Sn’zz rules! Local musician, producer and guru explores the sonic landscape of the Piedmont
Sn’zz performs at the Local 506, part of the benefit concert Sn’zzfest. (photo by Agatha Donkar)
PilotMountain is enshrouded in mist.
Thequartzite monadnock known as Jomeokee or “great guide” by theSaura Indians offers no point of reference on this cold, drizzlySunday afternoon. Somewhere out here among the rolling hills andfallow tobacco fields lives a different kind of guide, a man who actsas a sherpa for brave musicians attempting to scale the Mount Everestwithin themselves and navigate the unforgiving landscape of the musicindustry.
Hislegal name is Britt Harper Uzzell, but everyone calls him Sn’zz. Helives, quite literally, off the beaten path.
Turningoff a two-lane highway onto a gravel road, a small farmhouse sitsabout 150 yards ahead. Inside the living room/recording studio of therustic 100-year-old home, Sn’zz sits across from Catie Braly, aclose friend and member of the band the Popovers. A musical projectof Tim LaFollette, the Popovers was formed as a result of thelongtime friendship of Braly and LaFollette, founder of DecorationGhost.
Catieexplains that she and LaFollette were college roommates and theyoften worked on songs during their younger years. Last year,LaFollette was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, alsoknown as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The disease has been aggressive andmerciless and LaFollette’s condition has deteriorated rapidly sincehis original diagnosis more than 18 months ago. On Friday nights,Braly, a member of his Often Awesome Army, spends time with her oldfriend. Recently, she discovered a song on Tim’s iPod entitled,“New Rough.” The song consisted of a sample drumbeat, a samplebass and a keyboard melody Tim had written. LaFollette told Braly hewrote the song for the Popovers.
“SoI found this and I was just like, ‘There’s a diamond,’” Bralysays. “He said to me that night that it would mean a lot to him ifSn’zz and I finished it.”
Thusthe project began.
WithLaFollette’s composition playing through his soundboard, Sn’zz strums his honey-colored Gretsch guitar and tries out some lyricalideas.
“Tim,in request of this song, wanted us to do it in a LesMis’rablesform where it’s two different melodies that come together at theend of the song to combine,” Catie says.
Sn’zz and Catie discuss different choices for the song’s arrangement.Catie uses an old Ouija board as a clipboard and a sheet of typingpaper with lyrics written in black Sharpie as her canvas.
“Here’san original idea of the initial idea of our vocals,” Sn’zz says.“We’re not sure if we’re going to keep this. It could betotally changed in a day or two — that’s the way the songwritingprocess goes.
“Somesongs are written in 10 minutes, boom!” he continues. “They’redone, they’re perfect; you wouldn’t change a thing. Some songsevolve over a year, even multiple years’ time before they reallyget to where you want them. Hopefully this song will come togetherquickly. Tim doesn’t have time to waste.”
Songwritingis an arduous, tedious task. It’s also a very nuanced process. Oneword out of place can take away from the overall impact of the tune,Sn’zz says. Catie praises Sn’zz as the one producer she can trustto take care of every small detail of a song.
“Hehas such a phenomenal ear,” Catie says. “I can say, ‘I want itto sound more angled,’and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying.’He’ll lean over and do something on the board, and I’m like,‘Yes, that’s it! This sounds like a wet room. You did it; you didit! How did you do that?’”
Catiegestures in the direction of the stack of electronic equipment on arectangular table that serves as Sn’zz’s mixing board.
“Ilook at this and I don’t think, ‘This is going to make arecord,’” she says. “He can look at that and say, ‘You wantthat to sound softer or pinker?’ He turns knobs and it’s magic.”
TheZen master of the recording studio
JacquiHaggerty says she and her folk Americana band Jacqui & theWoodsides recently got the opportunity to record with Sn’zz, and itproved to be a magical experience.
“Hedefinitely knows what he’s talking about and he has a lot ofexperience under his belt,” Haggerty says. “He’s not just arecording engineer. He’s not shy about giving his two cents on howthings can be improved. That wouldn’t be possible if he didn’thave such an eclectic musical background.”
Britt Harper Uzzell, aka Sn’zz, (right) collaborates with Catie Braly, a local songwriter/musician, on the final song for the local band the Popovers at Sn’zz’s studio/farmhouse on Dec. 12. (photo by Keith T. Barber)
A community quilt created by a number of his friends after he was diagnosed with Waldenstr’m Macroglobulinemia, a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, last year. Sn’zz said he uses the quilt as a sound blanket to absorb “unwanted frequencies” in his home recording studio.”They are assisting me on a daily basis with this,” he said. (photo by Peter Schroth)’
Sn’zz’smusical roots run deep.
Growingup in Fayetteville in the 1970s, Sn’zz remembers buying his firstalbum, AHard Day’s Nightby the Beatles.
“That’sthe first album I ever remember having and loving,” he says.
Sn’zz grew up listening to classic rock, but as a teenager he rebelled andformed the punk rock band, Resist, while attending Terry Sanford HighSchool.
“Iwouldn’t be hesitant to say, ‘The Beatles suck!’ as a youngpunk just to piss people off around me,” Sn’zz remembers. “That’sjust youthful ignorance, spouting things like that. So I try to belenient when I have young kids come in here and they spout things,that are just like, ‘Ten years from now, you’ll realize howstupid that statement is,’ and remember how I was as a kid.”
Overthe years, Sn’zz has played nearly every genre of contemporarymusic. After Resist, he joined a punk rock band called theSociopaths. He then played in Kickin’ the Bucket, a rap-rock group. Sn’zz then joined the group Bus Stop for the next eight years. Sn’zzdescribes Bus Stop’s music as “blue-eyed soul, ‘ber pop, verypalatable stuff.”
“Ididn’t want to just continue playing the same genre of punk,rock, hard rock,” Sn’zz says. “I really wanted to push myselfand prove I could play different styles and further myself as amusician — my palette of things I can choose from.”
“Ilike to perform different styles if that’s what’s needed,” hecontinues. “My personal compositions benefit from having anunderstanding of other genres of music.”
Inthe recording studio, Sn’zz plays the roles of mentor, audioengineer and cheerleader, says Scott Hicks of Decoration Ghost.
“He’sso informed and so knowledgeable about what he’s doing,” Hickssays. “First of all, he brings guitars out and says, ‘Have youever thought about this?’ He’s very encouraging and kind thatway, but he’s also quick to say, ‘Maybe we should try this?’”
Sn’zz doesn’t hesitate to take an active role in shaping the sound andthe way songs are structured, says Hicks.
“Anybodythat records bands has to have that passion because it’s such abrutally tedious process,” he says. “I would never ever want torecord anybody else.”
Passionfor capturing the perfect sound has become something of an obsessionfor Sn’zz.
“I’msomeone who’s passionate about helping you see your musical visionto fruition,” Sn’zz says. “The people that record here know howmuch of myself I throw into what they’re doing. When I’mrecording a band, I’m in that band.”
Haggertysays recording with Sn’zz makes you feel safe, like you’re in goodhands.
“He’slooking over you and making sure you’re putting out the bestproduct possible and making sure everyone is living up to theirpotential,” says Haggerty.
Duringher guitar solo, Haggerty recalls Sn’zz being encouraging whilegetting across the sentiment that she could perform that part evenbetter.
“Hewants everybody to be the best they can be because he knows what it’slike as a musician to make the most out of your time in the recordingstudio,” says Haggerty.
Sn’zz says he sees himself as a guide to help musicians make their record“as powerful as it can be.”
Loveand generosity of spirit
In Sn’zz’s home recording studio, musicians enjoy an experience notoffered at the more lavish, expensive, professional studios.
“I’verecorded all my life in studios and I have never recorded with anengineer that allowed me to do 16 takes of a vocal track and then forthem to go back through the tedious, arduous process of going throughall those takes and really pull out when I was singing well,” Sn’zzsays. “But I do that, and I do that with love and with passion. Iadmit it’s tedious and arduous, but still, I’m able to work inthe medium that I love.”
Sn’zz’sgenerosity as a music producer and spiritual guide is the stuff oflocal legend. And that generosity begins with his reasonable hourlyrates.
“Ohmy gosh, it’s more than reasonable,” Haggerty says. “It’salmost ridiculous. His ideas are so helpful. It’s so genuine hispassion. He’s never quiet about any visions that he has. You canjust see the passion pouring out of him — that’s integrity.”
Sn’zz’sintegrity is grounded in his strong belief that he is serving agreater purpose, and making money is not the goal. His belief runs sodeep that he sees his role as evangelical.
“I’mevangelical in the fact that I can assist you,” Sn’zz says.
“Notthat you’re going to proselytize to everyone who walks in thedoor,” Catie interjects with a laugh.
“Iam going to proselytize in that I am going to help you achievemiracles,” Sn’zz responds. “I am evangelical in that sense thatI can make you sound better than you thought you ever could. This isa spiritual journey — everyone has a purpose in this world and Ifeel like I’ve found mine and it’s not making a lot of money. Iam the happiest poor person that I think you’ll ever meet.”
Sn’zz’spassion for recording local artists was rewarded recently by a $5,000grant from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. Sn’zz said he is deeply grateful for the financial support, becausethere was a time not long ago when he would essentially donate histime and energy to record local bands, which speaks volumes about hisdeep love for the artistic process.
“Hewanted to do it because he’s passionate about music,” says Hicks.“He would say, ‘You’re here. Let’s make it live forever.’It was his passion for the music more than his generosity. He justwanted to get it down.”
Duringthose early recording sessions, Sn’zz began his tradition ofroutinely asking artists for at least 10 vocal takes.
“Hewould say, ‘Give me everything you have,’” recalls Hicks. “Thetediousness of that versus the labor involved is astonishing becausehe just wants you to be your best.”
Haggertysays to know Sn’zz is to love him.
“He’sso genuine and that’s so rare these days — it’s like we have afriend there and it’s not some person rushing us, and leaving youthinking, ‘Oh gosh. I made a mistake on that part,’” saysHaggerty. “Every time you make a mistake, you have to start fromthe top. All you can think about in that moment is dollar signs. In Sn’zz’s environment, you’re giving it all the care and attentionit needs rather than thinking ‘I got to do this fast before I runout of money.’”
Asetback and outpouring of love
Allthe love that Sn’zz, 47, has given to his friends, family and fellowmusicians came flowing back to him manifold when he was diagnosedwith Waldenstr’m Macroglobulinemia last year. A rare form ofnon-Hodgkins lymphoma, the disease causes overproduction of a proteincalled monoclonal immunoglobulin and symptoms include weakness,fatigue, weight loss and visual and neurological problems, accordingto the National Cancer Institute.
“It’ssomewhat in remission, but it’s still in a smoldering state, whichmeans that it could erupt at any time,” Sn’zz says.
Lastweek, Sn’zz underwent dental surgery to remove a tooth that he lostdue to the illness.
“Myimmune system has gone wacky and it’s attacking my body and it’schosen my tooth,” he says.
“Atleast [it] only chose one,” Catie says with an optimistic smile.
“Atleast [it] only chose one and at least they didn’t choose myfingers,” Sn’zz responds. “My fingers have been its choice inthe past. There’s been times when I couldn’t play my instrument.”
“Youcouldn’t tie your shoes,” Catie points out.
“Mywife [Nicole] had to tie my shoes for me,” Sn’zz says. “Icouldn’t walk down steps. I had to walk sideways down steps — itgot really bad.
“Itcan make my shoulders and my bones hurt so bad, it feels like myshoulders are dislocated,” Sn’zz says, describing the experience.“It would hurt so bad I could not lift my arm to the side or likethat — all my joints would ache.”
Eventually, Sn’zz couldn’t play the guitar and had to quit his band, theDickens.
“ActuallyI look at that as a blessing, because not doing that has given mecomplete 100 percent of my time to focus on my original music andhelp other bands to get their original music out,” he says.
Aftersix months of chemotherapy, Sn’zz’s condition has improvedsignificantly.
Withthe help of a reporter, Sn’zz takes down a sound blanket mounted inhis living room/recording studio and spreads it out on the kitchenfloor. He then stretches out on the quilt and talks about itscreation.
Sn’zz‘ explains that his friend, Cathy Newsome, spearheaded the idea ofcreating a quilt comprised of donated T-shirts by dozens of Sn’zz’sfriends. Newsome came up with the idea after learning of Sn’zz’sdiagnosis”just to show me love, just to lift my spirit, which ittotally did,” he says.
Sn’zz says he’ll never forget hearing a knock at his backdoor one day,and what he witnessed.
“Ianswered the door and 20 of my best friends were standing on my backporch holding this quilt,” Sn’zzsays. “I just want them to knowit’s a part of my studio. It’s a part of absorbing the unwantedfrequencies and they are assisting me on a daily basis with this. Iwant it where I can see it and never forget it.”
Thelarge quilt has a design of Sn’zz’’s beloved Gretsch guitar on theopposite side, and hangs prominently in his studio. Despite thesetback, Sn’zz remains ever the optimist and finds meaning in eachnew day.
“Throughthe adversity I’ve gone through, I’ve seen people come togetherand become really good friends,” Sn’zz