Billy Mays III sits cross-legged in his home studio, a Gibson balanced on his knee, and a wiry network of flashing gizmos spread across the carpet. The audience has caught him in his natural state — blissed out, wandering through an ethereal, amniotic groove. He streams out these improvised performances every week on his Twitch channel, but unlike the screaming gamers who dominate the platform, Mays III remains almost entirely wordless on camera. He strums a palm-muted chord halfway down the neck, introducing a sleepy, motorik rhythm to the undertow, before slipping toward an icy, David Gilmour riff. The loops coalesce — like loose threads magically spindling into a crescendo — and a smile jumps across Mays III’s face. He weaves the bass back in to punctuate the downbeat; there’s no euphoria quite like crushing your mix.
Mays III, as you’ve probably gathered by now, is the son of the late, great infomercial icon Billy Mays. Mays was ubiquitous in the mid-2000s when cable TV still dominated American airwaves. You’d catch him most often in that limbic witching hour, where the only people awake were tweakers, gamers and graveyard shifters. The TNT signal would switch from South Park reruns to a brightly-lit kitchen, where Mays would demonstrate the utopian potential of a very impractical gadget. The doodads were endless and legion. I have watched Billy Mays fry five burgers at once with the Big City Slider Station, mount shelves to walls with dollops of Mighty Putty and obliterate wine stains with a squirt bottle full of OxiClean. He had a knack for innervating the customer’s nuclear id. You’re cross-eyed and kooky at 2 a.m., and now you’re spending three easy payments of $19.99. That was Billy Mays’ lasting legacy — he was a man that nobody knew, but everyone trusted.
Mays died suddenly in 2009 due to heart disease, right as the sun was setting on the QVC-style marketing apparatus he helped pioneer. No merchant, before or since, was capable of filling the void. The younger Mays was only 22 when his father passed, and he briefly considered taking up the hallowed pitchman mantle. The idea was to film a tongue-in-cheek sketch where Mays III muscled through a Rocky-esque montage — sharpening his diction, loquacity and gesticulation skills until he earned the right to don those blue button-ups and khakis. But predictably, some swampy business maneuvers froze him out of the organization.
“OxiClean never let me sell the idea to them. They didn’t want to talk to me. They gave money to my father’s estate so we couldn’t say anything. It was really weird,” he tells me. “It’s that boardroom bubble. They’re thinking about investors. They’re only hearing certain voices in the room. They think they’re playing it safe.”
And so, Mays III embarked on a different performance tradition, a million miles removed from the home-improvement peddling that originally wreathed his last name. He has published 24 different recordings on Bandcamp, all under his stage name, “Infinite Third.” Like his weekly Twitch performances, Mays III music is typically pensive and greyscale — awash with twinkling synths, electronic drums and his trusty ability to shred on command. He explains that he started making music in high school and grew up on classic, canonical metal, before exploring the elliptical outer reaches of what it means to be “heavy.” Mays III says his favorite band of all time is the legendary Scottish post-rock outfit Mogwai, and that he also took notes from the twilight Texan symphonies of Explosions in the Sky. That DNA seeped deep into the Infinite Third catalogue. Mays III’s music trades in elemental human emotion — the stuff that can only be articulated through raw noise.
His father wasn’t much of a record snob. “He liked REO Speedwagon and was way into that band Snow Patrol,” laughs Mays III. “He loved that ‘Chasing Cars’ song. We actually put it in a memorial for him.” The patriarch was also completely alienated by most of his son’s musical output. To the surprise of no one, Billy Mays simply didn’t get metal, as pitchmen don’t traditionally trade in drop-D tuning. But Mays III says his dad did come to appreciate some of his subtler work. He recalls a moment where he played him a few skeletal electronic beats — the sort of stuff that Mays III would eventually flesh out into a career.
For the first time in his life, Billy Mays accepted that he was raising an artist. “He was blown away. He was like, ‘Oh, you actually make music?’” says Mays III. “I don’t think he would’ve foresaw me becoming a full-time musician. But in the very last email I received from him, he acknowledged that I was playing a show in Ohio. He was like, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That was awesome.”
So perhaps it makes sense that Infinite Third, as a project, is best understood through the prism of grief. Two years after he graduated college, Mays III lost all of his possessions in an apartment fire. “I had my phone, my keys, my wallet and the clothes I was wearing,” he remembers. The tragedy forced Mays III to reset his musical aspirations, starting over with nothing more than a guitar and an amp. It firmly severed him from the facile creative instincts of his adolescent years. “It was the first time in my life where I was making music that connected with my emotional state,” he explains.
A few months later, Mays III awoke to several missed phone calls from his mother. His dad went to bed on June 27, 2009, two days before a scheduled hip replacement surgery, and he never woke up. Mays III stopped making music in the aftermath. That’s one of the ugly surprises about bereavement; they warn you about the terror and loss, but nobody ever tells you just how goddamn exhausting mourning can be. By winter, after he regained the ability to function, Mays III put himself back together the only way he knew how. Gently, his debut album, was released in the shadow of the anguish. He dumped all of his pain into the record, alongside a faint glimmer of absolution. “That was my therapy process for that crazy year,” he says.
Gently is nine tracks long, and there’s a brief inscription that still rests at the bottom of its Bandcamp page. “[Gently] was written, recorded and released during what could be called quite a tumultuous time in my life,” it reads. “It has touched many lives beyond what I could ever have intended for it.”
Eleven years later, Mays III remains a professional musician. The pandemic hit him hard — money is scarce when venues around the country are shuttered — but he squeezed by, and says he’s “just now” recovering financially. (He hopes to be on the road by 2022, and the Twitch performances served as a nice stopgap.) As for the strange afterlife of his father — how this iconic costermonger has been immortalized through a morass of memes and patois, and the weight that lays on the chief inheritor of such a curious endowment — Mays III tells me, “It took years and years of me going back and forth between, ‘Am I Billy Mays son? Or am I doing my own thing?’ And honestly, it always has to be both.”
For further explanation, he launches into a story. When he was a kid, long before Billy Mays ascended into commercial godhood, his dad would bring him along to the trade shows where he’d hawk products. There was no glamour here, no fame. Mays would lay out the same spiel he’d later perform on television for bemused marks, while Mays III played with X-Men toys or wrestling figures underneath the curtained table. The two would then return to a hotel room, where Mays would pack up shop and prepare for the next city. Decades later, as Mays III was living the life of a touring musician, he had a startling epiphany.
“I was playing these basement shows and selling my records, and doing the exact same thing my dad was doing. Mentally, I’ve accepted that I’m a pitchman,” he says. “There’s these photos of my dad in the early days of OxiClean. He looks young, probably in his late 30s. He’s got a blue shirt on, but it’s a darker blue and long-sleeved. That photo is special to me. That was his version of a basement show.”
Countless artists are beaten down by the financial realities of the music industry. It can be soul-killing to finish up a 45 minute set, retreat to the merch booth and hope to move enough T-shirts and LPs to cover gas money. Unless, of course, Billy Mays is your father. In that case, the grind becomes honorary. The son of a pitchman will sculpt wondrous monoliths of sound. It can be yours, for only $19.99.