Episode 14: Fred Schneider Lead Singer B52s

Making Better Episode 14, Fred Schneider

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: And I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: Welcome to Episode 14 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring our first bonafide rock star, Fred Schneider, the lead singer of the B-52s.

Francis: Fred’s such a favorite of mine, on so many levels, and I think he’s just been this really insightful mind in terms of what’s been going on in the world, how to not let it get you down to the point where you can’t party anymore.

Chris: And the B-52s have been one of my favorites acts, ever since they emerged way back in the late 70s. I saw them perform many times, and this is the first time I got to talk to Fred, so it was really fun.

Francis: Yeah. And I think their work is very light-hearted, because it is sort of party music. A lot of the times I think the genius gets lost, but it’s aged so well over time and I’m just really delighted to have him here.

Chris: Well, with that said, let’s get on to the interview.

Chris: Fred Schneider, welcome to Making Better!

Fred: Thank you, thank you. Good to be here.

Chris: Fred, this is not actually the first time you and I have met. I was one of the kids standing outside the stage door at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey when you guys headlined there over Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and it was a spectacular show. I just wanted to shake your hand as you were coming out, so that was the first time we met.

Fred: Oh, OK. Yeah, Kid Creole, they’re great.

Chris: That was a spectacular show, I mean I was, everyone was dancing all night, everyone was sweating through our clothes. I mean, both of the acts were just wonderful.

Fred: Oh good. Well, that’s the point.

Francis: You’re definitely the ultimate party band. I could think of no bands that have, the music’s aged better. I mean, you just have this place that’s so timeless, and it’s really amazing to see how you could hear the B-52s recordings from the 70s now—or the early 80s, it feels like now—I don’t know you did that trick.

Fred: Well, we never tried to sound like anybody else or follow trends, so—we were our own trend.

Chris: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process, because the B-52s are both extremely accessible, but they’re also abstract and surreal, and I was wondering how you managed that balance.

Fred: I think we just get people going, and then they sing along, and I don’t know how deeply they go in to the lyrics, but they’re catchy! We put a lot of work into ‘em. We have dozens of songs that we worked on but never finished, so, I think the music gets people going along and we have a lot of sound-candy in our lyrics and vocals and..

Francis: You started out as a poet, correct?

Fred: Yes, the last thing I did before I dropped out of college, ‘cause I was so lazy, was do a book of poetry, but I wound up liking it and eventually, later on, parts of some of the poems were incorporated into lyrics that we did.

Francis: One of the things that really stands out in the B-52s is the surprising imagery and words and, I think, just the fun of the lyrics.

Fred: Well, we have a sense of humor but we’re serious about having a sense of humor. I mean, I’m more influenced by Dada and surrealism than camp, so…we have political references in several songs, and we mostly do the talking about political and environmental and other important social issues when we do interviews.

Chris: I remember an interview with you in Vegetarian Times about thirty-five years ago, in which you said something like you guys were “militant vegetarians”—that you would go to McDonald’s and throw things at people?

Fred: No. I don’t think I said that (laughs).

Chris: As I said, it was an article I read thirty-five years ago, so I might be mistaken.

Fred: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I’m sure we’d get thrown out for throwing McNuggets at people.

Francis: Part of the purpose of our podcast is, we’re trying to look for reasons for optimism in the world. And with all that’s going on right now, I mean, we’re in a time right now where there’s ten thousand children in detention centers in this country and, I mean, it just goes on and on and on. I mean, the level of cruelty that has been let loose with this President that we have is just—I would have thought, unthinkable…

Fred: [inaud] and the Republican Party’s in cahoots, and rich billionaire Koch Brothers, all these other horrible people funding it—it can get pretty depressing at times, but then you have all the kids who are saying, do something about climate change, you’re all going to be dead, we’re going to be suffering from this. So, once we get, impeach Dump, let’s see what happens. I’m sure the Senate’s just gonna stick their heads up their behinds and let him—give him a free pass. None of the Democrats of course, all they need is 51 votes to get rid of him, but you know, that’s not going to happen. I find that kids protesting about climate change positive…

Francis: Greta’s such a star, huh?

Fred: Oh yeah, no she’s fabulous.

Francis: Isn’t she the best?

Francis: She’s a hero for a lot of people, and rightly so. And the ones who criticize her are A-holes, so I find that very encouraging. Young people are not going to put up—and they’re fighting for banning guns and assault weapons and—things I’ve supported for as long as I can remember, so it’s good to see that they’re really getting a lot more attention.

Chris: I do find myself getting inspired by young people. I mean, I’m 59 years old and it’s inspiring that so many—you know, I live in Florida, and you know the whole Parkland kids on the gun issue are really pretty amazing.

Fred: They’re fantastic.

Francis: I think a major issue right now in the world is inclusion. And one of the things I always loved about the B-52s is that I think, in terms of supporting gay rights and bringing gay culture to the mainstream, you know you guys have been a the forefront of that, too.

Fred: Well, everyone’s invited to our party, and always has been. I mean, in the beginning, having been bullied in high school, I wasn’t about to be a standard-bearer, but bands know, my friends knew, family knew—even Elton John was in the closet. But, you know, gradually we got more comfortable with it and like, ah, what the hell, who cares.

Chris: I read that when you came out to your mom she didn’t even stop vacuuming.

Fred: Uh-huh. Good thing it was my bedroom she was vacuuming (laughs). I think that’s a great story. “I know, Freddie.” (laughs)

Francis: Is that what she said?

Fred: Uh huh.

Francis: I think my parents always suspected I was, ‘cause you know, I mean, the minute I started growing a little public hair I had pictures of Ziggy Stardust all over my bedroom.

Fred: There you go.

Francis: Still, like, I guess it’s a very sort of divisive country that we have right now in terms in terms of culture, in terms of politics. What do you see as being things that we can do to, like, heal this country, or put just more into a place where people can appreciate each other’s diversity?

Fred: Vote out Republican leaders, and implement positive things for the average citizen, which Republicans don’t do, and pull the wool over their bases eyes and hopefully they’ll realize that well, coal’s not coming back, you just lost all your manufacturing jobs, there goes your farm—when are people going to realize, whatever? You know, why should you decide what a woman does with her body, you old fart?

Francis: Exactly. One of the things I always found really kind of strange is how, you have this conservative party, and they preach conservatism, but actually a lot of them are the most decadent people on the planet.

Fred: They’re pigs.I mean, consorting with top porn stars and hookers, and wife who is not exactly a Vogue model…

Francis: That’s true. When they had the Republican convention in New York, a couple years, a few years ago, they actually had to import escorts because there weren’t enough escorts in New York to facilitate the Republican convention.

Fred: Oh, well a friend told me that whenever the Baptists come to town at the hotels, they go gangbusters with the porn..

Chris: And when the Christian right said they were going to boycott San Francisco, the people who run the Fulton Street Fetish Fair thought they’d have to close down.

Fred: Who cares. Who wants them in town? (laughter) Christian Wrong is what I call ‘em. They’re not even Christians, they don’t follow Christ’s teachings, I don’t know who—I think Satan’s got them in his back pocket, so, they sure act like it. You can’t tell ‘em anything ‘cause they’re so stupid. But, you know, there’s other things going on. People can do their own thing with their donations, and public work. I’m part of a coffee company now in Florida, and we’re opening an event space in January in DeLand, Florida, for progressive groups and charities. Our coffee, we get our coffee from Laos, where we dropped half a billion pieces of ordnance, and so part of the profits from what we do goes to remove ordnance—‘cause one of the leading causes of death in Laos is stepping on mines and things like that, and losing limbs. And the other thing is to supply anti-venom against snake bites. But the coffee’s grown organically, to certify it cost a fortune, so we can say, you know, it’s grown organically in Laos. So we do that, and men and women get equal pay. It’s a very Buddhist country. It’s called bruiting.com. You know, young people and even people our age and younger who don’t support conservatives, really make an effort to make the country better rather than worse—though I do like what Stormy Daniels said, “make America horny again.” (laughs)

Francis: One of the things that is very clear about the B-52s is that they’re very sex-positive. But it’s in a healthy way, it’s not in that creepy Republican way, you know?

Fred: Oh no. We love—you know, let your freak flag fly, we’re not gonna judge, just be safe. We lost so many friends to AIDS that we’ve done a lot of benefits and things like that, and lent our name to things, and—just got to get the word out. Still, people need to take care of themselves. We should start putting cameras in the conservatives’ bedrooms, though I don’t think you’d see much in Mitch McConnell’s, but..

Chris: Francis and I have both lost friends to the virus as well.

Francis: It was a plague, man.

Fred: ..So many in the early 80s, yeah, it was scary. We just did, there’s a show called Pride, and we talked about a friend of ours, Tommy Rubnets(sp) who passed away, and he was about to break through his videos and art. One of his videos is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he passed away in his early 30s and so all four of us talked about what was going on in New York when we first lived there. And it was like, all of a sudden from the disco era and sexual freedom to, what is this going on, and will I get it? It was already in people’s bodies, but no one knew it. They called it “grid”

Francis: I remember that.

Francis: Getting back to the music if possible—I heard you’re a record collector? Your record collection must be amazing.

Fred: Oh, it—it is.

Francis: Do you have any highlights you’d like to share? Some of your favorites in there?

Fred: Oh boy. Well, I’m a Motown nut, so I love my Motown. I love Work Your Speaker instrumentals from late 50s and early 60s—they call it like, ping-pong percussion. I can listen to a bunch of that, I love striptease music, I love Funk. I love electronic and avant-garde classical. When I did my radio show for Sirius, I played mostly New Wave dance mixes that I found at the thrift store around the corner from my apartment in New York, so I’m pretty all over the place. And really bad albums, like Christmas with Barbie, I play that. I used to play a lot of stuff until my ex said, “can we hear something normal?”

Francis: That’s something I can’t imagine people say to you too often, though.

Fred: No, no no. “Cause I have all these friends—I do a lot of like, Soul clubs, I’ve done several Soul clubs with, well, kids—well to me they’re kids, at my age—in their late 20s, early 30s, and I have extensive Soul records from the 60s that they’d never heard, even some of the ones I played at Soul club 40 years ago, almost, in New York that were like standard to play. So, I like to educate people and I send records all over, to my friends, especially 45s—they’re easier.

Francis: I just inherited a huge 45 collection. I just take one out at random and put it on every day.

Fred: The new record players—the bluetooth ones—the speakers are amazing. You can buy a cheap-ass record player and plug it into this little bluetooth speaker thing and get full sound like you would from big speakers. As long as it sounds good and the records are clean.

Francis: You mentioned something earlier in this interview that I can’t get out of my mind now—there’s a whole bunch of B-52 songs that never got released?

Fred: Well, they were never finished, either. If we were jamming on different things and hit a wall, we’d do the HellTyler(sp) show or the Mary Shirley morning show, and just be the celebrity guest and, with different names, and just do ridiculous things—sing ridiculous songs and do ridiculous commercials and…

Chris: Your Wikipedia page says that you’ve collaborated with a lot of other songwriters. How does that process go?

Fred: Well, right now I have a song out with Ursula One Thousand, called the Neptune Freeze, it’s on YouTube, and they’re gonna be up. And I have Hifi Shawn from the Soup Dragons, we have a song out called Truck. I’m working with Hard Group from Public Enemy on a whole album, and we have a song that’s gonna be on the soundtrack of a movie in Mexico, I sing it in English and Spanish. It’s less stressful, and of course I have the Superions, and I write all the lyrics for them. Our Christmas album’s coming out again, ‘cause the label Four screwed us over royally and gave us nothing. But we have Bat Baby and Really Scary Halloween story out, so—I’ve got a lot of stuff in the can. And it’s fun! I can do whatever I want, and there’s no stress.

ChrIs: And you live on Long Island?

Fred: Yes. I have a place in the city, too, but that’s more like a storage unit.

Francis: Who else was from Long Island? Lou Reed was from Long Island.

Fred: Lou Reed, Dee Snider lives out here, from Twisted Sister. I don’t go to those parties you see in those glossy magazines. It has to be something really special for me to go—well, especially in the summer I’m usually working, but if I am here in the summer I don’t go in town on the weekends ‘cause it’s so crazy. There’s plenty to do here. It’s becoming—like my neighborhood went from having so many neighbors and all that, I mean I didn’t know most of them, but—there are people here all year ‘round now, it’s like a bunch of rich-ass people who can afford to come out here just one month or two months or just every weekend or something, so it’s like, oh brother.

Francis: It’s great to have the country-city balance.

Fred: Well yeah, the county I live in has the most farmland left in relation to its size, so God bless Estee Lauder for buying up tons and tons of farms and turning them into conservancies and things.

Francis: So is there any contemporary music that you particularly find exciting right now?

Fred: I like the Fabulous Downey Brothers. I’m the worst for hearing things, ‘cause when I watch YouTube I watch either when they take like a, there’s a preacher and there’s video called “flaming butthole”—heh—‘cause he talks about gay people are gonna have flames coming out of their butthole (laughs). And so someone turned it into a song! And the video of this idiot speaking is crazy enough, but the song is—so, I like that and I like, just anything like that. I’m the worst for listening to new music, ‘cause if I listen to the radio I listen to NPR, or I play my own music, you know, my own music and all that. I mean, records I have and CDs I have out the wazoo…

Francis: Well back when you came to New York, I think your first show was at Max’s, right?

Fred: Yes

Francis: And there was definitely, it was an underground, you know? You pretty much had to go downtown to experience the new music back then, the punk rock, the New Wave, all that…

Fred: Oh yeah. I mean, we didn’t even have our first single out. And we played on a Monday night in December, which is like dead as a doornail. But we were excited, because a lot of our idols played there. And back then, people don’t realize, for most of the 70s and early 80s, New York went dark from 23rd Street down—well, even 34th Street down, all the way to the tip of Manhattan, the only lights were on in like, were like the East Village and the West Village. Chelsea was dead. You had to go places…

Chris: There was an article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about how people, approximately our age group, are nostalgic for New York back it was a sewer, and that, you know, we really miss …

Fred: Forty-Second Street was just full of dirty movies and all that…at least it was interesting. I mean, I got mugged, but, you know, I think everyone did.

Francis: Yeah, it was kind of worth it, though, to have that atmosphere. I really miss the existence of an underground like that. You know, I think in some ways it was like a, it was just so much cross-pollination going on amongst artists. I guess you came out around the same time as The Cramps did, right? It was sort of like the second wave of bands that came out…

Fred: Yeah, we were more the New Wavers. We started out Punky, and actually Luxe and Ivy(sp) came to our first show, so—I think there were only 17 people at the show (laughs) and there were three bands. I think half of the people there were our friends who came up.

Francis: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that we haven’t discussed about, like say, new ventures or anything?

Fred: Well, the band is going to work on some new songs for a deluxe CD set of all our albums, so we’ll have some new material, and for some reason they’re finding live shows of ours, so who knows? That’ll be exciting—and the band is already booking a few shows for next year, so we’ll be on our way.

Francis: I was also thinking that one of the things that I really enjoyed was the basement tapes that Bob Dylan puts out occasionally, and hearing alternate takes and that sort of thing. And I think there’s a lot of bands where that would be kind of excruciating to have to listen to, but with the B-52s, I think you know if you considered even putting out some of—I know you like, jam a lot and try to develop songs and that sort of thing, I think I would really love to hear some of that. And I would love to hear some live tracks, so if you’re thinking about doing something like that, I’d totally would love it.

Fred: Well, I think we’re going to put out Killer Bees, the first thing we ever jammed on. I have a really good quality recording of it—yeah, we’ll see. It depends.

Francis: I think the B-52s have always had this amazing balance of being really, not square at all, but also promoting this light, this beauty, this peace and love kind of thing in a way that doesn’t make you nauseous. It kind of makes you want to dance, and, you know, thank you so much for doing that all these years, and the world still needs it, so keep on keepin’ on, you know?

Fred: Oh, we will. I mean, that’s our show, you know, we just want everyone to have just the best time. We’re not going to hit them over the head with a message, there’s enough depressing stuff going on. We want to be the antidote to that, we go-go dance to our drummer.

Chris: Is there anything you’d especially like to promote or plug?

Fred: Well, just check out Breyting.com, because we’re going to be putting out blends of coffee, and like I said, we’re going host charities and progressive groups, and we’re gonna do contests on the Buzz, which is the B-52s band site on Facebook. And we’re still goin’ the band’s still goin’

Chris: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on Making Better!

Fred: Well, thank you! Thanks for having me.

Francis: Thanks, Fred.

Fred: Sure!

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