CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Todd Snider (Part 1 of 3)

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Snider

[Photo Credit: Senor McGuire]

I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Yep Roc recording artist Todd Snider.  As regular readers of my blog know, I have long been an enthusiastic Todd Snider fan, and I often encourage my clients to take any opportunity to catch one of his shows because he is a master of live performance.  So when I had a chance to observe him recording tracks for three days at the Sound Emporium in Nashville through Steve Fishell’s Music Producers Institute, I jumped at it.  Todd was self-producing a side project of songs he has written for his alter-ego band, Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to talk with me about how he experiences performing.  This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  –VA

I really like what you do onstage.   It feels like you create this zone around yourself, where you get to be whatever you want to be, and you’re in charge of that, and the audience is giving you something, and there’s an energy that seems to be flowing back and forth.

Todd Snider:  Between us?

Yeah.  Do you experience that?

TS:  Well, I definitely think that there is a genuine passing of energy, and you can tell it’s different in different times.  In fact, when we would play those shows when we would open for Jimmy Buffett, it almost felt like it was electrical.  You could have a doctor go, “Yeah, they just shot you with a lot of energy, and you probably won’t sleep now for a while, because all that shit just came at you.”  And I remember one time on one of those tours, Jimmy said, “Don’t do this, but watch what happens if you look up into the big black part of the arena for too long.”  And it was weird, because you were exhausted, and it took like 20 seconds before you were just, like, “I have to sit down, I’m out of breath.”  I don’t know what that is because I’ve only done it about 10 times, but he’s learned to do it every night.

You play festivals, and then you play more intimate venues…

TS:  Oh, yeah.

All things being equal, what’s your favorite thing to do, between those?

TS:  My thought on gigs, and the thing that helps me the most, is I don’t separate them at all.  When I’m in the dressing room and someone says, “That was good tonight,” that goes in one ear and out the other to me.  I play all the time, and I don’t think of it.  People don’t believe me when I say that, but I really enjoy all the shows, because they’re not different to me, one night to the next.  Thursday night to Friday night, someone could go, “I went to both shows.  Friday they were really quiet.  Thursday they yelled requests the whole night.”  And I’d be, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  I don’t think about it like that.  I feel like my job is to just sort of open my heart.  And that part of it gets easier.

What is the experience of being on the stage like for you?  What does it feel like?

TS:  I tried to surf two or three times, and to me, it’s like that.  You’re getting exercise and you don’t realize you’re getting exercise.  You don’t want to stop.  It’s not like jogging, where you’re like, “I’m tired.”  It’s like, if you go too long, you’ll fall, and someone will go, “Well, you did that too long!”  And it’s also why people might jog or meditate or do those kinds of things – knit – you know, people who do stuff like that.  Or some people just get high, you know, some people want to smoke crack.  But mostly it’s like, well, you know what it is?  I’ll tell you exactly what it is.  It’s a 90-minute distraction from our impending death.  That is all that it is.  And for some reason, the awful truth of that makes it very easy.

What does the distraction feel like?

TS:  You know, you’re just singing and playing, and then there’s cheering, and we laugh, and sometimes it might get a little heavy.  I don’t mind singing some songs where maybe somebody will cry, or some part of it maybe will remind them of their dad or something.  I think that’s still fun.  You’re still having fun when that happens.  But in my experience, it’s just like letting go.  You know, there’s a plan, I make a plan, and it’s a thought-out thing.  I’ll make a plan for the show, and then I’ll drink about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and that keeps the plan from being a plan, you know?  And then that’s out the window, but that’s still sort of there.  And that’s pretty much every night.  I wouldn’t even say I’m drunk.  I just drink about a half a bottle of wine, and get like people get when they come home from work and they have three drinks and then they watch TV.  Because usually when you play, that’s the end of the workday.  You know what I mean?  You’ve done all this shit – you’ve travelled, you’ve sound-checked, you’ve loaded, you’ve gone to the hotel, you went to radio.  And now you’re in the dressing room and you get to sit for an hour and just relax, and then go on.  And that’s the funnest part.

What is the difference for you, getting through the gig, if you’re by yourself or if you have sidemen with you?

TS:  It’s pretty much the same.  Physically, it’s maybe a little harder to do with a band.  You’ll realize if you’ve been smoking too much.  I usually walk real far every day so I don’t get too out of shape, but sometimes if you’re playing in a band, you’ll feel like you’re getting old.  You can tell.

How so?

TS:  Your knees, or your lungs, or the guitar will get heavy on your shoulder because you’re playing harder and louder.  And then the nature of a band show is a little different.  But not too different.  For the most part, it’s the same trip.  And I have all kinds of different bands I play with, so it’s different every time I play with somebody.  This new band I’m playing with is my favorite, and that’s very relaxing for me.  There’s a guy named Vince Herman [of Leftover Salmon and Great American Taxi], and he made the set lists last weekend, and they were great, and I would never have made them like that myself.  So I like the idea of playing with them, and getting him to make the set lists, and it’s a challenge for me.

One thing I’ve noticed when you get your applause at the end of a song, you seem to really take the time to enjoy that moment, you know?

TS:  I’m a slut for it!

You just let it come in, and a lot of performers can’t do that.  They’re thinking, “OK, what’s next?”  But you, you’re really in that moment, and you’re going, “I really like this.  This is great.”  Are you conscious of feeling that way?

TS:  I like clapping.  I really do.  It’s a nice thing to be clapped for, and I like it.  I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.  You say that, and I’m like, oh cool, that’s interesting, I never thought of it like that.  I do like it when people cheer for me, though.

And your fans, they can get pretty vocal, they can get pretty involved in the show.

TS:  Yeah.

They’re singing along, and all that kind of stuff.  And I assume that’s a good thing for you.

 

TS:  Sure!  My thing with the crowd is, I want them to do whatever they want to do.  And I don’t want to control them in any way, man.

Not like you could!

TS:  Yeah, right?  You can’t.  They gave me 18 bucks, probably, and they owe me nothing.

Is there anything about your performance, or yourself as a performer, that you wish you could improve or that you’re conscious of wanting to change?

TS:  Hmm, let’s see.  Well, yeah, definitely.  Although I don’t see myself as ever being a lead guitar player outside of something like this [side project via Music Producers Institute], and even though I can’t play lead guitar and I won’t ever be able to play lead guitar for somebody that had a real job in music, I can play it in this little side band [Elmo Buzz and the East Side Bulldogs], and it’s fun to work on and fun to try to get better at.  I’ve been playing the piano, and I’d like to get better at that.  I’m going to try to take some time off of making up songs and just maybe study it with other people for a while, maybe take a long, long time off of making albums and work on my guitar playing and my musicianship.  There’s a kind of harmonica playing that I don’t know how to play that I am just too lazy to get around to.  And I know that I should do it, and the best people that do it have offered me lessons, and I’m just being lazy, and I need to do that and learn how to play that style,

And it might open up different kinds of songwriting for you, too.

TS:  Sure.  For sure it would.  It’s this Donnie Brooks style, or [Greg] “Fingers” Taylor style.  I just do Neil Young/straight harp and blues harp.  Those are the two simple ways.  And then the hardest way, I’ve never really fucked with.

Can you take time off from writing songs, or do they just come out of you anyway?

TS:  It’s hard.  I mean, I try.  If I get an idea I’ll try – and John Prine taught me to do that – if I think of something that might be a song, I’ll just try to get in the car and try to go someplace else, and try to get away.  This last record that I did [The Excitement Plan, produced by Don Was], or not just this record but the last three records, I worked really hard on making up songs.  Tons of edits of every song.  And while I was doing it I would be making up these songs [for the Elmo Buzz side project], which were just very irreverent and fun, and I would be, like, I want the words to be “baby baby baby”.  I don’t know why I was doing that, almost as a way to give a middle finger to something.  Just a way to not give too much reverence – I don’t think songwriting’s important.  So anyway, now I think I’m going to be done for a while.  I thought that last record we made was probably my favorite one, and I kind of feel like what I was trying to do…

…that it came through, what you were aiming for?

TS:  Yeah, I finally figured out this little trick that I wanted to figure out.  I don’t think anybody gave a fuck, it doesn’t matter to me.   I was trying to do this thing, and it felt like, ok now, that’s it, now I want to play lead.

What were you trying to do that finally came through?

TS:  I’m trying to make up a song that I like to think is “my” song.  Sometimes I’ll do a funny song; sometimes I’ll do songs that I think are very, well, I hate the phrase “serious songs”, because I think cancer is serious and I think divorce is serious.  I think songs, even the saddest ones, are fun.  There’s a song like “Thin Wild Mercury” or “Alcohol and Pills” that we’ll do, or “This Land is Our Land”, and that’s probably what I call the normal song, the normal Americana song, where the music sort of hints at a seriousness.  And then the words come along, and maybe they sound like they’re sort of important, but maybe if you really looked at them real closely, they’re not as important as they sort of want to sing themselves to be.  I’m not knocking those types of songs, I’m just saying, like, there’s a song called “Doll Face” that’s on our album, and I think it’s really sad on a ton of levels, but you have to listen to the song a lot of times to hear that, and it doesn’t present itself like that.  And it took me a long time to figure out that my songs that I like are the ones that I just like to think that there’s a lot of different types of things that are happening in the song, where you can listen to it and laugh, you can listen to it and not laugh.  To me, it’s always like, a sad song with a couple of punch lines and a “Rocky” line.  And I’ve always kind of hinted around at making up a song like that, and I finally just was like, that’s my song that I make up, I like that song, and I don’t hear anybody else making up that song.

Are you thinking about that when you’re tracking it?  Are you thinking about all those layers when you’re doing your vocal performance?

TS:  Oh yeah.  And it’ll take, like, two years to make up the song.  And I like them when they’re kind of, I almost want to say they’re happy-sounding.  And it reminds me of my favorite types of jam bands, like Phish and the Grateful Dead.  They just sound happy, and you don’t even know why.  I listen to what they’re saying really closely.  Or take some of the lines in the songs on the new record that make people laugh out loud when I say them, and then just read them, and they’re like, “Oh god, that’s not funny.”  Especially if the person saying it is being sincere.  “Oh, Jesus Christ, that’s so fucking sad I have to laugh out loud!”

I often think that there’s an element of joy that goes into the creation of the music that makes that “happy” thing happen, where the people who are doing it are in a kind of joyful place.

TS:  Right.

They’re channeling that great thing.

TS:  I’m trying to.  I’m trying to be part of something positive, or something that’s nice.   I know that one thing, I do feel like I have peers and I don’t want to do, is sort of hope for my own pain, so that I can trot it out there very flamboyantly with this look on my face of just anger and disgust, and like, [singing mock-ponderously] “Muuuusic is this seeeeerious thiiiiing, and youuuuu would not belieeeeeeeve my paaaaaaaain!  Shhhhh!  I’m in paaaaaaain!”  And then to say, “Not only am I going to create trouble for myself, but I’m going to whine about it in a very sad way, and then expect you to adulate me for that, and shut up while I’m doing it, and then adulate me a lot at the end of it, because I’ve been through a lot of pain.  Shhhhh!”  And we’ve all been through a fucking ton-load of pain!  But we came here, it’s 9:00, and we gave you money.  We just got out of our pain and came in here.  And so I would like to honor that.  I’m not saying I’m not sharing my pain.  In fact, I think I’m sharing every inch of it.

To be continued…