Todd Snider spoke to us about his tour, his new album, and a few things in between
Throughout his storied career, Todd Snider has been something of a standout in the folk scene due to his easy-going storytelling and unique sense of humor. Ahead of his May 22 stop at the Boulder Theater on his Pickin, Grinnin’, Tellin’ Stories, Taking Requests tour supporting his latest album, “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder,” Snider spoke with us with humor, honesty, and insight. We spoke about storytelling, songwriting, putting an album together in the midst of the pandemic, as well as friends that have been lost along the way.
Hey Todd, how’s it going?
I’m doing good, man, thanks for calling.
No problem. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. How are you feeling about coming back to Colorado in the next few days?
Oh, I always love playing Colorado. Got a lot of friends up there. Just a lot of music friends. And then Jeff Austin is an old friend from there. So it’s always bittersweet to be back there without him. I really miss having him to talk to.
But I mean, it’s a great, great place for music out there. You know, there are so many great musicians there, and you know, people really love it.
So to talk about your tour, you’re doing kind of a storytelling, interactive kind of thing, right?
Yeah, a little bit. I don’t really have a big setlist. I play from all over– I’ve made too many albums and I play a little from all of them. And yeah, if I can hear real clearly what someone yells for, I do it. Sometimes they’re all yelling at the same time, it’s hard to hear one at all. But yeah, take requests, tell a bunch of stories and shit. Usually, the stories are just about how come I made a song.
Right on. I guess if you’re doing that way, I assume that there are some stories that you find yourself telling more often than others.
Yeah. The thing I do with that is, for 20 some years now, we’ve kept track of every setlist in every town I’ve done. I have it all. And so I’ll make sure that with the story part, I just make sure I’m not gonna tell the one that I did last time. It seems like usually, I’ll get a new story because I can’t really tell the old one anymore, or you know, they’ve run their course. So that part is usually like, this year, there’s been a couple of stories I tell a bunch. George Bodecker, who does Crocs and he’s from Boulder, is one of the stories that I’ve been telling repeatedly. I have this other story I kind of have told a bunch of times this year. And then, every once in a while, somebody will yell for some story from a live record and I’ll tell it again if the mood’s right.
Are there any stories that you wish you had the opportunity to tell more often, stories that you feel like you haven’t shared as much?
No, it’s more like, where am I gonna get more of these things? They’ve suddenly become like songs. At first, I was just babbling. And then it started when I was like, “Well, I just did America last year. And I told that one story, I gotta think of another,” and then all of a sudden, it became like songs, you know? So, what I do is, I just keep trying to live them, you know?
You just try to be someone who’s willing to go do stuff, and then usually some shit will happen.
Right on. You’re talking about taking requests. Is there one song that gets requested more often than others?
No, actually, you’d be surprised. You’d think it might be the beer one. I’ve got a song called “Beer Run,” but for some reason, people don’t yell for that one very much. I get that sometimes. But usually, it’s like always odd and different. There’s one called “Play a Train Song” I’ll get pretty much every night if I haven’t played it in a while. But there’s not really a “Free Bird” in there.
That’s got to keep it interesting for you, to have a bunch of variety?
Yeah, that way, when I do it like that, it has been making the setlist more unique and just listening to them and just going “yeah,” and it’ll usually be stuff I haven’t played in a while.
Personally, my favorite of yours is “Alright Guy.” I love that song.
All right. Yeah, I think that I did that before I made my first record. I got signed to, I think it was like Capitol Records. So I did one demo session and got fired. On the way back home from the session, I made up, “Alright Guy.”
That’s awesome. It’s got a great chorus and, you know, it makes me laugh, too.
Hey, thanks, man.
No problem. To talk about your latest album, I’ve listened to it a few times now and I really dig it. It deals with, and a lot of your other work does this too, it deals with a lot of these really big, existential ideas. You talk a lot about faith, your place in the world, life and death, and stuff. But you do it with a real sense of humor that I appreciate and makes these ideas much more relatable. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you keep that sense of humor going when you’re dealing with those huge concepts.
Oh, man, thank you. You know, I’m a stoner, and I think it’s a trait that potheads maybe do that a little. For me, I’m really trying to be aware that I don’t have information to pass on. I can talk. But it’s not for any reason. And if I keep that in mind, it keeps me from talking myself up or telling people what to do. There are folk singers that, I mean, we learn like four chords and rhymes and words and that’s it. It doesn’t make us a person who should be educating groups. That’s my opinion, I try to avoid trying to speak with authority, and then if I can do that it usually ends up being funny.
I really appreciate the way you handled things, especially on the second to last track when you’re talking to God. I was really moved by what you’re saying. But also, I was chuckling along the way. I think it really helps those ideas go down easier.
It means a lot to me. Thank you for telling me that.
Yeah, of course. So, just moving on with more of the album questions this one sounds a lot different from a lot of the other stuff that I’ve heard from you. You’ve said that you’ve taken a lot of inspiration from people like Parliament and James Brown and those kinds of guys. But you still keep that kind of folky politicism going pretty strong as well. I really liked how you melded that and put that over some really funky grooves. I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to merge genres in the way that you did.
Oh, man, you’re making me happy today. I’d always wanted to try it and because we had nowhere to go, I had all that time at home, I knew it was gonna take a long time to get it up and going because it would either lean to be too folky or too funky. And then I wanted to do like, I wanted to play all the music and try to do, like, I’ve always heard about people who sort of make the music first. I always wanted to try that, which makes it hard to learn the songs because I’m just kind of just winging them. And yeah, they’re gonna have to go back and learn them when they’re done. It was fun. I’ve always wanted to try that. I always figure that’s what the big rock groups do. I have this little studio that’s mine. It’s not the greatest studio in the world, but it didn’t cost me any money. With all that time off, I could really take my time. Good bass players could do that in one try. I was having to do it all day to get that little bit.
Did you play drums on it too?
No, but I did create those parts. I would come up with these rhythm patterns like the kick part, and that would be the beginning of it. [The drummer] was so fun. His name is Robbie Crowell, and he would start with a click track, but I would play it anyway. I just like get a kick, snare, kick, snare, and then I would sing and he’d do that. And then he’d do a whole nother drum part over that, and then sometimes a whole nother one over that. And then we’d asked, and then we’d also put percussions on it. Our work was all about drum stuff. And we would put all kinds of stuff on and then take it off and, like a different drum kick kit will come in here and go out there. It was so fun. You know, I think young people make records like that, you know? But I mean, old folk singers never get to jerk around with that kind of shit.
You don’t hear a lot of the beats that you’re using in typical folk songs.
That makes me happy. I was getting into all those drummers like Stubblefield. Yeah. And then there was another one. [Laughs] You’ve got me rambling. I was on the idea and all I thought I needed was a drummer and then I couldn’t get any drummer to get into the idea. Then this one guy, Robbie was the first guy to say, “Oh, yeah, man, I’ve been playing that. I was in a James Brown cover band.” So I said, “Sounds like you might be my guy.” It was awesome.
Right on. Yeah, that’s super cool. Did you record it in Nashville?
Yeah, it’s called the Purple Building in East Nashville. It’s always been a rehearsal hall. And then when the pandemic came, we bought a bunch of mics and cameras, so we could do our podcast, or whatever, we did every Sunday. Almost like cyber busking, you know?
Yeah, that’s cool.
Then we realized we had this. We were like, “Shit, we have great microphones, and we didn’t have any separation. But we had good mics and good gear, and so we did it. Robbie would play drums, and I would sing, and then we would take that vocal off, but we’d get a drum track and then we’d start piling on.
That’s so interesting, repurposing places and using getting creative with recording and things like that. Nashville is a great town for that.
I love it. I wish I was better at it. And I really appreciate that you really spent a minute with our record, that makes me feel good.
Absolutely. I mean, I really dug it. So, one other thing about the record, and we don’t have to get too deep into this if you don’t want to, but obviously on the record, you talk a lot about lost friends. You mentioned Colonel Bruce [Hampton] and you mentioned Jeff [Austin] earlier and obviously John Prine. I just want to ask about not how their deaths impacted you but how their lives impacted you and your music and your career.
No, no, I don’t mind. John, John was like my mentor from the time I was really young. Before I made records, and then when I made records, he really got in and helped me, you know, with the lyrics and stuff or, would help edit that, and then later in life, I met Jeff. We got so close and he turned me into a jam band person almost overnight and he was a tripper, too. I mean, I had been on some trips, but that man was a pro. And then on the album, there is a song called “Sail Along,” which is based on my last conversation that I had with Jeff, and he just needed a break. And, you know, everyone always says, “we’ll just do the show, just do the show, and we’ll work it out after” and that was the one time I wish I’d have said, “don’t do the show. Let’s not work it out after.” And that was the night. I mean, I talked to him the night. I talked to him, you know, a few hours before he took his own life. And that, that song, it’s about I talked to him right before like the last gig he played, right? And that song felt like we finally came up with it. It felt like it came really fast after he died. I always thought that I should have tried to make some phrase better than “sail on” but I just couldn’t top it. And I always thought he’s in heaven going “man, you should’ve topped it, man.”
Well, it’s a beautiful song. It’s very, like, it’s obviously sad, but it’s also quite hopeful at the same time is what I got from it. And it’s really, really moving. And so yeah, I appreciate you sharing that with me.
Yeah, and then there was Neal Casal as well. That was just really a hard few years. It’s been good, too. We’ve been on the road since August. All of us, our whole crew, we just needed to get out of there. Now we have a live record it’ll be out in the fall.
Cool, well I really appreciate you talking to me about all that, man. Any final message you want to put out there before I let you go?
Let’s see. Something Hunter Thompson. When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.
I love it, man.
Yeah. Hunter Thompson rules.
Catch Todd Snider at the Boulder Theater on May 22nd and check out his latest album, “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder” wherever you get your music. Get tickets here: