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The Equal & Opposite Trajectories of the Magnificently Prolific Nate Henricks & T.J. Miller

October 14, 2013

I tend to talk about favorites a lot. Some people are put off by the question, “what’s your favorite book/movie/band?” I can understand where they’re coming from, perhaps considering it a challenge to defend their tastes. Or maybe it’s arrogant to presume that you can say what’s good and what’s not. But for me, “favorite” doesn’t really have as much to do with quality as with memory or nostalgia. Of course, quality does play a major part, but in the end for me “favorite” comes from wherever a product meets that indescribable crossing of memory and love. This post is about two of my favorite things.

My two favorite artists working today are Nate Henricks and T.J. Miller. They both produce work that teeters masterfully between challenging and accessible, and I have a habit of tracking down and consuming as much of each of their massive (and growing) bodies of work as I possibly can. Beyond that, they don’t have much in common. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their careers are anti-parallel. One’s a musician and the other’s a comedian.

I first heard Nate’s music in 2008. A good friend of mine was making a flyer for my oboe recital and we were meeting to finalize the details. He had gone to a concert the night before and he couldn’t believe the energy that the band, the leader of whom he’d gone to high school with, brought to the living room of the Urbana house where they played. Matt gave me a copy of a brown bag-packaged CD-R to take home and listen to and I immediately loved it.

I first saw T.J. perform randomly in 2005 after a high school dance. My group arrived at the tiny Chicago venue very late and very overdressed and were met by the commentary of a curly-haired standup as we slinked into our seats. I was laughing before I even sat down. It was my first time at a small comedy show like that, but somehow I knew that what I was seeing was special. I went back to that theater, Frankie J’s, week after week, thinking that my friends would get to see the set that impressed me so much that first time. But every week T.J. performed a new set of material. Soon I realized that he was improvising the bulk of these performances. The shows were peculiar, intense, and the funniest thing I had ever seen.

On September 12th Nate Henricks released his newest album under the moniker 8 OF CUPS INDEPENDENT RESEARCH COUNCIL and THE LIBRARY OF SPACE-TIME EDUCATION, entitled Warp Times the Zoom Goons’ Kookamunga. That same day, I saw for the first time T.J.’s recent Motorola commercial, which had been released on September 9th. It was then that I realized how bizarrely connected these two artists are, even if only in my head.

That first CD-R I heard of Nate Henricks was an eclectic collection of some of the catchiest, most thought-provoking songs I’d encountered, entitled Cooky Crams (Randomized Edition). It was poppy music but it was exquisitely arranged with poetic lyrics. The first set of T.J. Miller’s that I witnessed was a perfect example of what I only years later first heard described as “alt-comedy”. There was nothing poppy about it. And it may have been expert, but it certainly was not arranged. And if the jokes were poetic, it’s not because they were written that way. Very little of what I saw that night was ever written down.

Since 2008, Nate Henricks has released increasingly strange (and increasingly wonderful) music. The arrangements are denser, the songs are longer, and the instrumentation is wackier. I’ve long since shelved my hope and belief that Nate would become a rock star and a household name. From what I can tell, he doesn’t want that. I’m just happy that I get to hear him as he continues to build his enigmatic discography. And even in WTZGK, which will undoubtedly ostracize even patient listeners, rare talent is evident.

Since 2008, T.J. Miller has risen in the public consciousness, going from touring with Second City to appearances in mainstream movies like Cloverfield and Yogi Bear 3D. Friends have called me after seeing the new Motorola ads to reminisce about those nights at Frankie J’s, and everyone I’ve talked to loves those commercials. With starring roles in several movies coming out in the next couple years, T.J. is hovering on the brink of rock stardom, and it will take a lot for me to shelve my belief that he’ll be a household name before too long. He’s still the hyper absurdist he was back then, as you can hear every week in his concept podcast, Cashing in with T.J. Miller or on his (hopefully continuing) drop-ins on morning news shows. But he also knows what his comedy needs to flourish, and that’s a big audience.

I don’t know what a genius is. But sometimes I come across people about whom I am entirely convinced that they are doing the right thing with their lives (sort of like how David Foster Wallace felt about Roger Federer). I feel that way about Nate and T.J. If you aren’t familiar with them, I’ve included below a brief introduction to their work. I can’t promise that you will like what they do. Nor do I feel comfortable comparing them with any other musicians or comedians. I think the best way I can convey to you what I love about their music and comedy is by saying that it reminds me of something else I love: Calvin & Hobbes. Nate’s music brings you to the alien, colorful worlds of Spaceman Spiff to soundtrack your daydreams and poke at your memories. And with T.J. you’ll careen down a hill in a wagon, pondering philosophy while bracing yourself for impact. Both expertly use their craft to connect with their audiences and transmit their own unique perspectives of this big, weird world. But unlike with Calvin & Hobbes, the best is yet to come from these two.

-M.M.

Nate Henricks shares his music on Bandcamp at http://natehenricksmusic.bandcamp.com/. There’s a lot of it. I suggest you start with “Present Jam”, the best song about a time machine I’ve yet to hear (another connection to C&H!). I’m pretty sure he recorded it when he was eighteen. “That Moment” comes from a few years later when things started getting a little more experimental. “NO REVENGE” kicks off NTH MERIDIAN, his homemade 2011 album of folky soundscapes. “Green Magic” is an epic, ten minute long suite of bipolar rock for people with short attention spans. I think it’s the coolest thing he’s written yet. And his most recent rockin’ LP, Horseradish, takes the energy of “Green Magic” and puts it through the pop machine. See “Animals”. But my absolute favorite song of his is from that first CD I got in the paper bag. I didn’t know at the time, but it’s called “Flying Fish”.

If I could send you to Frankie J’s to watch T.J. perform a set eight years ago I would, because I can’t imagine a better introduction. It’s too bad I can’t, but at least we have the internet. For the longest time I was always dissatisfied by what youtube had to offer with respect to T.J., but recently I found this gem. It comes the closest of anything out there to capturing the magic of those early sets. Almost entirely improvised, the stage is his playground. Also great is his account of a near-death experience he had while filming Yogi Bear 3D. And his Japanese talk show Gorburger could very well be the best use there is of the internet. The lengths he goes to conceal in absurdity his thoughtfulness and intelligence is a performance in and of itself, but that makes the moments where he slows down even more enlightening. If you enjoyed those clips above, check out the relaxed interview he had on the podcast You Made It Weird. And I would of course be amiss not to mention that T.J. is in fact a musician, too.

I hope that you find something you enjoy among these links. If anything else on this blog dir gefällt, I bet you will. So much of what I do has been influenced in some way by their work. And if either of you are reading this T.J. & Nate, THANK YOU.

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