Steve Snider laughed when I asked him to list every Charlottesville band he’s played in over the years. “There’s like, more than a dozen,” he said. “I’m not totally sure I can even name them all.” Among the most memorable are the jangling indie-rock of the Fingerpainters, the yelping keyboard-punk of Cataract Camp, the anthemic shoegazer metal of A Cosmonaut’s Ruin, the energetic art-rock of Tapeworms, the sprawling hardcore of GD Airlock, and the furious free punk of Great Dads. Some of his bands—like the memorably named Night Prison—only lasted for one show, while others recorded albums and toured repeatedly. Though many of these groups shared members (in addition to Snider), they were stylistically distinct, united by a common left-of-the-dial sensibility and an appealing aggressive energy, anchored by Snider’s powerful, relentlessly exciting drumming.
Snider’s latest band, Golden Glasses, is a solo project. Snider plays drums and sings, simultaneously. The result is unusual, but the formula is unquestionably successful. He has sung in previous bands, despite occupying the drummer’s seat. “When Cataract Camp was on tour, in 2006,” he said, “I’d always be set up before everyone else. And while they were loading in all the amps I’d be sound checking, just playing and singing by myself. One day [guitarist] Thomas Orgren said, ‘You know, I’d be perfectly entertained, just listening to you do that on your own.’”
The project eventually came to fruition at a solo performance at The Bridge PAI in 2010 and was dubbed the Golden Glasses. “I’m a fan of alliteration,” he said. “When you’re named Steve Snider, and play in Cataract Camp, you kind of have to be.”
In recent months, he’s recorded a full-length album Your Chance to Win. “I actually put it on BandCamp just this morning, I signed up for [digital music distribution service] TuneCore, so it should be on Spotify and iTunes pretty soon,” he said. “Right now I just want it out there, being heard, so I’m giving it away. It would be great if there was a label that wanted to press it up on vinyl, but that’s not really something I can afford to do on my own.”
Vocally, Snider speaks as much as sings, talking and shouting in a fragmented monologue, occasionally punctuated by his high, anthemic whine. The live show features a vintage rotary-telephone headset comically mounted on Snider’s face, and the vocals on the record have a similarly compressed, thin quality that contrasts nicely with the crisp drum recording. The songs eschew conventional topics in favor of contextless conversational phrases; repeated refrains include “Uh, Hi! You don’t know me, but… I live in your building?” and “Excuse me sir, I need you to take your hands off me!” One song, “Ephemerol,” is a miniature science-fiction narrative framed as a sketchy lawyers’ late-night infomercial pitch. “Etiquette” is perhaps the most conventional, sounding something like an ’80s D.C. hardcore act with the bass and guitar channels entirely muted.
This not-quite-serious delivery, anchored by the seriously impressive performance, is reminiscent of Sun City Girls or early Captain Beefheart, but the real draw is Snider’s percussion, which can be compared to everything from the Japanese prog-punk duo Ruins to the big band innovations of Buddy Rich. “[Jazz is] a big influence,” he said. “Though I don’t have a degree in it or anything. I didn’t really get to study it, other than playing in jazz groups in school. But if you keep digging on your instrument, you’re going to run across that stuff.”
Freed from the constraints of the rock band format, Snider has the space to show off his technical chops and restless creative energy. Snider was always impressive playing in punk, metal, and hardcore bands, often the highlight of any act he joined, but the solo setting allows him to stretch his range and investigate new territory as a player. “Golden Glasses is kind of a thing that can only happen as a solo performance,” he said. “A lot of it is improv; when you play ‘free’ stuff, and you want it to be cohesive and communicate something, you can either do it solo, or you can do it with a group, where you have to play together for 5 or 10 years before you learn how to communicate well enough to make that work.”
“It’s American,” he says. “It’s so American. We’re all in the race, trying to care for our own stuff — this way, I don’t need to schedule practices. It’s kind of like there’s a lot of bedroom pop and electro now, you can make it in your apartment by yourself. It’s becoming a weird, old art form to play the drums. If you’re a songwriter, why would you ever hire a drummer? You can spend years learning how to play the kit well, or you can spend 10 minutes with a plug-in. I kind of feel like drumming is becoming an anachronistic skill, like glass-blowing.”
Lucky for us, Snider is still practicing his craft, and among the finest contemporary players in Charlottesville, no matter the genre. Golden Glasses performs at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on Friday, January 4th. Will Bollinger and the Spiders and a Harrisonburg act called Guitar as Spacecar open. Doors are at 8:30 and the cover charge is $5.
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