photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
Off-stage, however, Schneider has become almost unrecognizable. He's been sober for more than three years and spent the better part of a year involved in a seriously monogamist relationship. Now, he's not only on time for shows, he goes straight home afterwards. Somehow, the guy known for having never met a mixed drink he couldn't slam or a University of Texas freshman he couldn't seduce now has no interest in either.
Not surprisingly, though, it's the former version of Schneider many locals are most familiar with. While Jimmie Vaughan and Storyville may occasionally draw larger crowds, nobody of late has filled Austin clubs as consistently as the Scabs. Nearly 800 people attend the Scabs' weekly Tuesday night gig at Antone's, and after a brief drop-off, the Ugly Americans (man-for-man the same band as the Scabs) are back to drawing similarly well on weekends. Not likely to raise any eyebrows, either, is that fact that both groups have new albums out; the Ugly Americans sophomore release for Capricorn Records, Boom Boom Baby, and the Scabs' self-released debut, Freebird [see sidebar].
The real surprise? That anyone cares. In lieu of any real re-invention and in spite of all the local competition and a general lack of national interest in his bands, Schneider is, for the third time this decade, fronting what is arguably this town's most popular live act - make that most popular live acts. Why Schneider? Why so long?
The easiest explanation is that Austin is a town with many musicians, but only a handful of rock stars. Real rock stars not only hold your attention over the course of a show, they make you want to come back again and again. As with Joe Rockhead at the Black Cat, or the Ugly Americans at Steamboat, Schneider and the Scabs have forged a fanbase that's willing to come out as many as three times a week to see the band.
"When you don't have a song on radio or MTV," explains Schneider, "there's only so many people that are going to come out just to hear songs. So when you're playing week in and week out, you have to offer something more. In all these bands, we've tried to make sure that if you missed a week, you missed something. We want to make sure that for every time we play, we do something that we've never done and may never do again."
Whatever the similarities between Joe Rockhead and the Ugly Americans and Scabs, one thing is certain: All three of Schneider's bands have been as much about local scenes as the music itself. Joe Rockhead's scene, the Black Cat, 1991-92, is in essence no different than current day Antone's, where the Scabs rule the roost. Critics may charge that the Scabs/Ugly Americans crowds are largely underage and perhaps musically unsophisticated, but Schneider says that's not the point. In fact, he believes the musicianship or songs may not be the point either.
"I think the simple reason we do as well as we do every Tuesday is because we provide people a place where they can go and dance," says Schneider. "That's the bottom line."
It's a bottom line Schneider says he came face to face with last year when the Ugly Americans toured with Leftover Salmon, a Colorado-based hippie-jam band. Night after night, says Schneider, Leftover Salmon's crowd greeted his group with "confusion, contempt, and hatred," even though both bands ply similar sounds, the Ugly Americans a rock & roll-based groove, and Leftover Salmon a bluegrass-grounded groove. Schneider says he simply couldn't understand the reception the Ugly Americans were getting.
"Just over two weeks into the tour, I went into the crowd to try and do the crazy hippie dance," says Schneider, "to try and understand what the fuck it was all about. And I felt really out of place in this sea of patchouli oil and sweat. But nobody was looking at me; they were all doing their own thing. So, I did the dance and flailed around even more on the next song. That's when I got it. I came to this place where I lost all of my self-consciousness and just danced. It was cathartic. After that second song, I hoped [Leftover Salmon] played another song like that. If they'd busted into a ballad, I wouldn't have been able to do that hippie dance again. But the next song, and the songs after that, and so on, were the exact same thing."
At the end of the tour, Schneider returned to Austin with a new plan: Weed out anything from the Scabs' and Ugly Americans' set that wasn't danceable. Already, both bands included the identical core six members, but whereas the Scabs were an outlet for the funk, Latin, and soul songs with horns, the Ugly Americans were reserved for rock, pop, and ballads. Under Schneider's new scheme, both bands began to play each other's material, further blurring lines between them.
"The Leftover Salmon experience made a big impact on me and later in our crowds," says Schneider. "We got rid of the slower art/drama pieces and the stuff that was a straight joke you couldn't dance to. And because the whole set is now fast-paced dance material, people come and dance the whole night. You can hear the songs on the CDs if you want, but with this, it's about people participating.
"Now, I look back and I realize that's also why Joe Rockhead had so much success. At that time, we were providing the same high-paced outlet."
While it may sound clichéd, or like part of a story on tennis prodigies, Bob Schneider was a song and dance man almost from birth. Born in Michigan, but raised in Germany where his father, an opera singer, moved the family when he was 2, Schneider and his sister were exposed to the nightlife early on.
"My parents partied a ton," says Schneider. "They'd come in late and knock on the bedroom door asking my sister and I to sing for the guests. We'd go downstairs to a roomful of drunk friends, and with sleepy eyes we'd sing, `Row, row, row your boat.' And the drunks went crazy, loved us. That's pretty much been the pattern my whole life. By the time I was 10 and she was 9, my sister would tell them, `Go fuck yourself, I'm sleeping.' But I'd go down, because I still enjoyed it. It made me happy to go down and perform."
Spending third through eighth grade in El Paso, Schneider and his family then returned to Germany just in time for him to attend high school there.
"All that moving was very traumatic. It fucked me up bad," says Schneider, who tells a Howard Stern-like story of daily beatings at the hands of El Paso bullies. "If I'd have just stayed in Germany, I'd be an accountant now - something not so deep in dysfunctionality."
In Germany, Schneider spent his senior year jamming with drummer Jeff Linderman, now an Austinite, with whom Schneider got his first taste of rock stardom after the pair, as Bitter Lemon, played in the high school talent show.
"All these chicks got out of their seats and ran towards the stage screaming my name," remembers Schneider. "I couldn't believe it. You have to picture me: 5'4", the youngest guy in my class, and no friends. The only people I hung out with were teachers. I was hunted by bullies and just generally hated. No chicks would talk to me and now they're going crazy. After that, I was the hero of the school, actually suspended for the naughty lyrics we sang that night. The seed was planted."
Nonetheless, Schneider was determined not to follow in his father's footsteps and chase music. Instead, he enrolled in a German branch of the University of Maryland's art school. Although he would later apply his graphic arts skills to many Joe Rockhead, Scabs, and Ugly Americans posters, T-shirts, and album covers (as well as freelance artwork for the Chronicle), Schneider dropped out of art school after returning to America for his junior year at the University of Texas in El Paso.
"A sculptor came in and gave a lecture my last semester there," recounts Schneider. "It was a guy named Terry Allen, little did I know. He walked in with a leather jacket and sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, and looking completely hung over. He said, `If you're going to do art, you need to drop out of school and fucking start doing art. Your degree is worthless.' It totally made sense to me. Plus, there were no chicks in art."
Schneider decided he could chase chicks and music in Austin. At the tail end of the Eighties, Brainiac, his first band, played the UT party circuit, while the Spanks played just one gig: a "Fresh Blood Night" at the Ritz for Chronicle music columnist Michael Corcoran. Before long, Schneider decided he really wanted to front Clang, a band with bassist Steve Bernal, guitarist Bruce Salmon, and drummer John Nelson. Unfortunately, another local, fast-talking extrovert got the gig: Wammo. When Wammo left Clang, Schneider got his chance, only to have Bernal quit for the Killer Bees and Nelson leave for his first tour with Poi Dog Pondering. Salmon eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, invited Schneider to jam with another band, Spunker, a group that ultimately became Joe Rockhead and eventually coerced Bernal back into the fold.
After a year and a half without much success, Joe Rockhead accepted an invitation to enter into a year-long residency at the Black Cat. About half-way through this commitment, the band began drawing respectable crowds of 300 or so, a number that soon doubled thanks to local word-of-mouth.
"We had 700 people a night, twice a week - Tuesdays and Fridays," says Schneider. "And when you put 700 people in a club with virtually no exit and no place to go, and you realize you're surrounded by crazy mobs of high-energy people, it gets scary. Eventually we decided it was just too scary."
The band toured regionally and set up shop at Steamboat, but their drawing power started thinning fairly quickly.
"Joe Rockhead at the Black Cat didn't take itself very seriously," explains Schneider. "It was a complete party, and when we moved out and played other places, the music got more serious; it got more heavy and rock-oriented, with tempos you couldn't necessarily dance to. It got too far away from what made us popular."
Even though all three of Joe Rockhead's self-released discs made better live souvenirs than albums, major labels like Ruffhouse and Island Records saw national potential. After a long courting process that ended with Island deciding to sign Dallas' Tripping Daisy instead of Joe Rockhead, the band decided it had had enough.
"We were heartbroken," says Schneider. "We'd been at it four and a half years, and some of the guys in the band were at a crossroads and wanted to do some other things in their life that didn't involve music. And why bust their ass doing this without a payoff?
"Plus, I was out of control and thoroughly convinced that the reason [Joe Rockhead] was doing so well was because of me. At every turn I was, `Fuck you guys' and they were, `Fuck you, too.' We just weren't getting along."
Although he didn't realize it at the time, Schneider had committed one of showbiz's cardinal sins: believing his own press.
"Deep down, every musician thinks of themselves as rock stars," admits Schneider. "When they go to bed at night, they think, `I'm a rock star.' It takes that kind of mentality to get up in front of people and play some stupid song you wrote. If you didn't think that way, you couldn't do it. And that's why you have so many conflicts within groups, because everybody is the rock star. And when you're the lead singer, and maybe writing songs as well, you're getting all the attention. It's easy to believe you're the reason it's happening. But as you get older, you realize you're just one-fifth or one-eighth."
During the last six months he fronted Joe Rockhead, Schneider had also been playing with the Ugly Americans, a group he saw as a side project. Luckily, everyone else in the group saw it the same way; co-frontman Bruce Hughes was playing with David Lowery's Cracker, while bassist and founder Sean McCarthy was still employed as one of Mojo Nixon's Toadliquors. Meanwhile, drummer Dave Robinson, guitarist Scappy Jud Newcomb, and organ player Corey Mauser were all committed to the Loose Diamonds. With Rockhead dead and Schneider admittedly devastated, he agreed to focus on the Ugly Americans, because it was available and had begun to pay decently.
"It was an easy gig, because I always considered myself the weak link," says the singer. "These were great musicians, so I could practice a little or just show up at the gigs and wing it. And once Rockhead was over and I put a lot of energy into it for a few months, we kind of settled into a groove and I backed off. For a couple of years after that initial push, we didn't change much. We were still writing a song or two a month, but there was nothing more depressing than being three years old and playing virtually the same exact set from a year before."
Perhaps the only thing more frustrating was the band's experience making their first major-label album. By mid-1993, with guitarist Max Evans having replaced Newcomb, the band had finally solidified into a full-time project. Local crowds ebbed and flowed, but overall, the group's draw was enough to support regional touring, ultimately landing them a large theatre tour with Dave Matthews, a stint on H.O.R.D.E., and a recording contract with Irving Azoff's Giant Records. By the time the Ugly Americans got to Los Angeles to record with Don Gehman, who was coming off his multi-platinum success with Hootie & The Blowfish, Schneider was more obnoxious, drunk, and generally destructive than ever before.
"I had no friends, no transportation, and no rock stardom," says Schneider of his time in L.A. "Everyone there is a rock star, movie star, or producer. I'd go out to a bar and say, `I'm out here making an album,' and they'd say, `Who gives a fuck? I'm out here making my dreams come true, too, and I don't know who you are.' Everybody was as self-absorbed as I was, and because they reminded me of myself so much, I hated it. It should have been my career high point, but I was not in a good place in my personal life. It was definitely time for a little change."
After the album was completed, the Ugly Americans returned to Austin without Schneider, who instead took a detour to Colorado, where he checked into a rehabilitation facility. While there, he learned there was no need in rushing back home, because a shake-up at Giant ultimately led to a year-long delay and the Ugly Americans' eventual dismissal from the label. By July of 1996, Capricorn had picked up the band and released the album to relatively little fanfare. Despite several tours and some serious AAA radio play, the album was essentially dead on arrival. Not that Schneider was that bothered by the situation; he had already moved onto another side project, the Scabs, a collaboration with guitarist Adam Temple, whose premise was simple: "Wear suits and sing about pussy."
"Everything I've wanted to do musically, I've been able to do in the Scabs," states Schneider. "A few years ago, when the Scabs started, there were some really serious ballads the Ugly Americans didn't want to do. I'd bring in a tender or touching song and they'd laugh at me. But with the Scabs, I could make them play it and put it right next to, `I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy.' If it had been all joke songs all night long, I'd have admitted it was a novelty band.
"But we didn't know what was coming next, so how could the audience? It could have been a crazy fuck-me song followed by a Simon & Garfunkel thing. The more I did the Scabs, the more I realized this was something I was proud of. The Ugly Americans is and was a really good band; it just wasn't something I liked."
In late 1996, Schneider says he began turning the Ugly Americans into something he liked: a slightly safer version of the Scabs. Neither McCarthy nor Evans were impressed by Schneider's new vision and eventually opted out. Hughes, a bassist by trade, replaced McCarthy, while the Scabs' guitarists, Temple and Charles Reiser, stepped in for Evans. When Ugly Americans keyboardist David Boyle and Hughes agreed to join the Scabs as well, the morphing together of both bands was complete.
Although Schneider maintains that he wanted to merge both bands under one moniker - the Scabs - in time for the Ugly Americans' second album for Capricorn, he lost that battle. Nevertheless, despite the new album's title track and the skeletons of some genuinely great songs like "The Wrong Direction" and "Orlando," Boom Boom Baby often sounds like two bands competing for attention. Schneider disagrees.
"We know we're going to be slammed by critics," acknowledges Schneider. "The record is about sex, the groove, and dancing. There's no angst or philosophical introspection that will open minds up. It's about sex, the whole record."
Schneider is more adamant in his assessment that what may have started as a joke has grown into something more. Isn't "Pussy Fever" evidence to the contrary?
"I say the words `fuck' and `pussy' a ton when I'm speaking," says Schneider. "I'm not the most eloquent of speakers or writers, and I've never claimed to be the most clever or intelligent guy around. I can't sit down and say this is going to be an alternative rock song about the feeling you get when you first realize you've lost your innocence or some other bullshit. `Pussy Fever' comes more naturally."
Seeing as "Pussy Fever" has wound up as a surprisingly lively piece of songwriting, both on the Scabs' live debut, Freebird, and in both bands' sets, whatever comes naturally to Schneider would seem to be the key to both groups' success. Better still, a summer of national touring for the Ugly Americans may ensure that both bands don't burn out the local populace. Not that a lot of people in this town probably still don't like Bob Schneider.
"I think at this point, we get the respect from anybody that sees us live," says Schneider. "The fact of the matter is that all these guys onstage are really talented musicians. I don't care if you're a music critic, musician, just don't like this kind of music, or don't dance; if you see the Ugly Americans/Scabs play live, you'll walk away from the experience saying, `That's a great fucking band.' You might say, `I don't like the guys in the band or what they're talking about,' but you'll have to admit we're good at what we do.
"And I also love the fact that some people are simply going to hate us. I love watching people leave the shows angry, upset, or offended by what they've seen or heard. Then I know I'm doing something right. And I know for every one of those people that are offended or upset, there are 10 people with huge smiles on their faces, laughing, dancing, and having a good time.
"I`m glad we're not politically correct. Hootie & the Blowfish sold 22 million records not because the music was so good, but because they didn't offend anybody. We're not going to have that kind of success, because there are a huge number of fundamental right-wing people who will always hate us. But as long as we continue to grow as musicians and performers, it's going to be exciting to get onstage with the guys every night and play the music we play. At this point in my life, it's all good."