Have Sitar, Will Travel | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Have Sitar, Will Travel

Dan Schneider's been plugging away for years in Pedal Steel Transmission and Hummingbiird, but it was two solo tracks he recorded at home that bought him a ticket to Europe.

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Shortly before Christmas, Dan Schneider got a call from someone claiming to be Paul Brownell from the UK label Poptones. "Out of the blue there's a guy on the phone with a thick British accent saying, 'Dan, we just love your songs and we can't stop listening to them. We want to sign you and put a record out as soon as possible. Would you be interested?' To me, it just didn't seem real. I figured it had to be one of my buddies calling up and playing a really cruel joke."

Schneider wasn't just being pessimistic. The Singleman Affair, his 60s-style psych-folk home-recording project, had released just two tracks, both on indie compilations. He'd never played a show abroad. Why would someone from across the Atlantic offer him a record deal?

A few days later Schneider got another call, this one from Poptones head Alan McGee, who'd founded the Creation label and signed luminaries like Primal Scream and Oasis. "He's got this superthick Glaswegian accent, and I think I understood 30 percent of the whole conversation," says Schneider. "But the stuff that I did understand was great."

"He sent in his album, the demos for the album, and it was pretty fucking ace," says McGee. "Some of the songs remind me of Fred Neil, whose album I reissued on Creation in the 90s. The great thing is that the songs defy genre--they're just great classic pop songs." Last month Schneider formally became part of the Poptones roster--alongside the likes of the Hives, the Paddingtons, and Cherrystones--and his album, Let's Kill the Summer, is scheduled to come out overseas in June. He's still shopping it stateside.

For almost a decade Schneider has been plugging away without much success in his band Pedal Steel Transmission, recently renamed Hummingbiird. "When you start a band you kinda naively think it's going to be easy," he says. "You know, that if you make good music, people will pay attention." He started the Singleman Affair without any expectations--he was indulging himself, not trying to win over an audience--so he's not entirely sure why his luck changed. "I have to admit," he says, "it's pretty weird how this has all happened."

The 30-year-old Schneider was born in La Grange to parents he calls "huge hippies." When he was eight his dad began passing down the paternal vinyl. "He gave me the Velvet Underground's banana album, Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, everything by Dylan and Neil Young, weird early LPs from Jose Feliciano and Glen Campbell," says Schneider. "I can remember listening to the records with him and he'd be pointing out the subtleties of the songs, telling me what to pay attention to."

Schneider took up the violin at age five and started on guitar in junior high, when he put together his first band. "We were called the Frozen Dicks," he says. "We did all Misfits, Ramones, and Slayer covers." In high school he switched direction. "Some altered substances started passing through me and my tastes changed--I got into Jefferson Airplane and the early Dead."

While studying biology at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Schneider formed a psych-blues group called Quixotic. After graduation in 1997 he moved to Chicago, where at a loft party he ran into guitarist Gary Pyskacek, who'd been in a rival Champaign band. "We got to talking and we eventually sat down and played," says Schneider. "Almost immediately we started writing stuff and formed Pedal Steel Transmission."

Today Schneider and Pyskacek are the sole original members of the band, and they've put out its first three albums themselves--the most recent, 2003's The Angel of the Squared Circle, is the group's standout. The fourth, a self-titled Hummingbiird disc mixed by longtime Yo La Tengo engineer Roger Moutenot, can be downloaded from hummingbiird.com. It's been in the can for almost a year, and the band hopes to release it properly this summer.

Schneider has recorded with a couple side projects, including the Cruelest Aprils, a duo with violist and poet Nissa Holtkamp, and a collaboration with Pyskacek called Sainte Chapelle. But in late 2003 he decided to go solo. "I wanted to try something that was completely my own," he says. "I wanted to make records like the kind I listened to growing up--stuff like Skip Spence, John Martyn, and Tim Buckley."

Much of the material on Let's Kill the Summer bears the stamp of Schneider's record collection. You can hear the campfire intimacy of albums like Martyn's Solid Air and Bless the Weather, as well as the dreamy romanticism of Buckley's Goodbye and Hello and Lorca. Schneider sometimes sings in a baritone reminiscent of Fred Neil or overdubs high harmonies a la Country Joe & the Fish and the Youngbloods. He uses nonstandard tunings inspired by Elizabeth Cotten, John Fahey, or Lou Reed (whose droning "ostrich guitar" had every string tuned to the same note). But nothing has had as striking an effect on the sound of the album as Schneider's timely acquisition of a sitar. "My dad was going to India on a business trip," he says, "and I told him if he saw a sitar to buy it. He ended up getting a really beautiful one for like 90 American dollars."

In early 2004 Schneider emptied his Ukrainian Village apartment, set up a cheap Tascam four-track with a couple mikes and some old foot-switched reverb units, and began recording. "I played back the tapes and immediately liked what I heard," he says. "It sounded like it had been recorded in 1968. I was able to get the right echo, a really nice wood tone out of the apartment. Before I knew it, I had like 15 songs done."

That fall he played some of the tracks--then just vocals, sitar, and acoustic or electric guitar--for local engineer Graeme Gibson, who was based at Clava Studios in Bridgeport and encouraged Schneider to bring the tapes in. "I transferred what I had into Pro Tools and then just added little things: more reverb, organ, some drums, percussion," Schneider says. He spent much of 2005 in and out of Clava, "just being a total weirdo audiophile, making sure all the tonalities were the way I wanted and that it sounded genuine."

Schneider also started playing out--he did a weekly residency at the Hideout in March 2005, with warm-up acts like Josephine Foster and Tim Kinsella, and opened for Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop at the Bottle in April. Over the past few months he's put together a four-piece backing band--Gibson on drums and Jacob Smith, Gibson's old bandmate in the Boas, on organ, plus Don Ogilvie and Brett Barton from Hummingbiird on percussion and bass.

In summer 2005 Galactic Zoo Dossier editor Steve Krakow asked Schneider for a song for the sixth issue's CD sampler. That led to a Singleman Affair appearance at that fall's Two Million Tongues festival, copresented by Krakow and Arthur magazine, and to the release of a second Singleman tune--this one on the Two Million Tongues compilation, released by Arthur's Bastet label. Those were the tracks that hooked the Poptones brass.

After Let's Kill the Summer comes out in June, Schneider plans to tour Europe to support it. He's also recording a new Singleman album, continuing to play with Hummingbiird, studying bioinformatics in grad school at Northwestern, and doing genetic mapping work with asthma patients at the U. of C. "I've kinda been burning the candle at both ends and losing my mind a little bit with everything I have going on," he says. "It's tough, but with the Poptones deal now, that's a big help. And as long as I can keep putting out music, that's really my only goal."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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