By Michael Corcoran
On this particular Friday night, Austin singer/songwriter/bandleader Bob Schneider has a big show in Dallas at the House of Blues, where about 1,000 fans have bought tickets to dance and sing along to such songs as “40 Dogs (Romeo and Juliet)” and “Tarantula” that sound written by two different people.
It is a big payday at a prominent venue and yet Schneider doesn’t leave Austin until 6 p.m. for the 10 p.m. show. Even when his white Lexus SUV crawls through roadwork on I-35 just past Waco, there’s no sense of worry that he might be late for a show that’s sold $20,000 worth of tickets.
“We’re right on schedule,” he said, as he scrolled his iPhone looking for songs he recently recorded with producer Dwight Baker. “I like to get to a gig five minutes before we’re supposed to go on.” The piano-dripping new material, augmented by the Tosca strings, is generally lusher, more textured, than on his previous LPs, soothing the traffic jam.
Like a boxer who abstains from sex before a big fight to conserve his savage energy, Schneider, 46, has no need for the hanging out and socializing before a gig that are usually part of the working musician’s schedule. In his younger years, Schneider ate up the rock n’ roll lifestyle, but these days he barely says a word to bandmates before taking the stage. Not to be aloof, but because he wants the conversation to happen musically.
Save the funny stories and instead make him laugh, as keyboardist/ trumpet player Oliver Steck does, by dancing madly when the mood hits. Schneider’s looking for spontaneity when he hits the stage.
He’s been doing the frontman thing a long time, kicking off the 1990s by packing Austin clubs with Joe Rockhead, then moving through a major label mess with Ugly Americans, taking nasty funk to a new level with the Scabs, and then capping the decade with the release of the best-selling album in Waterloo Record’s history with “Lonelyland” in 1999. Twenty years after Rockhead made his name, Schneider’s a man in search of new thrills.
“The thing about Bob,” said bassist Bruce Hughes, who’s played on and off with Schneider since the Ugly Americans, “is that he likes to keep it fresh. Always.”
New guitarist Clint Wells of Nashville found that out at his first Schneider gig last year. “I approached it like a veteran sideman,” said Wells, whose tasteful playing provides a Mike Campbell (Heartbreakers) element to the band. “Got all the albums, learned all the songs. So I’m at the first show and I asked to see the set list and there wasn’t one. We played some songs that night I had never heard before.”
For his Monday night residency at Austin’s Saxon Pub, now in it’s 13th year, Schneider sometimes emails bandmates songs he wrote earlier in the day and expects them to be ready to perform them without rehearsal that night. Keep it fresh. Always.
During the encore calls at the House of Blues show, Schneider huddled his band behind the soundboard onstage and called an audible. They were going to do “40 Dogs” as a funk number. Fill-in drummer J.J. Johnson played the air and mouthed a beat. “Like this?” he said, to which Schneider said, “yeah, but slow it down just a bit.” Less than a minute later, they were onstage doing it.
After the show ended at midnight, Schneider stepped out the back door to let the night air cool his sweat. As happens after just about every Schneider concert, he was approached by the sexiest overserved woman in the joint. “You’ve been my fantasy boyfriend for years,” said tonight’s Tara Reid. Schneider was polite, but his ‘not interested’ vibe was clear.
The “Bruce Springsteen of Lakeway,” as he calls himself with a chuckle, got back in his car at about 12:15 a.m. for the three and a half hour drive back to Austin. So how would he rate the House of Blues show? “In terms of crowd response, it was a B plus,” he said. “But for self-fulfillment, I would say it was a D.” He had hit the stage dog-tired, after only three hours of sleep the night before, and didn’t feel as connected to the other musicians as he wanted to be. “It was good sex, bad conversation,” he said.
Once a hotel-trashing, groupie-devouring rockstar cliche, Schneider just wants to wake up at home these days. His bandmates had hotel rooms in Dallas and would drive to Houston for a show the next night, but for Schneider, Saturday held a full day playing with his precious, seven-year-old son Luc. Then he’d drive to Houston at 6 p.m. and be back home just after 3 a.m. Daddy’s gotta go to work.
There was a time when Schneider read every review and he would let the negative ones bother him. But it was a waste of time and energy, he decided, so he tries to stay away from the opinions of others. If you believe the raves, you’ve also gotta think the pans have some truth.
“I’ve been up against the backlash for a long time,” he said. “I think there’s a misconception that I’ve got it made.” He’s the darling of such Austin establishments as KGSR, which has made regional hits out of “Metal and Steel,” “Big Blue Sea,” “Come With Me Tonight,” “40 Dogs” and more. His fanbase- mostly white, upper- middle class folks aged 35- 55- includes celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who talks him up in the press and has booked him at every one of her SXSW blowouts. “If you’re a hipster and you’re seen at one of my shows, they revoke your street cred,” he said.
Sometimes someone will come up to Schneider after a show and tell him his or her friends dragged them there and they didn’t want to go, but now they’re a fan. That’s his favorite reaction. Schneider said he wants to take on every negative perception of him. “I want to try and change their mind,” he said. ”Every one of them.”
That’s the inspiration for the title of the new LP “Burden of Proof,” which will finally come out June 11, after several months of delay, on Dallas’ Kirtland Records. Even as he’s made a comfortable living, selling over 100,000 copies of 2009’s “Lovely Creatures” and packing venues with diehards, Schneider said he’s still having to prove himself as he did a dozen years ago when he dated actress Sandra Bullock. The perception was that he owed his career to her star power, but in reality it might’ve hurt. Schneider was selling hundreds of CDs a week at Waterloo and packing 700 fans every Tuesday into Antone’s with the Scabs before he met Miss Confidentiality. The relationship ended after two years and the pair haven’t spoken since. (Ironically, the Saxon Pub, Schneider’s favorite place of business, is next door to the Austin Speed Shop, owned by Bullock’s ex-husband Jesse James. Not Sandy’s favorite block of South Lamar Boulevard.)
Even after re-establishing himself as a major songwriting talent with “Creatures” and its 2011 followup “A Perfect Day,” Schneider’s deep with doubters. “Some people were telling me I was crazy to book myself into Austin City Limits Live (capacity 2,700) in February and I started thinking maybe they were right,” he said. “But we ended up selling out.”
In recent months, Schneider has booked high ticket solo shows in big cities, where his few, but devoted, can get a more personal experience. “When he plays the Kessler, he’s got the crowd eating out of his hand,” said the Dallas theater’s soundman Paul Quigg. “He’ll sell out two shows a night and everyone will feel like he’s singing just to them.”
Many fans will go home with a recording of the show they just heard, as Schneider was one of the first artists to record his live shows and burn CDs within minutes of the last note onstage. Direct-to-fan relationships are key to success in the music industry now that everything’s changed due to the Internet and Schneider’s been way ahead of the game on that. Even when he was on such labels as Universal and Vanguard he retained the rights to put out side projects to keep his fan-base active.
It also gives him more creative outlets. Schneider has recorded at least 200 original songs, including his live sets burned to CD. “Writing a song is like working a math problem,” he said. “It’s fun, to me, to solve how I get from this verse to that chorus or whatever.” He said he keeps writing because the more songs means the better chances one will be great.
Another equation at work is how to expand Schneider’s audience. The man has had about as many managers as the Yankees under Steinbrenner. Currently stewarding his career is Bruce Kalmick and Ambiance Artists, whose roster is full of country artists like the Josh Abbott Band. Schneider said he sees a similarity to what he does and what his neighbor, red dirt pioneer Jack Ingram does. Ingram is part of Schneider’s songwriting support group, whose members write a song each week incorporating a phrase that’s thrown their way. “I love the way they’ve found something they could call their own,” Schneider said of the Texas country singer-songwriter scene whose lineage could be traced from Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson to Robert Earl Keen to Jack Ingram to Pat Green to Josh Abbott. “It’s writing about what’s true in your life.” It’s quite possible that his music could be embraced by that crowd, but we won’t be hearing Schneider sing about dancehalls and longnecks. And the hard-partying that seems to be part of the red dirt roadtrip is something Bob left behind a long time ago.
They say that when an alcoholic becomes sober the days are about 10 hours longer and Schneider, alcohol-free for 18 years, filled all that new time with work. Also a talented visual artist, Schneider was always writing, always drawing, playing music, making videos. “It was actually a pretty pathetic way to live,” he said in 2009. One addiction had been replaced by another.
“I had been capable of living a 24-hour, self-centered, self-absorbed existence,” he said. And then his son was born in 2006 and priorities changed bigtime. But not until the residual effect of his workaholicism shook up his home life. Schneider and his wife, a nurse, divorced when Luc was just a few months old and the musician was so disappointed in himself he took a vow of celibacy that lasted 13 months.
In his son, Schneider sees the chance to make up for his own sad, lonely upringing. “My parents never listened to me, never seemed to care what I thought,” he said. “I listen to every word Luc says. And he’s always cracking me up.” Schneider has written songs using Luc’s words as lyrics. Nothing in life has ever turned him on like being a father.
His own was a musician who had dreams of being a world class opera singer. Bob Schneider Sr. dragged his family to Germany for four years when Bob was a toddler, then to El Paso for five years and then back to Germany, all to learn from noted vocal instructors.
“My parents had this big plan, but my dad just didn’t have the voice, I guess,” said Schneider. Mother Katie supported the family on a teacher’s salary, with Bob Sr. contributing here and there.
“We were dirt poor and lived in the worst part of town,” said Schneider, who was bullied daily from the third to eighth grades in El Paso. He remembers going with his mother and sister across the border to Juarez to buy powdered milk, 5-cent cans of pinto beans and tortillas, the family’s dinner most nights.
Growing up without money is a form of abuse that can leave scars. “To this day, I can’t treat myself. Instead of buying a $3,000 guitar that will last forever, a buy a $400 guitar every year,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.” While his sometime tour mate, Mississippi songwriter Charlie Mars, has been known to splurge on $1,000-a-night hotel suites on special occasions, Schneider spends hours on Expedia before a tour looking for $79 motel rooms. “I mean, Charlie’s got, like $8,000 to his name,” Schneider said, shaking his head. (Told what Schneider said, Mars laughed and remarked, ‘they don’t have luggage racks on the top of hearses.”)
From his father’s example, Schneider also learned how to be an authoritative band leader. Bob Sr., who fronted a frat band called Bob and the Collegians while attending the University of Michigan, fibbed to get a gig playing a club on military base near El Paso. He said he had a band, then bought a cheap set of drums and taught 10-year-old Bob Jr. to keep a beat. “My father knew thousands of songs,” said Schneider, “and he’d play 45 minutes without even a pause, just going from one song into another.” Schneider said his arms were so tired he started crying one night and his dad shot him a look like don’t even think about it.
“Always keep playing no matter what,” Schneider said of what his father taught him. It’s what he tells his bands. “I broke my arm once with Joe Rockhead and still finished the show.”
During his times with Rockhead, a funk rock band in the Red Hot Chili Peppers vein, the flamboyant frontman was usually so drunk he couldn’t feel any pain. Schneider started drinking as a 14-year-old in Germany, where there was no age limit. “My parents didn’t care if I drank,” he said. “They were both heavy drinkers.”
Schneider said that the first time he was drunk he’d found a coping mechanism that made him feel more complete. “I’ve always been terrified and alcohol took away that fear.” He found the power of playing rock n’ roll around the same time. Schneider put together a band called Bitter Lemon to play the talent show at his American high school in Germany. What happened when he sang amazed him.
“All these chicks got out of their seats and ran towards the stage screaming my name,” remembered Schneider, who was short, pudgy and unpopular at the time. “I couldn’t believe it. No chicks would talk to me and now they’re going crazy. After that, I was the hero of the school.”
Schneider was also suspended for a couple days for his use of obscene lyrics. The seed was planted.
Schneider finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. And with booze he had the courage to get up there in front of everybody.
The problem was that once Schneider started drinking, he couldn’t stop. “When I was at my worst, which was during the Ugly Americans (1993- 1995), I would get black-out drunk five nights a week,” he said. One night a friend showed up at a show with a beautiful woman and Schneider introduced himself. “You don’t remember me?” the woman said. Turns out she and Schneider had recently spent a weekend together, but Bob was drunk from morning til passout “She was drop dead gorgeous and I was thinking, ‘I wish I could remember some of that,’” he said.
Rock bottom came in L.A., where Schneider spent a few months recording an album with Ugly Americans for the recently-revived Capricorn Records. “Adam (guitarist Temple) and I were getting in so much trouble,” he said. “See, in Austin, we had people who took care of us. I’d pass out in somebody’s car and somebody else would say, ‘Oh, that’s just Bob Schneider. Let’s take him to Steamboat and they’ll get him home.’ But in L.A. there were some serious consequences.”
One night at a party, Schneider flirted with the girlfriend of a reputed mobster and was quickly whisked out when the made man overheard Bob telling his girl that he wanted to slap her ass. Bob went into hiding for a few days after he was told how close he came to laying next to a shovel in the trunk of a car.
The naturally shy Schneider’s personality changed when he was drinking and he would become a complete butthair, he’ll admit. Ugly Americans did some shows with Dave Matthews Band and the groups had become friends, but Schneider had a habit of breaking into the DMB’s dressing room when they were onstage and stealing their beer. One night he was caught urinating in their garbage can. Everybody laughed, but the next time DMB came through town they gave backstage passes to all the Ugly Americans except Schneider. He wasn’t welcome.
“That really hurt my feelings,” he said. “I realized that to some people I was just an obnoxious drunk, not a musician.”
Schneider said the last few months of drinking was “so horrible that the only thing that gave me some comfort was that I could always kill myself. That’s pretty bad when suicide’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
One day in L.A,, Schneider was called in for a band meeting that turned out to be an intervention. A car was waiting outside to take him to the airport. He was soon on his way to rehab in Colorado.
“I didn’t think it was going to work,” he said. “I was absolutely convinced that I would eventually drink again, but the label paid $6,000 to send me to rehab, so I was going to give it a shot. I owed them that.”
That was 1995. Schneider says he has never relapsed.
“When I got sober I suddenly woke up to the fact that I didn’t like the band I was in,” Schneider said of Ugly Americans, whom Capricorn was trying to move away from funk and towards an Allman Brothers direction. “Everyone was just so serious. I wanted something a little quirkier.”
The concept behind Schneider’s next band, the Scabs (who were inspired by Steve Poltz’s Rugburns, right down to the suits and ties), was that every idea was valid. There were bawdy show tunes and puerile blues in the beginning, but eventually the powerhouse funk took over when the Grooveline Horns were
added. Like Rockhead, the Scabs owned Tuesday night in Austin. Sometimes they would sell more than $10,000 worth of tickets at Antone’s. The pretty girls loved to dance and the guys loved the pretty girls.
In ‘98, Schneider wrote a haunting, hopeful song called “2002” that wouldn’t fit in a Scabs show. He wanted to test it and several other unfunky songs live so he started a singer-songwriterly outfit called Lonelyland. He had gotten the people moving and now he would have them listen.
The ensuing album established Schneider as an up-and-coming talent, not just some sexy lunatic. The major label bidding war got a little crazy and, thanks to Bullock’s connections, Schneider performed on “The Tonight Show” as an unsigned artist. But after Universal reissued “Lonelyland” with three new songs in 2001, it didn’t make much noise nationally.
The King of Austin would rule only regionally. But he would do it as he wished. He would play jazz and bluegrass and solo acoustic and funk and try to tap into his songwriting hero Tom Waits for lyrical inspiration. He would be as filthy as he wanted to be.
But when he goes into the studio to record a new album, he has only one goal in mind. “I set out to make “Graceland,” every time,” he said of the 1987 Paul Simon classic. “That’s such an insanely great album, so (that goal) sounds unreasonable. But that’s just the way I am. When I’m playing golf and I’m hitting off the tee on a par three, I’m always thinking I m going to get a hole in one. It’s not, ‘get close to the flag,’ Its ‘this one is going in.’
That ace may never happen for Bob Schneider, but he’s going to keep swinging. It’s what he does, and he’s got to make a living. That Thomas the Tank Engine stuff is not cheap.