B-52s’ Fred Schneider: ‘It’s Better To Make Up Stuff For Interviews Than Tell The Truth’
So the B-52s, Lady Gaga and an alien named Mel Moron walk into a cosmic cantina …
Welcome to Fred Schneider’s universe. In an interview conducted with the Bad Penny, he also spoke – at times humorously, at times seriously – about bloody Christmas songs, shoplifting a ham, avoiding cancer and, maybe equally important, avoiding the tour bus.
Conversations with Fred Schneider are distinctly fascinating even before they begin.
It’s a Friday afternoon not too long ago, and the boundlessly eccentric B-52s singer is lazing about his pad in Chelsea. Hard to imagine one of the modern era’s most energetic rock musicians sitting idle, but it’s true: When he’s at home, it’s all about playing records, reading science magazines and making good use of his couch.
Sound boring enough? Lest ye forget: This is Fred Schneider.
The phone rings, and he kicks into interview mode.
“Hello?” he answers. Of course, he has that unmistakable, sprechgesang-tastic voice – but he’s speaking slower and more deliberately than you might assume.
“Hi, how are you?” I reply.
“OK, hold on, I’m going to plug in my Erica phone,” he says.
Baffled, I give him a chance to get his equipment in order – whatever that “equipment” is.
“Is that an antique you have there, a rotary phone?” I guess aloud.
“Yeah, it’s the standup phone that I think a designer … I think it’s Raymond Loewy … designed.”
He’s close: Loewy was idolized by one Ralph Lysell – co-inventor of the phone, which is properly called the Ericofon. It looks something like this:
“You just pick it up,” Schneider says. “The dial’s on the bottom, and when you pick it up, it answers. Of course, it doesn’t ring – that’s the only bad part.”
“Isn’t that’s a bit of a drawback with a phone, when it doesn’t ring?” I ask.
“Yeah, I really don’t like holding it, but I just read they want to start putting cancer warnings on cell phones. I don’t feel like sticking [my cell phone] next to my head for any length of time!”
We share a momentary laugh. But then, suddenly, the tone of the conversation changes, and his voice turns deadly serious:
“It’s pretty scary, actually.”
It should be expected that Fred Schneider is not the guy you’d expect him to be. As time passes, it can become convenient to reduce icons to nothing more than that for which they’re best known. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say, “The B-52s”? For most people, it’s “Love Shack” or “Rock Lobster.” Likewise, to some, Schneider has become known as the wacky guy with the wacky hair and the wacky voice.
But the truth of the matter is, his wackiness isn’t just schtick. He bleeds it.
If it’s hard to believe that Pee-Wee Herman is 57, then try this on for size: Fred Schneider is two years older. Dude was on the cover of Creem, for crying out loud. And as time goes on, he seems to be only getting weirder.
For one thing, over the years, he’s been cobbling together some rather peculiar Christmas songs.
“They’re about sex, cannibalism,” he reveals. Not to fear: “There’s a sleigh bell, so they’ll have a somewhat traditional sound,” he qualifies sarcastically.
For another, he’s found a B-52s surrogate that is helping him give birth to some of those depraved anti-carols. That surrogate is his side project the Superions, through which Schneider is giving his insanity free reign.
They sound like Man … or Astroman? at the discotheque – “I have a couple of their records,” Schneider discloses – and their story is just about as compelling.
It goes like this: Three alien beings named Zell, Dell and Mel Moron were asked to leave their native Planet Superion (not Planet Claire, mind you). They then transmigrated (and transfigured) into Schneider and two other musicians: Noah Brodie and Dan Marshall.
“On the planet, we were in charge … we were sort of the Martha Stewarts of Planet Superion,” Schneider “recalls.”
“So, speaking of Martha Stewart, are there prisons on Planet Superion as well?” I ask.
“No,” he replies. Adding that it’s a very clean place, “Everyone’s so good that we don’t need them.”
“Are Zell, Dell and Mel related to the ‘Simpsons’ aliens?”
“No. We admire them,” he laughs, “but it’s a totally different planet. We’ll explain more about that in the future.
“It’s better to make up stuff for interviews than tell the truth.”
Naturally, the Superions have songs with names like “Those Sexy Saucer Gals,” “Totally Nude Island” (remix here) and “Who Threw That Ham at Me.” As strange as the concept Jane’s Addiction used in their “Been Caught Stealing” video, in “Ham,” the Superions tell a similar story about a prospective shoplifter tucking large food items into their unmentionables.
“You could take this Superions concept pretty far, couldn’t you?” I say. “Action figures, graphic novels …”
“We’ll do the Superions board game: It’ll have two spaces and a die that has six sides on each edge.”
But let’s not let the Superions get ahead of themselves. Unlike most bands that are getting off the ground, Schneider and his intergalactic comrades have little intention of pounding the pavement. He says he does enough touring as it is with the B-52s – plus Brodie and Marshall live in Orlando.
“Everything has gone so much further than we had thought. We started out just doing this for the hell of it, and it’s taken off. And now they’re asking us about performances and stuff,” he says.
If they were to play live, “Since Noah does all the music, it’d be more like the Pet Shop Boys – and have Dan dance – till we figure out what to do,” Schneider laughs.
He pauses, then adds listlessly, “We want to do some shows …”
But writing has to come first for this conceptual side affair, before the guys – check that, aliens – go overboard.
By the end of the year, Schneider wants to have cranked out 30 songs or so – for the Christmas album, a Halloween EP and a Superions full-length. And that doesn’t include their recent self-titled EP, which featured remixes from Ursula 1000 and others.
“I just spent nine days with [Brodie and Marshall],” he says. “We came up with 12 [songs] and started four more, and I’ve been sending them three or four things a week.
“They’re on the same crazy wavelength as I am. We have crazy senses of humor. We like junk and going to thrift stores and just crazy things in general.”
But, he cautions, “If we go too far, I think [the band is] going to lose the crazy-fun element it has now.”
If you’d expect Schneider to be as zany offstage as he is when he’s on, then consider this: The guy needs time to recharge. And even Peter Pan got old.
Next year he will be 60, and the B-52s will have entered their 35th year. That means they will have successfully outlasted not only the New Wave movement but also the revival that happened a quarter-century or so later. (Brian Setzer has done the same thing with rockabilly, but still, it’s a rare feat.)
Singing for the B-52s could qualify as a full-time gig in and of itself. But just a few years ago, Schneider made it abundantly clear that he wanted more work:
Since making that video, he’s not only added the Superions to his docket but also notched a Foo Fighters collaboration, appeared on “The Daily Show” and, most recently, spit some fly verses for alt-rock stalwarts Big Stick.
Still, he confesses, “I wish [more people] would ask me to be on their record.”
“How about Peaches? Or CSS? Or Ladytron?” I ask.
“I know Peaches, she’s a doll,” he replies. “We’re fans of each other’s music. Actually, my friend who’s Bebel Gilberto’s manager mentioned me doing a benefit song with CSS. And Lady Gaga’s, I think, mentioned in interviews that she found [the B-52s] inspiring.”
[Editor’s note: The Lady Gaga interview(s) may exist – or maybe Schneider was taking a liberty like the one quoted in the headline. Could not be confirmed.]
Indeed, Schneider is himself inspired to write and record more songs. It’s just the whole road thing makes him long for his New York apartment is all. From the sound of his voice, he’s reveling in it on this Friday afternoon.
“I don’t think I would ever go on the road for weeks on end again, with anything, unless I was being paid, like, stadium [fees],” he admits. “I’m not one to go out on the road and live the life – never have been. I’ve done it with the B-52s, 18 months at a time. I don’t want to do the bus thing anymore.”
And who needs a bus, anyway – when you’ve got a spaceship?
More long-form interviews:
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• “Iggy Pop: ‘I Didn’t Want To Sell Out’ The Stooges”
• “The Who’s Pete Townshend: Every Young Rocker Should ‘Mark A ‘W’ On Their Arm In Blood’ ”
• “Nick Cave: Saint Nicholas And The Nocturnal Muse”