David Beeman has spent most of his adult life working in the music industry. He's served as a roadie, tour manager and sound man for indie-rock tours both big and small; he's a founder and part-owner of the Cherokee neighborhood's Native Sound Studio; and as the driving force behind Old Lights, he's been the leader of a respected local group. But on December 31, 2016, the 36-year-old did something he hadn't done in many years: sing his own songs in front of a live audience.
This was no mere open mic night, either. Beeman and his band performed for an 800-person sold-out crowd at Delmar Hall for Pokey LaFarge's New Year's Eve bash. LaFarge, who had just wrapped recording his upcoming album Manic Revelations at Native Sound with Beeman serving as engineer and co-producer, offered him the gig in early December, leaving him little time to assemble a band to recreate his lush and woozy songs.
Over drinks at the Whiskey Ring in early February, Beeman reflects on that opening slot, which capped a busy and tumultuous year.
"It was one of the most freeing experiences in forever," Beeman says of the performance, which saw the singer and guitarist backed by seven other musicians. "My personal life has gone through a lot of changes; career-wise I've been working my ass off and doing everything I possibly can with music, either in the studio or on tour."
After that high-profile gig, Beeman started 2017 in earnest, releasing Slow Fade, a four-song EP, on Bandcamp on January 1 (a cassette tape of the songs will be available at a release concert on February 24 at Off Broadway). On this EP, Beeman reasserts himself as one of St. Louis' foremost pop-song craftsmen after a long hiatus from airing his songs publicly — and a busy few years as engineer and producer for dozens of local albums.
The opening track "Thoroughbred" is a post-partum ballad that finds Beeman at his most languorous, intoxicated by the heavy tread of piano chords and emboldened by the rush of resonant synthesizers. The next song, "How Do You Fool Someone," uses much the same palette — and some of the same accusations and mea culpas — but pulses with a manic, jittery energy.
"There's a little bit of a mystical element to the first two songs on the tape," he says. "I was writing things that I sensed, that hadn't happened. And then they did happen. I don't know how to think of that. I don't think of myself as a teller of the future, but it raises questions of things I sense. Do I desire it to be this way? Why am I writing this song?"
Fans of Beeman's earlier work will recognize much of the technique and approach on Slow Fade. He made his entrance to the St. Louis music scene with Every Night Begins the Same, a largely self-recorded album he released under the name Old Lights. That album laid out the important weapons in Beeman's arsenal: winning pop hooks, attention to sonic set-dressing and analog tonality, and a twin edge of romantic hopefulness and debilitating self-doubt. After a few personnel changes (which, in full disclosure, saw this writer as a brief member), Old Lights settled on its most lasting and potent lineup, with Kit Hamon, Beth Bombara and John Joern — all singers and songwriters in their own right — playing alongside Beeman. That group's 2011 EP Like Strangers was the last we had heard from Beeman the songwriter until this year.
Old Lights still has a place in Beeman's heart — the band name still graces the house kick-drum at Native Sound — but he hasn't returned to those songs in performance. "I was proud of that band and my relationships with those people, but I'm not interested in that at all," says Beeman. "It was a different time, it was a growing period. That era has nothing to do with me now."
Beeman's upcoming gig at Off Broadway will be the last time to see him and his band on stage for a spell. In March he'll be back on the road serving as a sound engineer for Father John Misty, a job he's had for the past few years and one that keeps him away from home for months at a time.
"I love the day-to-day of being on tour," explains Beeman. "I have a job to do, I'm part of a team, I know what I'm supposed to do, I know how to do it. When I think about touring, I think about routine, and then I think about why, when I'm home, am I all over the place emotionally and totally insane? I have no routine."
While Beeman is on tour, his partners at Native Sound, Will Godfred and Ben Majchrzak, will hold down the fort. In conversation, Beeman makes it clear that his work as an engineer, more so than a performer or indie-rock road warrior, brings him lasting satisfaction.
"Local bands fully pay the bills," he says. "With that said, we have an advertised rate, but we will record any band for whatever they can afford. I live here and love it here, and a lot of great artists are fucking broke. They deserve to make a great-sounding record and work with people who give a shit."
Beeman carries that same drive into his solo project as well; as the Father John Misty touring cycle allows, he plans on taking his band on the road.
"I'm compelled to do it because it just feels so good," Beeman says. "I don't care if anybody shows up. All of my best friends are in the band."
Stream a track from Slow Fade below.
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