Hot Dad: The Toilet ov Hell Interview
Erik Helwig, the mastermind behind Hot Dad and its 100+ TV themes agreed to answer a number of questions that have been weighing heavily upon the minds of the editorial team.
If you have no clue what Hot Dad is or why Erik Helwig is
one of the most important people the most important person currently living ever, you missed a crucial post and likely turning point in your life, and you should catch up here before continuing on.
First things first, when did your mother first realize she gave birth to a man/god hybrid?
I don’t think she realized yet. I love my mother, but I don’t think she’d “get” most of what I make. : (
Completely rewriting the theme songs to 100 TV shows is ambitious and really weird. How did this idea come to its blessed fruition? Were you watching the intro to some show when you suddenly thought, “This song is good and all, but it’s not goddamn good enough.”?
My girlfriend was watching “Girls,” and boom, to be instantly annoying (I’m a really great guy, I know), I started singing the song that I recorded roughly one hour later and posted on YouTube. And then I made “Scrubs” the next day and suddenly realized that I had some kind of full-fledged media project I could make entirely on my own—and do it quickly. I guess I’ve never really thought about it in terms of improving the existing theme or not, just existing in some bizarro alternate TV universe.
What is your overall vision with this project?
Shit, I’ve got no clue, really. I home-recorded a legitmate (I use this word mostly to mean “not intended to make me laugh”) synth pop album and shipped it off to great producer from NYC. Hearing his mixes of my material initially made me really depressed because they sounded so much better than anything I was making mix-wise. I did live drum tracks with him a couple months later and got so excited that, once again, the wait to have the damn thing made me feel like complete, helpless piece of shit. So once I realized people were actually enjoying my mixes of joke songs (and that I had a way to quickly produce video content for the YouTube channel), it seemed like the perfect fit while I waited. And so, that album’s still unreleased, and now I’m at 101 themes, and the themes have actually gotten me attention that should help with the legitimate album.
It’s really fuckin’ hard to stand out in the music world right now, so I’m just trying to focus on the thing that’s most distinctly “me” and hoping that it’ll boost both nascent careers.
Also, I started getting really confused with the project after I made “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” because I had suddenly crossed some weird line in legitimacy that I hadn’t ever anticipated. Like it wasn’t just a “joke song” anymore, but it also wasn’t entirely serious. It could be perceived as an honest tribute to a classic childhood show, or an act of YouTube trolling, or even just a joke that wasn’t very funny and actually bordered on being really serious. So that was weird, and from that point on, I just wrote whatever came out, funny or not. I actually started getting really deliberate about the placement of profanity after that because I didn’t want it to just be a cheap tool. I don’t wanna be that guy, but I do wanna swear sometimes. Sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all.
I was watching the Game of Thrones a few nights ago and muted the intro music composed by Ramin Djawadi so I could sing your version, increasing in volume until my wife finally slapped me in the face and left the room. What’s it like sitting through the original intros after you’ve remade them?
Believe it or not, I’ve not actually seen a lot of those shows. And others (ones I’ve already seen), I just haven’t returned to yet. But I crank those themes out in 2-7 hours usually, so I don’t have that much time to get attached to my versions. So it’s pretty innocuous, and most of the time I’m not even thinking of my version at all. I guess the HBO logo + sound catches my attention more than anything. I feel confused when a whole episode of a show follows it and not just an intro.
To quote Toilet ov Hell creator Joe, “It’s hard enough for someone to write a single memorable tune, but this dude just shits them out like its nothing.” What is your process? How do you come up with all these songs?
When I was doing one song a day, five days a week, my process was: wake up, meditate, look at the list of possibles and focus on a couple of them, make tea, see what thing comes in my brain while I’m wandering around the house, record idea with my phone, and then rush upstairs (to studio/office) and build a song out of it. Hasn’t failed me yet, but occasionally I’ll end up with a theme I want to overproduce the hell out of and take a couple of days on. Now that I’m so far along I don’t force myself to wrap it up in one day, though. Sometimes sleeping on it can be the best idea ever.
And I’m a really picky listener, so I think that’s a huge part of what comes out of my brain. When I was growing up, my dad usually only liked the singles on albums. So I got used to listening to that stuff only, and none of the inbetween tracks that made up the rest of the record. I’m always trying to make a hook, no matter the style. And getting fired up about the hook keeps me layering on top and doing stupid shit to make myself laugh. My goal is always to add whatever will keep me wanting to add other stuff.
What tools do you use for recording and composition?
I’m using Ableton Live for everything with a UAD Apollo Quad recording interface. I’m actually recording all guitars direct and using UAD’s analog gear-simulating plugins (which are incredible, btw). And then there’s a few different software synths and Rokit 8 studio monitors. I usually come up with a template of sounds I like, make a few songs using it, and then make a new template and repeat. I’ve actually played drums longer than any other instrument I play, but I always program those because they’re the toughest to record and I always want to move quickly so I don’t lose anything. I’m always trying to improve my mixes—that’s my biggest focus right now in terms of technical shit.
One of our editors would like to know – Although your songs are already sexy as hell, have you considered sexing them up a bit by exploring a more sensual style, such as smooth jazz?
Thanks! I’ve honestly not really thought too hard about anything regarding the themes, other than which ones to do. Just whatever pops into my mind is what I make. However, my keyboard skills are remedial at best and my guitar/bass skills only a bit better, so doing smooth jazz would probably take a lot of extra effort. I took a lot of music theory in college, but I don’t remember any of it and realized that if I actually want to write key changes and fancy chords and shit, they’ve got to come to my brain naturally. And sometimes that happens, and sometimes I just make basic pop music. I don’t like applying chords/whatever just because they adhere to certain rules and they’re allowed. It’s gotta tickle my ears. But who knows, maybe someday!
A few of us are curious; the storyline you gave the Home Improvement theme (one of our favorites) is way darker than the rest. Where did that come from?
If you haven’t already, you should probably watch my “Home Improvement” parody series on YouTube. It starts off kinda slow, but it really builds after we kinda figured out what the hell we were doing and decided to build a larger story arc. I wrote all the scripts and played Al and it’s pretty dark and weird and stupid and I’m really proud of it. I made it with my good friend Alex, who used to be my constant creative partner and video editor. He ended up going to college and that’s when I got really serious about composition. And then when I figured out I could actually make some decent original video content (the TV themes) for our dotflist YouTube channel on my own, I started going crazy with the project we’re discussing now.
So yeah, I already had a ton of “Home Improvement” darkness bottled up. And that was also supposed to be my last theme, so I figured that was a nice thing to do for those fans.
My brother really wants you to do the Daredevil intro. Do you take requests? If so, how do we submit them?
It’s done and I’m ecstatic that you like it. I wrote it on my 30th birthday!
I, among others, consider the Bandcamp page of your TV themes to be the greatest product of mankind’s existence, including fire, the wheel, and (gods forgive my heresy) Kurt Russell in Escape from New York. Others, however, just don’t seem to get it. What do you think about the polarity in peoples’ reception to your work?
First of all, I love John Carpenter and I love “Escape from New York.” I hella love that score and I hella love that there was a time when people actually got paid to make films like that.
About the polarity—I could write a pretty extensive essay about it and not really get anywhere. Honestly, I have no fucking clue what makes one person get super excited when they see one of my themes and another want to punch me. I’ll break this into some chunks:
A. I could say, “Hey, diehard fans of the show will probably hate that I remade the theme while casual watchers might get a kick out of it,” but I would be totally wrong. A lot of the time it’s been the biggest fans who have told me how a flood of nostalgia was triggered by watching my versions. I haven’t even watched a lot of these shows, and still, people are saying I nailed the experience for them. That’s awesome for me. And then it’ll be the people who really don’t give a shit about the show the most pissed at me, and I guess it’s just because I wasted several seconds of their time by tricking them and they’re so intractable that they won’t even begin to consider what I made because it’s not exactly what they were looking for.
B. I mistakenly thought that people would have more guaranteed respect for it since it’s so gigantic now, but that’s definitely not the case. If they don’t like one song, they just declare the 100 others to be worthless and get pissed at me.
C. It’s tough to explain to people if they only see the Bandcamp and not the videos. TV was a YouTube project first and foremost. I don’t watch/listen to the original themes before making my versions so that when I sync up my song with the original video, there’s chaos. I love that. A lot of great stuff has unexpectedly synced up, and that’s simply because I got lucky. That adds a dimension of fun for me, because I never know what I’m gonna get when I hit render. The Bandcamp came because people kept asking me for links to download their favorite songs. I’m sooooooooooo thankful for the donations and support on there, but yeah, without the video component, it’s a bit vague. Maybe that’s good though. I don’t know.
D. I’m a huge fan of Andy Kaufman, so when I first started making YouTube videos back in 2007, I was always trying to channel his spirit into our channel’s ideas and productions. And unsurprisingly, those videos were really polarizing. We had a lot of super dedicated fans and also tons of haters. I’ve never strayed from that, and I guess it’s still kind of exciting that people can get really upset about something so benign. If people only love it or hate it, I think I’ve done something right. But I do really loathe when I fetch comments like “oh, another no-effort, asshole youtuber trolling for views!” because that’s not what I’m doing. I’m putting in a lot of hours to make a legitimate, weird song about a show and then warning you by putting an incongruent HBO logo at the start of the video (an immediate red flag for anyone who actually knows anything about the show). If you watch beyond the HBO logo for a show that’s not actually on HBO and THEN complain in the comments, you can happily fuck off. There have been a few rare people who have expressed that they were disappointed that the real theme wasn’t anywhere to be found in my video, but then complimented my song or my trolling. Those people are good sports and I love them too. My theme for “The Wonder Years” has like 30k views and people are watching like 40 seconds of that shit (including the HBO logo) before they realize something is wrong. And that’s ridiculous and I think that’s great and strange. And I have had people in comments think that I posted another real pro TV theme by mistake, and they ask who made it or what show it’s really for. I’m hella flattered by that.
E. If you make something that’s polarizing, the people who actually do like it tend to become incredibly loyal fans and they usually like anything else you make for the rest of time. That’s been my experience, and I’m sure others have found it to be true as well.
I have to know the story behind the intentionally-wrong HBO name-dropping. It cracks me up every time and I can’t figure out why. What’s the deal with that?
I wish I had a better story, but here it is: I made “Girls” first. So when I made “Scrubs”, I reopened the same video project and started editing and the logo was still there at the front. And I thought it was funny when I played it back, so I kept doing it. And some people got it immediately, and some people never did. So then I had that happening and started throwing it into the lyrics because, hey, it added another level of meta-weirdness and gave me a break if I was struggling with lyrics. And the people who loved it REALLY loved it, so I felt that I had an obligation going forward. It’s really conceptually stupid to imagine legitimate themes referencing their own networks within the lyrics, and that possibility brings me great pleasure. But yeah, nothing all that deliberate, just trying new things as I went along. I was asked in another interview if I knew I was creating an alternate universe in which every show is on HBO, and while I wish I could say something like that was my plan all along, it just happened to turn out that way.
I’d rather make stuff and let people interpret it however they want instead of knowing all along what the project means. I guess that’s what I’m getting at. Even my serious music isn’t that serious to me. I just do my best to make a good song, that’s all. My serious lyrics are definitely the hardest for me to write since I never feel like I have anything to say. Funny lyrics come out of me a lot easier, that’s for sure.
Do you have a few themes currently lined up to work on?
Wrapping it up within this next week, probably. I posted a poll on my YouTube channel and out of 100 votes, the four voted to be the last were: “Kenan and Kel“, “Married with Children“, “Golden Girls“, and “Community”. All I’ve got left is Community! I’m actually okay with moving on because I’m currently sitting on like 6 different EPs and joke albums and one legitimate full-length album that just needs cover art. I’ve made 101 of these damn things and if I keep taking requests, it will honestly never end because everybody wants me to do every show ever and that’s awesome and really scary too since I need to find a way fully support myself via music ASAP and I can’t do it with one project alone. I’m getting close all the time, though.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers? Your supporters? Your detractors?
To my detractors: A lot of y’all are just justifying your own creative inaction by attacking me. It’s far easier to critique than to create. I get it. ; ) It’s fine if you don’t like the jokes. It’s fine if you don’t get the jokes. It’s fine if you don’t like the music. But please, don’t be a huge dick about it. It’s really fucking hard to put something unusual you made out there in front of people, and for y’all to go ahead and dismiss 100 of my other themes because you don’t like one is kinda ridiculous, don’t you think? But yeah, my sense of humor isn’t for everyone, so ultimately, I understand. Maybe someday I’ll find a way to impress you!
To your readers/my supporters: Honestly, I love anyone who gets these themes. Seriously. You’re amazing and great and terrific and for me to make a whole bunch of weird self-referential meta joke things and have people make sense of them is so fuckin’ great. The article on here was so wonderful and it honestly touched the hell out of me because it’s been really easy for me to lose myself in the project and not really know what the fuck I’m doing. But articles like yours have kept me motivated and helped me realize that someone actually gave a fuck about these little songs I was making every day for so long. I actually made 49 of them before I got any press/recognition at all, and that was a really difficult time. But I figured that if I kept making them, SOMETHING would eventually happen, and it did. And though I’m stopping now, people are still discovering them every single day and that’s sooooooooooooo great. And they’ll keep finding them forever, probably.
Also, my real band is called Girls Who Care. I’m hoping to release the whole album soon, but until then, here are two tracks on Bandcamp. If you like my TV themes, there’s a fair chance you’ll like this too.
And yeah, tons of other funny stuff coming really soon. I’m super proud of this next wave of stuff, and I’m excited to see what happens with it. Keep an eye on my YouTube channel for updates.