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Chris von Sneidern
by Matt Dornan / pictures by Steve Pitman
I was on tables, I was running around screaming, doing sermons! I was like getting down on the floor and screaming 'I wanna tell you...' It was a little bit silly, this skinny white guy trying to be James Brown. It's like 'get the hell outta here, man!' But I had fun.
No, San Francisco's pop saviour Chris von Sneidern isn't reminiscing about some beered-up, youthful trip to Majorca. He's referring to his short-lived flirtation with 60s soul and rhythm'n'blues that was The Sportsmen.
We only did four dates, the lodge is closed for The Sportsmen, he admits over a Portobello Road Guinness during a hastily-arranged visit earlier this year.
Documented on the sold-out, Japan-only album, Spirited, this side-step away from the expected classic pop route says more about the narrow-minded (some would say dedicated, passionate) pop community than Sneidern's own musical identity.
The only reason the pop community exists is because it's narrow," he begins
. "There's a lot of fear out there, people are afraid of being out of their little 'thing' because then they don't know about it. It's like 'I don't know about that so I can't talk about that to my pop friends. We can all like the Owsley record.' The Owsley record is not Power Pop. It's a good fucking record, but it's not Power Pop. Then there's all those bands that I kinda know, like Cherry Twister. I wouldn't know Cherry Twister if it was playing right now, but I know the name. Myracle Brah? I think I like 'em but I don't remember, you know. Splitsville? I think I like them too but aren't they the same band?
You know what it was? I fell victim to insecurity, because I was afraid people weren't gonna like [Spirited]. So you know what I did? I made people not like it. If I'd just said 'This is the new Chris von Sneidern record, it's a little different, got some different players, really cool. Don't be confused by the presentation, it's the same old CvS,' people would have probably been more receptive to it. But because I was making all these excuses for it, presenting it under a different name and all this other bullshit, people got turned off. So I'm gonna put it out as a Chris von Sneidern record. Chris von Sneidern 'as' the Sportsmen or 'with' The Sportsmen, or 'in league with' The Sportsmen.
CvS began his musical career with legendary Bay area popsters The Sneetches and Flying Color, experiences about which he's less than ethusiastic.
If anything I learned from [The Sneetches] how to rehearse and how to put up with rehearsal. They would just rehearse shit over and over and the way I rehearse now, it's like Boom! Geddit? It's not working? We don't play the song. I joined The Sneetches because it was the best thing available to me and it was fun. I had to play bass, it was a compromise for me. And I couldn't write songs for the group either, so I left them to join Flying Color and left Flying Color because I was being repressed, you know? Being told my songs weren't good enough and that kind of thing which , with hindsight is, I don't know... insane.
The four subsequent solo albums provide more than sufficient evidence to vindicate such a verdict.
It's like, say you're the leader of the group and somebody comes along who's obviously on their way to being the same thing, be a band leader. If you're a real leader, visionary, then you give your people away to excel on their own. You figure out a way that's mutually beneficial, but to tell somebody that's with you 'You're not good enough' therefore you maintain your 'position' - that doesn't get anybody anywhere. Flying Color essentially broke up when I left the group. I learned a lot from those groups and I learned, basically, not what to do.
For the most part 'what not to do' meant utilising his multi-instrumental and production talents. His last solo release, 1998's Wood + Wire, saw CvS allowing other band members into the fold.
I was trying to 'open up my world' because I'd made those first three records basically playing everything and controlling the whole thing and it had that sound, you know how the Jason Falkner records... it's that sound of one man playing everything. No matter how good a musician you are you can only, in the moment approach it from maybe three directions. But when you work with other people - even out of their inability to grasp what you're doing - they're going to approach your idea from another direction.
I think I know what I'm doing and then I pick a drummer who I think's good but is too fucked up to make it to the studio or I'll pick people who I think will work but who live three thousand miles away, so I have to organise them in New York and put them all in a studio and then I have to squeeze what should take three weeks into a two and a half day session. I'm still going back and forth on what works and what doesn't.
Chris has built up a reputation as a producer/arranger that has seen him work with some of mainstream rock's er, finest performers. Like, um, Jewel and Paula Cole.
Paula Cole did some demos at my house when she was doing promotion for the Harbinger record I think it was, her first Imago record. We did like four songs in a day or something. As a list of, you know, 'clients' it's a recognisable name, she got her Grammy three years later. And Jewel, we did two versions of a Fleetwood Mac song and two versions of our national anthem for the Superbowl and I played acoustic guitar. I guess the funny bit was playing the acoustic guitar real close to Jewel who's singing the national anthem... it's like 'let's sing another song, baby!' It's kinda funny with big stars, cause Jewel's a big star right? I opened a show for her in San Francisco three or four years ago and... nothing really special, you know? Good looking girl, as far as what we're told a good looking girl is. She's got blonde hair, big tits, you know. She wears leather... but not my type. Apparently I'm not her's either! Everybody on the session for those tracks we did went on tour with her, all of them except me! Because her manager said 'That Chris von Sneidern is trouble, we're not hiring him to take on tour!'
CvS also spent time with Mark Everett, known to you and I as E, leading light of skewed pop-meisters Eels.
In, maybe, February of 94 he was putting together a band because Parthenon Huxley (a CvS contemporary who worked on the two pre-Eels solo albums) was splitting off and we have mutual friends. I auditioned and 'Yeah, he can play guitar and sing, he's got the gear.' And I think E was in a place where it was like 'yeah, I gotta do this thing' but he was really uninspired I think. You know the drummer for eels, Butch? He was there, he wasn't called Butch then, and I was just in it for the allure you know? Like 'he's got a label deal, maybe this will help me in my career' and that actually kinda ruined things because E and I were kinda friendly but then it got down to this money thing with the manager and the label was trying to figure out how to not spend money, so they trying to cut it out of everyone's weekly salary and this other musician's like 'well we'll just hold out man, tell 'em we're not going on tour unless they give us eight-fifty a week plus thirty-five a day' which is a fucking lot of money. But I said 'I'll go along with that', solidarity, you know? Looking back on it, from a position of wanting to promote a record I'd have gone 'you're a fucking asshole, man. C'mon, you won't do it for five-hundred a week?' But I'd just put ut Sight & Sound [his 1993 debut], I didn't really want to go on tour with anybody else, there really wasn't anything to gain from it. I didn't really like playing his songs. It felt like, at the time, he was not into it. He didn't want to rehearse, he'd want to goof off, he wasn't having a good time. Then, shortly after that, his whole thing turned around. He got dropped, essentially, and then a couple of years later he got his deal with Dreamworks.
Perhaps more appropriately Chris got to work, albeit posthumously, with tragic Badfinger mainman Pete Ham on the two volumes of home demos issued in recent years by Rykodisc. After seeing Chris perform in 1994, the label wrote to him requesting he play on and produce some tracks.
"I'm like 'why?' I didn't wanna do it and on the first volume, the 7 Park Ave, I didn't play. I just edited, chopped up the songs from three minutes down to two, down to one forty five. So all those songs are bits now. And then on volume two I overdubbed some drums and bass, and I felt really timid about what to put on there. I would have done it different now, I'd have gone the whole hog. I, personally, would rather just hear it as is. But the guy who had the final say wanted a full-fidelity thing which, I guess, makes sense. But I think a pure fan doesn't want to hear Chris von Sneidern or anybody else, you know? I think I could have gone further but because there's no feedback from the artist I was second guessing myself the whole time.
With his tendency to cover songs from the sixties and seventies (during this two date trip Chris played Mott The Hoople's All The Young Dudes, Big Star's Ballad of El Goodo and Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence), and his recent Sportsmen experiment, is there a reluctance to 'move with the times,' has he given up on contemporary music?
I haven't really given up, I just haven't stayed up with it. I've have a lot of catching up to do so I guess I'll catch on up stuff that's from a richer era of creativity.
CvS's music has been compared, perhaps predictably, to the likes of Badfinger, Big Star and The Beatles, one US journalist nominating him as a potential filler of John Lennon's shoes should The Beatles reunite. Chris views such comparisons and the reluctance to build on such foundations with a degree of cynicism.
It's a small palette really. If I just go onto auto-pilot it just sounds like Rubber Soul, and I've done that. It all sounds like 1966, I can't do that. But growing up on that stuff it's in there, you can't blame people for sounding like that but I guess you can blame them for not trying to grow. Squeeze'll always sound like that sound, Crowded House will always have their sound but that's no reason to just re-hash. One thing about The Beatles that's kinda strange and awesome is that every record was different. They have I Am The Walrus and ELO based there whole career on that one song. That was just one little thing.
A cursory listen to any Chris von Sneidern record would have you believe that the relationship song is a bottomless well, and one he is content to use as a source of inspiration. But appearances can be deceptive.
You know, a lot of my songs are written and presented in the form of relationship songs [but] they're not about anybody, they're searching songs. It's all about figuring out why you are and why everyone is and why anything has to be. Philosophical bullshit. In the last couple of years, the lyrics have been about changes, why people do what they do, why I do what I do. A lot of times I'll start a song talking about someone else and then I go back and turn the 'You's to 'I's. It depends who's singing them. You can take a really dumb song and have it mean something if you sing it right, or you can take a song that means a lot but if you don't know what it's saying and you sing it it won't come across. Sound of Silence, right? That's a heavy song. I never really realised it until I studied the lyrics. Once I understood it, I'll never forget the lyrics now.
So what makes a great pop song?
I dunno, what makes a good dinner?
CWAS #5 - Summer 2000