Old Lights' new 10", Like Strangers, is a brutal love story told over six tracks that move with hypnotizing grace. Its the sort of record that you just keep listening to. Its guitars, keys and vocals tee off on one sweet spot after another, peeling off seamlessly or drowning in reverb. David Beeman, never particularly shy as a lyricist or otherwise, has plenty of arrestingly direct lines on this one ("We are not evil/We are just people"). But it's not a one-man show any more: Like Strangers is the product of a band, with Beth Bombara, Kit Hamon and John Joern all intrinsically involved in the process at more-or-less every step along the way.
The record gets its official welcome party tonight at Off Broadway -- Old Lights shares a bill with the Blind Eyes and Michigain's Nathan Kalish & the Wildfire. The show starts at 9 p.m. and you can buy Like Strangers on vinyl so freshly pressed it almost didn't make it in time. We visited three-quarters of the band in its studio on Cherokee street and talked to Beeman about what he's been doing since the last full-length and letting go of total control.
"All Noise" by Old Lights
Kiernan Maletsky: When you got back from Portland, how was your perspective on St. Louis music and music in general changed?
David Beeman: Just for the record it was Cottage Grove, Oregon. Which is twenty miles south of Eugene. It's not a hip place by any means. It's a town of 9,000.
How did the Portland thing happen?
Everyone just, when they think of Oregon and they think of a musician...
That's crazy! Because I feel like I've heard Portland thrown around a ton.
One hundred percent of people make the mistake. My close friends are like, "Dude, how was Portland?"
But: Cottage Grove is an interesting thing to talk about. I went there specifically to make a record with Richard Swift, who has kind of been a longtime friend of mine. And that was a super influential time for me. Any time you get to be around someone who is that creative and also successful, it definitely rubs off on you. You sort of just steal their ideas, and I will give everybody credit that I've ever worked with. Certain things will come into my mind when I'm writing songs and it's like, "Oh, that seems like something Richard Swift would do or David Vandervelde or the Cold War Kids or something like that."
[Laughs] It's so hard to narrow it down...
Yeah, I realize this is a huge question.
Yeah, when I want to shorten my answer it's like.... Reverb. [Laughs]
When I think about that experience, I think about reverb and distorting things... I wish I could say it better.
That's certainly something that stands out to me.
And I guess too, specific to this record, I was writing these songs in the same house as my girlfriend, in the middle of a relationship that was really struggling and suffering and was really dark at the time on a number of levels. And that was a very strange experience to be writing songs about that really weird, messed up relationship -- at the time -- and the other person can hear it. And you're playing it back on the monitors and then singing harmonies to it, making it really pretty and catchy, and then she's doing the same thing. She's making a record about it too.
It was really bizarre. In the same space, and both of us were like, "Well, we're musicians, this is what we do, and I'm not going to get pissed off if you're saying all this crazy stuff in the song I don't want people to hear." But we have to. What else am I going to write about?
I do want to make a more uplifting record next time.
You sing a duet with her on the record - is that at all awkward for you guys?
No, we've been doing it so long now, I think. She's going to sing tonight, you know, and we're probably going to share a microphone. And I'm well aware that it's really bizarre. But it's just... I don't know, really powerful and moving to me. It creates this space. What was really ugly, dark stuff is now really beautiful and really cool in a song and in a performance.
What was the inspiration for the cover shoot?
There's a book called The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer, and there's a passage in there -- I don't know if it's actually called "The Secret Knife" or if that's just what it's commonly referred to -- there are these two lovers and they've been together a long time and they become a lot alike over time. Like people do. And they also inevitably start to hate one another. So they start separately plotting to kill the other person.
They lay down to go bed one night and they both have their knives hidden. He grabs his knife to stab her in her sleep, and as the knife hits her flesh he realizes she also has a knife to his chest. And so they become stuck like that forever -- if he pulls the knife away she'll kill him and vice versa.
It seemed like a compelling and appropriate story with the context of the record and the mood of it. And honestly I'm still figuring out what it means, because it's just been such a rush getting it together. It's just been so much work, and I don't fully understand the story that inspired the artwork yet. I don't fully understand why the title has always been Like Strangers for the record. But I know that they inspire me in a way that makes me keep thinking about it.
What do you think is the most profound difference between the Old Lights of the last record and this Old Lights?
The biggest difference is we're a band now. Before it was essentially a solo project with a band name, and whoever I could get to play, pretty much, played live. But now everybody plays a bunch of different instruments, everybody sings, everybody writes parts, everybody has input.
Which was a big deal for our sound and also a big deal for me personally. Some people go their whole careers in total control, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. But for me, surrendering a lot of that was immediately obvious once we started getting into the record. I couldn't even come close to the creativity that's on this record.
Are there particular examples that stand out of things on the record you wouldn't have thought of before?
A lot of it, for me, is the vocal harmony stuff. I wasn't even there for a lot of it; it was just Kit and Beth literally just recording ideas. Like on "All Noise," on the pre-choruses, there's these really cool harmonies that Kit did. A lot the synthesizer stuff, Kit did also -- the chorus on "All Noise," specifically, used to be a guitar driven, three-chord thing, and it turned out on the record that there's no guitar on the chorus. It's all synthesizer and string stuff, which I thought was really cool. I wouldn't have thought to have done that.
I think for me, with welcoming a band, I was just afraid their ideas would be bad. I thought that would be so awkward -- I imagined all these scenarios where I'm in the situation where I'm having to tell my best friends that I don't think their ideas are good.
And I'm so glad that didn't happen. Everybody having creative input happened naturally, since we've been close and worked together musically for a long time. Each person in the band commands respect, for me, for all the ideas they've had in the past and all the bands they've been in. So it was like, "Oh, I can trust these people and trust their ideas because I genuinely like everything they've done, the songs they write, the way they play their instruments, the way they sing." I don't think there was any coaching. It was just like, "Yeah --- that's fucking great."