James “Pants” Singleton has befuddled listeners since his 2008 debut, Welcome, a cryptic mélange of early ’80s “boogie” R&B and electro. It was funky, for sure, but it begged the question: Was he really serious?
“A lot of those songs were from my college years,” says Singleton from his home in Colorado. “Some were really serious, and some of them were me just joking around in the studio. But I wasn’t trying to be ironic, and a lot of people perceived it as such. All my music is me being a different character, whether it’s a doomsday prophet or some dude trying to pick up chicks. It’s just me trying to create a fantasy.”
Seven Seals [Stones Throw], which Singleton quips is “a soundtrack to a cult,” is an attempt to evolve beyond the electro-fied nonsense of Welcome. He incorporates a wider palette into his quirky persona, from the familiar synthpop to ’70s Christian rock, psychedelia, and Goth darkwave. Through apocalyptic numbers such as “Sky Warning” and “Wash to Sea,” and with vocal tones ranging from a low falsetto to a deep, ominous baritone, Pants portends a battle between heaven and hell. Influences include cult horror films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, and The Wicker Man.
“I was getting a little tired of the disco-boogie stuff, as much as I love that genre,” he says. “I grew up listening to a lot of psych music. My parents were both Presbyterian ministers, so I’ve always had a fascination with the end of the world and that kind of thing.”
However, Seven Seals retains Singleton’s playful vibe and appreciation for novelty, recording his vocals directly into a built-in microphone on a Panasonic RX-5100 boombox. “I just put a tape in and press record,” he says. “For some reason, that boombox has a lot of compression, so I can be really far away and sound really close.” Singleton also uses a “generic/no brand SM57 knockoff” microphone.
Echo and reverb predominates Seven Seals’ ghostly sound, which is due in part to his Roland RE-201 Space Echo. “I use that on almost every song,” he says. “It’s got a reverb setting that you can tack up a lot.” For added effect, he relies on the spring reverb function on his ’70s-era Peavey mixing board, which he bought for $70 at a pawnshop.
And using a Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample’s tape echo and distortion functions, James mutates his vocals and applies the reverb function to instruments he samples. “I’ve been using the 303 for so long that I feel comfortable with it,” Singleton says. “Between the 303 and a Dell [Dimension] XPS T550 Pentium computer, I can pretty much get anything.”
For “A Chip in the Hand,” Singleton had saxophonist Paul Flores play directly into the boombox, resulting in a strangely muffled sound reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” “I usually try to [apply reverb] while I’m recording through the 303 or the mixer,” he says. “If not, I use digital effects with [Sony] Acid after the fact. Those usually sound real sterile, so I don’t like them, but it worked out with the saxophone.”
For drums, he uses a Gibson Slingerland Gold Sparkle Jazz kit as a base. “I usually [record drums] with one microphone and lots of compression, and then I go back tediously and add an 808 kick drum under each bass drum hit because when I do the compression, the bass drum just sounds too weak,” Singleton says. Sometimes he places the boombox close to the kit and angles it toward the snares; other times he’ll place it several feet away and “jack up the compression setting” on the 303. “The farther away I am, it has a much bigger sound, huge like John Bonham-style,” he adds.
Keyboards in Singleton’s arsenal include a Hohner String Performer, Roland JX-3P, Korg MicroKorg with vocoder, and a Radio Shack customtone synthesizer he bought for $40. The Radio Shack synth came in handy for the simple string-plucked melody on Seven Seals’ first single, “Thin Moon.” “I used the ‘pizzicato strings’ preset, and then I put the keyboard’s ‘stage’ setting reverb on it,” he says.
Singleton likes to make music as fast and as cheap as possible so he doesn’t forget any ideas, painting pictures of the visions in his head. “I think I’m just more impulsive,” he notes. “It can be a completely messed-up sound quality-wise, but the sound should be an experience or a fantasy.”