CANNABIS CULTURE – Like Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, and John Lennon before him, Todd Snider loves to stir it up and see how much shit he can raise.
Some artists’ first priority is to be loved and admired, and they’ll do anything to make you feel that way, but spend a little time listening to Snider’s in-your-face brand of agitated folk grunge music and you’ll realize he’s not in the game to make friends.
That said, since his first album, ‘Songs for the Daily Planet’ came out in 1994, Snider has continued to attract a growing number of like-minded fans who long ago tired of the clichés and platitudes that continue to dominate pop music. Bitter, witty and insightful, Snider and his music have never made concessions to popular taste or good manners. Like Dylan’s songs, Snider’s epic spoken, sung musical monologues chronicle the desperate lives and escapades of society’s beautiful losers. From tales of working people who can’t take any more to celebrations of baseball players who have pitched no-hitters while high on acid, Snider’s songs inhabit a world of their own.
When it was announced that Todd’s newest album would be called, ‘Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables’, Cannabis Culture knew that they had to hook up with the restless Mr. Snider and find out what was going on with his newest collection of songs. I reached him on the road at a hotel in Arizona where he was preparing for a weekend of dates and enjoying his first smoke of the day.
– Read a review of ‘Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables’ here.
‘It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope’
– a stoned interview with Todd Snider
DR: Hi Todd! It’s good to hear you.
TS: Sorry if you caught me in the middle of some confusion. We’ve done four shows this week and we’ve got three more shows before we start our tour.
DR: So, have you been trying out some of your new material from ‘Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables’ for live audiences?
TS: I haven’t been. I’ve only been doing the song about the kids.
DR: Precious Little Miracles?
TS: Yeah, for some reason, I decided that would be the one. I don’t know why. I was just trying to keep most of them as a surprise, from being already known when the record came out.
DR: That’s a sweet little song – ‘Precious Miracles.’ It’s got a great vintage, hollow sound to it. It could’ve been written around 1932, the way you recorded it.
DR: What were you going for in that song? I can hear you trying all kinds of different sounds out on this record. It’s got a different feel than some of your other music.
TS: Thank you. I guess on that particular song, the way the chords were written, I was going for that older sound. It sounds like an older song. The only other thing – aside from my guitar – that we recorded for that one was the ‘stirring the soup’ kind of brush tones. I really like Dylan’s new stuff – my favourite stuff of all of his is his new music – and I think that song is influenced by what he’s been dong lately.
DR: Yeah, it has a little bit of a ‘Spirit on the Water’ vibe to it.
TS: Yeah, I love that song. I love how he does either sort of tin pan alley songs or 1-4-5 boogies these days. It’s like he’s gone, ‘fuck it, there are only two great songs – Hoagy Carmichael’s and Chuck Berry’s, so that’s what I’m going to play’
DR: Ha Ha. I agree. Any time I’ve gone to see Dylan in the last decade or so, he’s been better than any other time I’ve heard him in the years before that.DR:
TS: I think so, too. His new records are my favourites and I love the old records.
DR: I grew up with his music, but by the time I was old enough to see him in the eighties, he wasn’t necessarily doing his best music. I’d go to see a concert with no expectations of how he’d sound. It was a bit of a gamble. Have you ever had the chance to play with him?DR:
TS: I did one time, but that was before I even had a record contract. I guess that I was doing pretty good in the bars around Memphis, and there was this friend of mine who owned a bar and he was bringing Dylan to Jackson, so I phoned and asked if he could get me tickets. He phoned me back and somehow he’d wrangled me the opening spot. I went out, and I didn’t get to meet him, but I did pretty good. This was during a period when Dylan seemed wasted. I loved him, but you really couldn’t even tell what he was doing. He’d play ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and part way through you’d go ‘oh my God. That’s what he’s playing!’ I love him, but that was a weird time in his career.
DR: He’s ‘on’ these days, but you can still hear the same song two nights in a row and it will sound different each time. I think there are lots of reasons for that. Some are conscious and some maybe aren’t.
TS: I love when that happens. I love that kind of stuff and I’m really starting to love jam band music where they go off on tangents. Really, Dylan almost invented that. ‘Here’s a song you know, but you have never heard it like this.’
DR: Do you try and bring a little of that into your own show?
TS: I do. For the past two years, I’ve been trying to incorporate that. I’ve been travelling with a band called ‘The Great American Taxi’ for the past few years, and their leader is Vince Herman who is a jam band legend. So, I got to study that stuff under those guys a little bit. I’m trying to put my own band together now, and we’ll see how that evolves. But, I really like the approach a lot.
DR: Does it keep you on your toes when you play in that way?
TS: Yeah, I like to feel that it’s making me a better player. All of the guitars on the new record were played by me. I like to think that I’m getting better over time.
DR: I can hear that your tone is really expanding. I like that sloppy Keith Richards thing that’s all over your new CD. Then, on the other side, you’re developing this vintage approach with songs like ‘Precious Little Miracles’ that sound as if they could have been recorded by Jimmy Rodgers.
TS: Oh thank you. The acoustic songs on the new record were recorded with a gut string guitar, an old Willie Nelson type of thing. It sounded good, so we went with it.
DR: Did you punch a hole in it like Willie did?
TS: Yeah right! That would have sounded even better.
DR: So, you playing mostly solo these days?
TS: Tonight I’m playing solo. Then, I’m going to London and Belfast where I’ll also play solo. But, when I come home from that, they’ll be all band shows for the rest of the year. I like the longer tours because I get in better shape when I play a lot. For the past few years, I’ve been playing every weekend and then once in the winter we’ll go on a month long tour. This year because of the new record, we’re going to play every night for a couple of months. It’s a lot for old guys like us.
DR: How do things change once you’re half way through a tour like that as opposed to if I saw your show in the first week of a tour?
TS: Well, we probably get a little tighter, but what I’m hoping is to expand my repertoire. Because what happens when I spend so much time on my new songs, it gets harder to remember my older ones when I’m on the road. So, for the last year, my window of songs has been about twenty-five or thirty that I have in my brain. It should be up around sixty. I’m working on that right now.
DR: I was interviewing Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead and he said at their touring peak, they had about 160 songs they could draw from and revolve around.
TS: That’s a lot! I’d like to work up to that.
DR: Do you make up your set list up as you go along when you play? Do you have certain songs you ‘need’ to sing, or is it pretty much formatted the same each night?
TS: I do a bit of that. About a decade or so ago, there was some sort of website started that lists what songs bands play each night. So, I get my friend, Brian who works for us to check it out to see what I played in a particular town the last time I was there and he gets back to me. He also can tell me what stories I told, and that helps me make sure that every time I go to St. Louis, for example, it’s always a new show. That’s related to the jam band thing we were talking about, but it takes work to learn and be good at playing a lot of songs. That allows me to play a different set every time I visit a place and also allows me to play different sets if say I’m playing for a whole weekend in Boulder. That’s something I’m trying hard to work on. Right now, I’m trying to work up learning a bunch of my old songs again.
DR: So, when you play something you haven’t played for a while, do you ever get back into the moment you wrote it and say, ‘Shit, that is a good song!’
TS: No, I’m very hard on my own material. Some days I have real good days where I like them all, but mostly it makes me think I have to make up some new songs. Some of my old songs are more fictional and they weren’t really based on anything that had anything to do with me. It’d be more like I’d hear a riff or a few lines, write a poem around it and there’d be the song. As the years go by, it’s often hard for me to still want to sing a song like that.
DR: Do you ever get tempted to go back to a song like that and rewrite a section so that it does have relevance to you again?
TS: Yeah, there are a few that I’d like to go back and fix and change a thing here and there to make them more relevant. I haven’t done that yet. Maybe I’ll try this year.
DR: I don’t think anything’s written in stone. I love it when artists do things like that.
TS: I do, too.
DR: We were just talking about changing up your set lists. Do you do that because you have a proportion of your audience that follows you from show to show? Are there Snider heads out there that you’ve come to recognize in the audience?
TS: Usually if there’s a weekend in a city, I’ll often see the same people. But, yeah, isn’t that something that people like to do if they’re into a band? If I play in Tucson and Phoenix, they’re close and I think people like to take mini-holidays and follow a band they like to a few different places. Almost all artists have people who follow them like that, I think. It started out with Deadheads, now it’s just concert heads.
DR: I think a lot of artists are aware of that now and have begun to reflect that awareness in their shows. Back to Dylan, for years he was glued to his setlists. Since touring with the Dead in 1987, you might only hear five of the same songs from night to night.
TS: Yeah, that’s something that The Yonder Mountain String Band made me aware of years ago. They were the first people who told me that that was something that some musicians did. So, that’s when I first began changing up what I played from night to night to show that I was appreciative of the people who were supporting me.
DR: So, let’s talk about your new record a bit. The title is ‘Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.’ To me, that’s a description of all of your work.
TS: Ha Ha. Shit.
DR: So, how did you come up with that title?
TS: I think that there’s a song called ‘Too Soon To Tell’ that was originally called ‘Agnostic Hymn’ and there’s another song called ‘In the Beginning’ that started off being called ‘Stoner Fable.’ So, I was trying to come up with a title and I realized that that ‘stoner fables’ covers all of my songs and that should be the title of the record.
DR: So, what’s a stoner fable?
TS: Well, I’ve written several of them. Maybe it’s a song where you see the universe in your fingernail! (big laugh) But, there’s the one song that talks about how religion is what keeps the poor from killing the rich, and there’s the whole military industrial complex. I almost wrote a song about that. That would be a stoner fable. There are certain things that are really fucked up that are the things that stoners are aware of. Certain kinds of truth. Roswell and certain kinds of things like that are all stoner fables.
DR: So, how dangerous is it in America these days to identify yourself as a stoner? I mean, in Canada, you say you’re a stoner and nobody cares. I have a different impression of what it’s like in the States. I mean, can you get your record sold at Walmart if you have a title like Stoner Fables on the jacket?
TS: Probably not. I think they’ve said that we couldn’t. But, that doesn’t matter to me. You know, I’m not really a suburban person. I’m not going to be out there and neither are most of the people who listen to me. They might be in Walmart, but they’re not going there to find my record. They’re there for other shit they don’t need.
DR: So, you’re not mellowing with age or pulling any punches with a title like that. It sparks a reaction – no pun intended.
(shared huge stoned laughter)
TS: Well, thank you! I like the title. It’s like those other Canadians – Bob and Doug McKenzie said – ‘There’s no sense steering now!’
DR: Jesus! OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way – that you’re not a suburban guy selling to the Walmart crowd – who are you writing music for? You know this interview is for Cannabis Culture and a lot of the younger readers think of stoner music as hip hop or reggae – not some middle aged long haired hippie playing a guitar.
TS: Yeah! (laugh) Well, I write for stoners. Exclusively! We call it Stoner Folk! It’s not every night you can have the chance to see a stoner folk singer practicing his craft anymore. That’s often the first thing I say when I come on stage. I think that I am singing for mostly pot heads in the same way that Arlo Guthrie sang for potheads way back when.
DR: Can you tell that you’ve got a pothead audience right away – as opposed to a drinking audience or a straight audience?
TS: Oh yeah! I think that my audience is mostly stoned. They’re drunk, too and so am I. I usually get stoned right before we play. I like to think that’s what my audience does, too. Sitting on the bus before the show, I always see people in their cars getting high.
DR: Isn’t that what we all do before we play whatever we play?
TS: Yeah, I like to think so. I think it’s a positive thing. I’ve never been afraid of it or thought it was negative.
DR: Have you ever found your stance towards pot dangerous?
TS: No, I mean some studies have just come out that prove marijuana doesn’t cause cancer. It might cause some inflammation in the lungs, but –
DR: I didn’t mean dangerous in terms of your health, but more in terms of the social or political climate in the US. Have you ever worried about being targeted or restricted in your movements like say John Lennon was in the seventies?
TS: I would hope that if anyone was offended by me smoking pot, they’d realize that my music has a middle finger aimed directly at them. I travel a lot and I’ve come to realize that most hotels don’t give a shit if you smoke pot in your room. Most cops don’t give a shit. Some do, but most don’t. I was playing a show in Idaho when this cop found me smoking pot. He came around a corner and I had just gotten high. I was having a stoner moment where I didn’t put it out. I just said ‘hello’ and kept hitting it. When he saw the look on my face when it occurred to me that he was a cop, he thought it was the funniest fucking thing he had ever seen. I was also somewhere in Layton in a hotel when the lobby called me and this lady who was there freaked out and was so angry because she had smelled pot. The cop came up and searched our room. He found a little bit of pot and said, ‘I’ve got to take you to jail. Let’s go down to my car.’ The lady was standing there in the hallway, tapping her foot. She was so satisfied that we were being arrested. We got into the elevator and I swear to you as soon as the elevator door closed, that cop turned to us and said ‘what a bitch! Sorry to scare you guys, but let’s go down to my car for a minute and talk and then she’ll be satisfied. You guys got to get out of this part of town. You’re not on the hippie side of town. ’
DR: That’s crazy! I had an experience a couple of years ago in Vancouver. I was at a concert in Vancouver and security came up to me, looking menacing. He took a sniff and then apologized and said ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were smoking a cigarette, and this is a no smoking venue!’
TS: Oh man!
DR: Yeah, it’s got to the point where smokers have to hide in a circle of potsmokers to sneak a cigarette.
TS: Shit, that is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
DR: Yeah, there’s got to be a song in that somewhere!
DR: So, to change the subject – you sound really pissed off on your new record!
TS: That’s what I keep hearing.
DR: For example on ‘In Between Jobs’ you sing ‘I know how mad I’m getting, just knowing how much more you’ve got than me. Keep me from killing this guy while he takes a shit.’ Where did that come from?
TS: I was just thinking. Hmm… I don’t know where that song came from. At first, I had a line about Alan Greenspan playing the saxophone and a lot of other gibberish. I was just making it one line at a time and by the end, it sounded like begging that had turned into a mugging. Once that aspect started to show itself, I knew what the song was about. I wasn’t sure who was telling the story and then it occurred to me that it could be about a street person asking for some money and feeling condescended to. He then thinks, ‘you know I could just knock you and take it’ and I thought that served as a decent metaphor for what I think will happen if rich people continue on the way they’re headed. In the end, it’s the guy with twelve million dollars hating his brother who’s got sixteen million dollars who the system is catering to. Not to sound inflammatory, but in the States we have the right to bear arms, so shit, this could get gross. Rich people should look out because if rich people keep pissing off poor people…
DR: It is scary. A real powder keg.
TS: Here’s a stoner fable. In fifty years, in poor neighbourhoods, instead of dividing into gangs behind bandanas where some people are blue bandanas and others are red bandanas, the poor will get rid of their bandanas and all the poor people will get together and stop turning on each other. Instead, they’ll randomly drive into rich neighbourhoods and start fucking shooting people.
DR: I’m amazed it’s not happening more.
TS: I’m amazed it’s not happening more, too. There is reason to be positive because our president – I like that guy – I think really cares about poor people. I wish I lived in a society where he didn’t have to pretend that he believed that marriage just had to between a man and a woman or where he didn’t have to pretend he was religious when he’s obviously read too many books to be too superstitious. But,he also knows that he has to win the election by pretending to be Catholic or whatever. He’s slowing it all down for people, I think.
DR: I agree. You have the sense that left to his devices, he’d do so much more.
TS: You have to realize that I’m rooting for God. That’s why I am more for agnosticism than for atheism. If there is a God, that’d be fucking great! Because of that, I’m never going to live in a crazy way so that if there is a God he wouldn’t like me.
DR: I gotta say Todd, your American system baffles me. For instance, we’ve got comprehensive medicare. If you get sick, you go to the hospital and you don’t worry about the money. It is humane. It respects that the primary responsibility of a nation is to look after its people’s well-being first. It hasn’t instigated a surge of Marxism or anything like that. You live in a wealthy country. What the Hell is behind all this resistance?
TS: I don’t understand that at all. It’s that whole bootstrap mentality. It’s like for kids born on third base, to hit a triple is no big deal, but they think everyone else should be able to do it. But, they didn’t do anything to get there! It’s so fucking arrogant. What really riles me is that not only is there a rich class, but many of them gain at the direct expense of poor people. But, instead of revolution, there’s a class of people underneath them that want to be just like them. They’re the nastiest class of people. They’re fighting for the trophy they don’t have yet –
DR: – without questioning whether it’s even worth fighting for.
TS: Yeah. They’re the people that go to church every Sunday and plot against each other. Then, they come at the poor people – like in the first song on my new CD – with all this stuff about not being ‘in good with God’ or ‘you’d be rich like me.’ They forget that they got to go to a good college because my dad was so rich. But, there you have it. You can get me going man.
DR: We’ve been talking a lot about metaphors in your work. So, before you go, I have to ask you about the line from one of your new songs that says ‘Mick Jagger was born on a Monday. Keith Richards was born on a Saturday night.’ I’ve been wondering what you’re getting at with that lyric.
TS: Well, man, I’m an old zealous Stones fan and I love Mick Jagger as much as I love Keith Richards. I’m a little obsessed with them. So, I was reading something about them and then I noticed that one of them had been born on a Monday and one had been born on a Saturday and that seemed so completely apt. So, I started making up what I thought was a song about the two of them. There’s a bunch of little things in there from their real story like they met on a train. It was about when Keith was a kid and saw Mick holding those records on the train. There are lots of little hints in it that I put in there. Early on I had a line about ‘he went to find satisfaction’, but I thought that would give it away too soon. So, I was trying to tell their story but also talk about love in a way that didn’t have to encapsulate suburban mythology like we were talking about earlier on.
DR: So, what day of the week were you born on Todd?
TS: (big laugh) I don’t know! I’ve never thought of that. I should check into that. I don’t know which one of those two I’m closer to. I love Mick Jagger and Keith Richards even more now that I’ve read what Keith has to say about him in his book. I love the idea that where every other band breaks up – no other band can hold the weight of two powerful stars – they stayed together. The girls look at Keith and the guys who think he’s faggy can look at Keith. Everyone can enjoy the show. I love that everyone wants to know if they hate each other, but Keith says ‘there’s no way you can make us hate each other. I can tell Rolling Stone magazine that I’d like to slit his throat, but if he showed up at my door with your body, I’d help him bury it.’
DR: Yeah, it’s like I can criticize my family, but you can’t. So, your last CD ‘The Excitement Plan’ was produced by Don Was – who has worked with the Stones. Is that why you chose to work with him?
TS: No, but I heard some great stories while working on that album. You know some people have told me they didn’t really care for the sound Don Was gave me, but I asked him to record me the way he did. He didn’t ‘do anything’ to my music. I asked him for a more acoustic sound and I really like how it turned out. We were going to do this new record together and record it at my friend, Eric’s house and I don’t know if it would have turned out much different if Don had worked on it. He might have helped us finish faster. He is really great at getting ideas for arrangements, and I’m sure he would have had some suggestions for us.
DR: So, you’ve tried so interesting things out on some of the songs on ‘Agnostic Hymns.’ I think I hear a string section on the first section.
TS: Yes, I got some players together and got them drunk and didn’t tell them anything. They wanted direction, but I said ‘nobody’s getting any direction. Just show off and play. If we have to do another take, you don’t have to do it the same way next time.’ I just kinda wanted to make a mess.
DR: And, on the last song, ‘The Big Finish’ you kind of unleash your inner Marvin Gaye with that upper register stuff.
TS: My little falsetto! I didn’t know I was going to do that. I just kinda wung it. We recorded about a million versions of it before we found just the right way to do it.
DR: The other thing I was going to ask you is whether you’ve tried your hand at formal writing, short story writing. A lot of your songs of course are story songs and they really beg to be expanded and given a kind of literary treatment. Is this something you’ve thought of?
TS: Yeah, I’ve tried and failed. People have told me that. Writers like you have told me that, so I’ve typed out stories that I tell and last year when I had a pile of stories, this guy went out and approached some publishers for me. There were no takers. I’d like to be considered as someone who can type! (laugh) It sounds fun and noble. But, I don’t know if something I can do. Little poems might be better.
DR: On the last song on the record, you say ‘the older I get, the more I worry, the more I worry, the older I get, but I still worry.’
TS: That’s a favourite saying of me and my wife. I guess I said it first. On some of these songs, I didn’t think much; I just said whatever came to mind. It’s only later on that I go back and try to figure what it’s supposed to mean. I know I like the line in there – ‘it ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope.’ That was something that Bob Mercer said for years. He recently passed away and I put the line in the song. His wife told me that he got that line from Oscar Wilde. I have done that lots of times – where I hear something and it eventually becomes a part of a lyric of a song. It’s like a lady at a tollbooth said to me when I asked how she was, ‘I’m broken as the ten commandments.’ Shit, how could you not use that line in a song?
DR: So, do you worry a lot, Todd?
TS: Yeah, I do. Most people think it’s about music, but mostly it’s about my family. But, yeah, if I have shit on my plate, I do worry and then I try and fight it with alcohol. That’s how my friends in the neighbourhood know if I’m worried – by the amount I’m drinking. But, you know how that works – as soon as I sober up, the plate load of shit has gotten bigger. I wouldn’t say I worry too much- just enough to be a good husband. I know I’m true to my old lady. We just opened up a little clothing store in a little hippie hub of stores that opened up in Nashville. I walk down there during the day and hang out at the store. It’s a good thing. You should come down to Nashville and stay with us.
DR: I’ve always wanted to visit there. So, finally, you know that up here in BC a grower has named a strain of weed after you.
TS: Get out! What’s it called!
DR: Well, a friend who listens to your music was looking for a name for his new strain. We tried it and it kind of went down harsh, scratchy and unreasonable, but then it got all mellow and expansive, so I suggested ‘Snider Sativa’ which stuck for a while until he blended it with some indica strain so that it’s now morphed into ‘Todd’s Blue God.’
TS: Man, I can’t wait to try some. We gotta get up there soon! I remember meeting you the last time I was up and I played in that skid row hotel. I really enjoyed hanging out and that was a very cool street to walk up and down where we played. I’ve also played at the Vancouver Folk Festival and I sure had a great time! I’d like to do that again.
DR: That would be great! But, in the meantime, I’ll drive down to Seattle to catch your show in April.
TS: See you then! Thanks so much and tell your friends at Cannabis Culture that we’re big, big fans of their organization.
– To listen to Todd Snider’s music and find out when he’s playing close to you, check out www.toddsnider.net.