Parry Gripp’s a natural on the red carpet. It’s a fact that might surprise his many friends, but there he was on opening night of the 2011 Santa Barbara International Film Festival: natty, smiling, pointing out people he didn’t know the way the big stars do. Inside the Arlington, some of us were laughing, happy to see him up there on the big screen, projecting the scene outside. An older woman, once a boardmember of the fest, asked me who that man was. I said, stay tuned, this is the guy who wrote the “Megaphone” song for the short film that would run before every feature film in the fest — though I never once dreamed how silly, controversial, and quintessentially Parry Gripp the whole shebang would soon become. “Yes,” said the woman, crinkling her nose and squinting, “but who is he?”
Let me describe him another way.
Not long ago, some of my son’s college friends shyly approached me and asked in awestruck tones if it was true that I knew Parry Gripp. Chuckling, I said, “Sure” — a fact that elicited wonder from them and some semi-shocked tones from my boy.
“How do you know him?” he asked.
“Because I liked his band Nerf Herder,” I said. Eventually, I got to know him because he wrote a rock column for this paper. And later still, we became pals. “For that matter, you know him, too,” I added, recalling several specific meetings with Gripp at movie theaters and restaurants. My son, who lists Gripp’s music as a foremost fave on his Facebook page, thought for a second and murmured skeptically, “That was Parry Gripp?”
This is also very Parry. After all, no mere mortal from Goleta should embody the depth and width of achievement that’s so often attributed to Gripp. To the young and new-media savvy, Gripp is God, mostly by dint of his Web site’s Song of the Week, which he’s been posting for three years now. It’s there that he’s created deathless ditties that naturally migrated to YouTube (and, sometimes, into films like Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story): masterpieces like “Hamster on a Piano (Eating Popcorn),” “Fuzzy Fuzzy Cute Cute,” “Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom” (with more than 12.9 million hits), and the gently damning “Young Girl Talking About Herself.” The kids also prize Gripp’s alt-televisual life, like the G4 tech and comedy show Attack of the Show!, where he contributes poignant videos like “The Girl at the Video Store.” For the superannuated among us (say, those 30 years and older), Gripp was deific as Nerf Herder’s frontman and as the composer of the searing opening guitar riff for television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
And there’s more. In Philadelphia, he was named the “King of Hoagies” after composing a song that became the anthem for the Wawa convenience store chain. Early last summer, Gripp wrote the number-one–selling cell phone ringtone (“This Is My Ringtone”). To little children, he’s the awesome man who penned the fabled ditty about waffles. In the world of superhero animation, Gripp’s renown stems from “Hero Up,” the song for Super Hero Squad, among others.
Back on Mother Earth, dateline our own town, Gripp, who does light design for the Genesis West Theater Company, was featured most prominently at the Santa Barbara Film Fest for a tune he wrote more than two years ago: “Megaphone,” which was a Song of the Week meant mostly as a lampoon of the over-earnest film-fest volunteers, though its humorous intentions were aimed scattershot. As usual, Gripp’s gently ribbing voice managed to both satirize and cuddle up to its subject. “I couldn’t believe Roger [Durling] liked it,” Gripp told me repeatedly. But months before fest director Durling picked the song to kick off the party at this past year’s fest, it was set to Lego animation by a now 16-year-old British “brickfilmer” fan, Harry Bossert. “I love that song,” said Durling, who ended up taking lots of flak from squarer festgoers at first. That is, “Until Roger Ebert wrote about it, and then suddenly everybody loved ‘Megaphone,’” laughed Durling.
Weirdly enough, though, most S.B. people know Gripp as the recently retired president of the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show. His day job is his family’s biz, the S.B. Orchid Estate. Yes, this is all one man — and he’s funny and nice, to boot.
Yet Gripp treads normally on terra firma and is rarely observed surrounded by celestial auras. He’s even a bit dismissive. “I’m what you call ‘Internet famous,’” Gripp explained without a touch of regret as we sat over coffee at Java Station. “I think when people hear my name, they picture a hamster or a waffle.” Indeed, just last year Gripp hosted a music-industry tent sing-along at the monolithic South by Southwest music fest, dressed like a hamster and pursued by a crazy indie marching band. But the truth is that Gripp stands poised between two worlds of fame, both of which he has sampled richly — touring rock star and Internet-obsessed satirist. He’s been called the “Weird Al” Yankovic of new media. But Gripp, who does a more refined version of parodist shtick, is more inventive than Al, creating something new and celebrative about nerd-world culture, which he ostensibly pastiches and teases. He’s not a critical commentator; he’s more like a paradigm of what popular culture has become.
Up from Goleta
Gripp was born in Cottage Hospital in 1967, the same year his father bought the Orchid Estate. The only family link to the world of genius musicality was Gripp’s grandfather, whose wild streak included fiery performances of “La Cucaracha” on accordion. Parry picked up the bass and then guitar in high school. “I was a giant Rush fan,” he said. Nerf Herder didn’t come together until after graduation, inspired by watching Weezer play, when it struck him like a revelation that you didn’t have to be super cool to rock. From the beginning, the band performed its own stuff for default reasons. “It was a lot easier to write my own songs than it was to learn other people’s.” He still isn’t convinced he can play strongly, comparing himself to a person who can write well but has terrible penmanship. The band came together fast around its Star Wars name, replete with a nerdlinger identity: golf shirts in lieu of spandex. “We were always a Weezer-slash-Ramones rip-off,” he said. But it didn’t trouble them that much. “Someone once said Nerf Herder was like a novelty act, and I thought, ‘Why is that a bad thing?’”
They got fame early with witty songs like “Van Halen,” moving quickly from playing Alex’s in Goleta to signing with major label Arista. Right away, they drew more fanboys and -girls, pop-culture moles rather than supermodel fans. “We always thought of it as ‘I’m unable to get a date’ music,” said Gripp.
The problem? “We hated touring.” Though the shows were spirited and TV-star–studded, Gripp came to hate the standard, and the whole band soon chafed at the restrictions of a major-label contract. After paying back signing advances, artists still don’t own their own records, he explained. “It’s like borrowing money for a house. You pay it back, and at the end, the bank still owns it.”
After the band disbanded, Parry moped for a few seconds. “I figured it was all over in some ways,” he recalled. But by 2008, he began the self-imposed discipline of writing a song a week, thanks in part to the unexpected success of his solo album For Those About to Shop, We Salute You, a collection of mock-commercials that yielded the cult hit “Do You Like Waffles?” The songs sold well on his Web site, then iTunes. Later, YouTube opened up a new way of being in the music business. “‘Hamster on a Piano’ was my ‘Bridge over Troubled Water,’” he laughed. “I suddenly realized I could sell as many records on YouTube as a major label could with a $100,000 video.”
What Makes Parry Run?
“Parry’s always been interested in everything,” said Genesis West Artistic Director Maurice Lord, Gripp’s closest friend since the early 1990s. “I’ve never met a more playful mind. His intellectual curiosity seems endless.” Lord says that literally the same day he decided to start a theater company, Gripp announced the birth of Nerf Herder. “The big difference was it took me months to get going. Parry had a gig a couple of nights later.” He disagrees that Gripp had any mourning period at all between band demise and the Song of the Week’s launch. “He just started doing them. The amazing thing about Parry is that I can be hanging out at his house, and by the time I get back to my house, he’s posted a song.” One day, Lord mentioned that he got a puppy. Gripp said, “I’ll be right over,” and the next day the incredibly winning and winsome “Puppy Time” was all over the Web. “That’s my puppy in the video,” boasts Lord.
“This is exciting for me, to go outside my house,” joked Parry that morning over coffee. But it’s almost not funny. He is a busy boy. By his own admission, he writes songs fast and has gotten beyond thinking about them. He launches with a variation of the old beatnik dictum: first thought, best thought. The topics reflect this utter spontaneity, but they’re also a lot deeper than just put-ons. The brilliant “Spaghetti Cat (I Weep for You)” is more like Dadaist poetry, and “George Stephanopoulos” celebrates the diminutive newsman as much as it points to the weird phenomenon of mainstream newscasting. Last month, he was summoned to MTV to have his brain picked for a new series, but Gripp nonchalantly told me he had nothing for them. “Maybe if the cartoon channel wanted to talk to me, it would be different.”
Out for coffee, a little girl came up and showed Parry a drawing she did. I half-expected her to be an autograph seeker, a “Waffle Song” groupie. But no one in the coffee shop knew the guy who penned the number-one ringtone in America, wrote the Buffy song, or was my son’s hero. Yet, he has millions of fans, and he makes a living augmented by orchid sales. He still thinks he’s making art for the date-challenged, and he’s very clear about why he does it. “I write songs because that’s what I like doing,” he explained. “I don’t even think of it as being good or bad writing. It’s just what I like to do.”