To the uninitiated, Neil Hamburger is probably a puzzling concept. His closest historical analogue is Tony Clifton, Andy Kaufman’s foul-mouthed lounge lizard alter ego. There’s less context with Neil, though, because Gregg Turkington, the man behind the act, is not an international celebrity.
Also unlike Clifton, Hamburger has had 30 years to develop — from the punchline of a prank call into a character with relatable flaws, irreconcilable inconsistencies, and emotional depth. The balding greaseball who slouches on stage with three cocktails under his arm to rasp out jokes about Madonna feeding her baby Alpo-brand dog food from her breasts is portrayed in Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment as a wounded creature, wandering from disastrous gig to dank motel room as he tries and fails to connect with his estranged daughter via voicemail.
The latter setting is the subject of Neil Hamburger Presents: Seasonal Depression Suite. Out now via Drag City, it drops the listener in a badly managed Comfort Inn on Christmas, where Neil is stuck in a purgatory of his own design, finding every excuse to complain about the poor customer service instead of addressing his much more urgent personal problems.
A full album of Neil Hamburger hotel songs could easily get claustrophobic. But Seasonal Depression Suite — a long-imagined, quickly created collaboration between Turkington and Erik Paparozzi, who’s worked on everything from the RuPaul’s Drag Race soundtrack to Cat Power records — is more than that. As Turkington puts it, the project came into its own when he and Paparozzi started “opening the doors to the other rooms and seeing who’s in there.”
For this mission, they recruited a cast that includes Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bow Wow Wow frontwoman Anabella Lwin, Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop, current Fleetwood Mac member Neil Finn, Puddles Pity Party the clown, and others (including Paparozzi’s wife and daughter AJ and Miranda, who also happen to be Frank Sinatra’s grand- and great-granddaughters).
The result is both chaotic and cohesive, held together by not only its setting but also the cloud of impending doom that hangs perpetually over Hamburger’s head and, by proximity, the heads of those around him. The songs aren’t all weepy ballads — some are cartoonishly upbeat, in fact — but there’s something a little sad about all of them, from the melodramatic “Maids Can’t Mop Up Memories” (a track whose title could be the whole album’s logline) to “It Felt Like a Dream,” a forced vending-machine meet-cute.
A few weeks before Seasonal Depression Suite’s release, I called Turkington to discuss dollar-bin gems, robot maids singing the Beatles, and the winding saga of Neil Hamburger.
The listening public met Neil Hamburger in 1992 on the Great Phone Calls album. As the story goes, the character was conceived on the spot. Who was he at that point in time?
Gregg Turkington: If you have the Great Phone Calls album, when you hear the words “Neil Hamburger” coming out of my mouth, that was the moment I thought of the phrase. The prank calls weren’t intended to be a record, just a group of pals sitting around. But somebody happened to record them, and those tapes got spread around, and at some point, it was like, “Well jeez, everyone’s listening to this anyway. Let’s press it up as a record.”
It was just people riffing and souped-up on Coca-Cola or whiskey or just young person’s energy, trying to impress each other with how funny we could be. [“Neil Hamburger”] just popped out of my head, and I thought that was the end of it. There was certainly no intention to do anything more than a couple prank calls using that name. But people liked the calls and started asking me, “Are you gonna do more Neil Hamburger calls?” I was gonna do it, but by the time the record came out, I was really sick of doing prank calls. So I came up with the idea: “What would a live show by that character sound like?” And, with Trey Spruance from Mr. Bungle, I started producing recordings of fictitious Neil Hamburger shows. It kept going until, eventually, the demand was there to make it a real live show.
The first person to ask for more Neil Hamburger was Ron Lessard, who runs a noise label [(RRRecords)]. He wanted a track for a compilation of noise artists, so I approached it as a cross between a standup show and a soundscape. There would be bursts of applause that were too loud that we’d chop in a weird way. It was about creating this almost musical piece of sound. It wasn’t about the comedy or what was coming out of Neil’s mouth, initially.
But Neil Hamburger has moved in different directions, whatever felt right at the time. Sometimes that leads to some inconsistency, but it makes it interesting for me, and hopefully to the people who are into it.
Before all that, you’d been running a zine about non-punk artists who you felt were punk, right?
The zine was called Breakfast Without Meat. I did it with Lizzy Kate Gray and Derrick Bostrom, the Meat Puppets’ drummer. It started out covering artsy, weird punk bands. It was very Flipper focused. At some point, we switched gears completely and started covering Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra Jr. and Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb and Tiny Tim and Hal Blaine. Some people came along for the ride. Others were like, “What the fuck has happened? I don’t want to read an interview with the 101 Strings Orchestra where there used to be an interview with Jello Biafra.”
To me, punk was an explosion of creativity. And when that creativity dried up for that genre, I found a lot of it in records that were not highly regarded by artist types. They should be, because there’s high art in a lot of these easy-listening, pop-vocal records. It’s always a mistake to think that people who make pop music don’t have a wide range of interests or abilities. Sometimes it’s just dependent on a record label assigning a producer to somebody and they make a record that you find stodgy, but then maybe on the next record they’re working with somebody more open minded, and suddenly you get this powerful record. There’s a Tom Jones album called Help Yourself that I think is amazing. It’s not full of hits; it’s a concept album, and he’s at peak powers with his voice. At that time, that’s what it was all about: that search. I’d dig through these dollar bins and try out all these records, and some of them really stuck as the greatest records I’d ever heard. Others turned out to be trivial junk.
Speaking of concept albums, Seasonal Depression Suite is coming soon. From what I understand, it’s a project you and Erik Paparozzi have been talking about for years. Was the creative split pretty straightforward, with you writing the lyrics and Erik writing the music? Who was in charge of picking out the album’s outside “cast?”
This album is the best distillation of decades of the two of us being obsessed with the same music and regurgitating it, and all these influences and ideas coming out in the best possible form. It’s not as simple as, “This song is like X record.” There were 10,000 different influences that came into play. The result came out almost subconsciously. We didn’t have to plot everything out.
Erik wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics, and then we produced it together and made decisions about instrumentation and guest vocalists. Erik is a genius who can write these incredible melodies and also play any instrument beautifully. So he played a lot of the music, and he did the arranging. But we also wanted to get some different DNA on these songs so there wouldn’t be a claustrophobic feeling of one person playing everything. He could’ve played it all, but, it’s more fun also to say, “Let’s get Scarlet Rivera in here and see what she brings, because we love her playing on Bob Dylan’s Desire album.
In the case of Annabella Lwin, who’s one of my favorite singers ever, it was like, “Let’s write a song for her and see if she’s game.” So we were discussing what that would entail, and how it would fit into the world of this mid-price hotel chain where all these songs take place.
“I’d dig through these dollar bins and try out all these records, and some of them really stuck as the greatest records I’d ever heard. Others turned out to be trivial junk.”
The Neil Hamburger presence on the album is a bit disconnected from the Neil Hamburger comedy act. First off, is Neil playing himself on all the songs, or is he playing separate characters?
It gets meta, meta, meta, and you can lose track of it. Originally, the concept was a holiday album for Neil Hamburger, but with original songs based on the character.
It’s not a thing anymore, but these celebrity vocal records were big in the ’60s and ’70s, where you have Leonard Nimoy or Telly Savalas [singing standards]. Whether or not you’re a great vocalist doesn’t matter as long as the personality that people recognize from your work as an actor shines through.
That’s always been the concept with Neil Hamburger records — souvenir songs for fans of Neil Hamburger. How would that character interpret these songs with all that’s going on in his head and the black cloud that seems to loom over him? With this album, it’s me writing the original songs with Erik, not Neil Hamburger the character writing the songs, so it gets weird.
When we’d written a few of the songs, Erik very wisely said, “This is starting to feel like a musical. We could really make something more out of it if we bring in other characters and it’s not all from the perspective of the same guy in the same room at the same hotel. What if we start opening the doors to the other rooms and seeing who’s in there and what their perspectives are?” It’s better from a listener’s point of view, too, because you get vocalists who are clearly great, rather than Neil Hamburger, who’s more of an acquired taste.
The song where the old Neil Hamburger character comes through most for me is “Sleeping For Free.”
That was the last song that we finished. It was the hardest one to get right. We had the backing track first — this late-’70s disco pop sound — but we didn’t have the lyrics. It went through a lot of incarnations, whereas most of the other songs almost sprung out fully formed and ready to go. It was amazing how quickly the other ones came together.
I would’ve assumed the opposite. Some of the setups feel like Neil Hamburger standup.
Yeah, we were actually pitching it to some other people, which is ridiculous; this could only be a Neil Hamburger song.
On that song and “Screen Time,” we see Neil Hamburger as a cynical contrarian, which aligns with how you’ve traditionally portrayed him. He’s defining himself against the cultural touch points he hates — KC and The Sunshine Band, The Country Bears. Are there things Neil Hamburger enjoys?
It seems to me that what Neil Hamburger likes is things going as they should. The promise of show business is that you expect a certain standard of quality in the way that you’re treated by the management of the club, the audience, other entertainers. And none of it really meets those standards. There’s perpetual disappointment because things aren’t as they should be. Things being as they should be would be the dream scenario for Neil Hamburger.
[Hotels] have these ads that talk about, “If you stay here, we treat you like family.” Then you get there, and it’s like they’ve never seen their own ads. Nobody’s following the directive set out by the ad agency or the corporate office — not even making the smallest effort. They might have a big thing in the lobby about a “good-service guarantee,” but you’re getting bad service to your face, and you realize, “How would I enforce this guarantee? I can’t. It’s all a lie.” For Neil Hamburger, having the experience that you might imagine if you checked into a hotel in 1959 would probably bring some joy.
I see the short description of this record as a cross between the Leonard Cohen song “Paper Thin Hotel” and the nasty, self-absorbed, whiny reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor.com. It’s bringing together those two influences.
“Things being as they should be would be the dream scenario for Neil Hamburger.”
On “Security Guard,” you’ve got Alan Bishop singing about bad hotel security, but the root of the character’s problem is clearly what’s going on in his own head.
It’s like, “Don’t blame the hotel, maybe look in the mirror!” The finale song “Check Out Time is 11 A.M.” directly addresses that. One of the complaining hotel guests is basically told by the customer service person, “You need to look at yourself here. Our hotel’s fine.”
If you read TripAdvisor, people have all these complaints, but they’re really petty things that are just part of normal life that they’re blowing out of proportion because they’re frustrated. Some of these people are a big part of the problem themselves, so there may be no winners in that argument.
The songs on Seasonal Depression Suite are character sketches. To me, though, their strength isn’t always in the painting of the characters themselves. It’s these little gems of insight they give us into the world of the hotel. Were you inspired by any musical theater lyric writers who have that particular skill?
I’m never directly writing a song and thinking, “I need to make this like this guy would,” but there are lessons I take from the songwriters I admire most. Jimmy Webb is always on my mind. His lyrics are full of all these different dimensions, starting with them [often] being geographically set, and the locations being important to the stories. Many of his hit songs have cities in their titles. With “Wichita Lineman,” you’re on the outskirts of Wichita right off the bat. You feel the plains of Kansas in the song, and it paints a picture in your brain.
I’m a big West Side Story fan. That’s my favorite record of all time, so that’s always on my mind too. We were also thinking about Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, and how it’s more important when you’re doing a suite of songs like this to have the individual songs be powerful and not get bogged down in the overall story.
“Check Out Time is 11 A.M.” is the most musical-theater-sounding [song on Seasonal Depression Suite], and that was a direct reaction to us watching the horrible 1978 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie that starred the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. They do this version of “She’s Leaving Home” that inexplicably has robotic maids singing it. It’s so far removed from what the song is about.
We liked how off the rails the movie had gotten by that point, and we thought it would be funny to have a big theatrical conclusion that you’re left scratching your head at, like, “That’s how this all wraps up? Why are there suddenly robots conducting customer service interviews?” That was one of the most direct [inspirations] on this album: the feeling of total puzzlement that we had [watching that movie].
The album doesn’t quite end there, though. It ends on the one-minute track “Sugar Packets” that redeems some of the album’s mood, I think.
It does. That was a fragment of something I’d written that I found on my computer, and it fit. It was an unfinished idea, but having it at the end of the album does bring you back to the fact that it’s about Neil Hamburger traveling and ending up at this hotel. You’ve got that big production number with all these people, but [“Sugar Packets”] grounds you, like, “Alright, it’s on to the next hotel, where this kind of shit will probably happen again.”
It’s also a tip of the hat to “Her Majesty” from Abbey Road, where you’ve got this giant medley of songs and then this short little thing tacked on at the end. We even put the same amount of space between the previous song and “Sugar Packets” as [The Beatles] had before “Her Majesty” comes on. It’s a very inside joke, but Erik and I thought it was funny, and that’s all it takes.