In Conversation: Neil Hamburger Is Giving the Vocal Performance of His Life

Gregg Turkington on the intersection of punk rock and easy listening and bringing absurdist sincerity to the masses.
Art & CultureIn Conversation
In Conversation: Neil Hamburger Is Giving the Vocal Performance of His Life

Gregg Turkington on the intersection of punk rock and easy listening and bringing absurdist sincerity to the masses.

Words: Jason P. Woodbury

photo by Robyn Von Swank

December 17, 2018

For more than twenty-five years, Gregg Turkington has coughed up jokes as Neil Hamburger, a greasy, discontented, and brutally funny stand-up comedian of his own design. What began as a niche recording project—a sort of old-school comic showman gone sour—has taken on new forms since emerging in the early ’90s. Turkington performs live as Hamburger, decked out in a ratty suit topped with a seemingly always-wet comb-over, he records music in character, and he plays a version of the character in Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment. While Turkington used to do interviews strictly as Hamburger, that all changed around the time of the film’s release. Consequently, it’s become easier to see where Neil, the creation, ends, and Gregg, the creator, begins (though there’s also the matter of the fictional Gregg Turkington that the real-life one plays on Adult Swim’s Decker and the On Cinema podcast with Tim Heidecker, but that’s another story entirely).

On Still Dwelling, a new collection of cover songs out on Drag City, Turkington’s idiosyncratic musical taste guides the proceedings, but it’s a Neil Hamburger–particular joie de vivre that lights up the material, improbably belting out numbers by the likes of Wings, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Heart. Produced and arranged by multi-instrumentalist Erik Paparozzi, the album stands as a new entry in the “celebrity who’s not exactly a vocalist” genre, alongside gems by William Shatner and Turkington’s favorite, Richard Harris. Inspired by Frank Sinatra’s Watertown and the productions of Phil Spector, the project allows Paparozzi and Turkington to scratch their shared itch to assemble a Wrecking Crew–style backing band, enlisting guest vocalists Tanya and Petra Haden, Jack Black, and Mike Patton, along with players like Mikael Jorgenson of Wilco, D.J. Bonebrake of X, John “Rabbit” Bundrick, known for his work with Bob Marley and The Who, and a full-studio orchestra to accompany “the vocal performances of Neil Hamburger’s life,” as Turkington says.

Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, Turkington discussed the intersection of punk rock and easy listening—and bringing absurdist sincerity to the masses.

The arrangements on Still Dwelling are immaculate. With all these string-laden, sweeping things going on around you, how does it feel to step up to the mic and just, like, do the Neil Hamburger voice?

[Laughs.] You feel like you’re vomiting all over somebody’s beautiful work. The guy who did all those arrangements, Erik Paparozzi, he’s just brilliant, [but] he also loves the character. He knew what the end result would be. You know, there’s a sweet spot for a celebrity vocal, like a Leonard Nimoy–type vocal. I didn’t want to play it for laughs. I wanted it to be this character’s sincere interpretations of the songs. These sorts of records serve as a souvenir of the personality of a celebrity…so you do want to have that personality come through, but I was definitely aware this was an absurd situation.

Celebrity records—a star backed up by session players—is that a niche you’re pretty drawn to?

One of my favorite albums of all time is A Tramp Shining by Richard Harris. He’s not technically a singer, but there’s so much emotion and personality that goes into that. He doesn’t hold back. As much as you can have a good vocal in a Neil Hamburger voice, I was trying to get that.

Have you ever heard Leonard Nimoy sing “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town?” It’s heartbreaking.

There’s a tentative quality to his voice on certain songs that I like. That’s the thing: These days with The Voice and all these competition singing shows, there’s this tendency for people to treat singing as some sort of athletic competition. For me, the best singers are the people who are invested in the song and are putting emotion into the singing. Like Frank Sinatra, who’s obviously the greatest vocalist—one of the reasons is that you believe in his connection to the lyrics. So if you’re not technically good like Frank Sinatra, you can at least try to emulate that aspect of things and connect with the song. Anyone who wants to criticize the Neil Hamburger vocals but is willing to listen to 95 percent of the charts [with] auto-tuned computer vocals—fuck off, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] Having warts-and-all vocals might be the antidote to what we’re currently faced with: completely emotionless, garbage singing.

There’s a Wrecking Crew feel to the backing band here. In the ’80s you had a zine called Breakfast Without Meat, which actually published interviews with some of those guys, including Hal Blaine and Jimmy Webb.

“Anyone who wants to criticize the Neil Hamburger vocals but is willing to listen to 95 percent of the charts with auto-tuned computer vocals—fuck off, you know what I mean?”

Derrick Edwin Bostrom of the Meat Puppets interviewed them. He was writing and doing cartoons for the magazine. There were three of us: him, me and Lizzy Kate Gray. We were all super into all those guys at that time, into that sound. It was weird, because that magazine started out covering more punk bands, but by the end, it was full-on easy listening and pop vocals.

I have to imagine that wasn’t the standard punk zine thing to cover.

No. For me, you had the initial punk explosion with all these really inspiring bands: Meat Puppets, Sun City Girls, Flipper, Black Flag—it felt like a whole new world. But it didn’t take very long before the whole world of punk rock became as boring as it gets. Pretty much by about 1985 or ’86 it started feeling like REO Speedwagon in terms of being predictable and lame. I lost all interest in it. Just from being a dollar-bin guy, I started getting into Richard Harris and Tom Jones and finding that these things had a crazy energy that was what I liked from the punk rock bands but in a completely different way. It had the emotional punch in the jaw you got from punk rock, initially. It felt very natural for me to switch to covering that stuff, but not for some of the readers, though some came along for that and got into it.

The punk groups you mentioned thumbed their nose at convention. Was there some degree of that going on with the zine? Some antagonistic intent?

Oh yeah [laughs]. The bands we were covering were already kind of “weirdo” bands in that world. It wasn’t like we were writing about Dirty Rotten Imbeciles or whatever. There was definitely a fuck-off attitude. It was like, you can join us here or not. Seriously, the punk rock was of so little interest… I never want to hear any punk rock, other than a few nostalgic records from back in the day. As a genre of music, it’s really poor quality. If someone’s really great and has something interesting to say, then it becomes the most interesting thing in the world. It’s just that there aren’t enough of those people. I’ve got my T.S.O.L. records, X, Germs, Gun Club, but at a certain point…

When you conceived of the Neil Hamburger character—this sort of anachronistic stand-up comic—did you envision him as a way to mess with people?

It wasn’t like I was like, “Let’s keep fucking with punk rock.” I wasn’t fighting against those people or anything. But then you had this new kind of music that came up, and it’s hard to believe it was even worse, but indie rock to me was absolute hell. The shittiest fucking music ever. Ever. That became a thing to fuck around with, especially when I started my label. We were using that same distribution network [as indie rock bands], unfortunately. Our records were side by side with this junk I hated. At the time, it was so cheap to press singles and stuff. I thought it would be funny to put out a vanity-pressing comedy record that made no sense, thrust it out into the world knowing that anyone who finds this and puts the needle down will be completely confused by it.

“If someone’s really great and has something interesting to say, then it becomes the most interesting thing in the world. It’s just that there aren’t enough of those people.”

At the time, the music that most interested me was private press records, [like] weirdo loser lounge bands from Reno. The thrill I got from those records, where you couldn’t conceive of the situation where this music was made or released, I loved that feeling so much. So that’s why those Neil Hamburger records were initially released. It certainly wasn’t because there was any idea of a career doing stand-up comedy. At that time, there were no live shows—it was all fake, recorded on a TASCAM four-track.

Neil Hamburger is by now a multimedia deal—there are records, live events, even Entertainment, a movie. But Still Dwelling returns him to those recording-project roots. It feels like a record you’d find in Goodwill and think, “Wow, somebody really paid a lot of money to hire these musicians and license these huge songs.”

You know, we mastered the record at Abbey Road, which might seem ridiculous, but a good mastering job, by folks like that, really makes a difference. It really helps gets the sound you want. Rather than take it to somebody who masters hip-hop and indie rock, where this would just be another project, the guy that Erik worked with at Abbey Road, Alex Wharton, was into the record. He was into really listening to it second by second. FL