Under Attack By Squirrels: Interview with Todd Snider
Editor’s Note: The following transcript contains explicit language.
“There’s a fuckload of squirrels out there!” exclaims a surprised Todd Snider out of nowhere. He’s speaking to The 9513 from his home in East Nashville, which is apparently under siege “They’re having a meeting. Holy shit, here they come! Get help!”
This is the sort of stoner non sequitur one might expect from Snider, who has detailed his drug use, both recreational and destructive, in casually witty country-folk songs for nearly two decades now. But this is no pot-motivated outburst, just Snider joking around. Whether defending himself from squirrels or singing story-songs about tripping pitchers, conniving politicians, or bumbling criminals (himself included), Snider is a keen observer of the unlikely, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about the world.
He’s been called one of his generation’s greatest songwriters, which is no exaggeration, but he’s also one of his generation’s greatest stage presences. He has a sense of humor and better timing than most stand-up comedians (not to mention better material), and is known to ramble at length about all manner of subjects, from Bill Elliott impostors to the dangers of playing in a Memphis country band. His latest is a double live album appropriately titled The Storyteller, and he devotes as much time to his between-song ramblings as to the music itself.
Snider held off the squirrel marauders long enough to talk to us about getting tackled on stage, receiving death threats, working with Elizabeth Cook, and losing his mentor.
Why did you decide to make a live album—especially a double live album—right now?
I always assumed that when a live album came out, it meant that a band wanted more time to work on their new shit. That’s what I did. I’m not ready to make a record record. I will be in probably a month from now. But I only had about eight or nine songs and I want to make up about 15 at least, then throw away five of those. What else could we do? Well, we could put out a live record. My friends made it for me—my tour manager Elvis [Hixx] and this kid named Brian [Kincaid] who comes and records all our shows. And my buddy Eric [McDonnell] who lives around the corner and those guys all got together and went through about two years worth of shows and picked what they thought was pretty representative of a night, although some nights I won’t talk that much. I think there ended up being a little more talking on the record than there is at the show.
Where do you think this storytelling impulse began?
My first teacher of making up songs was a guy named Kent Finlay from San Marcos, which is right by Austin. My first few songs I wrote I took to an open-mic at his club. He let me stay with him and he taught me how to make up those story songs. Shel Silverstein was probably the person I studied most to work on that stuff. It was at the same time that I noticed that there was “Mister Bojangles” and there was some Billy Joe Shaver stuff, where the story was true. I try to find the balance in there. Most of my stories are true, but not all of them. There’s one on there called “Is this Thing Working,” which is just a story that I made up to try to make some kind of point. But most of them I won’t make up. I haven’t been doing that too much lately because I’ve done it to death in my life, to the point where people don’t hardly do shit around me anymore.
Does that cause some friction with friends?
There have been a few. There’s a song called “Just Like Old Times,” where the girl in that story wasn’t so impressed at first. But then she was at a gig and saw that when they got away, the crowd cheered. She thought, “I don’t get why people were rooting for me, but they were so it’s all cool.”
Do you ever regret including people in a song?
No. The closest I guess is this girl around the corner here, but that’s been a long time ago. I made up a song on my second record, but by the time I got done with it, I felt like I was probably wrong. But I didn’t know that until the song was out. My side of the argument was in the song, and about a year and a half later, I decided I was wrong. There’s a song called “Tillamook County Jail.” When I left that jail, I didn’t feel like I had been treated fairly. It took me a long time to realize how I had fucked up with my car, but I get it now. I thought I was passing parked cars, but there were people in them damn things.
Is a song forever linked to a specific story, or do these things just float freely around in your head?
I would say the latter. Floating around in there. Especially when we’re singing at the shows, every night is the same but the songs aren’t.
You have to back up from everything. It sounds like I made this story up, but I was watching these guys surf in Santa Cruz. Then afterwards, those guys have a fire and they drink and smoke weed. It was a good time. There were girls. Anyway, I was asking lots of questions. “Is it scary when you fall? Is it a drag if you come out and the waves aren’t as good?” They explained to me that it’s not like that—you don’t think of it that intricately. It’s stoner logic, but it works for me. I guess the best way describe it is to… it gets hard to put into exact words. But it has something to do with… That’s the best I can do.
I get it. It’s always a new situation or a new audience that you’re responding to.
Yeah. I’m just in the water. How was the show? I was in the water. I went over to Jerry Jeff Walker’s house one night after we had both played gigs, and I asked him how his gig was? He said, “They were there. I was, too.” That’s pretty heavy. Profound. That made me feel like he’s doing the same kind of trick that I’m doing. It almost sounds like you’re not giving your all, but no, you’re giving more than your all.
It sounds like a good way to appreciate the bad nights as well as the good.
I love them. I really do. I don’t even know what that means, though. I know sometimes what other people would perceive. Sometimes I could be at a bar afterwards and someone might say, “That was tough.” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, I guess that must have looked tough.” But I hadn’t thought of it like that. It was a blast for me. I was in Carbondale playing a show, and some guy came up and tried to tackle me. I only played a few songs—it was just too rough of a place, you know. I fuckin’ left. But it was a blast. I’ll never forget it.
Someone actually tried to tackle you while you were on stage?
You wanna hear something funny? There’s a story on the live album about a guy who sings in a band called KK Rider, and he gets knocked down. As God as my witness, the guy trying to tackle me was him. But we didn’t know that till later. I think he thought I had it coming. He’s never heard that story either. He has no idea. I’ve been telling that story forever. He just was living in Carbondale and saw that I was playing and thought he’d come give me a re-enactment, of sorts.
Does he have a beef with you?
I think he thought I was going to love it. I think he thought he was being funny. But we didn’t know that at the time because there was some serious tension in the room. You could feel it. Then all of a sudden this happens. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I remember my buddy Elvis telling me I should get out of there. I had been threatened a few times. Isn’t that amazing? And it might happen more than I think, but we could both hear it. Then KK came up and tackled me and I think that’s when we said fuckin’ bail. And I fuckin’ had to pay everybody back, but whatever. It was fun.
Do you get many threats like that?
Every once in a while somebody says they’re going to do something to me. But they never do. Some chick broke into our house once, but she got arrested for it. I wasn’t here. The next day she drove her car into the President’s barricade or some shit. She was… struggling, as it were. Somehow she was convinced that I was going to understand that her parents were trying to kill her something. I hope she’s okay. Maybe if I’d been here I wouldn’t be telling this in such a bemused way. I felt sorry for her when it got so serious for her.
One of the hallmarks of your songwriting is that you’ll have sympathy for someone like that, or like the guy trying to break into your house on “Highland Street Incident.”
I tried to make up that song for a long time, and I finally thought I could tell their side of the story. I bet they were having a harder night than me. It took me a long time to figure that out, because he hit me with a fuckin’ gun. It took me a long time to forgive him for that. (laughs) ‘Cause it fucked my life up. I was taking a hammer to the mailbox for about a month after that. I didn’t want to get hit by a gun again. I knew that. That was all I could think about for a long time. And then one year that lifted and I thought, how big of a drag would it be to be a crackhead in Orange Mound, Memphis? My goodness. I wish I’d had money to give him. It’s like when people don’t want to give a bum money because he’ll go spend it on alcohol. But I think, “He lives outside. Can’t the guy have a drink? What if he wants to spend it on alcohol? Shit, here’s a little for food, here’s a little for booze.”
This album contains some solo performances as well as some with a band. Do you prefer one to the other?
They’re different, and that’s what I like about them. I like to play solo just as much as I like to play with bands. I had a band when I was younger, and I still play with them a little bit, and then I have this group Great American Taxi that’s been letting me play with them for a couple of years. We’re sort of Arlo Guthrie meets the Dead, which I enjoy. That’s new for me. And there’s no plan. The songs change every night. That’s what I’m into these days. And then I have a band here in my neighborhood called Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs. I was the singer for a while. We play 1964 music, but we just recently added Elizabeth Cook as our lead singer, and now we play 1974 music. We made one record but we just made it for our listening pleasure. I might still put it out. It’s called “Shit Sandwich,” but I can’t get anybody to put it out without putting my name on it. I just don’t want to do that. We got three new songs, and we make them up guitar riff first. And we have a fucking horn section. Our first record we just had a sax, and now we’ve added more to get more into ‘70s blues/Exile on Main Street/Faces kind of shit. But mostly, Zep and AC/DC and then the Stones. That’s our main shit. Elizabeth runs around like she’s Tina Turner, and I get to pretend I’m Ike Turner.
How did the Bulldogs come about?
The band started as a long short story I wrote about a band called Elmo buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs, and now there’s actually a band. It’s about this guy who grew up and went to East Nashville High School and had this band called Elmo Buzz & the Eastside Bulldogs, and he’s obsessed with Bocephus. And then he gets to where he can get some people in the bars. He wants to be a country star—he wants to be an alternative country star, but on TV. He wants to dress like Steve Earle but be on CMT. And that’s his delusion. And then his sister gets up one night and sings, and everybody realizes, hey that’s for real. All you got to do is turn that Elmo’s guitar down a little bit and this is good. He gets to watch the beginning of his dream come true for somebody else. And he has to sit there on the side. But anyway, I make up the songs as fast as I can. I made up seven songs and that was for our 1964 days.
So you’re just flying by the seat of your pants in that band?
We go to Eric’s, smoke a joint, turn on the guitars, record it, listen back, and then start adding shit and making up melodies. We just play till a riff sounds cool. It’s fun to do. The album we’re working on now, it started out as a busman’s holiday. I told everybody we’re going to go play these gigs, but the money that comes in the door is going to go to charity and everybody gets to play whatever they want. Nobody gets to tell anybody what to do. No rehearsal. None of that shit. Just come out, plug in, catch a buzz, and get your yayas out, and don’t worry about it. What are the songs we’re going to play? We’ll make ‘em up as we go along.
Especially for someone who gets stage fright, is it scary going out on stage and not knowing what’s going to come out?
No. I don’t know how that works. I haven’t really thought that through yet, but as a lead-up to those gigs, I have a few things in mind. Our songs are really simple, too. We only sing about east Nashville, chicks, cars, and partying hard. That’s four topics, and we don’t leave them. We just yell shit about the neighborhood, or yell shit about getting drunk, or yell shit about chasing girls. That was my mantra when I made these songs a couple of years ago. I just told the band I was going to sing about chicks and cars and partying hard. In fact, one of our songs was called “Chicks and Cars and Partying Hard.” Elizabeth is going to come open for me in California in about a week or two, so we’re going to take the tracks and ride together and write the words for her to sing. So it’s going to have to be about her.
Or whatever’s on her mind. I hadn’t thought about it until we started talking. I’m not going to put any restraints on her. Whatever you want to say, I support. Whatever makes you want to dance, I support. And if you need help rhyming something, I can even do orange. Door hinge! Nobody ever tries that.
I read that you were compiling these stories into a book. How is that coming along?
I did it. I don’t know if I did it very good. I typed them all out. I don’t know how many pages it is or anything like that. I just gave it to my manager. I like to do stuff like that. It’s just my stories that I tell. A lot times people think I’m just going up there and rambling, and to some degree I am, but I’m still telling a story that happened. So I never know how I’m going to tell the story of when I was in Alaska, but I remember being in Alaska. I think if someone was coming to four or five shows hearing that story about KK Rider, they’d be like, wow, he’s got these memorized. They’re kinda like songs a little bit. I’d say there are 18 of them. People who give a shit are pretty surprised when I can say, “No there are 18.” There are only about that many that I could sit down and retell. I got a new one going on about this guy Jason D. Williams. I haven’t heard it or told it yet, but I know it’s coming. I produced this guy. Everybody keeps telling me he’s crazy, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it. It always happens right when I leave. And really, what’s the downside of this man’s insanity? What’s wrong? All I see is a guy being unbelievably creative and funny, and everybody’s on his back. We go to a restaurant and sure it’s a little trouble, but fuck, everybody’s having a good time. Everybody. He may start some conversations with strangers that we wouldn’t have. But it reminds me of my old buddy Skip. It’s funny because I’ll go to bathroom, and then police are everywhere! I’m like, what happened? You gotta see it. I’m always at the aftermath.
So with these stories, you’re not working on the delivery, like a stand-up works on a routine.
I have this thing that I learned from Jimmy Buffett, the Margaritaville guy. I don’t even tell people because he asked me not to. When I was very young, I always talked a lot on stage, and I think that’s what he liked about me. We were in New Orleans and he gave me about an hour of his time talking about how to approach talking on stage in a way that makes it as natural as a guitar solo. And I’ve used his method the whole time. Sometimes I break the rules that he showed me, but he also told me that the cool thing about setting up a few guidelines and rules is that then you break them and you know you’re breaking them.
You mentioned you’re not writing story-songs right now. What is your new material like?
I think of them as agnostic hymns and stoner fables. Now that I think of it, there are some stories in there too. I haven’t even left the house with them yet. I usually wait for my manager, this guy named Burt Stein. I say “manager,” which always sounds a little official, but he’s my friend, you know. He went to school. I didn’t even fucking go to school. In about a month he’ll start popping over here going, “Hey why don’t you do something?” And then I’ll start playing him stuff, see what he thinks. The guy I used to do that with is dead, Bob Mercer. This’ll be my first record without him. He found me when I was 26 or whenever, and he was the guy I called all the time. New Connection is the only record I made without him, because I was taking dope and partying all the time and got away from everybody except my wife for a couple of years. I didn’t like that record, and I don’t think he did either. He said there were too many love songs on it and I agreed. He was my favorite producer or whatever, I would say he’s the guy who always helped me decide what the fuckin’ point was, if there was one. If we’re smart enough, the point will be nothing.
It must be bittersweet working without him.
A little bit, because I think he’d like the new stuff. In the middle of recording that Jason D. Williams record, I remember thinking I really wish I could call Bob Mercer. I think he would have been proud of what we did. We’ll see. I ended the last album with a song called “Good Fortune.” Now I’m going to go play pro baseball, which was my first love anyway. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
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