Who is the Hoagieman? PW tracks down the voice behind Wawa’s jangly jingles.
Forget Will Smith’s “Summertime.” The real soundtrack to Philadelphia summers these past two years has had more to do with fresh rolls than the Fresh Prince.
Anyone who has watched the Phillies play on TV, spent some time with commercial radio, or visited a local Wawa can likely sing along to Wawa’s infectious, ’60s-inspired hoagie jingles, part of the convenience store’s ubiquitous Hoagiefest campaign.
So when Wawa rolled out their new line of breakfast hoagies this winter and needed a theme song (the groovy “Start Your Day on a Roll”), they wisely turned to the power-pop genius who first told the tale of the Hoagieman and his flying hoagie balloon—part-time rock star Parry Gripp.
While the lead singer of ’90s geek-rock band Nerf Herder, which enjoyed a moderate hit in 1997 with the cheeky “Van Halen,” Gripp was approached by the licensing department at the band’s record label to write a jingle for a waffles ad. The result, “Do You Like Waffles?,” was ultimately turned down, but served as a moment of syrupy enlightenment for the disillusioned music-biz veteran.
“It turned out to be really life-changing for me,” says the 42-year-old Gripp from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he also works on his family’s orchid farm. “All these years I’d been struggling writing songs for Nerf Herder, which was kind of difficult to do, and here was this fun thing that I banged out in a weekend. It was really satisfying.”
As luck would have it, “Do You Like Waffles?” and its accompanying animated video (it has notched more than 3.6 million views to date on YouTube) crossed the desk of the marketing agency working with Wawa on Hoagiefest 2008.
And the rest is built-to-order history.
“They originally asked me for just one song for the Web site,” Gripp recalls. “It was really exciting for me because I love singing about food. It’s kind of my shtick. And Nerf Herder used to tour with the Bloodhound Gang, who are from the Philadelphia area and were always talking about Wawa. Wawa had kind of this mythical quality in my mind.”
Inspired, Gripp submitted not one but four songs, and the company chose to use three, including “Come on Down to the Wawa Hoagiefest,” a march that, like much of the Gripp hoagie canon, owes a debt to the Beatles.
“They said they wanted [the songs] to be ‘Beatles sounding,’” says Gripp, who reveals that he was actually inspired more by a fab faux than the Fab Four. “I thought maybe I should listen to [1970s Beatles parody band] the Rutles. I thought I probably couldn’t sound like the Beatles, but maybe I could sound like the Rutles!”
Driven by Gripp’s psychedelic, Sgt. Pepper -like songs—and those discount Wawa Shorti prices—the campaign was a success, ensuring Hoagiefest 2009 and paving the way for the surprisingly delicious breakfast hoagies (eggs on a cheesesteak? Who knew!).
“They were pretty happy with it in 2008 and asked me to do it again. It was a bigger deal [in 2009] and not just background music. It was going to be used on TV,” Gripp says, amazed that residents of the Delaware Valley are watching commercials featuring his songs. “Here in California, hardly anyone knows what Wawa even is. I know these ads are going on, but it’s weird to me that people are actually seeing them.”
For his part, Gripp is hoping there’s a Hoagiefest again this summer—he says he already has some ideas in the oven should he get the call. “I hope I get to do it again, because my dream is to have a record of 10 or 12 hoagie songs. It’d be a full record you could listen to.”
In the meantime, fans of Gripp’s eccentric food tunes can get their fill on parrygripp.com, a repository for the songwriter’s wild and often lightning-quick ditties. All available for download (via iTunes, Amazon, or even for a choose-your-own donation), the songs sing the praises of such varied subjects as the iPad, jungle animals, Randy Quaid and nachos. At least five compositions mention Mexican food.
“I try to post a song a week. It’s turned out to be like exercising. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you start doing it, it becomes your routine and is very helpful. I sell quite a few of the songs,” he says. “I think I’ve made more money from selling ‘Do You Like Waffles?’ on iTunes than I would have made from the advertising.” The breakout song also appears on Gripp’s two CDs of jingles, the 51-track For Those About to Shop , We Salute You and its follow-up, also titled Do You Like Waffles?
But despite all his song-for-hire success— he recently recorded the theme to Cartoon Networks’ Super Hero Squad —Gripp has no plans to disband Nerf Herder. “We haven’t broken up, but it’s not practical for us to tour. It’s very hard to be a band nowadays and make money. It’s not very lucrative when we’re old,” he says.
Still, the band can look back fondly on its heyday. Along with “Van Halen,” Nerf Herder scored with the equally goofy “Mr. Spock,” provided the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and toured the country, including multiple stops in Philadelphia.
“Philly is a great town. We played the Trocadero, the North Star and the Electric Factory. It’s all kind of a blur, but I remember the Trocadero being very fancy inside,” he says, before recalling the quick fall of his band.
“It’s amazing to me how fast it was over. In a couple of months, we got signed, did the Buffy thing, were on MTV, and then pretty quickly the record company [said], ‘OK, this isn’t going to happen.’ They don’t give you a lot of time and that’s one of the problems that has wrecked the music industry.”
Fortunately, Gripp doesn’t require the services of the music biz to satisfy his jingle jones.
“People say to me, ‘It’s great that you’re doing this advertising stuff, so you can pay for music you really want to do.’ But that’s totally wrong, because this is exactly the kind of music I want to do.”
And Wawa hoagie-heads are grateful he’s on a roll, even if—oh, the humanity!—the Hoagieman has never bitten into a Shorti himself.
“I’ve been to a Wawa on tour, but I’ve never had one of their hoagies,” Gripp admits. “I’m imagining what it must be like.”
Lucky for us, we don’t have to think too hard. ■
PW's Music Issue 2014