Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass Interview
I recently had the chance to talk with one of my favorite folk punk artists, Michael Schneeweis of Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass. Check out Michael’s music here and listen to one of my personal favorite songs - is it sours or salads? Read on to find out…
I have to begin by asking a question that’s driven me and my friend crazy for years. My friend and I love the song “Titles are Formality” and listened to it on repeat together in high school. We could never figure out what sours are, and it would drive us insane trying to figure it out. What are sours (“today I ate four sours”)?
HA! Today I ate four salads. LOL it does sound like sours.
Alright, now that we have that out of the way...tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass?
When I was about 15 or 16 I was sitting at the kitchen table in my mom and dad’s house with my brother. I was trying to think of a name for the music I’d been recording in my room. I had been recording under the name “Common Sense,” and I also had a joke band with my friend called “Lemon Juice Effect.” But I wanted a new name for some new songs I was making, so I opened a dictionary. I opened up to the T section, and saw touchdown. Then I flipped again, and got to an entry about Michael Jordan. I decided on “Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass” fairly easily and randomly. I told my brother and he laughed. So that’s the story.
When did you first start making music? What inspires you to create music?
My mother read me a little report a number of years ago that one of my preschool teachers wrote about me, which, I have to say, is kind of amazing if you think about it, just that my preschool teacher was a considerate and kind enough person to actually write reports about all her kids. I’m sure she didn’t have to, but she did. At any rate, she wrote that I was a very passionate drummer. I always gravitated towards the drums and banging on things and apparently I was pretty good for a toddler.
I feel like I’ve always been making music. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s how it feels. It feels innate and ordinary to me. I first recorded music with my brother when I was about 8 or 9. He programmed beats on the computer and we would rap over it, freestyle. Our project was called Cat’s Rap. I really wish we still had those raps, but I’m afraid they’re lost in the ether. We recorded those songs in my mother’s office at home, so lots of my verses incorporate book titles which generally have to do with the cultural History of the United States. It’s very funny to hear a 9 year old rapping about “Who Built America.”
So basically, I’m inspired to make music because it’s kind of just in me. It’s almost like, “what inspires you to yawn?” It’s pretty natural on that basic level. But of course, I have other inspirations I can talk about as well…
Is there anything in particular you hope to communicate to listeners through your music? What do you hope people take away from your music?
When I really think about it—-which I definitely have, partly because I studied art in college and there is this expectation that you will have an artist statement that describes what you’re all about—-when I think about what I’m trying to say with my music, I think at this point it has to do with communicating what I would call unconditional goodness, or the possibility of realizing that. In some ways, I’m moving away from the “me” communicating with “you” approach to making art. I’m kind of talking to myself in a way, or being myself. Not that it isn’t intended to be heard by others. But maybe the intention is that by listening, that person will be hearing themselves. In truth, I think we always do that—- we hear our own wisdom, pain, confusion, etc at the same time we hear others.
At the same time, I can’t pretend my music is all that universal. I’m a white guy, a cis straight guy, middle class, a college guy. So I’m inevitably articulating my whiteness, straightness, etc. I think there are universal human themes that run through art in general. But my particular position in this society is a big part of what I inevitably communicate in my music.
I’m sensitive to the fact that many of my peers feel very depressed, lost, and perhaps nihilistic. I’m sensitive to those aspects and propensities in myself as well. I’m allergic to art with a tone of “I’ve seen the light! Let me give you advice!” so I really don’t want to go there. At the same time, I’ve had the immense fortune of discovering something within myself which is fundamentally energizing and meaningful. I’ve met many wise people who have helped me begin to uncover that, through meditation and other things. So I want to share some of my experience, or at least hint at it, but at the same time not make a big deal about how I have seen the light and so should you. It’s more like I want to remind people of what they may be forgetting momentarily in terms of why life matters.
You’re enrolled in a Master of Divinity program at Naropa University. How is that going? What’s your plan for the next week, month, year and 5 years?
I couldn’t be happier to be in this program. I mean, I could be happier, but you know what I mean. The program combines a deep and systematic philosophical study of Buddhism, actual meditation practice, and what is called pastoral care which is basically “how to listen deeply to somebody to help them uncover their own wisdom.” This year—-my first year—-focuses primarily on the Buddhist philosophy and meditation part. The second year introduces more about the pastoral care, and continues with the meditation (you never really stop the meditation!). Then comes the field work, which in my case will probably be a 10-week stint working in an ER or ICU as a hospital chaplain. The final year ties it all together, and I’ll write a massive paper about the entire universe. Or something.
So that’s more or less the plan for the next 2 years. My 5-year plan I think includes finishing this degree, and probably taking 6 months to a year to decompress before starting anything drastically new. I’ll probably do a solitary meditation retreat to kind of incorporate and chew on this intense training I’m doing at the moment. And then it’s really about listening and following the clues. In a sense, the vocation I’m training for is really about responding to pain and suffering and helping people deal with it on any level I can—-physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. And there is so, so much suffering going on every which way. So it’s a matter of being receptive and responding with the intention to be of benefit in some way. Maybe all I can do is help my own mind, but still it feels necessary to try and help other people too. I think I may end up doing prison or jail chaplaincy at some point. But we’ll see.
Order from most to least favorite: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry
My first choice would be all of these in a nice little ceramic bowl, please. But: blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry. But then if it’s in a pie, blueberry all the way. Also it depends on the season and the place.
What music did you listen to growing up? Recount a time in your childhood when you realized music was very important to you.
My father is a trumpet player, and played a lot of music around the house when I was growing up. Mostly Jazz-type stuff, and some latin-inspired music, and some experimental stuff. He earned part of his living performing, so there were a lot of band rehearsals in the basement. He is a fan of Jazz music, so I have memories of Jazz on the stereo growing up. I feel like Jazz is really important to how I feel about music actually. My understanding of it is not so left-brain. I just feel the Jazz spirit so to speak, and really click with some of it, particularly Miles, Monk, and Kenny Dorham. My mom loves music too. I remember her liking The Roaches and Joni Mitchell and stuff. And then my brother, boy, he had some weird taste. He liked some really janky punk and stuff that screamed a lot when we were young. He might still like it? Not sure. I liked some of that, but I’ve always been a fan of music that makes me feel good, or feel something poetically or intuitively, something like that. Some of that really high pitched distorted screaming stuff kind of bored me. I couldn’t feel the juice of it. I love melody. I’m a melody person. But my brother definitely turned me on to a world of punk, some of which I totally loved. Against Me! was a biggie for me in high school. So was this band The Weakerthans, both of which my bro showed me. My favorite era of listening to music with my brother was when we would listen to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton on repeat and play James Bond on N64. I think I was like 10 or 11, he was probably 13. We’ve probably listened to that album 40,000 times.
I think a time in my childhood where I realized music was close to my heart was when I was like 4 or 5. I’d been listening to NPR with my dad, and we’d heard some opera music. I walked to the toilet to take a leak, and I think I was young enough that my dad came with to make sure I was getting everything in the right place. I remember peeing, and the sun was shining in, and just belting out this operatic style of singing, as loud as I could. I was joking around, being funny, and my dad was laughing. He said “Wow, you’re really good at that!” I remember thinking, yeah, I’m pretty good at this. It’s just natural and joyful.
Your brother, Patrick Schneeweis (Pat the Bunny), is another notable folk punk musician. Was your family very musical? If so, what was it like growing up in such a musical household?
Yeah, my dad and brother were definitely very formative influences for me in terms of my musical life. My mom was too, but more as a support than an active example of a music maker. She was and is an active example of a teacher, a cultural historian, and a compassionate person. But my dad’s musical life normalized the whole making music thing. His approach was wide and very open hearted and experimental, although he got a lot of technical training and accomplishment as well. But he always emphasized the exploratory aspects of making music, and he was never elitist or snobby. My brother started writing songs pretty young, I think at like 9 or 10. He was in a band called Cricket Child in 6th grade or so. Then he started writing these really intense and moving songs when he was about 15. I think that’s around when Johnny Hobo started. So my sense of things growing up was always that making, recording, and performing music was totally normal and doable. Plus, there were tons of instruments everywhere, and we were always allowed to jam out.
One other thing I’ll say about my brother’s influence on me is that it showed me the strong connection between music and community. Music is a big part of the communal heart.
What role do you feel music plays in community? What communities do you feel you belong to and how does music play a role in them?
What good questions. I feel that on a deep level, music plays a pretty sexy role actually! It’s a human connector, and it involves bodies and voices and movement and touching. So it’s pretty sensual, and can have a lot of sexual energy in it. Most people just gravitate naturally, like they’re turned on. I’m not trying to make it all pornographic. But in the same way that talking with somebody up close and personally, looking them in the eye, and feeling who they are can be very intimate and sensual, I think music can often be intimate and sensual. There’s a mystery there, like what it is about music that just has it. For me, not all music has it. But what it is about a rhythm or a melody or a voice that makes you move, or sway, and go “yeh-yeh-yeh-yeh-yeh-yeh!” is hard to define.
For certain, music plays different roles in different communities. I’m not an anthropologist or a musicologist so I don’t really know much about it. My main guess is that music is a symbol of human touch, and of human suffering, and of human aspiration. At least music made by humans. Music made by other beings might have a different flavor.
The main communities I’m part of right now are the Naropa University community, the Boulder Shambhala Community, and the community of Marpa House (an urban Buddhist-inspired shared residence where I currently live). And in these three communities, music actually plays a pretty lame role. I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud (what’s wrong with a stick in the mud actually???), but I think music is an afterthought for us a lot of times. Or it’s a private domain. The public thoughts of my communities seem to be earning a living, family, education, the Buddhist and Shambhala trainings. And then the afterthought, or the private time, is like “oh, some people do music and I have that on my phone.”
Here in Boulder there's a cool punk scene-- it's really small, but really cool. Punk and diy is a good example of a community that really values music in a consistent and genuine way. It isn't about making money, and it isn't about looking good--well, it is about looking good. But it happens night after night in strange-smelling houses all over the world because punk kids are committed to live music, sharing space, and being alive in community. The communities I'm more actively involved with are committed to the second two things, but not the first. Can't have it all (yet). I guess that's my job.
Talk about jobs, the thing about music is that it isn’t profitable. It can be, but you know what I mean if you’ve ever been in a band. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t get paid much. And when you’re trying to organize a band, then there’s other people’s schedules, and it’s crazy. So often times the best bands are made of people who are able to really devote to each other and to making music. There’s a devotional quality to seeing it through.
Even in bands that I really don’t like, when I see them live and feel their commitment to what they’re doing, I appreciate it a lot. There is magic there and people feel it. Some people really thrive on it in a big way. So very broadly speaking, the role of music in community is to increase vitality and inspiration. The devotion of the musicians rubs off on people watching, and the audience then re-fuels the musicians’ enthusiasm. And because the melody and rhythms can evoke so much, the medium of music is a really powerful conduit for transmitting and exchanging vitality. OK, do I sound like a kook or what?! But really.
Place you feel happiest?
Honestly it isn’t so much a place as it is a sense of connecting with what my life purpose is. When I feel that, I’m happiest. It is the sense of cutting through the fear of “what if I’m wasting my precious life?” and actually realizing certain moments where I am living in the most meaningful way that I am currently capable of. For me, this connects with wisdom and compassion. When I am exploring these principles genuinely, I am happiest.
You mentioned on your website that you’ve gone through many different phases as a maker of music. What was the weirdest phase? How would you describe the phase you are currently in?
The weirdest phase of my musical life was probably a band I was in when I was 14 called Lemon Juice Effect. That was some weird shit. We wrote songs about big rigs, volvos, penis size, fictional characters who got depressed about strange things, the seasons, nonsense. It was all supposed to be funny. We had a lot of fun, and produced a number of verrrrry odd albums.
It’s funny you should ask about weirdness and where I currently am musically. I feel like I’m coming back into some weirdness. Humor feels more important now than it has in a while. There’s this whole side of my creative sensibility that can’t come out if I’m trying to make a normal album. So I’m in a phase of trying to merge genuineness and humility with outrageousness and humor and the unexpected. We’ll see where that goes!
What can we expect from Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass in the near future?
I’m working on an album now, though it’s a bit slow going as I’m a full time student in grad school. But I think we can expect an album of some sort this summer, and some t-shirts for sale. I want to design a sick t-shirt! And I want to do a little leg work on the business side of my musical life. I will never make music only for money I don’t think, but I’m realizing I need to expand my sources of income to support myself better.
Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass music: michaeljordantouchdownpass.bandcamp.com
Amanda Glazer is a DJ and Online Content Head for the Record Hospital; tune into her show Wednesday nights 12-1 a.m.