Since the early 2000s, I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that Eef Barzelay was one of the strongest, sharpest and most downright original new songwriters rock had seen in decades. With his band Clem Snide and in his prolific solo work, Barzelay cuts to the heart of good songcraft, presenting melodies that linger and thoughts that haunt and illuminate our slouch through life’s muck.
From the beginning of Clem Snide’s arrival it has always been hard to place them in a lineage. Their bounce and electricity as a band shares something with under-sung greats like Miracle Legion and The dB’s but Barzelay’s POV is too singular for any facile comparisons. Both jaundiced and jovial, his tunes vibrate with the rough and beautiful stuff of life, broad themes made more poignant and personal with Barzelay’s gift for small details that breathe, sigh and chuckle with fleshy familiarity. Put another way, the dude understands the human condition and transmutes it into music. That sounds a touch highbrow and Barzelay is always ready to get into the trenches with reality in a way that’s anything but academic.
Over the years Barzelay has also developed into one of the most sublime, intriguing interpreters of other’s material to emerge in ages. He handles an alarming array of songs from every corner of rock and beyond, often shoved roughly into them by his ongoing series of fan-selected covers. To his credit, he embraces each composition with a skill that slices to the heart of why a song works. In 2011, he released an EP of Journey covers that utterly flipped the originals on their heads. Performing solo with just a baritone ukulele accompanying his delightfully warbled voice and incisive, unique phrasing, Barzelay made over-familiar radio staples like “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Faithfully” shine anew. It’s a skill set he’s brought to cuts as far flung as Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea,” The Drifters’ “Poison Ivy” and Madonna’s “Bad Girl,” each disparate pop culture nugget warmed and savored in a special way. Frankly, the Impound would put Barzelay up against any heavy hitter in jazz in his ability to tackle the yawning Great American Songbook, particularly as updated by rock’s 60-plus years of existence.
On May 1st, Eef Barzelay and Clem Snide will launch a monthly subscription plan on Bandcamp called Eldorado, where fans will pay a meager $8 per month to receive, as well as inspire, a new and exclusive 3-5 song EP emailed monthly right to their door. Read what Eef has to say about it here, and keep your ears pricked up for a new Clem Snide album, Songs For Mary, due this spring. DI will be putting our money down for the EP subscription and encourages anyone interested in contributing to great working indie rockers’ well being to do the same.
With all this cool stuff in the works, we felt this was the right time to share a lively, no holds barred chat we had with Eef last year. If you’re already a fan then you’re gonna find out about some of his key underpinnings, and if you’re a newbie to Clem Snide/Eef then you’re about to meet one of the most right-on straight shooters DI has had the fortune to speak to. The state of modern rock, tackling covers, and the self-induced travails of an independent band are but a few of the topics touched on. Click play on the album embedded below and dive in. You won’t be sorry.
A fun point of entry into your work may be your facility and knack for covers.
I’m not even sure where that comes from. I think it’s because I don’t have that much respect for the original versions. I don’t go into it with this reverence, and people usually cover songs they really love and revere. I’d rather not play a song that I really love.
Where it first really hit me that you had such facility as an interpreter was your take on Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” on Clem Snide’s A Beautiful EP (2004) [check it out here]. It’s an awesome song but it was so outside what I’d imagined your band would do.
I think it’s exciting to get to a point where you don’t care anymore. It’s beyond irony. It’s assumed Clem Snide should cover the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan, and there’s something very liberating about putting all songs on equal footing and reducing them to just their melody and words. There are no good or bad songs. There are just songs. Okay, there are some bad songs like “Layla,” which is one of the worst songs ever written. I’d put it in the Top 3 of the famous songs that are just wretched. And my brother just had a little girl and named her Layla. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I actually hate that song. I’ll try not to hate your daughter but I hate that song! And it goes on for like 10 minutes and the guitars are all high and irritating.
The whole ending piano part was a piece he ripped off from Bobby Whitlock, who had planned to use it on a solo album. Clapton thought it was pretty and insisted it go on “Layla.” Asshole move. I love your lack of respect for the original versions. There’s no sense of you bending a knee to anyone. The Journey EP is absolutely that case.
Well, a song is just a melody and words. Everyone gets so focused on arrangements these days, and I never much cared about arrangements. I’ve always been drawn to words and melodies, and hopefully I can find someone to arrange it and make it sound real good [laughs]. I’ve had to be more involved in [arranging songs], and it’s fun but it’s not my specialty. I just whittle it down to its bare essence and just work with that and not do too much with that.
That’s what makes something like your Bitter Honey album (2006) so effective. There’s not a lot of filigree on there. The tunes, your voice, and it’s very straight ahead. I think the real caliber of an artist is revealed when things are laid bare in this way.
I’ve come to a point where I just don’t care anymore, which can sound cynical or indifferent but I’ve sort of surrendered. I don’t have any sense of what I’m about. When you first start out you think that’s what it’s all about – the way you dress and present yourself and the kind of music you play. Now, I just don’t know anymore AND I don’t care to know. I’ll let the universe define it for me.
Leaving things open-ended from your foundation up is very liberating. When you do the thing for the doing of it, there’s something real that happens at that moment.
It feels that way, but it took a long time. I started in the late 90s, and like most bands, we tried to get a record deal and we got some deals and then we had this aggressive manager who’d say things like, “This next gig is a really important gig because some really important people are going to be there. This is the most important gig of your life.” Well, we had a lot of “gig of your life” moments [laughs].
I’ve been to a lot of parties and events where I was supposedly going to meet “The Guy” who could give me the dream writing job or introduce me to the guy who could get something published. And in the end nothing good ever came of any of it.
You go through that enough times, well, you can just quit – that’s always an option – or you just kinda surrender. I can’t quit. I can’t do anything else, so I’m kinda stuck doing this. It still makes me happy to do this, and I kind of need to do it. In the face of all the practical concerns of adult life, I still feel the need to do it. I’m all in.
I’ve actually come out the other side a little bit the past five years for me and Clem Snide. We’d sort of passed our expiration date and everything had fallen apart. Our whole infrastructure in terms of business was just disintegrated. The label went under, the manager was gone, and even within the band it got ugly, too. But it didn’t even occur to me that it would end. Maybe other people are able to plan for the future in a more cohesive way but I didn’t [laughs]. Unfortunately, I had a wife and two kids depending on me, and that shit was real. I definitely caused my family a fair amount of heartache and discomfort, but I’m almost grateful for it now.
Artistically it’s put your feet to the fire. I think The Meat of Life (2010) is one of the best albums Clem Snide has made. The more I listen to that record the more I think, “Shit, there’s a lot going on here.” You keep evolving as a musician, adding layers that make me realize that what I thought was going on in spins 1-3 is absolutely wrong because I missed a mid-song turn. You write about the people that other people miss and take for granted. The people most people’s eye just passes over without thought.
That’s a nice way of saying it…I’m trying to think of a good justification…I’ve always kind of been on the outside looking in. I’m an immigrant that was born in Israel. My parents are Israeli. So, I never really fit in anywhere. I didn’t feel entirely Israeli, but then I never felt fully American through the years. This may account for the different way I look at things.
Not to disparage him because I think he’s great but Justin Townes Earle is the exact opposite because he steps into this great legacy. The songs he writes are exactly the songs he should be writing and people expect him to write. He sings about hopping on trains and things, and the words are more anachronistic. I always tried to make the words be in the present moment.
You explore very old traditions of songwriting but you’re adapting them to modern times where the subject matter might be a young woman that’s proud her ass was featured in a music video. “Ballad of Bitter Honey” is a song that makes me laugh aloud every time I play it AND it chokes me up a little bit. That’s a great combination, man.
That song is perhaps the most extreme combination of those two sharp emotional turns. I’m always aspiring to make something heartbreaking and goofy at the same time. That’s the best if you can pull that off.
Humor is much harder to pull off than drama or melodrama. It’s easy to pull the long black veil down.
No one ever really does it. Jonathan Richman does it and Tom Waits does it in a wonderful way sometimes, but it’s generally just not done. I think that’s part of the problem for Clem Snide. Because they didn’t know if they should take it seriously they dismissed it. “Is this a joke? Is this not a joke? I’m confused.” Yes! That’s the point! It got dismissed as ironic…and it is ironic but in a good way.
It’s not ironic in the youth punk-pop way where bands are always winking at you. And Clem Snide doesn’t take it as far out as say The Dead Milkmen, where the joke is right up front and they’re clearly trying to offer you punch lines. It makes me really sad that rock has reached a point where most people are uncomfortable with confusion. The wider audience wants to know if you’re a Pitchfork indie band or a tagger on to what’s left of mainstream FM classic rock. Anything that doesn’t conform to neat iTunes-ready categories leaves people scratching their heads.
It’s very unfortunate. It makes me sad. All the indie bands today that are so loved have music where all the pieces just fit together so nicely. It sounds great. The kids making music today are astounding. It’s so sophisticated, so well played and produced, just this effortlessly exquisite music. When I was 20 we were listening to Mudhoney. Now, it’s these quick-witted, exquisite arrangements.
The level of technology they’re playing with is crazy. They’re making these lil’ teenage symphonies to God in their bedrooms in Brooklyn. That wasn’t possible in any other era of rock’s history.
Pro-Tools empowered music for sure. People don’t realize that the stuff you can do on a computer now is…well, you can do anything.
What’s been lost in this is your greatest strength, which is just meat-and-potatoes satisfying songwriting. Your dedication to lyrics that are intelligent, gently poetic and not easily explicated is a trait going straight out the window. As you point out, so much modern music is gorgeous and has incredible flow but how many of these songs are people going to remember the way we do say The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel? The mood dominates enough to disguise how empty the songwriting is at its core.
It drives me nuts. I almost wish that the music was more awful and loud and goofy but instead it’s just sooooo sophisticated by some 22-year-old with a beard singing these exotic melodies. Ah, come on! It’s a false sophistication.
That they’d be so wise and worldly so young rings false to me, too.
It’s an internet empowered worldliness. They really do have the world right at their fingertips, all of it. When I was in high school all I knew was Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. There was music television but it was crappy and I didn’t even know about indie rock until I moved to Boston when I was 18 or 19. Now, 13-year-old kids have already digested the Velvet Underground.
There’s this internet smorgasbord but it misses out on the mess of life to experience this stuff at arm’s length. Life is usually a lot less organized or pretty when you get up close to it.
Yeah, I never set out to enchant people. I never wanted to make this exclusively enchanting music; I wanted to fuck with them a little bit. I always thought that was what it was all about. Apparently now it’s not. The best example for me was when The Meat of Life came out the same day as the new Joanna Newsom album and they were right together on the Pitchfork. Of course, they give me a 5.3 and just nitpick it and aren’t impressed by any of it, and the Joanna Newsom review was a 9.2 and they’re creaming all over it. I liked that first Joanna Newsom record – I love the sound of the harp – so I listened to her new record and it was like a joke – so over the top pretentious.
It was a triple record set, and very, very rare the artist that can maintain quality over that stretch.
It’s like music from Narnia soaked in unicorn tears. Is she from this planet? Has she ever taken a shit or thrown up?
I could not agree more [laughs]. John Hofer, the drummer from The Mother Hips, once blurted out at a campground picking session, “Nothing too unicorn-y!” I think the adjective applies to Newsom’s album. It’s daunting to me to watch the lockstep of the music press with people like Newsom, Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes. Everyone from the British music print mags down to every jerkwater blog all dutifully praise them and share any new video or scrap of news, all while ignoring great working rock bands right under their noses. In my view, your job if you’re gonna write about music is to do the legwork and find the really good stuff that isn’t being covered everywhere. It’s a sad dynamic with music culture in the greater sense. Frankly, I don’t think you or Clem Snide have ever gotten a fair shake in the press.
Well, a lot of people have said that, but I’ll take a fair share of the responsibility for fucking it up. We fucked it up just as a band. One thing you can say about these young bands is they’re some hard working motherfuckers. They’re so fit and professional, and we never really did that. We did things half-assed, and there were always two people in the band that had just gotten their girlfriends pregnant or were going through an emotional breakdown. Then 9/11 hit just as we were about to do our big tour, and our manager was a fucking asshole. I surrounded myself with a lot of fucked up people. I love them all but they’re fucked up. Looking back, I was bitter for awhile but we definitely fucked it up ourselves. But, I just keep looking for ways to make music and make a living at it.
The Kickstarter campaign for the Journey EP worked out pretty well for you, and you seem ideally suited for the new guerilla opportunities for musicians the internet offers.
Oh yeah, it basically saved me. It was getting kinda desperate over here. I was trying to work in movies; I’ve scored a few movies. With this EP, Journey was some of my favorite music when I first discovered music at 10 or 12. Journey, Foreigner, and 80s classic rock radio was my music when I was coming into my teens. The whole thing worked out great.
Fun is an overlooked or outright ignored factor is so much music making, and this seemed fun on a very basic level.
For sure, I had a lot of fun with it. People that pledged $150 or more got to choose any song for me to cover, which really expanded the project.
[Pick up the collection of fan-chosen covers for a name-your-price deal over here. And don’t be a cheap fuck, pay a little something and know you’re doing the right thing.]
That’s even more perverse than Elvis Costello’s Spinning Song Wheel, where he’s got a good deal of input what covers end up as possibilities. You’re at the mercy of fans [laughs]!
I was able to do almost all of the requests. Someone asked me for a really obscure Beach Boys song and I just can’t cover the Beach Boys. For me, they’re just untouchable; I don’t even know where to begin. So, I graciously asked for a few more choices. And this one girl who donated a lot of money asked for “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” and that song is a bitch. I’ve been wrestling with that one for a while but I can’t seem to get. The songs people chose were so weird and random. That’s what made it great and exciting.
But you’re open to that experience and not every musician is. You have to be a little fearless and foolhardy to open yourself up and take on all comers.
I dig it. I was able to do it because, as I said earlier, I went into it with NO respect for the original. It’s even fun to see how far you can separate the melody from the arrangement, where you start to reconfigure the melody a little bit but still conveying the song itself.
How did you get into playing the ukulele? It does seem to be catching on with a lot of musicians these days, Eddie Vedder notwithstanding.
It does seem to be all the rage [laughs]. The thing I’m playing is not really a uke. It’s like a little guitar, and it’s tuned like a guitar. It’s the lowest uke, the baritone uke. There are three other sizes, which are the more traditional ukes. They’re tuned differently so they give you that 1930s feel that lends itself to those kinds of chords. So, it’s more like a little four-string guitar, and I love little guitars. They sound so nice and they cost next to nothing, like a $120 bucks or something – one of those musical finds. And I’m a leftie too so I’ve never really owned a good guitar. My whole life it’s been my cross to bear to find a nice guitar for a leftie. The baritone uke solved this quandary because it was so cheap and gives it up so easily.
The use of this instrument on the Journey EP instantly makes you reorient yourself to these songs, which is perfect for what you’re trying to do.
The great thing about Journey is those songs are hardwired into our DNA at this point. So you factor the memory of the original into the experience and make something kinda cool out of it. I love doing that. I love to splash around in pop culture [laughs].