American beauty

Bob Schneider discards his Ugly past

These days, Bob Schneider bears little resemblance to the hard-partying master of ceremonies who’d never hesitate to drop trou onstage before an audience of thousands. The guy who, just a few years back, appeared to abandon any effort to break free from the coddling embrace of his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. The cocky band leader whose smarmy frat-funk outfit, Ugly Americans, strived — and, for the most part, succeeded — in living down to its title. The gifted singer/songwriter beholden to some subversive, somewhat sleazy game plan only he understood.

Nope, these days Schneider’s taking it slow and easy. And it’s a good thing, too, because for a while there, it seemed the Michigan native was destined to ride the Ugly Americans and their sexually explicit party-band mutation, the Scabs, off into the cult-band abyss, painful stiffy and all.

“We’d do Neil Sedaka covers, then follow that with some completely obscene song about fucking and stuff, then follow that with a really beautiful ballad or love song, then follow that with some art-rock bossa nova tune,” says Schneider, describing the Scabs (essentially the Ugly Americans in suits) at their most experimental extreme.

His groggy slept-in charm underscored by forthright fits of articulation, Schneider maps out the peaks and valleys of the last few years. The obvious highs: his unlikely signing to Universal and an equally unlikely romance with actress Sandra Bullock (“Any time you’re dealing with celebrity, it’s like you’re in high school all over again.”). Among the lows: the process of sobering up after years of reckless indulgence, and the inevitable demise of Ugly Americans, who saw their national aspirations fizzle in the late ’90s after an ill-fated, mercifully brief tenure on the Giant label and two albums for Atlanta’s Capricorn Records.

“I don’t know if it was a democracy or an anarchy,” says Schneider of the Americans. “There was no real leadership — a lot of big egos. I was probably the biggest dick in the band.”

Simply put, Schneider has grown up and cleaned up — that much and more is apparent on his Universal debut. You won’t find a wealth of convincing evidence as to his former dubious glory on Lonelyland. And what little there is comes spiked with distaste and the infrequent pang of detached longing. “I’ve done my fake-fur feather boa/I’m just like Noah,” Schneider sings on “Tokyo,” in reference to the flamboyant, boorish Ugly Americans persona he largely abandoned along with the drugs and the booze.

“I always wanted to do the solo thing, but I was afraid to do it,” he says. “Now that I’m doing it, it’s definitely different. It’s what I’ve always wanted, but it’s also kind of strange. When you’re in a band, you can shift the failures to the other members.”

An eclectic 60 minutes of soul-searching and head-scratching, Lonelyland plays at once like a post-rehab retracing of missteps and a tentative glimpse into an iffy future. From the tender, spare first single, “Metal and Steel,” the catchy, self-defeating lament “Big Blue Sea” and the heartfelt “The World Exploded Into Love,” on through the playful should-be hit “Round & Round” and the chatty, garage-funk work-outs “Jingy” and “Bullets,” Lonelyland is by turns stylistically ambitious and unflinchingly personal.

Produced in Austin by Schneider with help from local musician/producer Carl Thiel, the album has the patient, organic flow of a project unhindered by deadlines or a glut of outside opinions. “We spent a ton of time on it — we did it at our own pace,” says Schneider. “It really allowed us to live with it and tweak it.”

The end result was professional enough to impress Universal, which — with the exception of pressing both clean and explicit versions — opted to release Lonelyland as-is. Perhaps the label’s hands-off policy had something to do with the record’s proven track record in Austin, where it sold more than 15,000 copies as an independent release. The album earned Schneider top honors across the board at the 2000 Austin Music Awards, which kicks off the South By Southwest Music Conference.

Local success aside, Schneider has his work cut out for him, especially when you consider Austin’s unnerving reputation for sending its proud musical sons out into world only to see them return humbled. But Schneider’s unpredictability just might be his biggest asset.

“I’m different from day to day, depending on who I’m talking to, depending on how I’m feeling,” he says. “I’m always changing who I am.”

Bob Schneider plays Wed., Oct. 30, at the Cotton Club, 152 Luckie St. Show time is 10 p.m. $10. 404-688-1193.