Night Idea and I are strewn across bassist Joey Anderson’s living room, drinking “bromosas” – a mixture of shitty beer and shittier o
Night Idea and I are strewn across bassist Joey Anderson’s living room, drinking “bromosas” – a mixture of shitty beer and shittier orange juice – licking our collective weekend wounds. It’s a groggy, overcast October Sunday; the type of day that suggests good friends and a slight buzz. What better time to hang with Night Idea, an indie prog band that has been making intricate, complex tunes in Richmond for five years.
This article was featured in RVAMag #23: Winter 2015. You can read all of issue #23 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
Three-quarters of Night Idea have been playing music together since childhood. Guitarist/vocalist Carter Burton, drummer Ethan Johnstone and guitarist/keyboardist Reid LaPierre grew up just southwest of the city in Midlothian. It was in middle school that they started playing in bands together; it was also in middle school that I myself began my relationship with these three very sweet, very music-oriented dudes. Speaking as less of a music writer and more of a friend, I have had the pleasure of watching Carter, Ethan, and Reid perform since we were all 13. That was 12 years ago.
“I think it honestly really helps because we’ve been friends for so long. We’re very, very comfortable with each other on all levels,” says Ethan. “That comfortability helps us bring whatever ideas we want to put forth, and we all understand where it’s coming from, and know what the person is trying to get across. It’s not like anything’s ever awkward at band practice – it just comes naturally with so much time.”
Joey met Carter, Ethan and Reid in 2007 at Band Fest – an annual show organized by the Southside Church of the Nazarene that featured six bands. At the time, he was playing in a metal band called Kevin Beckley. The other three boys were playing the festival with their former band, Eat the Center.
Joey, what drew you to these guys?
Joey: I was like “Yo, these kids are really sweet.” So I buddied up with Reid, and slowly, Reid, Ethan, and I started to jam. Carter was living in Nashville, and Reid was saying how their bass player at the time was [done with the band]. And I was like, “I really wanna play with these weirdos.” It just sort of happened like that. I guess I officially joined in 2010
Carter: When we decided that he was the newest member, we just said, “Let’s start over again with a new band name.”
Night Idea is a band that doesn’t necessarily defy genres, but they’re not the type of band that easily gets a FFO description slapped onto a show flyer. Their influences range from Steely Dan to Obituary to King Crimson. The songs are lyrically simple – Carter writes the words to fill in the musical gaps. Most of the time, they’re more about the sound than the meaning. Although I am no prog expert, Ethan’s rhythms seem inspired by Yes’s Bill Bruford to me. Of all the members, Carter comes closest to playing straight up rock & roll riffs. Reid is a fan of distortion, and has a pedal board My Bloody Valentine would envy. And Joey’s bass lines are half-funk, half-death metal.
In spite of the fact that Night Idea makes no logical sense, the band works well thanks to beautiful execution. And it’s easier to recommend going to see them than it is to describe their sound, the guys are decidedly iffy about putting a label on the type of music they create.
Y’all are so complex. I don’t even know how to describe you, what genre to put you in. What do you think? Is it hard to describe yourselves?
Ethan: Experimental jazz-tinged indie prog…
Oh my god. That just sounds so affected, though, when you say it like that!
Ethan: I know… I don’t think we all agree, but Joey and I are down with “Indie Prog” – because it’s a cross between an indie rock vibe with a progressive rock technicality and melodiousness.
Reid and Carter, why don’t you agree with that tag?
Reid: The term prog, to me… people just think, like, 80s.
Joey: I agree! I was talking about it with (a friend), and she was just like, “prog?” Some people just get turned off by that word.
Ethan: I think we can all agree that we’d prefer “Indie Prog” to “Math Rock.” We’re really trying to avoid the math-rock tag.
I think a lot of people use the term “math rock” for anything that’s a little bit more technically complex and less lyric-driven. And, I mean, depending on who you talk to, genres mean very different things.
Carter: Yeah. I just say that we’re a rock band a lot of times. Because it’s simple.
Ethan: I think often, the style of music is – not to toot my own horn – it’s derived from the rhythms a lot of the time. Whatever the backbone of the music is. We’re not a jazz band; I’m not playing jazz on drums. I’m generally playing stuff that was derived from rock music. It just tends to get complex.
Carter: It’s just like jazz in the way that it’s busy. It’s like rock music, but we’re all just busier.
Part of what makes Night Idea such a unique and exciting band is that music taste varies quite extremely from one member to the next. Each member is part of at least one other musical endeavor: Carter has a lo-fi poppy rock project called We Never; Joey is in the super shreddy black metal-inspired band Doubtfire; Ethan has a solo project called Brother Rutherford, a 70s, prog-influenced “nerdy” guitar project; gear junkie Reid has a recording project called Tiger Lamp; and Reid and Ethan play together in the math-rocky Houdan the Mystic;
Your other projects – and there are a lot of them – are just your way of nerding out with what you specifically love to play?
Reid: Yeah, (laughs) it’s what we do when we’re alone.
Ethan: And honestly, if you throw all of our solo projects’ sounds into a giant vat, that’s what Night Idea is.
Joey: That’s the difficult thing about Night Idea, is taking all of [these influences], and putting them together – and that’s why identifying [our] genre is just difficult. Because you can’t really combine those and make it an easy description.
Do you guys find it difficult to attract fans?
Reid: It hurts us and it helps us, because we can be jammy, but we can also have metal vibes. So someone who likes jam bands can be like, “Oh I like this band.” And then we’ll get darker, and later in our set they’ll be like, “Whoa what the fuck is goin’ on here?”
I know y’all play a decent amount of jammy festivals.
Reid: We play our lighter stuff at those. It’s nice to have that eclectic amount of music. We play with death metal bands sometimes; we play with jam bands.
Ethan: From a listener’s standpoint, if you do like us, we probably sound like a relatively original conglomerate of far-reaching stuff that people might like. But from a marketing standpoint, we’re struggling, because most bands have a specific niche that they fit into when they’re planning their tours and their shows. We’re such a mix that it can be troublesome when you’re tryin’ to fit somewhere.
Night Idea, who speak about their music with modest confidence, is a musician’s band. They tell me that it’s a struggle playing such left-of-center tunes, especially given that Richmond is grounded in punk.
Reid: We really are part of the minority of bands here that have zero punk influence.
I feel like that’s where the Subterranea Collective comes into play. You’ve got bands like Way, Shape or Form; Basmati; Shy, Low… Can you speak to that a little bit?
Ethan: [Subterranea is] more of dotted lines than solid lines. It’s a tag, a connection between this scene of people making a little bit weirder music in Richmond.
Reid: We just had a lot of friends. Some of them were in bands, some of them were making music videos for other bands, other people we recording music. We realized we were a big circle of media and we just slapped a label on it.
Carter: I don’t know if people know what it is… I don’t know if we know what it is. But it’s definitely positive. [laughs]
Who are some other people you’ve worked with in the city?
Joey: Bryan Walthall at the Sound of Music recorded [Night Idea’s 2013 release] Paths.
Carter: Ethan Gensurowsky has [a tape label called] Hand to Mouth, and he put that EP out for us.
Joey: Dave Watkins just recorded our new album. And we have songs on it where Tristan Brennis [of Dumb Waiter] is playing sax; and Zoe Kinney, Linnea Morgan, and Allister Morgan are playing string parts. We also have an animation video [in the works] by Emily Kundrot; Craig Zirpolo filmed a live video for the song “Silver Understanding.”
Night Idea is putting out their first physical LP, Breathing Cold, sometime between late winter and early spring 2016. They recorded the 8-song, 40-minute album this past summer with Dave Watkins upstairs at Gallery5. Unlike Night Idea’s previous releases, Breathing Cold gets dark, almost nightmarish.
Where did all these minor-key songs come from? Why did you guys get heavier on this record?
Carter: I think as you get older, your outlook on life changes. I think our music is very honest. I think that as I’ve aged, I’ve just started to feel… darker [laughs].
Ethan: For me, there’s a satisfying release I get from playing nastier, darker sounding music. When it gets out of control, something about it makes you want to crawl out of your skin. It’s a very powerful sound.
Joey: I think I brought some sort of influence with that. It wasn’t something I wanted to force on the band, but just being genuine friends from the get-go, [we] have had a level of understanding. And I think Carter – whether intentionally or not – would think about me when writing a song, think about what I like, and put that in effect.
Let’s talk about the album arrangement for a little bit.
Ethan: One thing that we like about the album, is that we thought very hard about how our sound has changed from album to album. We wanted a bigger sound to it. There are certain songs that are a little bit heavier, a little darker than we’ve made before. And we put a lot of work into arranging the album – to flow really well and to be an interesting developing experience. It starts off very light-hearted, very casual, and then it progresses to get very dark in sound. It’s really almost opposite of how it sounds at the beginning.
Carter: The A side is the major songs and B side is the minor ones.
Ethan: It’s really important to me how one song ends and how another begins, and how they relate to each other.
And not to say that all bands don’t think about that…
Ethan: Right, it’s just that our songs are so all over the place that arranging them is a bit more [of a puzzle].
Joey: And also, you have to think about, ok… How is it going to sound if someone is sitting down listening to a record? How do we need to arrange [it as a set] if we’re playing Gypsy Fest [vs.] if we’re playing with Prisoner? How are people going to perceive what we’re doing?
And I guess that’s what you get from people who work together well and who have been in a band together for a long time. You have different personalities who are very good at different things, and who can take on different aspects of the entire entity that is the band.
Carter: Yeah, totally. None of us feel like this is a side project, we’re all working together.
Ethan: [In terms of songwriting,] Carter makes the skeleton, Joey and I make the muscle, and Reid makes the skin.
Reid: There’s no brain…
Joey: …or internal organs.
Carter: That’s why we’ve been talking this whole time – just to get that juicy quote
Night Idea would also like to say RIP Popkins and RIP Navi. Breathing Cold will be out on JUJU in early 2016.