I’m often asked which one of the Mae records is my favorite, the answer is most consistently “Singularity.” This registers in my own mind as somewhat of a surprise. After all, if I could designate any period of time which could be attributed to a negative turning point in Mae’s tenure, it would be associated with the recording and release of Singularity, and the subsequent tour. Aside from the biographical events, the songs and sonic characteristics of this particular record don’t immediately bring to mind feelings up triumph or any elevated accomplishments. Of course, in a certain sense, the writing, recording, and release of any body of songs is an accomplishment, but with Singularity, the accomplishment registered is not similar to that of The Everglow. Furthermore, the fan reception of Singularity was disappointing. Interestingly enough, I don’t blame people for that..but at the same time, I don’t agree with them. The fact that Singularity could maintain so many different positions in my own mind is interesting to me, and I want to explain because I feel the situations and the processes surrounding that record are unique.
When asked why Singularity is my favorite of the Mae records, I explain it this way: First, the making of a record, the writing of songs, and my perception of those songs is entirely my own in a way that can’t be explained. I can easily agree with someone that a song like Sic Semper Tyrannis is not generally “good,” especially in relation to other Mae songs, but on the other hand, I think SST is a wonderful song. This parallels with the perception of the whole album. I can understand why people didn’t take to it, but in my mind the record excels because I know what it was supposed to sound like. For the song writer, the process of writing plays into the appreciation of a song just as much as the outcome. Of course, the intent holds no torch to the outcome in relation to general fan reception. So, ultimately, Singularity is my favorite because I know what we as a band were trying to do, even if we ultimately fell short. So the question I want to explore is — Why did we fall short?
To start, I think a small anecdote may frame the circumstances we were thrown into. The first song I recorded was “Brink of Disaster.” We did drums first, and Jacob killed it. Then came guitars, upon which both Dave and I contributed our parts. After hearing what was done, the producer Howard Benson wasn’t satisfied with what we did. He said it sounded to cautious, and to be fair that was not too far off. So, his diagnosis was that we were to pent up and needed to relax. To remedy this problem, he comes into the studio one afternoon and lays a stack of pornography down on the table…that was his idea to make us relax. This is the environment in which Singularity was recorded. It wasn’t raucous, it was just….weird.
An obvious and welcome question would ask why we signed to Capitol in the first place. That is indeed a good question. I’ll attempt a brief history. We signed to Capitol in October of 2006. I have a picture of the occasion. We were on our bus about to depart on a tour. At that time we were as confident in our ability as song writers as we were in our ability to be wisely discerning. Naively, yet not without heavy reflection, we saw Capital as an opportunity to get to where we’d always wanted to be, simple as that. Plus, at the time, the team we signed on too had great promise. Andy Slater, the president, while known to be somewhat erratic, was also more liberal towards those more substantially ambitious. Tom Osborn was the product manager, and he came from Vagrant. Most importantly, our A&R Louie Bandek, had been silently watching us for years…he knew the band. We were encouraged by all of this (Needlessly to say, the whole team, aside from Louie, was gone by the time Singularity was released). Plus, they released so many great bands — Radiohead, The Beatles, Sparklehorse, The Decemberists, Frank Sinatra, Elliott Smith, etc.
Surely enough, our naive and somewhat confidence induced optimism ran into challenges right away. I want to be clear. Capital didn’t make us do anything we didn’t agree to. Although, ironically, I think that our confidence blinded us to what would be very real obstacles to our goals. We thought we could come out as pure Mae, no matter what. When we started talking about producers, we certainly had a list of ideal candidates. While we loved, and still love, Ken Andrews, we wanted a new experience because we wanted to push ourselves. We wanted Brenden O’Brien (not available), Gil Norton (nope), Eric Valentine (nope). We met with Lou Giordano (who we knew because of his work with Sunny Day Real Estate) but didn’t really mesh. Suspiciously, Howard Benson was available. He was very successful at the time. All of us had reservations about Benson, but we also knew what he was capable of…we went ahead, but our enthusiasm was slowed. I personally justified the decision by reminding myself that Benson worked with TSOL in the past. Was it a coincidence that this massive producer who had worked with plenty of Capital bands was available just when we needed him? Who knows. Did Capital make us do it? No. Did they arrange it such that we would? Maybe? That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we were heading into a studio for our first major label record with a producer who makes song/creative decisions based on the LCD..that’s right… the “lowest common denominator.” The idea is that the songs have to be immediately recognizable to the busy person on the go who is listening to the radio, i.e. the music listener, not the music fan. This philosophy, of course, is entirely incongruent with Mae’s approach. Not that we didn’t recognize a value in pop appeal, it was never our main goal to be catchy. We loved the craft of pop, but not the intention to make reductive pop songs.
We had great songs. The writing sessions for Singularity happened in a southern Virginia beach town called Sandbridge. We had a big house and put all of our gear in there, slept there, lived there, wrote there. It was wonderful. We had great songs to bring to Benson, and the pre-production went pretty well. (One of the songs he hated, he said it bounced against his head and he couldn’t make sense of it..but more on that later). All was moving along well, so I often think back and try to put myself in that situation and figure out what was going on. I could discuss the sonic issues, but I’m not sure that is the main problem. The more I think about it, the more one word sticks out to me — isolation. When we recorded The Everglow, we all stayed in one apartment. For Singularity, we were split up between two apartments. When recording The Everglow, we worked together. When recording Singularity, we were isolated..we were compartmentalized. Dave did vocals upstairs with Howard while I did guitars in the main room. Rob had to fight to get a good work space, and thanks to the editor Paul DeCarlo he got one, but it was isolated. This arrangement infected the process. We stopped working together, we stopped hanging out together. We didn’t actively avoid each other, it just occurred circumstantially. Our vision for the album was splintered and we forgot what we were doing. We knew the parts, but we forgot the songs. There was a whole lot on our plate, and it was hard to navigate priorities. We would arrive at around 10 or 11 am, set up, eat lunch, then get to work. Dave would head upstairs and I would go to track guitars. Wait another 15 minutes while the head engineer checked stocks and then got started. The assistants were great and the best day in the studio happened when they were running the board.
This working environment was as metaphoric as it was literal. I think that is what ended up being so consequential. From this very real split in the band, i.e. being split up between two apartments, it became representational of the interpersonal connections within the band. I don’t mean to introduce a dramatic event, rather, the communication between members of the band took a back seat to the ambition of the band. This is why, to this day, I have am very suspicious of the so often heralded characteristic. Ambition is as polluting as it is necessary. It’s only functional and productive when it is secondary to the interpersonal connections within the band. Of course, we also placed a lot of pressure on ourselves. Our team at Capital did their best to assuage our fears and keep us focused, but that was probably all rhetoric. There was certainly a bottom line. After all, the label spent over $500,000 on it….compare that with Destination: Beautiful, which cost around $3,000 or so if I’m not mistaking.
There is a lot of social capital in speaking of the ills of the label music industry, and I will never deny that those ills exist…but I think that is a cop-out. Well, it would be a cop-out for Mae. There is a very real consequence to claiming the inability to work with a particular producer, but this is the weird thing….I’m not sure why we didn’t say something. We contested certain decisions, for example, we were very reluctant about the changes made to “Crazy 8’s.” We were very involved in the song order (Interesting side story: a deciding influence in the decision was listening stations. Initially, what ended up being the secret track on the record “Last Transmission I” was the first track, but we changed it because we were worried about what people might think if that’s the first song they hear. All of those industry peeps are very aware of the diminishing attention span of listeners to which they are attributing to). Maybe our complacency was a result of the abundance of tension elsewhere, maybe we were in denial, maybe we thought it was normal…maybe we were unaware.
Ultimately, the record, I think, played a large part in the break up of the 5 of us as a band. The tour for the record was sold as an underplay (i.e. playing small venues on purpose to sell them out and create the illusion of a special event) and we didn’t sell out the tour. That was a big blow. Maybe one could consider us ungrateful, but that would be inaccurate. I think we were very grateful, but ended up being disillusioned. The narratives weren’t playing out as we had thought. We all had personal affairs, or concerns, that became much more real when we experienced the first hint of slowing down. Up until Singularity, everything had been increasing. We were working hard, but it wasn’t working. It became frustrating..and we forgot everything. The fans could tell…maybe that’s what they reacted to. Maybe it wasn’t Singularity they didn’t like, but they began to become suspicious of the band they had come to enjoy and trust. We were reacting to phantoms. I remember one time our manager asked in a very general sense, “what is wrong?” I suppose a lot. Determination without reflection is a killer, but productive reflection is hard to attain in real time.
Ironically, my favorite Mae song is included as a B-side to Singularity. This is the track that Howard Benson couldn’t make sense of (he said it bounced off his skull) — Novocaine. I think this song is representative of a band at the top of their game. Interestingly, it was a song recorded without Howard Benson or the head engineer Mike Plotnikoff. Mark mixed the introductory drum loop from samples of live traffic he recorded while on tour. The bridge included vocals from our friend Kenna. Everything about the song is super cool to me. The most penetrating thing about the song when I listen to it now are the lyrics. I’m not sure what Dave was focusing on…I know it had to do with being in LA. That city is strange and every band has their own experience with it..ours was not the best, but we didn’t hate it. It does strain though. I think, relative to our experience there, the lyrics that inform the most are “see the master strike up his band to play,” and “I’m not the monster that you think I am.” I think that reveals a lot, both cynicism and desperation, which are two words that sum up our Singularity experience pretty well.
So, why is it my favorite? I think it’s my favorite because of the emotional and entirely subjective complexity the record represents to me. I love the riffs on the record. I love so much about our playing, about our parts. The bass line to “Brink of Disaster,” the keyboard line over the guitar riff on the chorus of “Telescopes,” the vocals on “Reflections.” So much went into the songs, but so little came out. The songs have so many great things going on, but it’s as if those things don’t come out together in a way that translates any essence. It’s perplexing. Also, to end this whole thing, I think the cover art is perfect and fantastic. I found it on a gentleman’s art page, he’s from West Virginia. I can’t remember his name. Capital chose “Sometimes I Can’t Make It Alone” as the single, which they requested we write after the main sessions I believe. It was a horrible choice for the single, entirely non-representative..the video was weird too. The song is ok I think. Who knows?