We spoke with Micah Schnabel about espresso, class discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline, feeling responsible to speak for those without a voice and why our conventional notion of free will is a sham.
We continue to punish ourselves every single day with the idea that we need more. No matter how much money you make or how big your house or how nice your three cars in the driveway, there’s never enough.
I love how your songs – especially on your latest record Your New Norman Rockwell – seem to stare down what’s messed up with the fundamental pillars of middle-class life. There’s lots of references to drug abuse, office work and trying to make a life. What’s your experience with the human condition, the majority of America, the general milieu?
I think you nailed it in your question. This idea that we have been brought up with that we need to “make a life.” It’s utter nonsense. But it’s all anyone has ever been taught so we continue to punish ourselves every single day with the idea that we need more. And it’s never enough. No matter how much money you make or how big your house or how nice your three cars in the driveway, there’s never enough.
And it’s led us to the point that we are at now where all opportunity has left for anyone who is not born wealthy. Upward mobility was a real thing throughout the ’70s for lower middle class white people. It has never been true for people who did not have white skin. The suburbs in America exist, very literally, for this reason – a planned white flight from the diverse urban areas. People took their money and businesses out of the city and left the folks who couldn’t afford to move on their own. Towns and cities died. Now we are seeing the children who grew up in the suburbs moving back to the hearts of cities and using their parents’ money to push poor people out of their last refuge.
People who Americans consider successful wake up at 5 a.m. and commute to jobs they hate. And those are our success stories! Everyone else has been left behind. Any sense of human dignity has been stripped from from them. This is a large reason for the opioid epidemic in America. You either have everything or you feel completely defeated. There is no dignity left. So what is a person to do? In our capitalistic minds, there is nothing to live for. We will never have the big house, fancy car, white picket fence. You can choose to scrape by working a job that pays 8 dollars an hour that is nothing but heartache and backache for nothing, or you can choose to drop out and chase some kind of positive feeling.
I think most of America feels forgotten. And they have been, by the very monster they created. Rural Americans voted for a game show host to be their president. It’s that bad. They didn’t understand how much worse it could really be.
Can you tell me about your views on imprisonment? I mean in all forms – actual incarceration or just being stuck in a cubicle fifty hours a week. Can there be an odd redemption involved in being forced to do a thing we hate, or is it a mire we should collectively escape?
The idea of imprisonment only works on people who had access beforehand. Poor people have little fear of prison. It’s a reasonable alternative to the hand they have been dealt by birth in this country. Put someone like Donald Trump behind bars and it could have the effect we as a people think it does or should. He would feel the effects of having his unlimited reach taken away. But in poor communities, jail and prison are just stepping stones to becoming an adult. It’s something you have to do to earn the respect of your guardians and peers. The American prison system is filled with poor people who had such limited options in the first place that it doesn’t really faze them. It’s just a different box. And when the rich get sent to prison they usually end up in a minimum security golf resort for short periods of time. It’s a small inconvenience to them. You get way more time in harsher places for selling a small amount of heroin than you do stealing millions of dollars. It’s a broken system, but there’s too much money being made for it to be stopped.
From the cubicle, I don’t think it’s much different. Same story, a little softer landing. But you’re still stuck and you know it. We don’t like to think we are ever the bad guys in our own story. We say that we work in insurance or banks and never stop to think that we are helping keep the machine moving along, keeping the status quo. I’m not saying that people don’t have meaningful, productive lives outside of those jobs, but I do not believe there is any redemption inside of those jobs. We choose our prisons. Each and every one of us.
Most of our decision and coping skills are learned while we are infants from whoever we are raised by, so it makes sense that everybody kind of sticks to the plan.
Please tell me about your hometown, wherever it may be. What was your childhood like there? How do you relate to that place now?
It was a small, rural American manufacturing town. I grew up through the ’80s and ’90s watching its death coming down the pipe. Everyone complained about working at the factories but everyone did it. You could drop out of high school, walk into a factory and start making $25 an hour back in the ’80s. That would be like making $40 an hour now. And the people soaked it up until it was all soaked up. It was a large group of uneducated people making decisions for themselves in the very immediate with no thought towards their or their children’s future. Complete disregard of the world around them.
I grew up lost and alone. I never felt like I was part of the place and it was told to me daily that I did not belong there. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized how much of my upbringing has stuck with me. I was made an outcast when I was young and, unbeknownst to myself, I have continued that path.
My friend Mishka Shubaly recently told me that he learned, through his travels, that “people are basically the same throughout the Western world” and that they often make the choices that are worst for them. I’m not super-well-traveled, so I’m intrigued by this. What have you learned on tour, traversing through the cities, observing the regions of America?
I would agree with Mishka. Humans are all the same. And the way that we tend to set up geographically sticks to the plan. Urban centers, rural outfields. Privileged and educated middles with the tougher rings moving out and away.
I’ve been reading about humans’ decision-making and coping skills. It seems that most of our decision and coping skills are learned while we are infants from whoever we are raised by, so it makes sense that everybody kind of sticks to the plan. The idea of free will is bogus. We all have pretty limited options of what decisions we can really choose. The only options I have are the few that I can think of, and that’s a very limited pool of ideas. I’ve also learned that geographical pride is utter nonsense.
I feel like it’s my responsibility to use my privilege to give a voice to those with even more limited reach than myself. To speak up for those who are being kicked around.
I love how your song “These Divided States” uses the image of “a pawn, but a bloody pawn” to describe yourself and your role in the chaos of Western civilization. That struck me as a call to people who aren’t generally “protesters” to stand up for what they believe, any way they can. Can you elaborate on this a bit?
It’s the idea that I am just one small person with a very small reach but I am also a white male. So, as little access as I have, I feel like it’s my responsibility to use my privilege to give a voice to those with even more limited reach than myself. To speak up for those who are being kicked around. There will be bumps and bruises but it’s necessary. It doesn’t have to be protesting. It can be as small as speaking up when you see someone being treated poorly in the grocery store. When someone is making a scene at a coffee shop. We have to step up and look out for our fellow humans at all times. That’s the human gig.
Please tell me about these three substances – caffeine, alcohol, and psychoactive drugs – and how you observe them to affect the planet.
I spent most of my youth being medicated. I started taking medication for ADD when I was nine and then I moved on to depression meds. I don’t remember being 13, 14 or 15 years old. There’s a grey fog over my teenage years that I don’t believe will ever be lifted. I was overmedicated by doctors and I think my parents were overwhelmed by their lives and had too many kids to notice. They were glad to keep me quiet. I tell you this because I believe it gives a glimpse into my view on these three drugs.
I love caffeine. It’s a pretty severe addiction to the point that I actually think I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. That’s addict-speak and I know it. My guess is I will eventually have to wind myself down on it but for now I’m pretty happy with the effects. I’m currently sitting at my desk writing this with four shots of espresso next to me.
Alcohol is more tricky. It can be much more of a bogie for me. I fell hard into alcoholism when I was 28. I was trying to drink myself to death. I was open about it while it was happening as I am now. I didn’t try to hide it or celebrate it. I saw it as the easiest way out. I’m fortunate the the only relationships I destroyed were ones that I would still choose to terminate at this point in my life. I made a record called I’m Dead, Serious during that time that is still interesting for me to listen to because I was so checked out while I was making it. I still enjoy having a beer and a shot of tequila at the end of the day but I also really love not waking up hungover. I’ve replaced alcohol with my work. And I love my work way more than any drug. Music and words are my drugs of choice nowadays.
I’m lustful over psychoactive drugs. But because of my early experience with medications I always steered away from drugs when I was young. I was scared of them. And now I’m 35 years old and I feel like I’m too old to be dipping my toe in their hallucinogenic waters. So I’ve never experienced them. Although, I would really, really like to. I love the idea of opening my mind up way beyond its current state. And I believe we are now starting to find the benefits of these drugs. I think in years to come we’ll find psychoactive drugs becoming more popular in the mental health world. At least I hope.
Lastly, can you tell me what you’ve done today, in as much detail as possible? What do you plan to do tomorrow? For the rest of your life?
I woke up today and made two shots of espresso in our small, silver espresso maker. I drank those while listening to and reading the news. Next, I showered and got ready for the day. I then sat down at my desk and pulled this interview up on the computer and started looking over the questions. After looking them over, my partner and I headed out of the apartment to run some errands – grocery store, FedEx, and then to the coffee shop where I purchased the four shots of espresso that I am nursing while I write this. I came home and slept from about 3 until 4:45. After pacing and playing guitar for a while I sat down to work on this. It is currently 6:28 in the evening. When I finish with this I’m going to record a vocal part for a song by my friends Western Settings.
Tomorrow brings a similar situation. I’ll wake up and drink coffee and sit down to work. With the errands out of the way I’ll work through the afternoon reading, writing, and playing guitar. Waiting for the next spark. I have a new song I found yesterday that I’m currently working lyrics for. That’ll take up most of my time until it’s done.
My band Two Cow Garage leaves for a tour in two weeks with the band Lucero. My first novel Hello, My Name Is Henry is coming out this winter so I’m figuring out everything that comes with that. Next year is going to be a busy year between the book, touring and making records.
That’s about as far out as I can plan. Wake up. Drink coffee. Get to work.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: November 3, 2017
Total questions: 7
Word count: 2184
Reading time: Eight minutes
Espresso shots: 4
Suburbs: White flight
Drugs of choice: Music and words
Extent of plans: Coffee
alcohol, attention-deficit disorder, bogie, Bucryus, caffeine, capitalism, car, coffee, community, commute, coping, cubicle, decision, drug, empathy, espresso, FedEx, guitar, house, imprisonment, jail, job, Last Change Records, lower class, Micah Schnabel, middle class, money, Ohio, outcast, picket fence, prescription, prison, psychoactive, responsibility, school, songwriting, Two Cow Garage, upper class, upward mobility, Western Settings, Your New Norman Rockwell
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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