Kelly Pratt came to New York City a decade ago to play jazz, but fell into the indie rock scene instead. He’s made quite a career out of it, playing flugelhorn and flute for Arcade Fire as well as horns for LCD Soundsystem. His back up performances with Beirut included vocal harmonies along with horns as needed. All along, Pratt has also been writing his own songs. The first collection appeared under the moniker Team B in 2008, recordings put together on the road with various tour mates. This time around Pratt cleared his schedule and devoted time in his Brooklyn home studio, surrounded by brass instruments, synthesizers, and guitars. Embellishing tracks with field recordings and found sounds, Pratt created ten songs for Bright Moments’ new album Natives.
During the release party at the Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn, Bright Moments played all the songs live – it was their first gig as a band. Pratt put together a quintet that performed things loose enough to make it interesting, not just a recreation of studio recordings. He was clearly in control of the group, conducting with a wave of his hand or trumpet. John Natchez amicably switched from laying down a bass line to playing additional horns, while Nikhil Yerawadekar powered through guitar parts and manned a sampler. Drummer Yoshio Kobayashi (Tony Afro) punched up the vibe from the rear of the small stage, looking over at Jared Van Fleet who was a solid force at keyboards.
Pratt graciously thanked the audience and announced the song titles, but there was little banter besides that. He is clearly an accomplished musician and the band sounded extremely well rehearsed, but if Pratt kept his eyes open while performing there would have been more of a connection with their eager new audience. The group began with the first track off Islands, “Tourists”. Layers of synths, trumpet and percussion enter until handclaps force everything into the background. It’s a familiar sound from indie rock, however Bright Moments has an expanded instrumentation in all directions. Pratt’s voice floats easily over the musical intricacies and he embraces traditional instruments on equal footing with any electronic flourishes. The band hit its stride with “Milwaukee”, a song about the first girl to be cured of rabies (not that the listener needed to know that to enjoy this rambling tune). During “Sailor” Pratt whistled into an antique microphone and bells sounded in a lilting waltz. “Behind the Gun” introduced a bouncy pop side, with Pratt singing full out. The evening ended with a bluesy trumpet solo in an older song, “Salad Days”.
A few days before that debut, Pratt discussed his new band with PopMatters.
After all that time touring with other bands, you took the time to write these songs at home, yet they are filled with the theme of traveling. Was that your intention from the start or did this emerge during the writing process?
It wasn’t the intention from the start by any means. Typically when I start writing – I’d say in about 75% of the cases – the music comes first. The lyrics come along a little bit later and it just came together where a lot of the songs were about travel. And it makes sense, since that’s what I’ve done so much of during the past five years.
The two shorter songs, “Ghost Dance 1” and “Ghost Dance 2” are spread out like bookends to the songs that come between. How did these tracks split into two?
Originally it was all one song, but I thought it had an “interlude-ish” quality about it. Not to say it was half baked or anything, but it definitely felt like less of a statement on its own. I messed around with it a lot after it was recorded—I put some effects on there and added some samples on to the second part. I like the idea of reprises, how they do it in musicals and even some films. It’s a nice way to transition from one part of a record to another.
You’re going to be playing these songs live on tour as a five piece. How did you approach taking things from the studio to the stage?
It’s tricky, because obviously you can’t have as many or all of the elements that you’re able to do on the record. You’re essentially unlimited to what you’re able to do on an album. There are certain songs where there are fifteen horns, and that’s clearly not an option if you want to tour. So it’s kind of about re-approaching it. This is where it’s helpful to have really good musicians with you because if it’s just me, I’m going to approach it how I did it on the record—the way that I know it. But if I have great musicians with me, I can rely on them to come up with a different approach to something. It’s nice to let things happen naturally when you’re transitioning these songs from the record to the stage. And everybody who is playing in the band played on the record, save Jared [Van Fleet] because I did all the keyboard stuff myself.
After being a team player in so many other bands, how is the transition to frontman going?
It’s not as hard as you might think. It’s not the biggest transition to move a couple of inches over on stage. This is my job so I’ve been doing this for quite a long time. Once you get up there to play the show it’s pretty much the same but it’s a little more stressful in regards to logistical things: organizing getting to and from rehearsals, getting us down to SXSW, and putting together shows like this one. That sort of stuff is way more difficult and stressful but as far as making music is concerned, it’s not really totally different.
Tell me about your musical background and where you grew up.
My first instrument was piano when I was five years old. I took piano for just a year or two. And then in fifth grade I picked up the trumpet. The trumpet was my first real instrument and still to this day is my main instrument. I’m from Kentucky, so I went to the University there to go to music school where I learned to play all the other different instruments. There I really developed a love for jazz so I started playing it in college. For the next five to eight years that’s all I listened to or played.
When I moved to New York it was for a job at a jazz record label, Verve. I was playing jazz around New York and moved into the indie rock world almost by accident. I was asked by a friend of mine, “Hey, you want to play with this band? They need a horn player.” So I was playing in this band called The Silent League, and that’s how I met a lot of my friends that I’m still making music with today.
I’ve always loved playing brass, that’s mostly what I do. But I really enjoy playing piano a lot or playing keyboards. It’s really fun, more of a rhythmic thing. It adds more than maybe a horn does, at least to the base of the ensemble. I was just thinking the other day how I need to start giving a couple of hours a day to that. It’s really an instrument I’d like to work on over the next few months.
Did you always enjoy being a singer as well?
I never really sang until a couple of years ago. I never thought about it really, I was just an instrumentalist. I started singing more with Beirut so I thought maybe I should try this more on my own a little bit. My mom was always singing around the house, but I did not. She was in the church choir and she’s a really great singer – I think I get my musical talent from her. But I had no training in it, and until a couple of years ago had no desire to sing.
There are so many elements of world music or other genres within your songs. Is this a result of your own blurred boundaries or a conscious decision to be open to everything?
Obviously World Music is a meaningless term because it can mean anything, you know? So that’s pretty much true. I do have such a wide variety of taste in music and I love everything. Well, there is good music in every genre. My ears are open to so many different types of music, whether it’s Afrobeat, jazz, indie rock or classical. That certainly shows up in my song writing, the influence of all the other types of music.