Long before he became a recording artist in his own right, Mike Tittel spent a good deal of time on the road back in the '90s as the touring drummer for the Loud Family, singer/songwriter Scott Miller's exquisitely eccentric AltRock outfit.
Along the way, Tittel gleaned a few tips on songwriting from Miller (whose resume included his first recorded band, Alternate Learning, and the criminally overlooked Game Theory) and a boatload of influence from Andy Partridge, Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg, Alex Chilton and Aimee Mann.
The common thread running through most of Tittel's potent musical touchstones is a propensity for minor chord melodicism, a somewhat dour worldview and a tendency toward incisive self-reflection and confessional songwriting. All of these qualities are exhibited in splendid abundance throughout the small but powerful catalog of Tittel's rotating band of gypsies, New Sincerity Works, which has intermittently featured the talents of local stalwarts Bob Nyswonger, Roger Klug, Mike Landis, Lauren Bray and Greg Tudor, among others along the way.
After a three year absence, Tittel is returning in a substantial way with his first true solo album, Sleeping In. Recorded largely by Tittel himself, with sporadic assistance from his coterie of musical accomplices, the album bristles with a quiet energy; Folk-tinged Pop/Rock that eschews sentimentality and cliché with the occasional dissonant chord or aggressively Ambient atmospherics.
Sleeping In was created like most of Tittel's catalog, with a controlled urgency and a wariness of overthinking the process.
“Urgency was everything,” Tittel says in a quarantine-approved, socially distanced e-mail interview. “I tracked everything, engineered, produced and even mixed it myself. Bob plays bass on a few, Greg Tudor bass on a few, Eric Roland Bates plays violin on 'Birds of Murren' and Lauren sings here and there. But really, 95% of all of it is me down in my studio usually in the early morning or late at night. I tracked drums in November and December and had the record wrapped by February, spending January doing bass/guitars/keyboards and vocals which is pretty quick really, knowing I work about 50 hours a week at my day job.
"There were songs and parts my gut was telling me to rethink or even songs that I tracked that, in hindsight, could have been done better or differently but I really resisted that urge in the name of progress and getting it done. I found that really hard to do, letting things go and being OK with it. But it was a good lesson in creative trust. Trust your gut and go with your first thought. Potentially I think introspection with positivity and a touch of my usual melancholic delivery became the formula.”
Sleeping In mirrors its title with a laconic vibe that permeates the album's 12 tracks even when they occasionally sport more muscular arrangements. As it happens, Tittel wasn't necessarily aiming for a solo album when these songs presented themselves.
“I think these could have been NSW songs but frankly, with my traffic jam of material, I wanted to do something quick and simple,” says Tittel. “I love when others contribute, but I am really impatient and it felt like a good time to try my at hand at something sparse and less heavy than a full-band approach. These songs are part of a winter’s worth of writing where I tried my hand at writing a song a day more or less. I wrote about 30 songs and these were the ones that I thought were most interesting.”
Tittel's primary influences and musical loves lurk just below the surface of his engaging and often nakedly honest songs; you'll hear whispers of Mann's downcast ebullience, Costello's mature defiance and Westerberg's raw self-revelation in Tittel's Folk/Rock odes to contemporary life and its myriad problems. The manner in which Tittel aggregates, absorbs and reinterprets his influences on Sleeping In is often reminiscent of Love is Hell-era Ryan Adams; meaty, mid-tempo balladry and more aggressive Rock anthemics, all underscored by incisively literate lyrics (“Kid Walking,” “Brimstone and Bone,” the title track).
In that same vein, Tittel occasionally stakes out a similar songwriting territory as the late, great Tommy Keene, a combination of cloudbusting melodicism, jangling guitars and the dark honesty that results from true inner examination (“Hope Exploding,” “Expired Passport”).
The one pervasive influential umbrella that Tittel operates under comes by way of his old boss, the equally late, equally great Scott Miller and, by proxy, his most astute production translator, Mitch Easter. Tittel's implementation of sonic ephemera and artifacts dotting his soundscapes is a clear homage to Miller's sadly underappreciated genius in both Game Theory and the Loud Family but, as is the case with the rest of his varied influences, Tittel's work is never an appropriation but a collective reimagining, filtered through the prism of his experiences, intentions and singular talents.
For Tittel, Sleeping In also represents a certain insular perspective of creating by himself and for himself.
“On this solo record I didn’t really care so much if I thought people would like it or not,” he says. “I wanted to use acoustic instruments — I've acquired a few really cool old acoustic guitars over the past three years — and simple drums played with mallets and brushes and even songs that have no drums to speak of. I think, in general, maybe there’s a softer touch, more introspection, and less leaning on Rock structures.”
Oddly enough, Sleeping In does not actually constitute the follow-up to New Sincerity Works' Wonder Lust, Tittel's 2017 masterpiece, or its predecessors and the first two legs of his quasi-trilogy, 2014's 44 and 2015's Nowadays. That honor goes to the as-yet untitled fourth New Sincerity Works release, which was completed well before the writing and recording of Sleeping In, and is currently in the mixing phase. Tittel plans to release that album this fall, across several digital platforms as well as a vinyl version. By and large, Sleeping In stands alone in Tittel's consistent catalog and speaks volumes for itself.
“There aren’t huge differences between a solo song, a NSW or a song by Pretty Birds, my acoustic combo,” Tittel says. “I think on this record I let the solo songs just be exactly what they were and didn’t really set great expectations on them. This collection, through default of having the other projects fully armed with tunes, became 'Well, what do I do with these songs now?' Maybe that notion liberated me a bit to not think about what they were good for or not good for.”
In addition to the liberation Tittel felt with his debut solo album, he was also drawn to the mystery of its creation and execution. That quality may be the very thing that ultimately attracts listeners to the project.
The thing that was different on Sleeping In was that I really spent two months writing every day in the early morning hours in the dead of winter,” Tittel says. “So it was very concentrated in a tight time frame. When I emerged from writing I didn’t have much clarity of the songs and what they were about and where they came from. So Sleeping In to me feels a little hazy and a little unclear. There’s an intrigue and ambiguity to it I like.”
Mike Tittel's Sleeping In is available at newsincerityworks.com.