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an interview with Eef Barzelay by Martin Williams / pictures by Ben Graville
When the poet Peter Orlovsky disclosed that "there comes a time in everyone's life when they have to take a piss in the sink," he was voicing the same admittance of natural human absurdity that seeps out through the joys and woes woven fine in the music of Clem Snide. This is a band that takes its name from a talking arsehole after all, a band whose last album, 'Your Favourite Music', pictured them dressed up to the nines in powder blue dinner suits while sunk knee-deep in water.
Despite the Keatonesque poker-faced clownishness with which they present themselves, Clem Snide are not at all the zany, comic troupe that some will have you believe. Collectively (that is: Eef Barzelay, Jason Glasser, Jeff Marshall, and Eric Paul, along with selected friends) Clem Snide have - like all of us - their periods of exultation and introspection, well aware that life is rife with absurd moments when you'll end up metaphorically up to your knees in the river in your prom tuxedo; when you'll have to take a piss in the sink.
"My heart lies in old standards and the first rock'n'rollers, like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry," songwriter Barzelay said shortly before the US release of the band's third album, 'The Ghost of Fashion', earlier this summer. "They were writing really simple, fun songs and ultimately every song's about love. My idea was that 'Ghost of Fashion' would be about 'bad' love and the next record, which I've already written, is going to be about the 'good' love. The next record is going to be really simple, straight-ahead love songs. I read something by a guy called Dave Hickey, who said it was the singer's job to express love because people need that expressed."
While there is an introspective tone to much of Clem Snide, it's perhaps more useful to avoid approaching Eef's songwriting as anything as trite as a confessional endeavour. It's more like a dramatic caricature of that, an artifice which is consummated by the listener rather than the psychologically suspect self-gratification of the confessional songwriter. "Whenever you get up on stage you're performing, you're acting," he asserts. "It's like that famous Picasso quote, 'art is a lie that reveals the truth.' I think I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm lying, rather than trying to create an image of honesty or reality."
Rather than any such naturalistic impulses, it's an almost satirical attentiveness to the unreal, to the delusionary and hollow that gives 'The Ghost of Fashion' its unity. "It's the record I've wanted to make for many years," Eef says. "I was thinking about this need people have to be famous, or lust and envy and superficial things like fashion. I'm intrigued by people who fall between the cracks of that kind of thing. One of the songs that didn't make it onto the record is called Song for Bob Crane. I'm definitely fascinated by the whole idea of celebrity and he was this marginal TV celebrity. He was on Hogan's Heroes - he was Hogan - and he became a raging sex addict and his career spiralled out of control and he ended up making home-made porn in seedy hotel rooms with underage girls. Somehow it ended up in murder; he was bludgeoned by the tripod that held up one of the cameras by some crazy friend of his. It's such a seedy story, I just thought it was beautiful. It's tragic and it's absurd, but there's a real humanity that I connected with."
With each of its stylistic detours logical enough to make 'Ghost of Fashion' a triumph of sequencing, the record also retains this humane admittance throughout, revealing a consistency of theme beneath its varied flavours. "I don't want to make it seem like I had a concept in mind," Eef counters, "because I didn't. And it's certainly not anything new. I'm sure Andy Warhol summed all this up 30 years ago. There's definitely a part of me that yearns for fame, but I think I'm a well-adjusted enough person to see the dead-end aspect of that."
With an attentiveness to the white noise of strip mall America that it might not be too pretentious to call Warholian, Clem Snide imbue heart and emotion into things more readily wheeled out as ironic ciphers or relegated to the status of kitsch. Of the song The Junky Jews, Eef expands, "it's about Corey Feldman, this cheesy teen actor in the 1980s. He became a junky and I just thought that was so perfect. Corey Feldman's a junky! It was on Entertainment Tonight: 'Corey Feldman's in rehab! He's a junky!' It's also a way to poke fun at the whole romanticism of being a junky. People are like 'Kurt Cobain was a junky, a tortured soul.' Or Lou Reed, or whoever. But when it's Corey Feldman it's not quite so romantic."
Counter to whatever alt.country variant Clem Snide are tagged with, Eef's songwriting gaze falls more naturally on the post-post-modern city or its suburbs, than any sentimental re-imagining of a bucolic Harry Smith fantasy. "This might sound grandiose, but I'd like to think we're making indigenous American music as it should be made in the year 2001. I grew up listening to classic rock and punk rock and then country and blues and jazz. I never sat down and said, 'I'm going to reinvent country music.' Truth is, I'm a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. I don't have any claim to an Appalachian heritage. I think the music is a lot more urban than it is country. I've never lived in the country; I've never gone on long lonely walks down some dark country road. We've been accused of being ironic, but I don't think our stuff's ironic at all, as I understand the word. To me, someone like the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Gillian Welch, someone who tries to authentically recreate a type of music that happened in the past, that's ironic to me. Why would I want to listen to Squirrel Nut Zippers when I can listen to Louis Prima or Benny Goodman?"
With Eef's self-conscious fascination with fame and fashion in mind, perhaps Clem Snide's signing to Sire records a couple of years ago can be seen as a faltering step in that direction. "Somehow Seymour Stein - the infamous Seymour Stein - took a shine to us and offered us a deal with Sire. At that time Sire seemed pretty attractive and he was the President of the label, not some A&R guy who was probably going to be fired in two weeks. Even though I'd been around enough to know that major labels are risky, it didn't feel like a major label, the bands they had were, like, the Lilys and the Apples in Stereo. So we made the record we wanted to. Unfortunately, right after that we get news that they're in the process of merging with London records, which took a year, and during this time every band that Seymour Stein brought to the label is getting dropped, except for us. The record sat on the shelf for a year and when it finally comes out, of course, they don't do shit with it, because they know they're not going to make any money. The guy from London said outright to me, 'you're going to sell, what, 10,000 records? That's nothing. We need bands that are going to sell a million records'."
Sire's releases at the time go a long way to showing where the label was aimed and how out-of-place Clem Snide were. "They were real excited about The Beach soundtrack, they thought that was going to bankroll the whole thing. Something has to change, at this point the labels are becoming more and more corporate, the entire entertainment industry is getting to the point where it's going to be owned by two or three huge conglomerates that are just much more interested in making a fast buck. I think what we need is another recession. That's when people will start listening to this type of music again. We need a war, a recession, some kind of natural disaster to get people ready to feel bad about themselves again. The party's over."
Ten years after forming as a more raucous proposition in Boston, Clem Snide have reached a pinnacle of sorts with 'The Ghost of Fashion'. To hear Eef talk, however, it's almost a wonder they made it. "The fact is that if you pick up a guitar today and want to make some music, the first thing that you have to contend with is all the things that came before. We could spend two hours listing all the bands you'd be inundated with before you even pick up a guitar. I feel obligated to call attention to that. I'm not trying to be clever when I make some pop references, those are the things I grew up with. I grew up watching Corey Feldman movies and listening to Joan Jett, that's my language, that's what I know, so that's what I'm going to sing about. I've no desire to sing about some coal miners on strike, I've never been near a coal mine. There are no real issues that I have to contend with. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s watching a lot of TV and smoking pot and trying to get laid. So an argument could be made as to why am I writing songs in the first place, I don't have anything of any great importance to sing about, what's the point? But the point is that I'm still alive, and just in the act of being alive and trying to relate to other people and find some sort of peace and happiness or whatever; that search never goes away, no matter what the social or economic situation may be."
Someone older and wiser made the claim that, "there is nothing that I cannot consider myself doing," as an attempt to express a kind of egalitarian solidarity. It could almost have been lifted from a Clem Snide song, as they attempt to reveal the grace in everyday awkwardness. Think of them next time you take a piss in the sink.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002