Todd Snider talks to Salon about his new record inspired by the recession and his friend Rahm Emanuel
It’s 10 a.m. and Todd Snider has just stepped away from an all-night poker game to talk with Salon about his new album, “Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.” Snider doesn’t sound tired — perhaps a bit hoarse from too much cigar smoke and too many bad hands, but he’s animated, charming, thoughtful, even funny.
Which may seem surprising given the subject matter of “Agnostic Hymns”: He writes about right-wing hypocrisy, corrupt financial systems, the unknowability of God, and the pain of a broken heart, but his stoner cadence adds a bit of whimsy to the proceedings. That levity has always been crucial to Snider’s appeal, but lately, it’s distinguished him from other musicians who embrace sanctimony as a means of addressing the Great Recession. Snider may be angry, but he’s also genuinely curious, perhaps even slightly bemused by the exaggerations and mutations of human greed and self-justification. “At least it helps folk music, if nothing else,” he laughs at one point during our conversation.
Born in Oregon but based in East Nashville — and it’s crucial to distinguish that bohemian enclave from Nashville proper — Snider emerged in the 1990s as a roots-rock singer and a sharp-eyed songwriter, yet the serious songs on his debut album, “Songs for the Daily Planet,” were upstaged by a humorous hidden track, “Talking Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues.” Since then, he’s developed a keen eye for character and an ear for phrases that work as both punch lines and emotional gut punches.
Snider is fascinated by oddball Americans, writing wittily about FBI agents investigating the lyrics to “Louie Louie,” Catfish Hunter pitching a perfect game on LSD, even a ne’er-do-well political scion who becomes president of the United States of America. “Agnostic Hymns” adds some indelible characters and tunes to his catalog, but more than that it stands as a potent combination of anger and humor.
“New York Banker” was suggested to you by Rahm Emanuel. What’s the story behind that song?
Yeah. He’s my friend. I love that guy. He first came to see me in Washington, D.C., and he was about to go to some big meeting. The next time I met him was in Chicago. I was telling him about this song I was making up about the military-industrial complex. I was telling him it’s a stoner fable. All the stoners in the world are convinced that the world is run by these people that Eisenhower warned us about. He said, “You’d be surprised how much power the banks have now by comparison.” He pointed out that there’s a song about “the military and the monetary” by Gil Scott Heron called “Work for Peace.” So it’s been tackled. He said, “What would Woody Guthrie do? He’d figure out a way to point out what the bankers are doing right now.” So I thought, OK, I’ll try that. It’s not something I know much about, but I did some research on it. I read a book called “The Big Short,” and my father-in-law helped me find a person whose story I could tell.
It sounds like a good explanation for why the financial system is so blatantly and openly one-sided.
It’s unconscionable. I don’t get how that’s possible, but it is. I learned a lot doing this one song. It made me sit down and try to understand it. The guy who creates those pension funds with the teachers’ retirement money, he creates them to fail. That’s the thing … John Paulson created a thing called the Abacus deal [the agreement with Goldman Sachs that allowed Paulson to sell risky collateral debt obligations and then bet against them] and he’s just running around New York, isn’t he? That seems weird.
I think I know what a stoner fable is, but what exactly is an agnostic hymn?
I consider myself an evangelical agnostic, actually, which means I don’t know what I’m doing here and you don’t either. I feel like there aren’t any songs for that religion. They don’t even have a church for that, where people get together and hit tambourines. Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to come up with that kind of song — an agnostic hymn. There’s a song called “Too Soon to Tell” that I made up first: “It’s too soon to tell what happens when you die.” That song was originally titled “Agnostic Hymn” and then the song “In the Beginning” was originally titled “Stoner Fable.” A couple of my friends said that all the songs are that, so I came up with new titles for those two and implied that all the songs are agnostic hymns and stoner fables.
In “In the Beginning,” you sing about religion being the only thing that keeps the poor from rising up to kill the rich. That seems to be a major theme on this record. Was that intentional from the beginning, or an idea that emerged as you put the songs together?
I was just trying to make up the best songs I could and try to let myself say whatever. When it was done, it all felt right. I was listening back with a couple of my friends in Maryland, and they said, look, there’s a theme here. I didn’t realize until we were done that there are two occasions where it sounds like the singer is supporting the idea of poor-on-rich violence. I’m not not supporting it.
On your records, agnosticism seems to inform a very strict moral system.
I’ve always been a little put off by the idea that you need a reason to be nice to people. I’m just going to be fair with people, not because I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to me if I don’t, and not because I’m going to get good luck if I do. But because it’s right. I’m rooting for God as much as the next guy. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than go to heaven with my wife and just sit there forever, but I’m not going to ignore logic or base my life on superstition, especially when it becomes something that’s going to impact another person.
It’s not actually a new theme for you, though, but something you’ve explored on previous records. Do you consider these protest songs?
I feel like I’ve always sung anti-suburban Christian songs. I grew up conservative Christian and all that, and now when someone tells me they’re conservative politically and also a Christian, I think, Why didn’t you just tell me that you’re a hydrogen bomb made out of dumb. Because those two ideas don’t gel. There’s one group that’s saying, Take everything you have and give it to the poor. And there’s another group that’s saying, Don’t tell me what to give to the poor. How can you join both groups? That’s like you’re joining Puppy Kickers Animal Rights of America. It just doesn’t gel, and that’s what I ran away from.
Are you concerned about alienating a potential audience?
I would almost like to alienate that audience that would disagree. If somebody takes offense to something that I’m saying, that would probably make me happy that I needled them a little bit.
The idea of music as a vehicle for protest seems to be popular right now. Do you identify at all with the Occupy movement?
On the chaotic side, I definitely identify with hippies in the park and Frisbees and weed and all that. But on a more linear side, I don’t see a plan. It’s almost like we saw the Tea Party and they looked dumb, so [we decided], Let’s show everybody our dumb. To a degree I get it. But even the Tea Party is a little more focused. I think the people at the bar I hang out at in East Nashville are offended by the 1 percent for two reasons: Their greed is just cruel, and their supposed connection to some sort of religion is embarrassing.
What attracted you to cover Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown,” about a debutante who gives up high-class cotillions to hitchhike around the country? It was surprising to hear him espouse those ideas back in the 1970s.
That’s an interesting song of his. He wrote it when he lived in this town, and as I was hearing what I was saying on this record, I thought that song fit. It made me think of myself. I come from a jock house that I didn’t want to be a part of. I mean, I like to play hippie concerts, and I like Phish fans and stuff like that. A lot of them left nice homes to get away from greed and superstition.
One thing that definitely separates this album from a lot of other, for lack of a better word, “protest” albums is that this one is really funny.
Bill Hicks is probably my favorite — I would even call him a folk singer. He was three chords from a folk singer. I take a lot of his ideas. At the very least humor keeps you from being pretentious as you’re trying to be somebody that people go out to see on a Friday night. It’s good for vaudeville, and it’s also probably good for your heart. I’ve heard that laughter is pretty good for you, so I feel thankful that that’s a part of my life.
More Related Stories
- How Dan Savage lost it
- Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"
- “Arrested Development,” hurry up and get here so you can stop being so annoying
- Must-do's: What we like this week
- Josh Ritter makes his "Blood on the Tracks"
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11