S.F. ExaminerAugust 18, 1998
BREAK ON THROUGH
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Aug. 18, 1998
CHRIS VON SNEIDERN'S POWER POP HAS A CULT FOLLOWING THAT'S SURE TO GROW
"Remember the rules
I may be outside them once again
I may be wrong
And I may just like it that way"
- Chris von Sneidern
IT'S WAY past midnight at a recent local music showcase. Dozens of bands and singers have played past their time limits and things are running drastically late. Upstairs at the Paradise Lounge, the headliner - normally occupying the primo spot in the lineup - is playing instead to a closing-time crowd comprising a few die-hard fans, some drunks who have wandered up from the bigger stage downstairs, and music journalists, who knew the highest-quality music of the evening would be unleashed right here.
Singing in a passionate tenor, with only a 12-string to accompany him, is Chris von Sneidern, possibly the best singer / songwriter you've never heard. That is, unless you're among the core of fans devoted to his power pop, an irresistible concoction that calls to mind the Beatles, Badfinger and Big Star.
The 32-year-old Upper Market resident - who plays a multitude of instruments, from lead guitar to bass to organ to drums - has put out four albums on two local labels (Heyday and Mod Lang), to ecstatic critical and cult response but little radio play. So far, that's been good enough. But von Sneidern feels like he's due for a change.
"I'm cutting out sugar, cutting out caffeine, booze and floozies," grins von Sneidern, tongue presumably in cheek, who counts among his (other) obsessions the TV show "Hawaii Five-0."
"I'm like Travis Bickle (in "Taxi Driver'), when he realizes that if he really wants to shoot the president he needs to cut out all the bad living. I've got a big job to do. And, uh, hopefully I'll make out better than Travis did!"
The stars seem to be lining up positively; this fall could be a high-water mark in von Sneidern's career. He scored an opening gig for The Knack at Slim's on Saturday. And shortly after, he headlines the Pop Overthrow festival in Los Angeles, where fans of that genre go for the best in the world. This fall, he goes to London to do shows and media. ( "London: where any American artist can be a star," he deadpans, with typical self-deprecation.)
Critics think he has nothing to be modest about. Seattle's music mag, Rocket, calls him "one of the finest pop tunesmiths of this generation." Tower Records' Pulse describes his songs as "mini-masterpieces that deftly balance melodic craft and lyrical passion." And veteran music writer Michael Goldberg of the Web site, Addicted to Noise, suggested that "if the remaining Beatles had any guts, they'd seek out von Sneidern to produce, co-write and participate in a Beatles reunion. The guy is that good."
Comparing him to Beatles is understandable. You've got your instantly memorable melodies paired with ringing guitars and sweetly enigmatic lyrics ( "take a Hint from Heloise / don't put your honey with the bees / and lie around, oh please . . . " ).
And then there's the overall 'tude. Vocally deft as McCartney, von Sneidern is also Lennon's soulmate. Brainy, eccentric, funny, charismatic and a bit prickly, von Sneidern is his own man. Clearly, he is not one born to dance the Music Industry Shuffle - perhaps until now.
"After my first CD came out and it got a good write-up, I got a call from a guy from Arista," he chuckles. "He took me out to dinner in Pacific Heights. He was really after me, kept asking, "What do you want?'. . . I guess I wasn't ready to answer. But now I am."
That to-do list would include a variety of breakthroughs - larger venues, wider audiences, radio play.
"It's reaching critical mass'"Cult status is very comfortable; you know certain people will buy your records no matter what," he says dryly. "It's that big-fish syndrome. But I don't want to put a message out that I am perfectly happy in my basement, perfectly happy in San Francisco and perfectly happy playing small clubs. I want to be known as CVS - songwriter, performer, phonographer. And it's reaching critical mass - not only what I do but what I want to do."
And he does a lot. Von Sneidern has followed the do-it-yourself ethic since coming West from Syracuse at age 19 - writing, recording and producing not just his own work but that of other musicians, like alt-folkie John Wesley Harding. The business end became fully established when he set up his own studio, dubbed Ordophon-Upon-Avon (a name he coined from "forced free-association and beer." ) And in his (minimal) spare time, he's played with other artists (Jewel, Psychedelic Furs) and currently in the surf-rocking Saturn V and roots-rocking Map of Wyoming.
Von Sneidern's solo efforts have made him a hit with fans of power pop throughout the country, and in odd pockets abroad like Sweden (land of his ancestors), Japan and France, where one listener e-mailed him breathlessly that he was "much like a UFO to the French people!"
That all reeks of cool but won't make a man rich.
To help alter that reality, he's pondering the hiring of a manager, someone who, in his words, "would kick my ass, get my name out there, tell me to keep writing."
Four CDs in five yearsNot that he needs the lecture. The prolific von Sneidern has put out four CDs in five years: "Sight and Sound," "Big White Lies," "Go!" and the most recent "Wood and Wire," a shining gem of an album, his best yet. The lush production work proves von Sneidern's obsessions: clean, dramatic songwriting and craftsmanship.
But this obsession (with all 12 seasons on tape) with "Hawaii Five-0" ?
He shrugs. "It was great show! It was filmed in Hawaii, and it was all Ford cars. Even the ones they crashed!"
Chatty and commanding on stage, von Sneidern counters the commonly held opinion that pop geniuses are sucky performers (see: Matthew Sweet and Michael Penn.) When he leans into the microphone, the noisy room hushes.
"Feel nice, I'm starting out
with nothing better to lose
feel nice, but I'm selling out
the future still left to choose."
Chris von Sneidern and his band play at Slim's Saturday night, opening for The Knack. For information, call (415) 255-0333