It's been four years since John Congleton has released any new music. It hasn't been for a lack of trying on his part, though. In the meantime — and practically all of his time — he's been busy with his work as a producer, engineer and mixer of international repute, working with artists like St. Vincent, Swans and Blondie. He even has a Grammy to show for it. And now, at long last, he has a new record under his own name.
At his Elmwood Studio in Oak Cliff and at studios all across the country, Congleton has worked with a diverse list of dozens upon dozens of artists, including the War on Drugs, Explosions in the Sky, Sarah Jaffe and St. Vincent, with whom he shared the Grammy win in 2015. And the work never stops: In getting some time to talk for this article, Congleton was in the midst of working on a new Blondie record as well as a solo record from Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak.
"At this point, I don't really have to work for a paycheck like I have in the past," Congleton says. "I'm extremely lucky."
For once, he's found the time to work on something wholly his own. On April 1, Congleton released his first full length album under the moniker John Congleton and the Nighty Nite, called Until the Horror Goes. It's his first release with the Fat Possum label.
If you've enjoyed the almost beautiful melodies with discordant tones found in his work with his acclaimed band, the Paper Chase, you'll enjoy this, too. It's not a lost Paper Chase record, though; there are synthesizers, digital drums (as well as live drums), strings and very little guitar. With songs about mortality, aging and society at large filtered through metaphors often found in horror and sci-fi movies, this is the logical next step for the former frontman of the Paper Chase.
The Nighty Nite was the project Congleton wanted to do immediately after the Paper Chase stopped playing in late 2010. Prior to the Paper Chase's disbanding, he had enough material to make either a double album or two albums, hence why the first installment was called Someday This Could All Be Yours Vol. 1. They never got around to releasing the second volume, as Congleton says the material was way too much of a downer.
"I kind of liked the idea of ending the band on this sort of unfinished sentence," Congleton says. "Because that's kind of what life is. Nothing's tidy. Nothing is wrapped up in a bow." He says the record was about epidemics and natural disasters, but in a celebratory-yet-dark way. "I feel like we ended the band on a fever pitch where the band sounded really good," he adds. "We had a successful record in terms of concept. I felt really good about everything."
With some of the remnants of the final Paper Chase lineup, including drummer Jason Garner, the Nighty Nite cut an EP and did a short tour. Congleton realized it was hard to keep this band going, especially since a number of the guys in the band lived in different places. He decided to take a break from that as many outside recording opportunities had come his way. Slowly he accumulated about 25 new songs and then turned his attention to finishing them and putting them out. He confided in his manager Adam Katz to help pick out the 10 songs that make up Until the Horror Goes.
Trying to figure out if there is a "John Congleton sound," you'll spin in a few places. Congleton sees his approach as more of a philosophy. "I don't have any desire to have a 'sound,'" he says. "If people want to decide I have a sound or decide what a sound is, then that's fine, but that's up to them. But the last thing I want to do is superimpose an aesthetic that is unwelcome on a record. I'd rather figure out what the band's aesthetic is and discover that together."
Congleton is happy to offer his services to artists he's interested in. He knows what it's like to record music himself, so he thinks of himself as an ally to the artist. "I'm a firm believer that enthusiasm and inspiration are a good thing, always, " he says. "It's always a brave thing and a smart thing to be enthusiastic when you feel enthusiasm."
As for that Grammy that he won for St. Vincent's self-titled album, he tells a matter-of-fact story about it. Annie Clark was on tour in New Zealand and Congleton was working with a band when the ceremony happened. They didn't think they would win for Best Alternative Music Album, but they did. Clark texted Congleton about the win, the first of a flurry of messages from friends and family throughout the day. His Grammy was FedExed to Elmwood and he has it on display, in Elmwood's bathroom.
Congleton is thankful for the unique experience and knows that it legitimizes what he does for a living to his family, but winning an award was not why he got into music as a producer or artist. "The Grammys aren't particularly important as a thing, but I have no embarrassment in saying this: Of all the things I could have won a Grammy for, winning a Grammy with Annie for that record is highly nutritious to my soul," Congleton says. "Annie is like a sister to me at this point. We have worked so hard for so long and I feel a lot of ownership in this sound."
He still comes off as humble. "Anybody who wants to ask me questions about anything, I'm flattered by that," he says. "It would be unreasonable and rude of me to act like my time was more valuable than theirs."