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How “The Dirt Man” went viral on TikTok and inspired some wild legends

If your TikTok feed has been flooded with hilarious references to a mysterious figure known as “The Dirt Man” lately, you’re not alone. Carter Vail’s song is only 30 seconds long, but has inspired covers, jokes about wives confused by their husbands’ new bedroom habits, and practically an entire Dirt Man Extended Universe.

Gizmodo spoke to Vail, a 27-year-old musician from Los Angeles, to learn more about what it's like to have a song go viral in an era when musicians can garner millions of views on TikTok while still making relatively little financial return.

Vail told us about his favorite interpretations of “The Dirt Man,” what he thinks of the potential TikTok ban in the USA and the bands that inspired him in his youth.

If you haven’t heard “The Dirt Man” yet, you can watch it on TikTok below or watch it on Spotify.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Gizmodo: When did you realize that “The Dirt Man” had gone viral?

Vail: I guess it was about three days after I posted it. I just started getting a ton of messages asking me to post it on Spotify. And then someone recognized me in public and said, “Oh, you're the Dirt Man.” And I was like, “Okay, this is clearly one of those that's doing well.”

Gizmodo: Is this your first big hit on social media or have there been others who have had a similar breakthrough?

Vail: There have been a few that have done really well in the last four years. This is perhaps the biggest one, or perhaps the one with the longest staying power. Zane Lowe, for example, keeps playing it on his radio show, and that's never happened with my comedy songs.

Gizmodo: It's interesting to hear that you've already been publicly recognized. What kind of reaction have you gotten on social media and from people who've spotted you in the wild?

Vail: It's been positive, thankfully. People seem to really like it, which is weird because when I made it I thought this might be the dumbest thing I've ever done. But, you know, the stuff that you don't expect to work works really well. But yeah, people have loved it so far.

Gizmodo: I've seen so many covers and new videos that take on the concept of the Dirt Man as this character, are there any personal favorites that you've seen of people covering the song or doing their own version of it?

Vail: Someone has a Talkbox voice coveragewhich I thought was fun. And we did an open verse challenge so people could expand the lore. And, you know, it was a lot of fun just to see people come up with stories around it. In fact, I think that might be my favorite collaboration that anyone has done for it… someone has done a Dungeons Character sheet for the Dirt Man. And you know, that just made me laugh.

Gizmodo: That's very funny. It's obviously a tricky question, but I think a lot of people are asking it about the creator economy today. Were you able to make money with “The Dirt Man”?

Vail: [laughs] Uh… not enough. You know, the way I look at the social media side of things, especially with music, is that it's a really good lever to get better deals in the future. It's not like someone is paying me to make these funny videos, but the more people like this kind of stuff, the more likely it is that someone from a major music label will hear it and then find my other stuff. So it's more of a tool than an actual money machine.

Gizmodo: That makes sense. Do you have a day job or do you make music full-time?

Vail: I make music full-time.

Gizmodo: And how long have you been doing this?

Vail: In the last five or six years.

Gizmodo: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like TikTok has the most views you've received across different platforms. Is that correct?

Vail: Yes, I think there are almost 14 million on TikTok.

Gizmodo: And Instagram seems to be doing pretty well too. I don't know how many views there are there.

Vail: Yes, a few million… probably four or five.

Gizmodo: What do you think about the potential TikTok ban? Does it concern you at all?

Vail: I think it probably wouldn't be good for my business, but it would probably be a lot better for the time I spend on my phone. However, I think banning TikTok might be a good thing for humanity. [laughs] And you know, there are plenty of other platforms, YouTube and Instagram and all that. I'm not too worried about it.

Gizmodo: How did you get into music? What background led you to the music you play today?

Vail: I've been making music seriously for about eight years. I studied audio engineering and after school I started working as a guitar pedal maker. A lot of soldering, and I had that job for two weeks and decided I absolutely hated it. And since then I haven't had a job and I was very broke for a while. But yeah, I mean, my main focus is the serious music that's on Spotify, so… I just released a song called “Harder to kill” yesterday. And the nice thing is, you know, people come for the comedy music and a lot of them find the serious music and come to the shows and buy the merchandise and it's all good stuff.

Harder to Kill (Lyric Video) – Carter Vail

Gizmodo: Do you still make guitar pedals or was that more of a job for you?

Vail: It was a job. Before that, I had worked in a few studios as a repair technician. And because I've been out of the business for so long, I think if I tried to fix an audio device now, I'd probably really screw it up.

Gizmodo: [laughs] Do you ever participate in production or is all the work yours?

Vail: The album that's coming out now, the full record comes out on July 19th, was a collaboration with my roommate Noah Tauscher, who is also a really talented producer and songwriter. And as far as the comedy music goes, I don't know if you're familiar with it Tom Cardy, who is a different type of music comedian on the internet. We've done a few things together and this is pretty much the biggest collaboration I've done so far.

Gizmodo: How would you describe your musical style? “The Dirt Man” has been stuck in my head for… I realize it only pops into my head at random now, just because I've heard it so many times and love it. But it's hard for me to describe the style exactly, and I think you've worked successfully in many different genres, but I'm curious how you would describe your own musical style overall.

Vail: Yeah, I mean, the stuff I do for Spotify, for the real records, I would pretty definitely describe as indie rock. For the music on Instagram and TikTok, I like to go through as many genres as possible. For example, “Dirt Man” is what I would call bossa nova, but with bedroom, lo-fi production elements. But you know all those kind of songs… it's funny, it always takes like 30 minutes to write and make those kind of songs, and then, you know, inevitably it's so much better than anything else I've done. It was half humbling and frustrating and half really cool and exciting.

Gizmodo: Who do you think has influenced you the most musically, in both areas: the more humorous stuff and the more serious stuff?

Vail: I think the biggest influences I had on both sides were… I think there are a lot of musicians that do the serious and kind of funny stuff well in a really cool hybrid way. For example, there are parts of Vampire Weekend that are definitely kind of funny. They're also a very serious band, and bands like Weezer, where there's definitely some funny, silly stuff, but they're not strictly a comedy band. That being said, one of my favorite bands growing up was the Barenaked Ladies, and they did a lot of comedy stuff. And I think that was the first time I was exposed to really funny music.

Gizmodo: I read that you are planning a national tour soon. Is that still in the planning stages? Do you have any cities or dates worked out yet?

Vail: We don’t have any cities or dates for it yet, but we have a show in Los Angeles on July 17th at El Cid.

You can follow Carter Vail’s music at his website where merch is also available, and stream his work on platforms like Instagram, Youtube, Tick ​​​​TockAnd Spotify.