Mike Tittel doesn’t really fit the bill of a blossoming Pop/Rock icon. He’s soft spoken, self-effacing and unassuming, but, like the soft-spoken, self-effacing, unassuming and wildly talented singer/songwriters before him, Tittel saves his “Big Statements” for the studio and stage. And the statements on the first two albums with his relatively new band, New Sincerity Works — last year’s 44 and the recently released Nowadays — are big enough to withstand scrutiny beyond the Cincinnati scene; reviews have noted similarities to Big Star, Paul Westerberg and Guided By Voices.
Still, the examination should start locally, and by that yardstick Tittel and NSW carve an impressive notch. With a penchant for clever wordplay, ringing guitar anthemics and Beatlesque melodies, Tittel is near the bullseye that local notables like The Raisins (and their subsequent solo/group projects), Roger Klug and Brian Lovely and the Secret have all hit over the years with supernatural precision and power.
It’s little surprise then that Klug and Raisins/etc. bassist Bob Nyswonger appear on both NSW discs and occasionally grace the band’s live configuration; Tittel played drums in Klug’s Power Trio. This shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that NSW’s greatness is the result of proximity and association; the band’s excellence is self-evident, at least to outside listeners.
“I’m not totally sure, but I think people like playing with me,” Tittel says over coffee at Sidewinder in Northside. “I don’t get a lot of feedback, but they’re there when I call them, so I think that’s the feedback.”
Although sonic and personnel similarities link 44 and Nowadays, Tittel notes that, even with the short gap separating the releases, there are structural and philosophical differences between the albums.
“The interesting thing for me is that both records were written and recorded spur of the moment, 44 a little more so,” Tittel says. “Literally, from the first song through 80 percent of the recording took less than three weeks. With 44, I didn’t even know I was making a record; I was just doing it. 44 was so urgent that (Klug) had my entire microphone collection at his house and he was out of town, so I went to Buddy Rogers and bought a Shure 57 and recorded the entire album with one microphone. But it was more about doing it and less about making a record.”
Tittel tapped into a similar vibe when he began writing Nowadays. Just after the first of the year, Tittel bought an acoustic guitar, which sparked the new material.
“I took it out of the case and all of a sudden a bunch of songs came out,” Tittel says. “I wrote 24 songs in January, and I realized that I really enjoy urgency and writing songs so quickly they can be nothing more than a document of a point in time.”
Tittel had the epiphany that he should start a band after 44 — his live coterie typically involves Tom White, Greg Tudor and Jenni Cox, with sporadic help from Nyswonger and Klug — so his talent pool was in place. He’d also upgraded his home recording rig to more effectively document his work, so Nowadays followed in fairly short order.
“I recorded 20 songs in February,” Tittel says. “Most of the songs are just me, then I tend to bring in better talent where I know they can make an impact. The guys I’m playing with have got other things going on, and as much as I would love this to be the band that tracks it live and reworks arrangements, there’s just no time. Everyone’s got kids and jobs, but it seems to be working pretty well.”
Nowadays also differs from 44 in its lyrical focus. While NSW’s debut dealt with the emotions surrounding Tittel’s self-described mid-life crisis (career doubt, divorce and the wrenching breakup of a subsequent relationship), Nowadays explores the territory beyond that tumult.
“Picking up a guitar and singing was literally salvation,” Tittel says. “I remembered Eric Clapton and how one of his children died tragically, and he wrote ‘Tears in Heaven.’ He talked about cathartic music, and I thought, ‘How could creating a hit song possibly be cathartic?’ But coming out of this whole thing, I get it. Creativity will save you. I have a profound respect for the creative process.
“The theme of Nowadays is being more OK with things than perhaps I was a year earlier and being in the moment, knowing you can’t change the past and the future hasn’t happened.”
As noted, Tittel’s experience, going back to the ’80s, is primarily as a drummer. After a romantic breakup in the ’90s, he relocated to California and became the touring beatkeeper for the late Scott Miller’s Loud Family, a saga unto itself. So the very act of fronting a band is difficult for a guy who’s used to looking at everyone’s backs.
“I can barely tune a guitar, so it’s a challenge and out of my comfort zone,” Tittel says. “Playing a guitar and singing at the same time is challenging for me. I was surprised that people liked these songs, and I was surprised that I liked them, so I made this band — my idea of what a band could be — from my little universe of friends.”
Tittel is already working toward his third New Sincerity Works album, which he sees as the completion of a connected series. The albums’ themes are reinforced by the package design which utilizes found photography that Tittel has come across as the co-owner of a local advertising agency. Tittel is also getting back into his own photographic pursuits; the new NSW video for the album’s title track was partially filmed while he was shooting in Iceland, and he has a photo book slated for publication next year (which could include a CD of complementary music).
“I met this guy, Dave Bell, he’s one of the chairmen of this marketing agency I work with, and he’s kind of an ex-Mad Men guy, really sweet and really smart,” he says. “I was kind of bummed that Nowadays wasn’t my happy record, and then Dave kind of laid out the path of grief to change, and it occurred to me, when he was talking, why Nowadays is what it is. 44 was grief for sure, Nowadays is probably my neutrality, kind of OK, kind of not. I got it in my head that maybe I’m making some kind of trilogy here. That went into the artwork decisions; I started with white, this one was gray, the third album will be black or rainbow, so when you put them on a shelf, you’ll get this gradation. Thematically, that’s where it’s all headed.”
For NEW SINCERITY WORKS music, show dates and more, visit newsincerityworks.com.