It's Saturday afternoon during this year's South by Southwest, and the collection of independent parties known as South by South Congress is in full swing along South Austin's main thoroughfare. Musical acts perform at a variety of establishments along the avenue and in the alley behind it.
The Yard Dog folk art gallery helped originate this tradition with an annual multi-day bash that features the cream, as well as the crumbs, of alternative country. The joint's proprietor, a sometime musician with roots in Austin's New Sincerity days, is doing bang-up business in the front of his store. But at the party out back, an unscheduled performer has sneaked on stage, and the owner is irked. With a hammy expression and sardonic edge, he announces to a crony, "Gee, who's playing now?" The response comes back slathered with sarcasm: "I don't know who that is."
What's got them bothered is that Bob Schneider has dared to mount the Yard Dog hustings for a few songs with his acoustic guitar. As he plays, a local music scene follower makes a "puke me" hand gesture. "Bob Schneider! Ick!" she chirps with a nasty edge.
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A few months later during an idyllic spring afternoon, the incident is related to Schneider over brisket at Green Mesquite. Asked how he feels about it, Schneider replies: "Man, I want to be loved by everybody. I want every single person in the world to agree that I'm the greatest musician ever," he says calmly. "[When] I get a negative review or someone says that I'm pretty good or compares me to artists that I don't like -- anything that doesn't fit that level of perfection I'm looking for -- I get annoyed. So you tell me that story, and I go, 'Can't that woman see how great I am?' "
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Such braggadocio usually elicits a gag reflex from a journalist. But Schneider's comments were preceded by modesty, a humility matched, to be sure, by a calm confidence. The "every person should agree I'm the greatest" attitude seems more apropos of the onstage Schneider that fronted Joe Rockhead, the Ugly Americans and the Scabs, the club-packing party bands that successively ruled the Austin scene for the better part of the last decade. And as if to prove the point, the boastful talk is quickly followed by words of reason.
"Unfortunately, not everybody is going to dig what I do, not matter how well I want to do it. The more successful I get, the more suspicious people are going to be, especially people who are too cool for school."
Yes, there are a few of those people in the environs of Town Lake. Austin is a hotbed for the hipper-than-thou squad. The local scene purports to be supportive but is marked by vicious backbiting. And Schneider has committed some cardinal sins against the Capital City cool canon. First, he's dared to make a good living, and he doesn't subsist on the meager fare of critical acclaim and tiny select audiences of the hipster elite. Also, instead of displaying the de rigueur postmodern detachment, Schneider is a fervent entertainer who draws -- gasp! -- hordes of hormonal college kids to his gigs. And last, he's won the heart of Sandra Bullock, America's sweetheart and Austin's biggest resident celebrity.
Worst of all, he's done it all without being anointed by the local hip crowd.
One might easily surmise some poorly concealed envy from those who dismiss Schneider with such cavalier nastiness -- tall poppies like Schneider are no match for the razor tongues of Austin's would-be wags -- not to mention plain old ignorance. "They've never seen me play, and they've never listened to my music," says Schneider. "But I do the same thing. There's huge groups like 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys, who I immediately discount, without hearing, as talentless."
But unlike his detractors, Schneider has an open mind. "I just saw part of a show that 'N Sync did at Madison Square Garden, and it was pretty amazing. They were rocking the shit out of that place, way harder than I probably could do. But I've always blown those guys off. Do they suck? I have no fucking idea. And having a little bit of success has made me realize that I'm just as close-minded as anybody. So when I hear that kind of stuff, it sounds like something I would [say]. Who knows? Maybe that girl who turned up her nose might hear a record of mine one day, and go, 'Oh, that guy's pretty good.' Or she may hear it and still hate it. I don't give a fuck, y'know?"
Of course, Schneider probably does give a fuck, although his accomplishments no doubt salve any wounds from such sniping. His Lonelyland album, first released by Schneider on his own label, was the best-selling disc ever, local or national, at Austin's Waterloo Records, selling some 7,500 copies on first release and doubling those numbers since its major-label rerelease. Now Universal, which has signed Schneider to a deal that allows him to continue putting out records on his own, hopes to expand those numbers beyond the Lone Star State's Latte City on the Lake.
The reason that Schneider sells so well in Austin isn't just his party band popularity. The people pooh-poohing him at the Yard Dog party probably weren't disposed to hearing how Schneider's songs, stripped nearly bare, are as well crafted and imaginative as any heard all week at the mega-event, maybe more so. National critics are dropping names like Prince, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Beck, Sting and David Byrne in reviews of Lonelyland, and not without due cause. Rich in musicality and sincere in intent, the album is a sophisticated pop-rock collection beyond anything else the oft-overrated Austin scene has produced in recent years.
For Schneider, the secret to his long- running success has always been simple. "The one thing that I've consistently tried to do is have something new every time I play," he explains. "I don't think you can play two songs in a row and not have anything new. Every time somebody comes to a show, I want them to see something that they're never going to see again, and also hear something they've never heard before."
Now he's hoping to export that philosophy beyond Texas. As his circle of influence widens, however, Schneider has to deal with more than the usual Austin bullshit; there's the inevitable jealousy and conspiracy theories that go with dating a famous actress. "When you start dating a celebrity, it turns the whole world into high school again," he notes. What irks him is how "people are going to draw the conclusion that I suck, and the only reason they are hearing about me is because of who I'm dating," he says. "I work really hard at what I do. To have it possibly negated because of who I'm dating annoys me."
But having put his party days behind him, Schneider is finding satisfaction in being Austin's hardest-working musician (not to damn the man with faint praise). "I don't know what I'm going to do after I get bored with this," he surmises. "Maybe I'll have to change my name."
"Cleaning up my act has given me a chance to figure out what's going to make me happy, and come closer to discarding the idea that fame and fortune is going to do it," he concludes. "I think what's going to make me happy is being okay with the world and coming to peace with myself and the world."
And maybe to one day have that faux hipsterette brag to all and sundry about how she once saw the great Bob Schneider perform solo behind a folk art gallery on South Congress in Austin.
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