By: Emily Gibson
It’s a warm Wednesday night in Austin, during that void of time when The Red River District is preparing to wake from the deadness of the daytime and enter a bustling night. Leon Bridges is getting ready to play at Stubb’s Austin and a nearby dance club, Barbarella, is hosting a 2000s night, which promises to bring out a crowd of millennials looking to relive their childhood memories, only with more alcohol and no parental supervision. In between both of these venues is The Sidewinder, a relatively new addition to The Red River District that lives in the shell of Red Eyed Fly, an old venue that didn’t last.
The Sidewinder is hosting Night Moves, a psych-country band from Minneapolis who released their sophomore album, Pennied Days, in March of this year. I’m sitting on gravel in the venue’s parking lot, obscured by cars, with the Night Moves front man, John Pelant. We’re drinking warm Miller Lite that he dug out of a trash bag in the back of the band’s van. The scenario – hiding and drinking warm beer – feels very high school, which Pelant points out before he recalls hiding beer in his guitar case when he was young. His trick: line the guitar case with ice and put the beer inside. He remembers showing up to a Fourth of July party with a guitar case in hand and his friend’s reactions when he cracked it open – “oh, you brought your guitar?” became cheers.
The high school guitar case trick didn’t last, but some things from high school did: his friendship with current band mate Micky Alfano and his desire to make music. The duo’s high school band eventually morphed into what Night Moves is today. Pelant had a distinct goal when starting to write music for what would become Night Moves: do better. “I felt like all the records I had been recording in high school, I ended up hating months later,” he says. “It was kind of embarrassing, and I was like, that’s fucked up, there’s got to be a way around that. So I was like okay, use you ear, develop your skills, make sure your record is good and then you won’t end up hating it.”
What resulted was the first release of Colored Emotions, which the band put up for free on Bandcamp in 2011. Pelant remembers being “totally in love” with this version of the album because it was recorded before they were on anyone’s radar and subject to anyone else’s opinions. A second version of the same album was released later. The band had caught the attention of Domino Records, the label that has signed Animal Collective, Dan Deacon and Arctic Monkeys. They officially rereleased Colored Emotionsunder Domino Records, with a few changes to the original work, including the addition of the title track and a new version of the song, “Classical Hearts.”
Around the release of Colored Emotions, Pelant had just graduated college and the thought of pursuing music enticed him, so he moved home to work with the band. “I didn’t really know if it was going to work out,” he says. “I thought maybe if I try really hard and play gigs a lot and make a good record, maybe people will give a shit. And luckily they did.”
“I thought maybe if I try really hard and play gigs a lot and make a good record, maybe people will give a shit. And luckily they did.”
Five years later, Night Moves has arrived at the release of their sophomore album, Pennied Days, and a tour that has taken them around the entirety of the United States. They started working on the album in fall 2013 and finished it in spring 2015 with the help of a producer, an experience that was different for Pelant than working on Colored Emotions, which he mainly worked on alone.
Pennied Days is a 40-minute hybrid of upbeat psych pop and country-influenced indie ballads. Through it all, Pelant’s voice spirals over the melodies, an ethereal falsetto. Pelant likens settling on a track list for the album to a “strict science of using time.” They considered how the album would sound on vinyl, with each half of the album being twenty minutes long and having a strong beginning and ending song. “It got really difficult to the point where we kind of broke it down to a science,” he says. “It was just like a puzzle. I think I just thought other people would like this track list.”
My biggest impression of Pelant is that he’s a perfectionist. As we sit in the gravel, he draws kites in the ground with a stick, sure to add a cross and a tail with a handle on the end of the string to each one. He describes working with graphic designer and friend Darren Dominique Davis to created the Pennied Days’ album artwork, which he wanted to “look how the record sounds” and they edited it over and over again until it felt right. When he talks about things he was unsure about on the album, he eventually shakes his head and says there’s “no point in revisiting that.”
He also remembers not wanting to put the song “Alabama” on the record at all, which he says is “kind of funny” because it ended up being a fan favorite. He concedes that sometimes artists are overly critical of their own work, which is both a good and bad thing. “I look at it so much differently than so many people do, which is something you have to think about, you have to realize, ‘I really am just in my own fucking head. I’m crazy,’” he says. “I don’t want to ruin this record just because I’m nuts and I’ve heard it for the past two and a half years.”
“I look at it so much differently than so many people do, which is something you have to think about, you have to realize, ‘I really am just in my own fucking head. I’m crazy.’”
Onstage, he plays the role of a typical front man. He jokes with the crowd and he promises to come back to Texas more; he panders to Austin by making fun of South By Southwest, knowing it’ll make the crowd jeer. He says these moments – being on stage, and just after a good show – are the glamorous moments of being on tour, the rest is all work. “So much of it is driving, and waiting, and parking,” he says. “So much of it is just work. But sometimes there’s a big pay off, the emotional high you get after having a good show is worth all the bullshit.”
The band arrived in Austin after a multi-day break, which they used to do laundry, clean their van, drink and chill. During our pre-show interview, I ask if he’s going to change out of what he’s wearing – a white t-shirt with a chicken and an egg laying in bed together that says, “so, who came first?” – and he says he’s too stoked on having clean clothes not to change. He appears on stage in a light blue silk shirt he bought in Toronto.
The most rewarding moments for Pelant are off the road, when he’s creating the music, he says. “My favorite thing is to be alone recording demos and tweaking shit, that’s really fun,” he says. “I love listening to the playback after working on a song for the whole day and just listening to what you did and having a drink. That’s the most rewarding.”
He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep going, because he says he’s “fickle” about things he likes, and will only keep doing it as long as he’s in love with the work. “How do I know this is something I want to do forever?” he says. “I don’t think I will ever know. I don’t know. Until I stop having anything to say, or until I stop having any pleasing melodies. When I start hating it.”