Clip: So this is what happened to Pedal Steel Transmission...
April 14, 2006
Have Sitar, Will Travel
Dan Schneider's been plugging away for years in Pedal Steel
Transmission and Hummingbiird, but it was two solo tracks he recorded
at home that bought him a ticket to Europe.
Shortly before Christmas, Dan Schneider got a call from someone
claiming to be Paul Brownell from the UK label Poptones. "Out of the
blue there's a guy on the phone with a thick British accent saying,
'Dan, we just love your songs and we can't stop listening to them. We
want to sign you and put a record out as soon as possible. Would you
be interested?' To me, it just didn't seem real. I figured it had to
be one of my buddies calling up and playing a really cruel joke."
Schneider wasn't just being pessimistic. The Singleman Affair, his
60s-style psych-folk home-recording project, had released just two
tracks, both on indie compilations. He'd never played a show abroad.
Why would someone from across the Atlantic offer him a record deal?
A few days later Schneider got another call, this one from Poptones
head Alan McGee, who'd founded the Creation label and signed
luminaries like Primal Scream and Oasis. "He's got this superthick
Glaswegian accent, and I think I understood 30 percent of the whole
conversation," says Schneider. "But the stuff that I did understand
"He sent in his album, the demos for the album, and it was pretty
fucking ace," says McGee. "Some of the songs remind me of Fred Neil,
whose album I reissued on Creation in the 90s. The great thing is that
the songs defy genre -- they're just great classic pop songs." Last
month Schneider formally became part of the Poptones roster --
alongside the likes of the Hives, the Paddingtons, and Cherrystones --
and his album, Let's Kill the Summer, is scheduled to come out
overseas in June. He's still shopping it stateside.
For almost a decade Schneider has been plugging away without much
success in his band Pedal Steel Transmission, recently renamed
Hummingbiird. "When you start a band you kinda naively think it's
going to be easy," he says. "You know, that if you make good music,
people will pay attention." He started the Singleman Affair without
any expectations -- he was indulging himself, not trying to win over
an audience -- so he's not entirely sure why his luck changed. "I have
to admit," he says, "it's pretty weird how this has all happened."
The 30-year-old Schneider was born in La Grange to parents he calls
"huge hippies." When he was eight his dad began passing down the
paternal vinyl. "He gave me the Velvet Underground's banana album,
Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, everything by Dylan and Neil Young,
weird early LPs from Jose Feliciano and Glen Campbell," says
Schneider. "I can remember listening to the records with him and he'd
be pointing out the subtleties of the songs, telling me what to pay
Schneider took up the violin at age five and started on guitar in
junior high, when he put together his first band. "We were called the
Frozen Dicks," he says. "We did all Misfits, Ramones, and Slayer
covers." In high school he switched direction. "Some altered
substances started passing through me and my tastes changed -- I got
into Jefferson Airplane and the early Dead."
While studying biology at the University of Illinois in Champaign,
Schneider formed a psych-blues group called Quixotic. After graduation
in 1997 he moved to Chicago, where at a loft party he ran into
guitarist Gary Pyskacek, who'd been in a rival Champaign band. "We got
to talking and we eventually sat down and played," says Schneider.
"Almost immediately we started writing stuff and formed Pedal Steel
Today Schneider and Pyskacek are the sole original members of the
band, and they've put out its first three albums themselves -- the
most recent, 2003's The Angel of the Squared Circle, is the group's
standout. The fourth, a self-titled Hummingbiird disc mixed by
longtime Yo La Tengo engineer Roger Moutenot, can be downloaded from
hummingbiird.com. It's been in the can for almost a year, and the band
hopes to release it properly this summer.
Schneider has recorded with a couple side projects, including the
Cruelest Aprils, a duo with violist and poet Nissa Holtkamp, and a
collaboration with Pyskacek called Sainte Chapelle. But in late 2003
he decided to go solo. "I wanted to try something that was completely
my own," he says. "I wanted to make records like the kind I listened
to growing up -- stuff like Skip Spence, John Martyn, and Tim
Much of the material on Let's Kill the Summer bears the stamp of
Schneider's record collection. You can hear the campfire intimacy of
albums like Martyn's Solid Air and Bless the Weather, as well as the
dreamy romanticism of Buckley's Goodbye and Hello and Lorca. Schneider
sometimes sings in a baritone reminiscent of Fred Neil or overdubs
high harmonies a la Country Joe & the Fish and the Youngbloods. He
uses nonstandard tunings inspired by Elizabeth Cotten, John Fahey, or
Lou Reed (whose droning "ostrich guitar" had every string tuned to the
same note). But nothing has had as striking an effect on the sound of
the album as Schneider's timely acquisition of a sitar. "My dad was
going to India on a business trip," he says, "and I told him if he saw
a sitar to buy it. He ended up getting a really beautiful one for like
90 American dollars."
In early 2004 Schneider emptied his Ukrainian Village apartment, set
up a cheap Tascam four-track with a couple mikes and some old
foot-switched reverb units, and began recording. "I played back the
tapes and immediately liked what I heard," he says. "It sounded like
it had been recorded in 1968. I was able to get the right echo, a
really nice wood tone out of the apartment. Before I knew it, I had
like 15 songs done."
That fall he played some of the tracks -- then just vocals, sitar, and
acoustic or electric guitar -- for local engineer Graeme Gibson, who
was based at Clava Studios in Bridgeport and encouraged Schneider to
bring the tapes in. "I transferred what I had into Pro Tools and then
just added little things: more reverb, organ, some drums, percussion,"
Schneider says. He spent much of 2005 in and out of Clava, "just being
a total weirdo audiophile, making sure all the tonalities were the way
I wanted and that it sounded genuine."
Schneider also started playing out -- he did a weekly residency at the
Hideout in March 2005, with warm-up acts like Josephine Foster and Tim
Kinsella, and opened for Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop
at the Bottle in April. Over the past few months he's put together a
four-piece backing band -- Gibson on drums and Jacob Smith, Gibson's
old bandmate in the Boas, on organ, plus Don Ogilvie and Brett Barton
from Hummingbiird on percussion and bass.
In summer 2005 Galactic Zoo Dossier editor Steve Krakow asked
Schneider for a song for the sixth issue's CD sampler. That led to a
Singleman Affair appearance at that fall's Two Million Tongues
festival, copresented by Krakow and Arthur magazine, and to the
release of a second Singleman tune -- this one on the Two Million
Tongues compilation, released by Arthur's Bastet label. Those were the
tracks that hooked the Poptones brass.
After Let's Kill the Summer comes out in June, Schneider plans to tour
Europe to support it. He's also recording a new Singleman album,
continuing to play with Hummingbiird, studying bioinformatics in grad
school at Northwestern, and doing genetic mapping work with asthma
patients at the U. of C. "I've kinda been burning the candle at both
ends and losing my mind a little bit with everything I have going on,"
he says. "It's tough, but with the Poptones deal now, that's a big
help. And as long as I can keep putting out music, that's really my