Calling from his Brooklyn apartment the day before the band is set to tour again, lead singer Eef Barzelay confides that he'd just been thinking about that day in Memphis the pleasure of the night before and the pain of the morning after.
"We woke up in some strange peoples' loft and I heard everyone mumbling and murmuring," Barzelay says. "We sat there in Memphis and watched it all unfold. It was very strange. The show itself was great. It reminded me of those gigs back in high school, playing in somebody's house. We all had a great time. It was unfortunate that we had to wake up to what happened."
Needless to say, the events in New York put a damper on the rest of the tour, but, thankfully, Barzelay and his bandmates didn't know any of the victims of the attacks (though Barzelay's wife did). "It sucked. It was really bad for a number of reasons," Barzelay says, "mostly because no one came to any of the shows and it was our first cross-country tour. We were really excited to see how we'd go over in these other markets, and there was nobody. Until we got to Los Angeles, we were playing to empty, dead, depressing rooms, one after the other. So that wasn't the best time to tour. And I felt really weird not being in New York."
The band returns this week en route to the South By Southwest music festival in Austin. They'll be at the Young Avenue Deli this time around, playing Monday, March 11th, with locals the Great Depression.
Formed in Boston several years ago and currently touring in support of their third album, 2001's excellent The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide have seen their profile on the rise of late which is not the direction you'd normally expect in a band recently dropped by a major label.
After releasing the indie debut You Were a Diamond in 1997, the band was signed to Sire records by legendary A&R man Seymour Stein, who had previously signed the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Madonna, and the Replacements to their first major-label deals. But the band's experience with Sire was not a pleasant one.
"We made [the sophomore album] Your Favorite Music for Sire, and then they didn't release it for a year because they were in the process of merging with London, becoming London-Sire," Barzelay explains, with more than a tinge of bemused anger in his voice. "When we signed with Sire we'd been signed by Stein, which was really exciting, and at that point it seemed more like an indie label. Stein is a real character and I really felt he actually cared about music. But then the merger started happening and everything got put on hold. Finally, a year later they put it out and then they didn't do anything with it. They didn't follow up on any promotional stuff, didn't give us any tour support, nothing. The new people at the label were not interested in Clem Snide whatsoever. But they were honest about it at least. When I finally got through to the new president, he basically said, 'You guys aren't going to make us any money, so we're really not that interested.' So they let us go and let us have our record back, and we rereleased it on [New York indie] SpinArt."
With The Ghost of Fashion, the band not only has a label behind it that cares but what to this point has to be considered a career record. You Were a Diamond and Your Favorite Music are solid showcases for Barzelay, who has emerged as one of pop music's most compelling songwriters, but the music is sometimes too dour and plodding to give his lyrics the support they deserve. The result? The most compelling piece of music the band issued prior to The Ghost of Fashion was a slow, achingly sincere cover of the Richie Valens standard "Donna."
But The Ghost of Fashion reaches for the brass ring from the very first second, with the soaring, mysterious "Let's Explode," which lives up to its title as much as hyperliterate, acoustic-based music could. Barzelay's lyrical gifts, alternately (and often simultaneously) sardonic and wistful, are in full flower this time around. Barzelay is first and foremost a wit, master of the clever one-liner. On "Long Lost Twin" he hitches most of the song to the unforgettable line "Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long-lost twin." He also conjures swift, memorable images such as "The highway's a ribbon/It makes a gift of everything" and makes "The Stop-N-Shop is open all night/With a mothering fluorescent light" seem mysteriously beautiful.
Barzelay's take on romance is playful and, well, snide sex talk for bookworms. On "Don't Be Afraid of Your Anger," he snaps at a romantic sparring partner, "Well, your tongue can get sharp/But it's soft in my mouth." And on the solo centerpiece "The Curse of Great Beauty," the difference between spiteful insult and sly come-on dissolves as Barzelay sweet-talks his object of desire: "Those paper cuts kept you from writing a poem so epic and true/About how you are cursed with a beauty so great/I'm sure that it's hard being you/So put down that book, it's too serious/I'll undress you as I make a joke."
But the album's finest love song may be the devastatingly lovely reverie "Joan Jett of Arc." "Like many songwriters, I guess I think it's fun to mythologize your past," Barzelay says. "So I took the first girl I ever had sex with and turned her into this kind of mythic '80s figure." In the song, Barzelay reimagines an adolescent fling with these fondly referential, deadpan-funny lines: "My black heart was heavy/Her mom's Couger was fast/As 'Little Pink Houses' was whistled/And it was all-you-can-eat at the Sizzler that night/My steak-burning Joan Jett of Arc."
The Ghost of Fashion, thanks in large part to band co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Jason Glasser, is also where Clem Snide finally come up with music beautiful enough to match Barzelay's lyrics, featuring perhaps the finest deployment of strings and horns indie rock has ever heard. The result is an acoustic lilt more musically rich than anything the alt-country movement ever managed. On the bridge of "Long Lost Twin" these elements swell to a crescendo that could have been lifted from a Drifters record indie rock does "There Goes My Baby." And the way the horn section sweeps up and closes out "Let's Explode" brings to mind "When A Man Loves a Woman."
Barzelay cops to these inspired if relatively unhip tastes, "Whenever I go into the studio, my idea is to make it sound like an older record," he says. "That [section of 'Long Lost Twin'] is a real '50s cliché, but I love those records, so I don't have any problem blatantly referencing that music."
The Ghost of Fashion has been a critical smash from day one. It's started to pick up more of a commercial punch lately due to the use of one song a rerecorded version of the album's "Moment in the Sun" as the theme song for the NBC television series Ed. The song is both an understandable and highly unlikely choice for must-see TV. The most anthemic song on the album, it's unabashedly beautiful as music. But at the same time it probably features Barzelay's most mischievous lyrics something that becomes more apparent when he describes the origin of the song.
"The song is pretty straightforward," Barzelay contends. "I was thinking about what it would feel like when you became famous. There's really nothing mysterious about the song, though there is definitely a delicious sarcastic edge to it. And at the time that I wrote it [folkie-cum-poet babe] Jewel was everywhere, so I tried to imagine that I was Jewel you know, sitting in the back of the van, having just driven down from Alaska, all sorts of hopes and dreams."
In this case, Barzelay plays it straight enough vocally to keep you guessing, but the song itself is hilariously sarcastic, with Barzelay singing, "I have a lot of things to say/And you'd be wise to listen good/I think that hunger, war, and death/Are bringing everybody down/La, la, la, la, la, la."