Nervous Curtains wasn't supposed to be a band at all.
Sean Kirkpatrick had all the band he could handle as keyboardist for The Paper Chase. No, he just wanted accompaniment for a few live shows in support of his 2007 debut solo album Turn On the Interference, on which his slurred vocals and dissonant piano bashing are the clear centerpiece. Local pros may have filled in on accordion, bass and drums—but the album, as he puts it, is the work of a singer-songwriter.
"I had no intention of starting another band," he says during a conversation at the Little Forest Hills duplex he shares with his girlfriend. It's 11 p.m., just after a band practice two days before Nervous Curtains' February 25 Good Records in-store release show for the band's debut LP, Out of Sync With Time. "I had a band. The whole reason I started a solo project was so I wouldn't have to be in another band and coordinate with other people and musicians.
Nervous Curtains performs Thursday, March 11, at Andy's Bar in Denton as part of the NX35 Conferette.
"So I wouldn't be in another band if it hadn't turned into something we all got excited about."
At first, Kirkpatrick played shows with just his Yamaha Stage Piano, but two conversations set his band fate in motion. Former Deathray Davies drummer Robert Anderson approached him to compliment the songs and offer his services. Separately, Kirkpatrick's former Falcon Project bandmate Ian Hamilton (who also plays in Jack With One Eye) had described how a shoulder injury was forcing him to focus his attention from guitar to keyboards.
"Then it dawned on me," Kirkpatrick says. "He wasn't even really a keyboard player before that, but the parts were simple and I just needed someone who knew the notes."
That ended up working to everyone's advantage, though, as Anderson's approach to keys is that of a guitarist—filling out the sonic gaps for a band that has no bass or guitar.
The three played together for a couple of months as "Sean Kirkpatrick (with full band)" until Kirkpatrick conceded that it was, yes, a band. He christened the trio Nervous Curtains in September 2008. Inspired by the collaboration, he found that writing songs for the full band came more naturally, and by December 2008 he had enough material for another album. The three recorded with Matt Barnhart at the Echo Lab in Argyle, had John Congleton mix it at Elmwood in February 2009, and sent the results to Carl Saff in Chicago for mastering.
Kirkpatrick could have pressed up CDs from the masters and self-released the album, but he had grander ambitions than a mere local release, so he spent months label shopping. The only bite he got was from Chicago's Latest Flame, which is fine by Kirkpatrick. The label has helped immensely with distribution, press and radio, he says, and has offered to press the LP on vinyl.
Even more than a year removed from recording, he's happy with the results and excited that people will finally hear the songs.
"I like it," he says. "It's something I don't mind listening to, which is always a challenge when you're a musician. The goal for me personally was to have something I'd listen to if I wasn't in the band."
Out of Sync With Time's title refers to characters troubled in one way or another by the passage of time, whether they're plagued with a neurological disorder or simply suffer from acute nostalgia.
"For me, living in my head causes me to get out of sync with time," he says. "I play with different motifs of neurological disorders on this, which creates a very strong perception of somebody out of sync with their reality."
These ideas were partially inspired by his reading material before writing many of the songs that appeared on the album—especially studies by Oliver Sacks. Sacks is a famed neurologist and author of books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and 2007's Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the latter of which includes a story about a man who had vivid auditory hallucinations of a song from his youth, which inspired Kirkpatrick to write "Hearing Something That Isn't There."
But this theme doesn't have to be taken so literally. The title track has the line "a spectator in your own mind," which Kirkpatrick says is a state of being that he worries about falling into.
"I can definitely really relate to that on a personal level," he says. "Sometimes I wonder whether I'm really living my life or just acting out things and watching myself live my life."
"All Yesterday's Parties" concerns a musician whose glory days of comped drinks and good reviews are behind him. The composite character is influenced by personal experience—including, Kirkpatrick admits, his own occasional delusions of grandeur. But it was also heavily influenced by biographies of two larger-than-life pop titans—Phil Spector and Axl Rose—and the absurdity he found in their stories.
The music—ominous, dark and, well, nervous—successfully captures the album's core lyrical mood, what Kirkpatrick calls a "paranoid sense of distress."
"We were able to tie in a lot of things that I like in music together," he says. "Elements of dub music, psychedelic krautrock things, and we were able to get heavier and noisier, and also bring in elements of all these new-wave bands that I really like—but without ever sounding like some kind of odd variety act that's intentionally genre hopping."
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Even the tango rhythm of "All Yesterday's Parties," which could be an eye-rolling gimmick in the hands of a lesser band, sounds natural, like a gently mocking celebration of the past. Throughout the album, Kirkpatrick's signature piano builds tension, then releases it in glorious climax amidst Hamilton's itchy, buzzing synth bass and atmospherics, all underpinned by Anderson's relentless, propulsive beats. It's alternately and sometimes simultaneously dramatic and minimal, hysterical and creepy, paranoid and lucid, triumphant and cowering.
Simply put, it's phenomenal.
If there's any gripe to be made against Nervous Curtains, it's that, ironically, the band created to help fill out live renditions of songs from Turn on the Interference no longer plays any material from that great album. But, Kirkpatrick says, he'll likely play solo shows again, eventually.
Maybe they will truly be solo shows this time—or maybe he'll end up inadvertently starting yet another band. Either way should be fine with his fans.