Here is Part 3 (the final installment) of my interview with Yep Roc recording artist Todd Snider. As you may recall from my introduction to Part 1, my conversation with Todd took place in December, when I had the opportunity to observe him recording tracks for three days at the Sound Emporium in Nashville through Steve Fishell’s Music Producers Institute. Todd was self-producing a side project of songs he had written for his alter-ego band, Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs. –VA
Have you experienced a situation where things get too out of control for you and you’re uncomfortable?
Todd Snider: Like at a gig? And say I should leave right now?
Yeah, or it stops being fun or it stops being a good thing?
TS: There’s been a few times, yeah.
What is that like?
TS: You know what’s honest? When that happens, it’s fun. I played one time in some show, and I was trying to play, and some kids were just making it to where I just had to do what I had to do to have fun, too. They were going to do what they had to do to have fun, so I did, too. And I thought it worked out for everyone. And then one time I was playing a show with Robert Earl [Keen] that I don’t even know if I played, but I still had fun – it was the right show. I did a good show. I really am serious. The only time that scared me, which I don’t think it would now, we had just had someone break into our home, and when our neighbor confronted them, the person was in pretty deep mental trouble, and somehow I figured into it. And so this person, as far as we knew, was still in the world running amok. And I went up onto the stage, I think we were in Dallas, and I hadn’t seen her so I didn’t know who she was. And I walked out onstage, and as soon as I went to the microphone, this woman was standing right there. And she was saying, “You have to come with me. You have to come with me.” And I thought, oh god, is this that chick? And so I just left. And that wasn’t fun. Well, you know what, I played – I just left, and we figured that out, and she wanted me to go meet her son and she was drunk and it was a misunderstanding. But for a second, I remember thinking, this ain’t good. But then, think about that – so what? So someone comes up and they shoot you in the fucking head, you know? Then what are you going to do? I mean, you hope that doesn’t happen, but…
It seems like a lot of what you’re talking about is letting go of control, and doing what you do for yourself. And that’s interesting, because that’s what I pick up about you, that you’re doing it for yourself.
TS: I’m trying to.
Which must be hard to keep pure when you’ve got labels, and you’ve got managers, and all that other stuff.
TS: They’re all really respectful. I’ve been really lucky. There’s about 10 or 12 people, and we call our company Aimless, Inc., and everybody that’s in the team, they know. They’re just really cool with me about it. In fact, this thing we’re doing now [through the Music Producers Institute] is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But this was a real miracle that these two things converged, because it’s almost impossible to go in and do something like this in a big studio like this. I mean, we’re not taking this a whole lot less seriously than we take our recordings. The only difference is, now we would just listen to this, maybe pick a song out of there, or maybe even a lyric or a riff – that could just turn into nothing. Me and Eric [McConnell, engineer] record and record and record and record like that. And then if it feels like it’s a real track, we’ll go, hey wait a minute, that one’s going to probably be on the album. And then we’ll get Will [Kimbrough, guitarist] to play lead, or…
Do it for real.
TS: Yeah, do it for real. Not that this isn’t for real, too, because I always think different music needs different things. Like Nirvana’s Bleach record, they made it more wantonly than that, and killed with it. People liked it, and they liked it, and everybody had fun, you know? And these types of songs, we talked about it, and that was the thing. It was like, there’s no point in making music like that, if you get in there with those types of songs and try? Or care?
“Punch this in 85 times…”
TS: Yeah, or make sure every single kick and bass part are together? You’ll ruin it! It won’t sound like The Kingsmen, you know? Those were just kids. That’s what this band [Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs] is formed on. My lead guitar playing is like, if I was an 18 year old, next year l’d probably be ready to be in a band, “but I’m in one this year, and we haven’t had any gigs yet…” And everybody in this band, they want to be part of that. I was like, “Hey, what if we do this group where it’s like The Sonics or The Kingsmen, where we try to channel that? Remember when you were 20? Remember that band, how fun that was, even though we weren’t good?” And some people were like, “Why would I want to do that? How are we going to make any money doing that?” “We’re not going to make money, we’re going to have fun!” It was hard to get to where you could make these, and I don’t have to play these for anyone. Like the label, they wanted to hear them, of course, but I was like, no, I just really want to keep this fun. Even though I feel like I keep my job fun, I even have a side job that’s funner. Or not funner, but I don’t want to have to choose between photographs over these songs. I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to do anything like that. My manager, Burt [Stein], is one of my closest friends, but he knows, too. We might get drunk and listen to this, but this is I guess like if a pro football player was on a soccer team, and like, “Hey dudes, I just enjoy soccer, too – just tell the newspaper guy not to come down here.”
And you’ve got to do this stuff to get refreshed.
TS: That’s what I think it is, too. I made up these songs to blow off steam while I was making up the other ones [for The Excitement Plan]. And maybe I’ll steal a lyric from one of these songs for the next album, you know?
I think it’s really important for other musicians to find out about what the performance experience is like for people like you. People don’t really talk about that stuff too much, stuff that’s not just career-oriented, but the personal experience.
TS: Of just being a travelling performer, you mean?
Yeah, and being on stage, you know, actually doing the performing. Because so much of what you do is getting yourself so you can be in a place where you are actually doing the performing.
TS: Yeah, and especially when you do interviews, people do often really focus on all that other stuff.
“How do you become a success?”
TS: Yeah. “How’d you get there? How did you guys get there? You went on at 9, but how’d you get there?” “We rode in a car, man, from the hotel.” I tend to notice that the people that don’t give a shit about that stuff hang around, and the people that do, sometimes they make it, but when they make it they get bored and go home.
When you’re onstage and you’re in the middle of performing, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like somebody else?
TS: Hmm. That’s a good question. I guess myself. I don’t know the answer to that one. You know, that’s one of the big questions. You’ve got to know yourself to answer that, and I’m not there yet. Some people really know themselves. I’ve never been one of those people.
To have a sense of “what I am”.
TS: Yeah, I can’t even think of it like that. I’m like, oh yeah, I play, I play all the time, just hours, you know? I mostly play. I wonder when I’m most myself. My wife would probably know that, or even what that would mean. Because I didn’t grow up like some kind of gypsy singer – I just convinced myself that I was that one day when I was, like, 18. And eight hundred million miles later…
Do you feel like your sense of things, does that click or shift in a different way when you actually walk out on the stage? Some people describe it as sort of a thing that they put on, and then they take it off when they go off. Some people, it’s just a different part of their brain clicks in, like they’re shifting from first to second.
TS: Yeah, I don’t do any of that.
So it’s a pretty seamless transition for you. “I’m off the stage, and I’m on the stage, and then I’m off the stage.”
TS: Yeah. I’ll be sitting around with Elvis [road manager Dave Hixx] right up until it’s time. Usually, if my friends are there and they’re not musicians, I’ll ask them to wait until after. But if it’s a fellow musician, I’ll just sit there and we’ll chitchat. Then Elvis will come make fun of the way I look, or he kind of antagonizes me and picks on me or just tells jokes – or I guess that’s what he calls them! – and it’s pretty seamless. And I have to say, I’m always a little tipsy and a little stoned. People that have seen me in concert, they might think they know me, but they don’t know me any better than that guy that they always see at happy hour, you know? You see that guy at happy hour, so you don’t know what he’s like later tonight after dinner, or tomorrow morning when he wakes up, or when he’s at work.
But do you feel like you’re in your body?
TS: Oh yeah.
I mean, it sounds like you feel like you’re a little altered, in the sense of just getting yourself into the right place.
But do you feel like you’re grounded, you’re in your body, you’re present, you’re aware of all the things you need to be aware of?
TS: Oh sure. It happens real slow. When I was a kid, it happened real fast. And by the time I was about 20, it happened real slow. And I’ve heard a lot of people say that. When you’re young and you’re playing your first hundred or two hundred shows, your heart’s beating fast and things are happening fast. And then when you’re older, if you want to you can look out and you’re like, “Look, that guy, I wonder what he’s getting out of his pocket. Oh, his wallet – interesting. Oh, ok – going to get another drink, huh?” You can do that if you want. I don’t, but you can.
I talk to people about that when I work with them – about when you’re first learning to drive, and you’re like, “I’ve got to look through the windshield, now I’ve got to look at the rear view mirror, now I’m going to look at the side view mirror, and who’s behind me?” But when you’ve driven a while, you’re aware of everything that’s going on simultaneously. You’re not thinking about it.
TS: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Now that you’re an older person, you’re like, “Oh, look at that waterfall!” and you’re on a cliff. Yeah, you can sightsee a little better. That’s a perfect analogy – the longer you drive, the more you can look around while you’re driving, or read, or some people do all kinds of shit.
TS: Text, yeah! I wouldn’t say that that’s what I always do. You know, sometimes I’ll be up there wondering where my wife is, or whatever, but not much. It all just feels like this big rolling blur, especially the older I get. I can’t imagine how many shows it’s been by now. It all just starts to feel like one long show.
Thanks again to Todd for taking the time to have this conversation with me. I highly recommend his latest album, “The Excitement Plan”, and for those who would like to get a sense of Todd’s live shows, his record “Near Truths and Hotel Rooms” can’t be beat. I encourage you to visit your local independent record store or Todd’s online store to check out his many selections. –VA