s really off and really poorly played. I like that. And then “It’s All Too Much” from George, it’s such a cool song. Then “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and I have this great reason for that, I think. At the heart of The Beatles, it’s really about John and Paul—I love George and Ringo of course—but John and Paul, that’s like the drama of that band, the narrative arc of that band is that relationship. The fact that that song is recorded by just John and Paul and it’s lyrically about John basically leaving, it’s sort of the next chapter of John’s life and it’s sort of the breakup on record, to me it’s that John is onto a new thing and Paul is there with him to make the best, catchiest, upbeat, fun song about that.

AD: Right, it says a lot about Paul, I think.

Tim Heidecker: That’s what I love most about Paul in The Beatles era is that he is such a great supporter of the other guys’ music.

AD: I heard the single “Fear of Death” before I had listened to the record and I was really surprised how much it sounded like the Grateful Dead. It’s a nice musical contrast to a lot of the alt-country stuff on the record. 

Tim Heidecker: Yeah, I mean I don’t know, I’m not a fan of the Grateful Dead, and I’m very open about that. I don’t like them, and I don’t hear that in the song except maybe in some of the soloing that Brian does on it, but my audience knows I don’t like the Grateful Dead. When that song came out they were giving me shit for it, and I was like, “Send me a Grateful Dead song that sounds like this.” I don’t know anything, I just haven’t heard it, so I guess rhythmically or the playing of the lead guitar—I was actually thinking of Stephen Stills a little bit more when I was writing it. 

AD: It just kind of sounds like American Beauty, I don’t know if you like that one or not.  

Tim Heidecker: That’s a great record, I will give them that record. There’s just been this whole Dead resurgence, and friends of mine too, like Vampire Weekend, there’s this whole like, “The Dead is cool now.”

AD: Another cool standout which you already brought up is “Say Yes,” this sort of smokey, outlaw blues. 

Tim Heidecker: I like a good solid album track that might just sit on the record. This isn’t the best thing I’m gonna write, but it’s kind of cool and it kind of lingers on a little too long, it’s a little too Doors-y, the way we structured it. It’ll attract some fans, and some people are gonna skip it.

AD: “Oh How We Drift Away” is such a beautiful closing statement on the record, one that found you in the role of Bernie Taupin to Natalie’s Elton John. What’s that experience like, writing lyrics for a vocalist? Is it something you could see yourself doing more of down the line? 

Tim Heidecker: It’s interesting. I think we talked about it as an exercise, as kind of like, “Well, let’s try to do this, let’s try a version where I just send you some lyrics and you put the tune to it,” and it worked out well. I mean, if I’m gonna write, I’m always thinking of some sort of melody. I don’t know how Bernie Taupin or any of these other people do it, I feel like they must have some idea in their head of how it would go. I was listening to this record from Al Stewart, the guy who did “Year of the Cat,” and I didn’t know anything about him. I was listening to his old records like, “Where did that song come from?” He had done this record of historical songs that were based on his fascination with history, and that led me to thinking to close this record on just this massive scale look at human history or humanity. I just took a swing at writing this very preposterous or pretentious kind of final statement, but I thought if Natalie could potentially sell this—I couldn’t sing this, but maybe Natalie could. I just sent it to her and she took a little time to figure out how she would put music to it, but then she did and it was just such a great gift.

AD: As someone who is so plugged into the tumultuous coliseum of American politics, do you maintain any space for hope and optimism? How has the endless news cycle and political theater taken its toll on you? 

Tim Heidecker: It’s quite hard to take an optimistic view of the near future. I just think there’s so much stacked up against us at the moment from various angles. I hope I’m wrong, but it just feels like we’re entering a period of challenges that don’t really have solutions yet. I think of the line in “Backwards” to sort of say, “When I was younger we looked forward to the future, and now the future feels like we’re moving backwards,” so the future knew we were moving backwards.

AD: You’ve been very open in the past about your own progressive politics and engaging in meaningful debate with people who identify as far-right. You’ve also mentioned receiving the sort of classic criticism from the right, the “stick to comedy” mantra. How do you sell those critics on this record? What’s in it that you think speaks to their ideas of feeling disenfranchised and on the fringe? What’s something that you would want them to gain from Fear of Death

Tim Heidecker: Well, the critics of mine I guess are kind of—I can’t hope for anything with them. I think it’s like they’re loud voices, but they’re, you know, by the very nature of the expression of their issues, I feel like I’m not too worried about trying to please them. People have said I might think about dark subject matter, but it’s a shared feeling, so it feels good to hear that other people feel that way. It’s a general reaction that I think is positive.

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