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

Music » Music Column

It Takes a Village to Raise a Solo Project

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

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

2 comments

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.

Schneider cites UK folk groups like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band as inspiration, and their influence is audible on Silhouettes, after a fashion—I can sort of hear Donovan and Cat Stevens too. Gibson compares Schneider's relationship to his influences to Spacemen 3's relationship to the Staple Singers: both tried to imitate a particular vintage sound and failed in a spectacular and fascinating way. Tense, minor-key strings from the Lee Hazlewood playbook hover ominously over "Asleep on the Ground." A reverb-soaked pedal steel slides around the melody to "Wings." And "Don't Forget to Wind Your Watch" is like a soul ballad wasting away on its sickbed.

Schneider's music may not belong squarely to any one genre, but one term that everyone who's ever reviewed the Singleman Affair seems comfortable using is psychedelic. "I just don't get what that means," says Gibson. "I mean, it's like, what makes a sandwich gourmet? I still don't know what that means either." Schneider doesn't object, though. When he first started writing songs, another of his touchstones was D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Monterey Pop, whose visuals he thought created a hallucinatory effect. "I like the idea of this expansive journey," he says, "that your mind gets into the record."

Silhouettes may be psychedelic insofar as the word is just shorthand for "this would sound good if you were on drugs," but it's not necessarily a sunshiny trip. "The album is 100 percent from beginning to end an album of escaping," Schneider says. "A lot of that has to do with this very deep, broken love. A feeling of rejection, a feeling of being lost. It's from personal experience, or lack of personal experience. I wish I knew what it really felt like to be in love, because I don't." To deal with this sense of disconnection—the feeling that there's a common social reality he doesn't have access to—he displaces it into fictional stories. One of those stories, in "If I Only Fell in Love When I Was Young," is about a Civil War soldier dying from a gunshot wound and regretting that he didn't stay home with a woman he could have pretended to love.

These days Schneider is less concerned with big psychological questions and more with finding a home for Silhouettes. Thursday's Hideout show—where he'll be backed by Gibson, Barton, Smith, and Wagster—isn't a release party. The new record won't be available, just a couple of tour EPs, one of live material and the other of outtakes from both albums. Schneider says he'll release Silhouettes this summer on Cardboard Sangria if he has to—but he's still hoping another label will step up.

Though a few have shown interest, none since Poptones has made an offer. "People respond," Gibson says. "I've sent out copies of unreleased records plenty of times and usually people don't respond. This time people were like, 'This is really great! Good luck!' Everyone likes it, but nobody wants to do anything for it."    v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com/music.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment