Django James took the stage at the Bowery Electric this past Thursday afternoon with an electrifying presence, spitting blood at his audience. While performances by up-and-coming Los Angeles-based band Nightmare & the Cat have been known to get a bit wild — Django often performs sporting a white onesie while artist Gary Baseman paints his body — blood is not usually part of the program. Django had to get emergency wisdom teeth surgery while in town for College Music Journal (CMJ), one of the biggest annual music festivals in NYC. But, no hip-gyrations, body-spasms or glares of a passion possessed lead singer were spared because of Django’s unexpected surgical stint. Not even swollen gums and a high dose of Vicodin could stop this band from putting on a stellar performance.
I discovered Nightmare & the Cat at last year’s CMJ. I was immediately addicted to them and haven’t missed one of their New York performances since. The band has an intense affection for music making, which reverberates from the stage and throughout the crowd. As a returning audience member, I don’t know what is more irresistible, this passion that is so evident or the band’s sound. Based on talking to Django and Sam about their inspirations, the band’s music is Bowie-infused with accents of Arcade Fire, Jeff Buckley and the Pixies. When navigating the overwhelming CMJ lineup, the band’s performances dictated my entire schedule.
Conveniently, the first stop of my band stalking was located across the street from my 4 o’clock journalism class. The sound of Django’s beautifully distinct voice swelled as I climbed down the stairs of the Bowery Electric on that drizzly afternoon. I didn’t want to miss one tantalizing note of what I made out to be “Sarah Beth,” my second favorite song from their first EP. As 20-year-old Django twisted and turned on the stage, his 24-year-old brother
Sam played the guitar, harmonizing alongside instrumentalist (and girlfriend) Claire Acey. I was there to listen to stories about lost time, little poets and over-stimulated egos, which they’d set to music. My fellow crowd members were just as consumed by the combined lyrical force of the two brothers. As listeners, we became a story about a story, living a narrative that the band provided for us. In that intimate basement venue, lost in the hue of dim red lights and unbothered by the smell of spilled beer, I was no longer a stressed-out college kid with my backpack and laptop in tow. I was a character in the fantasy world where Nightmare & the Cat lives.
The odd chemistry between Django and his cohorts — both fraternal and romantic — allowed for the audience to indulge in an additional dimension of bizarre. This is a band that doesn’t acknowledge boundaries, but this refusal to conform is not deliberate. If Django wants to wear some form of a scarf/dress while Claire touts a black feathered headpiece, they’ll do it. Anyone who is a little weird can identify with the band’s comfort in who they are, and anyone who isn’t would be tempted to get weird after seeing them perform. While Django’s dress was more reserved than usual — a simple button-down with a long necklace paired with ripped jeans tucked into army boots — his spirit was no less enigmatic. I was swaying to the music as though transformed by his energy.
Fast forward a few hours, and I was trailing the band to their second performance venue that night, Arlene’s Grocery. This divey joint facilitated an environment of effortlessly trendy Lower East Side music connoisseurs. The bright-red facade, which resembles your standard, cheap mini-mart, only emphasized the location’s grungy appeal. While the Lower East Side is a breeding ground for many intentionally grimy institutions featuring impressive musical talent, Arlene’s is one of my favorite spots for New York City rock. The reputable venue was the sight of Arcarde Fire’s CMJ performance in 2004, and I would not be surprised if Nightmare & the Cat followed in a similar path of rock infamy. The cheap drinks compliment the bodega-like atmosphere, and the neon glow of a condom dispenser is the main source of light in the bar area.
Django, still in a state of post-surgical bewilderment, commanded the crowd’s attention, with Sam and Claire equally as invested in the performance. This time, he had on an embroidered floral vest with a tousled, frantic hairdo, revealing the androgynous character that I remember from previous shows. The packed performance room (which is separate from the bar) of music mavens swaying and head-bobbing in approval was a great turnout which, given the unbelievable lineup of this year’s festival, speaks to Nightmare & the Cat’s increasing popularity.
After talking to the band members about their attraction to New York, my latent appreciation for this city-without-limits reemerged. The band has played shows in Los Angeles, Chicago and London, but there is something about the aura of New York that keeps bringing them back. I had the chance to catch up with Django and Sam after their show at the Bowery Electric, and I saw Manhattan through the lens of young, visiting performers. While the next band rehearsed on stage, I battled with the sound of an out-of-tune bass to dig a little deeper.
Django feels as though he’s playing to an audience that comes out to really listen to the music, whereas in Los Angeles, he explained, people often come out to drink and socialize with live music in the background. Both he and his brother have found that there is a high standard for “good” music in a city with such an abundance of talent. For Sam, there is an odd nostalgia about New York’s similarities to London, bringing him back to his roots. As the performers clearly tap into personal histories when writing and performing, I hope this element of nostalgia keeps enticing them to return.