Laugh Tracks: Jumpsuits, Trump snubs and jail riffs, with Dave Hill

Dave Hill

Not to be confused with the lank-haired Slade guitarist lovingly mocked by Bob Mortimer decades ago, this Dave Hill is an American axe hero who inadvertently took the old Billy Connolly route into comedy: his talking between songs blossomed, one thing led to another, and here we are. Although the songs are pretty good too: one anthem, with his band Valley Lodge, became the theme for Last Week Tonight, more on that below.

Right now Hill is on tour with arena behemoths Tenacious D, before headlining his own show, Caveman in a Spaceship, at London's Soho Theatre from 15th to 18th May. Those venues are a far cry from his first big live challenge, 15 years ago: performing in scary-arsed prisons, just to prove that he could. That guitar often gets a good workout during his stand-up, and those riff gifts have recently been courted by a contentious ex-president.

Dave Hill

We catch an impressively relaxed-looking Hill, over Zoom, just a few hours before he set off on that transatlantic tour.

You seem quite chill there Dave - I used to stress for weeks before a work trip.

I've been a bit like that, kind of freaking out. I'm ignoring the things that I'm really freaking out about, and instead pretending to freak out about other things that don't matter - like packing. But I'm mostly freaking out about the Tenacious D tour then the Soho shows.

Do you prep differently for support and headline slots? Same outfit?

In the last year or so I've been wearing more jumpsuits. Once you commit to jumpsuits you kind of just gotta go all in. So I'm just packing them.

Dave Hill

I love the idea you'll be wearing them during the day too - commit completely.

That's how it started. Once we realised the pandemic was gonna last more than two weeks or whatever I was like, 'this is getting serious, I'm gonna need to get a jumpsuit!' So I bought one off of Etsy, just wear jumpsuits until it's over, go with a James Bond at a tiki party kind of look.

Then I got some others, one I had been wearing for a while on the last Tenacious D tour, but it's kind of ragged and ill-fitting. So I decided for this tour I'm gonna get some proper jumpsuits, found someone who makes them, put some patches on to get that Gram Parsons meets Jimmy Page dragon suit thing.

So that's the sort of thing I've spent all my time working on, instead of, you know, making sure I've got my passport.

What were you into originally? A bunch of good stand-ups came out of the folk scene here, in the 70s, talking between songs - is that what happened with you?

It's a bit like that. I grew up being mostly into music. There were comedians I loved, but I don't think I really understood comedy as the thing that you went and did as your job. I would just see people that I loved, Bobcat Goldthwait, Pee-wee Herman, Monty Python, Chris Elliott, Kids in the Hall, and I just thought, 'Oh, they're just like me and my friends, goofing around.' I didn't see it as something you would actually go do.

I was always in bands, then I sort of reluctantly started singing, and I realised that I liked the talking in between probably more at some point. I never really planned to become a comedian, it just sort of happened.

Dave Hill

I wound up writing for television a little bit, and a friend was like 'Oh, I run this show in the back of a bar on the Lower East Side.' And I did that, and no one threw anything at my head. And so I went back.

I'm still trying to get back to that way of thinking, because I didn't really have any aspirations whatsoever. And then once things started happening, then I started like, 'oh man, I could do this and this' and then that's when all the trouble starts, once you actually want something. But I've been able to do it for a while now.

It gives you a unique voice, starting that way, just talking between songs, whereas a lot of comics begin by emulating someone else.

Yeah, I wasn't consciously thinking about other comedians, I just kind of do what occurs to me. This Tenacious D tour, and then the Soho Theatre shows, will have a lot of music in them. Not really songs, but I play some guitar, things like that, which is fun; I think my sensibility is to play silly over the top guitar solos. It's kind of part of the joke.

When you look at serious rock guitarists - like your namesake...

From Slade!

Yep - those solos can be really funny.

That's what I learned. I just had this realisation at some point: it's not funny to be good, but then when you surpass it to being really good, then it becomes funny. It crosses over to the other side.

It presumably also comes in handy when you've got tricky guys in the audience, a stag do maybe, to get them onside?

I couldn't agree more. I had this realisation in college; one of my roommates was a varsity football player, and we're good buddies to this day, but when we first met, I was this guy from Cleveland, into bands and stuff, and he was this big football dude. And so other football players would come by and they looked at me like I was from Mars. But then I could play Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, and they're like, 'Oh, this guy's cool. He's a weirdo, but he's cool.'

Dave Hill

So I realised it was a kind of social currency, and then, a few years ago now, 2009, I decided I wanted to perform at a prison. My friend and I were talking, and he thought, 'they'll kill you, that'd be funny.' So I was like, 'I'll show you, I'm gonna do it.' And so I booked this show, at Sing Sing, a really infamous prison here. And then leading up to it, I was like, 'Oh shit, what have I done, is this a really bad idea?'

It does sound like a really bad idea.

My friend Carl, another comedian, he was watching in the back before I went on, and one of the guards came over and said, 'he really has to earn their respect, or this is gonna go really bad' - it was like, 300 guys, maximum security violent felons.

And what we learned is that Sing Sing, if they have a show, they can't just leave and go 'ah I don't like this, I'm gonna go back to my cell.' They're all stuck there. And I guess when they didn't like something, the move was to scare the performers till they left the stage. That's what they would do to me.

Dave Hill

So I brought my guitar, and the first thing I did before I said a word was just play, Hendrix, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, this medley of riffs and licks. The guard came over to Carl and said, 'he's gonna be fine, they respect him.'

I performed in a Mexican prison, same thing. There was an article in The New York Times that the cartel had murdered the warden and basically been running the inside of the prison - a friend of mine wound up being the chaplain. So I went and just played guitar as fast as I could, for like, 45 minutes.

I mean, it really puts mouthy British stag dos into perspective.

It's good. I mean, I perform all the time without the guitar as well, but it's always a fun thing. Especially Edinburgh, because that's like a different universe from night to night. So sometimes you can just smack people around with a guitar solo if you have to, then they'll listen to what you're saying.

Dave Hill

Music was a lot more lucrative years ago - do you reckon you might have focused on that, if you'd started a decade earlier?

I don't know, because I had a band out of college, and we had a record deal, a video on MTV and all that, back when that meant anything. But when I started going to comedy shows, it felt like more of a community of people, especially when everyone's hanging out at the bar chatting.

Going to see a band isn't like that, you go see the band and everyone leaves. But with comedy shows, it's more like you see the show, and then we're all gonna hang out and talk.

Aside from the solos, how nailed-down is your show?

It's not set in stone, I'll probably swap out some sections each night. But also for part of it I'll have a rhythm section. When I go on tour with Tenacious D, their drummer and a bass player will play with me. Solo shows, I tend to do it Chuck Berry style, where he'd roll into town and be like, 'you guys, let's go'. Which is exciting, as I don't know how it's gonna go. Usually - knock on wood - the musicians that I've had, it's a lot of fun.

Dave Hill

Years ago, I was in Florida, and I said, 'Oh, someone want to play drums at my show tonight?' And this young woman showed up and she had this cool pink drum set - there's no real rehearsal, we talked it over, I started playing and they jump in. And I realised, 'Oh, she has no ability whatsoever.' It sounded horrible, I was really confused.

And then a couple minutes in, I felt this real joy, I love that she saw my tweet and was like, 'I have drums, I'll go down there and get on the stage!' It made for a weirder show, but it was still fun.

How did your song end up on Last Week Tonight? Do you and John go back away?

That's partially it - I knew John from comedy, he came over here to do The Daily Show, and we would be on shows around town. But then also Liz Stanton, who's the showrunner. I had worked with her on another show, years before, and I'm guessing they're probably sitting there going, 'we need a theme song. Dave's got a band. Let's see what he's got.'

Dave Hill

That song, Go, had just come out a few months prior. It's been such a nice thing because I love the show, and I love John, and to have one of my songs associated with a show that I actually love, I mean, I'd be grateful to have my song be the theme to any show. Well, not any show.

Have you had any weird requests?

A week or two ago I got an email from a guy: 'Would you play a guitar solo? We're doing a commercial for the Trump election campaign.' And I first replied with this nasty response, then deleted it and said, 'Haha, thank you. This email gave me a great laugh. Fuck Trump.'

Dave Hill

And they wrote back and said, 'Oh, your response was actually way more polite than we expected. But we're fans, I wanted to see if you would consider it.' Well, you should have seen my first draft.

Was that actually someone from the Trump team? Or was it a joke?

It seemed real. I mean, it could have been some nut, but it was someone from a production company in LA. The odd thing is, the guy was like, 'I'm not a Trump voter. But the pay is really great. And you'd be paid a lot to do this.' But I didn't go back and forth. There's no amount of money that would make me want to do that.

Dave Hill

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