We chat with YouTuber extraordinaire and Nerf Herder frontman Parry Gripp about creating viral hits like “Raining Tacos”, scoring syncs, and writing music for TV.
Hi Parry, thanks so much for taking the time today. Can you tell us about your background and how you started Nerf Herder?
Nerf Herder got started in Santa Barbara. There was a good music scene here and everyone was in a band, it was just what you did. We were just goofing around and trying to play so that we could go to bars and hang out with our friends. We tried to write funny songs, and the Van Halen song took off. I guess it was a viral thing – that’s what you’d call it now. Back then it was an independent release that got picked up by major radio stations, and because of that we got signed to a major label and we were able to tour. We had five or six years of touring and making records, it was fun.
You also help to run a family business?
My family has an orchid nursery in Santa Barbara and I’ve worked there on and off. I actually lived there in the office when times were tight. After Nerf Herder ended around 2003 I went back to working there, because it’s hard making a living riding around in a van. During that time I was goofing around writing short songs and putting them on YouTube. The YouTube videos became really popular and that led to my second music career, which is doing kids songs and music for TV and stuff like that.
Nerf Herder wrote the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song, right?
We did, yeah, that’s right.
Did you ever get to meet Joss Whedon?
Yeah, he was really nice. He was really involved when they were choosing the theme song – he and the cast would come see us play in LA. He was great to work with and it was really fun for us.
With regards to your second music career, how did you go from writing fake jingles to actually doing work for brands and commercials?
I had kind of given up on music but I was putting up these YouTube videos. When Nerf Herder first ended, someone asked me to come up with some music ideas for a waffle commercial. I had never been asked to do that before, but I wrote this song called “Do You Like Waffles”. The song became a viral thing, it was really popular – it’s probably got like 20 million views on YouTube. It was originally on this thing called New Grounds, which was a flash animation site. When that song took off I was inspired to write more goofy songs like that. I didn’t really think there was a career in it or anything, but I started to write fake jingles. And that was the beginning of it. It was kind of an accident.
I think what really made me able to do this stuff was that I loved it, it was fun. I had a little website so fans could listen to the songs – I wasn’t trying to make money, it just started as a hobby. I’d do a song a week along with a YouTube video, and that allowed me to accumulate hundreds of songs that could then be potential things that people were interested in. If I hadn’t put all that work in doing all those songs then, I never would have gotten anywhere. I would always tell people, just crank stuff out and throw it on YouTube!
Did your YouTube channel success happen organically or was there some sort of strategy implemented?
It was totally organic; I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t read any tactics about trying to be popular, I just tried to make things that were funny to me. I’ve been hired a few times by people who say, “We want this to be a viral video”, and I always tell them, “You can’t make that happen. It’s just one of those things.” You basically have to do tons of them and hope that one takes off.
And they have to be good.
Yeah, but it’s hard to know what is good. If you look at Keyboard Cat, which is a classic, you might say, “This is really dumb.” When I started doing these silly little songs, peoples’ reaction would be, “This is cool, you should do a real album.” And I think if I had done that I wouldn’t have had any success at all, because that’s what everyone does.
What are the most lucrative areas of income for you? YouTube monetization? Sync?
It’s a mix. On average most of my income is from TuneCore, as a lot of people listen to my songs on Spotify or download them on iTunes. I actually make a pretty good amount of money from that. YouTube is also really good, partially because a lot of people use the songs in their videos and Content ID grabs that and then there’s an ad on there. So mainly YouTube and TuneCore – those are both good sources of income for me. And when Amazon licenses your song for an ad, that’s also a very nice chunk of change, and that occasionally happens.
How did “Raining Tacos” end up in a recent Amazon Echo commercial?
I was contacted by the advertising agency, which I think is typical. I’ve also done a bunch of ads for Hasbro for Hungry Hippos, which is funny. I was actually contacted by Hasbro for those and they had me work with their advertising company. So it can work both ways. But with the Amazon one, it was the advertising agency that contacted me.
What do you tend to enjoy more, writing your own music or doing work for hire?
Wow, that’s a good question. I guess overall I enjoy doing my songs a little more. When you’re hired to write a song there’s this initial terror where you think, oh man, I hope I can come up with something they like, because if you’re a creative person you know that you sometimes don’t. But once you’re actually working on the song, you should be having fun. Sometimes you’re in a slump or having creative trouble or something, but once you’re sitting there playing your guitar or singing, it’s always really fun.
How does it typically work when you’re commissioned to write something?
It varies. I recently did a lot of work on the Disney show The 7D, and I actually just won an Emmy for one of the songs, which is very exciting for me! In that case it was more like, “We need a song like this and then these are the lyrics.” And in some ways that’s good because you think, wow, I don’t have to think up any words, this is easy.
There’s many ways in which it works. The Hasbro thing was funny – I sent them a whole bunch of songs and they were like, “No, we want the Parry Gripp sound.” It was like, who do you think did this? But still, I think I understood what they meant. You never really know what people want, but you just try to do what you think creatively is the right thing. When you’re doing ads or you’re working for TV or something like that, you get all kinds of direction. It’s hard for people to hear that what they’ve done isn’t right or good, but because I write so many songs they don’t seem as precious to me. If someone doesn’t like the song you can’t take it personally. That’s really important I think, for doing professional work.
Yeah, absolutely. How long does it typically take you to write a song?
Well, I was doing a song a week, although I probably write a song a day. It’s funny; it can take a really long time or be really fast. The best ones are where you just wake up and the whole thing is in your head. “Do You Like Waffles”, the song that kind of started it for me, literally took 30 minutes to complete, including recording. That’s just luck though. Sometimes it takes weeks.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, I’m working on Hoagiefest again right now. I’ve also been doing these songs for a show and web comic called Axe Cop. It’s a great show. I’m friends with the creator and he has created a character called the Songster, who controls people with the songs that he writes, so I’ve been writing songs for that. It’s not released to the public yet, but there’s a pretty good song called “Tortured Past” where the Songster’s singing about his tortured past. It includes things like his Hot Pocket was not heated up enough, or he dropped his iPhone, stuff like that. It’s a pretty funny song.
Sounds good. So Nerf Herder have made a comeback in recent years – what’s the plan with that?
We did put out an album last year, and we are probably going to record another. We’re playing in San Francisco soon, and then in July we’re playing at the Troubadour in LA. We try to just play for fun – we’re all really good friends so we go camping together or play a show or make a record or something. It’s really an excuse to just hang out together.
Do you see the guys outside the band much?
I see Steve, the drummer who is one of the original members, all the time – he lives here in Santa Barbara. Linus and Ben both live in LA and I see them pretty often. We’re just buddies, it’s nice to be in a band with guys you get along with.
You’ve been in the industry for a while now – what are your thoughts on the current state of things, compared to how it was back in the 90s?
It’s really so different now. I think it’s almost impossible to do what bands did back then, just because of the way radio works and selling records – it just doesn’t work like that anymore. But at the same time, what I do now and how I make a living wouldn’t have worked back then. So in some ways it’s really good. I think being able to make a living making music and selling it directly to people, and being able to let people know about it through YouTube and social media is really good in a lot of ways. I know people don’t like streaming, but it’s actually really cool to get paid every time someone listens to your song. It would be nice to get paid more for it though, and maybe it will work out that way.
Where can we check out your projects online?
Don’t look at my Wikipedia page because it’s really inaccurate! My YouTube channel is just Parry Gripp – that’s probably the best place to see it. I have a parrygripp.com website that is sort of outdated, but has a lot of songs on it. And then you can listen to most of my songs on Spotify or Apple music. And I’ve got to plug something else too – I wrote a lot of songs for a kids show called Story Bots which is on Netflix. So that’s a good place to hear me. It’s a great show for little kids.
Thanks so much for those answers, and hopefully we can inspire the future Parry Gripps of the world to get out there and start churning out tunes!
Thank you, I appreciate it, this is fun for me. And I appreciate that you remember Nerf Herder, that’s nice.