He’s wry and restless and funny as hell. He’s Eef Barzeley, front man for the alt-indie band Clem Snide and on February 23rd 429 Records will release The Meat of Life — 12 powerful tracks that showcase the silent sufferings and comedic moments that run through Barzelay’s head.
Life for Clem Snide began in Boston in the early ‘90’s as a faux post-grunge band. It didn’t take long to carve their own path and only three CD’s in, they branded their own unique form of “art country”. In 2001, they enjoyed more than fifteen minutes of fame when their single, “Moment in the Sun” was chosen as the theme song for NBC’s show, Ed. After two more albums and extensive touring, the floor fell out from under them. While beginning work on their sixth CD (Hungry Bird) forces of nature from within themselves and the outside world plagued Clem Snide, resulting in them leaving everything at the curb – including the band. During this hiatus, Barzelay pursued it alone – releasing two records, Bitter Honey and Lose Big and creating the score for the Sundance award-winning film, Rocket Science.
In spring 2009, Barzelay reformed the band with Brendan Fitzpatrick (bass/organ) and Ben Martin (drums/percussion) for the Hungry Bird tour. Fans warmly welcomed them back and critics praised them deservedly. With the wind under their sails, Clem Snide went back to what they do best, and created what just might be their best CD yet: The Meat of Life. And life actually, is pretty good right now as Barzelay continues to create music for the big screen, scoring yet another 2010 Sundance award-winning film Lucky, as well as music for The Yellow Handkerchief.
Midway through my interview with Barzelay, he said something that we’ve all thought or said at one time (if not many) in our lives: “If only I knew then what I know now”. Yet, if he had that omniscience, he may have called it quits a long time ago. Not because the band isn’t great, they are. But Barzelay will tell you (and quite candidly at that) they’ve been to hell and back in the last couple of years.
So where are you calling me from?
I’m in Nashville, Tennessee. How about you?
I’m in NY and it’s snowing like crazy…
Yeah, I used to live in New York… Brooklyn, actually.
That’s what I thought. Why did you move?
I’m not sure really. We had a kid and we lived in Park Slope – you know, where the hipsters go to breed (laughs). We were in a small apartment and we realized that it had like literally doubled in valued…back in the good ol’ days when those things still happened. So we foolishly thought we could buy a big house and that’s how we ended up down here …about five years already.
You were born in Israel though, right?
Yeah, my family moved us to Teaneck, New Jersey when I was six.
Funny…because you actually sound southern.
Yeah, people say that. I’m not trying to pull off some kind of Madonna thing (laughs). My parents were speaking Hebrew at the house, so I maybe that’s it. I’m a foreigner, man…an immigrant.
Did you go back to Israel during the summers?
Yeah. You know the thing about Israel is the people are really obnoxious. Very nervy, very rude. And I almost gotta love that about Israelis cuz it’s like everybody’s family so we don’t need to pretend with each other. They’re just rude motherfuckers (laughs) in Israel.
I have to be honest…your music is totally new to me. I didn’t want to pass up this interview because I fell in love with the CD. It’s just beautiful.
Thank you so much.
How would you describe it?
You know it’s tough to describe because when I originally started I never intended for it to sound like anything. We didn’t go into it with any kind of allegiance to one particular genre or style. It was whatever felt right. On the first few records, there was another guy in the band, Jason Glasser, who left in ’03 and he played cello and also was a sonic wizard of sorts. He had all these little tricks and toys to create various weird sounds with. So in the beginning it was very much about using these self made sounds that generally tended towards the low-fi end – like a scratchy cello note that he would sample and then mess around with. We were into old, Smithsonian recordings that we would get at the library. So it was more overtly post-modern, I suppose. And then over the years the sounds have gotten more broad and traditional, for lack of a better word. But in the beginning it was definitely more country-influenced. More of the really old flow kind of country. A lot of the songs were very waltzy. For me, it’s always been mostly about the words and then I would find people to flesh it out …
Why the title?
Well, the song itself I wrote last year when my wife informed me that we were having another baby. I’ve got a little baby girl 1 ½ and a boy who is 7. We’re also struggling right now…we’re kinda irresponsible financially. So for me, “The Meat of Life” really became a play on words. You know, the actual flesh of it…creating the flesh, which pertains to the family and it’s also the struggle of life.
How does it compare to Hungry Bird?
When we were making that about 5 years ago, everything was falling apart. There were pressures from within and without the band. I reacted to that by making these epic, really grand post-apocalyptic ideas. They were vague, dream-like visions that I tried to put into words. I’m not even sure what I was going for. I think a lot of it was also to be connected with my mom. She died from cancer a little bit before then. I’ve been minding that for a few records. So Hungry Bird’s songs are longer, there’s a lot of space and there’s no really snappy choruses, per say. It came out of a time of complete turmoil and general upheaval. But The Meat of Life is a collection of songs that I’ve been simmering for the last few years, whereas Hungry Bird’s songs were specifically for that record.
You discuss in one interview having about four nervous breakdowns in a year. Your band has been so on and off. And now you’re on again…
It’s amazing, isn’t it? We’ve been through a lot. When I started out I just made one terrible decision after another. I also went into it very naively, as far as dealing with the business side of things. I didn’t make that mental connection between the songs I was writing and actually running a small business, which is what it is if you’re gonna do it professionally. And I surrounded myself with a lot of bad people, like managers and labels, that God bless them I wish them nothing but the very best, but they kinda fucked me a little bit and then I kinda fucked myself, too. And people in the band were not in the best mental health. But we had a moment in 2001 when one of our songs was used for the show, Ed. So, we dipped our little toe in the mainstream and we found the waters very icy (laughs)…very unforgiving.
Be careful what you wish for…
I didn’t really have any expectations, though. If anything I went into it not expecting to really succeed in any kind of mainstream way. Not because I thought I was so cool or better than anyone. Even though I am exceptionally cool and better than most people (laughs)…but you know what I’m saying, right? It all just kinda fell apart. I don’t think people realize what it takes to get your band to actually be profitable in a way whereby every member of the band can quit their day job and do it full time. That takes so many things to line up just right. And even if you get everything lined up perfectly, you’re still beholden to the Gods and whatever or whoever determines these things. It’s hard in the sense that you can’t control it. You can make the best record you can make, but what makes it take off? I don’t know. I stopped thinking about it, too. I used to wrestle with it more and get really upset but now I’ve let it go and I’m just trying to make music that makes me happy.
This reminds me of my conversation with The Features who are also on 429 Records and live in Tennessee. They’ve struggled for two decades making amazing music that often didn’t get the airplay it should have.
Yeah, they made like eight records and only about two of them came out. We never got screwed over that bad. I think a lot of our damage was self-inflicted. I’m willing to admit that. There are two kinds of models of rock bands…there’s the REM archetype and The Replacements archetype. Each one you can sort of attribute a certain philosophy to. The Replacements approached a more self-destructive one… as the true rock n’ roll kind of path. You know, you implode because to become a full time professional band you essentially need to be a good businessman and maybe that doesn’t exist in a true artist. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But the REM model is one where they were smart and they kept the business straightened out and everyone in the band was focused. Nobody in the band was an alcohol or drug addict. They’re two extreme examples and we don’t really fall into either but maybe we romanticized these foolish rock n’roll notions.
Do you wish you could push the rewind button?
Well, the sad thing is now it’s too late. I think it’s almost impossible to break through because the internet has really ruined everything…it’s completely gutted the business. There is no more money in the music business. Labels have no money, no one has money, everything is free. The technology has made it so easy and once you get your Pro Tool shit together, you’re set. There’s so much great sounding music and it’s all free. So, you can be great, but it’s like, “okay, get in line”. It’s wonderful for the music fans, but the musicians struggle to give them that.
And the stage isn’t the be-all end-all anymore…
Oh, definitely not. I use my experience as a benchmark. I opened for Ben Folds around 2000 and he plays mostly smaller cities. It was just me and a drummer. It was terrible and so sloppy. But the minute the curtains came up the kids went nuts. They really loved it. Now fast forward 7 years later and I’m doing essentially the same thing. If anything, I think I’m a lot better, my songs are tighter, etc. Sometimes it went over well, but a lot of times I could just feel the kids’ apathy in the audience. It was like they were saying, “uggh…whatever.” They just seem so privileged and they don’t care because they have everything. They have it all…maybe that was inevitable. I don’t think every generation gets their Bob Dylan. He comes around once in a long time. Or the Beatles. It’s not that they were so much more talented than people today. The music reflected what was happening in society at that moment. I think when it first started it was drawing from hundreds of years of this musical tradition that was uniquely American, in that it was African and European influences which had never really melded together before. So you had this amazing moment in history and the music that sprung from that was incredible. Now it’s been bought and sold so many times, that it’s just another kind of product. You can’t escape that; it’s our culture…a corporate culture. And we pay for it whether we realize it or not. We ultimately trade our comforts and conveniences for it. You can’t have the soul without the sorrow; you know what I’m saying? That’s not how the universe works. And the false promise of our society now is that you can have your cake and eat it. And that’s just bad. We’re gonna pay for that.
Speaking of having your cake and eating it too… I remember reading an article about how you described your family life. How the other dads around you were envious that you were still be able to be in the band and come back to a family, etc
Gotta be careful what I say (laughs). I’ve got two lives in a way. You know, I’ll go to some PTA meeting and be one of those people, for sure. And I love my kids. I don’t ever regret having kids, even though it’s put a crimp in my overall rock n’ roll lifestyle. But I don’t really like drinking or hanging out in bars, per say. Unless I’m playing there. If I’m playing there I totally love doing that, but otherwise I never go out. I’ve noticed that most people that do what I do don’t have a wife and kids. It’s definitely not the norm. A couple of people do, like Damian Gerardo …he’s got a kid and every now and again you’ll find out about someone who’s got a kid and the wife’s pissed at them cuz they’re going on tour again.
Are you touring in the near future?
Oh, yeah. We’re planning to do some U.S. dates starting in the middle of May. We’re probably going to do four weeks total in the states. We go to Spain a lot. That’s one country that’s embraced Clem Snide over the years. We go like twice a year and do pretty well over there. Great place to play.
Are you trying to get into SXSW or any other festivals?
No, I think I’ve suffered enough in my life that I would choose to rather not go to SXSW at this time. We’ve been there a bunch of times, but we’re actually going to Spain at that exact same time. Given the choice, we’re definitely picking Spain.
How did you get to be the man in Spain?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. When we first hit the scene, it just kinda stuck there. Also, there’s a really big filmmaker from Spain who used one of our songs in that movie, “The Secret Life of Words”. I don’t know if that had something to do with it, but the press just really embraced the band. Spaniards are cool. They love Neil Young…you wouldn’t think it, but they love all the older Americana stuff.
I know you love Neil Young. What are some of your other musical influences?
I cut my teeth on classic rock, for sure. Growing up in Jersey in the 80’s it was either classic rock or Duran Duran or something. I’d get my ass kicked if I was into Duran Duran in Jersey (laughs). So I listened to The Allman Brothers, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath…that kind of stuff. I really only played guitar in high school. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start writing songs and singing until about 21, 22 and I didn’t really write a good song until I was about 23. But when I did, Neil Young was it and Hank Williams. I learned a lot from Hank.
What about Paul Simon? I hear something similar in your music…
Paul Simon always creeped me out a little bit. I mean, I love those songs; they’re beautiful, for sure. But I think it’s cuz I saw One Trick Pony. It was such self indulgent, awful movie. Have you seen it?
No. I haven’t had the pleasure, apparently!
Well, if you ever see it, you’ll never be able to look at him again.
And even though you’re a Jersey boy, Springsteen never got under your skin, right?
No, I never let Bruce into my heart. Even Bob Dylan … I didn’t really start listening to him until not that long ago. Now I love him so much, but when I was coming up something about Bob Dylan put me off. Mostly I love a lot of older stuff and the indie-rock that was going on in the early 90’s, such as Uncle Tupelo, Palace Brothers, Drag City stuff was big for me back in the day.
Any grunge moments?
Oh, I definitely had my grunge moment, for sure. Actually, when Clem Snide first started in 1991 we were kinda like a faux-grunge band. I loved Nirvana. They got ruined after Nevermind.
Well, I loved In Utero, so I can’t agree. But tell me about the name, Clem Snide. He’s the character in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Did this book or the author have some special meaning in your life?
Again, like all the important decisions I’ve made in my life, I put so little thought into it and that was definitely top of the list. I get that question a lot and I always feel awkward because I just liked the name and it stuck over the years. But I have an aversion to being one of those literary rock bands. I think the assumption is that we all sit around reading these avant-garde books and such. We don’t read books in Clem Snide. What I really love about the author William Burroughs is not so much his books, but his recordings of him reading his books. He was really more of a comedian.
You’ve had the good fortune of creating music for Jeff Blitz’s film, Rocket Science and now The Yellow Handkerchief, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Did you go?
I was gonna go, I’ve been there a couple of times. I’ll only go if I’m going to be treated real nice and people drive me around for my dinners and stuff (laughs). Otherwise it’s a little hellish. My music’s in the movie, but it’s not such a huge part of the movie, per say.
How did you meet Jeff Blitz?
He’s a big Clem Snide fan. When he was writing Rocket Science he was listening to a lot of our music and he put some songs in the movie. They eventually contacted me to see if I had any more material they could use and that evolved into me actually doing the score. I had never done anything like that before. That made a big splash at Sundance in ’07.
It took a long time for The Yellow Handkerchief to materialize, but here it is…
I know, it’s finally coming out. I just finished doing Lucky but the movie I’m really excited about that’s still in production is Janie Jones. Hopefully it’ll be out this summer. I’ve written a lot of songs for that.
What’s it about?
It’s about an aging indie-rocker – appropriately enough—whose career isn’t doing so well. This ex-groupie shows up in the beginning of the movie and tells him that he has a 13-year-old daughter. She kinda dumps the daughter on the guy and they’re forced to come together. And then the daughter, who’s played by Abigail Breslin, also writes songs. The director got the Irish singer songwriter, Jemma Hayes to write the songs for her and I wrote the songs for him (the father) and they both sing in the movie…so it’s really cool.
Who’s the director?
A guy named David Rosenthal who did “Falling Up” and “See This Movie”.
Sounds like film is a good direction for you right now…
Oh, for sure. I mean, at this point that’s really what’s keeping me going. The indie-rock is not enough.
And the band is very cohesive…
It definitely feels the best that it’s felt in a long time. We’ll see how that translates into the world. For me, it’s in a really nice place right now.
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and AOL Music (Spinner.com) She can be reached at [email protected]