IT'S TOUGH when a band breaks up before their first album comes out. In Street Nights' case, they never technically broke up, but guitarist Dan Wilson moved to New York City earlier this year while his bandmates—singer/guitarist Jake Morris, bassist Jay Winebrenner, and drummer Andy Parker—remained in Portland. It makes band practice logistically difficult, to say nothing of gigging together. Wilson's visiting Portland this week, and Street Nights are playing a proper album-release show, four months after You Have My Word made its initial appearance on vinyl. (There's no digital version, and likely won't ever be.)
You Have My Word is a welcome, un-ironic throwback to the FM radio rock of the late '70s and early '80s, with blatant echoes of bands like Thin Lizzy, Journey, Steely Dan, and Golden Earring. (In fact, Street Nights' original name was the Bob Seger-referencing Nightmoves before a similarly named Minnesota band got signed to Domino.) Rather than feel derivative or winky, Street Nights offer a lived-in and affectionate homage, driven by Wilson's fluid, flashy, terrific guitar leads.
The band members came together from hanging around or working at Northeast Portland bar Tiga. Morris and Wilson had previously played together in the Joggers, and Winebrenner (also of 31Knots) played bass for the four performances of Heavy Nova, Morris' Robert Palmer tribute band—complete with girls dressed to match Palmer's iconic videos.
"The Palmer band was basically frontman training," say Morris, who's made his mark drumming with the Joggers, the Shaky Hands, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. "It was really fun. It was a total conceptual band that I thought was a shoe-in to make a ton of money—weddings and parties—but we just didn't have a hookup."
As that dissolved, Morris put together Street Nights, partly to let Wilson's guitar chops have free rein to dominate. "We just wanted to have fun, too," Morris says. "We were not trying to get anywhere or get a deal and tour. And maybe it's changed now, but at that time we didn't think anybody was doing the music they grew up with. Everyone was trying to be like MGMT or something, and we were just like, 'We're just gonna play dumb classic rock music that we think is funny and fun.'"
Morris would come up with basic ideas very quickly—Wilson wrote a few of the songs as well—and the band would do what they wanted. Wilson's guitar chops, in particular, would be given plenty of room to shine. Winebrenner says, "Jake comes up with the riffs, and I think he's got this real deep-seated love for that sound; he'd be, like, 'Here you go,' and we'd just do shit over it. And he's never vetoed an idea. We'd be like, 'Is this too busy?' And he'd say, 'Do whatever you want!'"
Even now, the band can't remember all the track titles as they appear on the LP jacket; songs are still referred to by names like "Townshend" and "Stooges." Morris admits that some of his lyrics weren't ever fully realized—and doesn't try to remember them perfectly. "Don't analyze the lyrics, everyone," he says. "I didn't include a lyric sheet for a reason." It all fits in with Street Nights' casual approach to music making, which makes You Have My Word such a fun, sizzling collection of riff-driven songs.
"I think the record turned out really well," Morris says. "I like it, and my parents really like it. But that makes sense because that's the music I grew up with. So I don't know if that's a good barometer. But if they're our target audience, I guess it's a success. That's the thing—I don't know about contemporary audiences, if they'll get it or not."