Feature Stories

Nervous Curtains Dive Into Dallas' Fractured Social History on Con

A few years ago, Sean Kirkpatrick wasn’t sure he would make another record. He openly talked about it when Fake Infinity, his second record with Nervous Curtains, was released in 2012. The keyboardist/vocalist wasn’t making bold declarations; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do another grand presentation of recording an album, doing lots of press and playing shows all over the country to promote it. Turns out, he found enjoyment in writing new songs while delving into the history of Dallas’s music and its jagged political history. That's how he came about creating Nervous Curtains’ newest record, Con.

If some of the songs on the album sound familiar to regulars at their shows, it’s not a surprise. Most of the songs were written back in 2013, and the recording of a handful of them began in January 2014 at Elmwood with Alex Bhore at the helm. Another session a few months later, this time at the Echo Lab with Matt Barnhart, yielded a handful more recordings. Mixing and mastering were done shortly thereafter, but the fruits of all of that labor are only coming out now.

“It’s been a very long process. Trying to figure out the terms of the release has eaten up the rest of that time between last summer until now,” Kirkpatrick says in his East Dallas home with his two friendly dogs around him.

Con is a self-released affair, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying to find a label. Latest Flame, the label that had released Nervous Curtains’ output until then, ceased to exist, so Kirkpatrick weighed his options. “I talked to a bunch of other labels,” he says. “Some that just ignored me. Some that said, ‘No, this isn’t what we’re looking for.’ Some said, ‘I really like the music, but I don’t like the vocals.’ Some that said, ‘I love it!’ and wanted to put it out and then just dropped off the face of the earth. Other labels that wanted to put it out, but they offered so little in the way of financial support as far as even just basically pressing the album. I really didn’t see the benefit in going with some of these labels. They weren’t offering anything we couldn’t do ourselves.”

Strangely, it’s hard to see why Con was passed over by so many labels, as it’s the band’s most accessible record to date. The trio, rounded out by keyboardist Ian Hamilton and drummer Robert Anderson, is known for brittle melodies and disjointed rhythms. Those are definitely there on Con, but the interesting turn is how upbeat a lot of the material is. Consider it apocalyptic new wave, recalling the vibes of Devo and Goblin.

This twist came from listening to what their dedicated audience responded the most to. When they toured in support of Fake Infinity, crowds really took to the upbeat material they already had and the band liked playing the songs, too. With that in mind, exploring rhythm was more of a central focus in the writing of the new songs than writing moody atmospheric pieces. Hamilton brought a love of Afrobeat and funk to the songs, and Anderson is the kind of drummer that can harness and lock in with any style. “White Flashes,” one of the album’s standouts, was written in 2012 and played pretty frequently live. People would ask which album that song was on and the band had to tell them to wait to hear that song on the next album. “Once we wrote that song, it kind of became a conscious decision to keep writing in that vein,” Kirkpatrick says.

Not only are there musical ties, there are many lyrical bonds as well. Songs like “City of Hate,” “Progress” and “How to Survive the End of Time” feature Kirkpatrick exploring Dallas' history. He’s lived in Texas his whole life and has lived in Dallas for the past 15 years. “I ended up here, and I didn’t plan on staying here,” he says. “There was a time that I didn’t like living here and had solid intentions to leave. But some good things to me happened here as far as meeting lots of great people, getting married, finding work; all those kinds of things.” He briefly had a stint in Spoon and spent many years touring and recording with the Paper Chase before performing solo shows and eventually starting Nervous Curtains. “I ended up staying here, and when you live in a place for a certain period of time, you start to want to understand why things are the way they are,” he says.
The central theme of the Con is conviction. “Generally, people look at conviction as a positive,” he says with a subversive Jade Helm T-shirt displaying Barack Obama on a dinosaur with guns and explosions around him. “Like, ‘keep believing’ and ‘keep working towards your dream.’ What interested me is also [that] conviction can fuel a certain self-delusion and some possibly really destructive practices as well.” From a fear of integration and fearing a communist agenda with JFK all the way to thinking Barack Obama is a socialist, Kirkpatrick remains fixed on a history of fear. “There’s a history of paranoia in Texas and I find that kind of stuff really fascinating,” he says.

Kirkpatrick worked on Wendy Davis’s campaign for governor and has worked with his wife Nan, a staunch supporter of reproductive rights, on various events. Seeing Democrat Davis lose to Republican Greg Abbot was heartbreaking, especially since Kirkpatrick believed in Davis so much. That sentiment can be heard in “Progress,” especially. “When you get shut down like that, you question yourself with, ‘Well, are the changes I want right? Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong,’” he says. “That’s something we don’t really ask ourselves very often. I’m very guilty of that as well. Bias can blind you from facts and reality.”

And with Dallas specifically, Kirkpatrick loved touching on the town’s fear of racial integration, how negatively many people responded to John F. Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas in 1963, all the way to how things are now. “Dallas has an element of darkness in its DNA and I think about why that it is,” he says. Especially in “City of Hate,” he goes off: “Aside from being friendly to big business, Dallas seems like it’s always struggled to find its identity,” he says. “The city is often associated with materialism, which is what makes the mirrored buildings of downtown such a fitting metaphor. Dallas has thrived as a patriarchy, and that alienates many of its citizens. We are always high on those lists of cities that are mean to its homeless. We see this militarization of culture with everyone driving their huge SUVs with their ‘Come and Take it’ bumper stickers. It all reinforces the City of Hate moniker despite the best intentions of people working in their communities. There is a huge movement of culture and arts in Dallas, but it’s relatively fractured. I guess what I’m saying in the song is that all of that is somehow reflected into me, and I feel my identity fracture similarly.”

Kirkpatrick likes to reference other songs in his lyrics. Picking up from how hip hop songs reference other hip hop songs, he wanted to do that in Nervous Curtains. From quoting the Misfits’ “Bullet” to Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power to the band Magazine and even Fake Infinity, they’re meant as fun callbacks. “PMA,” a title often associated with Bad Brains’ “Positive Mental Attitude” approach is retooled on Con to talk about “Psychomotor Agitation,” a neurological disorder that causes spasms and physical reactions based on anxiety and paranoia. They’re in-jokes, essentially, to lighten the mood.

Lots of stuff is explored on Con, and interestingly, there is a lot of leftover material from its writing sessions. Kirkpatrick is considering releasing that material on an EP, as well as a 30-minute horror soundtrack to a lost '80s film, which was recorded during a break in tracking Con. Given how prolific they’ve been, the band doesn’t spend much time together aside from rehearsals, shows and sporadic touring. For the immediate future, don’t expect a lot of shows from the band, as Hamilton recently becoming a father for the first time and Anderson is raising a young child, in addition to work commitments.

“We can’t go out for very long,” Kirkpatrick says of touring. “But I’m not interested in going out for very long. There was a time in my life where I did not like being at home and I loved being on tour. That time is very much gone. I really like being at home with my dogs and my wife. It’s nice to have a paycheck and be able to survive.”

Nervous Curtains play Double Wide on Saturday, October 10 with Bloody Knives and Wire Nest.

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Eric Grubbs is a Dallas-based writer who has published two books, Post: A Look at the Influence of Post-Hardcore 1985-2007 and When We Were the Kids. His writing has been featured in Punk Planet, Popdose, Fort Worth Weekly, The Dentonite and LA Weekly. He supports Manchester City and will never root for Manchester United.
Contact: Eric Grubbs