July , 2013
By Richard Noggin
Science Fiction or Reality Boston Band The Singhs Elevate To New Heights
JAM Magazine Interviews Lead Vocals & Guitarist Jeet Singh
Photos Courtesy The Singhs Facebook
The Singhs are an alternative rock/pop band based in the Boston area, where the group was formed by singer-songwriter Jeet Singh and guitarist Peter Parcek in 2000.
The seasoned interplay of its members is the rock solid essence of the group's new album Science Fiction, produced by the legendary Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Moody Blues, Morrissey, Thin Lizzy, Paul McCartney, Angelique Kidjo, John Hiatt, etc.). Concurrent with the album release, The Singhs will also debut a new free iPad app with a game-like navigational interface t that acts as a portal to regularly updated, "episodic" content from the band, including, photos, videos, and streamed live performances.
At home in the Boston area, the band hosts the monthly live event "The Singhs & Friends," where notable area musicians, producers and journalists are invited to curate shows at Redstar Union/Redstar Studios, a live performance/recording, Internet streaming venue, and HD media complex based in Cambridge. It is part of Singh's latest venture, Redstar Media, through which he blends his passions for music, technology, and creative expression. The company also encompasses Redstar Entertainment, which is releasing Science Fiction and its companion iPad app. Singh's background made the decision to expand on the music distribution model for Science Fiction with a groundbreaking app a natural step forward. "In our increasingly mobile and video-dominated world, we were looking to create a new way of experiencing an album," he says, "by creating a rich, mobile and dynamic content gateway for music fans—not just for us as a band, but eventually for others too."
JAM: It used to be bands rallied around the label because of their relationship with retail outlets. The acts only mattered when they had something to sell. Now you've got to step up and establish relationships yourself, which hopefully will last forever. To borrow a term, how have you gone about to "reach out and touch someone"?
Jeet Singh - We spent the first 2 or 3 albums and 6-7 years as a band mostly trying to "reach out and touch ourselves," in a way. Meaning that we were trying to find our "voice" as a band that had a wide variety of musical backgrounds and ideas and capabilities, and also many interests that ranged from blues to pop-rock, to dance, lounge music, progressive rock, all kinds of things. I'd say that our first offerings were more or less bluesy classic rock, then we pushed into more modern rock with some funk and other exotic sounds and "feels," and our most recent offering is more or less "prog rock/alternative rock" or whatever those labels mean, we can't keep track. We played in various places around the world, testing out material, learning how to play as a group, and really getting to know each other. We were flitting around and experimenting like college kids, not to concerned about establishing any particular connections, but certainly being very serious about writing, performing, and recording music. I think we were perhaps a little worried about not being "ready for prime-time" yet, so we tested stuff outside the US. We never had a label, and didn't even look for one, for the 2000's were pretty much the decade when labels were busy self-destructing between the internet disruption and the terrible consequences of huge label consoldation (more on this later). Our third album, "Supersaturated" in 2008, was one that I, personally, felt that started to capture a personality of the band that I felt authentic. However, we didn't really have professional management in place to do anything with it, and my personal life was such that I didn't have the bandwidth or the energy to push it at the time, either, which I regret.
This is a long wind-up to answer your question (sorry!), but the big difference with the new project, "Science Fiction" is that it coincided with a return to Boston for me, personally, and into the milieu of music, and bands, and the Boston innovation/start up community that I've been part of for decades - so our approach has been to start to build relationships locally, with musicians, and producers, and creative people who are like-minded, and see if we can't start building a following of people who may identify with us and our music...so our outreach is starting out local in Boston, and is very much centered around our activities with the studio here (Redstar Union), where we host all sort of creative endeavors (though leaning towards a lot of music, of course). We're trying to reach out to people who share a certain "aesthetic:" creativity, music, art, innovation. That's who we'd like to "touch." And the reason we built the iPad app, the things we do at the studio (Redstar Union), the way we do our videos and so on, are the way we're going about it. (Oh, yeah, and a record!)
JAM: To really get noticed, you need one certifiable hit. This may require you to write and record ten or twenty songs. You might have to humble yourself, let other people hear your music and tell you what's wrong with it, how it can be improved. If what you release doesn't have a one-listen smash in the group, in today's wired world were attention spans are short, you're a mouse click away from being irrelevant. Is the challenge still worth the potential aggravation?
Yes, I've (and we've) written hundreds of songs (250-300) in the last decade, we've recorded demos of perhaps half of those, we've actually professionally produced and released about 70-80 tunes. I am terribly critical of our own work, and often cringe when I hear some of the older stuff, even when I may like the tune but hate the way I sang it, or whatever! We have been lucky to have access, socially, to lots of high-level music industry folks, some of who have been polite and diplomatic in commenting, others who are (usefully) critical and opinionated. We've done market-testing (once) of tunes to get feedback, we've talked and interacted with song-doctors (we've never used one, though). We are very conscious of the requirement of a "hit." Maybe we'll get there someday! I hope so. The bottom line is, we believe our songs are getting better (to our own ears, anyway, and we are not out to find a hit for a hit's sake. i.e. if hip hop is what sells today, or dance music, that's not a reason to write a song in that format. I do like dance music (well, if you consider Prince dance music, which I do) and we do write tunes at times that might be like that. But not to create a hit. Would we like to have a hit? Of course. We'd love it. I suspect if one day we have one, it'll probably not even be one of the songs WE like the most.
JAM: Your success depends upon the people, and consumers are inundated with noise. They're gonna break your record, not the press, and their trusted filters are friends or other human beings. I can only get the word out. The people spread the word. There's no thrill like getting a Twitter response from your hero. You tell everybody you know. Do you believe it's the media's job to keep you in the public eye, or yours? Or is it a combination of both?
I see the media as a "curator" of ideas, or approaches, or ways of looking at things. A media outlet attracts a certain target audience, and if they are successful, they have properly selected the content for their audience. Our job is to try to get in front of the audience that might actually like our music and how we are. It's more of a matching thing. Remaining "in the public eye" is a problem we'd love to have. Right now we're just trying to find a core audience, any core audience. Do you know anyone?
JAM: There are some critics today who say the album format is working against a band instead of for them. I think it forces bands to really hone their songwriting skills and put their absolute best foot forward. You never know which tune is going to click with the public. Are you aware of the intense scrutiny your music is going to undergo?
Well, I grew up with albums and love everything about them, the duration, the packaging, the sort of exploration that makes you try to figure out who's behind it. But from a musical point of view, they also are attractive to me as an artist because it represents a period of time our life as a band, and the things we were doing or thinking about, so they're sort of a "time-capsule" of work and life. Although of course we realize that songs and "singles" are consumed that way on the internet and iTunes and all that, we still like the collection of a dozen or so songs in some sort of experience. For "Science Fiction," we chose the 12 tunes from 40-50 songs. We did not choose the 12 that were "most likely to be a hit single." We chose 12 that went together well and were stylistically consistent. Perhaps that was dumb, but there you go. Scrutiny is not a problem for us. We're not kids. I've been called bad things before! Some of our band members get called bad things now. Mostly by us! ;)
JAM: We live in a world that cannot stand to be disconnected. You go out to dinner these days and everybody's got their cell phone lying on the table just waiting for someone to contact them. You go into an elevator with other people, and they all have their cell phones in their hands looking at it. Do you believe that in this brave new world The Singhs and other bands are facing, you need to be on those cell phones?
I hate cell phones at dinner. I don't use Twitter. I'm (personally) not on Facebook, though I was for a little bit. I do email a lot.
JAM: We live in a direct to consumer society. Amazon knows it. Google knows it. Apple knows it. But some musicians don't know it. They want someone else to do the work for them. They don't want to take risks, they don't want to fail; they don't want to try new ways. You need to live in the consumer's head, live in their house, live in their phone, or you aren't living at all. What steps has the band taken to invade these spaces you need to be in?
Hell, this time around we're trying *everything.* We're launching a small Facebook campaign, a small Pandora campaign, some internet media buys as well. Hopefully we'll see which ones work better, if at all. We're trying to get some attention around our iPad app, of course, which is a market that is broad and a bit techy, and kind of interesting for reasons of our general style: that is, innovating to try to find out how media will work in this brave new digital world. We don't have major label support or professional management of that sort, so we don't have good channels into major exposure. Maybe that will change. But this time around, it won't be for lack of trying. We're proud of this album and want to give it a chance in the world.
JAM: Everybody knows if you chase trends, your musical career is over. You've got to stay the course, you've got to stand for something, or else you stand for nothing. Do you remember when The Singhs finally went from "believing" they could do it to "knowing" you had what it takes to move forward?
We've never chased any trend musically, though we ARE chasing some tech trends in the hope that we can get some notice in that world. Musically we new the minute we played together in 2001 that we wanted to do it more, and we had the luxury of staying together all these years. Yes, we grew up on music from the 70's and 80's (I was sort of absent from music in the 90's), and those influences are obvious. Trends come back around anyway, don't they? We may be terribly cutting edge any day now. And we can bring out our bell-bottoms! My skinny jeans kinda chafe. I'm not sure about "knowing" one can move forward. You just kinda "have" to move forward, it seems to me.
JAM: Almost all of the American Idol winners fail. In fact, almost all of the reality TV acts fail despite the fact they've got exposure and fame. The problem is they never had a foundation in which to build a career from. There was no background they could fall on to give them insight to their chosen profession. What gave you an indication The Singhs could be something more than just a hobby?
Wow, that could be a long and interesting discussion. For me American Idol is the current epitome of "industrialized music," the bastard love-child of, on the one hand, the hit-oriented label conglomerates (are there more than one, now?) and their all-consuming radio/media/Tv all-but-captive channel. Their unfortunate "victims" (which many a young performer would give their tonsils to be among) are designed, developed, processed and spit out. Our band is composed of 4 long-time professional musicians who have been around the block a few times, and an entrepreneur (me) who has few illusions of fame or fortune in music. I care about creating music, and getting better at my art. I perhaps stupidly believe that there are people out there that will like our music - if we find them, it will be a very rewarding moment. But it ain't gonna change what or why we keep playing music.
JAM: Some people who read that Tony Visconti produced your album will just yawn and say to themselves, "Who cares?" They just want to know if the music is memorable beyond the ten to fifteen seconds they will give you to see if the music grabs them. Has it been easy to adapt and change musically because of the fluid society we live in, or do you just ignore it and just push forward?
I completely agree. But there's no question that working with Tony, in some people's view, may make them curious about us. I hope so. I hope they'll listen to the album and like the 10 seconds. The fact that this album is coming out at the same time as David Bowie's "The Next Day" has been a opportunity for us to ride the coattails of Tony's fame, which we make no bones about being grateful for. We'll take any help we can get. On the REAL side of things, for us, working with him was very important in our own evolution as a band, as arrangers, as songwriters. I believe he has taken us to a new level of quality that has been terribly exciting for us. Maybe it'll be what "breaks" us? I don't know. But those two years working on the record were magical for us all.
JAM: Let's face it, tech is like bands, they're rarely forever. Time is not a luxury anymore, especially in the music business. A lot of bands starting out are so desperate to get "picked" to be anointed as "the one," that when it doesn't happen to them, they fold up like a tent and it is over for them. You didn't do that. In fact, the challenges you face today seem to have made you stronger, or is that an over-exaggeration?
You know the saying, "overnight success only takes 10 years?" Well, we've been at it for 12 years, so officially we're not an overnight success. But seriously, the biggest obstacle we've faced is that of being per-judged. Pre-judged because I was successful at something else before. Pre-judged because we didn't live in a van for years "paying dues' like bands were supposed to. Well, I've paid dues on the other side of the fence.
There was a moment on one of our older albums when a respected music biz guy in Boston walked our album into a big radio DJ saying "have you heard this?" (the guy walking us in loved the album), and the DJ (I'm not naming names) responded, "Oh yeah that rich guy? I'm not listening to that crap." (He'd never heard it, but he knew who I was in Boston because of my startup career.) Nice. Open-minded.
In fact, those kinds of prejudices were why I went by the "nom de plume" of Miki Singh (which is actually a nickname) just to differentiate between me in the music world and me in the business world. But over the last 5 years or so, suddenly the world seems to have changed (or we got smarter). It seems ok to be an independent artist now. It seems ok to go hawk yourself as best possible. It seems ok to be a business man and use your brand to make money and broaden your appeal. In other words, it seems ok now to be exactly who we are. So just call me "Jeet."
JAM: Successful people are not normal people. They've got something to prove. If they didn't make it, then they just didn't have that killer instinct. Same philosophy applies to music. The music business isn't for normal people. It isn't for the hopeful waiting for a break. Despite the fact anyone can make music on the Internet with the tools available, you still need the drive, the willingness to sacrifice, the tough skin to move forward. That said, how did you go about finding the right people to become a part of The Singhs?
One of the most important elements of success (I believe there are many, and luck is definitely one of them) is actually just not giving up. Or just being on a path that you're not planning to get off of anytime soon. I'd sort of put us in the latter category. The Singhs as a band (i.e. the five musicians) coalesced in a series of happy accidents. The broader team of designers, engineers, filmmakers, and so on that help us create our "product" is much broader. I'd sort of describe our approach as "perfectionist." Hopefully not to a fault too often.
JAM: Consumers don't have enough time to do all the things they want in a day, but will always have room for excellence. Your job is to get that attention, even the slightest bit, and deliver a knockout blow. What's the knockout blow (i.e. song) on the new album that's going to deliver the goods and announce The Singhs arrival?
I'd love to know that myself! Anecdotally, many people around us, hearing the album in the last weeks, each pick a different song as their favorite. I'm terribly bad at predicting other's tastes. The one song that I thought was very much the "chick" song was most popular amongst men when we did some market tests. And vice versa. (These were "Weightless" and "Deadline." Which do you think was which?)
JAM: Art is about emotion. The delivery counts. People today don't have time to listen to a new album ten times to get it. We only give that kind of attention to our heroes. But that doesn't mean there isn't room up top for more. What are your goals for The Singhs?
World peace. And my own apartment. (Oh wait, that's American Idol.) No, seriously, we just want everyone with the name "Singh" in the world to buy our record. Then we're done. I promise. The world will be safe again.
JAM: It used to be that promising bands would be developed by record companies and be given time to develop. In essence, they paid their dues, waited their turn. Not anymore. Technology has allowed musicians to make and distribute music for relatively nothing, almost taking away the thrill of being unique when you were one of the chosen few signed to a label. Unless you know the game, your odds of succeeding are minuscule. Does the business side of music captivate you just as much as the actual creation process?
Yes, it does. In my other life as an entrepreneur, we're trying to understand how all these businesses are changing. It's super challenging to figure out how to make businesses work, and it's highly creative (especially in new or changing industries). I agree that the thrill of being "chosen" perhaps is no longer there, but what do I know? I've never been "anointed" in that way. In my previous experience, you just worked and worked and worked, and one day you looked around and you'd actually built something worthwhile. I'm approaching music the same way.
JAM: There's tons of music out there. It's all free, at everyone's fingertips. People like to feel like they belong when they hear an artist. Even if something is great, people will move on if the music doesn't grab them. Videos only go viral if they hook you the very first time watching them. It's no different in music. Let's face it! YouTube has become this country's national radio service. How important is it now for you to wed those two - music and video - together?
It is core to our strategy for this album, and it's not just online video as well as online apps. We do realize that music discovery is happening more and more online. That's why we've invested in the videos we've released, and the iPad app. Obviously our studio is also designed for video/audio recording and live-streaming, and we want to bring our listeners/watchers right into our place of work.
JAM: The most compelling question a person has to answer when coming to a crossroads in their life are two words, "What if?" When your gut instincts are telling you to go in this direction, but external forces are pulling you to do the opposite, this moment of truth will affect you the rest of your life. At what point in your life did you realize you had to answer 'what if' when it came to pursuing music, and I'm talking about what you're doing now.
Three big moments in my music life were like that: When I was in college, I was playing in a band that was playing out in the Boston scene, at the Rat, Jonathan Swift's, Jack's, etc. I wanted to make a living as a musician. But I had college loans to pay, a gal I was about to marry, all that kind of stuff. So I walked away from music for sheer practical reasons. That was a tough one. 15 or 16 years later, I was at the top of my startup game, had money and some notoriety in business, and said, "What if I walk away right now and go back to music?" The answer came less easily than most musicians may imagine, but the answer was of course, "Yes." The band had just been formed. It changed my life. About 3 years ago, the question was, "What if I get back into business AND keep going with music?" Well, the answer was again "yes," and that's where I am now.
JAM: Major labels were stripped of much of their power because they failed to react creatively to the file-sharing revolution that caused sales and revenue to collapse. Now if it affected the bottom line of major labels, it had trickle down effects on artists like you. Do you find the business side of music sometimes interfering with the creative side? Have you learned to balance the two equally?
It's always a struggle for me to balance the many things I'd like to do, and the responsibilities one has. But the answer is yes, I'm getting to a point where the balance is pretty good - business stuff, music, family life, other creative pursuits, loafing around. (I could loaf a bit more.) Two secrets to that: First, get really good people around you. Second, get older and wiser.
JAM: Now the relationship with artists has become a social media type of game. Do you prefer today's wired world of 24/7 access and feedback as opposed to a time when there was some mystery surrounding a group?
I prefer the mystery. Now I shall leave you to wonder whether anything I've written is actually true.