Chris von Sneidern Music Website
It’s hard to enjoy one’s own recordings. I check in periodically, listening to one of my albums, ostensibly to understand “what the hell happened.” I get about five songs in and then stop. I feel as if the music is sitting in front of me rather than it taking me on a journey. Hopefully you have better luck with them!
The fact I don’t “get off” on the experience of listening to my own albums is probably common among musicians. Lately I’ve had to relearn songs I hadn’t played in public for a long time, if ever. I’ve rediscovered a few new favorites. I am proud of my records more or less. However, the point is that I would rather listen to something else.
What is it about other people’s music that feels so much better to me? Why do people get more excited about the cover songs at a show? My first assumption would be that my songs aren’t as good as other people’s. And that might be true, but that can’t be the whole reason. It’s the emotional connection to the song that matters, and I imagine that when you launch into a song people really know, they’re hearing the original record in their mind playing along with you. In that space, a magic trick happens. By the same token, if someone is butchering the song they’ve triggered you to recall, you can feel offended.
Every month I have an hour-long show to play for a hospital audience, and I choose a good dose of known covers to add to my CvS repertoire. Last month I dug up "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, a band whose name I never understood. Their version cuts off abruptly, even though it’s plenty long! It’s been a hit, used in films, and recorded by many. The lyrics were “mysterious,” (they lost me at fandango) but I knew the tune. And that organ part has always captivated me. I looked it up and found two extra verses- one I added, but I left out the other lyrics about cardboard. I like this song.
Drummer Prairie Prince was working in my studio recently, and so we did a couple songs for the camera. We played “Whiter Shade” live, once, without any fuss. I’ve learned how to play with PP over time. I know to stay out of the way of his fills with my guitar and don’t fight him on the tempo, like some dog on a leash. I sent it to Dave Amels to put on the essential organ part, and Pete Straus did his bass guitar at home. It was not labored over and I actually put more time into editing the video.
Of my recordings, I like the ones I made with other people on them. I prefer hearing the ones that I didn’t fiddle with endlessly. And of course, the equipment — how fancy the mic or guitar is — has yet to make a big difference on the final result.
So I share this as a single release this week for your entertainment. I can listen to this! Am I enjoying hearing my friends playing? Or is it the magic of cover songs?
Looking back on the breakup songs I’ve written, the sad aspect now is to consider the passing of those youthful years. Granted, I don’t want to have to do it all again, but it sure looks sweet looking back. Performing these songs gives me a chance to revisit the lyrics and really see what I was feeling and what I was denying to myself with the word play.
The premise of the song in the chorus section is that I am moving on with my life’s focus and leaving behind someone overly sentimental- “you can keep your picture book,” - yet the whole time I am creating a sentimental paean to our entire relationship.
These days I like the chords to this song. It changes key with every verse couplet. Around the time of writing this song, I used a lot of chromatic movement in the melody that employed major to minor chord changes rather than a completely different chord. Those changes often imply key change or mode change and while I don’t completely know what I’m doing, I know how it sounds. It’s not that I’m good at finding my way around, I’m just not afraid of getting lost.
On the demo I played the main instrumental figure on guitar with a Leslie speaker. When it came to making the album in New York, we used a harpsichord. There’s one note on its keyboard that didn’t always work, so there’s a rest where there might have been a note. I remember we used a Coles ribbon mic on it instead of a condenser mic, and it’s much duller sounding. Those harpsichords, they’re so bright.
The mix, like most on Wood + Wire, is heavily compressed on the Pye limiters, so the bass, the harpsichord, my voice, are all squashed together like pressing your face against a screen door to talk to your cousin.
The last lines of the song make more sense now than before-
“Like any photograph, see back in time so easily
I wrote a paragraph on what I think, but never see”
“Animal” is the accident child. It comes along last, and stays in the house a long time.
All of my records have at least one oddball song, one that doesn’t appear to fit. I get requests to play some of these outlier songs and think to myself, “...really, that one?”
I can’t immediately know what to keep and not, especially when I’m producing my own album. Worse yet, I might take advice from someone else: “Walking Endlessly” was suggested to be cut from Sight & Sound, then I took “Circles” off the Go! album and put a remake version of it out later. I could talk myself out of the whole thing if I think too long.
“Animal” came out of a for-fun session with drummer Michael Israel. It was my birthday and for part of the day, I thought I should make some music. I was experimenting with new ideas, and this one was just a jam, really. I wrote the music after hitting record, so it’s very simple and repetitive.
Instead of using a click track, I had us playing along to our own slow repeat echo. That would keep us sprocketed in time, like a click. If we got a little ahead or behind, the echos would follow our error but keep the old tempo from that point forward. To hear the band adjust their playing to “get back on the click” is not a groovy thing.
Being so slow, there’s so much space for the sounds to spread out. The lyrics came later- bleak but hopeful. The longer I make music, the deeper I find myself going into whatever comes to me in the moment rather than trying to make it sensible or ideal. And that might be an answer to the question the film asks, “Why Isn’t Chris von Sneidern Famous?”
The first version was about 15 minutes long, and I got it down to a brief 11 minutes.
Many of the songs on Emerge are written on piano. Dale from our 80’s band Flying Color lent me one of the few pianos he would find at the Salvation Army. It lived in my home office long enough to write some songs, entertain friends, and ruin my relationship with the neighbors who would stomp on my ceiling. A piano is as loud as a drum set when I play it.
I found B-flat, E-flat, and C minor to be good-sounding key signatures for that piano matched with my fingers. So for the most part, that’s where I spent time endlessly learning how to write and play something I could get through to the end without messing up. The neighbor's stomping continued, notes in all caps were taped to my door.
I realized this past weekend was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and was reminded that this is more of a moon song than I’m ever going to have, so here we are-
If I think about walking on the moon, the first thing that comes to mind is the spacesuit. The layers of insulation, the helmet, and those boots! Clumsy, tentative steps of mankind, something I could relate to when I was putting together the ideas for Emerge.
This was written on a two-day solo camping trip in Santa Cruz, where I sat in a chair on the edge of a cliff playing guitar with a recording device taking down any old idea. I wrote hundreds of ideas and zero songs during this time, it seemed. I listened to a lot of music, however, and hiked a lot, and daydreamed for another good five years. This was one song that made it past the sketch stage, and tracked no fewer than three versions.
Far away and lost, writing onto a blank gray page. Feeling disconnected from myself and the world around me is nothing new. A friend and I were called into the high school principal’s office, then having answered a couple of questions about why I did some particular thing, the Principal stopped and yelled in my face, “you’re living in a FOG!” My punishment was several days of sitting in a detention room staring at dots on the acoustic ceiling tiles.
Like most things that I couldn’t understand or see, I just resigned myself to accepting it and continuing on into the fog. I may wander and get lost, but I end up in the right place eventually.
This song was meant to be on Emerge, but then I thought that maybe it didn’t fit. The “Grow up and start having fun” theme is incorporated into the intro.
Michael Israel - Drums; CVS- the other stuff
Before I had Converse sneakers, I wore the knock-off copies from W.T. Grant. Same with pants and underwear; Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom were something I’d only heard of. I had an off-brand bicycle that became my prosthetic legs for a few years. It had sparkly gold paint and a banana seat, with high handlebars and reflectors that immediately fell off. The ride to anywhere required climbing a hill that would give most of my friends a heart attack nowadays. I wanted to put a ski on the front wheel so I could ride in the wintertime. I cobbled a platform to attach a transistor radio on the handlebar stem. I could get AM stations WHEN and WFBL, and I couldn’t really pull in WOLF. Whoever was playing “Get Down” by Gilbert O’Sullivan or anything by Chicago had my ear. Nine-volt batteries were expensive even then, and they didn’t last long, especially if you accidentally left the radio on all night.
By the age of nine, I had destroyed a handful of record players. I wound up the spring on a Victrola until it snapped. I removed the tonearm on a player in order to place it on larger items like pie tins and serving platters, in case there was music in them to play. I remember standing upon the turntable of one, trying to spin around, just as my mom walked in the room. That was after I had spent my pre-phonograph years dancing to imaginary music coming out of dresser drawers and paper plates nailed to trees.
Many years ago, someone asked me, “What do you do?” and it was the first time I’d heard that. It’s a cliche that is apparently considered a bit rude to ask. I was dating into a (not quite) wealthy family, and someone’s wife started in with these questions.
“What do you do?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. I thought about it, as I’d never heard such a question in my twenty years before having this poolside chat. Someone came to my aid, and said, “His father owns Mobile Oil.” I thought to myself, well, my Dad has a gas station franchise, that’s close enough. I don’t know what I said, if anything, but I did sing a song of my own for everyone out by the pool right after that.
There was a point within a year of that incident where I wondered if I should say “I’m a musician,” or, “I work at Bud’s Shell,” or, “I crash parties in Pacific Heights, steal Ray-Bans...and do not suffer fools gladly.” It seemed false to claim being a musician when I paid my bills working as a cashier, wearing a shirt printed with my name. Over time, I found if I could stay alive at the level of poverty on my musician income, only then had I earned the title of Musician, for what that was worth.
Preparing to record a cover song is like climbing the ladder up to the diving board. I ascend to the platform, I see the pool. At the point of execution, I command my moment of performance with total commitment to what follows, without distraction. Uncertainty be damned; to hell with the rules. Dance, fly, turn, whatever you can pull off, but just make a good landing.
In the spring of 1996, Gary Frenay asked me to build a track behind a guide of him singing and playing guitar. He planned a cover version of “Blue Moon” from the Big Star Third album, and it had a place reserved on his next CD. Gary is from Syracuse, and his band The Flashcubes are legendary power pop kings of the late 1970s and beyond. I remember at 14 years old having an ice cream with my Dad. Outside the Baskin-Robbins, I looked up to to see a Flashcubes flyer stapled to a pole, and though I’d never been to a club, I knew then that I wanted to see or play in bands. There was no way I was going to that particular show, but within a year or two I was using a fake ID and getting into clubs. This was when a NY driver’s license was just a piece of paper that didn’t have a picture on it. We could have printed counterfeit money back in those days.
My first two albums came out on Heyday Records, founded by Pat Thomas, who released his records with the promotional slogan, “The folk revival starts here.” The label’s name was inspired by a Fairport Convention album. The idea of a recording artist with his own label impressed me. A few years later, Ron Gompertz, a local SF entrepreneur, invested in Heyday and ended up owning it. The roster then changed a bit from Barbara Manning, ex-Green On Red members and musical friends of Pat to an eclectic mix of local artists, including Connie Champagne and Jerry Shelfer. I like to believe it was me that drove Ron to leave the music business.
Ron once told me that with Heyday, he wanted to bring to full circle the original line up of artists that performed at the Acoustic Music Project show at the Full Moon Saloon in 1989, featuring several Heyday artists plus Mark Eitzel, Chuck Prophet, and a reformed Translator. A CD of the show was released with some more tracks recorded by Oliver DiCicco at Mobius Music (now the home of Decibelle Recording). It was an AIDS benefit, an idea cooked up by Ron and Denise Sullivan. They both had shops in the Haight–Ashbury and were music fans with some connections to the local scene. I was not invited to perform, but then neither was Aldo Blissboy Perez. Barry Simons got involved, brought in Alex Chilton.
Everyone loves a re-do, a make over, another chance. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, you can’t go home, nothing deader than a dead love, no ins and outs. I put this in the same boat as having reached the point of no return.
If only I could have gone back ten or twenty years and changed a few choices, made better use of time, avoided some people, learned a couple languages, maybe I’d be better off. I could go back a month in time and change something I’d done and I imagine that would set me up so much better for this week.
If we had time machines, or an “undo” function. All I can imagine is all the bad luck that could creep in. Playing back last week alone, redone– I’d fall in front of a BART train, I’d poke my eye with a guitar string, an old lady would back her car over my foot, or I’d eat the salmon mousse after it had gone bad. I’ll keep last week, along with the cold I caught.
Copyright © Chris von Sneidern 2020