Finding Beauty In Imperfection With John Congleton & The Nighty Nite.
Before his participation in a recent New Year's Eve show at Dada that helped ring in 2016, it had been a while since John Congleton and his Nighty Nite project played in town. In fact, after making something of a triumphant debut at the Double Wide in the summer of 2011, we heard next to nothing from the old Paper Chase frontman on the performance front — so little, in fact, that after a few years of waiting, we pretty much assumed that the debut full-length that Congleton was said to be working was never going to happen.
Turns out, we weren't completely wrong. In a lot of ways, that release will never come.
Following its initial burst, the Nighty Nite was put on hold for a while. Congleton spent that time producing Grammy-winning records for artists like St. Vincent, Swans, Explosions in the Sky and The Walkmen just to name a few, and his bandmates were busy making records and touring with their own main projects, among them Wires Under Tension, Shearwater and Hospital Ships.
In 2014, Congleton realized that being in a band with busy musicians spread out all across the United States was more complicated than it needed to be. And so he began writing the new batch of tunes that would eventually make up the band's long-awaited debut album. This time around, he decided, he'd press on regardless of who could come down to record at any given time, or who (if anyone) would ever be around to play this stuff live.
Now, five years after first being teased with the idea of new music from the revered frontman of The Paper Chase, his Nighty Nite outfit will release its debut LP on April 1.
After hearing that news, we caught up with Congleton to talk about this new release, about the demise of The Paper Chase, about his philosophy for communicating musical ideas and about why he finds beauty in imperfection.
So, I was at that first Nighty Nite show at the Double Wide back in the day, and I remember reading something back then about how you said there was going to be an LP coming along as soon as you had the time to do it. Well, it's been about five years or so since then — so what all has been going on?
It was a multitude of things. At the time, whenever I first started the band, the idea was to start a band, regardless of where everyone lived. Just pick a bunch of people that I liked, people that I would have fun traveling with. Paper Chase had, basically, just stopped playing. I just wanted to keep touring and playing, so I put that group of people together. A lot of things happened. The first thing that happened was, it proved to be a lot more complicated to have that group of people that I wanted. I think I was at a point where I wasn't necessarily too excited to work out the logistics of such a thing. The second part was that I got really busy with projects that I just wanted to do outside of that.
Whenever I had a little time away from touring, I realized that I kind of maybe just wanted a break from it in general. I still wanted to write — and did write — but the frequency went down quite a bit. In 2012, and even a lot of 2013, I just didn't write much at all. My head was just not in the game. I guess the reason it is happening now it that I decided that I didn't want to be beholden to a band, in general. That was what kind of held me back in the first place, that I had a certain group of people that I had to work with. When you get into your mid-30s or late-30s, that gets harder and harder to do, because people have other things they want to do with their lives. When you're 25 or younger, people are fine to just give up everything and get in the van. That's just not really possible anymore. So, I just decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it in the situation where I could have interchangeable members or I could just play by myself or whatever. Essentially, over the years, that was always the plan. Starting around 2014, I started to write a lot — upwards of 25 songs. And then I just started whittling it down to what I thought was a complete statement, not necessarily picking the most likable songs or the most catchy songs or anything like that. I wanted to pick 10 songs that sort of encapsulated the last five years of my life. It was sort of a rocky period, just in terms of emotion and whatnot.
With that new approach of having interchangeable bandmates, who all was involved in making this record? The original lineup or different people?
It was a lot of the same people. There was a core group of people that worked on the record. Everybody that played on the EP played on the LP, too. Those are all people that I wanted to work with, regardless. A lot of it is just me and a handful of people that I'm just friends with. This record was made over a period of time where it made sense to have different people come in. And, as I said, I wasn't necessarily crafting a record as I made it. I just recorded a bunch of songs and then culled it down.
Is the plan now to play out more than you have in recent years or to do any touring? Or did just making the record scratch that itch for you?
The itch is never totally scratched, I suppose. There are going to be some shows that I will be playing, but to what extent I will be playing [I'm still not sure]. I'm not necessarily beholden to that record or the record cycle kind of thing. The people that are interested in this type of music or are interested in what I do are going to find it regardless. But I definitely want to play. I did tour last year — not super extensively, but I did do about three weeks. I enjoyed that a lot. In a way, it was sort of my way of hooking back into it to see if it was something that I still enjoyed. And I did. I would like to play more.
When Nighty Nite was first getting going, you've mentioned that it was a way to keep playing after The Paper Chase went away. Does that mean we'll never get the once-promised Someday This Could All Be Yours, Vol. 2?
Yeah, that's not gonna happen.
That's a bummer, I really loved Vol. 1.
I will say that I liked that record, too. I thought we ended on a high note, as far as the band goes. Considering how morbid and death-obsessed the band was, there was something always really funny to me about ending the band on a record that we said we were going to continue. The idea that everything ends immediately and any point.
What are the primary ways this band is different from The Paper Chase?
The main way is that it is not a band. It's me, obviously — it's my name, and then The Nighty Nite, which is essentially whoever is in my cast of characters that wants to play with me at that particular time. I can't really, at this point, be beholden to a band because of my lifestyle, and the lifestyle of all the people who I would have any interest in playing with — either people that have gone on to do other things in their life that aren't music-related that they care about or people that are still in the music world who are busy doing things that are actually making them some money. At the end of the day, I want to play with my friends, and I don't want that to be some sort of burden on my friends. If they want to play, then I'd love to have them.
Who are the people that you like to play with and/or who you'd hope would want to tour with you?
There are some guys who have played with me a lot in the last two years . Jordan Geiger, who did most of the touring with me last year. He's a musician from Kansas, originally. He lives out in Chapel Hill now. He's a brilliant singer-songwriter in his own right. He has a project called Hospital Ships. He played in Shearwater for, like, three years, and a multitude of other bands that you've heard of. He's a very close friend of mine. I played several local shows with this guy named Adam Pickrell, who lives here in town. You may know him. And Jason Garner from The Paper Chase, the drummer. He played on the record. He was in the original iteration of the Nighty Nite. I would say, most definitely, he and I will be playing together. Outside of that, it's kind of up for grabs if anyone wants to audition. [Laughs.]
Moving on, I imagine that, after the success that you've had working with St. Vincent, the demand of people wanting you to produce their records has gone way up. How do you go about picking projects to work on?
Over the years, I've established a pretty decent momentum, but St. Vincent is one of those records — or collections of records, we've done four together now — that kind of introduced me, a little bit, into a different world. Me and Annie [Clark] weren't trying to make successful pop records; we were just making records that we liked. I think people responded to the fact that they were very creative yet sort of accessible. I think certain people saw me — for years — as someone working more in the straight art rock world or indie rock world. And after those records, we consistently made these sort of strange records that then became sort of an appeal. Certain people started to see me in a light where I could be more entertained for more commercial records. But that's also in conjunction with a multitude of other records that I've done. Things have just kind of built on themselves over the years.
At this point, I don't have to really worry about work anymore, which is nice. I do, basically, pick and choose what I want to do. I do turn a lot of things away, mainly just because of timing. It doesn't mean that it isn't great. At this point, I just pick the things that seem like they'll be interesting, and fun and challenging. One of the things for me is that I just have to always feel like I'm being challenged, and that it's something different. Just in the last year, I've done a handful of records that are very different for me, one of which is a pop artist. I essentially picked that not just because I thought she was a good artist, but because it was so different for me.
From listening to your records, one of the signature John Congleton elements I've picked up on is that you tend to favor things that don't sound pristine or that you'll choose to highlight imperfections. Do you have any standard studio tricks that you like to use? Do you feel like you have a signature sound?
I think from a songwriting standpoint, a lot of times I prefer things to sound a little bit ugly. I kind of like music to be like a beautiful woman with a scar on her face. I like music to feel that way, a little bit, because imperfections… If you fall in love with somebody, the imperfections of their face or even their personality become the most beautiful thing. At least, it does for me. It's the thing that makes them special, in a weird way. Music kind of hits me the same way. So whenever I'm writing music, I love the feeling of something almost being beautiful, or almost being consonant. I've always sort of enjoyed dissonance resolving into almost consonance, because consonance, musically speaking, is supposed to provide the listener with a feeling of relief. I don't think life is really like that. So I like to play with that feeling of relief. That's just interesting to me as a human.
Spilling over into producing, I really don't do a lot of the things that people do nowadays in production. I'm not interested in Auto-Tuning. I'm not interested in quantizing drums or editing things where all the mistakes — bad notes or slightly-missed notes or intonation problems — are taken out. Because, at the end of the day, those are the sort of things that make it sound human to me. Music is something that we all did as humanity that sort of unified us. It was a bonding experience. I don't think that now, just because we're recording it, we should change that. I never lobby for over-perfecting things. I like working really instinctively, so that means sometimes it sounds very off-the-cuff and human. Noticing that on records I do… To me, that's not really a technique, it's a philosophy for communicating a musical idea.
Yeah, that's sort of what I'm getting at. Like, when somebody gets it in their head that they've got to get John Congleton to record their next album, what do you think it is drawing them to you?
I could never say for sure why somebody wants to work with me, other than maybe they've heard records that they've liked, and that's usually a good enough reason. If anybody wants to work with me, I'm always incredibly flattered. Sometimes I talk to them, and I notice that the things that they're interested in aren't things that will make it be the best match ever. For example, if they're just interested in the fact that, in the last few years, I've done records that sold well or have been critically-acclaimed or gotten good Pitchfork reviews or whatever, I don't think we're going to get along very well. Those aren't the sort of things that motivate me. I'm not trying to make something that appeals to a lot of people a little bit, I'm trying to make something that appeals to certain people a lot. But it's very rare that that happens. Most of the time, whenever I enter a conversation with an artist or a band, they know exactly what they're doing whenever they're talking to me. They pick up on those things, consciously or unconsciously, that connect with them. They want that in the studio, too. I usually have pretty good, long conversations before we work together about how it'll all go down, and what working with me in the studio is normally like.
John Congleton & The Nighty Nite's debut record, Until the Horror Goes earns its release April 1, via Fat Possum Records. You can pre-order it here.