Almost Famous with Clem Snide

Clem Snide is an eminently likable band that plays tuneful, quirky, indie-alt-country songs that are most memorable for frontman Eef Barzelay's often-wry lyrics and appropriately deadpan delivery. For the early part of its career the band seemed always on the verge of a breakthrough; during the second act it seemed always on the verge of falling apart, until that in fact happened a few years ago. Barzelay went solo, but in following with Official Rock Rule #427 ("If your band has broken up, you must reform it), a slimmed-down version of the band is back together, with a (sort of) new album "Hungry Bird" and its first tour in years, which brings Clem Snide to IOTA on Saturday. Barzelay's one of the better interviews around and we talked about his band's bad luck, competing with the Foo Fighters and actually spending some time on lyrics.

So with all of the big reunions these days, where do you think the Clem Snide reunion ranks in terms of massiveness?
(Laughs.) Well, you know, this obviously isn't the most dramatic reunion in the world. Clem Snide never really broke up. It more just fizzled away after a while. What really happened was more external, like labels and managers and Soundscan numbers. That kind of did us in more so than any internal strife. The one big thing that happened was more between me and Pete, the guitar player, had a bit of a falling out. But otherwise, the other two guys, it's cool. They're still very much into it. The band has been kind of distilled to its core essence, you know. Just three of us right now. It feels really good.

You mention all the external factors and it seems like the band was one of those that would either have bad luck or no luck at all.
Well you know what it is? And I've found this to be true about life. And I don't know how people transcend this. But for me, what I've witnessed in my time alive, is that whenever something good happens, something bad happens to keep it all balanced. That's how it always worked for Clem Snide. We'd get some kind of a break then something else would fall apart. It never really soared. Ever. It was kind of struggling to just maintain itself right out of the gate. So in a way this doesn't seem like anything out of the ordinary for me. I may have overreacted. Emotionally I just wanted -- I was like, 'I'm done with Clem Snide! I'm just going to be Eef Barzelay and put it all behind me." And clean slate fantasies. But that was just kind of an emotional overreaction.

In a weird way, based on the kind of songs you write, and almost fitting. There was always a star-crossed quality to the characters in your songs.
That's the thing, that's the great irony of it. Like, the perfect irony of Clem Snide, apart from being so ironic, is that the one song that was the biggest break we caught was for that song "Moment in the Sun," which is a very sarcastic and cynical take on success and stardom. From the very beginning I was always very suspicious of my own success. I never really imagined I would be successful at it. Yet I really want to do it. Go explain that to somebody, I don't know.

(Read more after the jump.)

So that song was the theme song for "Ed" but wasn't it only for the second season, and because they couldn't keep the rights to some Foo Fighters song?
They were kind of desperate. And they loved that Foo Fighters song. Man, they loved that Foo Fighters song. They would have really rather kept that Foo Fighters song. Along with 80 percent of the people who watched that show. So when we came along we had to take our song and re-record and ham-fistedly make it fit over their opening sequence there. And it never worked all that well. And it was never a good idea from the start. That break helped me to quit my day job, so that helped launched my professional musician career. Obviously I wasn't going to turn it down and we did whatever we had to do. But nobody was all that psyched about it. (Laughs.)

I used to play "I Love the Unknown" back on my college radio show a lot, I thought that song might be a hit. But I guess you had some label issues right after that album ("Your Favorite Music") came out?
Oh man, yeah. I was just talking about it with my wife how 10 years ago I was just like, 'Oh, I'm done. I'm done in this business.' Because we got our big major label break, we got signed by Seymour Stein, to Sire Records. And we made "Your Favorite Music" for Sire Records and they gave us $100,000 and we went to upstate New York to this great studio and were there for weeks and everything was looking awesome. And Seymour Stein loved it. And then right as we gave them the record it was like, 'Oh, well, we're merging with London, so it's going to take a couple months.' And they sat on it for a year. So that was just a year of waiting around to see what would happen. It wasn't very pleasant. So then they did put it out, but not really. They quickly got rid of us. And then SpinArt re-released it more properly. And never paid me for it, by the way.

I guess I can see how at a certain point you'd say, 'Forget Clem Snide, I'm doing this on my own.' But in terms of the music, did you change your focus at all? You mentioned earlier the irony but then it seems to have gotten sincere.
For sure. I'm not the same person I was when I wrote all those early Clem Snide songs. I was living in the East Village and I was a different person. Since then I've gotten married, I've had two kids, my mom died of cancer, my wife's mother died, we moved. Life has slapped me around a little bit more. I always intended it sincerely, I was just trying to do something interesting with the words. I think from the beginning I didn't believe in my musical ability or my voice enough that if I just wrote some generic singer-songwriter kind of stuff that me or anyone would really be interested. I wanted to do something interesting with the words. Something funny. Something subversive. Something compelling, anything to just get the words to bounce off the ... whatever.

A lot of times "indie" musicians won't really spend too much time on lyrics, or at least try to make it seem like they don't.
Well that's the thing -- if you're going to be a lyrics person then you're really kind of stacking the deck against yourself. Because most people, me included, don't even really pay attention to the lyrics. I mean, you listen, but the words shouldn't get in the way. Earlier, I delighted in having the words get in the way of the song and really call attention to themselves. That's risky. You start getting into some Barenaked Ladies territory, which is a scary place to wander into. (Laughs.) So it's a fine line. But that's the thing. Most bands you can't really hear what the dude is saying and if you were to hear it, it wouldn't be interesting. I went with the words. I don't think of myself as a writer or poet, per se, but I'm a lyricist. It was always about the words. It's kind of like the Leonard Cohen thing. Nobody really listens to Leonard Cohen. Everyone says they love Leonard Cohen but if you're given the choice to listen to Broken Social Scene or Leonard Cohen, you'll go with Broken Social Scene. I have no idea why I picked Broken Social Scene. (Laughs.) Most people don't want to experience music that way where the words are really dense and coming at you.

So the new album, when was it actually recorded?
We started working on it in 2005. It's weird to finally have it come out. It's very much a record unto itself. I had a lot of time. I probably had the most time and space that I've ever had to work on a record, just based on where my life was at that moment. I had money, we had just moved to Nashville, we got our kid into pre-school. All of a sudden I just had hours and hours, and I had a little studio in my backyard. Whereas before I had jobs and it was always a little more on the fly. So I really immersed myself in it and wanted to just create this world, getting more intricate with it. I really wrote a lot for it. I just wrote and wrote. I must have come up with 20 songs that ended up being 9 or 10. And then I think coming off the heels of "End of Love," things were already not looking good. They hadn't been looking good for the last few years and they weren't really improving and there was definitely a lot of strain on the whole situation.

It's certainly a dark record, because of that. And also because I was still recovering from watching my mother die, my wife's mother die, there was all this kind of shadowy [expletive] all around me. And also I became conscious of what was happening in the world, with the climate change, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. I was obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories for a while there. And all this crazy, apocalyptic bloggy sort of stuff. I was reading all that. I went a little crazy. When my mind is really left to just go for it, it starts heading down some twisted path. But at the same time I had this beautiful little two-year-old song so you kind of have to be hopeful. You can't just sink into this self-indulgent dread. So it was wrestling with all that. I was trying to make this conceptual record. Conceptual might not be the right word. I don't know if it ended up that way but that's what I was kind of shooting for. Almost like that Neutral Milk Hotel record, or even "Dark Side of the Moon." Just a record that's it's own kind of space. That's what I was going for.

Will there be more Clem Sniding after this album and tour?
It feels really good right now, it does. I hope people dig it. It's simple. Right now it is kind of a fusion of Clem Snide and Eef Barzelay. I'm always writing songs and I have a bunch of new ones. So if things continue to go fairly well as they seem to be right now then, yeah. Hopefully get another record out this time next and keep this whole crazy rock-and-roll dream going.

By David Malitz |  March 13, 2009; 10:51 AM ET Interviews
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