Interview by Tom Finkel
When it comes to generating new material and grinding out a grueling tour schedule, Bob Schneider could be considered the Energizer Bunny of rock & roll, were it not for the fact that the Energizer Bunny tends not to testify about his passion for productivity with tuneful declarations along the lines of:
All I wanna do is rock this motherfucker all night long, y'all
Nonstop until the crack of dawn, y'all
Ass-knockin' till we can't go on
Stop over with the goodies and get it on
Without a doubt, a sizable contingent among the Bob Schneider devotees who assemble at tomorrow night's L.A. tour stop at the Troubadour will be hollering for the Austin-based rocker to lead them in time-tested ritual sing-alongs of “Tarantula,” “Bombananza” and, yes, “The Assknocker.” And their beloved Bob and his band will likely oblige.
He'll also draw on the full range of ammo jam-packed in his arsenal, from hooky pop numbers that you've never heard before but suddenly realize you know by heart after he's sung them to you to ragers that will sear your ears to just-plain-true songcraft that sticks to your ribs right where you thought your heart was. And, if you behave your bad self, some fresh cuts from his new CD, A Perfect Day, released April 19.
Our sister blog, St. Louis' A to Z, caught up with Bob early this year, and he spoke about writing songs, wrangling miscreant audience members, divorcing and daddying.
How's the new disc doing?
Great! I say that but I have no idea. People ask me that all the time, and I usually say I have no idea. But now I've decided to change that to just, “Oh, fantastic! Much better than we thought.” Which still tells you nothing, but it sounds good.
Do you map out a setlist for shows in advance?
No, I just call 'em out as I feel 'em.
You get requests from audience members, and I know you require those to be written on a hundred dollar bill, but you often lower your demand to just somebody shouting something out. Do you like to interact with the audience that way?
Well, you know, sometimes somebody will yell something out and I'll go, That's a good idea, but if they yell it out and I don't think it's a good idea, I'm not gonna play it. Granted, if somebody does send in a request on government paper, then depending on the denomination it's gonna get more careful consideration from me. If it's a hundred-dollar bill, I usually stop whatever song I'm playing and just go right into that — whether I know the song or not.
How often has that happened — the actual hundred?
Not all the time, but it happens more often than you think. But if somebody just takes the time to write it down and puts it onstage where I can see it — just the fact that they've taken that much effort, I'll usually play it.
The worst thing for me is when I go see a band and they don't play the song I really want to hear. I remember seeing the Stones in 1981. And all I really wanted to hear was that song “Angie.” And they never played it, and I was just, like, Fuck! I really wanted to hear that song! So it's kind of stuck with me. I really do want to please the audience, I want to give them what they want. But at the same time, I have to try to have a good time. Because if I'm having a horrible time and just going through the motions, they're gonna figure that out.
It seems like because of the request thing and the broad range of your music, you have a lot of people to please in a lot of different ways. There's a potential there for a dynamic that doesn't work — I've heard you directing that somebody be given their money back because they're not fitting in with the mood you want to set.
Well, you know, the vibe is, “Shut the fuck up and listen to the music, or dance, or do whatever you're gonna do.” When you go see a movie, people are quiet, and they don't talk on their phones. If they did, they would be beaten to death by other people in the theater. But it doesn't fucking matter: Your phone can ring all day long, or you can scream at the screen — but it doesn't change the movie. But when you do that in a live setting, you're affecting the performer, sometimes to an extreme degree.
When I'm with the band I'm like, “Fuck it, we'll just blow over anybody with volume.” But if I'm playing solo and somebody's doing that, after a while I'll lay into them by humiliating them in front of everybody. If that doesn't work, I'm like, “Hey, can you please be quiet?” And if that doesn't work, I'm like, “Hey, you need to go get your money back and get the fuck out of here.”
Seems to me you're pretty savvy about how to take the audience places, how we're all on the bus together and there's got to be a few rules.
Here's the deal: Your life is hard. You work at a job that you may or may not enjoy. Either way, life's tough. So I consider what I do a form of escape. And part of that is to be entertaining, not be boring, maybe move you emotionally — either by playing sad songs or fun songs or angry songs, songs you can relate to so you don't feel so alone in the universe, blah, blah, blah, blah. But for me to do that, you gotta listen.
That sounds like a reasonable trade-off.
Having said that, one of the worst rooms in the country is Blueberry Hill! [The Duck Room] is one of the loudest, most boisterous rooms in the country. And because of that, I do a certain kind of set there when I'm with the band, that's kinda raucous and fuck it.
One of the few times I was gonna kick somebody out was playing solo at Blueberry Hill. I'd finally got the audience to quiet down, started playing a song and some guy at a table right up front just started talking. I stopped and went over to him and took a twenty-dollar bill out of my pocket and shoved it in his face and was like, “Get the fuck out of this club.” And then he almost started crying. He was like, “Oh please let me stay here, 'cause my friend's gonna get married and he's gonna propose to his girlfriend.” And I was like, “If I see you utter another word while I'm performing, you're out of here.” And not a song later, I looked over and the motherfucker's just “blah, blah, blah.'” But at that point, I felt so bad that it had affected me so much.
Do you think it's something about the crowd? Or do you think it's that, um, dank, dark, low-ceilinged environment?
Well, it's a loud room. It's all stone in there; all the sound is just amplified, the noise floor of people just milling about is high. And then when you add people talking — it's loud.
I know there are certain things I can do to bring it down a little bit. But it's a hard room. We call it a tough old whore, Blueberry Hill: “That's a tough old whore right there!” It's got nothing to do with the people. They're very passionate. They'll come see me play every single time, I can play whatever I want to play, they'll listen to it, they'll check it out, they'll keep coming back, they'll buy merch, they'll buy the new record, they'll buy the live CD….
But they're drunk and they're having a good time and they're partying and they're talking — and it's a loud room. So what can you do? Make the best of it, have a good time. At this point my expectations are so low that if it's not jet-engine loud in there, I'll be happy.
Well, it's always good to come into things with low expectations. I wanted to ask you about the songwriting game you play.
It started maybe ten years ago. Me and some friends were sitting around and we were like: Let's come up with a word and then we each have to write our own song and somewhere in there you'd have to use the word.
We started doing it and it was pretty fun. And then I was on tour in 2001 and Steve Poltz was the opener, and we started talking about writing songs and stuff. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I was doing this songwriting game with some friends of mine.” And Steve was like, “We should do that!” And so the four of us — two of the guys who were in my band, Bruce Hughes and Billy Harvey, were also songwriters — started doing it. We came up with the first word, I still remember it: Cashville. We all wrote a song called “Cashville,” and then the next night we all played the songs for each other and then came up with another phrase. And we did that the entire tour. It was a three-week tour, and I think we each wrote eighteen or nineteen songs in twenty days.
Five years ago or so, we started doing it on the Internet and email. Now we just do it once a week. You should be able to find time to write a song at least once a week. So it works out pretty good.
Are there any songs on the new CD, A Perfect Day, that came from the game?
I think all of them did, or if not all of them, most of them. For instance, “Let the Light In,” which was the first single off the record, came from the phrase “not a pretty pair.” And it's in the last verse: “And they danced in the darkness on the floor/And the people in the room said, 'They don't make a pretty pair'/But the Tin Man and the Witch, they didn't care.”
How did the phrase decide to come in there, if you know what I mean?
Well, lots of times I'll write a song and just stick the phrase in somewhere. And I think with “Let the Light In,” that was pretty much what happened.
That line sticks out, but not in a way where I would have thought, Gosh, he just arbitrarily wedged that in there! Because the mood of the song calls more for a line like, “Don't they make a pretty pair,” but you twist it the other way.
Well, lots of times when you just jam something into the song that way — if it had been up to me, maybe I would have done that the way you'd expect. But since I had to jam that in, it changes the thing. And then all of a sudden, it becomes something more interesting than it would have had I not had the challenge of having to put it in there.
That sounds like poetry, where you can work either side of the metaphor. You can start with the emotion you want to make vivid by stating it as something else, or you can start with the something else: You realize what the emotion is because of the bizarre little thing that stuck in your head, that made you think of something, but it doesn't seem obviously to connect.
Ideally when you're writing lyrics, as in poetry, if you can keep it to where its not linear, the observer has to create their own connection between those two phrases. They can personalize that with their own unique life experience, and then all of a sudden the song becomes much richer and much more personal than it would have had you said: “OK, to get from this phrase to this phrase, you've got to take this route.” I love lyrics where you have to fill in the blanks.
Before I let you go, I'm going to ask you about Steve Almond's book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which had a chapter about you. We excerpted that chapter on this blog last time you were here, right before the book came out.
I loved it. I thought he nailed it. I thought it was right on the money. He really got an idea of what my situation is. You know, I have an exciting job that's fun, and I get to perform these songs I've written with really talented musicians and get to travel all over the place, get to meet all kinds of people and stuff. And at the end of the day I'm out there alone at my house — me and my dog, and sometimes my son, and it's pretty lonely.
Did you read the rest of the book?
I did not.
I have to tell you, I know Steve. He's a former colleague and a good friend. I think he, like a lot of artists, struggles with the notion that suffering produces better work. He wants to believe you can have a well-balanced life and still be incredibly creative. I think he takes it personally when people are not enjoying their life. In that book he was looking around in music as a real fan — it kind of traverses an arc that involves finding balance in one's life. You know, he can have kind of a light touch, but his “mancrush” on you is not bullshit on his part. He totally means that.
The ironic thing is that I'm probably as happy as I've ever been in my life. I've never really been very happy, and I think at this point, mainly because I've got a five-year-old kid, I get to experience joy with him that I've never experienced in my life. I mean, my heart is as wide open as it's ever been in my whole life. And I have moments where I can't even believe how wonderful they are.
And the crazy thing is that I get to experience that, and I also get to experience kind of the opposite of that. And it's heavy. You know, I've experienced some depression and sadness that I've never experienced in my life as well. I don't know if that's getting older, or having a kid, or just having my heart open or being more in touch with my feelings, or whatever it is.
But you get both. You get both in life. I really believe that no matter what your situation is, you can't help but get both sides of the coin. In the last five years, I went through a divorce. I've got a kid, and going through that — which is, you know, the biggest sense of failure that I've ever had in my life, and the amount of pain and being away from my son when I don't get a chance to see him — having experienced all that, I've grown in ways that I'd have never grown as a person. And I'm grateful for having had to experience all that stuff.
Bob Schneider plays the Troubadour this Friday, August 12.