Los Angeles-based rockers Nightmare and the Cat formed in 2010, but the musical powerhouses that lead the five-piece — 23-year-old front man Django Stewart and 26-year-old guitarist Sam Stewart — go way back. All the way back.
Growing up in England, Sam watched as his 6-year-old brother Django developed a fanatical love of James Brown. Django saw his older sibling pick up a guitar for the first time at age 12 and immediately master a Nirvana songbook. But while the two pursued parallel musical paths — Sam with Blondelle, Django with Midnight Squires — they didn’t contemplate forming a band together until Sam rang up Django and asked his little brother to join him for a songwriting session in L.A. three years ago.
“I was just so fucking happy when he said that,” Django remembers. “He came for 10 days, and we wrote five songs,” Sam recalls, joking, “it was probably our most prolific period.” The results were too good to ignore, and their new band, their first truly joint effort, was born.
Named after a track the brothers adore by obscure artist Anthony Harwood, Nightmare and the Cat quickly grew to a five-piece as the pair recruited Sam’s girlfriend Claire Acey, an accomplished singer and multi-instrumentalist, and Spike Phillips, the drummer from Midnight Squires (Scott Henson, another Squires album, joined after the group’s bassist Julie Mitchell relocated to Chicago). Sam says their original sonic plan was simple: “We wanted it to be a mixture of Jeff Buckley vocals and the Pixies’ music.”
In actuality, though, the brothers have never followed in anyone’s footsteps. One of their earliest supporters was brilliant underground L.A. artist Gary Basemen, who has painted new compositions (and Django himself) during live performances and handled the band’s striking logo and album artwork. One of their earliest gigs was a collaboration with the circus school where Django has been learning the art of the trapeze.
So when the time came to follow up their debut self-titled EP with their first full-length album, Simple, they headed for uncharted territory. They convinced producer Eric Valentine, who’d made one of their favorite albums (Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf) to record “Blackbird Smile” for them as a favor, and charmed him into doing the full LP. Then they got to work putting their gorgeously dramatic, atmospheric anthems to tape.
Sam calls grand opener “Simple” the album’s “defining track” because “it sets the tone for the whole record and everything it’s about.” (As listeners will soon find out, Nightmare and the Cat’s music is anything but simple.) “It’s about relationships within your family, how people are trying to hide stuff but it always comes out in the end,” Sam explains. “Goodbye” is the group’s version of a classic pop song inspired by ’60s girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals. Django says every time he sings the track’s chorus — “I’ve said goodbye so many times the words have lost all meaning / but I won’t say it again if you keep me here believing” — “I find a new meaning for it.”
“Mae” shows off a folkier vibe more akin to the music Sam was making on his own before Nightmare and the Cat started up. “It’s got that old shuffle beat and acoustic finger-picking,” Sam says, plus “a very Fleetwood Mac-influenced chorus with the harmonies.” The stompy sing-along “Alvarado” is sort of love letter to Echo Park, where the brothers have lived. Django sang the melody into his phone and shot it over to Sam, who mimicked the line on guitar, Hendrix-style. “It’s about opening your eyes to L.A., but the lyrics are kind of bittersweet,” Django explains. “We do that a lot in our music.”
Dualities and dichotomies play a large role in the Stewarts’ writing, partially because they are “total opposites,” as Django puts it. Born showman Django is the consummate performer onstage — loose, alluring, otherworldly — while Sam is the musical perfectionist, happy to spend days on end experimenting in the studio or composing the strings that adorn the lush, harmonic “Traditions.” Sam is mostly inspired by Radiohead and the Beatles; while Django prefers the soulful singers he effortlessly recalls when he opens his mouth to sing, as well as brilliant writers like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. (Both brothers cite David Bowie as hugely influential, too.)
But together they — and the full album — add up to complexly beautiful whole. “It’s not a concept album, but sometimes when you listen to it from beginning to end there is kind of a narrative that carries through,” Sam says, which may help listeners dig into the album’s epic closer, “Breaking Down the Walls.” It’s built on two chords, and its power comes from layers of shifting melodies and rhythms — and wine glasses, which the group managed to tune to the right key (“That literally took six hours,” Django laughs).
Writing music with a brother has its advantages — “We can be brutally honest with each other, that’s the main thing,” Sam says — but part of the challenge of making Simple was learning to open up their tight partnership to the rest of us. “I feel like our music is so atmospheric and dreamy,” Django muses, “it’s almost like stepping into our own world.”
With Neon Trees & Smallpools:
05.12 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium
05.14 – Pittsburgh, PA – Stage AE
05.16 – Atlantic City, NJ – House of Blues
05.19 – Norfolk, VA – The Norva
05.20 – Richmond, VA – The National
05.22 – Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore
05.23 – Atlanta, GA Live Nation The Tabernacle
05.24 – Raleigh, NC – Lincoln Theatre
05.25 – North Myrtle Beach, SC – House of Blues
05.27 – Orlando, FL – Hard Rock Live
05.28 – Tampa, FL – The Tirz Ybor
05.29 – Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Revolution
06.01 – Dallas, TX – House of Blues
06.02 – Austin, TX – Stubb’s Waller Creek
06.04 – Tucson, AZ – The Taialto Theatre
06.05 – Las Vegas – The Cosmopolitan
06.09 – Portland, OR – Roseland Theatre
06.10 – Spokane, WA – Knitting Factory
06.11 – Boise, ID – Knitting Factory
06.13 – Reno, NV – Knitting Factory
06.14 – Los Angeles, CA -The Wiltern
06.16 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Complex
06.17 – Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
06.21 – Louisville, KY Fourth Street Live!
06.23 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
06.24 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre
06.29 – Detroit, MI – The Fillmore
06.30 – Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall
07.01 – Dewey Beach, DE – Bottle & Cork
07.03 – Toronto – Phoenix Concert Theatre
07.04 – Montreal, QC – Corona Theatre
07.07 – New York, NY – Central Park Summer Stage
07.10 – Wallingford, CT – The Dome at Toyota Presents Oakdale
07.11 – Baltimore, MD – Rams Head Live
07.13 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club