Songwriter Seth Garrison does not like discussing genre, and for a band like Night Cadet such discussions seem especially distracting from the actual sound of the music. Garrison and his partner Barret Anspach formed the Seattle band last June with a sound in mind, and combining the duo’s vocals, Garrison’s keyboard and Anspach’s classical strings, guitarist Garret Vance’s melodic riffs and drummer Spencer Bray’s bright percussion, all swarming with reverb and measured distortion, their lush achievement is best qualified as Dream Pop. That’s a genre so broad that those familiar with it will still not know precisely what to expect while the uninitiated will probably imagine something inaccurate, perhaps even grossly twee—which could not be further from the truth.
Guitarist Vance related one anecdote about a performance. A friend had arrived during the final song of the set, and as she debated paying cover, a frat boy who had overheard the situation approached and told her, “It’s great, but don’t go in there unless you want to slit your wrists!” There have been more than a few tears at Night Cadet shows, but fortunately no bloodletting yet, so the display of emotion remains a compliment to the artists. (Vance admits to taking it as such, as his favorite band is Sigur Ros, another Dream Pop act whose songs and audience tend toward the lachrymose.)
Night Cadet is now preparing for a tour that begins along with the release of a new, two-track 7″ on September 3. I was able to fire off a few questions following their latest performance at the Comet Tavern.
Vanguard Seattle: The Obligatory Name Question—When you began a little over a year ago you were Cadet. Then you added the Night. What brought that about?
Seth Garrison: We decided to change the name when we realized that Cadet was an active Christian band out of Eugene—a little too close for comfort and something we did NOT want to get confused with. We knew we wanted to keep Cadet in the title and spent a lot of time figuring out what addendum made for the most evocative image. “Night” seemed to fit, as our music has a nocturnal feel.
Spencer Bray: I proposed all these ridiculous names based on Magic: The Gathering cards, but nobody really wanted those— “Exquisite Blood” being one. We ended up with Night Cadet, though people always think it’s Knight Cadet, which is something I’m totally cool with.
Barret Anspach: It’s also a little intriguing: “What’s a night cadet? What does this cadet do?” That’s called narrative potential.
Garrett Vance: We ultimately were all on the same page in choosing a name that sounded like an 80s TV show with homoerotic, military overtones.
VS: Seth and Barret met and were making music together for some time. How long ago did you commit to forming a band together and did you both know the sound you wanted at the time?
Garrison: Barret and I are a music-making couple, so it is only natural that we have ended up making music together in several different configurations. The idea for a new Seattle-based band was predominantly my idea but Barret’s inclusion in it was obvious from the beginning. I had an idea for the general sound of the band—rich, lush, emotive and vaguely retro. We all helped in achieving that vision. From the get-go, the sound evolved into a blend of all of the band’s varied influences.
Anspach: Seth and I both wanted to use effects pedals, for him on his voice and for myself with my viola. A lot of our first ideas for Night Cadet were the result of fiddling around with new toys and seeing what worked.
Vance: I pretty much exclusively want to make dreamy, escapist music. I think Seth knew that and it factored into his dropping me a line about this band when he moved back to town. I knew he was a very talented fellow. I had not met Barret yet but I was excited.
VS: Night Cadet’s sound is so layered and lush, and vocals are definitely treated like an instrument, not just a delivery of lyrics. How does the writing process evolve for you? Despite being melody-driven, the songs seem to be created to give the lyrics maximum impact, so one wonders whether it begins with the sound or the message.
Vance: I agree about Seth’s voice resembling an instrument rather than just the vehicle some singer-songwriters employ to relay their songs. In my view, it’s more cinematic and evocative than literal, which I love.
Garrison: This band is special for me, because usually my songs start with the lyrics and the story. In this band, I think the sonic material is equally important. Often, I will have a concept or idea that I can’t make work with just a piano and voice . I need the big lush sound to make it happen. In this way, Night Cadet has been a fun experiment for me. That being said, narrative is really important to all our songs…you just might not hear it the first time around.
Bray: I get to write most of my drum parts with input from the rest of the dudes, though most of the time the input is “play that boom-dumdaydum part again! That sounded cool!” I’ve never played in a band like this where I actually have so much freedom on the drums. Usually you just have to play the rock beat or the punk beat or the metal beat and spice it up with your own fills. I feel like an integral part of the creation of songs in this band, and not just a backup. The sound changes vastly, which is what I think Seth is talking about.
Anspach: The way we’ve worked together is a refreshing departure from what I’ve done in the past. Instead of writing out parts for everyone ahead of time, we usually start a song with only some basic materials worked out. It certainly makes the music feel that much more alive when it starts working. Because of the way we tackle songs, though, it’s hard to tell sometimes whether a song started from a musical idea or a lyric. Most of the time I’d say they move along in tandem.
VS: On a potentially more sensitive topic, three out of four members are gay. Your latest video features a gay love story, but it is refreshingly grounded despite the dreamy visuals—not campy or pageant. It is one thing to be called queer artists, but I would be reluctant to label your music as queer, though you have been participating in queer music fests. How do you feel about the mantle of queer music for yourselves? Is the political aspect of being openly gay and addressing same-sex love in the writing and in your latest video something you consciously address, or are you just solely focused on writing what comes naturally to you?
Garrison: This is not a sensitive topic to me. It’s incredibly important to me as an artist to point out queerness wherever it exists. Additionally, I think it’s a dire necessity to present alternative portrayals of homosexuality than the ones that are heavily popularized by contemporary culture. I’ve had to search hard for my gay idols, because their queerness is often ignored or pushed under the rug. I helped to form ‘Mo-Wave in an attempt to celebrate people espousing their queer identity as a proud contribution to their uniqueness.
Anspach: The “mantle of queerness” makes me feel like we’re talking about genres again! Getting a queer message across hasn’t been the underlying reason for or “end” to our songs, but it does shape our music—at least narratively—in some interesting ways. And personally I feel it’s pretty natural, maybe for Seth and Garrett, too. If we didn’t include queer narratives in our music, we’d be more than a little dishonest with ourselves and others. Whether that’s a political act or not, somebody else can figure out.
Garrison: I don’t think that our music is exclusively queer, as I don’t really believe that music can be queer, but I do think that the community I want my music to be part of is an open-minded and accepting one. If people don’t accept my sexuality or way of life, I frankly don’t want them enjoying the fruits of my labor. Know what I’m sayin?
Bray: It’s pretty funny. We get asked this question all the time. As the token straight guy, I always leave the answers up to the rest of the dudes because they can generally get their feelings across better than I can. I don’t really have a different “side.” I just happen to be straight. That doesn’t mean I can’t and don’t identify with the queer community. We play good music that I want people to hear; music that anyone can and is welcome to enjoy. I don’t think the music in-and-of-itself is inherently ‘queer’ or ‘gay’. But, music isn’t made in a vacuum. If you love the band Grizzly Bear, but hate gay dudes, there’s a problem. Same goes for us. I don’t think playing in queer music festivals, having openly gay members, or portraying same-sex love in a video is alienating to the people we want as fans, gay or straight or somewhere in-between.
Vance: If gay performers are alienating in this day and age, it’s hopefully fair to say those who are bothered by it stick out like a sore thumb, taking into account the progression of everything. The queer thing is an important nuance of a band’s identification but on a kind of parallel plane, it’s really not. There are also bands throughout history who have faked being gay because it suits their glammy, gender-bending aesthetic. *ahem*…Placebo…
VS: The performance I saw felt very well-rehearsed. How often are you practicing together? It seems you all have other acts and jobs and demands on your time.
Garrison: We don’t get to practice nearly enough! Full time jobs, other extracurriculars and life often gets in the way. But we make it happen! We’ve found a way to keep up the momentum with regular shows and creative projects.
Anspach: Ditto! If we all had less-busy schedules, I’d love to practice a lot more.
Vance: The future is vast and plentiful.
Night Cadet returns to Seattle and plays at Chop Suey on September 22, 2013. The band recently released the video for “Seaside,” now available on Bandcamp and part of the two-track release on September 3. I asked director Alex Berry, whose video for Intisaar Jubran was previously featured on Vanguard Seattle, how the project unfolded, and the spirit of collaboration, playfulness and openness within the band is apparent in their other projects based on his reply. Berry says:
The band came to me with the initial concept in mind and we brainstormed together to build the story. While we were shooting, new things would pop up and we would incorporate them. Some of the story was also shaped during editing. I don’t storyboard or plan everything out. I like to have a loose idea of where we’ll be going, but then allow elements of the moment to present themselves. When I get on location and start shooting, I become hyper-aware of all the possibilities available. While working with Night Cadet, we trusted each other and held true to the original idea, but we also allowed enough spaciousness in the process to receive surprises.
The layers and collaging of the video certainly give it an aptly dream-like quality and it’s nice to see the band goofing around and not taking themselves too seriously, though stronger storyboarding might have been helpful in smoothing the transitions between these scenes and the layered narrative. The sound remains smooth and memorable. Check out “Seaside” below.