Music » Music Stories

Funny Ha Ha

B-Sides finds out why Neil Hamburger isn't Yo La Tengo's favorite comic, then gets cinematic with Undertow Records' Monahans.

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Neil Hamburger is technically a comedian, but one whose best joke is his very existence. (OK, his best joke actually goes: "Why did God create Alan Alda? Because He needed a way to transport Golden Globe Awards into Hell.") The quintessential bottom-feeding showbiz sad-sack, Hamburger's recording career has included an ill-advised stab at "adult" material (Raw Hamburger), a live show recorded in front of an audience that doesn't understand English (Left for Dead in Malaysia) and an audio documentary about a defunct California pizzeria.

B-Sides: You know, it doesn't seem like your career trajectory has been that bad lately. I've seen you on TV, and I know you had a cameo in a big movie (The Pick of Destiny). I notice you haven't been playing many pizza parlors.

Neil Hamburger: Well, that circuit has died down a lot, let's face it. It's sad. The days when you could support yourself on pizza parlor bookings are long gone. The agencies used to send comedians to these things. Now it's all indie-rock nightclubs — which is strange, because although I've dabbled in music, I'm not really a musician.

A lot of comics move from stand-up to acting. Have you ever thought about acting, or would you rather focus on your comedy act?

Oh no, I've thought about it all day and all night long. I'll do anything to keep this boat from sinking. For instance, I'd love to be in an ad for Diet 7-Up. Or I could play in a remake of The Ropers sitcom; I could be Mr. Roper. I could do all kinds of roles. I'm not so much into the nudity, but I could do all kinds of roles. If anyone out there is reading this who's got a film production company, give me a call.

So what's next for Neil Hamburger?

[Sigh] I'm just trying to get over these debilitating diseases that have caused me to prematurely age.

I have noticed that you've been looking pretty rough lately.

Looking rough. Sounding rough. You do this many shows, it'll age you. Sooner or later someone will hand me a bit part in a sitcom and I'll have steady, low-paying work. I won't have to do this anymore.

Well, maybe this story will help in some small way.

I hope so. What are you writing this for? Is this for the local advertising circular?

You might say that. A free alternative weekly. I'm sure you've seen this kind of thing around in different cities.

Is this going to be one of those investigative hatchet jobs?

No, no, I'm a fan myself.

Good, because the problem has been, with some of these writers, that I said a few things about this terrible group called Yo La Tengo, because of some terrible things they did to me. Then I started getting bad reviews everywhere. All these writers who are under the control of Yo La Tengo started writing bad reviews of me, and telling people, "Don't go see Neil Hamburger." It's getting to be quite a feud. It's getting be like Biggie and Tupac. This thing is going to end in gunfire.

Oh, yeah, Yo La Tengo's career path is littered with bodies. Don't kid yourself.

That's true. It reminds me of another situation when I said something bad about Mountain Dew, because it tastes so terrible, you know? Well, Mountain Dew called up their distributors, and they had their delivery guys go pay a visit to some of these writers, conk them over the head with a wrench or what-have-you. Next thing you know, they're writing whatever Mountain Dew wants them to write.

I don't know what you're talking about. As a writer myself, I have never been unduly influenced by Mountain Dew. It's a wonderful product, and their executives would never behave in the unethical manner you describe.

Of course, of course. It's a great beverage. So delicious. So delicious.

So don't worry about that. I'm writing this because I really want people to come out and see your show.

Good. Thank you for not writing a hatchet-job hit-piece. All we care about is that it doesn't end with, "Don't go."

— Jason Toon 9:30 p.m., Thursday, August 2 with Daiquiri and the Eric Hall Band. Creepy Crawl, 3524 Washington Boulevard. $12. 21+ only. 314-531-3888.

In the Pining
The barest trickle separates the pretty from the pretentious, a gorgeous flow from a progged-out gush. On Low Pining, the first record from Monahans — a shape-shifted version of the alt-country flagship Milton Mapes — the band traces that trickle back to a U2-meets-R.E.M. source, with washes of film scores for a non-existent Errol Morris documentary of the Gulf Coast tides. On the phone from landlocked Austin, Texas, singer and songwriter Greg Vanderpool navigated the Monahans' story.

B-Sides: What should we expect from the Monahans, as opposed to a Milton Mapes show?

Greg Vanderpool: My wife was teasing me the other night that we're basically a Milton Mapes cover band. So we still play Milton Mapes songs, but we're really just focusing on the new album.

Was it your grandfather you named Milton Mapes after?


I figured he wanted his name back.

We just decided to come up with a different name, just to go in and make music and see what happens. Sometimes you want to distance yourself from something you started eight years ago with different people and different circumstances. This is a way to start with a clean slate.

It's hard to imagine these songs played live. It's one thing to capture a beautiful mood on record, and another thing to do that live — especially at a gig called Schlaffenfest.

It's exciting as a singer to live in the song, and not have it pre-structured. With Milton Mapes, I wrote most of the songs beforehand. With this record, we just created the songs in the studio and captured whatever that mood was. As a singer, I'm more part of a band, allowing the music to do most of the work, adding lyrics where they fit.

Tell me if you agree with this or not: You can take the band out of the Neil Young, but you can't take the Neil Young out of the band.

Yeah, that kind of applies. He's still our bread and butter, common denominator. The main difference is that Young structures songs around guitar. While there's a lot of guitar on this album, the songs really evolved from the rhythms, the beats.

I hear a fair amount of early R.E.M.

That's an influence that's going to come out. I don't know, a lot of the influences were more soundtrack-type music. Explosions in the Sky and Califone, that was something we were listening to. Even New Order, which has words, but long spaces of music you can get lost in.

I was happy you didn't jump on the whole indie-rock sea-shanty-band barge.

I guess I'm out of touch with that. I don't know where the water thing came from. If there's a theme, it's escapism, and there's something about being near the ocean that lends itself to that.

Of course, there's the Austin aquifer.

We do have a coast, and I try to make it down there once a year. When we started recording, there was so much political back and forth out there. Every song you heard had an opinion about something. This was a way of pushing against that. Low Pining is sort of about living down in the trenches and wanting to keep a distance from it, but still having a yearning. That visual of standing at the edge of an ocean and looking out over the distance kept resurfacing.

— Roy Kasten 9 p.m. Saturday, August 4. Schlafly Tap Room, 2100 Locust. $10. 314-241-2337.

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