Words by David C. Obenour
The holidays. A time of merriment and joy. A chance to leave behind the busyness of work and spend long stretches of quality time reuniting with family and distant relatives left back at childhood homes. Snow hangs on every branch and light warmly beams from each window. Supposedly, anyway. At least in the Hallmark movies.
On the furthest end of the dial from there, Seasonal Depression Suite tunes in on the fuzzy TV screen of an entirely unremarkable chain-hotel. Navigating expectations, short-comings, and a host of other anxieties and depressions – both real and imagined, this musical concept is the perfect foil for Neil Hamburger’s internal and external loathsome humor. With guest appearances from Neil Finn, Annabella Lwin, Puddles Pity Party, Alan Bishop, Bonnie Prince Billy and more, Gregg Turkington has concepted and created the most ambitious project yet from his alter ego and America’s Funnyman.
Off Shelf: I believe this is your fourth music album, after Sings Country Winners and First of Dismay. When did you first decide to start exploring music as Neil Hamburger?
Gregg Turkington: There was a song on the second album, Raw Hamburger, back in 1998. So pretty early on. There has often been a musical component to a comedian’s show, going back to the vaudeville days of course. My favorite part of every Jerry Lewis Telethon was when he closed the show with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
OS: Over the recordings, albums, and performances, how do you think you’ve evolved Neil Hamburger as a singer?
GT: Originally the songs were tacked on to the albums as weird unwanted bonuses, the way a lot of comics would do. No one wanted “Wild Thing” by Sam Kinison. Later we developed more the idea of a full Neil Hamburger album, more based on the celebrity vocal album phenomenon of the ’60s and ’70s, and inspired by the – actually very credible and very enjoyable – recordings of people like Richard Harris, Rock Hudson, and Telly Savalas. Those records served not only as audio “souvenirs” of the celebrity’s public persona, but also a chance for them to stretch their wings out a bit and apply their dramatic acting chops towards song, the most famous example being the William Shatner album The Transformed Man.
OS: Do you think any of that has bleed into how you think of Neil Hamburger as a stand up comedian?
GT: I’ve always been more inspired by musicians and singers than by comedians.
OS: Would you ever consider doing a music album not as Neil Hamburger? Either as yourself or as some other iteration?
GT: I’ve done several, in bands, but way back in the 1990s. Usually there was some other persona involved, rather than me doing a straight “Gregg Turkington album”.
OS: This is your second album with Erik Paparozzi. What were you excited to get back to? What were you excited to try differently?
GT: The other one was home-recorded, and I think we did a lot on zero budget with Erik engineering the whole thing. This time we went into Jason Schimmel’s magical recording studio, The Bunker in Los Angeles, and let Jason handle the technical side of things, which freed Erik up a ton. Additionally, we wrote all the songs ourselves this time around, as a self-contained suite, whereas most of the songs on Still Dwelling were covers. In both cases, however, we benefitted immensely from bringing in musicians and singers that we greatly admire and having them be part of the proceedings.
OS: A musical with a narrative arch, where did you get the idea and inspiration for the story of Seasonal Depression Suite?
GT: The original concept was a Christmas album of glum songs, but we quickly decided to make it broader in scope than that. The initial songs mostly had a hotel setting, so we decided to carry on more in that direction. Erik suggested that if we brought in additional lead vocalists we could expend the number of characters featured in the story, which was the right move, not only for the tale of the hotel, but also for making the record a fuller, more varied listening experience. And we got to work with all these people whose work we love.
OS: I know many are familiar faces, but did everyone pretty much “get it” when you reached out? Were there any that you reached out to and were unable?
GT: We were very deliberate with who we reached out to, and fortunately everyone on our dream list wanted to do it, even if they didn’t quite know the full scope of the project. We had a one-line cameo in mind for a pal who couldn’t make it work scheduling-wise, and then one other person we approached simply blew us off.
OS: Had you created the songs with these artists in mind? Did any of them evolve in ways you may not have expected after bringing in that track’s guest?
GT: The one that was 100% specifically written for the artist was the Annabella Lwin track. I absolutely idolize her, and if she had been unable to participate we would’ve scrapped the song. And she absolutely nailed it in the recording studio. It blew my mind. With the other folks, we had the songs written already, and knew that they were the exact right person for the song… we had our fingers crossed they would be game.
OS: Do you see this project living beyond the album? Live performances or a video production?
GT: It’s been fun doing some music videos for some of the songs and seeing how they play out. If there was a budget to go further, with a stage production or whatever, of course we would be very interested.
OS: Do you have other musical projects in mind? Other ways that you could see yourself or Neil branching out?
GT: Who knows! I honestly don’t know if the stars could ever align for something again the way they did for this. It was just the dream scenario of the creative process flowing smoothly and in the desired direction!