Monday, January 13, 2014

Square Zeros #1: Stephen Selman

The snotty 16-year-old in me really wants to open this inaugural edition of Square Zeros by ragging relentlessly on the first person who volunteered his head for our guillotine — especially because it's one of our closest friends and fellow musicians. But I'm going to spare Stephen Selman any of that. He's done us a big favor by acting as our guinea pig as we get this thing off the ground, letting us unveil some of his early attempts at songwriting and recording. He even relearned one of his high school hits and gave us an in-studio performance of it (yes, really). Plus, we beat up on each other plenty in the real world.

Selman, unlike a lot of us, is a true pro. He makes a living producing commercial music and teaching guitar lessons here in New York, and he's got his hands in a range of musical projects outside that. This year he put out two rock n roll solo projects — a 12-inch LP called Routine Burlesque and a follow-up EP called All's Well That Bends Well. They've got a clean garage pop kind of feel — most tracks are cut from the same cloth as, say, the Arctic Monkeys — but there's a dark, slinky element on others where the Tom Waits influence is undeniable. All the instrumentation is him except for the drums on All's Well, where he teamed up with Sunset Guns' Sam Sabin.

Beyond that, Selman is playing Farfisa in Hollow Hills, a dark post-punk/surf outfit that toured this fall (I happen to be their drummer). He also did a lot of other engineering and writing throughout 2013 with a pool of local folks, some of which you'll be able to hear early in the new year, if not sooner.

Selman's recording chops have always been ahead of the curve, and that was true even when he was a kid. While the rest of us were sitting in our bedrooms taking half an afternoon to learn an Operation Ivy cover, Selman was busy figuring out how to make it all sound good on tape. His dedication comes through on his first choice, "Road Song," which he recorded with a friend at about 17 and released under the name Bearded Bravados. Say what you will about the bright alt-country guitars and innocent harmonies, but the production is pretty advanced for the age.

Then there's "White," a song from late high school Selman agreed to play at my request. I remember it being comically maudlin and overwrought, almost in a musical theater sort of way. Listening to it now, with all its crazy key changes and throat-warping vocal melodies, I'm not even sure what to compare it to — maybe some naive meeting of Jeff Buckley and West Side Story. He couldn't track down the original recording in time for the interview, so he did it LIVE for the first time in probably a decade. We got it in one take, but it took everything in me not to crack up there in the second verse. Y'all can hear it at about 15:45 in the podcast.

Thanks again to our boy for making this first episode a success. Catch Selman playing Farfisa with Hollow Hills January 25 at The Gutter. And keep an eye out for new solo songs and shows this spring. 


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