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Even if you don’t know Fred Schneider, you know his voice. Technically, he’s one of three lead singers in the B-52s, along with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, but his signature song-speak is closer to the stentorian tones of a late-night creature-feature host. Spinning tales of rock lobsters and love shacks, he introduced a generation of rock fans to a kitsch-loving aesthetic that might have been avant-garde if it weren’t so damn catchy. Along with his fellow Bs (his preferred nickname for the group), he also jump-started the moribund music scene in the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia, serving as an acknowledged forebear of R.E.M., among others. Before the B-52s' show at Ravinia Wednesday night, Schneider got on the phone from New York City for a career-spanning interview about recording in bathrooms, how cell phones have ruined karaoke, and his new dance craze, the Disco Garbage Can.
The A.V. Club: Your career has spanned so many years, and your music has taken you in a lot of unexpected directions. I doubt when you started out, you thought, “Maybe we’ll end up in a Flintstones movie someday.”
Fred Schneider: We did that because Athens was so boring. At the time, it wasn’t the music Mecca it is today. Now, you can see five bands a night. Back then, it was one band on the weekend, and it was usually a fraternity band.
AVC: What were those early days like? Bands like Pylon and R.E.M. talk about the B-52s as the godparents of the scene.
FS: In Athens? There was a folk club. Well, any place that had 25-cent beer night was guaranteed to be packed. Major bands played at the college. So we saw a lot of that, but it was mostly fraternity and boogie bands coming to town. There was no music scene.
AVC: So you just got fed up and decided to make something?
FS: Well, we got drunk one night and went over to a friend’s house, and while he wrote letters, we went downstairs and came up with “Killer Bees.” At the time, the dreaded killer bee had gotten loose in Brazil, so we wrote a song about killer bees. So we thought, “This is fun. Let’s just do it.” It was something to do. Then, good friends of mine were having a Valentine’s party, and I said, “Oh, I’m in a band.” We didn’t have a name or anything. I said “Do you want us to play for it?” and they said “Sure.” And I went and told the others, and they said “We need a name.” Keith came up with B-52s. And we started playing around at people’s parties, and then Max’s [Kansas City], and it took off from there.
AVC: The band’s style and look seem to have been fully formed right from the beginning. It makes sense that they were developed in isolation.
FS: It took the five of us to do it. Everyone brought in a distinct aspect to everything, and we just did our own thing. First of all, we liked it, and our friends liked it, and a hobby became a career.
AVC: What about outside Athens? Were you listening to bands like the Rezillos?
FS: We were pretty punky in the beginning. We were formed as sort of a punk group with our own twist. We listened to Devo, Ramones, Sex Pistols. We went to see the Sex Pistols for their first show in America. But then we also liked James Brown, mambo music, pretty eclectic stuff.
AVC: Where was your first show?
FS: Our first show was at our friend’s Julia and Grey’s house, and we set up in the foyer, and everyone danced in the living room.
AVC: And where did you see the Sex Pistols for their first show?
FS: We saw the Sex Pistols at the Great Southeast Music Hall. It was police- and media-crazy. They were good.
AVC: The Pistols ran into a lot of hostility in the deep South, which was the intention. Was there any kind of confrontation at the show you saw?
FS: Well, for some reason, the media was really interested in filming some drag queen that went to the show, more so than paying attention to the stage. I guess that was a novelty too back then. I guess they felt like it could be dangerous, that the Sex Pistols were going to cause a riot, which they didn’t. You know, Southerners are pretty cool. And basically, everyone there was a fan. I had their single. We wanted to hear the music
AVC: A lot of punk at the time, especially second-rate punk, had pretty strong macho overtones, which is obviously not where the Bs were coming from.
FS: When I dropped out of college, the last thing I did—I knew I was dropping out, and a friend said, for our creative writing, he was going to do a book of poetry. I thought, “Shit, that’s easy. I think I’ll do one too.” And actually, some of those poems became bases for songs we did later on. I wrote these things, and the teacher said, “Well, I don’t understand any of it. I can see you’re very serious about it.” And he gave me an A. [Laughs.] My friend was reading his poems about a white horse, galloping through the desert, blah blah blah, and I’m doing poems about flamingos and living rooms and stuff.
AVC: So your artistic sensibility was already formed at that point?
FS: Well, I like to write. And right now, with The Superions, I’m writing a Halloween album, a Christmas album, and a regular album.
AVC: What part of the music are you writing?
FS: I write all the lyrics, Noah and Dan do the music, and we all arrange it. I come up with ideas for things. I’m having them do some of the singing or reciting spoken-word on the records. It should be pretty trashy. It’s fun. I’ve never had so much fun, really.
AVC: The B-52s’ songs and even some of your solo material have a strong influence of trashy 1950s sci-fi and horror movies. Do you watch a lot of those movies as a child?
FS: Oh yeah, I love all that stuff. My friend Jolene and I, we used to stay home on Saturdays and watch really bad movies and laugh. We were doing Mystery Science Theater in the ’60s. Plus I like surrealism and Dada, and that’s what I bring to the band.
AVC: You grew up in Newark?
FS: I was raised in New Jersey, Long Branch. I was born in Newark, and it went downhill after I left. It’s near Asbury Park, Wildwood. The Geator with the Heator. [a.k.a. Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat.]
AVC: He’s still working it.
FS: He is? Good for him. Oh yeah. He has great records.
AVC: Other than watching bad movies on TV, what were you exposed to? Were you able to go up to New York?
FS: Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely. I used to go to Broadway stuff. The Museum Of Natural History. I’d go with my friends. This is before Charles Busch and the Ridiculous Theater. But I basically hung out in New Jersey.
AVC: The stuff you were seeing was mainstream Broadway? Show tunes and such?
FS: Just when we went to Broadway. At home, it was like Crawling Eye. It was Million Dollar Movie. It took all the movies they showed—their cost together was a million dollars.
AVC: That was supposed to be a lot of money at the time.
FS: These movies were made for probably $50,000.
AVC: There’s a camp value in watching movies like that. Do they have any other appeal to you?
FS: Like most people who like those movies, we really like them. There’s always something that really… Well, they’re surreal. You sort of can’t believe someone made them. Some of them were good, like… well, The Crawling Eye wasn’t that good once the eyeball shows up. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, that was good. War Of The Worlds, that was fantastic. Of course, Plan 9 From Outer Space was another story. But we all know that. And all the Universal movies, too: The Wolf Man, Dracula with Bela Lugosi. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Halloween record.
AVC: Visuals have been an important aspect of what you’ve been doing onstage since the beginning.
FS: Our look evolved from the fact that we bought thrift-store clothes. It wasn’t like “Let adopt a thrift-store aesthetic.” We just didn’t have any money. Whatever people want to print, who cares? Keith had the idea for the B-52s, and he had a dream where this woman with this bouffant, which they call a B-52, was playing in a lounge band. We didn’t want to be associated with Hiroshima or anything like that. Then we found, Keith and I, somebody’s fake-fur pocketbook in the shop down there, and talked Cindy and Kate into buying them and turning them into wigs. That’s how our look evolved.
AVC: What about your part of it?
FS: Well, I went as a hangover for Halloween once. I just had on a wifebeater and a seersucker suit and a pencil-thin moustache and a broken cigarette. So I just left off the broken cigarette.
AVC: You have a very distinct onstage personality, which also makes you ripe for parody. If you Google your name, some of the first results are people doing terrible Fred Schneider impressions.
FS: Oh yeah. People say, “Oh, you want to hear my impression?” And mentally I’m going, “No.” But I always let people do it, and I just tell them it stinks.
AVC: Is there anybody who actually sounds funny?
FS: There’s a group in Portland, called the Punk Group, and they have a song called “Fred Schneider.” I don’t know if it’s one of the band doing me or if they have a clip of me from something. It sounds just like me. It’s nice to have an homage to yourself.
AVC: It must be impressive if you can’t tell the difference.
FS: Yeah. That’s the only time I’ve heard a really good one. Usually people talk! Like! That! I’m like, “Okay, yeah. Very good.” I feel like I have a distinct voice. I don’t know why I never sang. It’s reciting. I mean, I can sing. Why bother? Why ruin a good thing?
AVC: Does that persona ever feel confining to you? Do you ever want to sit down and sing a heartfelt ballad?
FS: I don’t have the range of Cindy or Kate, that’s for sure. I can sort of do some Chet Baker jazz. I sing a bunch on Good Stuff. I just like spoken-word.
AVC: You do some more straightforward singing on the solo records. How did you end up working with Steve Albini on Just Fred?
FS: I was writing songs, and they turned out a lot darker than what I usually write. The band was going through a difficult period. They were doing a record, so I decided to do a record. Then I took it to Steve, and he was a fan of the Bs. Everything changed after “Love Shack.” We went “mainstream.” “Love Shack” set what people viewed us as, because a lot of people didn’t realize we had a career before that. He put me in touch with these great groups, and I actually recorded the songs with three different groups. We just picked the best one. He was great to work with. I have total respect for Steve.
AVC: The surf-rock trio Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet had worked with Albini before.
FS: Yeah. It was great. We went up to Toronto. I don’t know if you know B.J. Snowden, but I brought [the song] “In Canada” up there, and I had just met them, and I said, “Here”—this is when you brought your tape recorder—I said, “Here’s the song I’m working on.” Then I played B.J. Snowden’s “In Canada,” and they just looked at me like, “What the hell are you doing?” But then I said, “No, don’t worry.” I mean, I’m not B.J. I thought that would break the ice. We were listening to the radio during a break, and the news was on, and there were these biker fights in Montreal. People were getting killed. Some guy goes, “Yeah, I had to hit him with a club. He put sugar in my hog.” I thought, “That’s a good title for a song.” So they kicked into “Sugar In My Hog,” and I just came up with the lyrics. And that’s probably the best song on the record.
AVC: The rest is history. You mentioned “Love Shack,” which is the song that even people who don’t know the Bs know. It’ll be in the first line of your obituary.
FS: And we’ve got “world-class vocalist.” For some people, it’s “Rock Lobster,” but that was our biggest hit.
AVC: You performed the song at the Country Music Awards with Sugarland.
FS: Actually, if you listen to it, a country band could do “Love Shack.” That album—to be honest, people wouldn’t play “Love Shack” at first. The radio wouldn’t touch it, except college radio. That’s why we always… When college radio wants something, we’re there for them. And independent radio. While the band did sound-check, I went with the A&R person to radio stations to beg them to play it. Once it started taking off, the other radio stations started playing it. Then it snowballed. It went to No. 1 all over the country. But it didn’t do it at once. We were behind Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli [on the charts].
AVC: The judgment of history may be in your favor.
FS: It is. I’ve actually gone to hotels and there’ll be a wedding band doing “Love Shack,” and I look in, and the bride and the groom… Everyone’s dancing. It’s sort of weird.
AVC: For people who know the band, “Love Shack” is definitely up there, but they might not put it above “Planet Claire” or “Rock Lobster.”
FS: Well, commercially. But at the time, it was considered pretty weird. I think we still do a kick-ass version. I used to like doing karaoke until cell-phone cameras came along. Every once in a while, I sing along with people, but I like to sing things like “It’s My Party” and “Endless Love” really bad. We do stealth karaoke, Noah, Dan, and I. We show up at clubs and they don’t know who we are. No one knows who we are, and we just sing horrible. We take good songs and sing ridiculous. Which is fun. But not anymore.
AVC: The cell phones ruined it?
FS: I’ll be on YouTube, and they’ll think I’m serious.
AVC: They should institute YouTube-free karaoke nights.
FS: Yeah, definitely.
AVC: There’s a context that’s important to preserve.
FS: Everyone’s singing show tunes, and we’re singing… I think Dan sings “Nasty Girl” by Vanity 6.
AVC: So what’s the status of the Bs right now?
FS: We’re going full speed ahead. We recorded four shows in Australia, so we’re in the process of mixing down a live album. We’re booked through the year. We don’t have a constant PR person or anything. That’s why people say. “Oh, you’re still together?” Yeah, I’m in Des Moines with the band, not because I’m sightseeing.
AVC: There were reports after Funplex where you sounded doubtful about the band doing another album.
FS: I don’t know about a full-on album right now, because to do it is so expensive. The four of us have to be there, and we have to all fly to one place and rent cars and hotel rooms and a ProTools studio and come up with new material. It took us a while to do [Funplex], just because we had to pay for it. We don’t have a six-record contract or anything. But we’re real excited about the live album, and we’ll probably do some covers and things. You never know. Right now, I’m putting a lot of effort into this. I keep telling people I’m doing three albums. I better come up with three albums.