It Takes a Village to Raise a Solo Project | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Solo Project

There are legions behind the Singleman Affair's ambitious psych folk.



Three years ago Dan Schneider, the sole constant member of the Singleman Affair, was riding pretty high. In June 2006 the first Singleman album, Let's Kill the Summer, had been released overseas by Poptones, a label run by British music-biz legend and Creation Records cofounder Alan McGee. It had begun as a home-recording project for songs Schneider felt were too "wussy" for his other band, Hummingbiird (formerly Pedal Steel Transmission, and now defunct). Using just his voice, a guitar, a sitar, and sometimes percussion, Schneider had four-tracked an album's worth of psych-folk songs, and after some studio tweaking those recordings had been blessed with the imprimatur of the man who'd discovered the Jesus and Mary Chain and Oasis. The album didn't have an American label, but that seemed sure to follow.

In May 2007, though, within a few days of returning to Chicago after a tour of the UK and Europe, Schneider learned that he had no label at all. McGee was closing down Poptones, in part because didn't "believe in owning a record company any more."

The shock wasn't too serious, though, in part because the signing had never felt completely real. No label reps made it out to the gigs Schneider played in London that spring, and during his downtime he watched movies at a friend's apartment instead of cozying up with his alleged employers. From the first to the last, he'd never met McGee in the flesh.

Schneider didn't feel it financially either—he still isn't even sure if he's owed any money. In any case he'd only given Poptones distribution rights to Let's Kill the Summer—he's always owned the recording, and he reissued it on his own Cardboard Sangria label last summer.

Because the Singleman Affair is basically Schneider and whoever he knows who's available, there was little risk the band would fold. Drummer and engineer Graeme Gibson, who helped Schneider turn his home recordings into Let's Kill the Summer, is his steadiest collaborator—he acts as a producer, in the old-fashioned sense. Schneider put together a live lineup in early 2006 that's been reasonably stable—Gibson on drums, his old Boas bandmate Jacob Smith on organ, and Don Ogilvie and Brett Barton from Hummingbiird on percussion and bass—but there have always been substitutions. For his trip overseas, Schneider took Gibson, who's also in the Fruit Bats and Disappears, and guitarist and pedal steel player Gary Pyskacek from Hummingbiird, who now plays in the Part Five and helps run Cardboard Sangria. Lately Adam Vida (U.S. Maple, Singer) has been filling in on drums, and Toby Summerfield (Crush Kill Destroy, Never Enough Hope) has been standing in for Barton, playing upright bass instead of electric. On the follow-up to Let's Kill the Summer the personnel situation is even more complicated.

Schneider had written half the songs for that album, called The Silhouettes at Dawn, before the Singleman Affair's debut dropped. Throughout the Poptones fiasco and beyond, he and Gibson continued to work on it: over a period of two years beginning in late 2006, they spent a total of maybe 30 days in the studio. With no label deadline to meet, they could let the process be unrushed—and at any rate Schneider had to work around his day job, in medical informatics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The long gaps between sessions allowed the two of them to get outside the material and reimagine it. Schneider had 26 songs, though he only ever intended half that many to end up on the record. Gibson insisted that they record at least a demo for every one, and some went through several overhauls. By their best guess, they recorded the whole album two or three times over.

Silhouettes is much more sprawling and ambitious than Summer. "I think if I had been left to my own devices," Schneider says, "it would all be one thing. It would have been me, all reverb and sitars." As it turned out, the sitar—probably the most distinctive element of the Singleman Affair's debut—is completely absent, though there are some 12-string and open-tuned guitars that recall it. And instead of "one thing" there are several different ensembles on the album, plus a lot of guests.

Built around Schneider's voice and guitar, the songs are airy but solid, filled out with everything from brushed drums and delicate strings to boozy electric piano and swaggering riffs. Schneider and Gibson are at the heart of every configuration. On some songs they're joined by Smith, Ogilvie, and Barton; on others they play with guitarist Emmett Kelly and double bassist Josh Abrams. Mark Messing of Mucca Pazza contributes string arrangements, Pyskacek adds guitar and pedal steel, and Jim Becker and Joe Adamik of Califone play fiddle and percussion. When Adamik is on the trap set, Gibson switches to bass. Past and present Fruit Bats Gillian Lissee and Sam Wagster sing backup.

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