Tim Heidecker turned a troll campaign into a great album about a fake breakup

The singer-songwriter-actor-comedian talks about his role in Jordan Peele’s Us, the balance of comedy and politics, and his new album What the Brokenhearted Do...

June 04, 2019
Tim Heidecker turned a troll campaign into a great album about a fake breakup Photo: Juliana Giraffe  

If the cover art for Tim Heidecker's latest album What the Brokenhearted Do… looks familiar, you're probably a big Father John Misty fan. The funny-sad image of tears dripping from the comedian's eye strongly resembles the merch that accompanied FJM's most recent album, God's Favorite Customer — I should know, as my wife picked up one of the shirts for me as a birthday present. "It was accidental — an unintentional nod," Heidecker chuckles when I bring up the resemblance, citing a friendship with Misty godhead Josh Tillman. "We were like, 'Well, it wasn't his album cover, so.'"

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Tillman often excels at making funny songs that are, at their core, quite sad — and What the Brokenhearted Do… somewhat inverts that approach, as Heidecker and frequent musical collaborator Jonathan Rado of West Coast indie oddballs Foxygen take on the time-tested format of breakup songs with a straight-faced reverence that hides the humor lurking underneath. Most curiously, the album itself wasn't inspired by any specific breakup Heidecker experienced, but the waves of vitriol he often receives from right-wing trolls on social media.

"One of their tactics was telling me that my wife had left me — tying into the whole 'cuck' idea," Heidecker explains. "They actually mocked up divorce papers. It was funny to me. First of all, who cares? They're all probably single guys not finding their love in their life." An even more surprising influence than the poisonous world of social media was Adele — specifically, the pop superstar's collaboration with L.A. singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr. on "When We Were Young," from the 2015 smash 25. "I really liked it, and it wasn't far off from the kind of music I write," he recalls. "I joked with Rado and some friends that we should do a record called Demos for Adele —these torch-song standards that I genuinely love."

Anyone who keeps up with Heidecker's work knows that there is, typically, a lot to keep up with — from his and Gregg Turkington's surreal and long-running On Cinema webseries to his recent appearances in Jordan Peele's blockbuster thriller Us and Tim Robinson's gut-busting Netflix sketch series I Think You Should Leave. In addition to chatting about the new album, we talked about Heidecker's busy year thus far, as well as whether he's even interested in comedy anymore.

What is it about Rado that keeps you working with him?

He's a tremendous musician — he can play everything. When I talk about Warren Zevon or Jackson Browne, he knows and loves that music too, so we can communicate easily. He also knows good players. We didn't get to do a full album together until this one — he helped me demo some of In Glendale, but we hadn't gotten to see it through to the end until this album.

When you first hopped on the phone today, I told you I thought this album was funny, and you sounded surprised. Why?

Well, I don't want it to be a parody of something. My songwriting hero Randy Newman can be funny, but not like Weird Al Yankovic — he's funny because life is funny. You can go back and forth between funny and sad in the course of a verse or two different songs. But everyone always comes to anything I do musically with their own preconceived notions about my own work. Maybe they're not sure where the sincerity starts or ends. I guess I like that confusion, but it'll be perceived how it'll be perceived, and there's only so much I can do about it.

What have you learned about yourself while working in music instead of comedy?

I think I've gotten better just by writing on a regular basis. I try to go to my studio, sit, play, get into a little trance state, and see what comes out. The records I did as Heidecker and Wood were parodies — more trying to emulate a sound without having much to say. But with In Glendale, I was more interested in talking about my life in a way that would be interesting and funny without hiding behind an ironic personality.

Part of it is working with people more talented than me. I'm still fairly limited musically, and my songs are pretty basic structure-wise, so if you bring in good players you can dance around the simplicity and add all kinds of texture to it. I don't wanna blow my own horn so much, but I think I can write a catchy tune.

You were singing in your comedic endeavors before you started releasing albums, dating back to Tom Goes to the Mayor.

I can do the belting, '80s hard rock guy thing — which isn't my favorite kind of music, but I can turn it in on. During the On Cinema live shows, I play as Dekkar onstage and I really dig into that Bruce Springsteen-y singer-songwriter delivery, which is kind of low and villainous where you're not even singing the melody anymore. We also do a cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody" with just one acoustic guitar, and it's totally outrageous and inappropriate because I'm just belting it with no understanding of what the tone of that song should be. That's really fun.

Most singers don't like to listen to their own voice — it's a weird psychological thing. I don't think I have a great voice — I'm not Father John Misty or Natalie Mering from Weyes Blood. Certain people just have this tone that's a singular great voice. With my songs, I just do my best and try to sweeten it with harmony and double tracking. But if I wanted to do a straightahead '80s rock record, it would sound pretty good.

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Do you have any favorite breakup songs or albums?

Blood On The Tracks is the one for me — very raw and genuinely sad. Rumours is one of the greats, right? It's all out there in the open. One record we talked a lot about that doesn't translate too well to the new album is John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band — the way that record's geared towards drums, bass, piano, and some guitar. it has a very immediate live sound to it.

Has there been any music that's gotten through breakups personally?

It wasn't really a breakup, but I remember listening to the first Velvet Underground record after receiving a very bad report card and knowing that I was going to be in very big trouble when my dad got home. I fell deep into that record's darkness and was very comforted by it.

Tonally, this record's different from Too Dumb for Suicide, which was explicitly political.

There’s a lot of mournfulness in that record. "Wilbur Ross" — I can't believe I wrote that song. There’s really dark imagery in there that I'm proud of. A lot of sad songs have pretty melodies, so we're always trying to find how to get as close to that as possible.

Cainthology engaged with politics as well, along with the character you portray in On Cinema.

Cainthology was just done almost entirely by myself in my studio. I had a character in mind — a freak who thought Herman Cain was the greatest — so all of the songs had this manic insanity to them.

Have you seen Connor O'Malley's Howard Schultz videos?

Oh yeah.

It's a very similar character to what you were doing on Cainthology.

I'm the father of modern comedy, so you're going to see my influence all over the place. [Laughs]

It can be hard to mix comedy and politics. How do you try to strike a balance?

We're influenced by the world around us, and right now the circumstances of the world are too awesome in a not-good way that I can't fully divorce myself from. I'm not good at the Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert approach — it always comes out satirically. The past four years of On Cinema has been very driven by Trump in influencing my character — the way he speaks, his priorities. I've been supportive of people like Vic Berger, who's really great at recontextualizing what we see on the news into a nightmare. There's more creative ways to reflect what's going on in the world than putting on a suit in front of a studio audience and making wisecracks about the day's news.

On Cinema has become incredibly complicated over the years, plot-wise. How do you keep it going?

It's getting a little hard. It's been a really fun playground, because we started with something very basic and found these two guys who don't exist without each other. We get so much joy out of doing it. The fun challenge is to sit around and figure out what trouble this guy can get himself into. Because we build so much of the world, we can start play with people that we brought in earlier and revisit themes.

We have this book coming out that this guy that Gregg knows put together — an On Cinema guide that's very thorough and complete. He did a really funny thing with the index where you see my name and there's two pages of sub-index under my name — "burned in a you fire," "divorced," all the little story points. It's astounding to see it all one place. Most of the world exists only in us talking about it, so you can tell these grand stories without having to go out and shoot things like a movie.

Is there anything that you've conceived of for On Cinema that didn't work out?

Not yet. I remember pitching an idea to get more info on Gregg's life — how he got to be this way. That's the one question that we don't have an answer for: Why are these two doing this? Why is Gregg insane about VHS tapes?

The character you played on I Think You Should Leave felt like an extension of your On Cinema character in terms of antagonism.

There’s a part of me in there. I'm an aspiring musician in real life, I get frustrated quickly with things, I'm a white man in my 40s. I can turn on that sort of indignation and frustration pretty easily while realizing the ridiculousness of it. You gotta have a sense of humor about your own shortcomings to exploit it in a comedic way.

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Had you watched Tim's previous show, Detroiters?

I haven't seen it, it’s on my list now. I heard such good things, but I didn't really know Tim that well before my wife and I watched [I Think You Should Leave]. I don't watch a lot of comedy — it usually annoys me. But I checked it out just to see how my sketch came out and we ended up just devouring it, so I'm definitely gonna go watch Detroiters.

I Think You Should Leave had the power of Netflix behind it, whereas it could be argued that Comedy Central's resistance to streaming hurt Detroiters' reach.

The power of Netflix blows me away every time. You put it up there, and suddenly everyone's seen it. You put something anywhere else, and people don't engage with it. We've always had a hard time getting people to watch On Cinema: "It’s on this other app that I don't have, and I gotta sign in to this thing." You have to hunt it down, whereas people are just gonna open up Netflix and watch whatever there.

Is it getting harder to make comedy projects because of that?

I don't think it's easier. We've had great supporters in Adult Swim for so many years — there's a familiarity to try to pitch something and get it made — but across the board, the kind of stuff we want to do is always really hard to get made. I do have more exposure than ever before, but it feels like alt-comedy is getting harder to get made. Our production company pitches new voices we love, and we just hear, “Could you guys do a podcast instead? When we came up, we were so young and green and we were given our own show right away. It doesn't seem as easy to do that anymore for some reason.

You were in Us earlier this year. Have you see an uptick in interest from Hollywood regarding your career since?

[Laughs] None. It's striking. I don't care — that stuff takes time. It's not like my phone starts ringing off the hook from Steven Spielberg the next day. Maybe it should be, but it's all good. Being an actor's weird, because so many things have to come together in the right way for it to make sense for you to even be thought about for something. I felt like I'd won the lottery because Jordan had written this part with me in mind — it wasn't an audition thing, it was, "Here you go, you're in this big movie now." [Laughs] You can't count on any of that, ever. I'll just keep busy making records and doing my shows with Eric and wait for the next messiah to come down and pick me up for his or her next project.

Tim Heidecker turned a troll campaign into a great album about a fake breakup