IIf there’s one thing Fred Schneider likes less than answering questions about The B-52s’ 35 years in the music business, it’s pretty much answering any questions at all.
“I’ve been asked every question a thousand times,” Schneider told me early on in our conversation. “If you can think of one that hasn’t been asked, let me know.”
If there’s anything else Schneider’s not crazy about, it’s drawing public attention to himself, which might seem odd from a guy who’s been the lead singer/emcee for one of the zaniest bands since the birth of rock and roll. “I don’t talk about band stuff in public,” he says. “I don’t like to go to meet and greets. I’m not a people person. It’s my obligation to entertain the audience with my banter.”
It could be easy to dismiss Schneider as a cynic, and he’s certainly not the easiest person to interview. On the other hand, The B-52s are that rare band who’ve stayed together through thick and thin, hits and flops, AIDS—original band member, and singer Cindy Wilson’s brother, Ricky Wilson, died of the disease in 1985—vinyl, CD, and the digital age, and a complete re-evolution of the music business.
They’ve never officially broken up, and they are still on the road, in buses, no less, kicking up their Cosmic Thing and inviting people to the Love Shack and singing about a Rock Lobster. Were I in his place, I might get a bit tired of being asked “What’s your favorite song?” too. (Incidentally, he doesn’t have one.)
“It’s my career,” Schneider continues. “I don’t have any skills. I never graduated from college.” To that end, the B-52s released a live album, With the Wild Crowd, in 2011, and Funplex in 2008, the latter of which was the band’s first studio album in 16 years. They’re also in the midst of a cross-country tour, which means a bus, eight musicians, and a tour manager.
“We don’t have a private jet, that’s for sure,” says Schneider. “The only part of touring I don’t like is the travel aspect. It’s not the music. We had an overnighter on the bus, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” The B-52s have played everything from Radio City Music Hall (Schneider’s favorite) to venues that “are like high school assembly halls,” with everyone from Cyndi Lauper to the Go-Go’s to Squeeze, their current co-stars.
“They’re great guys,” says Schneider on Squeeze. “We’ve had some bad opening acts, but for the most part we’ve liked everyone we’ve toured with. We make it a point.”Schneider says that the band doesn’t play to a particular niche market, which is part of the reason they still sell tickets.
“I don’t think our music dates to a specific group,” he says. “The older crowd turns their kids onto us. One thing all these ding dongs don’t know is that if you’re seventy, you were a swinger. They were wild. Certainly a lot wilder than people are now.”
Ironically, Schneider isn’t one to hold his tongue, and when he does get on a topic he’s passionate about, nothing’s censored. The music business, and many of its bigger stars, is high on that list.
“I don’t know how bands make it today,” says Schneider. “The music industry is not an industry anymore. It’s like the Republican vision of America. The Top Forty is like four different songs and most of them are terrible. If they can sell deodorant to it, like Katy Perry, they’ll play it. There’s no logic to it. Glee has more hits than The Beatles.”
Like every other recording artist I’ve interviewed, Schneider agrees that concerts and merchandise, not albums, are the big selling points, even if the artist isn’t up to snuff. On Madonna’s MDNA lackluster sales, he says “She’s going to lip sync her way across America now. It’s a fickle business.”
Despite declining music sells, Schneider, who calls himself “an interesting singer,” did get together with the rest of the group to record Funplex, an album that got some of the best reviews for the group in 35 years. “People loved it,” says Schneider. “We didn’t realize how bad studio albums would be until we did it. We broke even, and it gave us a whole new lease. Doing an album gives you new material.”
The album took more than a year to put together, but the connection was almost instantaneous. “We had a couple of false starts,” says Schneider. “We had gotten together several times to do music for commercials. We had jammed on ideas. Keith [Strickland] was ready to commit to an album, and we really liked it. We had to work, we had to pay for the album.” Unlike Van Halen or even Aerosmith, what you don’t hear about in relationship to The B-52s are falling outs.
“We started out as good friends,” says Schneider, on how the band has stayed together. “We shared everything equally. We’ve had our fights, but it’s been smooth sailing.” Even the songs are shared, with the band making a group decision on who’s singing what. Wilson and Kate Pierson sometimes sing without Schneider, and on a few tracks he sings alone. “Juliet of the Spirits,” a single off of Funplex and one of the albums more pop-savvy songs, is just the two women, and Schneider calls it a natural progression.
“Cyndi and Kate just harmonize amazingly,” says Schneider, adding, “It’s a girls’ song. We decide ourselves.”
Schneider admits to being a bit stunned when Sony approached them to record a live album—“You’d have to ask them why they did it”—and it’s one more reason the band keeps going, keeps performing, and has yet to retire. “Maybe soon, maybe not,” says Schneider on the subject of leaving the band. “I’d like to spend some summers at my house. I’m only there in the winter shoveling snow cause we’re always booked the rest of the year.”
I never did figure out that one question Schneider’s never been asked, but he did give me some clues on the Love Shack. “It is this place outside of Athens,” says Schneider. “An African-American club that you wouldn’t know. When we did it everyone was sure they knew which place it was, so we just made it whatever you think it is; a place to get away.”
If there’s one consistent theme in The B-52s’ music, clothes, hairstyles, and lyrics, it’s escapism—that place to get away. They’ve been providing fun for three decades, and that’s not about to change. “I like Billie Holiday and all that stuff, but that’s not us. We’re a party band.”
And like most great parties, the host often works so hard he misses out on much of the fun.
For more information on The B-52s, including tour dates and album information, visit http://theb52s.com/.