Listening to the music of Club Night is akin to emerging from a pile of rubble. Thorny guitar lines stab your sides like broken rebar. Hazy synths float down in the manner of particle dust. Strange sonic manipulations addle the senses. Each song is a battle, a tangled bouquet of dissonance and conflict.
But the result is always catharsis — a moment when all those knotty elements evaporate before a soaring apex. Whether it’s a singing guitar lick, a therapeutic scream, or an exultant drumbeat, eventually, the clear blue sky always comes into view amid the wreckage.
This is the sound of a band facing its struggles head-on and emerging triumphant. It is a sound borne of real-life tragedy and heartbreak, and of subsequent rebirth.
Club Night is a true product of the Oakland music scene. Each one of the band’s five members is an integral part of the East Bay artistic community, and as a result, they enjoy the uplifting emotions of being in a tight-knit creative collective. Conversely, they have to deal with dispiriting developments of gentrification, displacement, and, looming above all else, the specter of the Ghost Ship tragedy.
“Being a musician in Oakland right now feels vulnerable,” says Josiah Majetich, the group’s drummer. “I think there is a general sense of what we’re doing here is important, but at the same time, what we’re doing can be easily dismantled.”
It is under these daunting conditions that Club Night released its debut EP, Hell Ya, a thoughtful collection of synth-pop and indie-rock tunes that are ebullient in an unorthodox way. Evoking the wild eccentricity and fearlessness of long-forgotten bands like Architecture in Helsinki and Fang Island, Club Night’s songs veer dramatically, taking sharp left turns both contextually and atmospherically before cohering under a general feeling of hopefulness. The music has ebbs and flows, mirroring the realities of being a present-day musician.
No one epitomizes those highs and lows more so than Josh Bertram, the founding member and creative force behind Club Night. He first gained notice as a precocious teenager behind the freak-folk group Our Brother the Native, but that project never took him to the heights he imagined. In an attempt to jumpstart his career, he moved back and forth several times between the Bay Area and his native Detroit, arriving in Oakland for the first time in 2012. After moving back to Michigan, Bertram’s emo-ish endeavor Bobbi Palace foundered, so he relocated to Oakland again in 2016.
Upon returning to the Bay Area, he ran into several familiar faces from his first stint in California, including synth player Rebecca Lukens, bassist Devin Trainer, and guitarist Ian Tatum. Majetich, his pal from Detroit, had moved to Oakland a few years prior.
With limited expectations, Bertram gathered that group together for what he anticipated to be a low-key recording project. However, he was surprised by the instant chemistry of the members, who came from a variety of different musical backgrounds.
“Most bands start with an idea like ‘We want to sound like this,’ ” Bertram says. “But none of us want the same thing, other than to respect each other and give each other our own space. We took a very democratic approach — everyone had their own percentage of sonic space. It was so rare, because everything developed in such an organic and natural way.”
The resulting work, a collection of a half dozen songs mostly compiled on Hell Ya, offers a beguiling mix of discordant genres. Math-rock, synth-pop, industrial, and shoegaze. Every Club Night track contains trace elements of multiple influences: “Hair” is an angular post-punk offering, “Shear” is a thumping indie-rock number that starts off as an outtake of a Books of Microphones song before picking up momentum in a frenzied race to the finish, and “Rally” is an emo-pop rollercoaster ride. The album’s centerpiece is “Work,” an eight-minute magnum opus featuring undulating waves of hazy guitar riffs and static synths.
Each member’s contributions fit in seamlessly, with Trainer and Majetich’s booming rhythm section bolstering Luken’s electronic offerings and Tatum’s guitar work.
“We like to say that Josh takes all our best parts and holds them ransom,” Majetich says.
Standing above all else is Bertram’s voice, an eerie, high-pitched warble that sounds feral, unhinged, and desperate. That unique element is what makes Club Night’s sound wholly distinctive among the bands that have originated in the Bay Area in recent years.
“I’ve always loved groups whose sounds are very textual or tactile, like there is a grit to the music,” says Bertram. “I’ve always had a high voice when I sing, and I really like shouting. It has been a messed-up couple of years, so there is this catharsis to just sing really unhinged.”
Adding depth to those caterwauling vocals are Bertram’s evocative lyrics. On “Hair,” he describes his woes in defeatist terms, shrieking, “I need direction / Look at the true me / I need a real win / Self-deprecating frailty.”
Those candid, painful lyrics are not without merit. Along with his thwarted efforts at starting a musical career, Bertram dealt with a failed relationship — part of his last trip back to Detroit — and, of course, the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that claimed the lives of 36 people, many of them friends and associates from the Oakland music scene. Bertram was on his way to the warehouse that night, but a late dinner with friends kept him from arriving on time, essentially saving his life.
“When you’re young, you just don’t think about things like that,” he says. “Especially those spaces, because they’re so safe. They’re for the weirdos and the fringe people, people who don’t feel like they belong with the rest of society. You never think of a place like that being a danger to you.”
All those emotions make listening to Club Night a deeply profound, moving experience — one that hasn’t gone unnoticed. On a whim, Bertram sent the band’s recordings to Tiny Engines, a highly respected indie label based on the East Coast. Tiny Engines signed the band, and Club Night is due to release its debut full-length album with the label sometime next year.
Along the way, the band has received considerable critical acclaim. Stereogum named Club Night one of the 40 best new bands of 2017, and the group got a glowing write-up in Pitchfork. (That was a particularly satisfying moment for Bertram, as the author of the piece, the notoriously grumpy Ian Cohen, had given Our Brother the Native a nasty review years earlier.)
With the band focusing on recording — Bertram is hoping to put out something by the fall — Club Night will have limited live appearances in the coming months, although they’re scheduled to play a Noise Pop show in February. For now, Bertram is content to enjoy the moment — happy to find success after years of frustration.
“This is kind of insane,” Bertram says. “It’s weird because this is just a thing we love so much and is so pure. We had no intentions other than making music and enjoying it. Everything else is just a blissful bonus.”
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