Interview with John Pelant from Night Moves

Interview with John Pelant from Night Moves, by Sean Carlin
Photo by Bryan Derballa

Minneapolis-based band Night Moves have really struck gold. Their self-released debut got the attention of Domino Records, who consequently re-released Colored Emotions, and now the duo have released the first release under the guidance of Domino, sophomore record Pennied Days, written by members John Pelant and Micky Alfano, and produced by John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, The Walkmen). I spoke with Pelant about the process behind Night Moves’ sophomore record, and how he’s looking forward to getting back to writing some new material and tying up some loose ends.

Northern Transmissions: Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk to Northern Transmissions and congrats on the sophomore release. How has it been received so far?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Aww thanks man, yeah I’m pumped. Yeah, I think people seem to dig it, at least everyone I’ve talked to. No one’s shit on it yet [laughs]. Yeah, I mean I’m pleased.

Northern Transmissions: It’s been quite awhile now that you’ve been signed to Domino, I was hoping that you would go back and tell me what it was like signing with them, and how it was crafting Pennied Days, really the first album under their guidance.

John Pelant (Night Moves): Yeah, yeah. Well I mean when we got signed I think we were, man I don’t even know. I was 22 or something, now I’m 27. I mean everyone was really excited to be on that label because there’s so many great artists and whatnot but it was also just really cool to have a record out in the UK because they also have an American branch and the UK branch. So it was just really cool knowing the record was out across the world, so everyone was really stoked about that. Yeah, and with the second one we just took our time because we wanted it to be good, we didn’t just want it to be another one of those sophomore slump type things. We wanted to keep the quality high. It just took a while to get it right. The thing is that the Colored Emotions record, we put that out ourselves and then they re-released it. It was refurbished with them, but for me that record was done in like 2011. So it was even a longer time for me between records then maybe the public perceived it to be.

Northern Transmissions: Does that speak to your work ethic, to really put your all into a project, develop your sound, and really polish it, rather than releasing it in a hurry?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Yeah, yeah I think so. I mean I wanted to put it out sooner. If it was up to me it probably would have came out sooner, but I think with Domino involved they were like, “keep writing, keep trying to push yourself to write weirder, and different stuff.” That really helped because it allowed me to come up with such a wide breadth of material so I had a lot to choose from. There was so much material, and it was all kind of different, and the record is really concise, it sounds really good. But we also put out an EP because we had so much material, and that also rounds out the whole Pennied Days experience, and kind of shows all the stuff we were doing. I know it’s not available digitally yet but we have a 10” that we’ve been selling at shows and stuff. I think later this summer we’ll put it up on Soundcloud or something so people can stream it.

Northern Transmissions: Was it ever intimidating to let some outside sources into your creative process?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Yeah, definitely. I mean that’s always a little fucked up. But I mean it wasn’t like they were telling me what to write and stuff it was just like, “keep writing” and so it just kind of pushed me to explore these other areas of my kind of head space, my creative head space that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have done, you know? If they had just taken the initial twelve songs I gave them… but you know also what’s good about it is because I have all this other stuff that we didn’t even record that I’m kinda knocking around with because towards the end of it I was still writing and they were like, “no, no we’ve already got this stuff, John Agnello wants to work with these ones,” and I was like, “okay” you know?

It was definitely weird at times, and disheartening kind of but it was a learning process. Learning to deal with a label, and a producer and stuff. Definitely fucked up at times but looking back on it I think it was good, you just kind of take the good with the bad, and pick your battles, but I think the record turned out, so it’s probably a good thing.

Northern Transmissions: Talk to me about the recording process, I’ve read that it wasn’t the most pleasant one.

John Pelant (Night Moves): So the thing with that is I have my own thing about how I do stuff and how I record, so I demo-ed out all the material pretty thoroughly and it had all the kind of sonic palettes, and the whole vision that I wanted to see. I think it was a little bit more lo-fi than John Agnello wanted it to be, the way I had everything sounding. We still used a lot of the material from the demos that I had made. A lot of the “Denise, Don’t Want To See You Cry” track, that’s like a lot of the sound files that I recorded, and also the song “Only To Live In Your Memories” has a lot of the stuff I recorded, we just threw it in from the demo.

When you’re alone in a room with a producer and he’s trying to make the record more palatable to a wider audience, you kinda have to think, “alright well…” and that’s when we would butt heads on certain things where I would be like, “no this is how I want it to sound” and he’d be like “no I think this is how it should sound.” I think it’s good having two guys in a room who are really passionate about one thing, and no one’s trying to fuck it up. Everyone is trying to make it the best they can. But with me sitting at home for two and half years making these demos and making this record and how I thought it should have been and then have to go in and then maybe only have three weeks to do the record. I have the demo-it is, so I have this whole like idea of how I want this to be, so to give up a little bit of the vision was… tough at points, but yeah, that’s what I was talking about in those interviews.

But the thing is with me, I’m always changing stuff, and constantly revising so at a certain point you have to have someone be like, “no this is it” [laughs] or else it’s never gonna come out you know? Yeah man, I dunno there are ups and downs.

Northern Transmissions: You mentioned that there were a lot of unfinished songs, were there a lot that you scrapped?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Umm, not really. We didn’t end up using them or recording them with John Agnello but I still have the files, from my home recording process. I still wanna revisit those for sure and put those out for sure. But you know, you gotta write a lot of bad shit to get good stuff. That’s just the nature of the beast, but I still intend to revisit some of those.

Northern Transmissions: And I’ve read that “Carl Sagan” was an earlier song you wrote before Colored Emotions.

John Pelant (Night Moves): Yeah, and that’s so funny because I mean that one was the single that we released and it seems like people really dug that one. That was something that I wrote like back in 2009. It changed slightly but it got to the point of this whole writing and recording process, like at the very end I was like, “well I’ll just re-do this one slightly, and we’ll all see what they say.” But it was one we had been playing as a two-piece back in the very beginning days of Night Moves, and I’ve played organ on it, and it was just a little more disco-y and dance-y. I mean it’s still kind of dance-y or whatever but it definitely was just more crazy of a song, because it was just keyboard there was no slide riff and it was just keyboard, and drums really, and vocals. So a little bit more bombastic but I just kind of re-did it, re-did the drum part for it and I added in the slide guitar. It just kind of gave it a little more of a surf-y, laid back vibe, and I guess people dug it, it was cool. It’s funny how you can revisit something like years later, that’s why I think taking some time with stuff isn’t always a bad idea.

Northern Transmissions: Were there a lot of earlier tracks that you revisited that landed on Pennied Days?

John Pelant (Night Moves): I mean the ones that come to mind are “Carl Sagan” and “Leave Your Light On.” Those ones were around but definitely changed quite a bit from the original product. Oh, “Border on Border” was one that we had for a really long time. We’ve been playing that one for ever and people have always been like, “oh, when is that one going to come out?” even though that one was like a contender for Colored Emotions, we never got around to it because that record was already pretty succinct, and it was a nice little package. So it was like if we put that on it might fuck up the whole flow, so it was like “alright, let’s save that one.” But that one was almost just as old as “Carl Sagan,” kind of around that same period.

Northern Transmissions: Pennied Days is ultimately different than Colored Emotions, how would you say your approach or sound has changed with regards to this release? What were you hoping to accomplish this time around?

John Pelant (Night Moves): I think with this one it was more of a vocal record for me, so the voice is upfront and that was a little irksome in the beginning. But John Agnello, he was kind of just like, “I think you need to put the vocal forward, and just embrace that”. I mean, I had done – even before I met up with him, there was a lot of harmonies that I was doing with my voice so that was something that was like new and exciting to experiment with background vocals, like a choir of myself. Because a lot of the stuff I like – like CSNY, the Beach Boys, you think a lot of Paul McCartney, Lennon stuff, and even George Harrison all that stuff – has a lot of vocal harmonies on it and so that was something that I really wanted to do.

Given that it makes sense to have a vocal forward, you don’t want to bury it so I kind of embraced that. A lot of the songs were a little more piano and keyboard-based, or they started out that way, whereas the first record was really guitar heavy and all those songs were written on the guitar, but I got way more into piano and keyboard stuff, older vintage synths and so I was poking around with that stuff a lot. And also I think the way I was approaching writing the songs, like the drum parts that I made for it, I think they’re a little less tech-y, and a little more laid back, and more rock and roll drums. They’re a little more simplistic than the Colored Emotions stuff, some of that stuff is kind of weird, a little more sparse. I guess those are the three main differences I can think of off the top of my head.

Northern Transmissions: The album, has been called honest time and time again, and seems to really tell the tale of first hand experiences, can you talk to me a bit about the significance of Pennied Days?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Oh I dunno I think it was just like getting older, just the people who come in and out of your life was kind of what influenced it. I think there’s still a lot of love songs or whatever on the record, but there’s some introspective ones too. Just looking at yourself with a critical lens, that’s all I can really say.

Northern Transmissions: Just to finish up, I know you’re on tour right, but what else are you looking forward to for the rest of the year? Are you going to work on some of the unfinished material?

John Pelant (Night Moves): Yeah, yeah. Hopefully when we get back from this tour I’m gonna try to get back to writing because I haven’t actually written anything in a really long time. I think in the fall I was working on a few things, I think with just putting out the record I got kinda wrapped up, all my juices went towards releasing the record, and figuring out the cover art and what not, the whole video thing. It’s just a whole process of kind of putting out a record, a lot more than you think it would be. But I just want to get back into writing stuff, and I know we’ve still got some gigs. I think we’re gonna try to do some local festival stuff, maybe have a small regional tour – I think in July we’re looking at. Mostly just getting back and finishing stuff, those loose ends that I never really got to.

Interview by Sean Carlin