With influences ranging from 80s era Prince to dreampop, NYC-based duo Nightcaller embraces the music they like without tying themselves down to a particular genre. Members Evan Patrick and Howard Alper initially met while auditioning for the backing band of alt-R&B artist Kelis. They began exchanging ideas and tracks, ultimately creating the recently released album “Halcyon Daze.” The music is atmospheric and catchy at once, with creative production and sound design making it impossible to pigeonhole.
“Halcyon Daze” is your first album together, correct?
Evan: “This is our debut record. We’ve been working on it for about 2 ½ years.”
How did Nightcaller come together?
Evan: “About 3 years ago, Howard and I were both auditioning to play in a band for an R&B singer named Kelis. She was doing a local show, at the Afropunk Festival, and she was getting local musicians, so we both went in and happened to audition at the same time. We liked how each other played. We unfortunately, didn’t get the gig, but we kept in touch and just started chit-chatting online and trading tracks. We decided to bump it up a notch and get more serious and start a project. The songwriting evolved from there.”
Did you have a strong idea as to what you wanted Nightcaller to sound like, or did your sound just evolve out of the collaboration?
Evan: “It was pretty much an organic thing; it started to come together as we were collaborating. Just from speaking to each other, chatting with each other, we knew we wanted to try working together. So we decided to rent studio time at a rehearsal space and jam. All the songs came out of some kind of organic jamming process. We would record the jams, sift through them, pick out nuggets of what we liked and develop them into actual songs.”
You’ve both been involved in many different projects. How do you feel they relate to what you’re doing as Nightcaller? For example, are there perhaps things you picked up from session work, or things other projects just didn’t give you the opportunity to try?
Evan: “I would say off the bat that Howard has more freelance experience than I do. I’ve certainly done my share over the years. The majority of my time was leading my own projects and they had their own life. I did some free improvisational rock stuff and got into some prog and started doing more stuff with recording. I think for me, I got to a point where I didn’t want to be the sole band leader/songwriter anymore. I was missing collaboration, and Howard came along at the right time when I wanted to open up my own creative process and be surprised, not knowing what exactly the end result would be—to not have a set idea, to see what happens working with someone else. It had been a while since I had done that, so the project came at a good time for me.”
Howard: “From my end, as Evan said, I had been doing a lot of session work over the years. I’ve also played in some bands where I had more input as to what the songs were going to sound like or the creative direction. But I was missing a certain aspect of music that I really liked, as far as playing and working with a certain style. Evan is very strong with anything associated to synthwave or dreampop or anything like that. I really wanted to do something like that, so I was really glad that I met him. I was able to find different ways to express myself, especially with drumming. In fact, on this album, all the drums were recorded electronically. I actually played them on my Octapad. We did not record any acoustic drums at all; it was all MIDI and sound replacement, but the actual playing I did physically, like the drum patterns.”
You worked with an assortment of vocalists on the album. Was this the obvious approach to take?
Evan: “A lot of this was a discovery process, and we certainly had always wanted vocals in the music. There was never a question as to whether these were pop songs that would require vocals. We started the traditional route of trying to find a singer, and we actually spent about a year auditioning singers, getting singers in for a while but it didn’t work out, and it just got to a point where it was starting to hold up the creative process. Howard and I were continuing to work on new material, and the vocalist thing was starting to slow us down. We switched gears and decided that rather than try to find one person who could cover all the material to use our friendships and networks that we had having been here so long and pick the right singer for the right song. At that point, we listened to the songs and thought, “Well, this singer would work with this, and this singer would work with this song,” and we just reached out to the people who we thought would be good matches, and we were really thrilled that everybody said yes. We didn’t get any no’s; everyone was excited about the material, was supportive, and at that point, it was just a question of how involved the vocalist would be. Some vocalists we wrote all the parts for, lyrics and melodies, and just had them perform and record the parts. Other singers, we gave a little more leeway to because they were songwriters or producers themselves. We said, “Here’s the music; you do your thing and bring it back to us.” It was a collaborative thing, and I think, in the end, we were very happy with making that choice and how the vocalists worked out.”
Do you perform live as Nightcaller?
Evan: “At this point, we haven’t actually done any live shows, but that is definitely something we’d love to do. We’re actually on the hunt for someone to be the regular female vocalist, to cover all the parts that we did on the songs.”
You talked about jamming and developing ideas into songs. What was your actual working process like after that point?
Evan: “A lot of it was done remotely. After we would do our jamming in the studio and decide on the sort of basic skeleton of the song, we would take live studio jams and take it back to each of our home studios. I work on Ableton, and I would put in all the guitar parts, the synths and the bass. At the same time, Howard would be working on the drum programming. Then we’d put the pieces together, see how things worked, comment on each other’s work and kind of come to a conclusion remotely. Once that was done, we’d present it to the singers.”
Howard: “I was also working with Ableton. I set up my Roland Octapad, the SPD-30, and was literally using it as a controller. I had it synced with Ableton, and I would play the Octapad to come up with the drum patterns, and then I wound up using something called Addictive Drums to do a lot of the sound replacement. I really fell in love with Addictive Drums; the samples in there are taken from high-end snare drums, high-end drum kits, in high-end studios with high-end microphones. This was a big growth process for me; it was the first time I ever did a full album recording where I did not at some point sit behind an acoustic drum kit in a studio somewhere with a mic setup. It was interesting picking out the sound replacements, mixing things up, getting different room sounds with the software. It was a lot of fun.”
Evan: “I should also add there was also a monetary component to this, which is that we saved literally thousands of dollars doing it this way. We could not have afforded to have made this record if we had done traditional studio time. So, the technology really enabled this album to happen.”
Working in your own studios, do you feel there is a danger in spending too much time tweaking things?
Howard: “van is a rabbit hole guy!”
Evan: “Yeah, I’ve been producing my own records for a while, so I definitely have spent a lot of time with the soft synths that I tend to go to. There are a couple of Moogs that I use and a few other things. They are all my own custom presets. Everything came from hours of having an idea and tweaking it and getting all the filtering and what-not correct. The simple answer is that I think every part of a song should be some sort of personal self-expressing, and I don’t think going off factory presets necessarily gets you there most of the time. Sometimes it does, but generally, I feel like everything should have your stamp on it. So, that’s my general approach to not only synths but to guitar tone as well. We also worked a little bit with a friend of ours, Josh Valleau, at his studio. He’s a producer who has worked with Kanye and some other heavy hitters. He also added some beautiful synth parts. Again, he’s the one tweaking and getting his sounds.”
Howard: “Just as an example, there’s one song on the album called “Sugar,” which definitely was leaning into a kind of like a Prince, Minneapolis style funk vibe. As far as the drums on that go, there were ways to actually get a preset sample pack that would emulate the LM1, the Linn drum machine. But we actually did shape those sounds. The intention was to be informed by the LM1 but not necessarily have the sounds the way they were, sampled from the LM1. So, they were shaped by us collectively.”
Evan: “There’s a lot of genre and decade references in what we put into the songs, but we never wanted it to be a retro thing. Like, “They’re doing an 80s R&B song” or “They’re doing a 90s electronic thing.” We were always very conscious of having sonic, melodic and rhythmic components that would shift it out of just resting comfortably in one kind of retro genre. And sounds are a big part of that.”