Not long after he finished his 2009 album The Excitement Plan, Todd Snider stumbled into the studio with some friends for a night of highly inebriated recording. Though the East Nashville singer/songwriter reports being "blackout drunk" at the time, he was able to establish a few parameters for an evening of musical revelry:
1. "Play the bones of some Fifties or Sixties-sounding thing and make it just barely original enough to start a song."
2. "Only sing about fighting, fucking, getting fucked up, kickass cars, East Nashville or Bocephus — all other songs are stupid."
3. "When in doubt, yell, 'baby,' and see what happens."
Though this seems like the kind of pie-eyed exercise guaranteed to bring pain the next morning — from the listen-back as much as the hangover — Snider suggests that it played a crucial role in his latest evolution as an artist. "It was a very freeing thing to do," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "It ended up being really valuable. That night helped me to move on."
The results of the session — and another that adhered to a similarly blitzed logic last summer — will appear on the Eastside Bulldog LP, out October 7th. [The album is premiering on Rolling Stone Country today. Listen below.]
When he first lurched into the studio to start hollering his way through the songs that would later become Eastside Bulldog, Snider remembers facing a series of frustrations. "My family that I grew up with, my brother and my mom, I get hate mail from them more than anyone," he explains. "There was a year there where I had to face it."
He was also feeling skeptical of the very foundation of the songwriting that had helped sustain him since releasing Songs for the Daily Planet in 1994, earned him deals with John Prine and Jimmy Buffet, and caught the attention of singers like Loretta Lynn, Mark Chesnutt and Gary Allan. "That was the year I realized that the alphabet was fake," Snider says. "It's a hoax. It's a trick to make you think you can make sounds with your mouth to improve your life. And you can't."
"After Excitement Plan I realized that songwriting is as dumb as anything," he adds. "It's the same as crushing a beer against your head and chanting 'U.S.A.' It's a way to distract yourself from your death."
Though this seems flippant — songwriting provides a valuable distraction for others, unlike, perhaps, loud patriotic chanting — Snider also holds his compositions to a cripplingly high bar. "I realized I would never get to write 'The Gambler' or '[Mr.] Bojangles' or '[Me and] Bobby McGee,'" he notes. "It's just not in the cards for me, and that was the year that I kind of started accepting that. I don't mean a known song — there's a song called 'Let Him Roll' by Guy Clark that I would take that no one knows. But I don't have one of them.
"The frustration led to thinking of, 'A wop bop a loo bop' as maybe my favorite lyric of all time," Snider continues. "I grew up around the Sonics and the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders. It's like Dave Marsh said: when the singer for the Kingsmen said, 'ok, let's give it to 'em right now,' that was the beginning of punk rock. Like, 'forget the song, we're here to kill these motherfuckers.' There's something about that that's exciting and hard to take your eyes off, like a car wreck. I personally think it's this great middle finger. That's the part of it that I still get drawn to."
Snider started to explore this interest as Elmo Buzz. He adopted the moniker roughly eight years ago at a Christmas party because it allowed him to play around Nashville without getting in trouble for violating clauses that prohibit artists from performing near a venue for 90 days before or after a show. "It turned into this group thing that started playing those types of cover songs: 'Wooly Bully,' 'Tutti Frutti,' 'Hanky Panky,' 'Louie Louie,' any of the four syllable rock jams," he says. "We never practice or tune up."
This is the spirit that imbues Eastside Bulldog, the first full-length from Elmo, which follows the 2011 EP Shit Sandwich: hammering piano, bludgeoning horns, a walloping backbeat, and anarchic group vocals. The goal is speed and ruckus; lines often alternate between goofy — "this song is even better than it sounds," Elmo assures listeners — manifesto-like: "I'm a burned out musician, and I'm proud of it!"
Snider and Elmo have now become enemies. "I don't remember when he decided he hated me," Snider jokes. "I guess he doesn't like long songs with stories. He points out that I don't sing out about the important stuff and that I don't use a pick, which is an embarrassment to the entire neighborhood as far as he's concerned. It eats at him that he's not real. That's why he's so jealous of me."
Despite the bad blood between them, Elmo's rapid-fire eruptions of primordial rock will impact the way Snider constructs a tune going forward. "Now that I see the alphabet as a deck of cards," he says, "I don't feel as neurotic or obsessive about whether or not I like my songs. It makes me wonder if I wasted too much time on my other songs that I spent years on — I should just knock that shit out."
"There's this theory that you have to realize what you're doing is bullshit before you can really do it," he adds. "I'm hoping that's the future for me."