Muses: B-52’s Singer Fred Schneider on Kurt Schwitters, Nonsense Poetry, and Rauschenberg’s Slap-Happy Hand

“Muses” is a column for which creators from different disciplines reveal sources of artistic inspiration and instigation. 

Fred Schneider is a singer in the B-52’s, one of the truly singular rock bands to spring up out of the postmodern cultural firmament of America in the 1970s and ’80s. After starting out in Athens, Georgia, the group located to New York and traveled a path through the art-rock underground to the top of the pop charts, with a long list of hits including “Rock Lobster,” “Private Idaho,” “Party Out of Bounds,” “Love Shack,” and “Roam.” More than 40 years after its founding, the group is still touring, and Schneider also has a coffee line in the works: “I’m part of a coffee company my friend started in Florida, called Breyting, and I have what are called Fred Schneider’s Monster! Blends,” he said. “‘Invasion of the Caffeine Snatchers’ is the decaf. I’m still big on sci-fi, for good and bad!” For “Muses,” Schneider told ARTnews about his affection for camp as well as odd poetry and absurdist art.

John Waters
I love John Waters’s sense of humor and how he totally holds a mirror up to what people are thinking and what is going on, even though it is a bit outlandish—really outlandish! The type of art I like the best is Dada and Surrealism, and he has some pretty surreal moments, like Backwards Day in Desperate Living [a 1977 film in which characters required to walk backward with their clothes on wrong]. And then his books and his lectures—he goes out and does a Christmas talk that is just great.

The first movie of his I saw was after I dropped out of college: Mondo Trasho. After that was Female Trouble, one of my favorite movies of all time. I just watched it again. There is so much to see, and every time I watch it, I just can’t wait until the next time I see it again. And I always like to see them with friends, because nothing makes for an uproarious evening more than a John Waters movie.

The first B-52’s album, home to “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon).”

Kurt Schwitters
I love his collages and his poetry—I like Dada poetry. And, I like his sense of humor too. Most artists I like have some sort of sense of humor and a curiosity about what they’re doing. With the band, we were called “camp,” and we knew what we were doing. But I don’t know if people know what the word “camp” means. The pictures from the opening of the Met’s “Camp” show, some of them were just trashy—I wouldn’t call them camp. What Katy Perry was [she went dressed as a chandelier] was surreal.

Going back to poetry, I had a friend was writing a book of poetry and I though, Well, I’m going to do it too. Some of that went into lyrics and were incorporated into songs later on. He and I used to do basement tapes where I would recite and he would do backup sound with like a fan blowing on a guitar. I also like Yoko Ono’s writings. I find her very inspiring. She’s sort of Dada in a way.

I put out a book of poetry called when I lived in Athens. When I read the poems in class only one person was laughing and everyone else was like, “What?!” Even my teacher said, “I don’t understand any of this, but I know you’re serious.” And I was! The B-52’s song “There’s A Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)” was one of the poems. The book was called Bleb, which was a bubblegum-like tumor [actually, a bleb is a blister] that I think Patty Hearst had or something.

Edward Lear
When I worked at Chicken Delight, I liked the books that John Lennon put out, and I read that he liked Edward Lear—so I collected and loved his poetry and writing. He informed my sense of humor and how I like to write and rhyme. He wrote “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” [from his1871 book Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets]. A lot of his works are famous, and I like him better than Lewis Carroll—who I also like, of course.

An illustration by Edward Lear of “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.”

Robert Rauschenberg
I like Rauschenberg and the Russian painter who did the white on white paintings: Kazimir Malevich. I have some of Rauschenberg’s prints, including one called Test Stone, which is basically a drill and something else. I don’t know why things like that appeal to me, but they do. They’re minimal and they really don’t make any sense. With Malevich, when you see his work in person, you realize you just can’t reproduce it in a book. There is something surreal and really abstract about it. You just basically you have to look at it and you either enjoy it or just don’t get it.

I’m friends with one of Rauschenberg’s assistants and got to meet him. When my friend told him I was in the B-52s, he said, “No, you’re kidding”—and then he slapped me in the face! He was a fan. And now I can say I was slapped by Rauschenberg because he liked me. I started collecting his prints because I had a friend who worked at Castelli , and I met him I think in the early ’90s.

Andy Warhol
Of course I liked Warhol. I had friends who worked for him, like Jeremy Ayers, who lived in New York for a while and wrote for Interview under the name Sylva Thin. I met him at the Factory, and he gave me two cow wallpapers, which I love. I went to dinner with him and he reached into my shirt—naturally, I moved his hand away. But his sense of humor I just love. The cow wallpaper is hysterical!

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