From Nerf Herder's 90s classic, 'Van Halen' to the viral kid's hit, Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig), Parry Gripp has had one enviable — and weird — career.
If you’re between the ages of 5 and 12, you likely know Parry Gripp’s songs by heart. “Space Unicorn.” “Raining Tacos.” “Yum Yum Breakfast Burrito.” They’re devilishly catchy, they channel childhood obsessions with aerodynamic ferocity, and, because they tend to be short, they’re infinitely replayable. In other words, they’re kids’ songs. But Gripp, 52, is no Pinkfong wannabe. He’s the former frontman for Nerf Herder, the 1990s geek-rock band whose songs revolved around Gen X obsessions, from nose-ring-wearing vegetarian girls to Ghostbusters, Van Halen, and, of course, Star Wars. (The band’s name comes from Leia’s epithet for Han: “Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!”)
After Nerf Herder broke up in 2004, Gripp began exploring the nascent world of internet music, recording bizarre pre-YouTube hits like “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig),” before sidling headlong into kids’ songs and working on cartoons such as Ben 10, StoryBots, and The 7D (for which he won an Emmy). Gripp has a knack for nailing the mashup aspect of kid culture (of course Space Unicorn would shoot “marshmallow lasers”!) and stripping lyrics down to their crystalline core. The result: Songs so dumb they’re brilliant, or maybe vice-versa. In any case, the songs never try to be anything more than what they are.
Within a week of the premiere of The Mandalorian, the new Star Wars show on Disney+, Gripp had released the song and video for “Baby Yoda,” and, yes, he’d done it again. We called him up on his family’s orchid farm outside Santa Barbara, California, and tried to figure it all out.
What were you listening to as a kid?
I watched a lot of Muppets — I loved the The Muppet Show and all the music on that. I listened to Dr. Demento a lot. I would just tape his show and listen to it over and over. That was when “Weird” Al started and it was just like this great magical time for ridiculous comedy music. I heard the Ramones on there, I heard Oingo Boingo, so I guess that’s kind of where it started for me. I loved all kinds of music. I liked KISS when I was a kid. I liked the Beatles.
It sounds like you had a bent towards “fun” music, for lack of a better word?
I really did. Although I’ve liked a lot of maudlin — not maudlin but, like, introspective, navel-gazing music too. But I guess that’s how it is, right? You’re into one thing and then you’re into another thing, and you dye your hair black and you’re goth and you’re into punk or whatever.
How did you go from listening to writing music?
I think that it was just, Oh, I want to play music. I’m not a great musician—and I was a really terrible musician in high school—but it just was like… I really got into this band Rush. Do you know this band?
And it was kind of about musicianship, and I’m like, Oh, I want to do that. I started playing bass, and I could never, I still can’t play any of their songs. They’re way too complicated. Learning a Rush song’s a lot of work, but making up a song that’s just a couple of chords is sort of easier. So that’s kind of what I gravitated to.
Were the chords and the music coming first or the words coming first?
That’s a good question. One thing I try to do is work instinctually. So whatever pops into my head, I’m like, Oh, that’s there for a reason. If it’s a chord progression or some words, you just kind of go with what is tossed to you.
What was going on in your childhood with Star Wars?
For me, Star Wars was such a big deal. My mom enabled us to do whatever dumb thing we wanted to do, and seeing Star Wars was my thing. I’m sure I saw it over 30 times. We would just every weekend go wait in line—cause back then you would wait in this long line—and you’d watch the movie and you might sit through it like two or three times. It was sort of my job other than school.
Did it rule other parts of your life?
I had all the action figures. You’d get together with friends and you’d talk about Star Wars or you’d play Star Wars. It was kinda crazy. It was this whole new world. So many people were obsessed with it.
Did you have the same thing I did where after Return of the Jedi, with no prospect of new movies coming out, it was all over? Or did you maintain an active, energetic involvement throughout the 80s and into the 90s?
I definitely moved on to other stuff. Whatever you are in high school, you sort of become cool and you’re like, Oh, I’m not into that. I’m watching whatever art house movie was being shown. It wasn’t until like the late nineties when my band started. We picked the name Nerf Herder, and at that time it was a throwback to this old thing that we liked when we were kids. It wasn’t current. Now people know it’s the Star Wars thing, but when our band came out, it was more obscure. It was a niche, nerd thing, as opposed to a common thing, because every person now is a Star Wars fan.
But you were pretty prescient!
We started maybe late ’94. But within a few years, you had the whole new set of the trilogy coming out and Star Wars mania starting again. It was different. You know how it is. It was exciting to see those movies, but it was sort of a different thing.
Okay, let’s back up a second. I love this idea that you became cool in high school.
Well, I really didn’t. I thought I was cool. Oh, I’m not into that. I’m listening to Lou Reed or something. The first year of college, I’d get to get together with different people to play guitar, and I thought I was cool. Right? So I played my song for everyone, and this lady comes up and she’s like, ‘Hey, you know what? You should do music for kids. You would be perfect at it. You’re a natural.’ And I was so mad about that! I think I ran out and bought a leather jacket and some dark sunglasses. I’m like, Damn. It just really infuriated me. And years later, of course, I’m doing all this kid’s music and it’s what has really worked for me, what was kind of my natural thing to do. I’m like, Wow, that lady was right.
The even funnier part is the song that I had sung for this lady: “I Love My Kitty Cats.” Right? Of course, this is a song the kids like. What was I thinking? This isn’t a Lou Reed song.
You could say that about some Nerf Herder songs, too. There’s a directness about some of the lyrics. I mean, “I only eat candy”? Come on. Or in “Nose Ring Girl,” she’s the girl you stop eating meat for, you go down to the health food store, buy hummus, buy tabbouleh. The framing of that language is clear and direct in the way that kids tend to be.
Something I’ve tried to do in songs is to be very, very specific. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but it’s just kind of the way I naturally do it. And I think that works well with kids’ songs, too. A lot of popular songs are about some kind of vague feeling that is maybe a little poetic. And I think that just being hyper-specific — Oh, that’s hummus, that’s a waffle — that’s sort of the thing that’s worked for me.
What’s the difference between writing a Nerf Herder song and writing a Parry Gripp kids’ song?
Oh, wow. I think the Nerf Herder songs — and this is probably a reaction to that lady saying that thing about me writing kids’ songs — I think I would throw in some swearing or some adult circumstances that would make it seem, Okay, this is obviously not for kids. With kids’ stuff, you just don’t use those words. It’s probably the same feeling, it’s the same spirit, but there just isn’t swearing and there’s no, you know, references to relations between adults. I guess “Nose Ring Girl” could be a kids’ song if you just change some stuff about it.
It’s pretty close.
When I first started writing kids’ songs, I was like, Normally, if I would say beer I would just change it to nachos, and that’s why I have a lot of songs about nachos is actually everyone likes nachos.
Can you list out all of the foods you’ve done songs about?
I don’t think we have time. There’s really a lot. I don’t even remember, to be honest. I focus on certain ones a lot, like tacos, nachos, pancakes, waffles.
Have you done ramen?
No. I love ramen. It’s great. And I just ate ramen last night, so I should probably get on that.
What’s the process for doing a kid food song? How do you graft on thematic elements to turn it into an insanely catchy ditty?
I think of the word and then see what pops into my head. Because usually the food and its pronunciation will suggest a way that you should sing it and maybe a melody. I try not to have a formula about it, although if you looked at it, I’m sure everyone is exactly the same. It all started with “Do You Like Waffles?” It was 2004 or something, and I was like, I’m not going to do music anymore. Nerf Herder was over, I was just going to work at the orchid nursery. And this lady contacted me and said, ‘Hey, would you pitch a song for this advertisement for waffles?’ And the first thing I came up with was “Do You Like Waffles?” Which probably took 30 minutes to do, and they didn’t pick it for the ad, but it became really popular on the Internet. It was before YouTube. Someone made a video to it, and it was just like crazy and every kid seemed to know the song, so it was kind of inspiring to me like, Oh wow, you can like just goof off and people will like it.
What’s the process for making those now? Once you have the sound and the lyrics together, do you just go down to a basement studio?
My studio is in a shipping container. It’s right next to the orchid nursery. I’ll think of the idea, like the little hook, and I’ll sing it into my phone. I have hundreds and hundreds of these memos for different things that haven’t actually gotten made into songs yet. Then I go into my little shipping container thing, and I’ll make a beat or I’ll play the guitar or I’ll start singing, and that’s it. It’s easy.
But you’re auto-tuning your voice?
I do it the old-school way, where I slow down the song and then I sing to it and then I speed it up again. In the old days when they would do The Chipmunks, they would do it that way. That’s how you had to do it with tape. For some reason, that’s easier for me. I know there are a lot of plugins to do it and sometimes I use those, but they sound a little different.
What about the videos? Are you doing the animation, too?
If it looks super terrible, I did it, but if it looks pretty good, I had someone else do it. There are a few people that I go to and I hire them. That’s a luxury now that I can afford to pay people to do that. In the old days, it was frequently just someone doing it for free because they wanted to, for fun.
What is your least successful kids’ song?
Oh my God, so many! My most popular song is “Raining Tacos,” and when I first released it, I thought, Oh, is going to be big. But it took years, literally took three years, before it started to take off. I was disappointed at first.
One of the things that that’s done, though, is let your popularity infiltrate all of these weird little corners of the internet and children’s pop culture. So when I’m listening to Wow in the World with my kids and Mindy starts singing, “It’s raining tacos,” it’s like, What, wait, where’s this coming from? It’s like you’ve got this secret empire of pop culture domination, but the emperor is not visible.
You make that sound awfully good. I don’t know how that happened and I don’t even know whether that’s real or not. I feel like this whole thing is accidental. And first of all, I just really enjoy writing these songs. After “Do You Like Waffles?,” I really was like, Oh, this is fun to do — I don’t know what this will lead to. But I just started cranking out songs and it did lead to me getting all kinds of work. Eventually, I worked for Disney and I got to win an Emmy, which is crazy. It blows my mind that people listen to this stuff.
Do you have kids yourself?
We don’t. We have a rabbit, who you can see in some of the videos, but no kids, which makes it even weirder.
Have you ever been in a public place and heard a kid singing these songs endlessly to the joy/annoyance of their parents?
I’ve heard that, yeah. Every once in awhile, a little kid will show up at the orchid nursery, and my dad will call me, “Hey, this kid’s here. He wants to see you. They’re in town and they read on the internet that you have this orchid nursery.” So that happens like twice a year. I’m not recommending that for anyone.
What do you say to that kid?
I go, I bring them some stickers. It’s gotta be weird for everyone. I think kids probably expect to see a hamster or some different kind of person, because I’m sort of a bland-looking old man.
You should be riding a space unicorn.
It’s very disappointing.
I’ve been trying to think about how to phrase this question. I wouldn’t want to say that you’re “a child at heart,” because that sounds goofy and clichéd, but do you feel like you have a different ability to remember what it’s like being a kid than other people?
So am I an emotionally stunted man-child? I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t feel like an old person, for sure, other than physically I feel very broken down.
Maybe I’m asking that because to me, the kids’ songs are both warped and innocent. They toe that particular line between being very weird, but not too weird.
I understand what you’re saying. Where does that come from? Occasionally I’ll write something, and some parent will be like, “Hey, I don’t want my kid hearing that,” and I’ll go, Oh, I better not do that. I want them to be very wholesome and very warm. I try to put stuff in there that’s at least interesting to me, which means it’s going to be a little strange.
Do you ever run the songs by kids before you go and record them?
No, I never do that. Occasionally I’ll run them by one of the artists who do a lot of my covers, Nathan Mazur, who’s a great, great friend of mine. Or I’ll run them by my wife. But usually, I just go for it. I probably should run it by a censor or something.
No, don’t, it’s working well for you! All right, so let’s talk about “Baby Yoda.” How quickly did that come about?
I’m kind of a Star Wars poser at this point. I haven’t seen the last couple of movies, but I got Disney+ and I started watching that show [The Mandalorian] and I’m like, Wow, this show’s amazing. It’s so good. And it came to that Baby Yoda at the end of the first episode and I was just like, Oh my God, this is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. You had the Muppet thing and I was like 12 again watching that. And then people started tweeting “Baby Yoda” and referencing my “Baby Monkey” song, which was a very big song for me. (It has like 30 million views.) So, you’ve got probably 20 people tweeting me about it, and I’m like, Oh, I better do that. It probably took me like 20 minutes. And the rest is history.
I feel bad because I don’t know the “Baby Monkey” song.
That song’s from 2010. Someone sent me this video of a monkey riding on a pig, and they said, “Hey, you should make a song of this.” Because I had gotten this reputation of making songs for like “Hamster on a Piano” and “Cat Flushing the Toilet.” Those had been really big on YouTube when YouTube first started. And so I did that. And instantly, Apple contacted me and they’re like, “Hey, we want this to be song of the day or whatever.” Like okay, cool. So we sort of got a boost from that and it just was really popular. That’s why people knew when baby Yoda came out, it just kinda naturally works with the melody.
I like it that you write this song in 2010, and nine years later, the lyrics “The world has gone insane / And you don’t know what is right / You’ve got to keep on keepin’ on” have transmuted from whatever they meant in 2010 to being totally appropriate to the post-Imperial Star Wars galaxy.
I remember I was writing that song and it needed a bridge, and something was going on in the world. It was like pretty crazy for 2010 — very mild for 2019 — but in 2010 it was like some crazy thing. Some political thing or an explosion or some riot. You could probably figure out if you look at the date of the release of the song. And so the song says the world has gone insane, you don’t know what is right, get on that pig and hold on tight. Like, Hey, you got to ride through this somehow. Took this dumb video and added a little meaning to it. It does work with the Star Wars thing. I can’t explain that. Maybe the writers were fans of my song and they planned it that way.
So: What do you do when we all get to episode six or seven of The Mandalorian and along onto the screen comes… a nerf and its herder. What are you going to do?
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I was just playing it by ear. So, uh, we’ll see. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m going to plan for that.
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