22 November 2015

[Interview] Xander Singh: The path from living the dream to hitting rock bottom

posted by: Lydia Artists' Choices and Voices | Interviews
New Xander Singh!

You may not know the name Xander Singh, but there’s a high chance that you’d recognize much of the music he’s helped make for the past several years. After spending about two years playing small gigs under his own name, Xander Singh formed the group Pepper Rabbit, whose hit song “Older Brother” is one of my all-time favorites. The band lasted for about 3 years, until one day in 2011, when Xander Singh posted a message on Facebook announcing that Pepper Rabbit would be breaking up.  A mere eight days after his last show with Pepper Rabbit, Xander got a call from some of his friends from Boston asking to join their band. Turns out it wasn’t just any band — it was Passion Pit. Sounds like a dream, but what he didn’t yet know is that only three years later, he’d be forced to leave the band for serious health reasons. This is the story of Xander Singh, a man who, practically overnight, went from feeling on top of the world to hitting rock bottom. 

Xander Singh was born in 1988 the youngest in a family of four. His dad is from India, mom is from Texas, and he has one older sister. For the first five years of his life, he lived in Fountain Valley, California, and then the family moved to Boston in 1993. From a young age, Xander loved music. He went to his first concert when he was 7 years old, choosing to go see Lionel Ritchie and Tina Turner. In school, to pursue his love of singing, he partook in a lot of musical theater.

Though after singing others’ songs for so long, he eventually grew tired of it and decided to write his own. It started out just as so many artists’ stories do – he was writing songs in his bedroom – but once he got his first laptop with recording software from his parents after graduating from high school, he took it to the next level. He spent about two years playing in coffee shops, open mics, and any other opportunities he could find, performing under his own name. His success took him to New Orleans in 2008 to make a record.

The record was intended to be a solo album, but Xander linked up with musician Luc Laurent during its making and the two ended up releasing the album together under the band name Pepper Rabbit. Xander and Laurent ended up producing two albums together and touring with the likes of Passion Pit, Ra Ra Riot and Givers.  I loved their music – their hit song “Older Brother” was on frequent rotation, but I liked some of their lesser-known songs as well. But, before long, Xander reported that what started out as fun stopped being enjoyable and started feeling like running a failing business. He loved writing and performing the music more than anything, but the aspects that go beyond the creative process weren’t syncing. “I felt it wasn’t what I wanted to dedicate 100% of my time and emotional state to. Quite simply, I got to a point where the cons outweighed the pros.” So on December 30th, 2011, Xander announced via the Pepper Rabbit Facebook page that the band was breaking up.

I told myself I would never write something like this. And I’m sorry if this feels somewhat dramatic. I’m not one to let…

Posted by Pepper Rabbit on Friday, December 30, 2011

But in Pepper Rabbit’s closing remarks, Xander made a promise to the world: “Speaking for myself, I’ll of course be writing music and making many more records in the future, and I will keep you all updated on the goings about in my musical life. Though I will be exploring many other opportunities in the music world, nothing will ever keep me from making records.”

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Xander Singh and Luc Laurent of Pepper Rabbit

After playing his last Pepper Rabbit show at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Xander slept in the van outside the venue underneath countless unsold t-shirts. The next morning, he woke up, loaded up all of the equipment from the venue and drove back to LA by himself. “I didn’t listen to a single note of music in the 8 days it took to do the drive. It was so refreshing to literally leave something behind and feel like I was on the cusp of new experiences and new opportunities.”

And just like that, eight hours before he arrived in LA, he received a phone call from Michael Angelakos, the frontman of Passion Pit. It seems too good to be true, but in fact this was the second time that Xander had been asked to join Passion Pit. He was friends with the guys in the band when they were all living in Boston and had just started the band. But upon being asked to join the first time around, Xander declined, excited about the opportunities that lay ahead for him with Pepper Rabbit. This time, though, as he was walking away from something that was failing, he knew joining his friends was the right thing for him. Passion Pit was touring the world, releasing multiple albums, and was receiving global praise along the way.

Xander joined the band in the midst of their international success. The Gossamer Tour took the band all around the world and to several major festivals. Night after night, they were performing hit songs from the album “Take a Walk,” “Constant Conversations,” and “I’ll Be Alright,” among others. They were selling out shows across the globe. But success as we know it isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. Xander joined the band on their world tour, but faced several frightening experiences along the way. While the band was in Mexico for a show, he faced a near-death experience due to his severe allergy to peanuts. “Being in a small town and not speaking the language to be able to communicate what was happening to me or where a hospital was led me to coming very close to dying,” he told me. “That was the only time I was ever really afraid of [my peanut allergy]. Luckily I had good people around me who took care of me.”

passionpit-xander
Xander Singh and the other members of Passion Pit at their sold out show at Madison Square Garden in NYC

The incident happened around Thanksgiving, a time many of us relate to being home with family. But when you’re on the road for so many days out of the year, that’s not a luxury you can rely on. And Xander has talked about the challenges that come with this, saying that keeping in touch with family and friends back home is one of the most important things while touring.

But he wasn’t good at it himself: “I was never capable of figuring out. It […] was very detrimental to me. The routine I developed was doing whatever it took to be on stage every night and play the best show I could, which was often a struggle for me, dealing with exhaustion, sickness and stress. And touring as much as I did over the course of 7 years certainly ended up affecting my personal relationships with friends. When I first started touring, I had a handful of new friends after moving to LA. I found that I would leave for 2-3 months, come back, and there were new friends in our circle with whom I was behind on getting to know. Multiply that by 7 years, and my circle of close friends is quite small. But I’ve come to really appreciate that. I was never great with keeping in touch with people on the road, especially my family. I often felt like I was living two different lives that didn’t intertwine at all. At the end of the day, some people are built for the road and love it and are able to reintegrate to life back home very quickly. Unfortunately, I don’t carry that ability, and tried (and failed) to develop it for longer than I should have.”

Xander’s exhaustion, sickness and stress were piling up. Tremors he had been experiencing since he was 14 were progressively getting worse. On top of that, during a DJ set the band did one night, Xander was mistakenly thrown off stage and his neck landed on the steel barrier separating the pit and the stage. That neck injury would eventually require him to get spinal surgery, but he was determined to stay with the band throughout the Gossamer tour, so to cope with his injuries, he turned to alcohol.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the tour that he realized he couldn’t continue to drink his pain away. “I started to notice on many occasions that drinking was the routine, and I didn’t always want to follow it, but felt I had to in order to play well. The exact moment [when I realized it had to stop] was when we played Letterman. I was really sick that day, holed up in the hotel. The last thing I wanted to do was have any alcohol. But still I found myself at a bar down the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater trying to drink a second beer and barely being able to keep it down because I was so sick. That was when I realized how unhealthy the ‘solution’ I had come up with was, and that it was time to seriously reconsider my future in touring.”

He kept his promise to himself and lasted through the end of the Gossamer tour, but when it was over, his neck injury was serious enough that it required him to leave the band. “In the end, it was quite simple and in hindsight I’m somewhat relieved it forced me to end my touring career. [The injury] left me bedridden and in intense pain for the better part of last year. It was heartbreaking at first having the decision effectively taken out of my hands, but in the end I realized it was a decision I needed to make for myself, but never would have.”

Life didn’t get much easier after leaving the band. He went back to L.A. and was feeling aimless, lost and unmotivated. He was living in extreme pain from his neck injury and had no desire to write music. He tried to blame his lack of inspiration on many pieces of his life and eventually blamed it on his injury when he woke up one morning unable to move his entire left arm. About a week later, he woke up in a hospital bed after undergoing intense spinal surgery that required replacing parts of his spine with plastic and titanium. But upon waking up from the surgery and no longer being in pain, he still didn’t get the resurgence of motivation to pursue his passion for music that he thought he might.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 12.28.19 PM
Xander Singh 3 days after spinal surgery that was performed through an incision in his neck

This lack of drive, experienced so soon after being at the top of his musical career, sent Xander into what could be argued as a state of depression. He admits to being in a dark place, most of it driven from getting nothing done. Not only was he not writing music, but he didn’t have any desire to write music. Recognizing the low he had hit, he turned to friends in the industry to get advice about what to do. “I decided to have conversations with my friends about how having a career that is so intertwined with your personal life can affect you. Can you separate it? Can you reconcile it? How does one stay in touch with who they truly are when they have to draw from who they are in order to create a sustainable income? [These are] all things I struggled with and still do after seeing so many important relationship and aspects of my life fall away because of my career.” He recorded these conversations and published them on his SoundCloud account, calling it the Teach Xander About Music Podcast. When asked about the basis for the series, he said “it’s something we’re all afraid of discussing out of the fear that it makes us weak or less of an ‘artist,’ but at the end of the day, we’re all human.”

It took time, but miraculously, the conversations have motivated him to create music again under his own name, and the passion with which he talks about music today convinces me that he’s in a better place. “I really just want to explore any avenue within music that allows me to write, which is what I love to do. If there is one thing that I’ll never be able to keep myself from, it’s writing songs about my life and singing them.” He’s released a small collection of songs on SoundCloud and they sound phenomenal. The influences from his past are present; I can hear the lyrical storytelling that I loved in Pepper Rabbit songs and the light electronic undertones that sound similar to Passion Pit, but altogether the sound is unique, refreshing and something all his own.

When asked about what will come of this solo music he’s releasing, he said he has no plans of starting a band or a solo career. “I would have to dedicate 100% of my life to do it right. And that’s not something I’m prepared to do anymore. But I like sharing my songs with anyone who wants to listen.” While he’s been releasing these songs that have caught our attention, he’s also been making music for the film industry. “I’ve been loving the work I’ve been doing in music for film this year, and hope to make it my main focus for the near future.”

Xander has experienced an emotional journey that you don’t often hear about, particularly from the people whose careers are so easily envied. He admits that he felt like he was on top of the world in 2013; it was the best year of his life – he fell in love for the first time, he traveled the world and got to play music with some of his best friends, he played a sold out show at Madison Square Garden. But when all of that was taken away from him, I heard a version of him in the first Teach Xander About Music Podcast that was at its all-time low. His motivation to create new music had been lost. The pain in his life, both physical and emotional, stripped away his ability to feel excitement for what he had always loved to do.

But contrasting that with the Xander I spoke to just a few weeks ago is uplifting and encouraging. I spoke to a man – an artist – who has rediscovered his creativity and released three new projects, all of which are fantastic works of art that reflect his raw emotion through his lyrics, instrumentals, and production. And from the sounds of it, he plans stay true to the promise he made when he left Pepper Rabbit and continue making music: “I honestly don’t think I would do what I do and keep it to myself. Sometimes it’s far easier to communicate my thoughts by writing and singing than it is to sit down and have a conversation with someone. It’s probably a personal fault in many musicians’ lives as well as my own. Processing feeling in songwriting after the fact of a situation can be incredibly heartbreaking but an important learning experience. I’ve yet to figure out if the pros outweigh the cons in that regard. So until I do, I’ll just keep writing what I know to write.”


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