Now more than ever, the music industry can seem like an impossible labyrinth to navigate. With the state of the world ever-changing and attention spans becoming shorter by the day, it’s up to artists to find new ways to stand out — and that’s just what Baltimore’s nightlife are doing.
A band with a “don’t ask permission, beg forgiveness” mindset, since forming back in 2020 after vocalist Hansel Romero was inspired by a panel discussion featuring letlive.’s Jason Aalon Butler, nightlife have been drawing up a blueprint for a bright new era of their scene. Introducing their signature “soul-punk” sound to the world on their 2021 debut EP, new low, the forward-thinking trio set out to make music that’s powered by one simple underlying theme: groove.
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Fresh from the release of their sophomore EP, fallback, nightlife are diving headfirst into the history of their influences as they look to take control of their boundaryless vision. From synth-funk anthems to cyberpunk and nostalgia-infused dance tunes, it’s a risk-taking sonic journey that proves nightlife aren’t following the crowd — they’re making their own path.
While traditional genre labels may not be something that nightlife subscribe to, you self-describe this project as “soul punk.” What does that label mean to you?
HANSEL ROMERO: It’s taking on more meaning as it grows, but I took it from letlive. Jason [Aalon Butler] used it as a little catchphrase to sign off with around a decade ago, and I think he took that from Bad Brains and a couple of other artists that had been using the moniker before. It’s this idea of connection between the heart of rock ‘n’ roll and Black American music and blues, and what that is in terms of what we do, which is make rock music and make Black music. It’s about finding the intersections between the heart and soul of where it started and connecting it with where it’s gone, be that by Black voices, or by the predominantly white voices that have taken the sound and evolved into a million other things. It’s interesting because with a 20- or 30-year disconnect, there’s a whole lot of ground to make up for where white people took rock and punk to really cool places. To be able to bring that Black heart and soul back into some of these spaces is exciting. It’s about trying to find where it fits in today.
[Photo by Ian Bell]
There’s a real authenticity in that, and as an artist that must be important from a self-expression perspective. I imagine it’s impossible to feel personally fulfilled with your creativity if you’re not putting your personal influences and true self into it, and there’s an internal catharsis that lives within that process.
It really is, and part of my nexus of control with being able to handle every single part of the nightlife music-making process is knowing that whatever we put out there is my most pure self-expression. I have taken the hours, minutes and seconds to make sure that each silly detail that no one will ever care about is handled because it’s from my own heart. We had a video blow up on TikTok [a version of Sam Smith’s “Unholy” with Loveless’ Julian Comeau], and I realized that there was even a little part of me and who I am and what I do in that, too, which I hadn’t even thought about before. That authenticity is what makes it interesting.
That’s especially important as you handle every aspect of this band yourselves. Everything’s done on a DIY basis, and you even self-produce all the music for nightlife. Why is it important to keep it as much of an internal process as possible at this point?
The real answer is we’re all control freaks in our own little way, but it’s also symbolically important for us to have ownership over our music. It’s very important to us that the music itself is ours. It’s on my hard drive, it’s in my computer sessions, and I don’t have to call up some producer so that I can get something. It’s just nice, too, and it’s an opportunity to set yourself apart. I’ve matured beyond the idea of saying, “Hey, look at us. We do it ourselves.” Because it’s not something to be rewarded, but it does give us the opportunity to be different if we want to. We don’t, for better or worse, sound like other people in our scene right now. There are artists right now that are going to sound better than us because they’re working with the people who know how to do that, but we get to make a weird vaporwave song like “no pleasure.” It’s nice to have the control.
That must make it easier to follow your own hearts when creating, too, and that’s certainly what nightlife are doing. You’ve developed a unique style that merges countless sounds and scenes, from post-hardcore and funk to pop-punk and disco. That fearless experimentation is something that bands like letlive. have brought to the scene over the last couple of decades.
We hit these new little strikes of gold every now and again, especially right after we dropped something. We’ll get a bit bummed if what we’re writing sounds a little bit similar to what we just did, and we have to keep pushing to find ways to go from there. I’m in that spot right now, but trying to break through whatever this funk is with a new approach is exciting. It could be something so vague, like changing from Logic to a different program on my computer, Julian [Lofton, guitarist/bassist] switching from an eight-string to a baritone or Isaiah [Walker, drummer] starting to mess with doing loops. All of it is us trying to find ways to break through the little self-doubt in our heads, and we all have this idea that you can’t really do the same thing twice without justification. It guides us forward. We really love music, so every time we make something, it’s our love letter. The more love letters we can write, the better.
Often, people don’t even know what they like until they hear it, and it’s easy to assume you don’t like something because it’s unfamiliar or feels uncomfortable. Is nightlife a means to bridge some of those gaps to help people appreciate sounds that they may never have ventured into otherwise?
There’s a map and a timeline for everyone, and Issues were that band for me. Back in 2014 when I first heard Lophiile’s [DJ, Issues] side production when he was doing Radiant Children and stuff like that, I was already into Hiatus Kaiyote and the jazz/neo-soul movement that was going on back then. To hear Lophiile be involved with that at the time was huge for me because I was already a fan of the band and how they made it OK for me to like all of my R&B stuff. That was really what sealed the deal for me and made it like, “OK, we’re allowed to exist in this space as ourselves.” There are only a few people that have found a way to make it work, but it told me that I could do it. Being that band or that person for other people will always be the goal. We don’t have that much access to other parts of the industry right now, but the goal is to show people something they’ve never heard before.
With such forward-thinking mindsets bringing the three of you together, as you look toward the future following the release of the fallback EP, what do your goals for nightlife look like?
This time last year I might have thought that I had an idea of what I had in mind for us, and now I don’t at all. I just know that I want to keep growing because I’m selfish and want people to adore me. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, it’d be really cool to see the band get to a bigger place, and we’re always working towards something like that. If that comes along with finding ourselves as artists, becoming better musicians and finding better ways to express ourselves within the music — that’s great. We’re just trying our best. We’re following the lead of bands before us, and Turnstile are a great example. They’re community-minded first and world-minded second. I have big dreams, but really, I just want us to be a little band that makes a living off of music, impacts their own culture within this little corner and keeps innovating that way. As long as we’re paying our bills, it’s cool, but if we get a Grammy, that’d be dope! We’re figuring out how to do this in our corner, and if people and awards come along, we’re going to seize those opportunities. It’s all about keeping it real.
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