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Interview: Clem Snide

Posted by Ben Collins, Today's Soundtrack  July 17, 2010 01:53 PM

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The best part about listening to Clem Snide is that you learn a little bit about human beings each time you listen to them.

You have to trick your brain into ignoring the crafty melodies, but you eventually get used to it. And then you get rewarded -- little, clever proverbs-for-limited-audiences like this:

ďThose who are the most afraid say courage is a sin / and we are just bracing for the impact by loosening our limbs.Ē

Lead singer Eef Barzelay is so lyrically honest that itís almost like he knows something about being alive that we donít know.

So, as Clem Snide comes through Boston tonight (at The Middle East Upstairs) and Northampton tomorrow (at Iron Horse Music Hall), we decided to talk to him about it.

Clem Snide formed in Boston 17 years ago. Theyíve been almost universally critically-adored the entire time, they provided a theme song to a popular NBC dramedy (ďEd,Ē for the curious), and were the only band to provide value to a Christina Aguilera song by covering it. They also released some of the best albums of the last decade.

Eef lived in Charlestown and it sucked. Heís quick to point out that it wasnít the area. It was him and depression and papermaking equipment. But just because heís talking to Boston.Com doesnít mean he needs to tell us how great the Duckboats are. Just because he has a nice melody doesnít mean he has to sing about how lovely his girlfriendís face is. And thatís why heís so good at what he does.


Today's Soundtrack: Eef Barzelay - I Love The Unknown

Clem Snide - Moment in the Sun

Eef Barzelay - Well


Today's Soundtrack: Iíve always been interested in how you write songs. Are you one of those people who block out an hour every morning and sit at a typewriter?

Eef Barzelay: Iím definitely not that guy. I donít really have a routine. Iím not especially disciplined with it. Itís definitely gotten more mysterious over the years. Now, it just comes and I donít know where it comes from. I try to just trust it. I used to get a little nervous. I was anxious in the past. Some were finished songs -- verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, title -- that never even saw the light of day.

Today's Soundtrack: Has the songwriting process has evolved for you over time?

Eef Barzelay: I didnít really write my first song until I was 22, 23. The first five (or) ten years spent -- I was just sort of learning how to do it. Itís not like writing an article, or a short story, a novel. Itís not that it takes a lot of time. Itís really simple. Itís deceptively simple. Itís probably why there are so many songwriters. But what makes a song that can live on its own, one thatís more -- Iím not sure this is the word -- valid -- that is kind of mysterious.

TS: Do you think itís mostly from what you take in? Like the books and music thatís around you?

EB: Everything sort of forms it I guess. For me, the last like five years, itís really felt more like a channeling thing. Someone will just sort of come into my mind -- a person, a thing -- and tell their story, or relay some conflict. I’m more and more like a vessel.

Itís not some Alanis Morisette kind of s--t. Nothing happens in my life. I donít have those intense experiences.

TS: So you didnít have sex and break up with an NHL player?

EB: I dated a few NBA players. That was in the mid-90s. But it was more about the sex.

TS: Youíve come up with this idea for the tour that fans can request three songs for you to play at a show, or for you to record and send to them personally, for a few bucks. How did you come up with that? How has that worked so far?

EB: Itís provided some interesting and fulfilling experiences. I read a few messages from couple of people on the Twitter that were saying, ďWhat a brilliant marketing idea!Ē Iím like, ďReally?Ē

I just wanted to try out a new way to explore connections with the fans. Youíre kind of doing away with the preciousness of the master recording and just let the song exist once for each person.

It hasnít been especially lucrative. Itís been a lot of work, actually. Something like 60 requests came in all at once a few weeks ago. I have maybe a dozen left. I figured if I did a few a week, itíd be cool.

TS: Have you gotten any especially odd requests? Any odes to dead or dying dogs?

EB: Itís allowed me to revisit some songs, to rediscover these old songs that I havenít even thought about, sometimes, in years. Some people were doing it as a gift to their husband. Thereís definitely a familial aspect or theme to it. I donít think Iíve had any extreme requests. I havenít been singing to someoneís dead dog. A lot of people do it for some family member or their girlfriend. I try to mention everybodyís name at least once.

TS: If you could apply this rule to another artist -- you got to pick three songs of theirs to hear sung to you -- who would it be?

EB: Iím psyched that there are people who want me to sing these personalized songs, but I donít have the desire for that. I wouldnít want Neil Young to record three songs just for me. Most of the people I listen to are long gone anyway.

Today's Soundtrack: What are you listening to right now?

EB: I donít really listen to much new music anymore. I like Bill Callahan. I like some of those Jens Lekman records. And I really like ďLittle Wings,Ē the Light Green Leaves record. I like that record. Iíve been listening to a lot of early-60s jazz, too. A lot of Hank Mobley.

TS: Have you ventured into free jazz yet? Youíre almost to that part of that decade.

EB: I listened to all that crazy s--t when I was in art school. Listening to Ornette Coleman, Lester Young. But Iím into, letís say, sad jazz now.

TS: Do you have any particularly glaring memories of any times you spent in Boston?

EB: Clem Snide actually started in Boston, so itís real weird for me to play here. I had a mid-life crisis moment here a few years ago. I was doing this sort of sad solo tour. We played at TT The Bears. And that was where we played our second Clem Snide gig ever. It was at a new band night. We opened for the Gin Blossoms, if you can believe that. There were, like, four people there.

And, seventeen years later, there I was. It was definitely a humbling experience.

TS: (Laughing) I think youíre underestimating the kind of people who come through TTs.

EB: (Laughing) Uh, no, I donít think so. In twenty years, that place has not changed one bit. Now to play Upstairs at the Middle East -- itís cool. Thereís something nice about it.

When I lived in Boston, I was a miserable, f---ing depressed person. It wasnít a good time. Itís not a good place to be when youíre lonely and depressed. I do not have particularly good associations with it.

I went to MassArt. I worked at this place in Charlestown making hand papermaking equipment. It was a lost and kind of depressing part of my life.

TS: I was watching this AV Club interview with you (where Eef covers Journey, which you should watch), and one thing I thought was interesting was that you were talking about how great it is to be on the road, and how it was inconceivable to you that someone could hate that.

EB: That was a thing to do back then, with those bands in the Ď80s. They always had that one song, they had that one video in black and white. They were all tired. Like, ďWanted Dead or Alive,Ē and Bob Seger had a song like that. Jackson Browne, too. Maybe if I was on tour eight months out of the year, Iíd get like that. But, for me itís a vacation.

Saturday: Clem Snide, Heligoats at The Middle East Upstairs. Doors at 8 p.m., 18+, $14.
Sunday: Clem Snide, Heligoats, Leisure Colony at Iron Horse Music Hall. Doors at 7 p.m., $12.50 in advance, $15 at the door.

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About the author

Ben Collins can't help but search beyond Feist for the zeitgeist of Today's Soundtrack, his pick of a song or songs capturing the mood or events of the moment. His musical tastes vary from Strawberry Fields to The Magnetic Fields, from Low to Skee-Lo. A North Shore native, Ben has worked at The Boston Globe and Spin and is an Emerson grad. Make your own nominations to him at ben.t.collins@comcast.net or on Twitter @globesoundtrack. More »

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