Interview with the Consummate Chicago Musician David Singer

This article appeared on the AV Club on August 17, 2010.

Ever since his stint in ‘90s psych-rock outfit Kid Million, David Singer has been a quietly influential player in Chicago’s music scene. Singer went solo on Deep Elm in 2000, but the label best known for its The Emo Diaries compilations proved an awkward fit for the pop classicist. After breaking from the label, Singer extended his reach across Chicago’s cultural community, producing the Intonation Music Festival (which spawned Pitchfork’s,) and scoring Steppenwolf’s Tony-award-winning play August: Osage County. On his new release Arrows, Singer offers a set of meticulously-wrought psychedelic pop with barbed lyrics, a stark contrast to 2007’s contemplative East of the Fault Line

In preparation of the Arrows release show at Lincoln Hall at 8 p.m. on Thursday, August 19, Singer spoke with The A.V. Club about his history in Chicago music.

The A.V. Club Chicago: Kid Million played during an era of Chicago indie rock that’s been basically canonized. What’s your most representative memory from that time?

David Singer: We opened for Alanis Morissette the day that Jagged Little Pill went platinum. We went on stage and the place was filled with 14-year-old girls. When we got to the last song I thought, ‘fuck it, I’m gonna stage dive.’ I put my guitar down and took three steps and just laid out. Not only did the sea of people completely part, but I took four teenage girls out like bowling pins. The next night, we opened for Killdozer and Melt Banana at the Empty Bottle. Nobody there knew what to make of us either.

AVC: After Kid Million’s final record, you recorded your first solo album for emo label Deep Elm. How did that work out? 

DS: I was the weird old pop guy. Emo was like a religion to some people. I had no idea what it was, but I was receptive to anyone who thought my stuff was good. I went on a label package tour. There was a handful of people in the front who were into it and a bunch of people with the haircuts who weren’t interested. After two records, I got off Deep Elm, and had a really rough couple of years where both my parents died. I wrote a record called The Stars Burn Out, and you can hear me working through a bunch of shit on it.

AVC: Around that time you became involved in the Intonation Music Festival, which had a brief but notable run. How did it start, and why did it end after only two festivals?

DS: My brother [Jonathan Singer] and Mike Simons wanted to put on a music festival, and partnered with Mike Reed. When Mike left for Pitchfork, I took over as the production manager for the second festival. We came very close to doing a third one, but realized that we are people who love music and that’s not what those events are about. They are lifestyle marketing events. I’ve had very few musical epiphanies at events like that--20,000 teenagers standing on a baseball diamond is not the ideal way to consume music, and I don’t want to spend six months of my life making that happen.

AVC: What was it like for a rock guy like you to enter the cloistered theater world and score August: Osage County?

DS: It was a very non-rock experience. To the credit of [director] Anna Shapiro and [playwright] Tracy Letts, I made a non-traditional score and they just let me go. The show is an exploration of family and identity, so instead of doing a grandiose John Williams orchestral score, I used a jazz combo, and abandoned whatever expectations there were.

The irony that I basically fucked around in the music business for 12 years, and the first play I scored was August: Osage County, is not lost on me. If nothing else, it has conferred some credibility on my life’s work, to be involved in something that grown-ups think is important.

AVC: Your last release was very stripped-down, while Arrows is far more orchestrated. Did your scoring work influence this shift?

DS: On East of the Fault Line, I wanted to make a straight singer-songwriter record, sort of the lost Glen Campbell record. This time, I was ready to make a bigger, more ambitious record. Doing the scoring stuff taught me about arranging, how to leave space in songs to allow the parts that are there to breathe.

AVC: The songs sound much more pointed and angry than in the past. Was that intentional?

DS: We live in a culture that celebrates victimhood. This record is about the catharsis of being angry as opposed to being sad. Each song is from the first person, and directed outward. The songs are dark and mean and hopefully a bit funny, but it’s the mood I’m in.