In this podcast interview Herb Merriweather talks about his inspirations in voice over, creating characters, preparation, challenges, and why in addition to developing as a successful voice artist he also gives his time to help others.
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Transcript of conversation with Herb Merriweather
Andy: OK, just before leaving LA, we’ve come to Hollywood, California, to come and see where so many of the artsts of today and the past have been as well, and sitting here with me is a local, Herb Merriweather. Hi Herb.
Herb: How you doing, Andy?
Andy: Great to meet you. Herb, we first met on the internet a year or so ago and we’ve been in regular contact since then, and I got a bit of a shock when I met you the other day.
Herb: Was it?
Andy: Yes, it was… I expected to find a golden guy…
Herb: Misrepresentation at its best!
Andy: But I was delighted to meet you at the VOICE 2010 Conference, and it was a great opportunity to get to know you a little bit better. How did you very, very first – going way back to wherever you want to go back to – how did you first get interested in voice overs? Was it as a child?
Herb: As a kid, you know, I grew up in St Louis, Missouri, and as a kid I went ahead and watched all the cartoons I could, and we grew up coming home on school afternoons and we had a chance to watch all the old Warner Bros. Cartoons, Three Stooges, and all that kind of madness. You know the Fractured Fairy Tales. All that kind of good stuff, and being the kind of book worm kid that I was, not only did I enjoy the cartoons – you know all the manic, craziness, and all the silliness – but I also was curious about who were these people that were making the cartoons, the artists, the writers, the people who voiced them. And of course when you do research on the Warner Bros. cartoons you find out about the illustrious Mel Blanc. You know, Mel was everybody, and he was everything. And of course, you know, if you are interested in voice over at all, if you look at somebody like Mel Blanc, and you go “Holy smoke! What a tower of talent this man was”. And you know, stretching all the way from the early days of radio, all the way through until… just right up until the day he died, you know, he is practically working, and voicing characters – and memorable characters. So I patterned myself back to him as far as voice over… he is my voice over hero… And also as my acting hero, again as a young kid you watching the old movies, I watched an old movie about Lon Chaney Sr. OK? And I learned what kind of a person and actor he was. And Lon Chaney Sr came up in the silent era and what he used to do was – in that depression era – he used to come in and he would read the leader board, and find out what kind of characters they were looking for, as extras, and that, and he would come in with his make-up case and he would become that character, whatever it was. If they were looking for something Middle Eastern, he would become a Middle Eastern. If they were looking for some kind of a European thing, he would become that. He would… People would just literally sit down and watch him change from Lon Chaney Sr to whatever this character was. And to me, that was just amazing, that he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. He didn’t define himself as anything but an actor. But his versatility and range was so vast, you know, the joke in those days was, “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney”. That king of thing I take that into voice acting with me, because to me the most important compliment that I could get as a voice actor is, “Is that you?! Is that you? Is that the same… Is that you?”. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment.
Andy: So, that’s why on your website you have the golden guy? Is that right?
Herb: Yeah. The little golden guy, he’s specifically a marketing tool. He symbolises quite a bit, but he also… I also use the golden, the little golden guy on purpose as my introduction, because this is voice over. And you know, years ago, I lost a job because I wasn’t the right colour, so to speak. I wasn’t the little golden guy that they were looking for. I’ll put it that way. And so I took confidence in the fact that I… first of all I was good enough to get the job – I mean the guy almost hired me, until he took a look at me. And then secondly, I refused to let that stop me. I’m going to always go ahead and strive to be the very, very best – no matter what – and then market myself just exactly as I was: a voice actor. And when I began to do it just recently, again… because we drop out of things, we go through life, life brings about a change, you do this, do that, you do whatever pays the bills…. but when I began to… two and a half years ago, actually, I began to seriously come back to it and market myself as an honest to God, serious, full time voice actor. I had to take the act with me in the sense that I can do a lot of things, and so I’m not going to limit myself. I’m not going to put myself in a box. The box that I’m in says, “Versatile”.
Andy: OK, so you said you almost lost a job, but you didn’t lose it, because…
Herb: I lost a job. No. I lost a job. I had a telephone interview with this gentleman. He fell in love with my voice, “Oh, my God, Herb. You’re wonderful. You’re great. I’d hire you on the spot, but we’ve got a meeting tomorrow, but I can’t wait to meet you at our prescribed meeting tomorrow at the station. Great talking to you. I’ll see you at one o’clock”. And so when I showed up at five minutes to one, the next day of course, for our interview, his receptionist took one look at me and realised that I was not whatever they were looking for, and she went back into the office and stammered, and I could tell by her reaction that something was wrong, or going wrong. She went back into the office, she said she was going to let him know that I was here. And when she did, she came out by herself and she told me, you know, that he was sorry, that he had over-booked, and that he was going to give me a call when he could reschedule the appointment… And of course I never heard from him.
Andy: Well, that’s obviously – when that happens – very wrong, and very sad, and obviously the guy had a problem.
Andy: But the important thing is that that didn’t kick you down.
Herb: No. No, absolutely. As a matter of fact…
Andy: Maybe fired you up a bit?
Herb: It did fire me up! Quite a bit, as a matter of fact, because this was a major television station in St Louis, and I was just brand new, fresh, coming out of broadcasting school. So the fact that I had snagged a job… or almost snagged a job… within maybe three to four weeks of graduation, was a very, very big plus for me. It was very, very encouraging.
Andy: OK. So you came out of broadcasting school and went into radio?
Herb: Went into radio. Absolutely. Yeah. Went into radio, I started doing some radio in St Louis, did some volunteer radio as a matter of fact in St Louis area, where you do the cold reads. You know, volunteer radio information service, for the blind and handicapped. We were doing that there.
Andy: I should mention, actually, that this morning we were in the Los Angeles Radio Reading Service. Where is that based? Where were we this morning?
Herb: Charzanna, Los Angeles County. It’s in the Valley, so to speak.
Andy: So that’s obviously something very important to you. Some voluntary work that you do, and I guess it’s kind of obvious why you are doing that, because you know that you are providing a service to people it’s going to help, but what would you say to others who are thinking, “Is it a good idea? Should I do it? I want to help people, but is it going to help me with my voice over career?”.
Herb: Oh, absolutely. Yes. That’s the best practice you could possibly have. It’s the best possible practice you could have is to read. I invite all voice over people – anybody who’s interested in voice overs: read. Read aloud. Read to yourself. Read in the mirror. Read to the kids. Read to the bird. And yes, of course, if there is an organisation in your city, in your neighbourhood, where you can read for charity, or you can volunteer, and read… or tape something for blind people, handicapped people, absolutely do it! Because you don’t get anything unless you give something first. OK? Give something first. Be concerned about somebody else’s situation, and then somebody will be concerned about yours. That’s the reason why I do it. I do it because I love it. I do it because I know that somebody out there appreciates it. And it’s tremendous practice for me. It keeps me sharp. It keeps me abreast of, you know, pronunciate. All that kind of good stuff we voice over people are supposed to learn how to do. It keeps me sharp, it really does.
Andy: OK: So you’re reading to help others out. It was great to see you do so many different types of read. I think you were reading some sports news, the weather forecast, and – of course – the comic strips!
Andy: That was real fun. The whole range of comic strips, was that the LA Times?
Herb: Yeah. The LA Times.
Andy: The LA Times, and really we got to hear a good range of your – I’m sure not the full range – but a good range of your character voices. And this is perhaps one of the things which I’m more aware of, the work that you’re doing. William and I love the word “Iguana”.
Andy: It’s one of the names of one of the characters on one of his jig saw puzzles, and whenever we… whenever I see that I think of you. So, can you tell us a bit about you… the characters that you do.
Herb: Oh. OK. We have a production that’s coming up called “Vipo and Friends: Surviving Time Island”. Vipo and…. It’s actually season two of this Vipo series. Vipo is the flying dog. He…
Andy: Oh? You’re a flying dog?
Herb: Vipo is a flying dog. I am actually one of Vipo’s enemies. I am actually in the production, in the season two episode that I’m in, episodes that I’m in, I am one of the villains. There are four villains on Time Island, and am one of them: I am actually probably the nastiest, and most vocal of all of them.
Andy: Well, so long as you don’t jump off this balcony.
Herb: Exactly. I’m the Summer Iguana King. And that was a really interesting situation, because when I auditioned for that particular character, I used Pat Fraley, “Hey Pat, thanks!”… I used Pat Fraley’s technique of sending in more than one read. I sent in, actually, two different – two completely different – reads for the same character, and let them make the choice. I of course had one that I liked, one that I found it was pretty easy to do, and one that I enjoyed doing, but I didn’t want to just leave it at that, because many times you go in through a casting agency office, or casting director’s office, and you give them a read, and they say, “Well, I don’t like that one, do you have anything else?”. And if that’s the read you’ve been practising all weekend, you don’t have anything else. So, you’ve got to come in there with more than one thing set up in your mind already.
Andy: So, it’s preparation.
Herb: It’s preparation, exactly. You know, they got back to me, and they said, “This is a very, very good read. Could you do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, you know, some tweaking?”, and I sent back a second audition. And again, this was a character that I did not know what it looked like. I had no idea what it looked like. I only had the description which was that he was an iguana, mean, hot tempered, very, very bad… And then of course you have to look up “iguana”, and do some research on the animal itself. And that’s when I found out even more good stuff. He’s territorial, you know, they don’t really have vocal chords. They kind of snarl, they don’t really hiss or anything, they kind of do have a noise that they make, but it’s less of a hiss, and more like a bark! So it’s kind of a weird thing, and then you have to pull all that together and make him speak, you know, make him talk… with all those things going on. So, I sent my second audition in, and then they sent me back the magic letter, you know, “Herb, Congratulations. You are cast!” Yeah!
Andy: Fantastic, and I remember the blog article you wrote about that. It was very exciting. I’ll give the details of your blog on the notes which come along with this podcast, so I’ll post those details.
Andy: But… Well, when I get back home I’m going to be able to say to everybody that I spent my last lunchtime in Los Angeles in Hollywood, with a Hollywood star…
Herb: Oh, please!
Andy: No. No. No. Another of your characters is actually recorded at a local studio here in Hollywood. Isn’t it?
Herb: Yes. It is. Huckleberry. And that’s an ad campaign for a restaurant chain up in Central California. Actually – and this is about social networking, I’m going to say this, because I’ve blogged about this and for those folks who had a chance to read the blog… if you didn’t have a chance to read the blog, I’ll make it brief. Another friend of ours, voice acting friend of ours, Ralph Hass, who’s based up in Canada.
Andy: He “has the voice”.
Herb: … he sent me – he “has the voice”, you’re right. Ralph Hass sent me this particular… he forwarded this particular audition to me. And he said, “Herb, I’m not very good with cajun type characters, but I understand that you are working on some Cajun type characters. Can you… would you like to audition for this role? And I thought to myself, “Holy smoke! What a principled gentleman”. You know, first of all he’s man enough to say “I can’t do it”, and secondly he’s cool enough to say, “but I think I know who can”. So he sent this along to me, and I auditioned for the producer, and before I knew it I’m getting the job, too. And as Huckleberry I get the chance to be, again, once again, a Cajun. A Cajun flavour. But the situation is that he’s the restaurant owner, and he loves everybody. He’s cooking for everybody. Want everybody to come on into the kitchen, “Now, come on in here and get something to eat”. You know. It’s that kind of a thing, so it’s again a lot of fun to do. And it’s a blessing, because it’s an ad campaign, so people come back, and they want us to do it again. So it’s a lot of fun.
Andy: That’s great. And of course you’re doing other types of reads as well, you’re doing a cross section.
Herb: Absolutely. I love animation. Who wouldn’t? Animation is the sand box of voice over. We go out there and we play! But I also do documentaries. I’ve done medical documentaries. I do serious voice over characters. I’ve done a movie voice over, complete with production, where I was the pilot of a plane that was about to crash. Had to do that one. So that came out pretty well.
Andy: Ouch! Much safer crashing the plane in the studio…
Herb: In the studio! Yeah!
Andy: In the sound studio much safer to crash, yes.
Herb: Less flames, and less drama. It’s good! It’s a good thing. So I do all kinds of different stuff. I work in production, because sometimes people need you to do, they need you to produce, and you can just smooth out, they need you to work on whatever it is you are doing. They need something that’s ready. So, I keep myself ready to do that. You have to be ready to produce. You have to be ready to be kind of all things to all people. And if you can’t – if there’s something that you can’t do in voice over – then pass that thing along to a friend, somebody that you know can handle it. Somebody that you know can handle it. Somebody that you know may have the equipment, they’ve got the wherewithal, they’ve got the personality. Give it to them. And it will come back to you.
Andy: Well, Herb. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been lovely to have lunch with you.
Herb: And it’s been lovely to have lunch with you, as well, sir.
Andy: Now I think we should go downstairs, and I think you should show me your star, just outside the Chinese Theatre.
Herb: I surely will! Yes. I sure will.
Andy: We’ll just go take a picture, then we’ll…
Herb: Get a photo of it!.
Andy: And I’ll put that on the blog.
Andy: OK. Thanks, mate. Thank you.
Herb: Bless you, man. Thank you.
About Herb Merriweather
Herb Merriweather is a voice talent based in California who has a future so bright that he has to wear shades. Herb grew up in a musical family and counts his experiences in choral ensembles, bands and gospel music as having played in integral role in the shaping of his signature style, citing his sister, Gospel singer Rosalind Graham, as a major influence, inspiration and encouragement. After attending a Baptist seminary for some time, Herb realized that God’s call on his life was not only to speak the truth of His word but to do so in a way that would use his vocal gifts the world over through broadcast radio and via the audio medium as a voice actor. Herb has worked with many amazing people over his career including the great Ruth Dickerson, a Gospel music historian and radio personality. Herb Merriweather continues to build meaningful relationships with those in his community and seeks out opportunities to be a voice in the wilderness.