Interview by Jonah Flicker
Comedian Neil Hamburger released the musically excellent and thoroughly funny Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners (Drag City) this past April. Over the course of ten songs, Hamburger spins melancholy tales that make Johnny Cash sound like John Tesh and offers wry observations about the toil of day-to-day life, all backed up by a no-bullshit country band comprised of grizzled vets. In other words, this isn’t Weird Al ridiculousness. Hamburger takes it hilariously seriously. He’ll be appearing at Spaceland this Sunday, June 1.
LA Weekly: Why country? Why now?
Neil Hamburger: We're looking at this as more of a "personality" record than a country record, in the vein of the great albums in the past by Leonard Nimoy, Telly Savalas, or William Shatner. But definitely within that framework, country was the right choice for the music itself. I am not into the click-tracks and techno type of sound.
LA Weekly: What are your thoughts about the current state of country music,
the Carrie Underwoods and the Kenny Chesneys?
NH: I don't like those new people. It always sounds like they're sitting on the toilet while they're singing. There's a gross sound to it. And the lyrics are all geared towards people other than myself.
LA Weekly: Any interest in the upcoming Fox reality show, Nashville Star? Any interest in Fox and/or reality shows in general?
NH: No, I would not watch that. And I wouldn't want to be on it either. You spend weeks competing to be the only one to get paid. And I wouldn't win. I would do better getting a job at a car wash.
LA Weekly: I recently saw the Loretta Lynn biopic, A Coalminer's Daughter.
Now that's a country music backstory. Is "Jug Town" your Coalminer's Daughter?
NH: "Jug Town" is the most passioned defense of alcoholism that I've ever encountered. It was written by the great country writer Billy Edd Wheeler, and seemed perfect for this project. I'm not convinced that "Coal Miner's Daughter" was 100% accurate in its depiction of Loretta Lynn's life, nor is "Jug Town" exactly my life story. But what a catchy song!
LA Weekly: In general, are the songs on the album inspired by real-life experiences, or are they character vignettes and fantasies? I'm thinking specifically about "Garden Party II" and "Please Ask That Clown To Stop Crying." Those songs are sad.
NH: "Garden Party II" is the true account of what happened when I performed at Madison Square Garden. It is an "answer song,” as they call it, to Ricky Nelson's song "Garden Party,” which was his retelling of a particularly depressing show he did there. Both songs give all the details of the experience and could not be more straightforward. "Please Ask That Clown To Stop Crying" is a sad story, I agree, but there is a lot of sadness out there in the world, and some of it does creep into music.
LA Weekly: How did writing this album work?
NH: The seven original songs on the album were written with me in mind. They tell my story. It was nice to have a crack songwriting team assigned to the project. There are also a handful of covers, by folks such as sad-sack songwriter Mark Eitzel, deceased bass player John Entwistle, and Billy Edd Wheeler, a hit-maker who also wrote "Coward Of The County.”
LA Weekly: Who are some of your country heroes?
NH: I always liked Hank Williams, what a sad bunch of tales that man told!
And Frank Sinatra, Jr., he made a great album called It's Alright. Ferlin
Husky was good. Porter Wagoner. The Bee Gees wrote a great song with "Islands In The Stream". I would not wish Kenny Rogers' Roasters chicken on my worst enemy, however.
LA Weekly: I found a place that will recycle Styrofoam:
http://www.epspackaging.org/info.html. But this involves actually going to the location, not dropping it into your recycle bin. Regarding the song “The Recycle Bin,” how has the annoyance of people recycling incorrectly affected you personally?
NH: It causes stress to think about the folks who have to pick chicken bones out of what is supposed to be clean office paper. They are unsung heroes, much more so than these garbage entertainers, such as Nickelback, who get all the glory. Yet the folks who work behind the scenes processing trash so that it may be made into something useful are paid only a fraction of what Nickelback receives for polluting our earth with their rubbish music.
LA Weekly: Is country music that most patriotic of all music?
NH: Some of the artists would like to think so.
LA Weekly: Is the song "How Can I Still Be Patriotic (When They’ve Taken Away My Right to Cry)" inspired by specific feelings about our current administration, or administrations in general? Do you wear a flag pin? If not, why not?
NH: It is, and it isn't. You don't want to get too specific with these things, or else the record is out of date in six months, and people throw it away. I would say that the song is from a point of view that is out there right now, a point of view that you might hear from your barber, or the guy next to you at the truck stop counter eating a Reuben sandwich. As for the flag pin, I did have one, but it was a state flag. It was the state of New Mexico flag. A fan gave it to me backstage, but then, about a year later, another fan stole it from me, also backstage.
LA Weekly: Is country music the funniest of all music?
NH: I don't think so. I never liked those Ray Stevens novelty hits.
LA Weekly: Nevertheless, perhaps more so than other genres of music, it allows you to create a narrative and seems perfectly suited to your particular brand of humor. Why do you think this is?
NH: It's because country music values the lyrics. With a lot of other types of music, the lyrics are secondary. These rock guys, they can just scream their lungs out like a man who has just been impaled by a sword, and you will never understand a thing they say... and if you did, half the time it's gibberish anyway. I dare you to find a country song where you can't make out even one WORD of the song.
LA Weekly: What is the most important thing you want people to take away from Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners?
NH: It is an entertaining record with something to say. I have been told that the record has an overwhelming feeling of melancholy about it and I'm not sure that is the most commercial route to take. But I stand by this record completely. I am also very proud to have been backed by such a stellar group of storied musicians.