Here is my conversation with singer-songwriter Todd Snider.
When I had a chance to observe Todd recording tracks for three days at the Sound Emporium in Nashville through Steve Fishell’s Music Producers Institute (now Imagine Recordings), I jumped at it. Todd was self-producing a side project of songs he had written for his alter-ego band, Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to talk with me about how he experiences performing.
Todd has a vast catalog of recordings. If you would like to get a sense of his live shows, I recommend one of my personal favorites of his albums, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms.
I really like what you do onstage. It feels like you create this zone around yourself, where you get to be whatever you want to be, and you’re in charge of that, and the audience is giving you something, and there’s an energy that seems to be flowing back and forth.
Yeah. Do you experience that?
Well, I definitely think that there is a genuine passing of energy, and you can tell it’s different in different times. In fact, when we would play those shows when we would open for Jimmy Buffett, it almost felt like it was electrical. You could have a doctor go, “Yeah, they just shot you with a lot of energy, and you probably won’t sleep now for a while, because all that shit just came at you.”
And I remember one time on one of those tours, Jimmy said, “Don’t do this, but watch what happens if you look up into the big black part of the arena for too long.” And it was weird, because you were exhausted, and it took like 20 seconds before you were just, like, “I have to sit down, I’m out of breath.” I don’t know what that is because I’ve only done it about 10 times, but he’s learned to do it every night.
You play festivals, and then you play more intimate venues…
All things being equal, what’s your favorite thing to do, between those?
My thought on gigs, and the thing that helps me the most, is I don’t separate them at all. When I’m in the dressing room and someone says, “That was good tonight,” that goes in one ear and out the other to me. I play all the time, and I don’t think of it. People don’t believe me when I say that, but I really enjoy all the shows, because they’re not different to me, one night to the next. Thursday night to Friday night, someone could go, “I went to both shows. Friday they were really quiet. Thursday they yelled requests the whole night.” And I’d be, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I don’t think about it like that. I feel like my job is to just sort of open my heart. And that part of it gets easier.
What is the experience of being on the stage like for you? What does it feel like?
I tried to surf two or three times, and to me, it’s like that. You’re getting exercise and you don’t realize you’re getting exercise. You don’t want to stop. It’s not like jogging, where you’re like, “I’m tired.” It’s like, if you go too long, you’ll fall, and someone will go, “Well, you did that too long!” And it’s also why people might jog or meditate or do those kinds of things – knit – you know, people who do stuff like that. Or some people just get high, you know, some people want to smoke crack. But mostly it’s like...well, you know what it is? I’ll tell you exactly what it is. It’s a 90-minute distraction from our impending death. That is all that it is. And for some reason, the awful truth of that makes it very easy.
What does the distraction feel like?
You know, you’re just singing and playing, and then there’s cheering, and we laugh, and sometimes it might get a little heavy. I don’t mind singing some songs where maybe somebody will cry, or some part of it maybe will remind them of their dad or something. I think that’s still fun. You’re still having fun when that happens.
But in my experience, it’s just like letting go. You know, there’s a plan, I make a plan, and it’s a thought-out thing. I’ll make a plan for the show, and then I’ll drink about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and that keeps the plan from being a plan, you know? And then that’s out the window, but that’s still sort of there. And that’s pretty much every night. I wouldn’t even say I’m drunk. I just drink about a half a bottle of wine, and get like people get when they come home from work and they have three drinks and then they watch TV. Because usually when you play, that’s the end of the workday. You know what I mean? You’ve done all this shit – you’ve traveled, you’ve sound-checked, you’ve loaded, you’ve gone to the hotel, you went to radio. And now you’re in the dressing room and you get to sit for an hour and just relax, and then go on. And that’s the funnest part.
What is the difference for you, getting through the gig, if you’re by yourself or if you have sidemen with you?
It’s pretty much the same. Physically, it’s maybe a little harder to do with a band. You’ll realize if you’ve been smoking too much. I usually walk real far every day so I don’t get too out of shape, but sometimes if you’re playing in a band, you’ll feel like you’re getting old. You can tell.
Your knees, or your lungs, or the guitar will get heavy on your shoulder because you’re playing harder and louder. And then the nature of a band show is a little different. But not too different. For the most part, it’s the same trip. And I have all kinds of different bands I play with, so it’s different every time I play with somebody. This new band I’m playing with is my favorite, and that’s very relaxing for me. There’s a guy named Vince Herman [of Leftover Salmon and Great American Taxi], and he made the set lists last weekend, and they were great, and I would never have made them like that myself. So I like the idea of playing with them, and getting him to make the set lists, and it’s a challenge for me.
One thing I’ve noticed when you get your applause at the end of a song, you seem to really take the time to enjoy that moment, you know?
I’m a slut for it!
You just let it come in, and a lot of performers can’t do that. They’re thinking, “OK, what’s next?” But you, you’re really in that moment, and you’re going, “I really like this. This is great.” Are you conscious of feeling that way?
I like clapping. I really do. It’s a nice thing to be clapped for, and I like it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. You say that, and I’m like, oh cool, that’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. I do like it when people cheer for me, though.
And your fans, they can get pretty vocal, they can get pretty involved in the show.
They’re singing along, and all that kind of stuff. And I assume that’s a good thing for you.
Sure! My thing with the crowd is, I want them to do whatever they want to do. And I don’t want to control them in any way, man.
Not like you could!
Yeah, right? You can’t. They gave me 18 bucks, probably, and they owe me nothing.
Is there anything about your performance, or yourself as a performer, that you wish you could improve or that you’re conscious of wanting to change?
Hmm, let’s see. Well, yeah, definitely. Although I don’t see myself as ever being a lead guitar player outside of something like this [Elmo Buzz project], and even though I can’t play lead guitar and I won’t ever be able to play lead guitar for somebody that had a real job in music, I can play it in this little side band, and it’s fun to work on and fun to try to get better at.
I’ve been playing the piano, and I’d like to get better at that. I’m going to try to take some time off of making up songs and just maybe study it with other people for a while, maybe take a long, long time off of making albums and work on my guitar playing and my musicianship. There’s a kind of harmonica playing that I don’t know how to play that I am just too lazy to get around to. And I know that I should do it, and the best people that do it have offered me lessons, and I’m just being lazy, and I need to do that and learn how to play that style.
And it might open up different kinds of songwriting for you, too.
Sure. For sure it would. It’s this Donnie Brooks style, or [Greg] “Fingers” Taylor style. I just do Neil Young/straight harp and blues harp. Those are the two simple ways. And then the hardest way, I’ve never really fucked with.
Can you take time off from writing songs, or do they just come out of you anyway?
It’s hard. I mean, I try. If I get an idea I’ll try – and John Prine taught me to do that – if I think of something that might be a song, I’ll just try to get in the car and try to go someplace else, and try to get away. The last three records, I worked really hard on making up songs. Tons of edits of every song. And while I was doing it I would be making up these songs [for the Elmo Buzz project], which were just very irreverent and fun, and I would be, like, I want the words to be “baby baby baby”. I don’t know why I was doing that, almost as a way to give a middle finger to something. Just a way to not give too much reverence – I don’t think songwriting’s important. So anyway, now I think I’m going to be done for a while. I thought that last record we made was probably my favorite one, and I kind of feel like what I was trying to do…
…that it came through, what you were aiming for?
Yeah, I finally figured out this little trick that I wanted to figure out. I don’t think anybody gave a fuck, it doesn’t matter to me. I was trying to do this thing, and it felt like, ok now, that’s it, now I want to play lead.
What were you trying to do that finally came through?
I’m trying to make up a song that I like to think is “my” song. Sometimes I’ll do a funny song; sometimes I’ll do songs that I think are very, well, I hate the phrase “serious songs”, because I think cancer is serious and I think divorce is serious. I think songs, even the saddest ones, are fun. There’s a song like “Thin Wild Mercury” or “Alcohol and Pills” that we’ll do, or “This Land is Our Land”, and that’s probably what I call the normal song, the normal Americana song, where the music sort of hints at a seriousness. And then the words come along, and maybe they sound like they’re sort of important, but maybe if you really looked at them real closely, they’re not as important as they sort of want to sing themselves to be.
I’m not knocking those types of songs, I’m just saying, like, there’s a song called “Doll Face” that’s on our album, and I think it’s really sad on a ton of levels, but you have to listen to the song a lot of times to hear that, and it doesn’t present itself like that. And it took me a long time to figure out that my songs that I like are the ones that I just like to think that there’s a lot of different types of things that are happening in the song, where you can listen to it and laugh, you can listen to it and not laugh. To me, it’s always like, a sad song with a couple of punch lines and a Rocky line. And I’ve always kind of hinted around at making up a song like that, and I finally just was like, that’s my song that I make up, I like that song, and I don’t hear anybody else making up that song.
Are you thinking about that when you’re tracking it? Are you thinking about all those layers when you’re doing your vocal performance?
Oh yeah. And it’ll take, like, two years to make up the song. And I like them when they’re kind of, I almost want to say they’re happy-sounding. And it reminds me of my favorite types of jam bands, like Phish and the Grateful Dead. They just sound happy, and you don’t even know why. I listen to what they’re saying really closely. Or take some of the lines in the songs on the new record that make people laugh out loud when I say them, and then just read them, and they’re like, “Oh god, that’s not funny.” Especially if the person saying it is being sincere. “Oh, Jesus Christ, that’s so fucking sad I have to laugh out loud!”
I often think that there’s an element of joy that goes into the creation of the music that makes that “happy” thing happen, where the people who are doing it are in a kind of joyful place.
They’re channeling that great thing.
I’m trying to. I’m trying to be part of something positive, or something that’s nice. I know that one thing, I do feel like I have peers and I don’t want to do, is sort of hope for my own pain, so that I can trot it out there very flamboyantly with this look on my face of just anger and disgust, and like, [singing mock-ponderously] “Muuuusic is this seeeeerious thiiiiing, and youuuuu would not belieeeeeeeve my paaaaaaaain! Shhhhh! I’m in paaaaaaain!” And then to say, “Not only am I going to create trouble for myself, but I’m going to whine about it in a very sad way, and then expect you to adulate me for that, and shut up while I’m doing it, and then adulate me a lot at the end of it, because I’ve been through a lot of pain. Shhhhh!”
And we’ve all been through a fucking ton-load of pain! But we came here, it’s 9:00, and we gave you money. We just got out of our pain and came in here. And so I would like to honor that. I’m not saying I’m not sharing my pain. In fact, I think I’m sharing every inch of it.
Do you feel like you have a layer between you and the audience? Or do you feel like it’s open, and everything’s kind of going back and forth?
I don’t know, I think maybe the energy is going back and forth. It’s a phenomenon sometimes where people will try to start a conversation with me while I’m playing, and usually, it won’t go in. Or it’ll go in with amusement. I always find it amusing. Like I was playing someplace, and these guys, I don’t know what they were talking about, but then one of them just hit the other one right in the face! And I thought, what an interesting thing to do at a concert, man.
That was an Aladdin show [in Portland, Oregon]. I was there.
Yeah, that was it!
And then the other thing that happened at that show, which I wanted to ask you if it’s something you do a lot, is you invited that guy up to play “Alright Guy”.
You know, I had never done that, and I haven’t done that since.
What prompted that?
I saw Jimmy Buffett do that once when I was about in 8th grade, and I think it might have been at the Aladdin. And I don’t know, I just thought of it that night as I was playing. And I forget, I think he did “Cheeseburgers in Paradise”, and he was like, “Does anybody know it?” And somebody went, “Yeah!” and he got up and played it. And so I thought, I’ll give it a shot. And a couple people yelled yes, and I said, “Come on up,” and that one kid ran really fast up. And I liked it! I didn’t get to meet him – he jumped off and left.
Well, he posted a YouTube about it.
Oh, he did? Oh, cool!
I really was curious about that – like, is this something Todd does all the time? What’s up with that?
I wonder how often it would work! I was really knocked out – he knew the song very well.
Yeah, and it really came off. What he posted was still pictures and audio – but it was very interesting to see the look on your face, and I’d be interested to know what you thought of that.
Yeah, I was surprised!
Because you look like you’re kind of relieved!
Yeah, well, that too!
I mean, it could have been a train wreck.
He was good. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays in clubs and stuff, because he looked like it was not his first rodeo.
Well, I tried to find out some stuff about him, and it looks like he was a DJ at KINK [radio] or something.
Oh, really? Oh, cool! That’s been around since we were kids, hasn’t it?
Yeah. So how did you experience that?
It was cool! I remember it pretty vividly. I just remember him running down there so fast. But then, once he got up there and I could see that he was going to play it good and sing it good, I just stood over there and strummed with him. And then he was off, and we were out the door. I think that was the encore, too.
That was really interesting. It seems like there’s a place you can go where you can let the spontaneous happen like that…
…where you can be ok with whatever happens, you know? It’s no skin off your nose.
Yeah. I don’t care how it goes.
So then it’s like another layer that gets to be added to the experience for you, and for the audience, and who cares? It’s over in a couple of minutes, and whatever, but it just happened to go well, and everybody totally loved it.
Yeah. It could have gone horribly, and that would have been interesting, too!
When you are at the edge of your seat at a show, or when you listen to something, what does it for you?
Lately I’ve been getting into the jam bands, when they all noodle to a point where the groove changes and the crowd goes crazy. I would like to understand how that happens, or who cues that or who talks that through, and I don’t think anyone does. And I’ll get to see people so much, anyway, that open for you or that you open for, or you’re in festivals – I’ll probably see 80 concerts a year without going to any.
And this year I saw Les Claypool, and I was freaked out by that. It’s great music, or I think it’s great music, and visually it was just like going to a play almost. I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. Then, as soon as I saw that I was going to like it, I went up to the sound board, so I was just really close. And he had a costume box that was right next to where I was. And he came off and he would take these masks, and he’d like put on a pig mask, and then he’d run out there and do this weird dance and everyone would go batshit. And he played, like, 15 different bass guitars. He fronts a band with a bass, and there’s no guitar. It was a xylophone player, a drummer, a cello player, and a bass player – and it was rock and roll. It sounded like rock and roll.
So what do you think it was about him that made that experience happen for you?
For me? Well, it kind of feels like a bigger version of what I do. Like I could tell that he had put a lot of thought into it beforehand, and then he was up there and he was probably kind of stoned, and had found a way to just let go of all the other stuff. There had to be a meeting about the big picture that they hung up behind him, you know what I mean? But some people, I feel like you meet them and they can’t put that part down. They get anal. They care. They want it to go well.
Too much control.
Yeah. Some kid asked me one time for tips on how to get used to performing, and I said, “You should go to some open mic and do everything you can to offend them to the nth degree, man. See if you can get someone to throw a bottle at you. And then maybe the police will come, and maybe you’ll spend the night in jail. And then the next day you’ll get out and, see?”
“You lived through it.”
Yeah. Fuck them, you know? Or not them. You know, I love people, to a degree, but I don’t love them so much I want them to do stuff. I want them to do their shit. I don’t care what they do. I don’t love them so much that I care what they do. They can do whatever they want.
Have you experienced a situation where things get too out of control for you and you’re uncomfortable?
Like at a gig? And say I should leave right now?
Yeah, or it stops being fun or it stops being a good thing?
There’s been a few times, yeah.
What is that like?
You know what’s honest? When that happens, it’s fun. I played one time in some show, and I was trying to play, and some kids were just making it to where I just had to do what I had to do to have fun, too. They were going to do what they had to do to have fun, so I did, too. And I thought it worked out for everyone. And then one time I was playing a show with Robert Earl [Keen] that I don’t even know if I played, but I still had fun – it was the right show. I did a good show. I really am serious.
The only time that scared me, which I don’t think it would now, we had just had someone break into our home, and when our neighbor confronted them, the person was in pretty deep mental trouble, and somehow I figured into it. And so this person, as far as we knew, was still in the world running amok. And I went up onto the stage, I think we were in Dallas, and I hadn’t seen her so I didn’t know who she was. And I walked out onstage, and as soon as I went to the microphone, this woman was standing right there. And she was saying, “You have to come with me. You have to come with me.” And I thought, oh god, is this that chick? And so I just left. And that wasn’t fun. Well, you know what, I played – I just left, and we figured that out, and she wanted me to go meet her son and she was drunk and it was a misunderstanding. But for a second, I remember thinking, this ain’t good. But then, think about that – so what? So someone comes up and they shoot you in the fucking head, you know? Then what are you going to do? I mean, you hope that doesn’t happen, but…
It seems like a lot of what you’re talking about is letting go of control, and doing what you do for yourself. And that’s interesting, because that’s what I pick up about you, that you’re doing it for yourself.
I’m trying to.
Which must be hard to keep pure when you’ve got labels, and you’ve got managers, and all that other stuff.
They’re all really respectful. I’ve been really lucky. There’s about 10 or 12 people, and we call our company Aimless, Inc., and everybody that’s in the team, they know. They’re just really cool with me about it. In fact, this thing we’re doing [this week] is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But this was a real miracle that these two things converged, because it’s almost impossible to go in and do something like this in a big studio like this.
I mean, we’re not taking this a whole lot less seriously than we take our recordings. The only difference is, now we would just listen to this, maybe pick a song out of there, or maybe even a lyric or a riff – that could just turn into nothing. Me and Eric [McConnell, engineer] record and record and record and record like that. And then if it feels like it’s a real track, we’ll go, hey wait a minute, that one’s going to probably be on the album. And then we’ll get Will [Kimbrough, guitarist] to play lead, or…
Do it for real.
Yeah, do it for real. Not that this isn’t for real, too, because I always think different music needs different things. Like Nirvana’s Bleach record, they made it more wantonly than that, and killed with it. People liked it, and they liked it, and everybody had fun, you know? And these types of songs, we talked about it, and that was the thing. It was like, there’s no point in making music like that, if you get in there with those types of songs and try? Or care?
“Punch this in 85 times…”
Yeah, or make sure every single kick and bass part are together? You’ll ruin it! It won’t sound like The Kingsmen, you know? Those were just kids. That’s what [Elmo Buzz] is formed on. My lead guitar playing is like, if I was an 18 year old, next year l’d probably be ready to be in a band, “but I’m in one this year, and we haven’t had any gigs yet…” And everybody in this band, they want to be part of that.
I was like, “Hey, what if we do this group where it’s like The Sonics or The Kingsmen, where we try to channel that? Remember when you were 20? Remember that band, how fun that was, even though we weren’t good?” And some people were like, “Why would I want to do that? How are we going to make any money doing that?” “We’re not going to make money, we’re going to have fun!”
It was hard to get to where you could make these, and I don’t have to play these for anyone. Like the label, they wanted to hear them, of course, but I was like, no, I just really want to keep this fun. Even though I feel like I keep my job fun, I even have a side job that’s funner. Or not funner, but I don’t want to have to choose between photographs over these songs. I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to do anything like that. My manager, Burt [Stein], is one of my closest friends, but he knows, too. We might get drunk and listen to this, but this is I guess like if a pro football player was on a soccer team, and like, “Hey dudes, I just enjoy soccer, too – just tell the newspaper guy not to come down here.”
And you’ve got to do this stuff to get refreshed.
That’s what I think it is, too. I made up these songs to blow off steam while I was making up the other ones. And maybe I’ll steal a lyric from one of these songs for the next album, you know?
I think it’s really important for other musicians to find out about what the performance experience is like for people like you. People don’t really talk about that stuff too much, stuff that’s not just career-oriented, but the personal experience.
Of just being a traveling performer, you mean?
Yeah, and being on stage, you know, actually doing the performing. Because so much of what you do is getting yourself so you can be in a place where you are actually doing the performing.
Yeah, and especially when you do interviews, people do often really focus on all that other stuff.
“How do you become a success?”
Yeah. “How’d you get there? How did you guys get there? You went on at nine, but how’d you get there?” “We rode in a car, man, from the hotel.” I tend to notice that the people that don’t give a shit about that stuff hang around, and the people that do, sometimes they make it, but when they make it they get bored and go home.
When you’re onstage and you’re in the middle of performing, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like somebody else?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I guess myself. I don’t know the answer to that one. You know, that’s one of the big questions. You’ve got to know yourself to answer that, and I’m not there yet. Some people really know themselves. I’ve never been one of those people.
To have a sense of “what I am”.
Yeah, I can’t even think of it like that. I’m like, oh yeah, I play, I play all the time, just hours, you know? I mostly play. I wonder when I’m most myself. Because I didn’t grow up like some kind of gypsy singer – I just convinced myself that I was that one day when I was, like, 18. And eight hundred million miles later…
Do you feel like your sense of things, does that click or shift in a different way when you actually walk out on the stage? Some people describe it as sort of a thing that they put on, and then they take it off when they go off. Some people, it’s just a different part of their brain clicks in, like they’re shifting from first to second.
Yeah, I don’t do any of that.
So it’s a pretty seamless transition for you. “I’m off the stage, and I’m on the stage, and then I’m off the stage.”
Yeah. I’ll be sitting around with [my road manager] right up until it’s time. Usually, if my friends are there and they’re not musicians, I’ll ask them to wait until after. But if it’s a fellow musician, I’ll just sit there and we’ll chitchat. Then [my road manager] will come make fun of the way I look, or he kind of antagonizes me and picks on me or just tells jokes – or I guess that’s what he calls them! – and it’s pretty seamless. And I have to say, I’m always a little tipsy and a little stoned. People that have seen me in concert, they might think they know me, but they don’t know me any better than that guy that they always see at happy hour, you know? You see that guy at happy hour, so you don’t know what he’s like later tonight after dinner, or tomorrow morning when he wakes up, or when he’s at work.
But do you feel like you’re in your body?
I mean, it sounds like you feel like you’re a little altered, in the sense of just getting yourself into the right place.
But do you feel like you’re grounded, you’re in your body, you’re present, you’re aware of all the things you need to be aware of?
Oh sure. It happens real slow. When I was a kid, it happened real fast. And by the time I was about 20, it happened real slow. And I’ve heard a lot of people say that. When you’re young and you’re playing your first hundred or two hundred shows, your heart’s beating fast and things are happening fast. And then when you’re older, if you want to you can look out and you’re like, “Look, that guy, I wonder what he’s getting out of his pocket. Oh, his wallet – interesting. Oh, ok – going to get another drink, huh?” You can do that if you want. I don’t, but you can.
I talk to my clients about that – about when you’re first learning to drive, and you’re like, “I’ve got to look through the windshield, now I’ve got to look at the rear view mirror, now I’m going to look at the side view mirror, and who’s behind me?” But when you’ve driven a while, you’re aware of everything that’s going on simultaneously. You’re not thinking about it.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Now that you’re an older person, you’re like, “Oh, look at that waterfall!” and you’re on a cliff. Yeah, you can sightsee a little better. That’s a perfect analogy – the longer you drive, the more you can look around while you’re driving, or read, or some people do all kinds of shit.
Text, yeah! I wouldn’t say that that’s what I always do. It all just feels like this big rolling blur, especially the older I get. I can’t imagine how many shows it’s been by now. It all just starts to feel like one long show.