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“The name is Clem Williamson Snide, I am a private asshole,” begins the private detective protagonist in William Burroughs’ fairly unfamed 1981 effort, Cities of the Red Night. Burroughs’ hero sleuths around surreal city streets looking for clues to the disappearance of a maladjusted boy. When his the trail gets cold, Snide does what any private dick in an apocalyptic drug underworld would: He goes to the boy’s apartment, records samples of creaking doors and flushing toilets on a spinning handheld recorder and plays them during magical, hallucinatory sex acts.
“It’s all kind of instinct. I really have no idea what I’m doing,” Eef Barzelay says. He’s talking about writing songs for his band, Clem Snide, but his process almost seems akin in mysterious instinct to the band’s namesake in Burroughs’ gumshoe story. “It’s really hard to explain. And it’s not like there is some kind of sacred, magical thing that I can’t put into words. But whenever I try to talk about writing songs, I listen to what’s coming out of my mouth and I don’t really believe what I’m saying.”
With a guitar in hand it’s a different story. It’s hard not to believe Barzelay as he rambles though his sound check, singing a melange of alt-country standards and originals. The band checks their vocal mics by running though three-part harmonies on a heart-bleeding rendition of Uncle Tupelo’s “Give Back the Key To My Heart.” Listening to Barzelay descant the verse in his lazy drawl, “You’ve got a friend in cocaine, and you say he is to blame,” you might think he had just checked his girlfriend into rehab. When, later that night, the band plays through a collection of Barzelay’s own songs from Clem Snide’s weighty catalogue of alt-country, every single word Barzelay sings is nothing if not believable.
“I never wanted it to be a songwriter band,” Barzelay says. “You can tell when a band is just kind of accompanying someone. When you bring a song to a band it is easy to fall into that, maybe. The great thing about Clem Snide is that it isn’t like that at all. I bring them something that is just basically a melody and some lyrics — and I never know what it is going to turn out like in the end.”
Probably much of the secret in distinguishing Clem Snide from a “songwriter band” lies in the efforts of multi-instrumentalist and background vocalist Pete Fitzpatrick. One moment Fitzpatrick gently strums along to one of the band’s ballads on a beat-up Stratocaster, the next he’s wreaking havoc on a banjo with a violin bow. Throughout the set he occasionally picks up a dinged euphonium and bounces through buoyant countermelodies. Fitzpatrick’s deft versatility is the perfect foil to Barzelay’s nasally straight-man routine.
But where the band’s earlier releases (2000’s Your Favorite Music or 2001’s The Ghost of Fashion) were twisting, unpredictable rides that crutched on Barzelay’s sharp-tongued observations of pop clutter and employed Fitzpatrick in noisier capacities, the group’s most recent effort, Soft Spot, shows a changed band. With the exception of a couple stomping anthems, Soft Spot is a much more subdued, reflective outing.
“Soft Spot was kind of an unusual record,” Barzelay says. “I know people who came to the band via Ghost of Fashion expected a certain perspective or a certain emotional experience, and then perhaps were a little disappointed by the sweetness or the sentimentality of Soft Spot. But, you know, it’s what it is. That’s not what I’m going to write from now on or anything like that. I got married. I had a baby. I wanted to make it a really nice, visceral record. I have to kind of respond to my life at that moment. Aren’t I allowed to make songs that are like that?”
It’s a question that paints Barzelay as a man who seems to have unraveled some of the mysteries that fueled his earlier bite as a songwriter. And as Clem Snide commences to play a collection of songs that span the band’s 10-year life span, the visceral moments are many, though the nicest ones are from his reflections of developments in his new-found happiness. If Burroughs’ “private asshole” came looking for a reckless, runaway boy in this room he’d have to again resort to voodoo. It’s plain as day that Barzelay has become a happy man.
Clem Snide will be at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward, Ferndale) on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Call 248-544-3030 for more information.
Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.