LouFest preview interview: David Beeman of Old Lights
David Beeman, of St. Louis band Old Lights, likes pop hits and the fact that his band’s name is not rooted in meaning.
The Southern California native and current St. Louisan sat down with me in his Cherokee District production studio, Native Sound, to talk about Old Light’s evolution, his songwriting process and why he and his bandmates are happy to fill the current record production void in St. Louis.
Erin Chapman: Can you tell me about the origin of your band name?
David Beeman: Kristin [Dennis], who is in the band Née, likes to go on these Wikipedia trails, and basically we needed a band name and she just found it. It’s not necessarily rooted in anything. We just liked the way it sounded. Nobody in the band had anything to do with [selecting the name]. Hey Kristin, were you in the band at the time you picked our name?
Kristin Dennis: You told me that you would buy me dinner at Mangia if I gave you my band name.
David Beeman: Oh yeah, it was her band name that she found, and I told her that I would buy her dinner at Mangia if I could have it. I like that it doesn’t carry any meaning because it’s just better that way. I wouldn’t want our band name to have anything to do with who we are or what we sound like. As long as it’s not awkward, that’s all I care about.
What’s the history of the band?
I wrote songs for years on my own, basement recording type stuff. Probably six or seven years before I ever started an actual band, I recorded and played all of the instruments myself. I always wanted to start a band with my songs, I just never tried. I would show my friends all of my music, my recordings, and when my songs were cool enough people [would] want to play with me. So that was how the first version of Old Lights started.
In St. Louis it was friends of mine who liked my music enough to invest their time. People fell in and out as I was taking it more seriously. Beth [Bombara] was the first drummer in the band. No one else who was in the original lineup is in the band now. Just typical stuff: People losing interest, me losing interest, people not getting along. There’s been so many people in the band who are not in the band now. I guess the best way to say it is that it got to a point where the songs were interesting enough to the right people that now it’s a real band. Not me and a bunch of hired players. Everybody contributes creativity and plays on the record and has an equal voice. To me we sound like a rock ‘n’ roll band now. I feel as though I’ve built something, some kind of structure myself.
How does the songwriting process work for you?
For the “Like Strangers” EP, I had a bunch of songs in various states. From really noisy stuff to completed songs that I thought had most of the parts, even the lead guitar lines, piano stuff, harmony. I brought it to the band. It was a fairly normal process. They would tell me what they liked and didn’t like. They told me what they thought could be better. That’s how it worked. It was all the way from bare bones, forming structure together to other songs that were more whole.
Music before lyrics?
No. Hand in hand. For the last EP, it was sit down at piano, guitar, synthesizer and just sing a melody and sing words with those first few chords. It’s days and months of this. A specific lyric with a specific melody over specific chords that happens in about 30 seconds, and if that works then I will keep writing the song. That’s the way it works for me. It’s fairly spontaneous in the beginning because it’s a random singing of whatever, and playing whatever, and if it really sticks in my mind and I like it, if it’s pretty or catchy, then I’ll write a song — and that will be the center of the song. I’ve never been able to write lyrics before music. There are some songs where the music has come first, but it’s really difficult for me to write lyrics and the melody over a piece of music that exists, I feel like I’m doing Karaoke or something. It just feels awkward. So for me it’s always been that a song happens at the exact same time that the piece of music is happening and being made, at the exact same time as the initial lyrics are being written.
Do you like the collaborative process of working with a band? Do you ever want to branch off solo?
We all play in a few bands together. I think that we’re pretty fulfilled, and our time is completely spent because we play a lot of shows and we are making records. It’s bringing Beth out of being a solo artist. I do sound and help with Kristin’s band Née, and I’m being slowly integrated into playing live. I’m scared if I did a solo thing I wouldn’t want to use any of my good songs because I want to save those for the people who are in Old Lights. They make [my songs] better. I don’t have solo ambitions right now.
What are the ambitions of the band? Do you want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone?
I think with Old Lights, I could almost speak for everyone in the band, our goal is to make really cool, interesting records. Not just for us. We want people to like our music because we like playing shows and seeing people dance and have a good time, partying together. That is something we all appreciate and love in life. We want to make music that people enjoy, and we absolutely want to make a living off of making music. If that could happen with just Old Lights, that would be awesome.
Also we just opened this studio Native Sound. Kit [Hamon] and I and John [Joern] are studio engineers and we produce records. If overall we can figure out a way to make a living, putting out records and playing shows, touring, that’s our goal. I don’t have anything specific like the cover of Rolling Stone, but yeah we just want to put out cool, interesting records. I think we want to put out different records, sonically different. I know the next record I make I don’t want the theme to be what this one was because I want to grow and challenge myself. I think we’ll always do pop music for the most part.
When I was doing this myself I would go to bass, drums, guitars, pianos, and now it’s like those instruments and a lot of synthesizers and a lot of guitar pedals and a lot of noise. It keeps becoming this bigger sound. I don’t know if we are necessarily going to become noisier. We are interested in making a record that involves a lot of shit going on. That’s what we are realizing, that’s maybe our strength. I can’t get away with playing acoustic guitar and singing. I don’t have this beautiful voice that’s going to capture everybody. We’re growing into this thing that is pop but also weird.
What music do you and your bandmates like? What music do you draw on for inspiration?
We all like a lot of different stuff. We all like classic rock and pop music. Paul McCartney’s “Ram” record, one of my favorite records ever. I’m a big Beach Boys fan. The hits, I like the hits. Kit is really eclectic, he listens to tons of hip hop. When I met him he listened to what I thought was “nerd” music. John is a classic rock fan, and Beth is into the same kind of thing. We all listen to classic rock and pop and psychedelic music.
In the last record, there was a lot of autobiographical stuff, which I hadn’t done before, and it was good for me to do. We all sort of come into [the band] feeding off of each other. I think that we secretly want to impress one another with creativity, and I think there is this underlying bit of rivalry that spurs our creativity. We have hundreds of records that we listen to. It’s all over the place.
Are you from St. Louis?
No, I’m from Southern California.
How did you come to St. Louis?
My family had all moved here is the short story. Kit’s from Illinois, John is the only St. Louis born and raised person in the band and Beth is from Michigan. I don’t think there is any compelling reason for any of us to live here. We just do. It is interesting because Beth and Kristin’s moms were good friends when they were pregnant and Beth and Kristin took baths together when they were infants. And they’ve know each other their whole lives. Which I love (laughs).
How does living in St. Louis contribute to your work?
A lot of other cities, bigger cities, might have more of a sound. I don’t think St. Louis has a sound, which for me making music in band, I like because we don’t all sound the same. I don’t think the bands in this city are influenced by each other. A lot of people who grew up here with the whole Uncle Tupelo thing, [I can tell ] these guys definitely grew up here. I can definitely hear Uncle Tupelo in their music. But we’re not like that at all. I feel like we are all free to do what we want. Because nobody fits in, you don’t have to worry about fitting in. For me personally as a songwriter I don’t think the Midwest or living in St. Louis influences my songwriting. What does influence it is the fact that I moved here and separated from that life, and living in other places. That affects me, not this region.
Do you tour much?
No, it just hasn’t been our focus at all. With this record it’s the first time that we are a real band. It feels like we were birthed six or seven months ago. Everyone now has ownership in the band and actually has a commitment. They are now willing to make sacrifices. We’ve played Chicago with Delta Spirit and Richard Swift and Columbia with Cold War Kids this year. We’ve done a little bit of stuff. I think we are going to do some PR stuff with this EP, but really we want to put out another record as soon as we can and next year it will be our focus to get on the road. Having two new records and everyone figuring out their life, we all still have full-time jobs, and John has a baby. It takes time for us to plan.
I’m excited to see Old Lights at LouFest.
Yeah that’s going to be fun. I think the thing I’m most excited about LouFest are that it will be fun to play on a big stage. There’s going to be wonderful free food and drinks. We get to party and play all day and watch great bands. We’re practicing a bunch for it.
Any advice for bands who are coming up?
I wish that we could get some advice. I don’t feel like I’m in a place to give advice. So many bands are traveling and playing shows all over the place. We’re still here in St. Louis. I would say, “Record in our studio, Native Sound.” I’ve been recording bands for like 12 years, and Kit’s been recording bands. We’re officially going to be open pretty soon and we’ll have a big party.
There’s a producer void in town, which we’re very happy to fill. We love doing it. Most of the studios, you plug in and play and the engineer doesn’t have anything to say about your songs or your lyrics or your harmonies or your parts, but that’s our thing here. We want to meet with bands and listen to their songs and tell them what we think. Nobody does that. Everybody is so polite. I think we need people in town who are willing to have an honest opinion in the recording studio. I think that bands make better records that way. It’s happening everywhere else, but it’s not happening here. That’s our goal and mission — to produce records here, not just record them.
Old Lights performs at LouFest on Sunday, August 28 in Forest Park.