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For the first 10 years of his career, country-tinged folkie Todd Snider was best known for penning drawling, smart-ass novelty songs like “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” and “Beer Run” that were good for laugh but didn’t exactly suggest future greatness. Then Snider released 2004’s East Nashville Skyline, a ravaged, darkly funny album he wrote and recorded after going through rehab for Oxycontin addiction. The record begins with a short song in which Snider professes amazement at not being dead, and his subsequent career has a similar feeling of unlikely re-birth. Snider’s 2006 release, the brilliant The Devil You Know, was his best album yet, depicting with humor and subdued yet palatable moral outrage a collection of losers—including hapless armed robbers, construction workers on parole, and coke-sniffing pool hustlers—trying to make their way in Bush’s America. Finally, Snider was writing rich story-songs on par with the iconoclastic ’70s singer-songwriters—John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Kris Kristofferson, among others—he spent years emulating.
While Snider says he cares less about breaking out of his cult following than ever, he seems to be creeping ever closer to doing just that. Snider’s latest album The Excitement Plan is helmed by superstar producer Don Was, and features guest vocals from Loretta Lynn and ace session musicians like Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz. The A.V. Club recently talked to Snider about the album, drugs, the gypsy lifestyle, baseball, and politics.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that you spend a lot of time working on lyrics, and make up the music on the spot. Were you exaggerating, or is that how it really works for you?
Todd Snider: The melody will be pretty tight when I get to the studio. But the actual arrangement and instrumentation, I try to leave it to happenstance. I guess I get it from Dylan—the idea that you get these really cool musicians together and record them as they’re hearing your song for the first time and playing along with it. I always find that’s my favorite version of the song. On this new record we just did, nobody but Don [Was] had heard the songs. We went and played each song twice—and those guys can just do that.
AVC: Are words more important to you than music?
TS: They’re equally important. But the way to get what I’m looking for is different in each case. I have something specific I’m hoping for with the words and the music, and the way to get the words the way I like them is to take a long time, and the way to get the music I like it is to not let me or anyone else get in the way of it.
AVC: What was it like working with Don Was?
TS: I feel like I learned a lot, and that I made a good friend. Making music with people, it was the most fun I ever had. I guess a surfer would say that was the funnest wave I ever did.
AVC: How did you meet?
TS: I met him through Garth Brooks a long time ago. I don’t know if he’d remember me, but I went to my manager and said I wanted to go in a new direction with my sound. And I played him a Kris Kristofferson song off his last record, This Old Road, and it was the one track on the record that had a band. I said, “Find me someone to help me sound like that.” I never thought to look down and say, “Who produced this? Let’s call him.” And he called me back and said, “What do you think of Don?” And I was like, “You mean the guy who produces the Rolling fucking Stones?” Besides my wife, those guys are my favorite thing. They’ve brought me so much joy.
AVC: Some of your best songs in recent years have been about criminals, or down-and-out people who get in trouble with the law. Why does that interest you as a songwriter?
TS: Well, on this album I get arrested in the second song. I’ve never done longer than 24 hours in jail, but I’ve done that six times, maybe more. My nephew did his first one yesterday. So I guess I’ve just been around it a little. I’ve never done anything exciting. Never for stealing—well, that’s not true, I stole some shit once. But I never hurt anyone.
AVC: “The Highland Street Incident” from The Devil You Know is like a great little first-person crime novel.
TS: That was just a song about one of these guys who robbed me, and I kept trying to figure out how to make up a song about it. I really couldn’t until I thought about it from their side of the story. Once I did, I started having some empathy for the characters. I never had any empathy for the folk singer on his break who got robbed. I had more sympathy for the guy that was addicted to crack. I feel like I’m definitely drawn to the Tonya Harding in the Nancy Kerrigan story, you know? People always get mad at me for saying I like Mike Tyson. I know he was convicted of rape, and that’s deplorable, and I respect the act of murder more than the act of rape. But I have a lot of empathy for Mike Tyson and the way he was treated in this world.
AVC: Is the morning a creative time for you? Do you do a lot of songwriting right after you get up?
Todd Snider: I’m not certain it’s a creative time, but it is something I do compulsively when I first wake up. Before I realize I’m awake I’ve had a cup of coffee and read the paper and I’m typing something. Hopefully it will be a song, but it might be something else, like a story. I write stories. I made up a comedy joke once; I’m working on another one. It’s kind of a compulsive thing. It’s like how my wife smokes. She paints, too, and it’s like a little bit all day long. You wake up and do it for an hour, and take a break and come back, and take a break and come back. It’s about as often as someone might smoke a cigarette.
AVC: Have you ever tried writing a book?
TS: I’ve tried to write books and haven’t been able to. I did write a book of poetry one time, but it was right before Jewel put out hers and I read hers and decided not to do mine. Then I was talking to a friend of mine named Dennis Cook, who is a writer who mostly covers jam bands, and we were talking about getting together someday and making a book out of some of the stories I’ve told on stage. He’s going to figure out how much of it is true and how much of isn’t, and I’m going to have an opportunity to defend myself.
AVC: How true are your stories?
TS: I think people would be really surprised by how much of it was true, and also maybe surprised by the parts that aren’t true—they’d be confused as to why anyone would do that. Sometimes I’ll put a lie in there strictly for philosophical reasons, and sometimes to make the story shorter.
AVC: What do you mean you lie for philosophical reasons?
TS: I don’t get into the gypsy stuff as much as I used to—I still have the gypsy flag on stage—but I’ve tried to give up on the actual lifestyle, not very long ago, maybe a year. I was feeling a little superstitious about it because it was something I started getting into when I was young. It served me pretty well—I got to go around the world a few times—but it’s an exhausting way to live. You can’t really do it with your name on the sign, especially if the sign is starting to get bigger.
AVC: When you say “gypsy stuff,” do you mean the gypsy-like lifestyle of a traveling musician, or actual gypsy stuff?
TS: No, there’s a whole philosophical base to the thing.
AVC: Can you explain this philosophy?
TS: I could, but I’m wondering if I want to. I’m not trying to be a tool. It’s funny, because this conversation has been coming up a lot lately, and I guess it’s my fault. I don’t guess that anyone would give a shit anyway. I get superstitious about it, is all. It’s bad luck not be a little superstitious.
AVC: On The Excitement Plan there’s a song called “America’s Favorite Pastime” about Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while high on LSD. What’s the most impressive thing you’ve ever done on LSD?
TS: I climbed a fence one time, and it was a pretty high fence. What’s the word for those mushrooms that really make you hallucinate?
TS: That’s it! One time—and there’s even a tape of it—me and my band at the time—we were called The Nervous Wrecks—all took a ton of those, and played really good. And then I heard the tape and I said, “That’s what we did yesterday? You’re kidding me! Because I was on an Indian reservation doing a whole different thing.”
AVC: Are drugs still a part of your creative process?
TS: Sure. When I get up I have a cup of coffee, and that’s a drug. I start typing until the coffee gives me a bit of a stomachache, and then I smoke some pot and I type for a bit longer. Then I’ll go out and play with my dog, and go in and smoke the rest of the joint and play guitar. At the show, I’ll come down exactly an hour and a half before the show. Usually they have some wine there, and I’ll have a few glasses of that. Then maybe hit a joint if it feels right. That’s all I really do anymore. I haven’t done anything other than that in a long time.
AVC: How do you feel about other performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids?
TS: I’m into rock ’n’ roll, right? I’m not a big integrity freak. If there’s ever a drug that makes me feel like I’m going to come up with a new kind of song, I’m taking that drug. I never understood why jocks got so hung up on all that. If a guy wants to ruin his life trying to hit balls out of the park, why can’t he? I love it. Every time he does it they shoot off the fireworks. That’s what I like. I like homeruns. My buddy Peter Cooper, he’s on the other side. It really bothers him that Hank Aaron’s record is gone. I don’t know if I like that, but I don’t think about it that far. I just think about the day that I’m there. I want to have some beer and see some homeruns. I like baseball, but I’m not a purist. I’m there for the fireworks and hot dogs and shit.
AVC: You’ve written some political songs on your last several albums, including “Bring ’Em Home” on The Excitement Plan. You’ve said that you’re not trying to influence anybody, but there must be a part of you that hopes you have some impact, right?
TS: That would be a cool thing. Anyone with a point of view loves it when they sway someone who disagrees with their point of view. I don’t think that’s a noble endeavor, though. And I don’t think, as an endeavor, you really ever have a chance. In those moments where things become political, it’s usually because we don’t have an answer. So we all form opinions. I don’t know when the jury is going to come back, or where they went or if they exist. But until then, I try to sing and not worry about what’s going to happen after I do. I’d add that in my experience, as a person who went to see singers, some people helped me to make some decisions about the world. If I did that, that would make me feel good.