Between a pandemic that has taken the lives of 200,000 and counting and the wildfires ravaging the West Coast, you’d be foolish not to be afraid of dying these days. But while his new album Fear of Death feels eerily relevant to these trying times, Tim Heidecker had no idea what was on the horizon when he wrote and recorded it. He didn’t even know he was making an album about mortality until the theme revealed itself at the last minute.
The record (out today), which features vocals from Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering and contributions from keyboardist Drew Erickson, The Lemon Twigs’ Brian & Michael D’Addario, Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and Spacebomb’s Trey Pollard, isn’t a concept album per se, but most of its tracks deal with demise in some way or another — the kind we all start thinking about a little more frequently once the aches and pains of middle age start setting in.
“Because the sessions came up very quickly, I had to throw some stuff together, and I always have a folder of songs I’m working on or demos,” Heidecker tells InsideHook. “But the first song was ‘Fear of Death’ and I had that, and the other songs weren’t exactly death-oriented. I think after that first session, I went off and we all decided we wanted to try to flesh out a full record, but that wasn’t the original plan. It just went so well that we said, ‘Well, let’s do this again and try to put enough songs together.’ So, I started thinking more about what the themes were, and songs came up naturally that fit into that. I think really only until after it was done, I could listen to it and wonder what the record was going to be called and what the cover was going to be. I started listening to it and noticing that even the songs that weren’t on the nose about death, there was loss or the end of something.”
Fans who know Heidecker best as one half of the surreal comedy duo Tim & Eric may be surprised to hear him addressing such serious subject matter, but the comedian’s been tackling dark topics in his music for years now. Last year’s What the Brokenhearted Do… chronicled a fictional divorce from his wife, while 2017’s Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs confronted our current political climate with poignancy on tracks like “Trump’s Private Pilot,” which imagines the president’s pilot setting up a GoFundMe for his children before taking down his plane screaming “justice for you all,” wound up being covered by Father John Misty. Fear of Death has some funny moments, but in no way is it a bit — instead, it’s a way for Heidecker to scratch a different creative itch.
“There ends up being a bit of death and depressing subject matter in my comedy too, but yeah, I do find that [music] is a release valve,” he says. “The music is a release valve for maybe some darker, more personal issues, and it’s a cathartic way to exhume some of that stuff out of me. I like sad songs, and I like people like Randy Newman or Warren Zevon, and they don’t write songs about how blue the sky is and how happy they are to wake up every day. So, there’s a certain style of song that I like to listen to and I like to write that leans a little darker, I guess. I’m not writing that Beatles song ‘Good Day Sunshine.’ That’s not something I’m very good at doing.”
That’s not to say Beatles songs are entirely out of the question. Fear of Death features a reimagining of “Let It Be” to remind us that maybe some of that fear — of death or anything else that’s beyond our control — is unwarranted.
“Natalie and I had done it backstage just as a fun lark,” Heidecker explains. “We put it up on Instagram, and we always wanted to do a cover. I think we always knew we wanted to do some kind of cover on the record, and that just seemed obvious, because we had this fun arrangement that I think is neat and surprising and the band was just so equipped to do that kind of music. I mean, because we compressed everything in such a short amount of time, it felt like a good use of time. Everything in this project was very much like, ‘Let’s do it, let’s try it.’ That was pretty much the attitude of everything. And then thematically it worked. It was kind of funny, but it’s also about loss and acceptance. It’s a great song. What can you say? I just also like having Lennon and McCartney listed on the back of my album.”
Despite the dark subject matter, much of Fear of Death is deceptively upbeat, with catchy, uptempo numbers like “Come Away With Me,” the title track or “Backwards,” which sweetly warns us that “sun is setting on the good times, oh no.”
“Well, I can only write catchy songs, it’s hard to write unmemorable songs,” Heidecker cracks. “Yeah, I love that juxtaposition. I mean, a lot of people do that. I think Tom Petty’s a good person who does that, having this sardonic dark subject matter, but there’s a poppiness to it. I do write fairly simple, uncomplicated songs, and they tend to become catchy maybe because of that, because they are at their essence camp songs or campfire songs or nursery-rhyme kid songs almost. You could almost do them that way. So that also is just also my limited musical abilities being something that I think [of as] an advantage I have. I can’t get too prog on anything, because I don’t know how.”
He’s being modest, but Heidecker has also made a point of not stressing too much about his music. As he recently told Pitchfork, “I try to keep music a thing that gives me happiness.”
“I think I don’t try to overthink it,” he explains. “I think about myself not as an artist that’s trying to break new ground sonically or music style-wise. Not somebody that’s trying to sound like I belong on the radio, the pop radio. I’m not tortured by the idea of trying to be relevant. You know what I mean? So, I go and have these songs. I’m not trying to make something that sounds old-fashioned, it’s just when you get certain players together and certain songs the way they’re written, they come out sounding a little bit like that. But yeah, luckily it’s not my only thing I do, so I don’t feel the pressure of having a big commercial success with anything or having a giant audience.”
Of course, there will always be naysayers, and when you’re primarily known for your absurd comedy, some fans are bound to have preconceived notions about what Tim Heidecker music will or should sound like.
“I think that’s always been a struggle that I can decide how much I want to care about that, but there is a certain expectation,” he says. “The past couple records have, I think, done a good job of letting people know that you’re not necessarily going to get something wacky if I put a record out. But I also understand that everyone has their personal tastes. I think a lot of my comedy fans, they’re just not into this kind of music, it’s not what they grew up on or they have completely different taste in music. Most people are cool about it.I always think the worst people are the people who chime in on comment sections negatively. I just don’t know anybody that does that in my life. Who do you know that actually writes, ‘This sucks,’ on a comment board? Those are the worst people anyways, so I try to remember that when that comes up. It does come up, but I assume that comes up for everybody.”
No amount of negative comments on social media can take away the experience he had working with Mering and his band of collaborators on Fear of Death — particularly during the session for the lovely “Nothing,” which he calls “one of the more spiritual and emotional moments of my creative life.”
“Natalie was trying to wrap things up, because she was going to maybe go and do a spot on somebody’s show,” he recalls. “There was this moment of, she was like, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ I didn’t want to be too pushy, but I was like, ‘I think if you stayed, we could do this song.’ She said, ‘Okay, fuck it. I’ll just stay, and let’s work on it.’ That moment of, ‘Oh, we’re going to do it, we’re going to stay late and do this song. We’re all a little tired.’ It’s always an exciting rush when you’re in the moment and actually doing it. But then after we laid the track down, she went in and did these harmonies, these angel voices over the bridge, and it was just like goosebumps. It was like, ‘This is really cool, and I’m really happy with the song, and it’s going to come out.’”
“Drew and this other engineer that were there, we were all looking at each other like, ‘This sounds fucking great,’” he continues. “I was probably a little exhausted, and you get a little punchy at the end of the day like that. I got a little weepy too, like, ‘How cool is this?’ I mean, I get to do a lot of cool things in my life, dumb things that I would have been excited about and am excited about, like walking onto a backlot on some Universal Studios or meeting neat people. Those are those moments where like, ‘Cool, I’m in a fucking studio with Weyes Blood and these cool people.’ Sometimes you’re aware of the moment you’re in, and it hits you.”
And while his reasons for dwelling on his own mortality are the same ones we all have, the experience he had working on Fear of Death was almost too good; he’s got to wonder if maybe everyone else knows something he doesn’t.
“It was a gift,” he says. “I felt like I had received the news that I had a terminal illness and people were banding around me to give me my last final wish, like a Make-A-Wish foundation kind of thing, where all these incredibly talented people came around and contributed to this record.”
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