Eef Barzelay was born an outsider. Sure, that might sound like the typical country music cliché, but for the 40-year-old frontman and founder of Clem Snide, it's true.
"Growing up, I never quite knew where I belonged," says Israeli-born Barzelay, whose family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey when he was six. "My grandparents got the hell out of Europe during the war, and they left behind everything. Most of their families they never saw again. When they came to Israel they changed their names and abandoned their religion and just completely transformed themselves. Then my parents were part of the first generation of Israelis, but they left Israel and came here. So I never felt entirely Israeli, and I never felt entirely American either — it was this weird, in-between feeling, this sense of being cut off, just feeling lost in the world."
As a songwriter, it's a feeling that's served Barzelay well. Since forming Clem Snide in Boston in 1991— he took the name from a character in William S. Borough's Naked Lunch — Barzelay has become something of a modern-day Mark Twain, keeping a wry eye trained on the beauty and sorrow and absurdity of American life. His darkly comic lyrics have a way of digging deep into the dirt of our national psyche, exposing every bittersweet, crooked root: shopping carts and Civil War buffs, Nat King Cole and tanning beds, sunflower seeds and whippits.
"I like to take things that are kind of ugly or mundane and try to make them beautiful," he says. "To find inspiration in a Wal-Mart parking lot is kind of exciting for me."
Barzelay’s poetic voice has been a large part of his band’s appeal. Unlike much of the rest of the wave of indie-rockers that went country in the ‘90s (e.g., Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Lambchop), Clem Snide has always been more about capturing country music’s lyrical depth and sense of humor than trying to recreate the twang.
"It was never about trying to sound like old country music," says Barzelay, who moved from New York City to Nashville in 2004. "I mean, I like old country music, and it seemed like a good template for writing songs, because it's simple and direct and it leaves a lot of room for the words and the people and the characters."
Fortunately, that template hasn’t changed much on this year’s The Meat of Life, the band’s seventh and latest album. Despite the occasional kick of an overdrive pedal or foray into ‘70s folk rock, the album still grounds itself in Barzelay’s deadpan vocals, clever turns of phrase and lone guitar, the same charming combination that in 2001 shot the band onto TV screens across the world when their song “Moment In The Sun” — kind of ironically, as Barzelay has noted — was chosen as the theme music to the Emmy-nominated, NBC show “Ed.”
The thing that’s surprising about The Meat of Life is that it even came out at all. In 2006, internal strife led Barzelay and the latest members of Clem Snide to part ways, the second time in the band’s 19-year history. Barzelay immediately launched a solo career, scoring a handful of indie films and releasing two well-received solo albums over the next few years — neither of which sounded all that different from his work with Clem Snide — before surprising fans and reforming the beloved group in 2009, with a few minor changes. To Barzelay, that time off has only made them stronger.
“It's been feeling real good to play live together again, really natural,” he says.
They’ve even added a new cover song to their live set: Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.” And if it’s anything like their haunting, un-ironic version of Christina Aguilera’s 2002 hit “Beautiful” — it’s seriously that good, Google it — best check your jadedness at the door.
With the latest record behind him and a string of tour dates in front, not to mention more film scores on the big screen horizon, things are looking up for Barzelay. But now that he’s settled down South with a house, a wife, and two kids, the term “success” has taken on new meanings.
"You never really arrive anywhere,” he says with a shrug. “You just keep going until you die. I've had some good years, I've had some lean years. But I’m in there. I’m still fighting.”
Spoken like a true outsider.
[Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]
who: Clem Snide
what: Nashville-based indie band with wry, country-tinged tunes. Heligoats open.
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Wednesday, July 21 (8:30 p.m., $8 advance/$10 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com.)