My wife and I used to go out to a lot of live music. It was kind of our thing. Then along came a kid, then another and another, and before long live music was something we reminisced about. The single exception to this embargo-by-way-of-exhaustion has always been Bob Schneider. The Austin-based songwriter is almost impossible to categorize as a musician, or a human being. He writes more songs in a month than most musicians do in a decade. He makes stunning visual art that is regularly displayed in galleries. He plays more than 150 shows per year.
To witness Schneider in concert is especially mind bending, because he and his band careen through genres like other bands change chords. At the show I caught a week ago, outside Boston, Schneider and his five-piece touring ensemble ripped through a set list that included Americana, arena rock, bluegrass, folk, funk, hip hop, jazz, mambo, pop, punk, R&B, salsa, and zydeco. Oh, and just a dash of death metal.
For loyal cultists like myself, the big question surrounding Schneider has always been why he isn’t more famous. He’s got radio-ready songs, the looks of a matinee idol, and a passel of high-profile fans.
What Schneider also has is an absolute intolerance for the duties of large-scale fame. He refuses to devote his energies to publicity. He releases albums only when the mood suits him. And he says virtually anything that strikes him as true or funny, regardless of whom he might offend.
Upon the release of his new album—actually, a trio of EPs called "King Kong Volumes 1-3" —Salon called Schneider to see what America’s most profane polymath had to say about Taylor Swift, Kenny Rogers, paternal sadism, and playing with a broken arm. Naturally, he was on his way to a gig in Easton, Texas.
What’s the deal with the new record? Why release it as three EPs?
The original idea was that there would three chances to generate media, to get me into a magazine or on a late-night show or whatever. But basically nobody gives a shit when I put out a record, except for my fans. I haven’t done a single story for this record except for some newspaper in, like, Bend, Oregon. I will tell you this, though. I’ve learned to appreciate how unsuccessful I am. Because what it does is allow me to do what I love to do, which is write songs and hang out with my family and perform whatever songs I feel like performing.
Your marketing plan seems predicated on having just enough success to keep you desperately creating art.
Have you considered doing a cover of an entire album? Like Ryan Adams did with Taylor Swift’s 1989? Wait, do you know who Taylor Swift is?
Yeah. Of course I know who both those guys are. I have heard 1989. But only because my wife, who’s 23 years younger than I am, is a huge Taylor Swift fan and she played it for me. And it’s great. It’s so great I want to hate her. I want to hate everybody. It’s so fucked up. Especially if they’re more successful than me. If they’re less successful I find it much easier to not hate someone. But there are so few people less successful than me that I wind up hating a lot of people.
The idea of Ryan Adams covering that album makes me feel bad as well, because it will give Ryan Adams more exposure and people will talk about him and he’ll get in people’s consciousness and they’ll check out his music and they won’t be checking out mine. It makes me mad at myself for not thinking of it first.
Couldn’t you choose another album?
I might take a crack at George Michael’s Faith. That record sounds like shit. And I’ll tell you another artist—Prince. If you ever listen to the Best of Prince, that shit is really rough, because it was the Eighties and everything was synthesizers and they were recording on digital tape and they hadn’t figured it out yet. The problem is that my favorite albums, like Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, or Randy Newman’s Sail Away or A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, they’re done perfectly. Anything I did to those records would be an abomination.
Is it true that your dad forced you to play drums in his band as a kid?
That’s 100 percent true! My dad was, like, no joke. I was scared of him. I was like this ten-year-old kid with tiny little arms. The drumsticks were as big as my arms. And I’d be crying. Tears would be running down cheeks. There were no breaks. So the lesson I got was that the show must continue no matter what. To the point that I once I broke my arm onstage and I finished the set with a broken arm.
Wait. Did your dad break your arm?
[laughs] No. This was later on in my life. I was in a band called the Ugly Americans and we were playing the Horde Festival and I jumped off the stage into this concrete parking lot. It was raining and I slipped and broke my forearm. They gave me a sling and I finished the set, then went to the hospital to have the bone set. There were maybe 50 people in the crowd. They wouldn’t have cared if I quit. But I was like, ‘No. I’ve got to finish this!’ I’m the same way with my band. No matter what happens, you keep playing. If you break a string. If you vomit. If you’re sick as a dog. There have been times that I’ve had full-blown panic attacks onstage. I just want to get out of there. But there’s that voice: ‘You finish the set, motherfucker!’ I’m basically terrified all the time. That’s the reason I became a good performer. I figured if people loved me enough, I’d be safe.
You also write songs constantly.
Yeah, I still make myself write a song a week. That’s the mandatory minimum for me. Before that, it was two or three songs a week. Sometimes a song a day. Sometimes more than that. I considered releasing this project called the Demo Bible, because I have 1,000 unreleased songs. But people would immediately dismiss it. They’re going to figure, ‘This guy has 1,000 songs lying around? That just has to be one huge, horrendous pile of shit.’ But I have to have new songs to play at shows because what happens is I like all my songs at first, but after I play them over and over they get pretty tapped out. So I have to write new ones to play.
Won’t you eventually get to a point where you hate all your songs?
No, because some hold up. About a year ago I decided I wanted to do a twelve-hour solo show of all originals. I felt like I could do that—
Wait, what possessed you to try such a thing? Was it like an EST thing?
No, I just read on the Internet that someone said the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest show was 36 hours. It was some German piano player. So I sent the Guinness people a letter asking them what the record was for someone playing all originals. They sent a letter back saying, we don’t have to time to confirm that they’re all originals, so it’s just about length. I wasn’t going to play for motherfucking 36 hours if I didn’t make the book, so I settled on twelve. That’s like 160 to 180 songs.
Did you make it?
Oh yeah. I thought I would run out of energy but what ended up happening was just the opposite. Every two hours, I took a ten-minute break to catch my breath. But I was so amped up from the last set I was afraid I was going to have some sort of nervous breakdown. Fortunately, the exhaustion kicked in, so I got through it okay. There were a lot of people there for the last four hours, because people just wanted to see me crash and burn. They wanted to see me die onstage.
This is probably the wrong time to bring up that you just turned 50.
Yep, it’s pretty fucked up. And I have a little daughter who’s eight months old. Of course, if I do the math it’s really bad. I’ll be 70 when my daughter is 20. I don’t want to be like Kenny Rogers, where I’m 70 and I’ve got a five year old.
You gotta know when to hold em—
Yeah, that’s the other thing I’ve learned in life. People will tell you shit that you should do and they’re the ones who need to learn that lesson. Kenny Rogers has been spewing that line for 40 years. But I’ve never been happier. I do feel like, for first time in my life, my family is more important than my music. In the past, if I had to choose between music and relationships or kids, I always chose music, because that was the thing that was going to save me.
I know you’re been making visual art for as long as you’ve been making music. Can you talk about the cover art for the new EPs, those giant collages?
When my son Luc was three or four we started doing art projects. One day he had this idea to cut some heads out of magazines and draw the body. So we cut out some heads and he did this basic stick figure drawing and it was perfect. I spent the next six months trying to do something as cool as he did in, like, five seconds. Without even thinking about it. So anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. Now people are wanting to put those images in gallery shows, and buying them. But I never had that in mind. I was just trying to get back to where Luc was. Because the thing about kids, I’ve discovered, is that they don’t think, ‘Who’s going to like this?’ They don’t have a critical voice in their heads yet. They just do what’s right. I don’t think I’ll ever get back to that pure state. Maybe if I did heroin. But art is a lot safer.