Prior to the release of their brand new album Gregorian Nap, we caught an interview with alternative indie act Nightbird Casino – James Moore and Don Shepherd – to talk all things songwriting, inspiration, live performance, changing styles, and the effects of a tumultuous 2020. Here’s the conversation in full.
* * *
Hi guys, thanks for the interview – and congrats on the upcoming album release, it’s a brilliant collection! What can you tell us about Gregorian Nap – why the title, and what’s the concept behind it all?
JM: The idea was to make an album that wasn’t restrained by any limits on genre or style. Lyrically I think it revolves around dreaming, and waking up, both literally and metaphorically.
To be honest, the title wasn’t deliberate at first. For the past few years I’ve had a list on my phone of words or phrases for song titles, lyrics, album titles, et cetera. When we started this album I looked at the list and Gregorian Nap jumped out at me and I was just like ‘this is the title’. I don’t know when or why I originally wrote it down. As the album developed, I think it evolved into the title, rather than the other way around.
You’ve been making music together since 2017 – how would you say this project differs to what you’ve released in the past?
JM: It’s a bit more experimental I think than our first EP. Everything Has Happened Before stuck with a somewhat more traditional ‘rock’ sound. There was definitely some experimentation, but we didn’t step outside the genre too much. We also wrote as a four-piece band, with a drummer, and occasionally a keyboardist.
When the EP came out in early 2018, it was just the two of us left and shortly after we both moved away from LA. We didn’t see each other or work on any music together for over a year. We both worked on solo music and I think, came back together with more developed individual styles, new influences. There’s a bit more electronic music on Gregorian Nap. I got into synths and drum machines during our hiatus. Don wrote a lot of solo music on piano which is where Cotopaxi and Real Quiet Hours came from.
DS: On this album, we just wrote what we felt, regardless of genre or style. Three years ago, if one of us started writing a classical piece I don’t know that we would have developed it … this time I think we were more open to trying new instruments, new styles. In a way, it’s a continuation of the same we’ve made but it’s much better, more developed.
Which song on the project means the most to you personally, and why?
JM: I think the title track, Gregorian Nap, for me. The lyrics were about a dream I had while I was trying to quit smoking and taking Chantix. Apparently a lot of people have nightmares on Chantix, but I didn’t experience that. What I did experience was very clear, insightful dreams. I’d wake up and remember every detail and be able to analyze exactly what it meant. Normally I can’t do any of that. I had this dream about my family which inspired the lyrics, and that song ended up being the heart of the album. If you want to understand the album, listen to the title track.
DS: Cotopaxi, because it’s completely different from anything we’ve done before. I’ve always wanted to make something that was, essentially, classical style and now I feel like “okay, we’ve done that” – the pressure’s off.
How do you come up with the ideas and titles for the songs, and is there a connection between them, or is this more of a greatest hits from the past year?
DS: Titles are just best portrayal for an individual piece of music. Birmingham for example was named such because thematically it made me think of the show Peaky Blinders, which takes place in Birmingham. Pole Line Road was where I was living when I wrote that song.
JM: We come up with titles individually, but we both have to agree on it. Every title has its own story. For example, 1st Crystallization was a concept developed by the French writer Stendhal referring to the process of developing an infatuation with someone, your brain “crystallizes” this perfect image of them and you are unable to see any flaws. I wouldn’t say that song is about that concept, in the literal sense, but it’s a concept that I found interesting, and it just fit.
DS: As for whether they’re connected, there isn’t any deliberate connection, it’s all whatever we’re feeling at the time.
JM: I’d say its somewhat a greatest hits kind of album, like a Nightbird Casino mixtape. Gazelles was based on an improv jam during a photo session. Symmetrical Electrical was written in the studio on the last day of recording. Vy Canis Majoris was an old song we’d written as a band a few years ago that we reworked.
What is Pineapple Triangles! all about?
JM: It’s our homage to the B-52s, with the surf rock guitar and absurd lyrics. It’s about hanging at the beach with your friends and eating pre-cut fruit platters.
DS: Pineapple Triangles! Is about playing those clear crystal sounds on your instrument and having a good time.
JM: Lyrically, it’s ridiculous of course. We put it right at the midway point of the album as a lighthearted break before the more somber second half. Also it was an excuse to use a harpsichord, a 909, and a saxophone in the same song, how could I pass that up?
There’s quite a versatile mix of styles and moods on the new album – how do you decide which direction to take any given song in, both in terms of the pace and the instrumental set-up?
DS: It depends on the mood you’re in. If we feel something, we’re doing it.
JM: I hope I don’t come off as pretentious saying this, but we don’t really consciously choose a direction…the music takes its own direction and we just follow it.. For example, with Cotopaxi, Don wrote this piano piece and sent it to me, I think with the message “maybe you could add some synth to this?”
I wrote a part on a Prophet and it didn’t quite work. So I tried it on violin. It sounded better that way, so I ended up added more strings. I ended up writing for an entire orchestra, which I’d never done before. It wasn’t my intention to write a fully orchestral song, but it just sort of happened. I always intended to add guitars or whatever eventually, but I kept adding more classical instruments and ended up with what you hear on the album.
Sometimes I’ll have a particular instrument I want to use, and I’ll look for a reason to use it. The clavinet on Vy Canis Majoris is a good example of that.
What’s your song-writing process like as a duo, and what are your go-to instruments when writing?
JM: I almost always write on guitar at first although recently I’ve been getting into writing on the ondes martenot. We don’t live in the same city, so our songwriting process, at least for this album, mainly consisted of sending half-written pieces back and forth and adding ideas onto them. We did that for four or five months, then got together for a month to finish writing and recording.
DS: I watch a bunch of movies until I think of an instrument I want to play on a track. Meaning I get my mind in a completely different place and then the first thing I think of, that’s what I’ll usually end up doing. The rest just falls into place. For me it’s an equal mix of writing on guitar, bass, and piano. I just pick the most appropriate instrument for the mood.
What do you hope listeners take away from this project?
DS: Whatever is to be taken or given will be taken or given.
JM: Solace and respite from the world for 45 minutes. I hope listeners are able to find their own personal meanings within the music.
Given the dreamy, lo-fi indie sound of the music, who or what would you say has influenced your style the most?
JM: The most, maybe Radiohead, they’ve been a big influence on me. Paul Banks, Thom Yorke, Hum, Bjork, Grimes, The National. That’s what I listened to leading up to Gregorian Nap, so I imagine I drew some inspiration from them.
DS: Nirvana, Death Cab For Cutie, Beach Fossils, System of a Down, and King Krule have all been hugely influential on my songwriting and general musical interests.
Is there a strong live scene where you are for this kind of noir rock (pre-covid of course)?
JM: That all depends on what where we are means! We both started in the LA/OC area, but currently I live in southern Oregon and Don lives in the Bay Area. So where he is, there’s definitely a strong live scene, or at least there was pre-covid. Where I am, not so much.
How have you kept yourselves busy and focused during a difficult 2020 with a lack of live performance options?
DS: I’ve been touching up on my cooking, especially pasta. And I’ve been watching a bunch of live performances, and documentaries about Africa.
JM: Like I mentioned earlier, Don and I moved away from each other, and Nightbird Casino was essentially on hiatus. I don’t think we really knew if we were going to make any more music after the EP came out and life took us in different directions.
For all it’s difficulties, 2020 brought us back together and inspired us to start making music again. I’d called him up a few weeks before everything went into lockdown and suggested we start working on new music. Then quarantine happened and we spent a month together where we really couldn’t do anything except write music. So in a way, I don’t think Gregorian Nap would exist if it weren’t for at least some of the events of this year.
If you could sit down for a chat with anyone at all, past or present, who would you choose – and what would you ask them about?
DS: Anyone at all, ever? I feel like I’d be disappointed no matter who it was. Genghis Kahn, I’d ask him what makes him do it, what’s it all about, why does he have so much energy? Where does his ambition come from?
JM: I never know how to answer questions like this. Maybe Nikolai Tesla. I’d ask him if he secretly invented time travel, and if he did, why did he come to 2020 to talk to me?
What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
JM: I once had a job as a vacuum salesman for two days. It sucked.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
DS: Would you still love me if I were anything but what I am?
* * *