Last night I saw the band Clem Snide for the second time (both times in Austin) and what a difference six years can make. It took less than six years for some bands I loved in high school and college (bands like REM and U2 ) to become too poppy and mainstream and redundant for me.
While those bands grew super popular very quick, though, Clem Snide took the opposite trajectory and it was hard to avoid noticing this when they played the Mohawk Saturday. (Incidentally, I will post links in the first comment to some of the band's songs so you can get an idea of what they sound like)
I had never heard of Clem Snide before seeing them at South by Southwest, in a large venue with a crowd of at least 200 people. I was blown away. The top photo here was one I took at that show, the rest are ones I took at last night's show). The current band is Eef, drummer Ben Martin and bassist Brendan Fitzpatrick.
Last night's show was at a venue roughly the size of two Starbucks and there were at most 100 people there.
So what happened? That's one of several questions I was delighted to ask Eef, the band's lead singer, in a 30-minute interview before the show.
This was my first in-person interview (complete with transcribing directly onto the laptop, which I can do much faster than scribbling - and deciphering - notes) in at least five years.
Normally I do my interviews via email which is easier for both parties. But the reality - as I wrote about in my primer on interviews here - is that you will also get better results if you interview someone in person.
The short answer to the "what happened?" question is that Eef broke up the band in 2007 (and he said it was a messy breakup including trouble when they had to fire the manager) and then their label went under. He had a solo career, putting out --- and - before getting on a new label, reviving the band but with new membership.
I was sure he was tired of explaining all of this so I asked different question and tried, and failed, to keep up with all of the answers. That was an advantage of email interviews - you end it with a complete transcript of the interview. On the other hand it's fun to watch the band get ready to get on stage, getting dressed up, etc.
Oh, and speaking of the suits.. the band always wears suits so I asked, essentially, what's the deal with the suits? Eef explained that it was something the band started doing early on and he likes to continue.
"It feels nice. It's like we are dressing to go to a wedding," he said.
My interview with Eef was the result of a long-running email exchange between he and I. I had emailed him more than three years ago offering to interview him to promote his next album or his older albums. He emailed back to explain that the band did not currently have a label nor any idea when the next album would come out. So we made a standing arrangement that when he DID have a new album to promote I'd interview.
Well, long story short the band does have an album that is now out ("Hungry Bird") but calling it "new" is not the right word since it was actually recorded several years ago with a different line-up.
He has been the only constant in the band since its creation more than ten years ago.
He said of the "Hungry Bird," album, "it has been sitting around. It has aged nicely, like a fine wine."
We also discussed world events a bit. I asked him to elaborate on comments in a few recent pieces I had about the band.
The AV club had a good interview with Eef that spells out what has happened with him in recent years. This piece in Austin 360 previewing the show was also good.
This comment, from the AV Club interview, screamed out for elaboration:
Decider: Are you saying that you predicted the financial collapse of America?
Eef: 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
At first he joked that he was prophetic but then he grew more serious.
Anyone who is paying attention can tell that things need to change. "Things are not sustainable. Collapse was just reacting to that feeling."
One advantage to touring, he said, is he gets to see different perspectives on life in America.
"People are unhappy with this society," he said.
Many people would be OK with giving up some personal inconveniences if it meant the end to McDonalds and Applebees and a return to more of a focus on local businesses.
I asked how Obama's election intersection with his opinion there will eventually be a collapse, one he hopes will be non-violent.
Obama'a election, he said, "is the biggest proof that people are ready for something different." He wonders if Obama realizes how much change is really need. The change will have to be painful - if it was not then it would not be real change, he said.
More from the interview in a minute...
Last night's show was way inferior to the show in 2005 but that was not the band's fault. First, as Eef told me, you need a minimum of 100 fans to have a really fun show. This tour, and other tours of the last few years, have been hard because they are playing smaller shows.
The main problem with last night's show, though, was that there a huge street festival happening outside. There were traffic jams all around - the local roads, the interstate - so band members wondered aloud if some fans didn't make it. But the biggest obstacle to a good show was the sound coming from another location.
You know how when you go see a band they have house music on while the band sets up and sometimes there's a few minutes when you have both the house music and the band you came to see? Now imagine if instead of turning the house music down that music not only continues but seems to get louder.
The end result is when the band paused between songs or if they tried to play a slow song the mood was regularly ruined by the sounds coming from the streets, be it motorcycles, people cheering, other music. The band had to start and stop at least one song because cues were missed.
Put simply the venue's patio set-up really backfired.
Eef and the guys still put on a good show. I was especially impressed with the drummer.
"Clem Snide is back!" Eef announced at one point, arms raised high like a boxer. Then he added, "though we never really went away."
Another difference between the venues - there was no backstage. When they finished the main set they walked behind some barriers, kneeled and smoked for less than two minutes before returning for the encore.
Eef stuck around after the show to have his photos taken with fans, which I thought a nice touch. I shook his hand again, told him "good show!" and was pleased he remembered my name. It then took me longer to make the 9 mile trip home (two hours) than the length of the show but it was OK. I was still pumped from the show, not to mention overstimulated from all the music and noise.
Back to the interview
I asked Eef what question he is most tired of being asked. He said he loved that question and I added that most interview subjects love that one, because it gives them a chance to vent.
He is most tired of being asked if his move to Nashville from New York affected his songwriting (he says it's hard to say). He is also tired of being asked to, essentially, dish dirt about the break-up of the band. While it is true that the long-time manager, for example, "did not go gently into the night" there is no significant dirt to dish.
Later on I circled us back to this issue and he explained that during about 2005 "everything started falling apart." That was when they lost their label, some members left, he fired the manager.
He decided to put out a solo album and was able to do so with the help of Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five, who let him use his studio. It did not seem right to put out those albums as Clem Snide albums since they were not made with other members of the band.
But that was the past and he was clearly tired of focusing on the talk. So we talked about the present and future.
"Things are back in order," he said. The plan now is to put out a new album in early 2010.
The band is currently doing a two-month tour, doing some U.S. shows then touring with Bob Mould in Europe, including Spain.
I asked him about career highlights.
His high points include the first time he made $1,000 for a show and the time fans of the band packed a venue in New York City called Tonic.
Other highlights included playing on the television shows of Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson. For the latter they were able to run around the adjacent studio, which is where they film the Price Is Right.
I noted his highlights seemed pretty distant and that's when he mentioned the last few years, and the last few tours, have been the most difficult.