Clem Snide has had an almost comically fractured history. Formed in 1991, the band broke up not long after, then regrouped and finally released a debut album—the stunning You Were A Diamond—in 1998. Things got strange after that for frontman Eef Barzelay, who’s been the only constant in the group’s history: Clem Snide signed with a major label, but split after just one record. Buzz started to build in the early ’00s, with the NBC show Ed choosing “Moment In The Sun” as its theme. By 2006, though, a rotating lineup and other twists of fate conspired to end the band. Barzelay had an ambitious record, Hungry Bird, partly finished, but he decided to abandon it—and ditch the Clem Snide name once and for all. He found some happiness scoring a movie, Rocket Science, and hoped to continue doing that. A couple of solid solo albums emerged (Bitter Honey and Lose Big) before the singer-songwriter did another 180, re-igniting Clem Snide with most of its 2006 lineup and the recent release of the “lost” Hungry Bird. The constant throughout this jumbled history: Barzelay’s incredible songs. Whether he’s penning gorgeously quiet love songs or paeans to pop culture, he’s an ace. Barzelay recently spoke to The A.V. Club about hope, money, and the end of the world as we know it. (He feels fine.)
The A.V. Club: You sound sleepy.
Eef Barzelay: Could be a little sleepy. I’ve got a little baby on my hands; it kind of breaks up my sleep patterns.
AVC: And how’s life besides having a baby?
EB:It’s all right. Have you heard about the economy and the mortgage crisis? We’re all intertwined in that here at the Barzelay house. We have this house, and we’ve been sort of livin’ off the equity, which you could do back in the good old days. But that came to a halt, and now we’re just sort of scrambling to keep this whole operation going. It’s a little tense in that respect. But otherwise, I’d say thumbs-up to my life.
AVC: The auctioneer isn’t standing outside or anything?
EB: [Laughs.] Not yet. It’s intense. I’ve had to really confront failure this past year more than ever, to the point to where I was going to the community college to get some literature on courses. For a while, my wife and her sister were like, “You’re great with kids. Maybe you should be a kindergarten teacher or something.” I was like, “Yeah. That would be fucking awesome.” I was swept up in the idea, so I went to Tennessee State here, or whatever the fuck it’s called, like Tennessee Technical College. It’s near my house. I went in there to look into the early childhood development program, and it’s all these big, fat black ladies just sitting there. And I walk in with my Crocs, this fucking skinny white dude, and they were so nice. And I was like, “This could be really awesome to just spend all day with these women here, just learning about…” I don’t even know what they learn in there. This woman showed me one of the books they use. It was like, “Which one of these foods is bad for a kid? Apple or potato chip?” I think I could handle a curriculum like that. So there’s been a lot of that this past year, which is good. It’s intense. I’ve had like four nervous breakdowns in the process, but after each one, I emerge stronger and even more determined.
AVC: Are you getting some songs out of your nervous breakdowns at least?
EB: Yeah, I am. I feel like it’s not just me, though. It’s part of some larger paradigm shift that’s occurring, which is terrifying in a lot of ways. But at the same time, something feels right about it, if things really change in some kind of fundamental way. I don’t even know what that means, but it seems like they’re kind of headed in that direction. I don’t know. It’s terrifying, but it’s also kind of thrilling.
AVC: So when you said you had to confront failure, did you mean that in a specific way?
EB: Clem Snide broke up in ’06 or ’05 or whatever it was. I would say throughout ’06, I had to deal with a lot of painful… It was a real Book Of Job kind of experience for me. That just went on for months, and there were lawyers, and it was fucking nasty. And then both labels dissolved, SpinART and Fargo. And then we lost the booking. I didn’t have anything. After doing it for six or seven years somewhat professionally, it all just kind of came to nothing. So I thought I could maybe keep getting some film work. Then the movie that I did, The Yellow Handkerchief, it came out good, but it was never released. Then I wasn’t getting any good gigs doing the movie stuff. Then my agent was like, “You really want to think about moving to L.A. if you’re serious about it.” Move to L.A.? What the fuck is that? I can’t move to L.A. I’ve got two kids. How the fuck do you move to L.A. with two kids? So it was looking bleak. Then the new Eef Barzelay record Lose Big came out, and it really didn’t do anything. I went on tour, and I really didn’t make much money. So I was like “All right, I guess I’m done. I guess it’s over for me.”
I had to really confront that. I’d always sort of played around with that notion, but never seriously. I’d never done anything about it, or prepared for it. It was like a mid-life crisis. I’m just about to hit 40, and you get to this point in your life when it’s just time to take stock and see that something has to change. And I welcome that. I embrace change. I never wanted to be too comfortable. I don’t think it’s good to be too comfortable in this life. Even though we all sort of strive for that, it’s not the way to go. And I think life usually conspires to keep us uncomfortable sometimes, so we don’t have to go out of our way to be uncomfortable. But don’t be afraid of it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? If we had nowhere to live, we’d have to go move into my dad’s basement. I think about shit like that. Or what if we had to rent a trailer on a river? It’s awful, but it’s also kind of thrilling if you think about it.
AVC: Aren’t you the guy who wrote “I can’t find comfort in the fact that it could be worse”?
EB: [Laughs.] It could be worse. See, I’m just trying to comfort myself. Are you recording all this? Has the interview begun?
EB: This is on the record. [Laughs.] That’s fine. But a lot of my own problems are because I’m so financially irresponsible. I’m so stupid when it comes to money. And I’m ashamed of it.
AVC: Are you buying diamond-encrusted chalices or something?
EB: Every tiny item in my house has to be bronzed. No, I’m just bad with money. But you learn. You don’t learn about this shit until you live it. I didn’t really understand what it meant to own a house and have a mortgage. I just went into it without ever really thinking about the implications. But I should have known better.
AVC: “You live, you learn.” I think Alanis Morissette said that.
EB: Exactly. Whenever there’s any sort of confusion, we can just draw on Alanis’ wisdom.
AVC: Was there a point in there that you actually quit? Did you decide you were done with making music “professionally”?
EB: I can’t do anything else. If I had some law degree, I’m sure there would have come a time in the last couple of years where it would have become just impossible to not go to that other profession, because I have a fucking family to support. That’s a very real kind of thing. But foolishly, or perhaps not so foolishly, I did not prepare for failure. I can’t go on tour and come home without any money. I can’t leave my wife here with two kids and come back with a couple grand and be like “Hey, it was awesome. It was beautiful weather, and I was high. We slept at this guy’s house and it was weird. Some girls came by. Nothing happened or anything, but it was just weird.” That kind of shit does not go over well in my house at this point in time. But the good news is, Clem Snide is back. And so far, it’s been getting some really good vibes, some good energy from the world. The worldwide collective unconscious seems to be receiving Hungry Bird nicely, so that’s always good.
AVC: So who’s in the re-ignited Clem Snide?
EB: Me, Ben Martin, who was the last drummer in Clem Snide, and Brendan Fitzpatrick, who was the last bass player in Clem Snide. And that’s pretty much it. But Brendan’s going to play some keyboards, too. He’s been given more responsibilities this time around, and he’s embraced them heartily. Brendan still lives in Brooklyn, but he came to Nashville and we played and it felt really good—even playing those older songs just felt good. And I think I got my shit together, too. I finally got my guitar sound worked out; it took me 10 years. So my guitar playing is a little more robust, and I think will fill out the sound more. It’s going to be like Hüsker Dü or something, a power trio. It’s going to be funkier, too, groovier. Sexier. I’m always trying to make the music sexier with every album, every tour. I just try to inch my way toward just a little sexier. I know it’s tough for me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you actually accomplished that?
EB: I’m just more comfortable inside of my own body and inside of the songs. I think when Clem Snide first started, if you even tried to move your body to any one of the songs, you’d have to like, be hospitalized, you know? You had to go to the nurse afterward. And that’s not good. I’m not proud of that. The rhythm section that we first had, God bless ’em… They were both cool in their own ways, but they were terrible together. The first couple years, it was very rickety. It’s like when you pour water on sand and it slowly seeps down into… What the fuck? That’s a terrible analogy. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, exactly. It’s just more in the pocket. It makes it a lot more fun to play. It wasn’t fun to play for a long time. For me, performing was painful. [Laughs.] I can’t imagine what it was like for the audience. But it’s gotten a lot more pleasurable over the years.
AVC: Well, you certainly sound less cynical than you once did. Is that a fair assessment?
EB: Yeah, I just don’t really give a fuck anymore. I’ve been through this so many times now. I’m just grateful to be able to keep doing it, honestly. I go to my kid’s school and I hang out with the other dads and I see how 40-year-old men generally live, and like 98 percent of them do not get to get into a van with some dudes and smoke some weed and put on Captain Beefheart and drive through Arizona, and then eat some weird Mexican food, then play in a club and hang out and get drunk, you know what I’m saying? I get to do that still, and I appreciate it. I really do.
AVC: Do you think those guys are jealous when you tell them about your job?
EB: Oh, they’re so jealous. They resent me. [Laughs.] Nah, they’re cool. But when you talk to them, it’s very apparent, you know? I just want to keep living the dream. So I’m telling you, Joshua, help me keep living the dream.
AVC: As much as I possibly can. So you want to talk about the record? We talked when you were recording it, and you had lofty goals.
EB: I don’t know what I was going on about back then. I think the simplest way that I could explain my concept for this record—and it’s only half-true—is that it’s post-apocalyptic children’s music. This record is really the record I got to spend a lot of time on, which I did not get to do with other Clem Snide records. End Of Love was so rushed, and Soft Spot was rushed, too. I wanted to really take my time with it, and I was fortunate enough to have that luxury, because it was right when we moved to Nashville. So I had money in the bank, and I’m living in this big house, and I think we had just put our kid into preschool, so he was gone all day. So all of a sudden, I have all day to just do nothing but go into my little studio and work on the record and write.
So I wrote a ton of shit for it, and I got ambitious. I wanted to make a big record, like Dark Side Of The Moon or like that Neutral Milk record, something that was all kind of tied together, and the songs are long and expansive. And lyrically, I wanted to really go for it, you know? That song “Me No,” that’s a good example of where I just wanted to use the words and do whatever the fuck I wanted, really twist ’em and bend ’em in fun ways. Then the whole band got in on it, too, and we were on tour in Europe, and we were playing these songs live, working them out. I feel sorry for some of these people in like Brighton, who had to be subjected to this real self-indulgent experimentation. But it was worth it, because when we got back from that tour, we went right into the studio and we got something good as a band, which we hadn’t really done since Ghost Of Fashion. That was a real band record, too, where we’d been playing the songs on the road before we recorded them. Not so with Soft Spot and End Of Love, and I think those records kind of suffered for it.
But anyway, things were looking good. We went in the studio, but we only had like three days, so we didn’t finish it. It was mostly live, and we already knew the songs, so it didn’t take that much time. So we did like three days, but we really should have done like six. Then the idea was born that Brendan and Pete [Fitzpatrick, Clem Snide’s former multi-instrumentalist] would take the tracks and finish them in Brooklyn. I think that’s when it got derailed, when Pete put a lot of stuff on there that he had just done himself. The two things, I thought, really didn’t mesh. They sort of cancelled each other out, and the record lost a lot for me. So I stripped it back down to just the basics. Then when I was working on Rocket Science, I finished it.
AVC: So what exactly was on the Hungry Bird version that didn’t work?
EB: I think a lot of the ideas were good, but I think Pete just kind of went a little crazy. We haven’t really spoken since then, and it’s a real shame. A lot of the tension was already in the band, and there was just creative friction. I think Pete very much does his own thing, and he wanted to really put his stamp on the record. He worked on it really hard and put a lot of himself into it, but then I just had to come to the realization that it wasn’t working. I went and listened to the basics, just the rough mixes, and it sounded better to me. A big part of making a good record is really getting a vibe, and a vibe is a mysterious thing. The vibe kind of exists in the air in the room. It’s not just all the stuff you put on there, and the specific notes and arrangements and all that. That’s like half of it. The other half is just the air, and just the spirit. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m sounding kind of flaky. I think it happens to a lot of people who make music just on a computer by themselves, you don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t see the forest for the trees. You’re looking at every tree so closely, and every tree looks so cool. But you’re making a forest, man, you’re not making a tree.
AVC: So do you still feel connected to those songs now that it’s finally coming out, three years later?
EB: Yeah, for sure. I don’t know what that means, “connected to a song.” There’s maybe a couple… I know what you’re saying. The live thing is separate from the record for me. I have to figure out a way to make the songs work live. It’s always going to be different than it is on a record, because every record I’ve made, there are people playing parts on there that are not going to be coming on tour with me. As much as still feeling connected to it, it’s more like rediscovering. That goes for the older Clem Snide. I’m trying to play at least two songs off of each Clem Snide record, that’s my goal for this tour. I’m not just gonna hit them with Hungry Bird start to finish.
AVC: Sort of like a greatest-hits tour?
EB: More of a greatest-hits, yeah. Kind of like rediscovering Clem Snide for all those that missed it the first time around.
AVC: Was part of the reason for resurrecting Clem Snide that you feel like there’s more name recognition?
EB: Well, yeah, certainly. If Eef Barzelay took off and he was big and became a huge success, then yeah, I would probably just keep going as Eef Barzelay. And this label I’m on, 429, who are turning out to be very cool, they’re really into it, and they put their heart into it. At first they weren’t that interested, but then they came around and said they did want to put it out. I called Brendan up, I hadn’t talked to him in a while, and I was like “How do you feel about touring?” And he was really into it. And the same goes for Ben Martin. It’s cool, because the two of them don’t have any kids, and they do their carpentry work when they get home, so they can tour. That’s another thing, finding people who can live the indie-rock lifestyle. Financially, you definitely have to be in a sort of specific place in your life, a kind of unencumbered place. And that gets tough when dudes get older. When you’re all in your fucking early 20s, you don’t give a shit. Clem Snide feels really solid to me right now, and when we played, it felt really good. It just kinda came together, and I was open to it. It wasn’t so much premeditated, but at the same time, I was definitely open to it.
AVC: But the idea now is that Clem Snide is a reignited concern? So you’ll do this tour and maybe do another Clem Snide record?
EB: I’m kind of in a very perilous situation. I’m not sure, I couldn’t tell you. I could make a record for free at this point and it would be what it is and I could find someone to put it out and give me a little money for it. I don’t think I really need to stop doing it, but as far as just how much, if it becomes some sort of mid-life, glorified hobby kind of thing, I don’t know. If my wife got some high-paying job and I had to stay home with the kids? At this point, I would do that. I would have to do that.
AVC: Would you be happy to do that?
EB: I would. At this point, I’m really just glad to be alive. I’m just fucking glad that I’m not dead or bleeding internally or something. And I think shit is about to go down. I warned these people, too, but did they listen to earlier Clem Snide songs? Did you notice the prescience?
AVC: Are you saying that you predicted the financial collapse of America?
EB: Yeah, there’s a song on End Of Love called “Collapse” which I think is very poignant. Have you heard of this guy Jim Kuntsler? He has this blog called “Clusterfuck Nation.” Just go and read the last couple of posts there. That’s how I feel. Something’s happening. Something big is happening, and I just wanna be there when it does.
AVC: You want to be in the burning building?
EB: Something like that. I don’t know. I want to be able to react to it artistically. I want to be more connected to the outside world. I think when I first started, it was all about my inner world. That’s not to say that I’m going to be political, because what does that even mean? When I was working on Hungry Bird, The New Yorker published these three separate articles on climate change, and I didn’t really know much about it until then, so I read them and it laid it all out. And that’s heavy, man. I don’t even know how to react to it, it’s overwhelming. And I think what it led me to think was that human beings really are this virus upon the earth, and the earth’s running a fever, you know? If you step away from that kind of inherent human sentimentality and just look at it neutrally, the universe is neutral morally… I’ve gone too far. I feel like I should stop talking.
AVC: You’re just about to crack that nut.
EB: I hope that you’re recording this and it’s a word-for-word transcript. Don’t even try to paraphrase this shit, man. Don’t even attempt. I don’t know, you’ve just gotta laugh. Find the beauty in it. The beauty in the death that awaits us, I find a timeless beauty in that. Tell that to your readers.
AVC: Sound like “Party At Ground Zero” by Fishbone.
EB: Yeah. My high-school cover band was Ground Zero.
AVC: And what songs did you play?
EB: We did classic rock. And we weren’t afraid to tackle the big ones, like “Free Bird” and “Hotel California” and “Dream On.” [Laughs.] I was always felt so bad for our singer, he had to sing “Dream On.” That was a tough one.
AVC: So what can you say about this song-contest thing you did with the You Ain’t No Picasso blog?
EB: Oh, right! So part of my sort of awakening is, I really wanna write songs, but using other people’s words to inspire me to get out of my own head. I think that last Eef Barzelay was really about that, just being about a sort of specific other person and living in that person’s body or life. So I just solicited my MySpace friends to send in their poems and stories and what have you, and I would pick one and write a song out of it. It was my Christmas present to all my good friends, and it actually came out pretty good. It was this poem by this 17-year-old girl called “Imagine Me,” and it happened quickly. I was kind of surprised. So then I wrote Matt from You Ain’t No Picasso, and I left it up to him to choose what information I would be receiving, and then I would have to make a song. Somehow it turned into me writing a song about a person. I don’t even know how that happened, because it was never made clear what I needed from people to make a song. So he chose this guy, and I get this e-mail, and it’s like the guy is telling me about himself. He had never even heard of me, he just heard of the contest. So I wrote the song, and I kind of wrote it from his girl’s perspective in Australia, and it’s all about how he can’t commit. And it’s dirty. There’s dirty words in it, sexy words. You’ve gotta hear the song, ’cause once you hear the song, the story comes full circle. I may fucking record it, because I kind of like it. But it’s dirty, it’s really dirty. That might overshadow things.
AVC: What’s the worst word you use in the song?
EB: Well the refrain is basically, “Well, you suck on his dick, and you swallow his cum, but he still seems an ocean away.” The metaphor is that she sucks on his dick, and it’s totally a big dick, that was very pertinent information that I got. So she sucks on his dick, and it reminds her of the time they went scuba diving together on the Great Barrier Reef. And I like that. Comparing sucking a guy’s dick to going scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. A similar experience, I would imagine. My dream right now is—and I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t know if it will work exactly—but just this sort of vague aspiration to start some kind of website where people send in their stories or poems, and me or perhaps some other people turn that into music. And then by the end of the year we make a record and actually put it out. Like a band, but the band is actually a combination of the musician and the fan. I think that’s a very 21st-century way of doing it.
AVC: And sort of ’60s at the same time. People used to send in their poems and have them made into records, like those on The American Song-Poem Anthology.
EB: Right, right. I heard about that. That’s beautiful. Music is so clearly a commodity now. At one point, maybe 20 years ago, there were still some rumblings about keeping the really sacred American popular music out of the hands of corporate advertisers. And those walls have come down, but now I think the logical reaction to that is that you just start making your own music. You know what I’m saying? Yeah, Bob Dylan is selling Cadillacs and Iggy Pop is on some cruise ship or whatever, so fuck it. Fuck all those guys, and we make our own music. And it’s never gonna be exact, but that’s not the point. Utilitarian, that’s kind of where we’re at right now, and I’m not too proud to embrace that. I’ll write a song for whoever.