Micah Schnabel is okay with the discomfort

The Columbus musician, whose excellent new album ‘The Clown Watches the Clock’ releases on Wednesday, May 15, hopes to find connection in exploring the distresses of 21st century American life.
Micah Schnabel
Micah SchnabelCourtesy the musician

On “Christian Band,” which lands early in The Clown Watches the Clock, the exceptional new album from Micah Schnabel, the Columbus musician sings from the point of view of a milquetoast religious rock band content to dull both itself and its messaging, because, as Schnabel puts it, “People will pay you money to not make them uncomfortable.”

Both as a solo artist and alongside Shane Sweeney in the long-running Two Cow Garage, Schnabel has never shied from plowing headline into discomfort, his latest release surveying the societal damage wrought by private equity firms, the ever-widening wealth gap and the challenge of finding space to create art when your bottom line is constantly threatened with red ink.

“How’m I supposed to write love songs under these conditions?” he asks on “Real Estate,” one of a handful of vividly realized character sketches that populate the record, and one which has its roots in Schnabel’s experiences filling out job applications in those early pandemic months when Covid obliterated his ability to eke out a living as a touring musician.

“And I hadn’t done that in 20 years. And some of the questions I’m being asked, it was like, I’m over my head. I don’t have the education level or experience to even apply for this fucking job,” Schnabel said. “And, no, I’m not a team player.”

The Clown Watches the Clock, out Wednesday, May 15, shares both a title and thematic similarities with Schnabel’s second novel, released in 2023, both exploring a version of the American dream deeply corroded by capitalism and a population increasingly beset by social isolation. But where Schnabel’s novel exerts a more futuristic tug, the characters inhabiting the record exist more firmly in the here and now. These include the Florida beach bum who sells shark tooth necklaces to tourists amid a backdrop of “Tallahassee fascists … burning books out in the parking lot” on the urgent, acoustic “Impending Doom,” a song the musician penned in the months Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began to take on a larger national profile after launching his since-aborted presidential run.

“And once I hit on that character, I could see them. And I could see them living the good life on the beach, but it’s rough,” Schnabel said. “It was like a gift that came to me, where I mentally went to Myrtle Beach for 30 minutes, with the airbrushed T-shirts and the sharks in the tiny fish tanks and the souvenir shops.”

Amid this colorful backdrop, the song’s narrator continues to cling to the illusion of power – “You don’t work your way up to assistant manager without cracking a couple of eggs,” he offers at one point – even as it becomes increasingly clear that the true authority lies much higher up the economic chain.

True to form, Schnabel’s characters tend to exist far from these levers of power, the musician sidling up in a long red booth next to a prospective Pizza Hut employee who wants nothing more than “to wash the dishes, man” and standing in solidarity with a struggling artist who adds water to the shampoo bottle to extend its meager life just a few more washes. 

“These are first-hand experiences, and they’re things that, especially in American society, people don’t really talk about,” Schnabel said. “I would say my financial situation is kind of self-imposed; I could probably get a job of some kind and have a little bit more comfort. And I’m fortunate in a lot of ways, because there are people who have it a lot worse than I do. So, in talking about those things, I hope it allows people to laugh and to have a moment of not feeling alone. We’ve all – or at least a lot of people have – filled the shampoo bottle with water and given it a little shake just trying to get one more day out of it.”

This at least in part explains Schnabel’s frustration with artists and musicians who lean into escapism, an annoyance that surfaces in “Christian Band,” and which he said he has actively worked to tamp down in recent years, understanding that everyone has different ways of processing their realities. 

“I’m trying to be better about this, but I get frustrated with artists who kind of disappear themselves and go into this imaginary land,” he said. “And I understand everybody makes things differently, and there’s beauty in all of it, but I get frustrated with people not speaking about the time we’re living in. And maybe it’s just something I’m attracted to, and I need to learn to put that judgment away. But these songs are happening right now. And if it doesn’t age well, that’s great, because it means things have gotten better. My hope is that the book and the record make no sense in five years. But my feeling, unfortunately, is that they will.”

Though fictionalized, the record is filled with scenes and lines drawn from Schnabel’s two-plus decades lived as a touring musician, and which he said can send him spinning “Quantum Leap”-style back to specific moments from his past. When on “Coinstar” the 42-year-old wrote of doing the struggle “so good I’ve made it look like I was dancing,” for instance, he was picturing himself seated in a van alongside Two Cow bandmate Sweeney at the top of Donner Pass two decades ago, the pair trapped in a white-out snowstorm en route to a gig in Reno, Nevada. 

“I would have been 22 or 23 [years old], and I just remember sitting there praying that we would make it instead of taking any action that might have made us more safe,” he said. “I don’t know if we really process things or if we just get far enough away to slowly forget. But if there is a processing that takes place, I process things very slowly. And when I’m writing about things, they’re things that happened to me five, 10, 20 years ago.”

While there isn’t a grand narrative arc to The Clown Watches the Clock – the album exists as gorgeously chaotic swirl of sadness, hope, humor, resignation and perseverance that make up the 21st century American experience – Schnabel does at least point a way forward with the album-closing “Fingers Like a Gun.” “This is my comeback phase,” he announces, even as he continues to hold tight to long-simmering fears that he’ll be viewed as a failure by family, friends and musical peers. 

“It’s like, okay, we’ve said all of these things, and these realities still exist. Now how do we carry that weight forward?” Schnabel said. “And that feels like a very honest statement of where I am right now. Here’s where I’ve been. Now here’s where we make the turn. And I don’t know what’s happening or where it’s going. But I’m trying like hell.”

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