By Richard Skanse
(LSM July/Aug 2013/Vol. 6 – Issue 4)
“What do you want to know?”
Bob Schneider strides into the greenroom at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheater and fires off the first question of the interview before he’s even plopped onto the couch and fired up his iPad. This is within two minutes of his arrival at the venue, long after both Americana journeyman Will Hoge and Austin indie rockers Alpha Rev have played their respective opening sets — and, at least according to the schedule posted backstage, about 10 minutes before Schneider is due on himself. Given that, coupled with the number of distractions Schneider is juggling at the moment — from tweaking the set list to conferring with stagehands, band members and friends popping into the room for this or that — I figure we’ll barely have time to scratch the surface of “what do you want to know.” As a general rule, right before show time is the last time artists want to bother with press. But both his publicist and manager have assured me that Bob does it all the time. “And if you don’t get enough, we can always schedule a follow-up phoner, too.”
As it turns out, that isn’t necessary. It ends up being 33 minutes before Schneider is called to the stage, which proves to be just enough time to play catch up with an artist who’s made a career out of creating in the moment and changing musical directions on the fly. On top of being one the most popular and prolific Austin performers of the last two decades (at least out of those not named “Willie”), Schneider’s arguably one of the only artists in the “Live Music Capital of the World” who can draw crowds multiple times a week without ever playing the same song — let alone the same set, mood, or genre — twice.
Case in point: The high energy, crowd-pleasing 21-song show Schneider plays on this Saturday night in early June — packed with fan favorites like “Honeypot,” “Big Blue Sea,” “Metal & Steel,” “Tarantula,” “40 Dogs (Like Romeo and Juliet),” and “Unpromised Land,” the assertive, rocking lead single from his brand new album, Burden of Proof — couldn’t be more different from the prickly, brooding and seemingly willfully inscrutable set of mostly new material he played earlier in the week at his Monday night Saxon Pub residency. It was at the Saxon back in 1999 that Schneider, after a decade of fronting three of the Austin’s most riotously rowdy party bands (Joe Rockhead, the Ugly Americans, and the particularly profane, still-active Scabs), first unveiled his more introspective singer-songwriter persona under the band name Lonelyland. The songs by that Bob Schneider are the ones that made him a triple-A radio star (most notably on Austin’s KGSR, aka the other Bob-FM) and that continue to fuel his touring career. But these days, his Saxon shows — still packed week after week — are about the last place you’ll hear Schneider rolling out the hits. Instead, he uses the residency as his forum to revisit deep cuts, experiment with different stylistic whims, and workshop new material — and that’s new as in brand new, not necessarily songs from whatever happens to be his latest “official” album. (In fact, on that particular June 3 Saxon show, just a week before Burden of Proof’s release, he played only two songs from the album: the languid “Hop on the World” and the moody, Leonard Cohen-esque “Digging for Icicles.”)
Incidentally, both of those particular shows, in Austin and New Braunfels — along with a Denton gig from the same week and a handful of others since — are already up for sale as downloads on his website’s “Frunk” page. So, too, is every show he’s played going back to the beginning of 2012: solo gigs, full-band gigs, Scabs shows, shows with his Moonlight Orchestra ensemble, and even the occasional Bluegrass Massacre hootenanny. After sampling a handful of said Frunk shows at random — or hell, even after hearing any two or more of the man’s equally divergent and eclectic studio albums — the response any Schneider neophyte might have to Bob’s aforementioned “What do you want to know?” question would very likely be, “Which of these many, many different Bob Schneiders is the real Bob?”
The answer, of course, is “all of them.” He’s also a painter, poet, and doting single father who, in stark contrast to the debauched hedonism suggested in some of his wilder songs and performances (particularly with the Scabs), is a man coming up on 19 years of sobriety. And, considering the casual swagger with which he walks out onto the Whitewater stage in front of a few hundred eagerly awaiting fans and launches his band into “Swimming in the Sea” not but three minutes after we’ve finished our talk, Schneider is first and foremost an artist for whom performing seems as natural a function as breathing.
You know, when they told me we’d be doing this right before you went onstage I was a little dubious, and felt a little guilty about distracting you. But they assured me you do a lot of interviews right before playing. Do you not need any time to get into a performing headspace?
No, I don’t do anything.
So it’s just automatic, like flipping a light switch.
I see you actually have a set list there for tonight’s show, which kind of surprises me. Do you ever stick to those?
Well, I’ve got a different drummer who’s subbing in tonight, so I’ll probably stick to the set list. But if it was my [regular] band … I don’t even use set lists. So I’m only using one tonight for him.
Speaking of your band, I know Oliver Steck (keyboards) and Bruce Hughes (bass) have both played with you for quite a while now, but David Grissom (Joe Ely Band, Dixie Chicks, Storyville) just started playing guitar with you about a week or so ago. I was talking to him for a bit before you got here, and he admitted being a little overwhelmed when you gave him a folder with like, 240 songs to learn before his first Saxon gig with you last Monday.
Well, we play … on Mondays we play a different set than we do on the weekend. So he had to learn basically four hours of material, which is about 48 songs. But I gave him a Dropbox link that’s got a couple hundred songs in it, so I think that’s probably what he was talking about. Like he saw that and probably went, “Oh my God, I’ve got to learn all these songs?” But he really didn’t have to.
How many of your songs can you carry in your head at one time? Can you recall that many songs on the fly?
I mean if I sit down to just sing my songs, I could probably sing a couple hundred — so I could probably do seven or eight hours straight without having to look at notes. But with my notes, I could probably sing for a couple of days straight.
That seems pretty remarkable. Does it seem that way to you? Or do you think a lot of songwriters who’ve been doing it for a while might say the same?
Well I don’t think it’s typical. I definitely think I write a lot more songs than most, and I’ve been doing it for a really long time, so it’s added up. I’m putting together this thing called The Demo Bible, which will be a lot of the demos that I did as I’d write the songs and then record them. And those have gotten better and better over the years. So I’m going to put out this Demo Bible, which will have a book with the lyrics to about 1,000 songs, and it will come with a USB drive with about 800 songs on it.
When will that be finished?
It’s done, it’s just a matter of when do I want to put it out. I’m trying to find a manufacturer who can put it together so it looks like a bible, with a leather cover and stuff. I want it to look like that. I could make it look like a regular paperback, but I want it to look cooler than that.
How often do you write?
I write a song a week. I have a songwriting game that I’ve been doing since 2001 with some people where we pick a phrase, and then each of us writes a song with that phrase. A bunch of people are in it or have done it. Bruce Hughes is in it, and … [Just then, Casey McPherson of opening band Alpha Rev walks into the room] Casey McPherson, he did it for a while, but he’s too much of a pussy to do it now.
McPherson: Do what?
Schneider: The song game.
McPherson: I’ll do it again, if you’ll let me!
Schneider: Of course I’ll let you. Any time you want. I’ll add you this week. Send me an email when you get home. You were one of the best that was ever in the game, but you fell out …
McPherson: I love it, but it’s challenging!
Schneider: And it’s hardcore now, too. If you miss a week, then you get cut.
McPherson (to me): Dude, some of his emails that go around, with people’s stuff, sending their songs … it’ll send chills up your spine.
Schneider: It’s not that bad …
How many people are in this pool right now?
It’s big now. It’s gotten too big. There’s about 25 people. I was thinking about it today, how I would love to cut out 15 people who just suck. But the thing is, the people who are the worst songwriters tend to be the ones that stick in and write their songs every week. They’re the hardest workers. And the best songwriters I’ve had — like Casey was in it, Patty Griffin was in it, Mike Doughty, Ben Folds — I mean I’ve had all kinds of people in it, and they always stick around like two or three weeks and then they’re out. Hayes Carll was in it for a second — he didn’t last one week! Like he was in it, and didn’t write one song. Three weeks later I was like, “Dude, you’re out.” Jack Ingram, same thing — I think he wrote one song.
McPherson: Well dude, I’m ready to get back in. I need new songs.
Schneider: You should! I wrote a good one yesterday. It’s called “Into the Sun.” It’s brilliant. It’s like that once-a-year really good song.
McPherson: Do you feel like it could be the song?
Schneider: You mean a hit? It’s a hit. I don’t know if it could be the song. I’ve written “the song” many times, and it’s never been “the song.” But you never know. It takes a lot of shit. It takes a lot of synergy. It takes a lot of people getting behind it, and it takes the public getting behind it. It’s just a matter of luck, really.
Let’s talk about your Saxon Pub shows. I went this past week. I hadn’t been to one in a long while, so almost all of the set was unfamiliar to me, but I went with friends who have been going for years and they hadn’t heard a lot of those songs before, either. I really get the sense that, unlike a lot of artists, you’re not very guarded with your new material. Like, you’ll write a song and play it out that night or week, won’t you? Before the paint’s even dry.
Yeah. Like the song I wrote yesterday, we’ll do it Monday night. And we record the shows, so people will have a recording of it that night, too, three days after I’ve written it.
It will be available as one of your “Frunk” downloads.
Right. And I mean, the good thing about that for people is, most of the songs I write never end up on albums. I’ll write a song and then play it for a couple of weeks, or sometimes I’ll only play it once. I’ll play it that one Monday and then never play it again, because it sucks or just doesn’t work. But people can still have a recording of that song that will never get played again or that nobody else will ever hear if they want it.
Because of that spontaneous nature of the way you work, that constant stream of new material — by the time a “new” album like Burden of Proof comes out, how far back in your rearview mirror is that?
It’s super in the rearview mirror. I mean that record, we recorded it over a year ago, and I don’t record any “new” songs, so all the songs on that record are at least a year and a half old, if not older. I mean, here’s how bad it gets — here’s how far in the rearview it is: I already know, I’ve already recorded, half of the next record, which won’t be out until next spring. So it won’t be out until another 10 months. We’ll finish that in the next three or four months. So I’m already done with that record, and I’m already looking ahead to the next record after that.
A lot of artists — most artists — will record an album and then work it and support it for at least a year or more, as a major addition to their catalog. But at the rate you write and churn through songs … do you ever feel any real attachment to your albums?
Well, if you look at the set list for tonight, most of the songs are songs that have been recorded on records. There won’t be any that haven’t been recorded yet. There’s three songs from the new record, one song that I wrote about a month ago, and the rest of them are …
Fan favorites and staples. So it’s a different thing obviously than your Saxon shows.
The Saxon thing is all brand-new stuff or really old stuff or stuff that I just don’t play anywhere else. And the shows on the weekends, like tonight, have become sort of like, even though I don’t have any “hits,” have become sort of the best-ofs from the recordings. It’s basically what people want to hear. Or what I think they want to hear. I don’t even know what they want to hear. Like we always play “Tarantula,” we always play “Big Blue Sea” … there’s 10 songs that I play on every weekend show, no matter where we play, and I’ve been playing those same 10 songs for probably seven or eight years. I mean, you can get a weekend show sometimes where I just broke up with somebody, or where I’m losing my mind, and I might do some weird, crazy shit, but for the most part, it’s pretty much the “Best of Bob Schneider” on the weekends. And that seems to work, because that’s what most people want to hear. I think 10 years ago when I was playing, I was thinking more along the lines of, “How can I satisfy my own … what do I want to hear tonight.” And that would be super-varied, and that’s what I’ll still do on Monday nights at the Saxon Pub, where I’ll just play whatever the fuck I want. I’m not going to play “Honeypot” or “Tarantula” on Monday nights. But on the weekends, it’s not about me. People paid $25 for tickets, drove way the fuck out here, paid $10 for parking, and they’re going to pay another $34 on drinks. It’s a lot of money. So I’m going to give them sort of the best of whatever I have to offer. I’m not going to do the Tom Petty deep-cuts thing for them at Whitewater Amphitheater, because I can do my deep-cuts thing at the Saxon Pub on Monday nights.
A few minutes ago, you were saying that you never really know which songs are going to be hits. I interviewed you back in 2001 for a Texas Music cover story, and you said then that the whole reason you started writing songs was to make people love you. To what extent, if at all, does that still apply? Because it seems like some songs, like “40 Dogs” or “Honeypot,” are big open hugs; but others, like “Digging for Icicles” on the new album and a lot of the stuff you played the other night at the Saxon, are a lot more prickly. And the same goes for some of your records. I Have Seen the End of the World and It Looks Like This (2003) and When the Sun Breaks Down the Moon (2008) both seem more like “advanced Bob Schneider” than say, Beautiful Creatures (2009) or A Perfect Day (2010). Do you find yourself sometimes consciously trying to test people vs. trying to win them over?
Well, I mean … yeah, I don’t know. I just think in terms of how good the song is. I don’t think in terms of the emotional content of the song. Like, “40 Dogs” is sort of like this being-in-love feeling of euphoria, and “Digging for Icicles” is about being lost and alone. But just because one song is more hopeful and another one is more depressing doesn’t make it worse or better.
No, and I’m not saying the less accessible stuff is better or worse. But it does seem like there’s a real push and pull sometimes. And regardless of what they’re about, some of your songs definitely sound a lot more experimental and unconventional than others.
I don’t know. I mean I have written some more experimental songs, but I really don’t play those. Most of my songs are really pretty simple and straightforward. I don’t do a lot of weird songs. Sometimes the lyrics can be a little esoteric, but … I mean, I write simple songs. I’ve always felt like I write children’s songs for adults. That’s what it’s always felt like to me. They’re real simple; the content is adult, the content’s not for children, but it’s pretty simple stuff.
In terms of getting people to like, wanting them to love me or whatever, I mean I definitely want everybody to love me and like or respect what I do. I like the idea of being respected and loved. I was watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and ceremony on HBO, and I was like, “I wonder if I’m ever going to be inducted.” Like, I really feel like I really still have a shot at being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I’m going to be so old if that happens! And it might not happen. But it’s weird, because if you were to ask most people, most normal, sane people — like if I was a sane person, I’d say, “Yeah, there’s no shot of me ever getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s no way, it’s not going to happen, I’m too old, I’ll never be big enough to be in there.” But I still feel like I really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And I think eventually, at some point, you know, there’s a shot! But my two favorite songwriters, Randy Newman and Tom Waits, I don’t know if they’ll ever be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think they should be, both of them, and they have a much better chance than I do, but even they have a pretty slim shot. So I don’t know what that means. I mean, Rush just got put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if you were to ask me if I was a better songwriter than Rush, I’d be like, “Uh … I don’t rock as hard as Rush, for sure,” but I would never listen to their music at all. But a lot of people like them, and they’re hugely popular, so … you know, I don’t know.
Here’s what I know: I’m making a living playing music, which is crazy. That I actually get to do this for a living is weird. So I’m super grateful for that.
Prior to the release of Burden of Proof, there was a tagline on some print ads and on your website that read, “You don’t know Bob.” Implying, of course, that “you don’t know Bob until you hear this.” I know that kind of stuff goes with the territory of a record label pushing a new release [Burden of Proof is Schneider’s third album for Dallas-based Kirtland Records], but is there anything on this album that you think might surprise a veteran Bob Schneider fan?
I think if you come see me play — like if you come to maybe four Saxon Pub shows a year, and come see me on the weekends, maybe come see the Scabs and the Texas Bluegrass Massacre and then go see the Moonlight Orchestra, then no, nothing is going to surprise you on the record. But if the only thing you’ve heard is like “Honeypot” a couple of times when you were going through channels on KGSR or something, then yeah, there’s a lot of material … there’s a lot of stuff. I always liken it to, if you hear one of my songs, it’s like looking at my thumb. I don’t look like my thumb. But my thumb is part of me. But if that’s all you saw, it would not give you an accurate representation of what or who I am. So chances are, I think that “You don’t know Bob” thing is mainly for people who don’t come to my shows, or who aren’t familiar with six days worth of my music.
I understand that you’re having a video made for every song on this album, each one by a different director. Did they all come in with their own ideas?
Yeah. They’re all, it’s whatever they wanted to do. I have nothing to do with it.
They haven’t all been unveiled yet, but I have seen the first one, for “Digging for Icicles,” which was suitably creepy. And your publicist told me all about the one being done for the last song, your cover of “Tomorrow” from Annie. She said it’s you singing the song in a car to woman in the passenger seat who’s bleeding to death. That’s some pretty dark stuff there.
Yeah, I love that video. I love really super dark, weird, fucked up shit. I mean, some of the directors that are doing this weren’t people that I picked; they were people that the record company picked, and I don’t think that I would have picked them because they’re not going to direct really dark, weird shit, they’re going to direct … I just saw one that, I won’t tell you which one it is, but it’s just …
It’s the one with the kittens …
There actually is one with kittens! [Laughs]
Really? I was just kidding.
No, there is. But the kittens one is super fucked up and weird, too, though. But there’s another one that’s just straight down the middle — it’s not dark, it’s not weird, it’s not fucked up. It’s not my thing. But people will like it; I mean my audience will probably like it a lot. They’ll probably like that one more than they will the “Tomorrow” one. Another one I really like though is, this guy that I know, Bradley Linton, did this one for the song “Best Day Ever,” which is a really sweet sounding song, kind of upbeat almost … [sings] “la la la, today could be the best day ever.” So it’s a real sweet song, but it’s about, you know, being heartbroken and trying to be optimistic — like it could be a good day, even though you’re feeling horrible. And his video, the whole video is just me looking super, super bummed out. That’s the whole video — I’m not even singing. And it’s black and white, just a shot of my face where I’m looking really horrible. And I love that. That’s one of my favorites. Because it’s fucked up and it’s dark and it’s art. I just like weird, fucked up art.
Speaking of weird, dark art, you did some shows with Terry Allen not too long ago, didn’t you?
I did one show with him.
It was just one? OK. Well I brought it up because I interviewed him not too long ago, and I told him the story you told me once about the time when you were in school at UTEP in El Paso, and he came in as a guest lecturer at one of the art classes you were taking. You said he told the class, “All of you are wasting your time sitting in here studying art when you could be out there, making art.” You said that really made an impression on you — how it kind of spurred you along into moving to Austin and really starting your artistic journey in earnest. How familiar were you with Terry’s art and music back then?
I’m still not familiar with his work. I didn’t know anything about him when he first lectured, and then the art teacher told us about his art, he described it to us. It was super weird, subversive … it almost didn’t even seem like it was real art. I was like, “I can’t believe this dude’s getting away with this!” And I really didn’t know anything about his music when I played that show with him. But we did a song-swap, where I do a song and then he’d do a song, and when you do a song-swap, you actually get to really listen to the person’s songs. So I got a chance to hear him, hear his songs, and his songwriting is great. They reminded me a lot of some of my songs: they’re super quirky, they’re dark, and they’re funny and they’re fucked up. And it was weird, because like, I’m a big fan of my own songwriting, so I just thought, “This is going to be fun, but I’m going to kind of blow him away with my songwriting.” But that wasn’t the case at all — his songs were great. And because I’m really competitive, I only played my very favorite songs that night, so I felt like the people who were at that show really heard a lot of very good songs being played on that stage.
Like Terry, you do visual art in addition to music. You paint. Is that just a side thing for you, or is it as important to you as the music?
No. In fact, I didn’t do any art for years and years. And then about, oh I don’t know, 15 years ago, I started doing a bunch of paintings, and I did that for about a year, and then that stopped. And then I didn’t do anything again for years. That seems to be the way it works: I’ll go through a bunch of stuff and then I’ll stop. And then a few years ago I stared doing art with my son, like we’d do these little art projects with watercolors. And since then I’ve been doing a lot more art. But you only have so much time, and it takes a lot of energy to write songs, just to be creative — you only have so much creative energy at your disposal. And I use most of it for music so there’s not that much left over for art. But I have been doing more and more of it. In fact I was working on something today.
Speaking of creative energy, do you ever get blocked? What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without writing a song?
A week. Maybe two weeks. But I have to write a song every week, at least. The only thing that stops you from doing anything is if you’re trying to do something great. Like if you’re trying to write the best song ever written, you’re going to get writers block. If you’re trying to create the best piece of art that’s ever existed, you’re going to not make anything. If you’re trying to write the greatest novel, the greatest book ever written, you won’t write. But if you just write, if you just draw, if you just paint, if you just do the work, eventually you’ll do something that’s good. So I don’t worry about doing anything great — I just do it.
How old is your son now?
Has fatherhood affected your muse at all?
Yeah. It’s completely changed my entire perspective on life. In that, before my son was born, I was the most important person in the world. Now I’m the second most important person in the world. And it’s taken … like I don’t have as much time. I used to have a lot more time to spend making art, and now I have less time to do that. But, I also get to hang out with my son, who’s my favorite person in the world.
You said you’ve painted together. Has he picked up an instrument yet?
Yeah, we’ve been writing songs together. He’s singing.
Has he ever seen one of your shows?
He’s seen a lot of my shows.
Do you make them PG when you know he’s watching, or does he get the full Bob experience?
No, they’ve always been G-rated shows, for the most part. I don’t really care about language, though; he’s heard me cuss. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with cussing, unless you’re in a situation where cussing would be rude or offensive to people because of where you’re at … like if you were at dinner with people you don’t know, then it’s not the language but the idea that you don’t care about those people’s feelings, that’s the part that’s shitty. But using the word “shitty” or “fucked,” I don’t give a shit about. It’s funny though because I did an interview with somebody not too long ago, and I was cussing a lot in the interview. And it was for an online thing, it wasn’t even a magazine, but they just used “expletive,” “expletive,” “expletive” in all my quotes. And I was just like, “Ah, I gotta not cuss when I do interviews.” But I was also like, “Ah, really? You can’t just paraphrase? Or just use the actual language?” Expletive, expletive, expletive just seemed bad.
I’ll leave them in there. But I think they’re about ready for you out there, so one last question. Although you tour a lot and have had some success nationally, you’ve been kind of like the king of the Austin live music scene for a long, long time now. So, just in terms of going about your day-to-day life when you’re not performing, what’s it like being you in Austin? Are you constantly recognized? Do you still get a kick every time you hear yourself on KGSR?
I mean, I don’t listen to the radio that much, so it’s rare for me to hear myself in any sort of public environment, but … [to stage manager] Is it time to play? OK. But no, I love it. And I do get recognized more and more, and I like that, too. It’s really only weird when people are like, “Hey, Bob!” — like real familiar, and I don’t know the person at all. That’s always weird.