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Music, Etc

Music, Etc.: Todd Snider – Alter Ego

Sometimes an artist must step outside of himself or herself to find the path forward.

Sometimes an artist must step outside of himself or herself to find the path forward. For nashville-based Todd Snider, who just released his new record, Eastside Bulldog, this meant unleashing an ‘alter ego’ who could represent rock ‘n’ roll’s most spontaneous and rebellious elements during the studio sessions.

Under the guise of the fictitious Elmo Buzz, Snider broke free from conventional songwriting and recording practices, blindly following intuition with no assurance of what would happen. The resulting album has been met with critical acclaim by the likes of Rolling Stone, USA Today and a sold-out release show at The Ryman. Pro Sound News spoke with Snider about the frenetic sessions.


On this album, instead of making songs, I came up with a person, Elmo Buzz. And I got a very clear idea of who the person was going to be, what he stood for and all these sorts of things—then made the songs up on the spot. The style of the music is a lot like The Kingsmen. It’s garage rock ’n’ roll and I don’t even know if people who listen to me in general are going to like it. I was really hesitant to put it out—it was a ‘let’s do it and see what happens’ kind of thing. But the response has really been great and makes me want to try it again.


Elmo is just a rocker who is proud of East Nashville and doesn’t like the Americana movement that had settled into the town. He hates me, and tells me that he is going to beat me up if he ever sees me. He likes songs about cars and chicks that are about two minutes long. He saw Hank Jr. on TV, and didn’t just decide that he loved Hank Jr.; he decided that he hated everything else. Also, he didn’t just decide he liked songs about cars and partying and chicks; he decided that songs that weren’t about that were also dumb and offensive.


We had no songs, and wrote and recorded everything in an hour. We sat and talked through who this guy Elmo was and what we thought about him. We decided that ‘All we do is rock,’ and that we could only sing about one of six things: East Nashville, Bocephus, partying, fighting, [copulation] or your car. I said if I sing anything that refers to anything but these six things, just stop me and we’ll start over. So most of our work was in preparation. There was a lot of laughing and things getting broken. It was the kind of thing where somebody shows up with a notepad and a pencil, expecting one thing, but an hour later, they’ve got their shirt off and you can tell they’re shocked by everything that is happening. It ended up being what I imagine a cool punk rock band would be, and we’re all pretty old to be doing that!


Very often, the right mic for the job is the closest mic to the idea. And there is really something to be said for questions like ‘Are you having fun?’ and ‘Are you engaged?’ and ‘Is your heart open?’ If you can’t say ‘yes’ to all these things, it doesn’t matter who is hitting record and it doesn’t matter if you have a good microphone or not. It is great to know a lot about how to record—but if you aren’t inspired, it doesn’t matter how well you record it. Cowboy Jack Clement, who was a great producer and totally understood recording, believed that sometimes the key was having chaos right around the corner. He would say ‘We’re in the fun business. And if we’re not having fun, we’re going to be out of business.’


In Nashville, the musicians that get the good jobs—or the A-list guys—can not only write parts for your song but also immediately adapt to a new song and play it live on stage in front of a crowd. You should be able to turn around to them and say, ‘This is a new thing, it’s in A, stay with me.’ And if they can’t, they need to go home. Everyone who played on this record really pride themselves on that, and people that know how to do it really get off on it. It’s kind of jazzy. So for this album, we were writing songs right in the moment. I was asking my musicians to follow me, and they were doing it with a lot of confidence.


One day, this guy from a music academy asked me if I would do a session for his students. It seemed like a useful thing, so I said okay. At first, the session was chaos. I thought the school official was disappointed and the studio wanted us out of there. But once they began to realize the spirit of what we were going for, everything began to gel. I remember the engineer telling the kids ‘This isn’t what you do.’ But by the end, he was saying, ‘Sometimes this is what you do!’ If you are trying to make a pop song, you better think it through. And if you’re trying to make a punk rock song, you better not! By the time it was all over, I think he got that what we were doing is real. For me, it was great to step outside of myself and play music that was so different than what I normally play.


I think that Rock ’n’ Roll has slowly evolved into something you can do with your parents—it’s not quite the middle finger that it used to be. It used to be that when you decided to join a band, your parents were ashamed. They didn’t root for the band; they rooted for the band to fall apart so you could get back to your senses. Now, if the kids come up with some rebellious thing, the adults will just embrace it—so it goes away.

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists that occasionally inhabit them. please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at: [email protected].