Dave Hill: Let him turn you on
Comedian Dave Hill played with a number of indie rock bands — Uptown Sinclair, Cobra Verde, Valley Lodge and Sons of Elvis — before turning his talent to comedy (not that he’s left rock completely behind). On his new comedy album Let Me Turn You On, he intersperses bits from a live standup show with material he recorded in the studio. Hill, who’s currently at work on a follow-up to his first book, Tasteful Nudes, phoned us from Los Angeles where he was attending to “high-powered show business things.”
You were just on At Midnight. How did it go?
I won. I haven’t won before. I’ve only been a contestant three times.
How did you win?
I had my game face on. The first time I didn’t know how to work the buzzer. I really sucked at it. I kept missing the buzzer. The first time I got beaten by my own bad buzzer skills. It was a tight race. Me and Margaret Cho and Matt Lucas, a British comedian. It was fun.
You’ve been doing comedy for years now. What took you so long to put out a comedy album?
I think a combination of things. I didn’t feel like I was ready to do it for a while. I’ve been doing live comedy now for ten years but I feel like I’m just starting. I feel like I’m just learning how to do it. I feel like I have even gotten better since I recorded the album in the fall. It was that and just finding someone who wanted to do. I was talking to one label at one point and then I met the guys from this label, Aspecialthing Records, and it felt right. I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of years and they’re cool dudes. They do a lot of comedy albums for people I’m friends with. They’re a well-respected label. It’s a good fit, as they say.
Did you draw the picture on the cover?
No. I wish I did. That was done by Danny Hellman who’s one of my favorite artists. Before comedy and writing and music, my original plan was to be an illustrator. I got derailed. When I was 20 years old, I was drawing my ass off every day. He was one of my favorite artists. He did stuff for New York Press and he did covers for Screw Magazine. I remember seeing these covers for this porno newspaper. It was surprising that a porno mag would have had such awesome illustrations. I become a fan. Just the cover. I never opened them, of course. He’s done two T-shirts for my radio show. He did a poster for me. He’s the one guy I would want to have draw me, instead of myself. I’m not anywhere close to him. I’m such a fan. He’s so awesome. I never gave him any directions for anything. With the cover, I sent him the album and the cover references all the stuff from the album. He made up a new story based on the stories on the album.
Have you done self-portraits?
I draw stuff and I’ve done T-shirts with myself on them. They use posterizing photos and stuff. I drew the cover for my first book, which was just my clothes. Maybe I’ll draw the cover for the next book. I still like to draw.
What inspired “Irritable Chimps”?
Yeah, it was a big news story. It was nine or ten years ago when it happened. It’s just a true story. It’s my version of that story, but everything in that story is factual. If you plug in “chimp attack,” “sanctuary” and “testicles,” you’ll probably find the original story. The reported bits are spoken word things from things I had written that I used to do on stage. I wanted to release them in some way or another. When I did the live album, I thought it would be a good way to break it up and have it be more one-on-one with the listener so it dips in and out of the live show. It really happened with the couple. I saw an interview with the guy and he was really fucked up by it. I think they’re back on track, as much as one can be.
Were you joking about it as soon as it happened?
When I wrote it, it was right after it happened. I don’t make fun of them really. I just tell the news story as if I’m an idiot. Maybe I have to read or look at it again. I don’t say anything that’s not a part of the news. I don’t make fun of them. It’s just told from the mind of a head injury patient. I would like to think they wouldn’t have a problem with it. I could be completely wrong. For a long time, I would rewrite news stories in my own way just to practice writing. I would rewrite them from my perspective. Everything on there is just a news story retold.
Where did you record the live versions?
I was going to record in Cleveland or Philadelphia or New York. It just worked out that it was easier to do it in New York. I did it at Union Hall. I started doing shows in Cleveland for the last few years. I love doing shows there.
Your dad was at your Happy Dog show in Cleveland.
Even that was a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, he fell asleep so it worked out. [Cleveland comedian] Ramon Rivas documented it and has photos of my dad asleep ten feet in front of me. Now, my dad lives in Hudson and there’s no way he’s going to come to the Grog Shop [an hour away] at 9 or 10 o’clock.
How do you know what would work in a book and what would work on the stage?
Some stuff doesn’t translate or you have to change it. It’s harder to take a stage piece and put it in the book. There are one or two things that I talk about on stage that are in the new book. You have to rework them because of the language and you don’t have facial expressions. I try to write as though I’m talking but sometimes it doesn’t sound right. Hopefully, it works when I want it to work
Did your experience in rock bands help prepare you for comedy in any way?
I think so. That’s how it started. The bands I played in, like Sons of Elvis and Uptown Sinclair. Both those bands talked a lot on stage. I always had fun doing that. The difference is that when you’re in a band and talking on stage, anything you say is good. If you make a joke, it’s a bonus. When you’re doing it as a comedy, all the jokes have to land. In general, I find playing in a band is way less stressful in terms of the actual performance. You’re up there with three or four other dudes. Once you have the songs down, you can do your thing and have fun even if there’s no one there but the bartender. With comedy, the audience is more challenging. That’s how it started. With Uptown Sinclair, we were playing at the Grog Shop and one of our amps blew out. We had this big gap in the set. I talked the whole time. I had fun doing that. It was probably the germ of it. I don’t say I have a rock ‘n’ roll attitude but maybe I don’t care as much and I’m just into doing what I’m doing. With anything, whether it’s comedy or writing or music, I try to entertain the fans and myself. I want to do what I would want to hear. A lot of people do that, but that’s the best place to come from. I think playing in bands helped me be in that place more.
How is the book coming? What other projects do you have in the works?
It’s with an editor now. Hopefully, it will be out next spring. I’m with a new publisher, Blue Rider Press, which is Penguin. I was happy with the last one and it seemed like people liked it. Hopefully this is a progression. A part of me thinks it might be like a train wreck. It might be like the third Big Star album where people are like, “What the fuck is this?” And yet, it was some people’s favorites. I’m working on a pilot for a TV show with Rich Fulcher from The Mighty Boosh. We sold a show to NBC Universal and Steve Carell is producing it. It’s pretty exciting. I’m doing some tour dates with Janeane Garofalo. I’ve opened for her a bunch on the road. I’m hoping to do more Metal Grasshopper web series stuff with [Pantera’s] Phil Anselmo. We’re trying to figure out how and when to do it with our schedules.