It’s more or less de rigueur for rock stars to indulge in bad behavior on the road: drug binges, trashed hotel rooms, amateur porn adventures that end up on the Internet. But in the 25 years Fred Schneider’s been touring with his band, the B-52’s – delivering poppy dance anthems like “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack” in his signature deadpan drawl – his most outrageous excesses have occurred in flea markets. “I never really got into drugs,” says the plainspoken post-punk icon over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at Café Lebowitz one gray afternoon, “just pottery. Which is working out better for old age.”
Schneider, 44, is a collector, with the kind of eclectic tastes one would expect of a guy whose band cavorts in fifties-on-acid suits (for the men) and mile-high bouffants (for the ladies). He’s a thrift-store junkie who’s intimate with flea markets from Detroit to Atlanta – and whose idea of the ultimate road-trip experience is the time in Chicago he got a complete set of Eva Zeisel china for $150: “I just went into this antique store, and they had a whole service for eight with a sort of atomic pattern on it.”
But first, he collected vinyl. The floor-to-ceiling shelves that dominate his Chelsea apartment contain tens of thousands of LPs. “I can’t even guess how many I’ve got now. I started collecting when I was 13,” Schneider says. “When I got to college, I met my first real Record Nut – and started running his record store.” There are duplicates, triplicates; there is something called Here Come the Toilets, which he can’t mention without cracking a tight-lipped little grin. There is techno, house, bebop, punk. “I just try to listen to the opposite of whatever I’m working on. When I wrote the lyrics to my last album, it was really hard, punky lyrics and music, so I listened to stuff that was much more mellow.”
Schneider’s years on the road have also added up to a remarkable assemblage of twentieth-century pottery. He started with American greats, like Weller Coppertone, but soon found what would become the backbone of his collection: Italian pottery, Guido Gambone and Marcello Fantoni in particular. “It’s very minimalist, but in very flamboyant colors, so I really got hooked on that,” he explains. Schneider changes what he puts on display pretty regularly. “You get sick of looking at stuff,” he says. “I just went through everything and switched it all around. I try to do that twice a year.” He also consigns and deals pottery all over the country. “I need to purge,” he explains a little sheepishly. “It’s a lot.”
And there’s more, like a growing collection of Scandinavian sterling-silver cuff links by Georg Jensen and Hans Hansen. “Oh, and books,” he adds, “lots of good books. First editions. The Wizard of Oz, Edward Lear.”
Although his official residence is the East Hampton house he is currently in the midst of renovating (heavy on the storage space, please), Schneider’s New York address for the past twenty years has been this L-shaped Chelsea loft in a former ink factory. It’s only about 1,100 square feet, and it’s currently filled with boxes; Form and Function, the store at which Schneider had been consigning his pottery collection, recently closed, and he’s been too busy recording both a new solo album and his thirteenth with the B-52’s to clear everything out. The apartment – which has a tiny studio and one small bedroom, built out into the loft, like a little cottage, with windows that look onto the rest of the space – has taken many shapes over the years; the current incarnation was masterminded by architect Peter Himmelstein. “Every day I went there, I was introduced to a new corner of Americana,” Himmelstein remembers. His task, of course, was to fit it all. “It was like designing a railroad car,” the architect says. “We needed little compartments for everything.” The solution took the shape of well-lit shelves and an attic, ingeniously carved over the kitchen and bathroom.
It’s a good thing. “I have a few boxes of gooney birds,” Schneider says. “They’re from the thirties, and they’re just really, really great. I have gooney-bird salt and pepper shakers.” He stares ahead, expressionless, as if addled by keeping track of it all. “I’m a little obsessed.”
Schneider’s City Guide
“My parameters are 23rd Street and Houston.”
For the Records:“I used to buy them from Academy Records 12 West 18th Street; 212-242-3000, but now they’ve got mostly classical CDs, so I buy them from a guy on the street.” Schneider chose not to disclose the record seller’s favorite haunts, but if you walk the avenues of Chelsea on a sunny afternoon, you just might find him.
Eating Out: “I like to eat breakfast and lunch at home, but for dinner I like Le Zie 172 Seventh Avenue, near 20th Street; 212-206-8686.”
Thrifty Pleasures: “I used to go to the 26th Street flea market a lot – that’s where I got most of my collection. But now it’s pretty dried up. Which is good because I need to purge. But I really love Housing Works 157 East 23rd Street; 212-460-9410. And the thrift stores in the Hamptons are good because everyone out there is into country junk, so I just buy up all the modern.”
Personal Styling: “Henry Duarte available at Barneys New York made me five suits for a tour once, and that was great until the moths got them. I got a Teletubbies T-shirt not so long ago at a 14th Street discount store. I couldn’t figure out why they made it in my size, so I bought it.”
Playing Host: “I like to throw dance parties like we used to have on the tour bus. But it’s hard because if everybody’s dancing, everything’s got to get put away.”