The Album “Singularity”

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?

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24 comments
  1. I’ve always wondered about Singularity’s bad rap. I enjoyed the album well enough and still listen to it now and then (great music for cruising down the highway). Very interesting to hear some back-story on it’s creation, especially so long after the fact.

    On a side note, I had never heard the song “Novocaine” before just now, but I love it! Sounds like a foreshadow to the song “The Fight’ or maybe “Over & Over” from the Afternoon EP.

  2. jaron said:

    thanks for sharing! i’ve been a fan a long time and i always wonder what certain albums turn out the way they do.

    • jaron said:

      why*

  3. Sean said:

    I think one thing that may be most amazing about singularity is the fact that the songs do leave a bit open. While the lyrics may not be applicable to all for all of the listeners and fans,the obvious emotion in it, whether frustration or otherwise, is obviously apparent: it’s strong. Singing Novocaine along on my car with my stereo turned up has been practically a ritual for me when things get tough. Suspension brings me back; brink of disaster keeps me on track and Reflections, well, it helps me reflect. The songs that are on this album (and of course the other albums as well) allow me to put myself in the music. It may not be a rule book, hell it may not be a guideline, but it has this way of letting my immerse myself in feeling.

    While these songs may not have the amazing story as such songs like “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making” or “The House That Fire Built”(or so many others that I’ve failed to mention), I love the fact that I can pick a Mae song for any mood that I’m feeling. Novocaine and Sic Semper Tyrannis help me when I can’t yell at my boss but I can damn sure sing along with passion, Waiting reminds me that I’m not alone in how I feel and Home reminds me where I want to go in life. Every single song that Mae has put out relates to me, and to all of the fans of Mae. Singularity is no different, and I thank all of you for how your music has helped me throughout my life.

  4. Zach said:

    I always felt like “Just Let Go” should have been the single.

  5. Singularity was my favorite Mae record as well. Probably in part because it was the first one I heard in its entirety; probably because certain songs like “Release Me,” “Reflections,” “Novocaine,” and “Just Let Go,” strike such a chord with me and are among my all-time favorite songs, ever. There are also more elements of grittiness on Singularity that I felt weren’t quite there in The Everglow, though the latter is more cohesive as a unit I’m sorry to hear that it was a substantial cause of Mae’s breakup, but I’m glad you wrote this post. It’s very insightful and well-written. I’m glad you can appreciate the things that worked (and they worked WELL) despite the unfortunate aftermath. (And yeah, that was a poor single choice…Novocaine, Crazy 8’s, or Just Let Go would’ve worked way better.) Thanks again for sharing 🙂

  6. Mike jak said:

    Being a fan since before the everglow, this just makes me think, what could MAE become if left to their own devices…and seeing them in Lawrence and kc almost every time since I saw them open for relient k, I can only wonder. This just explains so much I know I could never understand since I was not there. And no, singularity is not my favorite currently, but now I want to go back and listen to the songs like suggested but no, not my favorite. But the everglow is also not mine either. When they came together a second time and wrote the 3 MAE ep’s and they just wrote solid MAE music, there cannot be anything better. That was just pure music; pure, unadulterated, MAE music. I only wonder what other amazing music could be created if these men had even just a few more months together, I guess a fan can dream right? But none the less, I understand, and I’m not disappointed in anyway with them as a fan. They did what at the time they thought was best, and honestly, as a fan, what more could you ask for in a group than them always doing their best?

  7. katie said:

    Wow, thanks for sharing this! It’s so interesting, as a fan, to get this kind of insight. It makes me sad to think about going through this, especially the expectations versus reality aspect. With so many of the right ingredients, it *does* make sense that the final product would be the best you’d ever done.

    Anecdotally, I have introduced several friends to Mae. One of them came with me to a show at the Cleveland House of Blues sometime in 2006 (the particular date is lost to me at this point). He loved you guys and told me he’d never heard anything quite like your sound. He was so stoked when Singularity came out and he liked it a lot more than I did; it’s still one of his favorite albums. Part of the difference in our reactions to it is the nostalgia factor, for sure– he was a newer fan with less of a set idea about what a Mae album should sound like. But Mae was also the closest he came to liking anything under the potentially-emo category (in college I insisted I liked “melodic rock,” and one of my hardcore-scene friends insisted it was “wuss rock,” haha). Singularity’s sound overall was closer to the other bands he loved, and it was radio-friendly. He loved it. I doubt he’s the only fan who calls it their favorite Mae record.

    This post definitely made me want to dig up my copy of this album and give it a few more listens.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and please know how important your work in music has been to me. Mae is one of the first bands I connected deeply with. I always appreciated how kind you all were to your fans. : )

  8. Michelle Shickles said:

    Very insightful. I have always loved you guys as musicians and even more as people. Every cd you came out with was moving in its own way. My husband and I went to every concert and were thrilled to meet you. That was something so special about you all. You always made time for your fans. We mourned your decision to breakup but understood. I appreciate the honesty in your blog and only pray for healing amongst the group. You have a strong following if you ever decide to get back together. Love to you from us all back in Michigan!

  9. Thanks for writing this Zach. I have been a Mae fan since Sky’s the Limit back in VB. (I think my silly little band played a battle of the bands with Mae back in the day!) As someone Who is not in the mainstream music industry, I find all that you are writing here very interesting. I actually agree with you in that I think that singularity was a great album. Obviously you have a far different take on it as the creator of the album and I do as a fan and listener. I had the opportunity to visit with you all on your tour after the release of singularity. This was right after Rob had left the band and you were working with new bass player Josiah and a new keyboard player Robert Smith. I noticed a distinct change in the sound of the band on this tour. I got to hear you in Grand Rapids Michigan the first stop on your tour and then again later in Detroit Michigan. The fans indeed did seem to react differently to these shows that I had seen in the past after Everglow. For some reason the show lacked the emotional energy and high-quality musicality that I had come to see from Mae in the past. Perhaps I was seeing reflection of what you described in this blog. Nevertheless I thought singularity was a triumph. And I found myself listening to and craving to hear songs from that album more than the others. This also could because I listened to those first two albums repeatedly… For me it was the morning afternoon and evening EPs that lost my interest. They felt very contrived and forced almost as if you were trying to hard. Nevertheless Mae remains one of my favorite bands of all time. You all influenced my musical life and career in an extraordinary way and I find myself even to this day still hearing elements of Mae in my songwriting. I will continue to celebrate and share the songs and experiences I had as a long time fan of Mae.

  10. Sandbridge is a place of inspiration, and still holds some of my happiest childhood memories. The fans who have heard the full scope of your work, not just a radio single, are more willing to journey with you through the hills and valleys of albums, but those who have been to your shows, talked to you, sat outside while Jacob plays a water jug, will always come back for more because we respect you as not only artists, but people. Keep up the aesthetic experience for us 🙂

  11. I think Singularity is an amazing album. Very interesting to read more about the process of making it. “Just Let Go” and “Brink of Disaster” are two of my favorite songs, but the whole album is wonderful.

  12. Derek said:

    Zach,

    It’s so cool to read your thoughts on singularity. Admittedly singularity was a busy initially and I went to the show with as tall as lions and dear and the headlights. One of the greatest line ups of all time. I remember watching live videos of “waiting” before the album came out thinking “this thing is going to rock” but for whatever reason I can’t explain, I think it might have been the line “let’s take down the curtains now and lay blankets here on the floor” that turned me off, but I regret not loving it at first it took up until (m)orning came out before I listened again. Now reflections, home, waiting, crazy 8s (both versions) rocket, just let go… Dude all these songs are killer and I love everything Mae has done. I love this write up… Could you do this for morning afternoon evening too I’d love to see where your mind was during the making of “the fight song” – also waiting might be like my favorite guitar track by mae…

    Will there ever be a singularity vinyl? What would it honestly take to make that happen legally?

    • Capitol owns Singularity, we can’t do anything with the songs. We would if we could.

      • Colin said:

        I guess when they sink half a million into it, that’s not surprising. Would have been neat to hear more of the songs if they were written in the usual Mae style. There were quite a number of riff elements that I thought were neat but overall I was very disappointed with the album (sorry).

        A somewhat relevant story to this journal entry: The first time I heard destination beautiful, I had purchased it on a whim from a used CD store in a small town and was driving through the praries with the band. I remember it being such a great listening experience. Several years later I bought singularity, I was again on tour. This time I got it from a big box store and also took a first listen driving through praries. The stars aligned perfectly, but unfortunately the nostalgia didn’t really come back the way I had hoped.

  13. Aaron said:

    Zach, I really appreciate how you articulated your thoughts on Singularity and the recording process. Fascinating. However, it gives me a strong desire to hear the demos to Singularity. What are the odds those could surface someday? I know you released one for Crazy 8’s during the (M)(A)(E) project but it would be great to hear the rest. Do you own the demos or does Capitol?

      • Aaron said:

        Bummer indeed. Thanks for the reply.

  14. Sheyn Love said:

    Unfortunately , I was one of the Destination Beautiful and Everglow fans that “fell away” when Singularity came out…
    To me, the Everglow was the representation of Mae really finding themselves (their sound, and creativity), and the soundtrack to my life at the time.
    When Singularity came out, it was like Mae had changed from who I thought they were.. andi lost that personal connection i had to the Multisensory Aesthetic Experience… and it was just another record.
    However, i might not have given it as good of a chance as i should have. It’s interesting to hear this perspective of the album… and i think i will dig it up and give it another chance with an ear that digs deeper into the songs.

  15. Novocaine is definitely my favorite song! I just love how the train sounds transition into the percussion of the track; ingenious. And I have to agree that Singularity is also my favorite album–I was drawn in upon first listen–though I do love each and every Mae album, and hope for more eventual releases.

  16. I’ve always thought Just Let Go or Crazy 8s would have been perfect singles – (also, I assumed from the setlist for the Farewell show on the Evening DVD that “Just Let Go” was the only Singularity song the entire band continued to like as a whole)

    But now I’m curious, what changes were made to Crazy 8s?

  17. What a great write up. I found MAE because I was a fan of Unsung Zeros. I remember meeting Unsung Zeros in a small club in San Diego. When they broke up and I found you were in a new band I took a listen to MAE. I was hooked! MAE is my favorite band. I am one of the fans who LOVED Singularity. What a great rock album! It was really interesting to get some behind the scenes look at this album.

  18. I found Mae sometime between D:B and Everglow, and The Everglow is my undisputed favorite – it hangs together so well as a cohesive set of songs, and it’s a tough act to follow. Singularity was always going to be “the album after the Everglow” no matter how good it was. It’s not as much of a start-to-finish listen sort of album to me, but there are a lot of songs and moments on Singularity that I really love. “Just Let Go” is pure bliss, and that climax in “Release Me” is amazing. “Sometimes I Can’t Make It…” always seemed like an odd choice as lead single to me – it’s just got a bit of an abrasive quality to it that keeps me from embracing it.

    I saw a great outdoor live show from Mae during this period just down the street from my office on the Georgia Tech campus – it’s probably my favorite of the many Mae shows I saw, and I hope the Everglow tour makes it far enough down south next year so I can see another one!

  19. Wow what an interesting read. Ive been a huge fan of Mae since 2004 when a friend gave me Destination Beautiful. Blew my mind then, and still does today. When I got Everglow I was even more smitten. I remember the day I got singularity. I jammed it all day. I loved it, but I definitely knew it was *different. It had a more polished *label sound to it. I didn’t mind that at all. At the time I just figured “well its that time for Mae, theyre moving up!”. Its funny, I never thought that the first two albums sounded bad, or even subpar to anything else in my CD library(who has a CD library today??? lol). Honestly, Mae was and is still my favorite band. Good songwriting and musicianship transcends the “record label” sound. Anyways, I appreciate this write up Zach. I have always wondered about that time period for Mae. I had the pleasure of meeting you guys after the show in Houston this past May, and actually chatting for a half hour or so. It was absolutely a night I’ll never forget. Thanks for that. I wish you all the best in your endeavors from here out. Of course, we all hope for more Mae albums down the road… : )

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