David Singer: Dodging barbs and making "Arrows"

August 16, 2010

Chicago musician David Singer never has neatly fit into anyone's box. Singer has led two fine, hard-hitting psychedelic pop combos, Fix Your Wagon and Kid Million, dating back to the alternative era of the '90s, but he's never been quite freaky enough to follow in the footsteps of fellow travelers such as the Flaming Lips or Grandaddy. As a solo artist, he's released four strong albums and was signed for a time to Deep Elm Records, but his smart, literate, and heartfelt tunes were never quite "emo" enough to be embraced by that scene. Now, he's given up trying to fit in anywhere, and he's experiencing some of the biggest success of his career, scoring the Steppenwolf play August: Osage County, which won five Tony awards, and releasing the new album "Arrows," one of the best he's ever given us. This is the first of a two-part interview with Singer, who performs a record release show at Lincoln Hall with his band the Sweet Science at 8 p.m. on Thursday. (Tickets are $12, and the Interiors and Nelken open.) Q. Tell me how the "Arrows" project started. A. I've been working on the record for two years solid. The last record was pretty quiet. I don't know if it was my advancing age or because my wife and I were getting ready to have a baby, but this time, I wanted to make an aggressive, up-tempo, more psychedelic/weirdo record. One of the things that is cursed with me is that I have been willing to do all sorts of different stuff instead of pick a sound and repeat it over and over again. So most of the songs started out as demos at home. I have a studio at home where I do all of my professional stuff, and I have the best band I have ever had. I went into Engine Studios and tracked stuff over the course of two years. I did three to four songs at a time, and did constant tinkering and layering on or stripping off. The first song, "Silicon," for example -- there are probably at least 70 parts in that song. Those are the 70 left out of the 120 that were on there at a given time, because I would put on, take off, put on and take off again The home recording revolution -- you have to take that into account! Though it has made it easier to make a record, it has made it very difficult for people like me to decide that you're done. You goof around with stuff endlessly, and I did. But, I eventually decided"¦ there are times on every record, and I'm sure everybody goes through this, where you go, "That is as good as it is going to be. This part could be better, but that is as good as it is going to be."‚  I refused to settle for that this time. I did stuff over and over and over again until I got it exactly where I wanted it. Q. The last one you wrote as a concept record, but this one was different, right? A. I wouldn't say that it was different, but I don't start with saying, "Here is my concept for the record," and then write within that framework. It's more that after the first couple of songs, I see where it suggests it's going, and as the process gets more and more fleshed out, I realize there is something to be said about this idea, this idea, and this idea. I keep refining it as it goes along. I don't think a concept record should be whittled down to a thesis statement; I think it's a bunch of meditations on one central idea. Q. So it's like a block of clay and you're sculpting away to see what's inside? A. That's a generous description, but sure! Q. If the last one was you pondering relationships in the face of getting married, what emerged as your theme as you were working on "Arrows?" A. Well, the reason the record is called Arrows is that the songs are each individually barbed. I'm trying to articulate this"¦ Instead of seeing myself as a victim of circumstance, it's more that, "This is something that pisses me off, this is something I want to talk about, and I have an opinion about this."‚  The notion is that I have things to say and this is what I want to say, making direct and specific statements about individual things. Making a statement of pride and ownership over who I am and what I think. Does that make any sense? Q. Yeah. A. You can relate it on a lot of different levels. You can relate it to my personal life, my career, or anything else. There are some pretty unsavory things that happened to me personally over the past couple of years, and as this process started, I put out what I thought was a fantastic record. It did reasonably well, but I've always made a conscious effort to concentrate on the work and not on how it is perceived. Part of a musician's job on any level is understanding that you're working in some form of anonymity -- that in making a record, you do it in the dark by yourself or with a couple of other people. As much as I try to distance myself from the way the record is perceived, I want people to pay attention to it. Q. Has this been a source of frustration?‚  You've been at this a long time, and you've never gotten any of the breaks that some people seem to get. A. Yeah, but what breaks would I wish to have? Do I want to trade places with Loud Lucy? [laughs] The reality is that I make a very good living recording and writing and playing music. I have no beef about that. I made a decision a long time ago that I was not going to play 200 shows a year, because I prefer to have a life. I have no complaints. Of course, there is nobody in this business who wishes there weren't more people who knew about what they did, but I have a strong support system of fans around the world who say nice things and buy my records. They have allowed me to live a very comfortable life. It's also hard for me to understand what success in the music business looks like anymore. Who would I want to trade places with right now?‚  Who has the career that I envy? Q. People are still holding on to this outmoded concept of stardom that, aside from the Lady Gagas of the world, will not exist anymore. A. Who makes records that sound the way that my records sound that actually sells a million copies. Are there any? Q. No. A. I kind of abandoned the adolescent fantasy of what it meant to be a rock star a long time ago, but the reality is that I have made decisions along the course of my life -- I hesitate to use the word "career," but I will -- that say, "I'm going to do exactly what I want to do all the time."‚  So I've made the records that I want to make and I get to do really interesting scoring projects all the time and I get to make a living and have dinner with my wife and daughter every night. Can't complain. Tomorrow: David Singer on scoring Steppenwolf's "August: Osage County" and more.