Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Godliness is so serpentine that it may as well be godless, or so implies Nashville resident Eef Barzelay in much of his writing, which wedges those passionate words down into the crevasses that are supposed to help spread the gap wider, but instead just let the two sides touch, like some lumpy and stick-figured conductors. He bridges so many worlds that he doesn"t and never will belong to that we"re left wondering where to put him on the teeter-totter. He"s more the fulcrum, we"ll think at times, not playing or showing a hand, just commenting and sitting in on the matters.
But other times he leans, sliding his weight to the right or to the left to play the devil"s advocate in favor of the devil and then at other times, he toys with the free-falling acceptance of the big man upstairs and what that all might mean. He doesn"t let any one of his characters or the focal points of the conversations off easily, giving them all the ability to speak for themselves - and the floor for a reasonable amount of time - but he demands much of them. He makes them explain themselves and he only accepts truthfulness, cutting out the bullshit so that the example that"s seen at the far other side is built on more than brick. Ideas can only be toasted after they"ve gone through the ringer and the suds and are given that nod of appreciation, if not understanding. They"re scrutinized and diced to see all of their possible sides and angles, looking for the gentlest one to believe in.
Some say that Eef is love. They might be right, but the same scrutiny goes for the people charactering Barzelay"s songs. It happened with his Clem Snide songs and it happens even more so on his solo output Bitter Honey, in which he"s able to wear them out before taking them into his arms to show that there are no hard feelings. There"s harshness and finger-pointing in spots in his songs, but he cherishes these people for the love they want to give, even if they can"t or don"t give it and for the intentions they have that are full of goodness that which never leave their training pants.
Barzelay, a slender flagpole of a man with smart glasses, an angular face, a chin as sharp as a Lewis Black insult and a demeanor that"s never lost a staring contest, connects life to words and fiction to real life in ways that make you listen more intensely than you do for just anybody with a guitar and a microphone. The payoff in nearly every one of his bleeding songs - a gentle bleeding, such as the yellow yolk slowly draining from the eye of a poached egg - is the fallibility of every single one of those characters who try all sorts of things to find that something"s disagreeing with them or the answers aren"t so blooming obvious to just anyone and everyone.
The fallibility is just another trait, as sandy blond hair might be, and it"s precisely what the bitter honey - that contrasting of taste sensations - happens to be. When fallibility is implied or suggested, as it is on "Well," from last year"s Bitter Honey: "I"m sure someone will love til the day that they must die/Someone will mourn for you with bitter, tear-stained eyes/Will this be enough for you?/You"ve got them in your spell/Because the thing you claim to hate/You do it very well," it's so natural.
People are such messes who, even when things are right, find that the black clouds off and onto the west always grab their attention, greedily. There"s a lot of, what begs to be described as Nebraskan prairie thought (they"ve got little to be excited about with all their flat land making a non-descript experience) in Barzelay's music. It"s a self-deprecating, neo-positive pessimism because the new positive is more of a negative than ever before, though there is some of everything.
Barzelay is fascinating when he brings religion into the squared circle and when he tells that his parents were atheists, it makes sense that there would be so many examples of that line of questioning and that kind of "you"re not proving anything" attitude about any religion that has different rules for everyone who believes in it. He becomes that person you wind up having one of those life-altering conversations with, that lasts all through the night and halfway into the next morning about things you can"t even remember anymore. He becomes the calm and cool voice of reason when you weren"t even looking to be talked out of anything.
The Daytrotter interview:
*What is the current state of Clen Snide, as of today, April 12th, 2007? And what of those two solo records you have ready for people to hear? They aren't getting out there any quicker.*
Eef Barzelay: The state of Clem Snide, as of 4/12/0? Truthfully, Clem Snide has been hemorrhaging since 2002. For me, Snide was never so much about any particular sound or style as it was a group of old friends playing together and touring. Emotionally, it was more like a surrogate family. But as it became a business, it got complicated and there was never enough money to go around so people moved on or got soured by the whole thing. Since I write all the songs I could keep it going, but for right now I want to just be upon the world as Eef Barzelay. As for the records, the one that will come out first, more than likely in early 2008, is really an "Eef Barzelay" record. I did it very quickly in a mad fit of inspired desperation with some friends here in Nashville and it's more of a continuation of Bitter Honey, just with a very chewy band backin' my skinny ass up. The other is the epic and somewhat conceptual Hungry Bird. Clem Snide and I obsessively toiled over this record for roughly two years and in the end it broke up the band. Nevertheless, I am quite proud of it and hope it gets to have a life.
*I have to ask you about this soundtrack work you did. What is "Rocket Science" about? From the four tracks I've heard off of the ST, there are some things that are in your sweet spot, but you also got to do some experimenting didn't you? Were there any parameters placed on you?*
EB: Well.....RS is a great little coming-of-age movie. It's about a shleppy kid with a bad stutter making his way in the rough and tumble world of policy debating in central NJ. It was a great gig for me, I actually found having to cater to someone else's vision very liberating (that someone being the director Jeff Blitz). He was very cool and encouraged me to get freaky with it. I ended up using an open tuned ukulele and kazoo for much of it, along with accordion and trombone. I didn't really know what I was doing but it worked out great in the end.
*I don't remember the explanation completely, but tell me how you and Ben Folds became buddies. It has to do with Nashville, doesn't it?*
EB: We both have big teeth, so it only made sense. Both of us living in Nashville helps as well. Really he's a very good guy who graciously takes me out on tour with him when I got nothing going on.
*What do you love about Nashville? How long have you been there now?*
EB: Nashville is for sure a good place to be if music's your bag. So many people down here making great music it feels good to be a part of it. I never felt that way so much in Clap Your Hands and Say Brooklyn. Also it's quiet and the weather is nice but there's no where good to eat.
*You were telling me that you have a more intimate relationship with girls locker rooms at colleges now. What's it like preparing to play a killer show in a space that's normally forbidden to men?*
EB: I'm deep into this many week tour of nondescript Midwest and Northeast colleges opening for Ben Folds and for some reason they always have my dressing room set up in the girls locker room. (I wrote a poem about it, see below):
"I tune my guitar to their shadows dissolving,
Warm my volleyball throat where just earlier,
They giggled and preened safe in the feasting,
Knowledge of this world's great many pleasures."
*What are your thoughts about a higher power? I know that's broad, but there are a decent enough religious mentions in your songs to ask a vague question like that.*
EB: I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get into it, you know? Both my parents were atheists. Maybe that has something to do with it. Also, I love to fuck with Born-Again Christians, but in a tender way. Ultimately, I'm just trying to create untethered moments of awkward grace for myself and anyone who cares (dares?) to listen.
*After this tour, no shows for a while? What will you do with your spring?*
EB: I very much hope to get another movie to score. Goal!!!!!!! Also to cut the grass, plant some herbs, have a yard sale, and drive to Chattanooga with my son.
*When you're married and away from your wife, are hotel rooms and tours lonelier?*
EB: I love hotel rooms. I don't really feel lonely so much as disconnected from the world. I get a lot done creatively and it's nice for a while but then I start to feel like a ghost and I want to go home.
*What subject are you a buff about more than anything else?*
EB: Did you know that an ant will occasionally climb to the very top of a blade of grass and just hang there precariously for no apparent reason? Well it turns out this is due to a parasite that gets into the ant's brain and compels it to perform this unlikely task because said parasite can only reproduce inside a sheep's stomach.