Erik Helwig’s Offbeat Pop About Breaking Bad, Mac Demarco and More
Louder Than War’s Sunny Baglow has chat with Erik Helwig about his TV Project.
“Prolific” isn’t a word that even comes close to summarising songwriter Erik Helwig’s ad infinitum flow of creativity. The Ann Arbor, Michigan based musician has been occupying himself with a multitude of projects over the past few years, from scoring indie game soundtracks to performing retro-fuelled synthpop anthems in Girls Who Care. However, his most memorable and oddly-captivating material is found under the pseudonym of Hot Dad, in which Helwig’s muses are the most imitable and memetic aspects of pop culture, firing out cuts at television, celebrities and web culture, laced in ingeniously innovative pop songwriting and with a runtime often no longer than your average Guided By Voices track. His most notorious songs can be found in Helwig’s colossal TV project, containing over a hundred reinterpretations of famous television themes from Seinfeld to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and serves as a quintessential snapshot of Helwig’s offbeat sense of humour and diligent work ethic.
Helwig’s prodigious attention-to-detail in songwriting, eccentric nature, and penchant for ear-worm pop hooks places him at odds with the archetypal stone-faced indie singer-songwriter character. His idiosyncratic, slacker-comedian nature seems distinctly opposed to the humourlessness of modern indie music, and yet, Helwig fits perfectly aligned with sainted alternative comedians such as Tim & Eric and Hannibal Buress. For, I sat down with Helwig for in-depth chat about his vigorous creative output, his new record PPL, and how he conquered television, Mac DeMarco, and vaporwave.
The TV record was released way back in February as an ongoing project, and now you’ve amassed over a hundred songs for it. How did that project come to be?
Well, TV has had a couple of big spurts of activity. I started it in March of 2014 as purely a joke. My girlfriend was watching Girls and I started singing the Girls theme I wrote in the kitchen. So instead of “letting it go,” I ran upstairs and recorded it. I made 49 of them before anyone really paid much attention. I had about 150 subscribers from a long time ago on my [YouTube] channel, and so most of the comments and requests were just coming from them. I guess I should also say that around that time, I was writing romance ebooks and getting tired of it. I decided to just pretend I was making a living with music, composing something every day, five days a week. So when I solidified the “rules” of the TV themes, I just went for it.
“Rules?” Like, knowing what structure, feelings, etc make the best TV theme and sticking to that?
I started restricting what shows I did based on how short the themes were. I never watched the intros before I made the songs. Never listened to the original songs either. So the benefit for me was watching the weird new song paired up with the original footage. The ideas would just come to me while I was making tea or something. I would wake up and think about what show to do, and then wait for a melody to come rushing in. Anyhow, I was too self-conscious to share them when I was making them. People were really hostile when I tried. Most people don’t get them. So I stopped at 69. Then like 5 months later, I was like “I’m not making these anymore. I should start sharing them again.” So I did and then Gawker found them and they went like super mildly viral and that carried me to number 102. I didn’t really want critical input because I was worried it would slow me down.
Would I be right in saying that there’s a certain ’80s or ’90s pop influence in Hot Dad? In the sense that a lot of the material has this strong, ballad-like vibe to it.
Yep. I just turned 30, so that was my earliest era of music. U2, Gin Blossoms, Everclear, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins…
Good shouts. I was just thinking, like, the ’80s was pretty much the golden age of TV themes. Was growing up immersed in that culture a kind of other inspiration for the TV album?
Not really, actually. I can’t remember a lot of my TV experiences from that era. I think that’s allowed me to flourish in the sort of alternate world that ended up being created. I vaguely remember watching Nickelodeon and Family Matters, Step by Step, Full House, etc, but TV becomes less appealing when you can rent/buy R-rated movies. So I kind of gave up on it until I watched Twin Peaks and Kingdom Riget around 2008. And then Breaking Bad was the next show I watched after that, [which] opened the door for everything else I’ve watched in recent years.
The Breaking Bad theme you did is one of my favourites.
It’s really pithy and direct, ha. I don’t know if it’s apparent which shows I really loved or not. I’m pretty ambivalent about TMNT, but that theme still shocks me. People freaked out about it. Nostalgia junkies got their fix, and I’m not sure why.
People just have a lot of attachment to nostalgia. I guess it’s kind of a pandora’s box that when you alter something from someone’s childhood, they’re either going to love or hate it.
Yeah, and it’s seemed like a coin flip whether or not they go one way or the other.
Like there’s that video of The Wonder Years theme on your account that has like 30,000 views and all the comments are like, “what the hell? This isn’t the real theme!”
I love that one. I get the statistics from YouTube and they watch for like 45 seconds before realizing something is wrong. How the hell does that happen? There’s an HBO logo at the beginning!
One day HBO will rule the Earth and own all TV shows and you will be hailed as a prophet. So the pop influence, that’s something that definitely crosses over to your other work, particularly Girls Who Care. Does your writing process differ at all when writing for these two separate projects?
Yes, but no. I can just “tell” when an Idea goes with one or the other. And then I just work. I used to have this whole regret that like I’m “wasting” this great idea on a fake song about a TV show or about meat or about having a son and a wife, but I decided that accepting it is part of the joke. I like that some people hear some of the random Hot Dad stuff and they say “i can’t believe you used an idea this good for something so silly!” But I have to thank the creative gods because that stupid lyric snippet that built the whole song is WHY the great idea exists. So now it’s another layer in the whole joke.But I can feel the difference in the process for sure. I don’t totally understand it though.
When writing comedic, more light-hearted songs as Hot Dad, do you feel kind of aligned with ‘parody’ acts like Weird Al? Like, do you worry audiences aren’t going to take it “seriously” because it has some humour injected into it?
Well, I’ve started to feel like my projects are a bit inextricably linked. My biggest problem with writing “serious” music is lyrics. I don’t necessarily feel aligned with Weird Al, but I agree with some things he’s said. He was a big influence on me growing up. But he also doesn’t do gross-out stuff or vulgarity. And that’s worked for him. I just try to be really deliberate about it. It’s easy to just throw “fuck” into a lyric to “make it funny,” so I don’t like to take the easy way out. But I like to have those hard-hitting moments on occasion. But I kinda stopped doing that in the TV themes as I got better at them. But I think I can still have a good time with the serious project. And it’s also harder to just thrust Hot Dad upon an unsuspecting crowd. As the response to the TV themes has shown, people either love me or totally hate me for them.
Is the PPL record going to be a continuous project like TV? What kind of people are you planning to write about?
I don’t know if it’ll be a continuous project. I was listening to a great Wesley Willis interview I dug up from my past, and I realized that I could write songs about people kind of like he did, but make them a little less crazy, and I guess I was hoping it would get some additional attention. It worked with Mac DeMarco, so I’m really excited about that. But I have no idea what the next step is. I just like confusing people. It’s not totally clear whether I’m a super fan or just an insane guy writing a weird song about a person. TV kind of ended up that way too. “Is this guy the biggest fan in the world of this show and he wanted to write a tribute to it? What’s his deal?” But I don’t want to get stuck in a thing where I make 102 songs about one project though, unless I’m able to survive from that project alone.
So the PPL songs aren’t going to be written as a kind of reverential thing?
Definitely not reverential. The one I wrote about The Killers is kind of sarcastic. The one I did for Tyler the Creator is just insane and full of innocuous lies. Neither have been released yet. I just saw an opportunity to throw the Mac one at Mac directly because he called for covers of his song and manually watched each one. So I stayed up super late and made that weird video and got it posted. I am a Mac DeMarco fan, but I’m not like a super fan. I really support who he is/his process. It’s super inspiring for people like me who are in similar positions.
I might end up doing an album of PPL, but not endlessly I don’t think. TV started to wear me down because every comment I was getting on the videos was “do show X or Y next!”. It couldn’t end unless I stopped it. It’s amazing that people wanted me to keep going, and I’m super appreciative of that, but there are soooooooooooooooo many shows and by the time I did them all, there would be so many more.
I guess the thing for me is that I don’t necessarily want to be doing stuff “on-demand.” I’m a slave to my whims and I never judge any of them. Which is why I’ve written so many weird songs. I just don’t question anything. I need to record the songs in private, but once they’re done, I love showing them off. I will feel really stupid and embarrassed if somebody walks in while I’m making a song about piss or Jesus or a girl dancing like a penis tip. But when it’s done, oh, they’re gonna hear it.
Hot Dad’s TV is available now for pay-what-you-want on bandcamp.