Better Days with The Night Café
Whilst beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, Vincent Van Gogh himself described his piece The Night Café as his ugliest painting ever. This hasn’t stopped the Liverpool-based quartet of the same name from reclaiming the title and breathing some beauty back into it. With melodies to warm you from the inside out and a second album on the horizon, The Night Café are a goldmine of catchy hooks and heartrending lyrics that have garnered them fans from indie, alternative and emo genres.
After the success of their debut album 0151 in 2019, COVID-19 had interrupted their plans for touring and releasing new music, until now. As blossom delicately signifies the welcome changing of seasons, the group’s latest EP introduces a mature yet recognisable sound that proves The Night Café are not only one to watch, but one to listen to on repeat. Spring has sprung and brought with it For Better Days, following March’s single Isn’t, and blessed our ears with their first release after eighteen months.
FRONTRUNNER spoke with lead singer Sean about humble beginnings, writing moody lyrics, and more.
Am I right in thinking that your original band name was Bunk Bed? How did you land on the name The Night Café?
Yeah, we were called Bunk Bed and then we were called Canvas and we thought Canvas would be the one that we stick with. But as we started to gig a little bit more and things started to get serious, we got told that Canvas was taken by someone or something. It was copyright so we couldn’t use it, so we just kind of tried to think of the maddest band name we could. And it took ages, because we were just throwing words at each other with no meaning at all. And we ended up at The Night Café, but then obviously found out it’s a Vincent Van Gogh painting later on.
So, you didn’t get the name from the painting?
No, but if a fan comes up and speaks to me and says, ‘why’s your name that?’ I just say because of the painting, because it’s just so much easier to explain!
Get at how weird this is as well, we were on tour once in Europe and I can’t remember what city we were in, but our hotel had fallen through, we had no idea where we were going to stay for the night. And then our manager managed to book this dodgy hotel, just on the outskirts of the city, and as me and Carl were walking to our room, The Night Café painting was literally next to our door and we were like, ‘no way! What are the odds in this?’ Swear to God. It’s mad that, isn’t it? Meant to be, I suppose.
Are you all into art or any other creative expression outside of music?
Yeah, I’d say Josh, the guitarist in our band, definitely is. He’s kind of a self-taught graphic designer and video editor, because obviously a lot of The Night Café’s merch and video stuff is kind of being done by ourselves. So, Josh is really good at that type of thing as well. I always say to him he’s the most creative person I know because he just does so many creative things and has so many different creative outlets. But I think we’re in quite a good group of mates back home where we live as well, so there’s a lot of people who are creative, but in loads of different ways. You get to challenge your own creativity a bit if you kind of sit in music for too long.
You and Josh started out by making music together when you were in school, right?
Yeah, he taught me how to play guitar. Basically, I got kicked out of the school I went to before I met Josh because I was a bit naughty in school when I was a kid – I was just a bit of a divvy! And then when I met them, I played drums already, but I skateboarded as well at the time. So, Josh was saying to me, ‘if you teach me how to skateboard, I’ll teach you how to play guitar,’ so we kind of traded off and then ended up just being where we are now. Still do both.
Who were some of your guys’ early influences? Can you remember the first album you ever bought?
I think my first album that I ever bought was a James Morrison one, I’m not even messing! I’m pretty sure Josh’s was Busted or something like that. But, I think as a band, when we first started playing together, we were all, and still are, fairly into Kings of Leon, and the boys are into Pink Floyd and stuff, we’re into all sorts of music. But I think Kings of Leon might be – it might not come across in our music – but probably like one of the biggest influences for everything we’ve ever done. They’re a boss band!
It’s even the relationship they have as well, because I’m sure they’re all just brothers and then there’s a cousin and that is the relationship. I kind of feel like me and the boys have been best mates since we were twelve, thirteen, so it kind of feels like a chosen family anyway. You get loads of bands who are put together who just, they’re not even really mates, they’re just people who play instruments together. So, that’s maybe Kings of Leon’s biggest influence on us, is just to stay mates.
I heard that you’d never sung before – tell me about how you became the lead singer.
Yeah, I’d started singing a little bit when me and Josh first started recording stuff together. Me and Josh started recording songs and putting them out on SoundCloud and it was just me and him playing – I played drums on them, he played bass. And then I’d sing, but I’ve got quite a deep speaking voice, and I used to just sing in my speaking voice, and it was so bad!
And then it got to a point where we were starting the band and Arran was going to join, and Arran can sing as well so we were like, ‘maybe Arran should be the singer,’ but I was like, ‘I really want to play guitar though, I don’t want to play bass.’ And it was that trade off, if I get to play guitar, then I’ve got to sing as well. That was how it happened and I’m glad it did like that because I love singing now, it feels like how I make music now. But yeah, I’d never really done it before, I’ve never had proper singing lessons. I think I need to get them, because I’ve knackered my voice a few times on tour.
Have you always wanted to be involved in music?
Do you know what, I think being in a band is seen as one of those dream jobs, isn’t it? When you’re a kid and you play an instrument, you’re like, ‘that’s what I’d love to do when I’m older.’ It was always that for me, I didn’t care what I did in a band, I just wanted to be in one. I always thought I’d be a drummer, but then I met Carl and realised that he’s probably the best drummer that I’ll ever know, so I thought I’d probably just pick up a new instrument instead!
It got to sixth form in school and everyone was deciding on their uni choices and I was like, ‘what? What are you even on about?’ I thought sixth form was the end of the road! I was getting proper stressed out, and I applied to be in the army at the same time because I literally thought, ‘I don’t know what else I’m going to do here, it’s either music or something where it’s a guaranteed job.’
But then we just started gigging all the time and we put one hundred percent into that and maybe it worked out for the best, maybe it didn’t! Carl and Arran dropped out of sixth form, and then I got my A-levels, but I literally did shit in them because I was just trying to do the band, I wasn’t focused on school. Me and Josh even had teachers pull us out of class sometimes and say, ‘listen, we know you think your band’s going to smash it but there’s thousands of bands out there and the odds are quite slim.’ And I was just like, ‘yeah, whatever, let’s see what happens.’ And then it just kind of worked out a year later, we went on tour and it just started moving. It’s mad, it’s sick that we’re doing it.
Did you have a good music department at school?
Yeah, we had a really good music department, all of the teachers were boss to be fair, but there were some teachers who, I felt like there was a bit of a bitterness because they were a music teacher. They were the teachers who were pulling me and Josh out of class! If anything, they should be the teachers who were like, ‘follow your dream, you can do it.’ We had so many instruments available to us because we went to a comprehensive school, so it’s not like we went to a good school, but they really cared about art and music. If we didn’t go there, we wouldn’t be playing the instruments that we play and we wouldn’t be as good, but I do wish they gave us a bit more of a push instead of trying to bring us back to reality.
Do you reckon that gave you a push to prove people wrong?
Oh, it did give me a push, I reacted kind of spitefully to be honest. I was like, ‘I’m going to do it in spite of you saying that.’ I had a proper argument with my teacher, I was saying to him, ‘listen, when I come back, I’m just going to come back and laugh at you for making stupid comments at me!’
Josh’s mum still works in the school that we went to, and apparently, they always go on about us going there now and have pictures of us up in the music department. I was just thinking, ‘you were telling us we weren’t going to do anything!’ The cheek of it.
Addicted was one of your earliest songs, but that remains one of your most popular to this day. Has that song changed for you at all over the years or taken on a different meaning as you’ve grown older?
Do you know what, no – it’s about my girlfriend, Hannah, and I wrote it when I was seventeen and we’re still together now. So, it hasn’t changed the meaning at all, it still feels the same. When we put it on 0151, I didn’t want to take the vocal off because I found it funny that it was a seventeen-year-old me singing on it. I redid the whole vocal on it, but then I kept the seventeen-year-old in the chorus because I just thought it’s quite funny that there’s a me at twenty-one and a me at seventeen, both singing about the same thing. I think it’s one of those tunes where it’s so relatable. The majority of the people in the world have felt that feeling, so that might be why it is one of our most popular. I’m made up that it is because I love playing it.
It’s been someone’s wedding song; there’s a lad and a girl who we met years ago – they’ve been fans since the start – and they had Addicted as their first dance song. How mad is that? I love that, especially because you do write songs sometimes that are about anything – sometimes they’re not about your life – but that one was about my life, and it still resonates with a lot of people. It makes me feel good, that tune.
Is the process different when you’re writing a song that’s personal to you, versus one that’s fictional?
Yeah, I think it’s harder when it’s personal. There’s been a few tunes of ours where they’re very personal – Turn is a very personal song for me, and I Know (I’m Sure) is quite a personal tune as well – but they were really hard to write the lyrics for. I think musically it’s the same – it doesn’t mean the music’s any harder to write, but when it comes down to writing the lyrics, it’s just a bit weird sometimes writing about your own experience. I’ve been trying to dabble with it a bit more recently and just put a nicer spin on things because I think I write quite a lot of emo lyrics for kind of happy music, so I’ve been trying to lighten up a little bit recently!
That juxtaposition is present in your recent single Isn’t – you sing, ‘I can’t stand you now’ in the chorus, but it sounds so beautiful!
Because of the melody, yeah. It is one of them, it sounds really uplifting, but it’s quite doom and gloom. I was really happy with the vocals on that because I did six harmonies throughout the verse and had them running the whole thing. They were only going to be a little feature, but it just makes the voice sound like a chord throughout the verse which is cool. But yeah, I realised that I do it – I write proper moody lyrics. It’s quite cool though because everyone’s a bit moody sometimes, but then everyone wants to listen to music that makes them happy. So, maybe the two go hand-in-hand.
That’s the first new music you’ve released in a long time; why did you decide to release that single now?
A long time! We’ve got a lot of music done at the minute, we were going to do our second album, but then because it’d been that long, and obviously because of COVID last year, this was all going to happen last year, but it just didn’t feel like the right time. Now, we’ve written so many more songs, so we thought we’ll do an EP. And then we’ve got the second album written, so we just need to record it.
But Isn’t was just one of those tunes for me; I just love the verse and I love songs where the verse is the thing that you come back to, and it feels like you’re sitting on a solid foundation in a tune. I thought it would be a good song to come back with because I think we’re in kind of a transitional period of maturing our sound a little bit and refining it, and maybe not being called an indie band by the end of the year but, we’ll see! But because it is kind of indie, that tune, it’s a nice in-between, it’s a bit emo, but then it’s still an indie song, so I thought it was the perfect one to bridge the gap.
And you’ve all been working on your own individual music this past year – what sort of music have you guys been making individually?
Loads of mad stuff! We’ve all been working on our own tunes but it’s not like when bands do solo projects and then the solo project’s the most important thing. I’ll make a tune and Josh will help me produce it or Carl will help me produce it or vice versa, and I’ll produce the vocals for them, or they’ll sing on mine. So, it’s like we’ve just been trying to work together as the band, but not as the band, just in a different format completely. And it’s been going quite good, to be fair; I make quite a lot of emo folk music quite like Phoebe Bridgers style music, and then Josh makes a lot of beats – he’s really good at making hip hop beats and drill beats. Same with Carl, he’s really good with beats, so we just combine it all. I think we’re going to try and bring it all out eventually, hopefully this year.
Has it been nice to have the chance to experiment more?
Yeah definitely, this year’s given us the time to do that. Not many artists get a period throughout the start of their career where they get to develop their sound and develop the way that they work because they’re just non-stop touring, recording, touring, recording. So yeah, there’s definitely been a few positives to not touring this year and having a chance to sit back. When the tours got cancelled, we were all drifting away from each other a bit because we were all gutted about everything, but over the past six months, a switch has just flicked and then we’re all better mates than we’ve ever been. It feels really positive.
Even at the creative side of things, you can’t expect yourself to be able to make music every day or do whatever it is that you do with your time every day; everyone needs days off. I think that’s one thing I’ve learned this year as well is taking the time to recognize, ‘I’m getting a bit overwhelmed, I’m going to take a step back and let everything chill and then pick it back up again.’ But like I say, you just don’t really get the chance in normal life. It’s been nice to be chilled out for a bit, I feel like we’ve been fully charged this time. It’s always been exciting, but I feel like we believe in what we’re doing more than we ever have.
How did you start out with song writing? I can imagine that must have been quite difficult at first.
Yeah, my first songs were bad! They were awful. One of my personal biggest influences in music as a whole was John Mayer. I was obsessed with blues guitar when I was first starting to play guitar, I really wanted to be able to play all these solos and riffs, and I wanted to be able to play all the stuff off his album Continuum. And then as I was doing that I thought, ‘it’s sick that this fella’s just writing his own music, do you know what, I’m just going to try and write tunes.’
I’m self-taught on guitar, so my mates who have had lessons kind of explain to me when they pick up a guitar, they know where everything is so they know what’s right and know what’s wrong, but then I don’t because I just learned it by ear. You can experiment a bit once you can do basic chord shapes, you can do anything with your hands. Me and Josh always used to have this thing, we were like, ‘oh, we’ve made this tune and we’ve also invented this chord!’ And we definitely haven’t invented any chords, but my hand’s doing something mad, like in our tune Felicity my hand is spread out over six frets or something and I used to get carpal tunnel in my wrist from playing that tune because my hand was literally folded in on itself. I was thinking, ‘I’ve invented that chord though!’ But then I just realised as I started to understand theory a bit more as I grew up, there’s no way that I’m inventing anything here.
I know as a writer, over the years I’ve become much more observant of the world and situations around me, so I was wondering if you feel that at all? Would you consider yourself an observant person?
Yeah, I’d say the same as you, as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I take a lot more in I feel like the songs that I write have a lot more depth because of that. You see different art around you and visual art and music are really connected. I was saying to Josh the artwork for Isn’t and for the EP that he’s done, I feel like it’s the most cohesive bond between our artwork and our music for a long time, and you can tell he put the effort into representing the song. I feel like they definitely are interlinked quite heavily, visual arts and music.
You’ve also recently announced your UK headline tour for next February, which has been pushed back quite a few times, hasn’t it?
I know! Yeah, I think February is a safe date.
Surely! There’s already so many festivals and tours lined up for later this year.
Yeah, it’s just going to be hectic, isn’t it? I wonder what’s going to happen with COVID in those, because I can’t imagine us playing in a venue with two thousand people in it right now, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Our last Liverpool show was thirteen hundred people, and I came off the stage soaking wet because it was that humid in there because everyone was jumping, like the air was wet. I was wiping my guitar down with a towel, it was that bad. But I want it to happen obviously, we’ll just have to see what happens. I’m excited for it though.
And then my final question is who is your favourite band or artist that you’ve ever seen live?
Probably Bon Iver – sickest gig I’ve probably ever seen in my life. Justin Vernon’s probably one of my favourite artists ever, but the music in Bon Iver is just unreal. It was one of those experiences where – I never get my phone out at gigs – and I thought, ‘I need to actually be able to watch this back.’ I stood there not even looking at my phone, just holding my phone. Hannah filmed me and I literally had both hands on my head just blown away by it! So yeah, Bon Iver, definitely.