Photo by me.
Actor, comedian, and musician Gregg Turkington was petting his cat when I spoke to him over the phone from his Los Angeles home. He’ll make his second appearance at Cropped Out this year as Neil Hamburger, the stand-up comic we both need and deserve. I was first introduced to America’s Funnyman my freshman year in college, thanks for the dapper crooners of Hair Police – also Cropped Out alum. He came to my school later that year and I brought a large group of friends to get experienced. Gregg asked me if this was a sort of litmus test, seeing if I ended up staving off people who couldn’t jive with Neil’s trenchant pop culture observations. I confirmed that, yes, it was a sort of screening process. “Well, that’s too bad,” said Turkington, “you probably lost some really great people in your life.” Possibly true.
A lot of folks are on board now, of course, thanks to the Drag City catalog of classic Hamburger material and the explosion of Tim and Eric’s Absolutely universe, with Decker and On Cinema his most recent achievements – the latter of which sees Turkington play not Neil Hamburger, but a ho-hum version of himself. Before he was an anti-comedy champion though, he was bangin’ his skull in weirdo Bay Area punk bands with janky costumes so gnarly it would make Francis Bacon’s ruff spin and stapling handmade zines together. So we talked a lot about that for you Cropped Out dorks, as well as what it was like to connect with bands before Twitter, and a little about his career in Tinseltown, too.
CO: A lot of folks know you as a movie expert and star of the screen in cinema such as “Entertainment!” But you cut your teeth in music with the conceptual band Faxed Head? How did you meet Trey Spruance of Bungle/Secret Chiefs and come up with the idea for this twisted project?
GT: I knew those guys from Faith No More from years earlier when they started as a group in San Francisco. I had this band Hello Kitty on Ice, and we’d do shows with Faith No More to like 10 people because we were no name losers with no following [laughs]. Just these kids playing the shittiest venues you can imagine. Later, Faith No More was doing real well for themselves, and I was hanging out with Bill Gould and he introduced me to their new singer Mike Patton. We hit it off and through him I met Trey and the rest of those Mr. Bungle guys. At some point Trey called me up and said, ya know, ‘I’ve got some spare time, you wanna get together and try to come up with something?’.
So… we did!
We recorded some, I dunno what you would call them… ‘experimental’ pieces [laughs]. We had fun! Later, Grux from Caroliner, a group I was in as well, had this idea to put together this messed up electronic, metal… I don’t even know what you would call the initial musical concept. We put this thing together to see what would happen, and the first time we rehearsed, we recorded it and that became the first record. As we started playing around town, the whole backstory developed on the stage. We already had these shitty costumes, but between songs we would sort of tell the story of this group. And once it’s out of your mouth, that becomes the permanent story. So the whole thing of us living in [the fictional] Coalinga and being part of a suicide pact just came out on stage during the course of a few shows. Somehow Grux found an old wheelchair and I ended up in that. The story just got more and more fleshed out as we recorded more records. As we recorded more records, the words told the story.
We brought in this guy James Goode to do the electronics live and he’s just brilliant at that stuff. We got interested in recording in weird ways. Like, we would take the songs and put them onto quarter inch tape and then play them on a tape deck in which the tape heads were falling apart and the engine was weak and feed that back into the multitrack so we could mix between the regular version of the song and the disintegrating version of the song.
I love that. It’s like you’ve combined elements of like William Basinski and GWAR.
Yeah, Grux was really GWAR and costumes, but we kinda liked the idea of this really low budget version. And it was weird because we really stuck with this story about being high school kids from this town Coalinga but it was clear from the costumes that the story didn’t add up because clearly we hadn’t all shot ourselves in the head and this was the result. These costumes were cheap, just made out of trash from the street.
I love the one that’s just the long neck [laughs].
Yeah, Neck Head! That was hard for Trey because it was plastic with foam inside and no way to breath. We would finish the show and he’d be as red as a stop sign from oxygen deprivation. He couldn’t see or hear. That was the thing, the band were supposed to be handicapped, but we handicapped ourselves with the stage show!
I remember one show where I had the McPatrick Head head on, which was a child’s football helmet that I put all this foam, rubber, cloth and other shit on, and with a microphone inside. Halfway through the first song, I thought I was gonna die – it was so hot I couldn’t breathe – I thought I gotta get out of this thing. I’m in this wheelchair in this costume with long metal poles for arms and I would roll the chair into the audience not knowing what was going to happen. The mic cord was around my neck and I was hanging off the stage, with the wheelchair on the ground and I was swinging my metal arms around trying to break free. I didn’t think it needed to be this difficult honestly.
That’s method acting right there!
[laughts] Yeah… it added some realism to these poor kids who were trying to express themselves.
So that’s a good segue… with everything you did with Amarillo Records and being a part of Caroliner like you mentioned… do you have a super fond memory that sticks out to you of that era of music that might make it on, like, Greg Turkington: A Life of Music and Words or whatever?
A lot of the things I was involved with in the Bay Area sort of culminated in this Japanese tour we did in 1995 that was Faxed Head and Zip Code Rapists. It was these pretty rinky-dink bands that were few people cared about or knew about, but for whatever reason in Japan there was interest. So they brought the two acts out there and I was shocked that the merch I brought out – these singles and CDs and stuff – everybody would come up and say ‘we already have all this stuff.’ Jesus Christ, you guys are on top of this!
We were in Tokyo for this in-store appearance at Disc Union, which is a really great store that was like 5 or 6 stories high. It was a 4 p.m. show and I’m thinking ‘who the hell is gonna go to this?’ We get there and get into costume and were told to get in the elevator and go to the fifth floor where they’ve set up an area to play and ‘the fans will be waiting for you.’ So we’re in our ridiculous costumes in the elevator and the doors open and the whole floor is packed with like Japanese schoolkids. All these really sweet kids and teenagers just cheering ‘Faxed Head!’ as we, literally, rolled out of the elevator.
It was completely insane. That was our only all ages show in the country. We never even did a U.S. tour! Like, Faxed Head just played in the Bay Area and one show in Seattle. And all these sweet kids in Tokyo were asking for photos and autographs. It was very weird. These bands were esoteric even for those into weird music.
Boredoms were really popular at the time and had talked us up in some interviews in the Japanese press, so maybe that set the wheels in motion for that sort of fanbase.
I saw on the Facebook page for the band that there was a reunion show in 2013. Would you consider doing more of that in the future?
Yeah, I mean, everyone still gets along great. We’ve never had any problems, just that everyone lives in different states and has things going on. But for some reason, we ended up all getting together randomly in Los Angeles in 2013 and recorded a rock opera, a sort of a concept album, called ‘Hawaiian Gardens.’ The plot is that the group has, due to Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts, been removed from the Hospice in Coalinga where they’ve been living out their days and shipped down to Hawaiian Gardens, which is this really grim suburb of LA, and put into this group home. They’re really excited because they think they’ll have access to like the Sunset Strip rock scene, but instead they’re all heavily medicated in this miserable facility. A lot of the lyrics are from the point of hallucinating while listening to Dodgers games.
It’s like 90% done but no one has finished it.
That record sounds twisted. I would love to hear.
I would love to hear it too! It’s been four years and I can’t even remember a lot of the songs. But there are 15 songs and has the potential to be the best work from the group.
Well, My Bloody Valentine took 22 years to follow up their last record, so you’re in good company.
Yeah. I think we’d like to do another show again, too. But those costumes are really hard to deal with and everyone is old now [laughs]. When you’re 22 it’s one thing, but when you’re 50, it’s harder to be rolling off the stage.
And risk hanging yourself when you have a family and mortgage.
Absolutely. And it’s fast high-energy music and hard on the throat to sing like that for an hour. But I wouldn’t rule out [the reunion].
And you had a zine around that time too… Breakfast Without Meat?
Yeah, that was really fun, being around the explosion of all this creativity. I remember growing up with all these bands I loved and them being inaccessible, but you’d go up and talk with them at shows and get interviews. It started in 1983 and was very Flipper-centric – I’d just talk to those guys over and over again. The magazine was all handwritten rather than typed since this was pre-home computer. The first issue was like Frightwig and Flipper and RF7, and the second issue was all Flipper. Then somehow I scored a mail interview with Pete Townsend, which was really exciting as a big fan. He was a nice guy – I wrote some questions and he wrote back really quickly. And we covered Minimal Man and Sun City Girls really early on, too.
Then after the sixth or seventh issue Lizzy Gray and Derrick Bostrom of the Meat Puppets joined too and the whole thing expanded. We got it printed rather than photocopied. And the focus switched from punk rock – we still covered Husker Du and things like that – but it started moving into this weird coverage of Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra Jr. and Richard Harris. It became more of a humor magazine. As the punk and indie scene became less interesting, we found punk rock aspects in people like Tom Jones and that became more interesting to us. By the final issue in 1991, we had an interview with Jimmy Webb and the guy behind the 101 Strings Orchestra and Mystic Moods Orchestra. It was a punk take on easy listening.
Tower Records was the best – they’d buy a few hundred copies and distribute it. The thing never made money, but you could break even from their order.
That is so cool to me thinking of an old school punk zine unironically celebrating Tom Jones, readily available at Tower Records.
It was amazing! I think Rough Trade in San Francisco had some copies and you could sell some at Flipper shows for fifty center or whatever, but Tower really made it possible to branch out and up the page count and include flexidiscs.
How did you end up tour managing Link Wray?
I knew the guys in this band Dieselhead who were on the Amarillo Records and are friends of mine. The drummer was in Mr. Bungle and one of the two songwriters, Zac Holtzman – he now plays Dr. San on On Cinema so that’s how far back I go with that guy – they had the same booking agent as Link Wray. He hadn’t done a show in America for like 15 years but wanted to do some sort of comeback tour and make a little money. He didn’t have a band or anything, so the agent was like ‘why don’t you use Dieslehead? These guys are great and can play anything. They can open the show, too.’ The tour was ready to go at that point and they called me up asking for a tour manager. I was like ‘fuck yeah, I’ll go on tour with Link Wray.’ It was really last minute.
Did that for a couple months. It was a nightmare because his wife was a real controlling person and very paranoid and wouldn’t allow Link to have conversations with anyone without her present to monitor the situation. It was me and Link and her in a car for two or three months. It was a sick scene.
And touring is hard enough without the added hardship of tough personalities.
She would go into the bathroom with him! It was mind control shit. I liked Link a lot, he was fun to talk with, but he was so under her thumb. She liked creating drama. She would call me up in the morning and say ‘we’re cancelling the whole tour unless we get paid for the whole tour today.’ And I’d have to talk her down a bit – ‘no, that’s not how that works, we get paid when we play the show.’ Link wasn’t allowed to talk to any women. Any woman journalists who wanted to talk to him or employees at the clubs, she would shut it down. She had to be on stage standing next to him…
So Link and Mike Pence have more in common than we thought.
[laughs] Exactly. It was exhausting. But there were fun moments, too. He had such great stories about Elvis and Keith Moon. And he was hard of hearing so everything was at ear-splitting volumes. He’d sometimes play the same song three times. It was great.
So there’s certainly theatrical elements to Zip Code Rapists and Faxed Head, but how was making the pivot from punk rock to acting? Was it natural or more orchestrated?
It’s more like I stumbled into it since I was never aiming for that. It crept up on me. I always thought what I was doing was performing, not acting. You’re putting on a show. But I’d get asked to do these acting things even though I was a bit reluctant. Ya know, I don’t have any qualification to do that. But if people are persuasive and believe in you, then I guess you roll the dice and do it, though after a while you’re like ‘what the hell? Why am I in Ant Man?’
It definitely seemed to happen in, not in an accidental way, but a surprising way. I still get calls sometimes and have to say that there’s no way I can do this. It has to be something that I either write or have some sort of creative input in. But you get some script with a bunch of humor in it that doesn’t really strike me as funny or characters I can’t relate to, I have to say ‘maybe you should find a real actor for this.’ I don’t wanna do shit I don’t wanna do. There are people who can play anything and I know the only roles that I can only play and like to do those. I’m not trying to pursuit a career in acting.
Well, I think folks appreciate that about you. I couldn’t imagine seeing Gregg Turkington in some random role that doesn’t seem within the universe you’ve created as Neil or Gregg.
Yeah, it has to either make sense or be totally absurd… like I had a really tiny role on the final episode of CSI and, like, that was weird. It wasn’t a comedy role. I was suspect in a bombing. It just seemed too weird not to do it.
You could maybe justify that role as taking notes for Decker, like a work expense.
[laughs] Yeah, that and it’s just funny.
How much involvement did you have in the concept and writing of Entertainment? I know you’re billed as the star, but it seems to me you had some control over the direction of the film.
I definitely did, especially the locations. Me and Rick [Alverson] and Tim Heidekcer got together and spent a couple days holed up in Bakersfield and wrote the initial draft. From there, it was hanging out in a bar with Rick talking about what we wanted to do and throwing out new scenarios and figuring out the tone, so by the time we started shooting we were exactly on the same page. And the shooting script was specific – he knew what he wanted in each scene – but there was no dialogue. That was improvised. When you get together and have the same vision on the final product, the ab-libbed dialogue felt very much part of the script because we knew what needed to be communicated.
So much of the way the movie ended up was the editing though. He spent a couple months editing and the sequence of events from the script ended up very different in the final version. I think for Rick, a lot of the writing process is in the editing room.
Yeah, and while it’s a challenging work for a lot of audiences, it’s also a… I don’t wanna say ‘surprisingly’ but I wasn’t prepared for how visually compelling and aesthetically beautiful the film was.
Oh, yeah! Our cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman had the eye for this stuff. They got these old Russian lenses from the 1950s and shot widescreen like that. You can see imperfections in certain scenes where the lenses were warped and there were these weird blurs in places.
Originally we wanted the setting to be a cross-country tour but I convinced Rick we could shoot the whole thing in California and make it appear as if we were traveling great distances within only a couple hundred mile radius.
I appreciate there’s a visual vocabulary that bridges the world of Entertainment with On Cinema’s Victorville. Weird desert town backdrops.
I really like having specific locations. I’m almost mapping California in my head… you’ve got the Faxed Head world up in Coalinga. And the first Neil Hamburger stuff took place in Modesto. Entertainment’s in Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert. And now On Cinema in the southern part of the Mojave Desert. It’s like a weird fictitious version of the state.
You’ve made your own Springfield.
How did you and Tim meet?
He was a fan from years ago and would come see me in New York. He had slipped me a disc at a show of this early music video he did for his band that I found really interesting. I kept showing it to people thinking I don’t know what this is – is it a joke or is it for real? It was such a peculiar little film. Then he got Tom Goes to the Mayor, of course, and Awesome Show and emailed me asking if I wanted to be on the show. I went and did an episode [of Awesome Show] and had a real good time, then we just kept in touch.
Do you consider yourself the straight man of On Cinema?
Eh, I don’t know about that. I look at it as we’re both horrible people, but his is more blatant and mine is more passive aggressive. There’s a lot of delusion and weird ego. He’s just more hatable with a lot of things he’s doing. I kind roll my eyes at what he does, but when I get the chance to take control of On Cinema, what I do is equally despicable.
Yeah, I get that. I guess your character is closer to how a regular person would lash out compared to Tim’s.
His character is interesting because he fancies himself as a Renaissance Man who can do anything and he’s such a dreamer. He’s got these schemes and feels he can conquer any world. And I’m just a stick-in-the-mud who only wants to talk about these really dull movies. So in a sense, he should be looked at more as a hero than me because I’m just interested in the most shallow interpretations of boring things and Tim is actually trying to create things. But since he’s a tyrant and inept at everything and possibly evil and a murderer, it’s much easier to hate him.
Do you have a favorite popcorn?
My friend Stephanie Drury has this recipe for popping corn in coconut oil and dumping a bunch of brewers’ yeast, which sticks to the popcorn, into it and shake it all up in a paper bag. I call it Christian Popcorn, for whatever reason.
Thank you so much, Gregg. I took way too much of your time.
[laughs] No worries at all. I hope it’s all interesting to somebody.
Neil Hamburger performs Friday night at American Turners Club. Cropped Out gives this interview five bags of popcorn and one shitty tattoo.