Press Pass LA had the opportunity to chat with guitarist and vocalist Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide just in time for the release of Rudderless, William H. Macy’s directorial debut, for which Barzelay did the score. Read on to hear more about his recent album Girls Come First, the perils of performing in a stranger’s barn, and how only the universe can line shit up.
PPLA: How did you get involved with Undertow Records and The Living Room Shows?
EB: I didn’t invent this idea, but I think I might know some of the people that did. I found out about it through Bobby Bare Jr. who lives in Nashville and Will Johnson from Centro-matic. And really, I think Dave Bazan is the guy who sort of pioneered this whole approach. So Bobby Bare Jr. had told me about it, maybe two or three years ago. It seemed crazy to me when I first heard the idea—it seemed like it would be kind of uncomfortable and weird, so I resisted at first.
It’s just one of those things, though that made so much sense and kind of became sort of obvious that this is the best way for me to do it right now. It works best for people who have kind of been around for a while, who have a small, yet devoted basis of fan love. So it’s great. I mean you lose a certain sizzle that you get with a stage and lighting that certainly gives the whole experience a nice boost, but in exchange for that you get a kind of intimacy that you could almost never get at a venue.
PPLA: Did it take you a while to adjust to the extreme intimacy of playing in a stranger’s home?
EB: You know, the first ones I did, I didn’t know about Undertow at the time, so I just did it myself through my website and through like Kickstarter types of stuff, I would just do private shows. The home show experience would be like some guy turning forty would fly me to Toronto and I’d play a party at his house. So that wasn’t like a room full of fans as much as a room full of his friends and family, so those kind of gigs are a little scarier and tougher.
I did a Christmas party for this guy in Columbus—this guy was throwing a big party, it was like one hundred some odd people in his house—there was food, a disco ball might have been twirling around, and he sets me up in front of the fire place, and a handful of people are sitting there watching me, but like the other ninety five are still deeply engaged in their conversations, so no one was listening and I just had to play. So the Undertow shows are fans that are buying tickets and fans that are hosting, I mean those are great.
PPLA: What’s the craziest story you have from a Living Room Show?
EB: When I was first putting myself out there for private shows, I was putting together a run through the Midwest, and I got this guy to agree for a Sunday afternoon, it was like the middle of Indiana, this guy and his dad. They were fans I had actually met before. So I show up, beautiful day, Indiana farm country, and that was one of those kind of situations where these people know who I am, they know that I’m like famous-ish so I was getting weird vibes like they didn’t know how to act around me, but it was like I’m here, you know? (laughs) It was awkward. So I’m trying to chitchat as much as I’m able to.
Everyone was really intense, and one of the brothers, who looked like a young Robert Blake was like always coming next to me. I wasn’t sure if we had this cool rapport or what. At first it seemed like he had this dry offbeat sense of humor, but then I wasn’t sure and it got weird. He got drunker and more stoned as the night went on and then at one point I went to pee in the woods and he was like “I’m here too!” and one time he kind of leaned into my ear and was like “Have you ever betrayed someone?” and I was like uhh (laughs) like I wasn’t sure if we were joking, you know he just threw me off. So finally the night winds down and I’m trying to get out of there and he kind of follows me and is like “Wouldn’t it be weird if I just like stabbed you in the chest?” and I was just like I wanna get the f*ck out of here.
He could have just had the most sublime sense of humor and been a comedic genius. I never thought he was going to hurt me, you know, it was just like social [awkwardness]. And then they wouldn’t let me leave, they’re like “Oh you can’t leave, we set a room up! Here have some food, have some cheese” and I’m like “Oh no, I have a hotel, thanks”. I literally had to like push them out of the room and like run out the door.
PPLA: How long have you been performing?
EB: Oh man. The first gig I ever had was in 1986 when I played in a heavy metal cover band in Jersey. The first time I ever stepped on a stage was in 1986 (laughs)! At the China Club in Hillsdale, New Jersey.
PPLA: Who or what has been your biggest influence or inspiration?
EB: That’s a good question. I’m trying to think, because it’s evolved, it’s evolving. I’m just going to have to pick someone really. Even though I was kind of a punk—we were very noisy when we first started in the early nineties, I was very young—I always liked listening to Al Green. I always wanted to be Al Green, or like Hank Williams. I think I’ve always preferred the simple music. I’m a primitive kind of dude.
PPLA: The longer you’ve played, has it gotten easier to create an album, or do you find yourself facing the same challenges that you did years ago?
EB: It’s definitely gotten easier. The tradeoff is that it’s not as satisfying as it was, in a way. Satisfying might not be the right word. I used to feel it a lot more intensely, like after a show my head would be spinning. Now that it’s gotten older, it’s sleepier. It doesn’t have that same “oh shit!” feeling that it did, but in exchange it is a lot easier. I don’t struggle with it at all, it just comes, and I can sort of force it. I used to worry about it like “I can’t imagine writing another song!” I don’t sweat that so much anymore. I guess I can’t get too lax though, I gotta stay on top of it (laughs).
PPLA: You mentioned in a previous interview how covers came naturally to you because you didn’t really respect the songs. Can you elaborate on that?
EB: That’s why I think having the fans choose the songs is part of what enables that. People would suggest a song that I would never think to cover. My wife suggested I cover “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera like 10 years ago, and was like “alright”. I never would have thought to play that song, so we played it and we did a whole EP based around it and it became this whole thing that was my wife’s idea. I like when people suggest songs for me to cover, I appreciate it because the songs that I love, I don’t necessarily always want to play. I dunno (laughs). When I learn it, I just Google the chords and the lyrics.
The Internet has enabled that. I mean to learn a song is too much of a pain in the ass sometimes, so I work off of the very simple, probably incorrect chords and then it’s just kind of how I remember it. So it’s a vague recollecting of the song, and I think that sort of frees you up. And yeah, if you don’t have too much respect for it, you can f*ck with it and kind of change the melody, and try to make it better. Somebody sent me this one song that was a fairly famous song, and I think I made it better (laughs).
I’ve learned that it’s more about the process for me. I don’t care as much about the end result. I do care, I have to, but now it’s just to keep doing it and not fuss about it. That’s the thing with the music, you don’t get a lot of time to do it. If you’re trying to do it for a living, it’s like the work part of it is keeping everything going. I try to spend less time doing that and more time just messing with the music, not worrying about leading up the release date and getting the press to line up just right. For ten years that’s all I ever heard: “We just gotta get everything to line up just right! If this hits the radio on this day, or if we get this interview…” Things never seem to line up, and after each record the manager was like “Ah we just didn’t line it up right!” (laughs). I don’t know how to line shit up, I think only the universe can really line it up for you.
PPLA: You did the score for William H. Macy’s newest film, right?
EB: Yeah, it’s this movie called Rudderless. It seems to be getting some heat, Selena Gomez is in it, and she just shines like the brightest little star in the sky. It’s cool, it’s got some great songs in it that I did not write, by the way! I think that all the songs in the movie are probably going to dwarf my efforts—the underscore. I like doing that [scores], I did it for this one movie Rocket Science back in ’07, and it got some Sundance love.
Through that I was able to get an agent, so I do occasionally get offered to score movies. I’ve written some songs, as well for movies, so I’m all LA when I need to be. So Rudderless is coming out next week on the 17th, and William H. Macy actually directed it—it’s his directorial debut. It’s a cool little movie, it’s got Billy Crudup in it and Ben Kweller, he wrote some of the songs too. I did the score, though so go see it!
PPLA: What are your favorite places to perform?
EB: I’ll give you two places: Fort Wayne, Indiana—they just love me in Fort Wayne, I don’t know what I did, but there’s just a disproportionate number of super fans, so I love playing there—and I love playing in Glasgow, Scotland because people in Glasgow Scotland are awesome and they love music. I’ve heard other artists say that as well, they confirm my suspicions of Glasgow. Scots listen and they’re enthusiastic somehow at the same time, which is rare.
PPLA: What is your favorite place to eat in LA?
EB: I gotta tell you, I was hungry [before the LA Living Room Show] and I gotta say El Pollo Loco, which I guess is not all that unique in LA, but I was really hungry, and it tasted goooood.
PPLA: So you’re recording right now?
EB: I just finished another score for this documentary about gay and lesbian culture in New York City called Queer City. It’s like a POV documentary, it’s very intimate—the director spent a lot of time with these people. They liked my sound, so I threw my sound all over that. We just finished yesterday, it was fun.
PPLA: Anything else we should know about?
EB: I just sort of unceremoniously dribbled out an Internet release called Girls Come First. I have a ton of stuff right now; it’s just a big mess. I usually just throw it out there for free on Bandcamp, or whatever. So you can get it on iTunes and all that—my new one.
Find music and more at clemsnide.com and follow Eef on Twitter @eefbarzelay
Footage of the LA Living Room show, hosted by Shane Lennon @theshanelennon and shot by Tanner R. Hall here.
To learn more about hosting or attending a Living Room Show visit www.undertowmusic.com.