SoCal Pop: An interview with Michael Carey Schneider of the group Sneaker
By David Chiu
From the mid-Seventies to the early Eighties, the sounds of Southern California pop music was distinguishable by these characteristics: superb (perhaps “slick” to some critics) musicianship; catchy melodies and hooks; lush arrangements and airy melodies; romantic lyrics; and an overall soft-rock vibe. It was background music for those in their cars cruising down the highway somewhere in Los Angeles as the sun sets.
The artists that best represent that sound are plenty but here are a few of the popular ones: the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Pablo Cruise, Toto, Player, Chicago and Christopher Cross. It was a genre of music that was lovingly spoofed on the recent hit Web series Yacht Rock, which parodies some of those aforementioned pop groups.
Another act from that era was a six-man Los Angeles-based group called Sneaker. The group was formed by singer/keyboardist Michael Carey Schneider, singer/guitarist Mitch Crane and bassist Michael Cottage sometime in the Seventies. With the addition of drummer Mike Hughes, guitarist Tim Torrance and keyboardist Jim King, Sneaker (whose name was inspired the Steely Dan song “Bad Sneakers”), got a deal with Handshake Records.
Their self-titled debut album came out in 1981, produced by Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff Skunk Baxter, contained their rendition of Steely Dan’s “Don’t Let Me In” and “More Than Just The Two of Us.” The latter song, a lovely ballad sung by Schneider, became a Top 40 hit.
Sneaker also made the rounds on the TV shows such as American Bandstand, The Merv Griffin Show and Solid Gold. The group later recorded their sophomore record, Loose in the World (1982), but then broke up shortly afterward. Although the group never had the long and popular career of its more famous contemporaries of the Southern California pop era, the music lives on thanks to the Internet such as MySpace, where there are pages devoted to a Sneaker fan site and another that plays tracks from the two Sneaker albums. Old performance clips of the band performing on American Bandstand and Merv Griffin can be found on YouTube.
Today Michael Carey Schneider keeps the memory of the band alive, especially through the band’s Web presence. He recently spoke with NewBeats to enthusiastically talk about Sneaker’s underrated life and career.
Where are you from and how did you get involved in music?
I started writing songs when I was about 14. Mitch Crane—who moved a few years prior to that, he moved out from the Midwest to the same street we lived on. We were childhood friends. He had no idea of how to write a song. He was really great with taking a Sony 2-track machine way back in the ‘60s and learning how to go sound on sound, as we called it back then. We didn’t how to do this and Mitch was such a brain at that age. He would record me singing and playing and then we go do another track and he’d play bass and guitar. We started out as children doing these songs that we had no idea we were going to take seriously.
How did Sneaker come about?
Mitch Crane and I became ‘Schneider and Crane’ in the early ‘70s. Mitch was always shy, he didn’t like to sing. He’s 6 foot 2, very shy. I’m five foot two and very outgoing. We met up with Michael Cottage, who started a group with Mitch. Between myself, Mitch Crane and Michael Cottage, we started the group Sneaker.
Before we started playing originals in that nightclub, we played the Eagles, Steely Dan, Christopher Cross—all the stuff 30 years later that ended up being that West Coast sound. We had no idea we would be part of that West Coast sound. Of course we would be playing Beatles. Anything vocally that was it, because Cottage, Crane and myself loved three-part harmony. Believe it or not, I was inspired by Barry Manilow. [He] was the key to “More Than Just The Two of Us.”
You got signed to Handshake Records?
Handshake Records was started by Ron Alexenburg, who started Epic Records. Our manager at the time, Shelly Weiss, was the one who made everything happen for us. He had all the connections to everybody in the business. We were renting a house out in Granada Hills and when he heard us he quit his job working [as] Herb Alpert’s professional manager. He would bring the biggest people in the business [to our house]: This guy knew everybody. We got signed to Handshake Records on the strength of “More.” They loved that song so much.
What was it like working with Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter as your producer on your first album?
The things that he did…telling me to sing a certain way, and let’s have this instrument here, let’s do this backwards, let’s have you hit a bass drum here with a big sledgehammer. The songs sounded way better than I already thought they could ever. We owe a lot to Jeffrey for that sound. He played on the album, he produced our second album, he toured with us in Japan. He was always right there whenever we played gigs where we wanted to a little special boost for people: “Jeff Baxter will be with us tonight!” A sweet guy. I can’t say enough.
Your sound is characterized by harmonies, great musicianship, lush arrangements and production.
Even as a child I taught myself how to harmonize. Mitch is such a great guitarist, great writer, great singer. Our harmonies started way back then. We weren’t always on key on time but at least we knew what we were doing.
We actually had two kinds of sounds because Mitch was writing songs with me and Jim King. Jim’s more of a jazz writer…and I’m more of a commercial Top 40 guy. That’s where you see two different sounds. Like “Jaymes”—I wrote “Jaymes” with Mitch. That’s one of my most jazziest chord progressions I’ve ever written. That was inspired by “You Belong to Me” by Michael McDonald. It was written about a real person, Jaymes Foster, [producer] David Foster’s sister.
Mitch has that Michael McDonald voice, that kind of a soulful voice. I was always kind of compared to Air Supply’s Russell Hitchcock, the guy with the high voice. “They sound like Michael McDonald and Russell Hitchcock.” I always laugh when they said “Michael McDonald and Steve Perry.”
How did you co-write “More Than Just The Two of Us”? What was the inspiration behind the song?
Barry Manilow was very big at the time, so I was fiddling around with all these piano passages, and came up with what you hear on the record—the beginning. I don’t know how I came up with that. Mitch started singing a melody and lyric in the key I wrote it. When we went in to do the demo, Mitch started singing, and we have a demo of Mitch Crane singing the demo for More, trying to reach those notes. Luckily, he says “Schneider you sing it.” So I sang it, and all these years I have been so lucky to have been the lead vocalist on the Top 40 hit. Thank God it stayed in that key and Mitch let me sang it.
Mitch’s a great lyricist. He wrote the lyrics to all those songs. Mike Cottage did help on a couple. I didn’t know it at the time but Mitch was being separated from his wife in the late ‘70s And that song was about them getting ready to separate and divorce. I didn’t learn about that until years later. When we got on this label in Japan five years ago, and they wanted to know how those songs came about, I said to Mitch, “How did you come up with that?” And he goes, “That was because of my pending divorce at the time.” A lot of people took it in different ways—you can take it as a spiritual song.”
The band also made the TV rounds.
We were on the three hottest shows at that point in the ‘80s. they really had to like yourself to get you on there. Dick Clark comes up to me and goes “Michael, what do you think of this selling millions of albums?” (laughs). For him to think we should have sold millions was such a great honor. We didn’t quite sell a million but it didn’t matter. We were the Solid Gold Pick hit of the week, which was a very big honor. They put this little chyron thing on the TV in big letters: SOLID GOLD PICK HIT OF THE WEEK. We thought ‘This is it! We’re going to be famous!’ It was wonderful.
So why did you guys break up?
That’s a mystery. After we had our first album and more than stalled at #34. When the released “Don’t Let Me In” as our second single from that album. We just went in and did our second album. We were really big in Japan and we did a tour in the summer of 1982. And when we came home, I don’t know what happened. Things went weird. Out of nowhere. Ron Alexenberg decided to get rid of Handshake Records. I never got to talk to Ron and never got the straight story from anybody. We tried to keep it together for a while and we [then] kind of went our separate ways. Mitch went and quit the group, and I wasn’t feeling well to write with anyone else.
What did you do after Sneaker?
I didn’t do anything for a while. I went into music publishing and became a professional manager for Stephen Stills [from 1985 to 1991], learning more about the publishing end of music. I run the publishing company Sneaker songs that collects all the money when our stuff gets played on radio and TV. I was in another group trying to get another deal in a group called Spaghetti Western. We would play country rock, like the Eagles. When we go to Nashville to play at the clubs, they called us the Beatles of country music because our stuff was really commercial.
Do you still keep in touch with the other guys in Sneaker?
Mitch Crane, myself, Jim King and Mike Torrance still live out here in Southern California Some of us are still involved in music. Once in a while we’ll still be in touch. Mike Cottage went back to New Orleans, where he’s from, and he started a successful sound and lighting company. I just saw him three weeks ago. I talked to Jim King this week. Once in a while I ‘ll hear from Mitch. The only person I haven’t heard from is Mike Hughes. I haven’t heard from him and I’m worried about him. I haven’t heard from him since 1983.
Will music from the two Sneaker albums be reissued?
They were released in Japan in the early ‘80s. We did our Japanese concert in the late ’82. There were two people at the concert and each of them wanted to sign us.. Later on they started a record and they signed us to a Japanese label. I’m with friends in the business there to help me put something where people can download digitally or send them [a physical CD]. That will happen. I just don’t know when.
Do you look back with nostalgia about what you accomplished with Sneaker?
When I go to YouTube I see two groups who played “More Than Just The Two of Us” at a nightclub gig, and here I’m watching a group in the Philippines playing “More” in a nightclub. People [are] taking their time learning how to play it and sending me MySpace and Facebook messages asking me about Sneaker. I always have to remind myself when I get down [to] go ‘Look man, you did something that nobody did or will ever do again.’ I can’t tell you enough how wonderful it is after all these years to still have “More” and people still interested. I think you can hear the joy in my voice in this interview.
For information on Sneaker, visit these Web sites: