By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
By Chaz Kangas
By Allison Babka
By Bob McMahon
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By Tef Poe
By Mabel Suen
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."