While teaching at the progressive International School in Bellevue, choral-music instructor Michael King had a very promising, if somewhat introverted, vocal student named Joel Schneider.
“He was quiet and very unassuming,” recalls King via phone from his office at Interlake High School, where he now teaches. “He didn’t draw much attention to himself, and was almost a bit shy. Usually people with talent are a lot more outgoing. However, he never had a fear of performing.”
At the time, Schneider’s conservative family restricted his access to pop music. At night, the teen would hide his radio under his pillow to surreptitiously take in the sounds of the Butthole Surfers, Beck, and other alt-rock staples that local station The End kept in heavy rotation. When caught, his parents usually confiscated his radio.
But back in school, he continued to impress King with his work in jazz choir. “He would learn his pieces very quickly,” he says. “He had perfect intonation. He never sang wrong notes and he had great control over his voice.”
When Schneider began to express an interest in solo work, King encouraged him to enter the prestigious Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, the largest jazz festival of its kind in the country open to young performers. Schneider entered the tenor-soloist competition during his senior year, took first prize, and performed before 5,000 rapt audience members.
However, his interest in pop-punk deepened the rift between Schneider and his parents. When he was caught listening to Green Day, his CD player was thrown against the wall. He moved out at 17, fell in love with the more caustic, progressive sounds of bands like Rites of Spring and the Blood Brothers, and began writing his own music.
Nine years later, Schneider is climbing onto Showbox at the Market’s sprawling stage with his bandmate, drummer Ethan Jacobsen. The duo, dubbed My Goodness, are opening for Tres Mts., a new supergroup of sorts: Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, former Fastbacks drummer Richard Stuverud, and King’s X vocalist dUg Pinnick. Schneider is one of those rare musicians (much like erstwhile Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein) who essentially looks as if his central nervous system only fully turns on when he plugs in his instrument. After a brief, somewhat bashful introduction that recalls that high-school introvert, he launches into the first of half a dozen raw, economically crafted blues-punk numbers. He and Jacobsen have an intense, unwavering musical dialogue. Starting taut and jittery, they slowly unfold around each other, settling into the salacious groove that defines their chosen genre but still firmly keeping an eye on melody and precise execution. Watching the band play half a dozen shows, I can see it’s rare that audiences aren’t quickly smitten. Even the notoriously finicky Pearl Jam fans in attendance that night crept closer to the stage during their set.
“We don’t jam out a lot, actually,” Jacobsen tells me over breakfast burritos a few days later. “The songs are pretty structured.” We are at Bang Bang, the downtown cafe owned by Miki Sodos, the guitarist for Schneider’s metal-tinged punk outfit, The Absolute Monarchs!
Jacobsen was in the more pop-oriented Navigator vs. Navigator with Chris Cunningham in late 2008 when he met Schneider in the basement of Neumos, where they both worked. Schneider had just joined The Absolute Monarchs!, and collaborating with Jacobsen was initially a lark. Their first show was an “employee band night” at Neumos, and the positive reception to and personal satisfaction of the experience propelled the project to more serious status. “Honestly, if our first show hadn’t gone as well as it did, I don’t know if we would have played again,” says Schneider, scraping chili sauce over his tortillas.
This past fall they recorded the 10 tracks that will make up their self-titled debut, dropping on April 19 via local label Sarathan Records. It’s a thrilling, visceral record, marked by the ribald, rollicking elements that have moved a zillion Black Keys and White Stripes records, but with an unexpected and compelling focus on technical finesse. It’s also rich and warm, thanks to its analog production.
“Ethan had [experienced analog recording] once before, but it was completely new to me,” explains Schneider. “It’s almost impossible to cut and paste and move things around, so you definitely get more of a live feel to the record. I don’t think we will ever do an album any other way.”
It makes sense that live and natural are the environments where Schneider excels most. “We wrote a really sick song [for a recent show], and Joel had a vocal melody and no lyrics,” says Absolute Monarchs! guitarist Shawn Kock. “He basically scatted the song live, and no one was the wiser. He’s that musical and he doesn’t give a fuck, and that’s why we’re so lucky to play with him.”
Jacobsen’s unflappability is also an obvious asset. “Once Ethan maps out a drum line in his head, he’s super-dependable under any number of circumstances not to fuck it up,” says ex-bandmate Cunningham, now making waves of his own fronting rising art-pop stars Ravenna Woods. “He’s like a rhino that keeps getting hit by tranquilizer dart after tranquilizer dart, but just keeps on charging. And of course by tranquilizer darts, I mean alcoholic beverages.”
Though it’s apparent that his parents’ objection to his secular art form was a driving element in getting him to where he is now (“I was told anything with a backbeat was evil—that I was bringing demons to the house,” he notes), Schneider obviously holds no familial grudges, and remains in part the shy high-school kid who doesn’t want to draw too much attention to himself. He even e-mails me the day after one of our interviews and asks that I be gentle on his folks, who have yet to catch one of his shows. “But I don’t mind you writing about how music was kept from me; it is a huge part of why I make music now.”