Let Dave Hill Turn You On

Dave Hill is the kind of guy who, during an interview to promote his debut comedy album, is more than willing to accompany an interviewer on a tangential exploration into the magical powers of George Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90.” That actually happened and it’s too beautiful to print. You just had to be there. But in simpler terms, Dave Hill is in the moment. At this particular point in Hill’s career, you can catch him on The Goddamn Dave Hill Show Monday nights on WFMU, opening for Janeane Garofalo on an upcoming string of summer shows, or, most notably, on his debut full-length comedy album Let Me Turn You On, out today on A Special Thing Records. I talked to Hill about the new album, his casual path to comedy, and the soothing power of heavy metal riffs.

You’ve been doing standup for quite a while now. This is your debut album. Why did you feel that now was the right time to put a full-length album together?

I’d been thinking about doing an album this past year. I talked to the guys at A Special Thing and we really hit it off right away. They obviously do a great job. They had put out albums from friends of mine. It just came about very organically. It was good timing for me. If I had done an album sooner it would have been much different than this.

The album is kind of conceptual in a way. Part of it is from a live set that you recorded at Union Hall in Brooklyn; the other part consists of interspersed short stories that you tell over top of your own original guitar tracks. Why did you decide to blend the two styles for the album?

The things with the guitar tracks… some of those are stories I used to do on stage a few years ago. I wanted to put them out in some form. Originally, I was going to add them as bonus tracks after the live set. Ryan at AST had the idea to have them sprinkled throughout. It gives the album a different feel than just a live set. It gives it more variety. Hopefully it works.

It definitely added layers. It reminded me of an old radio program. It had a flow and structure that was different than the traditional comedy album… even in something as simple as the soft transitions and pauses between the live bits and recorded stories. It has a way of keeping the listener’s attention in a very pleasing way.

That’s great to hear. That would be the ideal reaction. It also is a way to pull people in and be more intimate for a few minutes before going back to Union Hall for the live stuff.

The storytelling parts were also oddly soothing, even when dealing with strange subject matter.

I think the music is a big part of that. You know when you’re falling asleep, but you’re not quite dreaming? I wanted it to have that sort of feeling while these weird stories are happening.

You started out as a musician and writer before beginning comedy about 10 years ago. What prompted you to start exploring comedy as an artistic outlet?

I started singing in bands. From that, I was talking on stage in between songs. I found that I really enjoyed it. Then, I was a journalist in Cleveland writing articles for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I was doing 750-1500 word articles and all I wanted to do was get like, one or two jokes in there. I would do a good job with the rest of the story, but I really wanted to get a couple of jokes to print. But at that time, maybe I was just too afraid, but I never felt like I wanted to get into comedy.

I ended up in New York kind of on a fluke. I ended up staying and getting a job writing on a TV show. A friend of mine, Tony Carnevale, asked me to do a show at Parkside Lounge. I did it and liked it. Initially, I didn’t have the goal to be a comedian. I was just like, “I’ll do Tony’s show.” Then I got asked to do another thing and was like, “I’ll do this one too.” I never thought about what was next. I was thinking in the shortest of terms. I never had career goals for comedy. Now I do and it’s all a nightmare. It’s not fun anymore. (Laughs) I mean, it’s still fun. But I think at the point when you say, “Now I want this. Now I want that,” it becomes more of a nightmare. It’s nice though, because now I make my living doing all of this stuff, which I never could have dreamed of or predicted.

Now that there is a business aspect to the things that you love to do the most, is there anything in your life – a hobby or creative pastime – that you can enjoy just for pure pleasure?

Weirdly, I think music is that for me. I guess I do that professionally on some level, but it’s pretty casual. Specifically, what I’ve gotten into in the last few years is just playing the guitar; just me and the guitar, no other humans. It’s a physical thing. Like, doing comedy or writing a book is so much in your head. “How am I feeling today? What is the audience like?” Right now, I’m trying to learn to play the solo to “Flying High Again.” I can play it pretty well, but I want to get it perfect. It’s exciting because it’s just me, the guitar, and nothing else. I’m not waiting for someone to call me back. I’m not waiting for this or that. It’s just me going into my office, sitting down and figuring out how to do it perfectly.

So, the most specific thing is just ripping guitar solos. Anything I do, whether it’s writing or performing, I try to approach it from a fan perspective. But with music especially, I do what I like to do and hope that… it’s like making brownies. I like to make brownies. This is the dumbest thing ever but… I’ll make them, serve them up, and if people want them, great. If not, I still love brownies, so I’m set no matter what. I might write a song, play it back and go, “That was cool.” But I’m kind of done at that point. But if something more happens – like, one of my band’s songs is the theme song to the John Oliver show – that’s really cool.

Anybody who has ever listened to the Goddamn Dave Hill Show on WFMU knows that you have an eclectic taste in music. Where did you get your ear? What helped shape your taste in music?

Like a lot of aging white dudes, it was the radio. I try to keep the show as diverse as possible without seeming like I’m trying too hard. But with WFMU, for me obscure is the like the most mainstream shit on the station still. People are playing white noise on that station sometimes. I stick within a broad definition of rock and pop. With any music, or any art, I like anything where people are going at it fully, so hard, to the point of insanity. Whether it’s metal or the most dainty stuff in the world, I love it. If someone commits to what they’re doing, that’s the common thread of my likes across the board. I think that’s one of the things I love about metal. Even though it’s a small percentage of what I listen to, it has that aspect. When I go to shows, it’s usually metal. Everyone, the band, the fans, everyone is so fired up.

Did you see the recent report that Spotify released that said that, based on listening habits, metal fans are the most loyal of any genre?

That makes sense. When you go to shows, they’re living it for real. One of the reasons I think that New York is maybe one of the worst metal cities in the country is because metal is music for marginalized people, at it’s origin. If you’re living in New York, you’ve figured something out. You have to be on top of things to live here. I would rather see a metal show in Akron, Ohio, where the kids have it kind of shitty and arrive fired up.

Tasteful Nudes came out in 2013. It was really well-received. I heard it was in development for TV. Any news on that?

Well, it was. It’s kind of come and gone at this point. Maybe it will resurface in some form elsewhere. Right now, Rich Fulcher – from The Mighty Boosh – and I are developing a show together. We’re doing it with Universal and Steve Carell is producing it.

Do you have any new books coming out?

I’m doing a book for Blue Rider Press, which is a Penguin imprint. Hopefully it will be out early next spring. It’s sort of a continuation of the last one. Hopefully it will be better. I always say that I hope it will be better, or be like the third Big Star album, where you’ll be like, “What the fuck is this?” but it will be some people’s favorite.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Let Dave Hill Turn You On