Most musicians cut their teeth the old-fashioned way: They start a group in high school, play an endless string of "Battle of the Bands"-type showcases, graduate to the city's dank all-ages clubs and finally start playing somewhat-decent gigs at real venues. If bands make it through that gauntlet, they've already won half the battle.
David Beeman, leader of the local quintet Old Lights, chose a slightly different path. While he certainly played his share of sketchy gigs as a drummer in loud and fast punk bands, the California native and St. Louis transplant has seen the inner workings of mid-level indie stardom as a road manager and sound engineer for acclaimed rock quartet the Cold War Kids. After securing the gig through a long-time friendship with Cold War Kids bassist Matt Maust, Beeman packed his bags and hit the road. It hardly mattered that he had never managed a band or run live sound before.
"I had no idea what I was talking about," the 28-year-old Beeman explains. "But I knew I wanted to go on the road, so I told them that I could tour manage them and do sound. It was the first thing I ever did in my life that was 'fake it till you make it.'"
His trial by fire came right as Cold War Kids was riding what Beeman calls the "prime-time, blog-buzz kind of shit." "I learned how to tour manage and then I slowly learned sound, which was terrifying because they were always playing in front of sold-out crowds," he says.
Beeman's years on the road as tour manager and sound engineer — which later included tenures with acts such as Tokyo Police Club, Delta Spirit and Elvis Perkins — have shown him several possible pathways to success. And whatever he picked up on the road must have worked: Old Lights played its first official gig in April of this year, and after only about fifteen shows, the band has become one of the most talked-about — and most promising — new bands to emerge from St. Louis in the last few years.
Over drinks in the dimly lit wine cellar at Brennan's in the Central West End, where until recently Beeman tended bar, the lanky, bearded singer-songwriter discussed his plans for Old Lights. Beeman is modest about his talents but forthright in outlining his goals, speaking excitedly about plans to record and tour and punctuating his speech with an occasional Gatling-gun laugh.
Old Lights' ascent is first and foremost a product of the band's songs. Built around piano and guitar, a typical live set will touch on jangle-pop, ramped-up folk songs, Brill Building-era standards and a few moments of heart-on-sleeve clarity. As a singer, Beeman pushes his high, sweet tenor without straining it, knowing that the band's easy-to-swallow sweetness belies the emotional heft of his lyrics.
But along with great songs comes a solid business plan. Rather than play every local show that comes its way, Old Lights has chosen to pursue opening slots for national indie bands. To date, Old Lights has opened for Blind Pilot and the Constantines, and it played a set in the Halo Bar following the Decemberists' sold-out concert at the Pageant. Beeman used his connections from the road to get on decent bills, a maneuver that has given the group more exposure than most up-and-coming bands.
"Everyone has their own philosophy on how to become successful," Beeman says. "For our band, I just didn't think playing a bunch of crappy shows every month would be how we would do it. I had a chance to take — I don't know if it's necessarily the high road, but saw the opportunity to play really good shows, so I took it."
The who-knows-whom connections in the indie-rock universe don't stop at opening slots; Old Lights' forthcoming debut is a product of such relationships. Beeman has frequently toured as a drummer for indie singer-songwriter David Vandervelde. A chance meeting with Chris Swanson, the head of Vandervelde's record label, Secretly Canadian, led to the release of his first batch of songs. Swanson's encouragement was the first payoff after years of woodshedding his tunes.
"I was blown away — I had never given [demos] to an industry type," Beeman says. "It was really flattering and exciting. I just kept sending him demos." Ten of those demos comprise Old Lights' debut record, Every Night Begins the Same, which will be released October 20 on the Secretly Canadian imprint St. Ives. (That same imprint released the debut EP by local garage-rock combo the Radical Sons this summer.) The label will press only 200 vinyl LPs, which will be available only through mail order; the label will also handle digital distribution for the tracks.
It's hardly a large-scale release, but it allows Beeman to make his opening salvo from a respected indie enclave. And he's not worried that the LP will get lost in the shuffle — in fact, the limited pressing suits him.
"That's what St. Ives does — rarities, live stuff, stuff that's kind of fucked up or demos — that's what they put out. It's just to build mythology around Secretly Canadian," he says. "It's weird that my very first record ever getting put out is what I think of as demos, but I'm totally proud of those demos. They're thought out and everything, but I always imagined re-recording them."
Beeman need not be so modest. The recordings have a certain loose, off-the-cuff feel, but the songs themselves are carefully crafted and showcase his adherence to classic pop dynamics: ebullient choruses, clever turns of phrase and songs that are, above all else, memorably melodic and charmingly catchy.
Songwriting didn't come naturally to Beeman. Growing up in California, he played drums in bands until his early twenties. After a spell where he was, in his words, "not doing well," he moved in with his parents, who had relocated to Ballwin. He began waiting tables at a fine-dining restaurant and spending all his free time trying to tackle pop music.
"I had no friends; I had nothing," he recalls. "I bought a digital twelve-track recorder, and my brother had some guitars. I had kinda played guitar — I knew about three chords. I couldn't sing worth a damn, and I couldn't write anything."
Taking what he terms a "blue-collar" approach to songwriting, Beeman began planting the seeds for what would become Old Lights material. "I read for four or five hours a day, and I played guitar and sang and recorded for another five or six [hours] every single day for about a year and a half. I still didn't make anything cool, but I thought it was great. It's horrifying to listen back."
Such workmanlike dedication to his craft — and his no-bullshit ability to evaluate his own work — helps Beeman treat his role as a songwriter and bandleader like a discipline and not some passing fancy.
"I think that's one advantage of being a drummer," he says. "I wasn't a little kid when I started writing songs. I had enough sense to know that I sucked. It was apparent every single day. No matter how cool I wanted to be, I couldn't play it or sing it. So I had a lot of work to do, and that stuck with me."
Instead of celebrating the release of Every Night with the usual album-release show and a string of gigs, Beeman has already begun work on what he hopes will be two future Old Lights records. To do so, he called on another industry connection: singer-songwriter Richard Swift (another Secretly Canadian artist), who invited Beeman to record in his studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon. The connection with Swift is a match made in indie-rock heaven: Both men share a love of piano-based pop, wryly observant lyrics and a high, yearning voice.
"I've always loved the way his records sound," Beeman says of Swift. "I just approached him and said, 'What do you think about me coming up there and reading, writing, fly-fishing and making records?' He's totally down with that."
Beeman and pianist Kristin Dennis (who's also his girlfriend) are there now recording. When they return to St. Louis, hopefully with two records in tow, don't expect Beeman to sit still for too long. As a once and future road warrior, he hopes to embark on a national tour in the near future.
"I love the freedom in it," Beeman says of touring. "It's a complete bitch, and nobody understands unless they do it, but it suits me.
"Other than playing music or recording music, all I can do is bartend. And I don't like that," he continues, laughing. "It just feels like my proper place. It's an adventure, and I like that about it."
Every Night Begins the Same is available via www.scdistribution.com starting October 20.