Micah Schnabel’s Your New Norman Rockwell - Interview and Album Review by Jeremy Porter
Micah Schnabel’s new album - Your New Norman Rockwell - is a collection of great songs, but that’s nothing new to those of us who have been fans of his solo work and the work of his band Two Cow Garage for years. It’s hard not to take his output for granted. 2CG has been carrying the flag for social castaways and hardworking, underappreciated indie bands for some 16 years now. A decade ago, Micah started branching out on his own between Two Cow tours & albums, and somewhere in that time he found his voice.
The trajectory has been a bit unpredictable, but years of writing about failed attempts at getting into your high-school girlfriend’s pants, hanging out with your rock and roll friends, and contemplating quitting the whole music thing altogether have led to this moment. That’s not to slight or minimize his earlier work. I’m the guy who repeatedly bitches about his abandonment of most of that stuff. He’s always had a gift for crafting a good hook and approaching a common subject in an uncommon way, and that’s what made me (albeit begrudgingly at first) stop resisting and get on board when their second record came out. Here we are, well over a decade later, and we're presented with his most ambitious release to date.
Your New Norman Rockwell is what the title implies. Micah is presenting these songs like those Saturday Evening Post's we used to see on the plastic tables at the family doctor’s office as kids. Except there’s no adorable little boy & girl sharing an ice cream cone with an attentive beagle puppy begging for a taste, or the wide-eyed, salivating family at the Thanksgiving table watching as a massive, golden-baked turkey is unveiled by the apron-clad matriarch. This record isn’t coated in that kind of inherent denial that Mr. Rockwell seemed to deal in so well. Ol’ Norman left out the part about the father who died without telling any of his kids he loved them, the son who lived a miserable, artificial existence rather than tell the old man he was gay, knowing it would crush him and end what semblance of a family they had, and the mother who snuck into the bathroom to pop the amphetamines she got from that family doctor to cope with the loneliness that circled beneath the surface of her mundane days. Yeah, the old Norman Rockwell left those parts out.
But with The New Norman Rockwell, Micah has laid that truth out at our feet. Sisters holding brothers who are dying in the street from fresh gunshot wounds, desperate addicts snorting crushed up Oxys through plastic tampon applicators, and blood-stained futons in small Midwestern towns where groceries are only available at the liquor store. The images don’t stop - from one song to the next. It’s today’s America, in all of its fucked-up, dysfunctional, ugly truth, seen through the eyes of a guy who might have the sense to avoid some of those traps, but is really no less guilty than anyone else. Even calling it out seems like a brave crime - asking questions that he’s not even sure he really wants the answers to. The courage, confidence and uninhibited self-awareness that went into this record are a testament to his growth as a songwriter. Few have the guts, and even fewer succeed at this level of fearless art, making this record an exceptional addition to the top of this year’s new releases.
Musically, the songs pop with Micah’s strongest vocals to date. His patented gravelly-howl is still present, but there’s some restraint in the delivery that not only delivers a more controlled and accurate pitch, but, by replacing some of the angst with despair and desperation, puts the spotlight on the lyrics instead - which ultimately make this group of songs his best yet. The quirky guitar riffs, fingerpicking & slides he’s always created haven’t gone anywhere, and the additional work of guitarist Jay Gasper (Lydia Loveless) only helps to supplement them and create the canvas that serves the melodies, vocals & lyrics so well. The guitars sound crisp, and they benefit from a nice separation, especially on the more band-based tracks, keeping the right amount of looseness and noise between the dueling parts that still somehow complement each other so beautifully.
It’s really hard to pick a standout track from an album like this, because as good as they all are (and there’s not a stinker in the bunch), the real strength of this comes from the collection as a whole. You can’t imagine The Godfather without Sonny getting nailed at the causeway, or Smokey and the Bandit without the bridge jump, and each song on Your New Norman Rockwell is as vital to this story. They are best served together, next to each other, like the small towns in rural America where Henry works at the convenience store and a couple foolish kids threw their youth away by conceiving a little surprise that would someday grow into a songwriter who would grow up to give us a piece of music like this. It’s scary, sad, gross, funny, lonely, and infuriating. But most of all, it’s real, and in the end that’s what separates this Norman Rockwell from his namesake.
Jeremy Porter interviews Micah Schnabel
JP: Hey Micah! Great to talk again, friend, and congratulations on the fantastic new record! What's going on in Columbus these days? The city is a sort-of an under-the-radar hidden gem of music history, with bands like Watershed, New Bomb Turks, and Scrawl from the 80's/90's, and more recently Lydia Loveless making a big mark. Where do you see yourself and Two Cow Garage in that landscape?
MS: I feel like Columbus is a real hotbed for great music and art right now. The financial burden is much lower here than it is in a NYC or San Francisco. You can live and make art here without working 8 jobs to keep your rent paid. I'm not sure how much longer that will last but it's been that way for a long time. It's what has kept me here. As far as music coming from the city there's so much it's hard to know where to even begin. Counterfeit Madison, The Sidekicks, Lydia Loveless, Saint Seneca, and so many more. And I can't even begin to get into the list of artists who have moved away and are now finding success in new parts of the country. Columbus is a wonderful place to exist as an artist. As far as where the band stands amidst all of that, I honestly have no idea. I don't know that we are factored into the equation. Columbus is home. It's hard to gauge an idea like that when you're still in the middle of it all.
JP: We just heard that Todd (Farrell, 2CG guitarist) left, which is a drag, because I liked the energy he brought, but you guys have been here before and life goes on. I'm a student of band dynamics because I know how important and difficult they can be. I'm also a huge fan of trios - The Jam, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü - and I always question when trios add a 4th member (Nirvana, Uncle Tupelo and Green Day all did this, among others). My first reaction is usually a smirk, but I also understand the desire to hear all the parts and to give the singer more freedom to sing. You guys have gone back and forth a couple times now. Are you after a bigger sound? Missing those extra guitar parts? Looking to put more emphasis on the lyrics? Or are your plans to forge ahead as a 3-piece?
MS: September will mark TCG's 16th year as a band. It has been changing, growing, and retracting, and constantly evolving since day one. The most beautiful part of losing a member is the excitement that comes with the next chapter. On this next run we're bringing Jay Gasper along to play guitar. He played all over Your New Norman Rockwell and also plays guitar with Lydia Loveless. He's an amazing player and a wonderful human being. We don't have any permanent plans right now. We'll just keep moving and playing and we'll find what feels right for this next chapter.
JP: In the late 2000's, around the time of your first proper solo record (When The Stage Lights Go Dim) and the 3rd Two Cow Record, it seemed like you were just about done with it all. Songs like “No Shame” and “Should’ve California” were steeped with uncertainty, regret and even hopelessness. Since then, however, the output from both the band and your solo career has been consistently increasing in frequency and quality. Was the despair as bad as it seemed? What changed, and how did you turn that mindset around to the productive path you are on today?
MS: Some of those early records were definitely steeped in self-pity. I was young with unrealistic expectations of what a musical career would actually look like. I didn't realize it at the time, but the band was doing well. I look back now and can see I was being a brat. I had lost sight of how fortunate I was to even be in the situation I was in: making records that people were buying; getting to travel around the world and play these little songs I had written in my bedroom. I think the first solo record opened my eyes to the fact that this was my chosen career. And I loved it. I was starting to see that the path wasn't the easy walk down the golden path I had ignorantly and arrogantly thought it would be, and I still loved it. That first solo record also opened up my writing a lot. Not having to worry about whether a song "rocked" or if the people in the band were going to be into it. The only vision I had to follow was my own. The despair was real, just grossly misguided.
JP: That record (WTSLGD) had a real DIY feel with mostly acoustic songs, recorded on the cheap (I assume). It was a real departure from the band, but still showcased your songs and voice. The next record, I’m Dead, Serious, was a step-up in production with some more full-band stuff and higher fidelity. How did the experiences of making and supporting those records lead you to this record - Your New Norman Rockwell?
MS: The first record was made quickly in my friend Fritz Fekete's garage. He and another friend, Charlie Douglas Wells, helped me record it and get it together. My dad initially helped me press up a few copies but it quickly got picked up by the Denver, CO label Suburban Home Records. Again, I had no real idea of how fortunate I was. The production of the solo records has just felt like a natural progression. I always do my best to serve the song and I try not to force preconceived notions onto them. Your New Norman Rockwell has both stripped down songs and full band arrangements. I just always want to do what's best for the song.
JP: What I’ve noticed about the new material, first hearing it live a few times in the last couple years, and now in its recorded form, is a cohesiveness that wasn’t there before. It comes off as a single performance piece, with one song leading to the next, painting a big, twisted American life-scene, like Norman Rockwell might have done had he spent the last 16 years in dive bars, gas stations, and greasy diners. That had to be an incredible amount of work: writing, re-working, editing. Can you talk a little bit about that process and how you approached it? Was that the intent from the start, or after a few songs did you realize you had a theme and decided to go in that direction?
MS: About two years ago my writing style completely changed in what felt like overnight. I had always written music first and then worked melodies and lyrics to fit the music. But I got to a point where I felt like I was cheating the story for the sake of a rhyme. The worst lyrics I have written over the years are sacrifices I made to get to the rhyme. It always felt unnatural but I thought that was just how songwriting went. But I woke up one day and thought about how tired of that I was. Searching for single lines to finish a chorus or a verse. It never felt right to me. So I just threw out the playbook of what my idea of a song was and decided to do what felt right. I started writing every day on a typewriter. Pages and pages of stuff. Throwing most of it away. Finding the good parts and rewriting them and taping the pages to the walls around my desk. I feel best about a song when I get excited about delivering the next line. And that's what I want every song and every line to be. If I'm not excited to sing it then it's not worth keeping. And that's the way this record happened. I sacrifice melody for lyrical content, and I know that will probably lose some people. But I get excited to sing these songs every night. To tell these stories. This work feels like the closest and most honest representation of me. And I think that's all an artist can really ask for in their work. It's taken me a long time to find my voice.
JP: The other take-away from your new songs, which started to come to light on the last couple Two Cow records, is a shift from personal politics and relationship scenarios to more social and political themes. From obvious titles like “These Divided States” to more subtle studies of lost souls like “Hello, My Name Is Henry” and “American Throw Away.” These are not easy things to write about without sounding preachy, or like a Dylan revivalist, but you were able to pull it off. Was that transition a conscious one, or did it sort of take shape naturally as the country was slipping into the iPhone culture and the divided political disaster that it is?
MS: It happened very naturally. I think it's a part of getting older. And I've never been great at writing love songs. There are so many people that are SO good at writing about those aspects of life that I always felt an imposter trying to write in that way. As long as Stephen Merritt and Lydia Loveless exist it seems almost irresponsible of me to throw my hat into that ring.
JP: Part of the beauty of this set of songs, and part of what has always set you and your music apart from everything else going on, is that you’re just as lost as we are. You’re not wrapping everything up at the end with a couple answers that are going to fix everything, which might be the more obvious and convenient, but less sincere conclusion to the record. Where do we go from here? Is it too late, man? How do we reclaim our art and our relationships and our existence from these screens and this news and everything else that makes us want to jump off a building - when we’re just as guilty as the next guy in the end?
MS: I have no idea. And that's all that I know. I feel lost within it all at the moment. We find ourselves in a very important time in history. I believe it makes for a crucial time for art and music. It's more important now than ever. All of it. Loves songs, fight songs, painting, writing, poetry. We need it all and we need it now.
JP: Time for the proverbial “What’s next?” question. Knowing you, you’ll hit the road with Vanessa and play a hundred shows and share your art the way you have been. But where do you take it from here? What’s next with the music? Where is the balance between the band stuff and the solo stuff? Is the next step a Two Cow Garage rock-opera - The Midwest version of Quadrophenia? Or the solo-follow up to The New Norman Rockwell - a collection of standards covers?
MS: I never have any real idea what i'm doing. TCG has two shows in Chicago this weekend and then Vanessa Jean Speckman and I leave for two & a half weeks on the East Coast. I come home for a week and then leave for a Western run with the band throughout July. August sends Vanessa and I back into the Midwest and then out to the West Coast through August and September. It just goes from there. I have a couple songs done now and I'm not sure which place they'll end up. At this point I'd say whichever project ends up in a recording studio first is where the songs will end up. I have a novel coming out in the fall on White Gorilla Press and I'm really excited about that. That's where the song "Hello, My Name Is Henry" came from. That song is the opening lines of the book. I'm so fortunate to get to live the life that I do. I hope to end up somewhere fun. Hopefully having a beer with you on your back porch while the Summer is still in session.
JP: Thanks again, Micah, for the chat. You should be proud of this record, man. I’ve got a cold 24 oz. PBR waiting in the fridge for ya, and I’ll see you out there before long I’m sure.
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos. Follow them on Facebook to read his road-blog chronicling their adventures and see his photo series documenting the disgusting bathrooms in the dives they play. He's a whiskey snob, an unapologetic fan of "good" metal, and couldn't really care less about the UofM - OSU rivalry since he once saw The Stones at the Horseshoe. Still, go blue.