Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (February 2001)
What does releasing one of the past year’s greatest releases get you in the Major Label world? Dropped from your record contract, of course. Such is the case with Clem Snide, the New York-by-way-of-Boston band that specializes in somber, gently-played, heartbreaking music. Your Favorite Music, after sitting on the shelves for nearly a year, was released in the spring of 2000 with little fanfare. Although it received good reviews worldwide, Sire Records dropped the band from it’s contract by October. Ironically enough, Rolling Stone featured the band right around the time of the label fallout.
I had seen Your Favorite Music in a used bin at a local CD store for $3 on many visits. I even picked it up a few times and considered buying it for the ridiculously low price. However, something about the band name (and the CD’s cover art) kept making me put it back, afraid that I’d find a smarmy power-pop band that was made for touring with a band like Harvey Danger. After reading the Rolling Stone article, however, I decided to give the CD a whirl and I’m glad I did.
Eef Barzelay, the songwriting talent behind the band, has a simple, low-key approach to songwriting. The music could be tagged slow-core if it didn’t have so much charachter. It’s pretty special when you can evoke so many feelings in a listener with such a quiet, hushed tone. Clem Snide has been tagged “y’alternative” and, truth be told, the tag might fit. There is a subtle country influence throughout the CD, even on the band’s take of Richie Valens’ classic “Donna”.
During the Christmas holidays, Eef checked in with Swizzle-Stick from his New York apartment.
I must confess, I hadn’t heard of you until I read the Rolling Stone feature. But, in less than a month, you made it onto my year-end “Best of 2000” list. So, I apologize in advance for the generic questions.
Let’s get to know the band.
How has the Rolling Stone article affected your life?
A lot of my parent’s friends are very excited I’m sure. There have been a couple of requests for interviews because of it.
Some people over at Rolling Stone liked the record. The article was supposed to come out in July; we did it over the summer. We got bumped . . . it was supposed to come out July 15 . . . they were like, “We’ve got to move it back a couple of weeks because we’ve got this exciting new band that we have to feature – 3 Doors Down.” We got bumped for 3 Doors Down. But then they finally put it out, I had completely written it off.
The Rolling Stone article alludes to a grungy/punk background.
Yeah, we were angry young guys back when that was fashionable in the early ’90s. Originally Clem Snide started as a power-pop grunge thing. This is when I started writing songs. We sounded like the Lemonheads, kind of. And then things got even freakier when we brought in this sax player, this friend of ours who played a squonky sax. Then we evolved into this noise, new wave band. Then we broke up. Then it started to move towards the stuff that we know today.
But you decided to keep the name all the way through?
You know it’s funny, sometimes I wish I hadn’t picked the name Clem Snide. It was just a whim. When we first started, we so didn’t take it seriously. We had a show, we put together a set, we had a show at a club and we thought we needed a name. I think we were listening to a tape of William Burroughs doing spoken word stuff. One of the opening things was him introduced this character Clem Snide, the professional asshole. I thought, “Let’s call it Clem Snide, that will be funny.” At the time I didn’t realize that other bands had used Burroughs things in their names. Later I found out that Steely Dan came from a Burroughs book. That’s too much to have in common with Steely Dan. Every now and again some interview will slam us for this adolescent Burroughs reference. I don’t really care at this point, it’s just a name.
Will we see any old Clem Snide recordings find their way onto eBay?
Um, we just did a tour and people were asking me about that stuff. I hadn’t really thought about it. If anybody does have an old Clem Snide 7″, I’d be very impressed. There are so few out there, we only pressed 200 or 300. We made one 7″ and a couple of tapes. We are really talking about dozens of copies out there. Lately we’ve been talking about compiling the stuff and putting it on a CD and selling it at the shows.
So what the heck were you thinking signing a major label deal?
Oh god, I know! It’s funny, at the time things were very different with Sire. When we signed with Sire it didn’t feel like a major label. It felt a lot more like an indie label. It was like an indie label that had some money. It was almost the best of both worlds. Seymour Stein, the guy that signed us, was running it like a little vanity label – just bands that he liked and he knew weren’t going to sell a lot of records. They were doing smaller deals. They weren’t doing half a million dollar deals that had been going on before. So we signed with them and things were looking good. They let us make the record we wanted to make and we had money and time. We got to spend a month on it.
When we were working out the budget, they gave us $100,000 to make the record. And everything is getting budgeted – studio time, producer fee, manager’s cut, the lawyers have to be paid. We were like, “What about us?” They were like “Oh no, it doesn’t work like that. You guys don’t get any money. Everybody else does, but you don’t.” We definitely had to bend over backwards and juggle numbers just to get us each a couple thousand bucks to cover rent and stuff.
We made the record and turned it in. Right as we turned it in, they were like “We can’t put it out just yet because we’re in the process of merging with London Records.” We were like, “That doesn’t sound good.” Sure enough, a year goes by and then they actually released it. They didn’t even want to release it, but Seymour Stein went to bat for us. His talk was pretty cheap, even though they did put it out, they didn’t do anything with it. By that point, our spirits had been crushed, so we were like “Put it out”, we didn’t even care.
In retrospect it was a terrible year for me. I was like “This music thing is a bad idea, maybe I should go back to school.” But in the end, they put it out and it sold maybe three or four thousand copies.
They gave us some money. We bought a van with the money. We got out of the deal all right. They let us have the record, so we now own the record. They didn’t give us shit like we were supposed to get. We were supposed to do two records. So, theoretically they owe us money for the next record. It’s such bullshit. We spent months negotiating this contract. We got this high-priced lawyer to get us this great deal. It took months. We’d have meetings and he’d be like “The numbers are looking real good. There’s some things I’m not so pleased with, but I it’s a good solid deal.” I’m like “Cool.” Then we find out the contract doesn’t mean anything. They can do whatever they want. What are you going to do, sue them? Take them to court? That will cost tens of thousands of dollars and end up destroying your band. You just want to be working. In the end the contract was meaningless.
So where are you at now?
We’re in a good place. We worked out a couple of deals with this label in Europe and this label here. They give us like $5000 or $6000 to make a record. You only have to sell 10,000 records to start making money. The numbers make more sense now. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
(Ed. note — spinART records will re-release Your Favorite Music in March and a new Clem Snide record in June or July.)
If every picture tells a story, what story are you telling with the CD cover?
That was sort of my concept. A lot of those songs were written, or imagined, along the Jersey turnpike. There was this period in my life where I had to move back in with my parents after I broke up with my girlfriend. I was working in Manhattan and taking the bus back to Jersey. There was this one part of the Jersey turnpike, right before the George Washington Bridge – the Meadowlands – and it has very alien landscape. It’s sort of industrial but then there are these little ponds and grass. The suburbs are right there too. It’s not quite the suburbs, it’s not quite the city, and it’s not quite the country. It’s somehow all of those things mixed together in a beautiful way. I though it would be cool having the band in these powder blue tuxedos. I don’t know why. It’s an image that stuck in my head – this powder blue tuxedo guy walking along the Jersey turnpike. There’s something beautifully tragic about that. So that was our concept.
It fits in with the theme of the album. It’s not quite country, it’s not quite city. It’s somewhere in between.
I’m always looking for symbolism wherever I can find it.