Blue Days, Black Nights

Ivan Howard shrugs. “I’m not one of those people who say ‘Once I finish a record, I never listen to it again’. I always listen to the records I made, at least a few times. I always thought that was the point. But, with this new one, I’ve probably listened to it 50 times, just for the heck of it. I just like the songs that much.”

Though the prolific singer-songwriter could be talking about ANY of his releases, he’s referring to De La Noche’s debut record Blue Days, Black Nights; a nocturnal meditation on the nature of love and loss, 11 tracks that flow with lush strings, throaty sax and ethereal synth washes, evoking images of hazy sunsets and neon signs on silent beaches.

After years on the road with indie darlings The Rosebuds, writing for Kanye West with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), funking out in his alter ego Howard Ivans (Spacebomb Records) and helping found the supergroup Ganygs, Howard ended up in his Portland home with an unusual patch of quiet in late 2016. But, as is the nature of quiet, it didn’t last long.

Howard found himself reconnecting with long-time friends Robert Rogan and Brian Weeks. “We met my freshman year of college. Brian heard I could sing, and cornered me in a stairway til I sang Let Love Rule. We ended up in our first band together, and he helped me realize that life wasn’t all basketball. I might be ok at music, too.” Weeks introduced Howard to Rogan, and the three became close, with Weeks eventually joining The Rosebuds and Howard Ivans as a touring musician, in between stints in Wilmington indie bands with Rogan.

Fast forward 15 years to 2016. Rogan and Weeks were working on a new project. “We recorded 11 songs with scratch vocal tracks, but neither Robert nor I were completely comfortable singing on them.” They decided to send the tracks to Howard, who at this point had moved across the country to Portland, OR. They wanted to get his take on it. No one realized it would turn into a modern day Postal Service moment.

“When they asked me to sing on ‘Run,’ I originally said ‘You don’t need me, just get Robert,’ admits Howard. “I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. But they kept pushing and I figured, it’s just one song.” Of course, it’s rarely just one song.  Once Robert heard Ivan’s take, he insisted he sing them all. “It was like somebody said ‘Here’s a CD of Greatest Hits of this genre of music without vocals that no one’s ever heard,” Howard explains. “Surprise! You get to sing them!’”

De La Noche’s beginnings trace back to Robert Rogan and Brian Weeks’ adopted hometown of Wilmington, NC. In the summer of 2015, Rogan found himself rudderless. “I was going through a divorce. I found that I had a lot of time on my hands with few distractions and started playing around.” Dealing with the isolation that comes when things fall apart, he looked to his longtime friend, Weeks, to collaborate with on a new set of songs, ones that would feel closer to the 80s synth pop they’d grown up adoring than the guitar-driven indie rock bands they’d been playing in.

Howard, for his part, found it easy to slip into the De La Noche material. “I tried to let the music dictate the sentiment of each song and just created a character that could fill all these melodic parts.” What comes out mixes the skulking grooves of Avalon-era Roxy Music with the soothing melodicism of Sade (Howard drawing influence from the British singer comes as no surprise, having covered Love Deluxe in its entirety with The Rosebuds).

When asked how this band differs from his other projects, Howard pauses, “with most of my other projects, I’m the one that usually starts the song, travels with it the long road, and grinds it out till it's finished. By the end, even though I love the songs, I still get tired of them, or they take on a different meaning from the struggles I was going through at the time. With the De La Noche, I just came in 2/3 of the way there. The songs were already written. I just sang them with my slant.”

Howard’s emotional distance from the material allowed for a more adventurous approach to the vocal sketches, and his clean, clear voice soars over the instrumental thrum. “I feel like Ivan’s been an integral part of the band from the beginning, whether he knew it or not.” Rogan smiles.

The album is bookended by its two most pivotal songs. Opener Avenues fades in with soft piano and drifting sax melodies over heavy rain, before settling into a mid-tempo groove with Howard’s hushed voice dancing around the dense soundscape. “I wrote (Avenues) about the morning my divorce was finalized. Walking from the courthouse to meet Brian for coffee in downtown Wilmington.” says Rogan. “That was the one that really set the tone for the record.” Meanwhile, closer Champagne ends things on a note of hope, all string washes and skittering guitar. This was the song that Rogan originally took to Weeks, immediately putting him all in. “I knew when I heard (Champagne) that we had to form a new band.”

In Nick Cave’s 1999 essay on love songs and duende, the existential sadness written about in flamenco music, he writes:

For the love song is never truly happy, it must first embrace the potential for pain. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil.

The men of De La Noche know duende, and just as their name translates to Of The Night, so is their music the shadow one can only see because the light is just a little ways away.

- Patrick Warwick