by Justin Crane
A friend and I were having lunch one day, and as we walked back to our respective offices through the Houston summer heat, we struck up a conversation about the new music we were listening to. Okay, the conversation was a little one-sided, because I couldn't think of a damn thing that I thought was new and worth mentioning -- this is what happens when nothing strikes your fancy for a long time. Besides, this was no punk contest where the object is to prove how hip you are by embracing lots of obscure new bands; we were just trading thoughts on what we liked. Or, as I mentioned, he was. I was listening. Anyway, this was when he mentioned that he had been listening to Clem Snide. "Hmm. Never I heard of them," I said.
Back to the office I went, and at some point during the day, Clem Snide resurfaced in the fuzzy malaise that is my consciousness, so I downloaded a couple tracks before the thought faded. (This is what you do in the modern American workplace -- desperately search for things to distract you.) What I got after my little "break" was a couple lo-fi-ish tracks of a guy with a nasally voice and his guitar. They sounded like they could have been recorded live. I found the songs kind of charming -- I should mention here that I'm a sucker for hyper-earnest things like Daniel Johnston, so I was well-primed for these songs.
Not so long after downloading these songs, Jeremy SpaceCityRock (i.e., the editor) sent around his regular e-mail list of things for review and potential interviews. And, as you're probably gathering, Clem Snide was on that list. So I e-mailed back and said I would be interested in doing a Clem Snide interview, still thinking that I was going to be interviewing a guy about these quiet little acoustic recordings. But I only had these two songs I'd downloaded, and I didn't think I could do any interview on the strength of those two songs, so I asked for a copy of the new album so I could have a better appreciation of the band. (Okay, that and I really like to get free stuff.)
A few weeks later, the latest Clem Snide release showed up in my mailbox. I took it out and gave it the once-over; I never listen to anything without first inspecting the cover art and reading all the liner notes. I'm a dork that way. And the cover of The Ghost of Fashion is the typical indie-rock rip off of the Blue Note style that has been in vogue since the early '90s, complete with "Hi-Fi" in the upper right corner. "Irony," I thought -- I was used to this; I just hadn't expected it, considering the fairly earnest songs I had heard. I cracked the jewel box open and started listening to it. Not irony. Not at all. These songs have huge arrangements. Horns. Strings. Definitely "Hi-Fi." I wasn't sure this was the same guy that I had been listening to. I double-checked the song titles against the ones I downloaded. At least one of them was the same, so I couldn't have been too far off. I read off some of the other titles and came to "Joan Jett of Arc"... Oh, there's the irony. Or is it? It's so hard to tell.
"Joan Jett of Arc" pretty well encapsulates in one song the Clem Snide problem: how seriously do I take this? The lyrics start out with "She'd fix me a dinner of sunflower seeds/and ready-whipped topping inhalers," and it sounds like this is going to be a love song. Then you get a line like "and take me down south with hall/and oats in her mouth/my first love my Joan Jett of Arc." The pop culture references are obstacles to hearing the real sentiment. "I'm serious, but I'm not. See, here are things that show you that there is distance between what I mean and what I say I mean." Joan Jett or Hall and Oates become the thing to focus on, rather than the image of a vulnerable Eef Barzelay and his first love. Try this one on, from "Ancient Chinese Secret Blues": "How could you just say that/You just opened your mouth/Now I haven't the courage to stay/Calgon take me away." Serious. But not. You start to get his disappointment, but then that last line is a slogan -- and he can't be serious about a slogan. Can he? So he's not really disappointed? Or is he?
Clem Snide started its life as a no-wave outfit in Boston in 1991; they released a couple of 7" singles before calling it quits in 1994. Principal songwriter Eef Barzelay moved away from Boston and resurfaced in the New York area in1996 with former Clem Snide bassist, Jason Glasser, and they continued on with the Clem Snide name, gathering a few new members. They added drummer Brad Reitz and double bassist Jeff Marshall, while Glasser moved to cello. In 1998, Tractor Beam Records released their first album, You Were a Diamond. The band did some touring and attracted the attention of Sire Records, which had worked itself into an alt-country frenzy. Sire picked up Clem Snide in its late '90s alt-country land grab and then lost interest in both Clem Snide and alt-country altogether when it merged with London Records. During their tenure with Sire, Clem Snide released one album of quiet country-ish tunes called Your Favorite Music and had started on The Ghost of Fashion before being dropped. By this time, Eric Paull had replaced Reitz on drums, and Pete Fitzpatrick was playing second guitar. Clem Snide eventually released The Ghost of Fashion on stalwart indie label spinART, garnering them the most success of their career so far. Eef now regularly appears in major magazines, and "Moment in the Sun" replaced the Foo Fighters' "Next Year" as the theme for the NBC television show, Ed.
But none of that gets me any closer to getting at where these guys are coming from. So, after a couple listens to the album, I threw together a few questions for Eef in an e-mail. Maybe I could just be direct and ask them how to take these songs, right?
Clem Snide -- http://www.clemsnide.com/
spinART Records -- http://www.spinartrecords.com/
Sire Records -- http://www.london-sire.com/
Tractor Beam Music -- http://users.rcn.com/tractorb/
Lyle's -- http://www.handsuphouston.com/lyles.htm
Photo courtesy of spinART Records.
|SCR: So, let's start with the really obvious -- there are tons of pop culture references on Ghost of Fashion; is there any particular reason that you use what can sometimes be very loaded images? Are these just shortcuts to what you're hoping is a rich shared meaning? I mean, we all have our assumptions and feelings about Corey Feldman, don't we? Also, doesn't dropping these kinds of things into your lyrics immediately date the material? So that years from now when you go back and listen to The Ghost of Fashion, the context just isn't there and therefore the songs -- or at least the lyrics -- won't have the impact that they once did?
Eef: Using pop culture references is always a little dicey. It draws more attention than (I feel) is warranted; kinda like a nude scene in a movie (that Halle Berry sure is hot). For me, I enjoy contradictions and juxtaposing thangs, such as Corey Feldman's escape from the bondage of fame through drugs, played off the ancient Israelites and the book of Exodus. Corey's experience has all the qualifications to become a parable, if read allegorically, so it made sense to me. I felt for him and was not trying to be ironic. As far as the song someday seeming dated, I don't care -- we'll all be dead soon enough.
I'm betting most people are going to hear your lyrics as ironic. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like you're being misinterpreted?
There is no way they could be "misinterpreted," because the person listening sort of completes the process (does a tree falling in a forest make a sound, that sort of thing). It bothers me when someone dismisses the lyrics as merely ironic. I like to blur the line between happy/sad, sincere/insincere, or jokey/serious -- I think that makes the song more compelling. Some people are put off by this because they are afraid of looking or feeling dumb, but I'm not trying to outwit anyone -- maybe just fuck with them a little. But it's for their own good. I make fun of myself more than anything.
The arrangements on The Ghost of Fashion are huge. They aren't just the work of a small combo, but the work of a bunch of friends playing lots of things. I'm not turned off by the arrangements, just surprised. So, what's the big idea with the huge sound?
The huge sound...well, when you're in the studio, you want to flesh out the songs in the best way possible. And we felt very free this time, with no Big Label looking over our shoulder and with Jason (cello and stuff) acting as producer. When you make a record, most of it is trusting your instincts and getting good sounds. There was a vague aesthetic game plan, but really it was just try to get something sparkly on tape. The next record will be mostly me and guitar -- then again...
Did you have a bad experience with your major label?
Yes, we had a bad experience with Sire. It's a long story, the gist being they knew they were not going to make tons of money with us, so they didn't promote or develop us at all. But we got out of it with our record and some money (very little), so I don't have too many regrets. With indie labels there is much less money involved, so there is less pressure and more time to grow. It isn't so Faustian.
You say your next record might be mostly you and guitar -- do you feel like you just want something that is a contrast to The Ghost of Fashion, or is it something else?
I don't know what I want the next record to be yet, but most of the songs are very simple sweet love songs. No irony at all!
Got that? No irony. I wasn't buying it, though. Every time I listened to the album, I couldn't get past it. I was turned off by it. The image of Joan Jett overwhelmed the little love song that tried to contain it. Not able to resolve this, I decided to go see Clem Snide live. This was September 15, 2001, four days after...well, you know.
I sat down with Eef before the show to chat a little more. I asked whether he knew anybody that worked in the World Trade Center buildings. He responded by saying that he didn't know anybody that was hurt. He felt lucky, but it was weird being away from his home as it was going through a crisis. On September 11, they were scheduled to play a show in Memphis. It turned out to be a show in somebody's basement -- they had to clear a space to play. But it turned out to be a hot, sweaty good time. Right about this time, a friend sat down and joined the conversation and Eef, inexplicably, got up and drifted away. No insight there.
The show was at Lyle's, which is the basement of Lovett College at Rice University. College shows can be really sterile affairs, akin to having a band play in a cafeteria, but Lyle's almost passes for a coffeehouse, with its cable spindle tables, well-melted candles, and second-hand furniture, so the atmosphere is laid back and homey, unlike your average club. And on this particular night, Clem Snide turned this basement coffeehouse into a front porch. They were good. Really good. And as Eef played through his songs, I got it. The songs overshadowed the irony. Despite toying with the audience by doing things like repeatedly pronouncing "Houston" as "House-ton" ("We're just giving you some New York ATT-i-tude"), the songs and their singer came off as earnest. They finished off the set with just Eef playing guitar. The rest of the band went outside.
"I'd like to dedicate this song to Osama Bin Laden." He played "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." Halfway through the song, the rest of the band walked back inside and stood there, watching Eef -- as we all were doing. Transfixed.
Several months later, I went to see Clem Snide again, this time downstairs at Fitzgerald's. They had a new bassist, and the cello player was absent (apparently, he's a new father), but the audience was about the same size and the songs were the same. They just didn't come across the way they did to me that first time. Maybe it was the circumstances, but I don't think I would have been able to see through the irony to heart of those songs had I not caught Clem Snide at that particularly somber moment when it just wasn't possible to be anything but serious. So, if you weren't there and you're having trouble with The Ghost of Fashion, like I was, you'll just have to trust me. They mean it. END