Chance encounters have a habit of making enormous impacts on our lives. Complete strangers can fold themselves into our stories in ways that irrevocably alter the plot. Brooklyn’s Sean Cahill, for example, was on the verge of ending his The Next Great American Novelist project before it really even got off the ground. Then he met Jason Cummings, and together they made the band’s sensational sophomore full-length, Careless Moon.
But we’ll get there.
“I was working in life insurance, and I had a gig at some small venue in Bushwick,” Cahill recalls. “I almost didn’t do it because I was so depressed from my living situation and work. I knew nobody, and my girlfriend didn’t show up. I played the show solo, and I was so over everything. I just didn’t give a shit, so I was very open and honest on stage. And this guy who was super shy came up to me afterwards and was like, ‘Hey, I really like your music. I’m a sound engineer, you should come by my studio,’ and gave me his card.”
That shy fan was Justin Helm, an engineer at New York’s The Cutting Room. Cahill later stopped by the studio and met the in-house producer, who happened to be Cummings. The two quickly hit it off, connecting over a love of The Beatles and Dirty Projectors. With Helm co-producing and engineering, Cummings would go on to co-produce and play on I’ll See You in the Art You Love, Cahill’s partially crowd-funded debut as The Next Great American Novelist.
It wasn’t long before the pair went from friends to true creative collaborators. As soon as Art You Love was completed, together they started reapproaching a few dozen bedroom demos Sean had written. Eventually, Cummings expressed a not-so-secret desire to join NGAN, and Cahill was happy to welcome him to the foil.
From that moment, the band’s trajectory dramatically changed.
Cahill had never fostered a strong ambition to take his music beyond a personal escape. He’d studied classical guitar in college, but left the program when the criticism and perfection of academia began to suck the fun out of the art. Now with Cummings to play off of, however, Cahill was rediscovering the joys that attracted him to writing and performing in the first place. “When it’s a shared experience, it’s more meaningful,” he says. “When you have someone to chime in and say, ‘Let’s move this a little bit and let’s add a harmony here,’ your song becomes something more. That’s the really fun part of having a creative partnership.” Since then, the pair have applied creative efforts outside the band as well, writing jingles for everything from Swedish Fish to dog medication.
More than ever, Cahill wanted NGAN to become a band people brought their friends to to come see live. Holding them back was the fact that the Art You Love material was emo-folk born of alcohol-crutched post-collegiate depression — strong stuff, but not exactly the makings of raucous concert experiences. United, Cahill and Cummings set to work creating new songs that would “make sense live.” Under that guiding principle, the music began shifting towards an indie, psych-rock feel with a nod back to the pop-punk bands of Cahill’s youth. It all came together in the studio with drummer Danny Sher of Horse Torso (his outfit with Baroness bassist Nick Jost) laying down the rhythm live to tape as they built towards their new record, Careless Moon.
Like an author taking influence from the classics, NGAN found inspiration in the sort of musicians they themselves enjoyed watching. Tracks like album opener “Blackberry” aim for Alabama Shakes riffs, while single “Bad Animation” takes on a Nirvana’s grunge with an outlaw country bent. “Wicked”, a track that won the band a placement in the AMC smash The Walking Dead, blends Weezer’s nerd rock with Deerhoof’s experimentation. No more direct homage could be paid to Parquet Courts than it is on the track “Parquet Shorts”. Yet for his part, Cahill sees closer “Ice Moon” as the most defining song of NGAN’s new incarnation, its gentle psych haze building towards a mellotron-led storm with an ending refrain borrowed from Rage Against the Machine.
“The first album came from a place of struggling with depression, since then I’ve sought a more joyful approach,” explains Cahill. “We meant to write feel good songs that could still carry a bit of psychic pain. We just wanted to be a rock band. We’re trying to capture all of that.”
Though Careless Moon explores a new range of sound, NGAN remains the band Art You Love fans recognize. Tightly woven harmonies are maintained in every chorus, only now they rip where they previously wooed. Cahill’s lyrics are still evocative “little short stories,” tales that stir minor, beautiful revelations both familiar and peculiar. Drawing as much on psychotropic awakenings (“Thursday”, “Gravity’s Rainbow”) as romance and heartbreak (“Kubler”, also “Gravity’s Rainbow”), the songs on Careless Moon are Cahill “processing the experience of being an artist.” An artist, that is, who went from using music as an emotional outlet to one striving to give his all to the form.
And he has Cummings to thank for that. With his dear friend and new bandmate at his side, he’s explored this reinvigorated creative desire during the three years since I’ll See You in the Art You Love, resulting in 10 painstakingly crafted songs that uncover the true potential of The Next Great American Novelist. Absorbing the influence of each other as well as their favorite artists, they’ve hit upon a varied, engaging sound that demands a presence on stage. The result may be called Careless Moon but it’s also the careful evolution of an electrifying musical partnership that’s only just getting started.