Working on the Night Moves

Patiently awaiting the international release of their debut album, the cosmic rockers are focusing on their live show - with two big tests next week.

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Night Moves

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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If you didn't know about their big record deal or their two gigs at First Avenue next week or the fact that their last two local shows sold out, it might sound like things aren't going too well for Night Moves.

The three former Southwest High School pals currently don't have a record to their name -- nothing to sell or to show for the two years and innumerable paychecks they spent laboring in a recording studio. They don't know who their permanent drummer is going to be. They aren't even sure if their slow-grooving, neo-twangy, cosmically baked band will be named Night Moves a month from now, thanks to possible conflicts with Bob Seger's 1976 hit single and a 1975 movie with the same title. Musicians born in the late 1980s couldn't be expected to know these things.

You won't catch any of them complaining, though.

"We're sitting and waiting on some things," said singer/guitarist John Pelant, 23, "but we're still sitting in a good position."

Last week, that position was a table at the Driftwood Char Bar, a south Minneapolis watering hole just up the street from the former Nicollet Park Studio, where they spent so many days working on a record that you can't buy yet. They even lived in the studio space for a month, before the black mold in the basement started giving them runny noses.

They also swore off the Driftwood after another patron flashed his genitals at them. "It got real weird real quick," bassist Micky Alfano said.

"I didn't think it was that weird," guitarist/keyboardist Mark Ritsema retorted, which itself was quite weird.

Laid-back, sardonic, hazy-headed dudes who said they first came together over skateboarding and smoking weed, they sounded clearer and more mission-fueled than ever two nights earlier, at a 7th Street Entry gig they say was their best show yet. Backed by drummer John Evert -- a Milwaukeean who shares the gig with local hitter Jared Isabella -- the trio churned out an impressively plush and regal blend of atmospheric slide guitar, warm organ parts, hypnotically heavy bass lines and occasional electronic beats. Pelant sang over all those layers in his high-wavering, sandy-bottomed voice, part Roger Hodgson (Supertramp) and part Andrew VanWyngarden (MGMT).

It was an impressive live set by a band that will get to make a lot of first impressions this year.

In mid-December, Night Moves officially joined the roster at Domino Recording Co., arguably the most promising record deal of any young Twin Cities band right now. Domino's success stories include Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Animal Collective, the Kills, Dan Deacon and the currently buzzing Real Estate.

With that track record -- along with their own admission of being lazy about the business side of their music -- the Night Moves guys say they are thrilled about the deal.

"I think signing a record deal sort of just adds to the classic aspects we wanted in this band," Pelant said.

Something out of nothing

Night Moves did issue its '70s/Todd Rundgren-styled sonic opus of a debut album last summer. Titled "Colored Emotions," the 10-song collection was available as a free download for about three months via local indie imprint Afternoon Records.

The point of issuing the album for nothing, the band said, was to aim for everything they have now. Domino will release a spruced-up version of it internationally, probably this summer.

"I feel like nobody ever wants to buy some young band's CD anyway, even if it's just $7 or whatever," said Pelant, who used to perform with Ritsema in the very young electronic rock act Battle Royal. Concurrently, Ritsema played with Alfano in the Pavement-y band Mouthful of Bees.

Local fans picked up on the free record, then so did the University of Minnesota's Radio K and 89.3 the Current. Paul Gillis, who manages local stars Peter Wolf Crier and Jeremy Messersmith, caught the band's Current in-studio session. He took on Night Moves and brought them to the attention of multiple record labels.

"We had several meetings that were 'Order anything you want' kind of things,'" Alfano incredulously recalled.

"It was the smart move to let the record go for free," he added. "But really, we just wanted people to hear it because we had worked on it for so long."

It took two years to make the record, but only a few days per month were spent recording -- "whenever we could pool enough money to buy the studio time," Alfano explained.

Studio engineer John Miller marveled at the band members' million-dollar ideas.

"They wanted everything to be perfect, to the point where they would spend a couple hours fiddling with their guitar pedals," said Miller, who claims that 100 different parts were recorded for some songs. You'll believe him when you hear densely layered tracks such as the opener "Headlights" (one of two tracks available online at Night Moves' Bandcamp website) or the record's sweeping, dramatic highlight, "Old Friends."

Laughing at the memory now, Miller said he thought at the time: "Who do these guys think they are? But I think they were such perfectionists because they knew they were onto something really good."

Trial by campfire

Ironically, it was a less-than-perfect live set that sold Night Moves to Domino.

Kris Gillespie, manager at Domino's office in New York, flew to town last August to see the band perform at the Square Lake Festival -- hardly an ideal showcase. Not only was it on a makeshift outdoor stage on a rainy and muggy day, but the band also had to perform with a drum machine.

"That's a good way of seeing if a band can rise above whatever is thrown at them," Gillespie laughingly recalled. "You could still very much see the band dynamic, and that was worth the weight in gold."

Luckily, the trio had already made a strong impression with its labored-over recordings. The label plans a quick overhaul of the album, though. "Colored Emotions" will be remixed, and a song or two will be traded for other songs. Gillespie said the changes will be subtle: "What they did was pretty special, and in no way do we want to change the essence of the recordings."

This, too, doesn't cause Night Moves' laid-back makers to freak out.

"We went through so many different points of view on the way the record should sound, I see this as really just a continuation," said Pelant.

The old-pal bandmates still work day jobs and say they have yet to get any label money. Whenever they do, much of it will go toward their new, used tour van, which will take them down to Texas' South by Southwest Music Conference in March, and who knows where else. Next week's First Ave gigs, including the Best New Bands showcase Wednesday and the Current's birthday bash next Friday, are like final exams after months of steady local gigging.

Touring will add yet another year or two to their album's already lengthy life span. They're cool with that, too.

"I feel like our bands before this were all high school bands, which were short-lived and burned out fast," Pelant said. "We wanted to take this one slower and do something with staying power."

They're in it for the long haul, in other words.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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