Ed Helms: Banjos and Buffoonery | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Ed Helms (on right) with his band The Lonesome Trio

Ed Helms

Banjos and Buffoonery

Apr 22, 2011 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Most people know Ed Helms from his comedic acting work, initially coming to the fore as a correspondent on The Daily Show from 2002-2006, and more recently for portraying Andy Bernard on The Office and dentist Stu Price in the film The Hangover (and its sequel, The Hangover Part II, due this summer). And while vestiges of Helms' musical talent have manifested themselves from time to time in the aforementioned, they were grand goofs, belying the fact that Helms is a serious bluegrass musician. He's proficient on banjo, guitar, and piano, still playing occasional gigs with the band he formed while in college, The Lonesome Trio, as well as interjecting bluegrass-tinged songs into his variety show The Whiskey Sour Radio Hour. He also co-produces an annual bluegrass themed festival in Los Angeles, The L.A. Bluegrass Situation, which takes place from April 28-30 at the theater Largo at the Coronet. Under the Radar caught up with Helms in late March to discuss the festival, his formative musical influences, and the karma he'll never earn back from some of his segments on The Daily Show.

John Everhart: Can we talk a bit about your upcoming bluegrass festival?

Ed Helms: I co-produce it. The L.A. Bluegrass Situation. It takes place at Largo. The owner of Largo, this guy Flanny [Mark Flanagan] is my partner. The Largo is just a wonderful venue that's carved out a niche for itself out here in L.A. with both comedy and music. It's a routine stop for a lot of my favorite comedians and musicians like Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakas, and Patton Oswalt. It seems like everyone's popping up at Largo from time to time. And musically it's a regular spot for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple. Elliott Smith used to play there. That kind of world. It just seemed like such a perfect fit for this event. I've also performed there sporadically over the last bunch of years. So Flanny and I just kind of hatched this idea to rally up some more bluegrass in Los Angeles. He loves the genre and was all for it. And a lot of people who are loosely affiliated with bluegrass kind of, loosely or tightly as the case may be, pop into Largo from time to time. Are you familiar with the Watkins siblings?

No, I'm not.

Sara and Sean Watkins. They were two thirds of a band called Nickel Creek. Chris Thile, the other member of the band, has gone on to have a great career both solo and with an amazing band called The Punch Brothers, who are based in NYC. So they're a part of our bluegrass situation this year. And Sara and Sean Watkins. Sara has a great kind of solo career now, and has been touring with The Decemberists, and she and her brother Sean do a regular show at Largo called the Watkins Family Hour where they do a mix of bluegrass and contemporary Americana. They're very much a part of the identity of this event as well. Their show kicks it off on Thursday night. Friday night will be The Punch Brothers. Saturday night is my show, The Whiskey Sour Radio Hour, an old school variety show with ridiculous comedy sketches and straight ahead bluegrass. And then Sunday night, it's Steve Martin and the band that he tours with, The Steep Canyon Rangers.

Steve Martin just played here in Williamsburg recently. He's a really amazing banjo player.

Wow that's awesome. He has a record that came out recently [Rare Bird Alert] that I've been listening to a lot. He's fantastic.

I've always had this theory that comedians secretly want to be musicians and musicians secretly want to be comedians.

I think you're right to some extent. [Laughs] I don't know what that correlation is. It's pretty interesting.

Are you friendly with a lot of musicians?

I'm a pretty serious musician, so it's a thrill for me to rub shoulders with people I admire. Bluegrass is such a wonderful musical form because it's so open and collaborative. It's a music form like jazz that caters to open jam sessions. So it's really fun. It's a thrill for me to jam with some of my favorite players, and I've become friends with a lot of my favorite players.

Is there an overlap with comedy and music for you?

It's a funny dichotomy. [Music has] always been a separate pursuit. Even in The Whiskey Sour Radio Hour, I'll do comedy, but the music portion is straight ahead. We'll have fun with it, but writing funny songs was never something I was as interested in as pursuing straight-ahead bluegrass music.

You definitely had some funny song moments in The Hangover, and on The Office and The Daily Show as well, though. Were there any particularly memorable instances for you?

There was one instance on The Daily Show when I interviewed this film professor. This guy was locked out of his house and tried to crawl in through his chimney and the fire department came and had to cut him out, he said that he'd seen it on Mary Poppins, and that was what gave him an idea. So I went to interview this professor about how movies like Mary Poppins are a terrible influence on society, and he's saying "I don't think anyone takes a movie like Mary Poppins seriously," and I said, "Why not, it's a very realistic movie?," and he said, "Well, people don't really break into song in the middle of a conversation." And I said [singing] "I beg to differ, people break into song with regularity." I just started singing in his face. [Laughs] That was sort of one of the cleanest examples. But there were a lot of times where stupid music found its way in.

Was it hard for you to walk away from people afterwards if you'd duped them?

It varied, but there were some interviews that I'll never earn back the karma that I lost for doing. [Laughs] But for the most part people were really good sports about it when they saw the final product. Even people that came across as silly were generally ecstatic when they saw it on TV.

I noticed that you went to college at Oberlin. It seems like everyone who went to Oberlin went on to form a band or do something creative, especially in Brooklyn [Helms lived in Brooklyn from 1997-2006]. A ton of bands formed there, like Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The author Gary Shteyengart went to school there.

Yeah, it's true. There was a big article in the alumni magazine about how Williamsburg was like the Oberlin post-graduate destination for everybody. [Laughs]

Did your move to L.A. a few years ago influence things music wise for you?

One of the difficult things about moving here was leaving The Lonesome Trio, two of my best friends since college. It put some distance between us. But we still manage to play a bunch of times during the year. But those guys came to visit me in Thailand when we were shooting The Hangover II, and we got to hang out a lot, which was awesome.

Musicians typically hate this question, but since you're primarily an actor who isn't normally interviewed about music, I'll go ahead and ask it. Who are some of your favorite bands and musicians, bluegrass or otherwise?

It's hard ot sum it all up, but I love some of the contemporary bluegrass bands like Crooked Still and this woman Sarah Jarosz. Going back, always Béla Fleck. He was formative for me. Bands like Zeppelin. I was just obsessed with Led Zeppelin forever. And Paul Simon. Simon & Garfunkel too. Cat Stevens was amazing. I'm sort of late to the table on bands like Arcade Fire, but I think they're pretty fucking amazing. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have such a dark romanticism going that I love. I saw Josh Ritter a few weeks ago and he was great. Back to the bluegrass area, Doc Watson and David Grisman. The Punch Brothers are epic. Those guys are some of the greatest musicians around in any genre. They also happen to have circled up as kind of an all-star band some of the greatest players around like Bryan Sutton, who's an epic player in bluegrass, and Tony Rice, kind of a go to as one of the greatest guitar pickers around. Also this guy Danny Barnes, who was in a band called The Bad Livers, who were amazing. He has great solo work that's fucking jaw dropping.

Well, thanks for your time Ed, and good luck with the festival!

Thank you for talking to me!

(www.edhelms.org)

(www.labluegrasssituation.com)



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Danny
April 22nd 2011
1:02pm

“She” was formative?  Béla Fleck?

John Everhart
April 22nd 2011
1:09pm

Typo was fixed, Danny.

Danny
April 24th 2011
8:00pm

Nice interview!  Love me some bluegrass.