Big Bang Theory star and LA native Simon Helberg picked a theme for his Guest set – songs for driving and crying. He picks exceptional songwriters like Elliot Smith and Elvis Costello as well as an out of this world instrumental piano cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”. The Big Bang Theory airs Thursdays on CBS.
Raul Campos: Hey, I’m Raul Campos from KCRW and I’m here with actor Simon Helberg who stars on the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. Today we’re here to talk about songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Simon, welcome. How are you?
Simon Helberg: I’m, I am very good. I’m very happy to be here, thank you.
R: So, I’m curious to get into your song selections ‘cause I know you’ve got a little bit of a theme that that you were thinking about.
S: My theme…I grew up in Los Angeles so instead of just songs that inspired me, I did songs that I used to drive around and cry to, and that’s where a lot of my musical, I guess, experiences came from is driving around.
R: Well, I can’t wait to get into the set list. So let’s get into the first one. It’s Built to Spill. And the title is appropriately “Car”.
S: It’s “Car”, yeah.
So Built to Spill. Somebody gave me a tape, I think when I was in 11th grade, I think it was just a few of their songs, one of which was “Ca”r. And I had never heard of them.
They had already come out with “There is Nothing Wrong With Love” and the “Normal Years” and, for me,, the door opened, I guess to a new band and a new sound. There’s “Nothing Wrong With Love”, I think is just a perfect album.
And actually they recorded “Car” twice. Once on there and once on “The Normal Years” and I picked the one off “The Normal Years” because I actually like it a little more. It’s almost identical.
But I became obsessed with them and it was on a mix tape when it was given to me and the song “Car” really encapsulated just that feeling of I had just gotten my license and just, I want to take a girl out and I just have to find the girl, and then she has to say yes and then a lot of them, a lot of them didn’t. So I just listened to this song by myself in my car. (laughs)
Song: Built to Spill – “Car”
R: Built To Spill doing “Car”, and the cool thing about this whole Guest DJ Project is that even though you have a theme,we’re still going to go different directions. And I love that the next track we’re going to get into is by Elliot Smith.
S: Yes, “ XO” came out, for me, it was, uh between my senior year in high school and first year in college and I mean, that album, I think still is a perfect album and this song , I just, -- “I’m never gonna know you but I’m gonna love you anyhow” -- I mean that lyric, I was definitely started to fall madly in love with people around this time in my life.
Song: Elliott Smith – “Waltz #2”
S: He’s one of those people that it –everything hits you at once, I think. You’re hit by the musicality. I mean he’s, he was a genius musician, also technically, but the kind of songs that he wrote musically were so progressive. I mean, you can hear inspiration, you can hear his influences, but to me each album was so exciting. I was so excited when I heard “XO” because it was so much fuller and and, in some ways, more mature than the ones that came before, not that they weren’t brilliant also. And then when I heard “Figure 8”, I was like, this, you know this guy is, he’s gonna go down in history. And you’re going to find with each album, it’s going to be something new and exciting. And to me his lyrics and production, I mean everything. It’s just the whole package with him and it’s a huge loss that he’s not here anymore, musically.
R: That was Waltz #2. “XO” by Elliott Smith. Our guest DJ is Simon Helberg. Simon, so what’s the next tune?
S: The next song is a song by Elvis Costello called “Little Triggers” off of “This Year’s Model”. I think it’s just rare to find an album from beginning to end that is perfect and this album blew me away. This song, my wife and I used to listen to a lot driving around West Hollywood after we had just moved in together. And when it came time to get married, we both thought this was an incredibly romantic song. I actually got a chance to meet Elvis Costello and I told him that we danced to this and he said ‘Oh no I’m I’m sorry to hear that. I, I know people have danced a lot to some of my other songs, usually romantic ones though. So if your marriage works out then that’ll be a miracle.’
And I was like ‘Oh my god, what is this about?’ And I realized, I was like, well, of course this isn’t romantic – I mean, all of his songs, that’s what’s also brilliant about his songs. There’s such scorn, such jilted vitriol, but, you know, love that’s unrequited, I guess. And there’s anger and there’s passion and there’s beauty and so, you know, when I hear this song now…I always thought the little triggers that she pulled with her tongue were – that she brought out something beautiful in him. But now when I hear it, I do hear a guy singing about a girl that kinda drives him crazy, basically. But either way, it’s a gorgeous song and he writes it with a sense of humor and such love, so I love this one.
Song: Elvis Costello – “Little Triggers”
R: So we just heard Little Triggers. Elvis Costello. Let’s get into this track by Brad Mehldau, “Paranoid Android” and it’s a live version and why did you pick the live version?
S: I used to spend a lot of time at Largo, which is a club in Los Angeles, and I would see Jon Brion all the time and that was a huge part of my life, actually going to see that every Friday night. That’s where I first saw Brad Mehldau and, – personally, when I saw Brad Mehldau, he played “Paranoid Android” and he was by himself and I just, I just had never heard somebody play the piano like this.
I mean you can tell again, influences and it’s like Bill Evans and Bach and Keith Jarrett and, I mean, you can hear all of it in there. First of all his stillness, I mean I literally didn’t even know if he was playing. I had no idea, it sounded like he had, you know, five hands.
I really, literally, I would hear a note and I realized that note’s been going on for the last 30 seconds but he’s got, he’s actually playing a bass line but he’s also comp-ing and playing chords and he’s also solo-ing. And so, for me this version of it is just my favorite one I’ve, I’ve heard.
I know he’s recorded a few times but there’s a section towards the end where it slows down that it literally sounds like he’s playing in reverse to me. And maybe he is, maybe he did that live, I don’t understand how he does what he does and it’s beautiful. Obviously this song is an unbelievable tune. To me, it encapsulated my love of jazz and the way he’s been taking it.
Song: Brad Mehldau – “Paranoid Android”
R: Brad Mehldau. Paranoid Android. SO Simon, what’s going to be the final song of your list?
S: Warren Zevon singing “The French Inhaler”. It’s actually a demo, solo piano version. I got into Warren Zevon pretty, pretty recently and there’s an honesty in the way that he writes and it really reminds me – I think he encapsulates the feeling of Los Angeles, I guess to me, in a way that, that, nobody else really does.
He sort of exposed the underbelly I guess, of Los Angeles but somehow romanticizes it at the same time. This song is kind of depressing, even though there is sort of a cheery jaunt to it, but I really find it, as I got to work more and got a little older and saw different sides of LA, to me, this really shows – to me it takes me right to any bar in Los Angeles and it’s kind of scary, but it’s also beautiful and hilarious at the same time.
Song: Warren Zevon – “The French Inhaler”
R: Simon, thank you so much for coming through.
S: Thank you for having me. It was great to be here.