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The Duality of Tim

Most know Tim Heidecker as half of the duo behind the legendary sketch show ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’ But this week, he’s back with a new album that may change forever what you think when you hear his name.

Carson McNamara

The idea is that you’ll meet two Tim Heideckers, and that even though they share the same name and the same face, only one is the real version. You’re probably familiar with the first—the broad strokes, if not the exact details. It’s the Heidecker you meet in his stand-up: a nasty, ignorant man who stomps across the stage in a green button-down, black leather jacket, and pants that can’t quite fit over his waistline. That’s the one he calls his No More Bullshit character, a failed Bill Hicks wannabe who’s as clumsy with his mic as he is his punch lines. This Heidecker evokes words like “absurd” and tortured phrases like “anti-comedy.” If you’re familiar with the surreal humor of Heidecker’s landmark sketch series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, this man won’t feel like a stranger. An unwelcome guest, perhaps, but not a stranger.

The second Tim Heidecker you’ll meet is altogether different. No leather jacket. No unearned pompousness. This Heidecker plays guitar and sings songs like “Fear of Death” and “Property”—ones so preoccupied with mortality that they’re impossible to read as ironic. It’s the Heidecker that made its proper debut on the 2016 album In Glendale and returns on Friday with the excellent new LP High School. This version inspires words like “sincere” and “earnest.” With every passing year, his existence feels like less of a bit. Unless you count the absence of a bit as being a bit itself.

Heidecker has been thinking a lot lately about how to Frankenstein together these versions of himself. He’s prepping for the aptly named Two Tims Tour, a 26-city run that will put both Heideckers on full display on the same night for the first time. He’s taken the No More Bullshit character on the road for years, and due to the rules and provocations that come with him, those performances can be taxing—both on Heidecker and the audience. But Tim the Musician—the authentic Tim, to hear him tell it—still feels fresh. In fact, aside from a quick five-show West Coast run around In Glendale, he’s never toured his music. “It’s a big jump,” Heidecker concedes.

As we drive through Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley in his black Tesla Model 3 on a recent sunny June afternoon, he gushes about a pair of recent test dates in New York that he says scratched every creative itch: Mr. No More Bullshit was relegated to opening for Tim Heidecker and His Very Good Band’s nine-song set. Even if it’s still a slight shock to think of the Us scene-stealer alternating between those two modes, it’s starting to feel more comfortable: “I could’ve done that show 10 times in a row, both of them.”

“I can take that jacket off, put on a different shirt, and I am me, I am myself,” he says en route to a fitting for an upcoming role. “I can play music that I’m excited to play for people that people now seem to enjoy.”

Before he can begin the tour, however, he has to get through the release of High School, a new album that mines his youth to grapple with his present. Where In Glendale and 2020’s Fear of Death often explored a theatrical, Randy Newman–style of singer-songwriter rock, High School goes smaller and more modern. It’s a breezy, straight-ahead rocker featuring indie cool kids Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile and packed with Linn drum machine rhythms and scorching guitar solos. Lyrically, it draws on teenage ennui and could’ve-been romances, falling in love with music and losing friends to drugs. It’s all highly specific, but it radiates a natural, relatable warmth. The end product is Heidecker’s best album yet, a culmination of everything he’s been building to the past six years. It’s also one of the best rock records you’ll hear all year, preconceived notions of its creator be damned.

As we turn onto a street deep in North Hollywood, Heidecker hits play on High School and starts breaking down the album’s production process. The wistful riff of quietly crushing opener “Buddy” beams through the car’s speakers. But within moments, he’s distracted by a sound he wasn’t expecting. “I’m a fan of it until I start singing,” he says with a quick smile, turning down the volume. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s me.’”

As always, the context in which you encounter Tim Heidecker matters.

One day in the middle of Obama’s second term, Heidecker found inspiration in an unlikely place: Real Time With Bill Maher. The guest was Bruce Dern, who was promoting his movie Nebraska. Sitting in his home in Glendale, the meme-worthy suburb just north of Los Angeles, Heidecker had the show on in the background as static noise. But one phrase uttered by the legendary actor cut through the domestic afternoon: “Nebraska is not just a flyover state.” It sparked something in Heidecker. He began writing lyrics, and before long he had a full song. He quickly recorded a demo, excited by what it could represent for him.

The lyrics for the track—appropriately christened “In Glendale”—don’t immediately scan as high-stakes: He takes a trip around the U.S., and while he acknowledges there are a bunch of cool places out there, he decides his adopted home in the hills is it for him. But the song is sweet and honest, and for possibly the first time in his recorded music, it’s told from the perspective of Tim Heidecker the person instead of Tim Heidecker the character. For someone whose previous best-known song was the Southern rock ode to urine, “Hot Piss,” this qualified as deeply sincere. “I thought, ‘People don’t see me this way, as a dad living in the suburbs,’” he reflects. “Most of my past 10 years had been doing very weird things—very ironic, distanced things. Isn’t it an interesting move to be not that? Because how long do you keep doing this weirdo, very much a put-on thing as a performance?”

In a sense, “In Glendale” was more than 20 years in the making. Heidecker’s first artistic love was music, a passion handed down from both his grandma (“She could play the piano kinda by ear,” he says) and his father, the owner of a small car dealership in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Dad lacked the talent of songcraft but played the Beatles incessantly for his kids, as dads are wont to do.) Heidecker adopted the guitar as his instrument, and as a teen he joined a series of bands with increasingly ridiculous names. The best—both musically and semantically—was a Gin Blossoms knockoff named the Pulsating Libidos. “It wasn’t a complete embarrassing mess,” he says now with a hint of pride.

Those bands all flamed out without much of a footprint besides scattered demos. But that was fine: A young Tim was finding he had talent for more theatrical pursuits. At Allentown Central Catholic, he anchored the school’s closed-circuit morning program, which became a Trojan horse for his comedy. (It also provided a slight form of school fame that helped land him on the homecoming court, though Heidecker suspects the jocks may have split the vote. “I just ended up with this weird, fractional, parliamentary kind of thing going on,” he says.)

After graduation, he moved 60 miles south to Temple University for film school, where he almost immediately met Eric Wareheim. They were friends first, and then creative partners who thought they were more Scorsese than sketch comedy—at least until they discovered Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s kaleidoscopic HBO series Mr. Show. Soon, they used a well-placed invoice to get Odenkirk’s attention (freelancers, take note), and the future Jimmy McGill agreed to mentor them. He helped get them to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim with their animated series Tom Goes to the Mayor in 2004. Within three years, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and its cable-access-channel-from-the-beyond vibe hit the air. Absurdist humor, Old Spice commercials, and the brains of stoners everywhere would never be the same again. But while Heidecker’s guitar always stayed within arm’s reach, the thought of working on music seriously didn’t entice him. “I stopped making music for a long time,” he tells me. “I just didn’t have any real point of view to sing about that wasn’t comedic.”

At this point in our trek through the Valley, we’re finished with the fitting and heading into a Mexican restaurant neither one of us were familiar with five minutes ago. Since the pandemic hit, Heidecker has changed his diet and started exercising more. (The daily walks and jogs around his winding neighborhood to clear his head have paid off.) Deceptively tall at a shade over 6 feet, he’s noticeably thinner at 46 than he was in his Tim and Eric prime. If you’ve only seen clips of the No More Bullshit character and his ill-fitting clothes recently, you’ll be struck by how Heidecker’s polo hangs off him today, and how pronounced his cheekbones and jawline are compared with the cherub-faced man who once played proto–House of Gucci extra Spagett. If tacos are part of that fitness plan, far be it from me to deny him. Plus, a near-empty strip-mall joint with checkered tiles and loud benches seems like the ideal setting to talk about the current state of stand-up—which, depending on who you ask, is in a perilous position.

Much of Heidecker’s stand-up character was built as a deconstruction of hacky ’90s performers, but Mr. No More Bullshit seems especially relevant today. He’s an Andy Kaufman–type provocation just as likely to confront his fans as he is to call out the PC police. For a surrealist artist’s invention, he feels suddenly too real: After a few isolated high-profile incidents this year, comedians have publicly fretted about potentially having to fight their crowd, all while the “cancel culture” debate rages on.

Asked whether comedy is under attack, Heidecker repeats the question, takes a beat, and responds emphatically: “100 percent no.” Those same comedians who worry about “cancellation” have no issue landing good deals with Netflix and filling arenas, he says. Also, the issue is particularly vexing for Heidecker, because some of these same comedians are stoking flames by targeting trans and other marginalized groups in their acts. Heidecker feels protective of those demographics, partly because he wants his fan base to be an inclusive space and partly because as a cisgendered white man, he feels it’s his responsibility to say something.

“They’re under attack the way the United States military would be under attack if it was attacked by Yemen, you know what I mean?” he says of the comedians. “It’s not a real thing. It’s not a real problem for them. I think it’s totally legit and fine for marginalized groups of people to push back when comedy or drama or any medium is openly attacking them. They should have all the space in the world to do that. But I think, when it comes to specifically Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, it’s just like fuck off, guys.”

As a TV blares daytime soaps behind us, we pivot back to his music career and breeze through some of his post-Libidos, less-serious endeavors. Early on, there was the Tim Heidecker Masterpiece, a Spinal Tap–style fake rock band that once made a rock opera named “Theatre of Magic.” Then came the little-remembered Herman Cain parody record Songs in the Key of Cain and the cult-favorite pee lovers, the Yellow River Boys. (He once performed “Hot Piss” at an otherwise-somber tribute show for late former Shins bassist Richard Swift, one of the song’s biggest fans. As Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick later tells me, “Honestly, it was very fitting.”) Heidecker also talks about his early 2010s collaborations with Tim and Eric composer Davin Wood. They were dismissed at the time as yacht rock parody pastiches, but he gives the impression that had he understood then what he does now, the Heidecker & Wood albums may have been presented differently. He’s particularly fond of one 2011 track, “A Song for My Father,” which he recently realized was mostly autobiographical. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s all there,’” he says. “Even back in the first record there’s serious songwriting and serious subject matters going on.”

The difference in how he feels about his music today is what makes “In Glendale” stand out as an inflection point. It’s not just that the song was good. (It was.) It also wasn’t simply that it became a calling card for well-respected musicians to take a chance on working with him. (It did—longtime collaborator Jonathan Rado from Foxygen chief among them.) It’s that it gave him the confidence to take that leap of faith and stop hiding behind artifice, at least in his music. “In Glendale” made him realize he could tap into his inner Newman or Harry Nilsson—for a professional funnyman and studied music lover like Heidecker, those iconic musicians seemed like the platonic ideal of great songwriting. “Those guys could be funny within the context of sincerity and sadness at the same time,” he says. “They don’t have to bury their humor. So that was the permission I gave myself.”

The end result was an album bearing the same name as that Dern-inspired single. 2016’s In Glendale doubles down on the domesticity, most notably on the hangover hymnal “Work From Home” and the well-I-guess-this-is-my-life-now acceptance of “Cleaning Up the Dog Shit.” These tracks may elicit a smirk or even a laugh or two. But they’re funny in the way Warren Zevon is, not in the way “Weird Al” Yankovic or the Lonely Island are. It’s about a turn of phrase or a witty observation, not selling a bit. The album is also tempered with songs like the crushing short story “Ocean’s Too Cold,” which gets at the darkness of Los Angeles that the title track skips past. Differences in musical styles aside, In Glendale is closer to Steve Martin’s Grammy-winning bluegrass work than something like Bo Burnham’s Grammy-winning Inside, which presented as a comedy thanks to tracks like “Shit,” “White Woman’s Instagram,” and the “Bezos” interludes, despite all the existential malaise.

“A lot of people just think of him making fun of music,” says Vic Berger IV, a surrealist video editor who cohosts the weekly internet call-in show Office Hours with Heidecker and DJ Douggpound. “This is what he loves, and he’s doing it out of love for the music that’s meant so much to him.”

Not everyone got In Glendale immediately—some contemporary reviews focus on the comedy above all else—but it opened up a conversation about what Heidecker’s music could be. 2019’s What the Brokenhearted Do continued that to an extent, though the heartfelt music on that record was overshadowed by a complicated backstory involving right-wing trolls and fake divorce papers. (Heidecker, a loud Trump critic who’s recorded many songs mocking the former president and MAGA culture, acknowledges that he’s likely alienated a portion of his original fan base as he’s gotten more political in the past decade. “A lot of those young white men identified with our work, and also their disdain and distrust for traditional liberal politics,” he says. “Some of them went left and some of them went right.”)

But if any album shifted the Heidecker Window, it was 2020’s Fear of Death, an anxiety-ridden record for an anxiety-ridden year, arriving near the height of the pandemic’s second wave and just six weeks before the election. Bombastic in places and paranoid in others, Fear also found him teaming with beloved indie songstress Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood to occasionally stunning results, particularly on songs like the gravely conservationist “Property” and the you’re-better-off-without-me crawler “Someone Who Can Handle You.” The level of openness came as a shock even to some who knew him. “I was like, ‘Oh, I get it. He’s making fun of when songwriters have these existential concept albums,’” says Dr. Dog’s Slick. “But then I listen to it and I’m like, ‘Oh, no. This is an existential concept album. It’s not a joke.’”

This is exactly what Heidecker is going for. He’s just hoping that people are along for the ride, especially as he gets set for his most interesting, personal musical project yet. “I always say you can find some things funny in the records,” he says, “but the joke isn’t that it exists.”

You likely have a sense of the Tim Heidecker comedic aesthetic even if you tapped out after Tim and Eric or never heard of The Trial or On Cinema at the Cinema. It lasers in on an uncomfortable moment, blows it up to an absurd degree, and deconstructs it in a psychedelic and queasy manner. Sometimes, it’s grown men pretending to be destructive children, with the humor—and horror—coming as their cries are looped into the world’s scariest lullaby. Others, it’s a 12-hour parody of the most popular and controversial podcast in the world (which also happens to be licensed by Spotify, The Ringer’s parent). And still others, it’s just an extended poop joke, with diarrhea gushing out of a charming British man’s pants as the lens lingers for an unreasonable amount of time. “He’s the master of taking the joke so far that it becomes unfunny, but then so far that it’s hilarious again,” says Mac DeMarco, a longtime fan who helped shepherd High School through production. “That commitment—I think it’s cool.”

The post-Glendale music operates on a similar principle—small moments made big, then exposed for all their joy and dread—except his songs flip the paradigm on its head. The absurdity of the sketches falls by the wayside; the music is typically free of “irony” or “post-irony” or however you want to classify his comedy, and it can sometimes be even more uncomfortable to look at.

High School is his most fascinating exploration into those kinds of moments, which he spins into vignettes that reverberate beyond his own experience. Focusing on his adolescence, he rips open old scars, looking for new meaning in them. “Buddy” draws on the hard lives of three of teenage Tim’s long-lost friends, two of whom have since passed. When he sings that they’re listening to Pink Floyd and Rage Against the Machine, it at first evokes nostalgia. Then he delivers a gut-punch in the next couplet: “You turn it up so you didn’t have to hear / The yellin’ going on downstairs.” Another song finds him learning to love “Harvest Moon,” putting it on a mix CD for a girl, and then getting dumped that summer. Almost all find him wrestling with anxieties past, present, and future. It’s slice-of-life stuff that speaks to how teenage pain shapes us and how darkness can stick longer than we’d like to admit. As he sings on “Future Is Uncertain,” “I remember laughin’ / I can’t remember what I was laughin’ about / I remember cryin’ / I can’t forget what I was cryin’ about.”

“The songs are always dispatches or memoir entries of where I’m at, what I’m thinking about, what I’m worried about, what I care about,” Heidecker says. “They’re fairly universal experiences. So there’s value to other people in sharing some of my thoughts and perspectives.”

Not only is the songwriting more nuanced on High School, but the music has more room to breathe this time. He describes Fear of Death as “a kitchen-sink record,” with nearly 30 credited musicians contributing. By contrast, the new album has just five besides Heidecker: DeMarco, Kurt Vile, and trusted collaborators Rado, Drew Erickson, and Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats. (Though the vintage Linn drum machine makes frequent appearances and could have a reasonable claim to being a sixth credited guest.) “I think the cool move is to do a small record, a small-sounding record,” Heidecker says. “Full Moon Fever was just Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty and Mike Campbell in their garage making that record, and still could sound amazing.” Comparisons to one of Petty’s best are a ways off, but Heidecker has made a great album. High School is light on its feet, packed with airy grooves, mid-tempo head nodders, and one bona fide indie smash: “Sirens of Titan,” the infectious Vile-assisted single that weaves together memories about the Velvet Underground, Kurt Vonnegut, Claudia Schiffer, and the first Gulf War over a driving drum track, bouncy riffs, and washed-out synth. It sounds pretty damn close to something Vile would cook up, but it was written by Heidecker—proving that he can meet a modern-day indie guitar god on his own turf.

“His songwriting style is very specific,” DeMarco says. “Some people would say that it maybe harkens back to a certain era or something like that. But I think I appreciate that there’s a congruence underneath.”

What’s a song like “Sirens of Titan” worth in 2022? It’s already hard to break through in a streaming era dependent on serendipitous—or duplicitous—playlisting and viral short-form videos. Doubly so as a musician who peddles in singer-songwriter soft rock. Heidecker has a built-in edge, in that he’s got a certain level of name recognition and a feverish fan base willing to pay for the Office Hours Patreon or his HEI Network. But he’s also playing against preconceived notions. Chances are if you’ve encountered his name, you have a strong opinion of it—or at least a strong opinion of some version of what that name can represent. “I understand that—it creates confusion,” he says. “Nothing I can do about it now. But if I was a fan or if I was interested in these different things, that might be one of the things I find interesting about it.”

As someone who’s become one of the most successful musicians in indie rock by playing against his Zen slacker persona with earnest songs, DeMarco understands the conundrum Heidecker has faced for years in trying to sell people on his serious music. But as a polymath disguised as a jester, maybe Heidecker is uniquely suited for these strange times.

“He’s got the Diarrhea Pants and then also this very nice song,” DeMarco says. “I don’t know, maybe it’s advantageous.”

Back in the hills of Glendale, Heidecker is playing yet another version of himself: ringmaster. He’s in the studio where he recorded the “In Glendale” demo, but today he’s doing Office Hours Live, the call-in show that can best be described as a variety hour (or two) built around his many interests—from music to comedy to political activism. Today’s guest list is particularly reflective of that. In studio, he’ll welcome Blake Anderson of Workaholics fame and keyboardist Vicky Farewell. Over Zoom, he’ll speak with Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch from Kids in the Hall and a gun-reform advocate from March for Our Lives. It’s a motley crew, and there’s no reason for all these people to occupy the same space—except that they each represent an important piece of the Tim Heidecker puzzle.

Heidecker’s posted up at his standing desk as a small team of assistants, interns, and producers swirls around him. But he’s slightly distracted. Understandably so: Today also marks the release of the “Sirens of Titan” single and its accompanying video. He’s spent most of the morning finalizing that day’s outline and occasionally jumping on a nearby piano to bang out a Jerry Lee Lewis impression. (Expertly, in fact.) But just as the video drops at 9 a.m., he’s positioned in front of his monitor, near walls adorned with Office Hours fan art and posters of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and, yes, Randy Newman. Within moments, he’s reading the reactions on YouTube. It’s a rookie mistake that violates the first rule of the internet, and given some of the vitriol and bad reviews he’s experienced in the past, it’s a dicey proposition. But when he checks this morning, he’s greeted by a welcome development—nearly every reply rapturously praises “Sirens of Titan.” “This is probably the best song you’ve made so far,” reads one particularly indicative reply by a user named leon meat. (Hey, this is still Tim Heidecker’s fan base.)

He’s human, so he also reads out the lone confused comment—“I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not this is supposed to be serious”—but besides a put-upon laugh, he doesn’t seem too bothered. Neither does anyone else in the room. “People are really coming along now,” Berger will later say. “At this point they get it. It’s just music, it just happens to be done by Tim.”

Besides, Heidecker’s not changing what he’s doing. He likes wearing his name in all these kinds of ways. The Two Tims Tour will come first—it’s already sold out 13 dates—then the Office Hours and On Cinema crews will keep him busy. After that, he says he’ll probably do something with Wareheim at some point soon. “I’m not leaving one thing for the other thing,” Heidecker says. “I just have a lot of things I want to do.”

He wants the music to grow—who wouldn’t?—and the new album may be its best chance yet, but if the listenership stays where it is, he’ll be content, so long as he gets to live out all of his creative lives. But ultimately, High School may be effective in making just a few more people think “musician” when they see the name Tim Heidecker. “I always expect more than I get. I’m happy that people seem to dig it and connect with it. That’s cool. I’m always hoping that my songs will become top-10 hits. Why not? I understand that they won’t, but there’s always part of me that has that ambition. There are crazier things that have happened.”

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