When Greg Paulus and Nick DeBruyn, known collectively as Brooklyn duo No Regular Play, enter Los Angeles' Amoeba Records on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, there is a lot for them take in. Stacks of CDs and vinyl stretch from wall to wall as smoky folk music warbles loudly from the speakers overhead.
They wander over to the hip-hop and soul section and start thumbing through records, occasionally pulling one from the racks and mulling it over in silence. One moment, it's Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun; the next, it's D'Angelo's Voodoo—and after that, a quick succession of old-school favorites, including from Big Pun, Common, Prince, J. Dilla, Slum Village, and The Pharcyde. As they tell me while shuffling among the bins, they played these same records years ago when they were carefree teenagers cruising down the streets of their hometown in St. Paul, Minnesota.
They say their new album, Can't You See, is intended for similar situations—wandering around aimlessly in the car with a banging sound system. It was inspired, in part, by another recent trip to Los Angeles, which for two years running has been ranked the United States' worst city for traffic. "Everyone's stuck in their cars," Paulus observed. "It's just the best time to listen to music," adds DeBruyn. Indeed, the LP's smooth, slow-rolling house rhythms and jazzy trumpet serenades feels like it could turn a hellish rush-hour commute into a feelgood ride.
One of Can't You See's 11 tracks, "Summit Avenue," is named for the street on which Paulus grew up. The thoroughfare—one of the country's best preserved from the late 1800s—runs from downtown St. Paul to the Mississippi River, and it's lined on each side with Victorian-style mansions and churches built during the late 19th century. As kids, Paulus and DeBruyn would drive up and down the street, bumping these rap albums, taking in the history around them. It's these drives that weigh heaviest on Can't You See, the ones that tie the duo to their home, their past. It's a record meant to soundtrack not just the act of driving, but all the memories—good and bad—that can float to the surface during a long journey with nothing much to think about.
DeBruyn and Paulus first met when they were both eight years old. Paulus had just moved to St. Paul from Atlanta. One day, after school, DeBruyn challenged the new-kid-on-the-block to a basketball game. They've since been pretty much inseparable.
The pair spent much of their time hanging out at Paulus's house, where they began their informal jazz education thanks to Greg's father, Stephen, an acclaimed classical music composer whose career spanned hundreds of commissions for operas, choruses, and orchestras; and co-writing a song performed at two former U.S. presidents' funerals. Stephen spent his waking hours on his prized Steinway grand piano, which sat in a makeshift studio just off the main living room of the Paulus household. He also loved jazz, and often played records by artists such as Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock.
Though both were briefly set apart due to schooling—Greg, who played trumpet at local jazz clubs in high school, went to New York to further his training at the Manhattan School of Music, and DeBruyn moved there a few years later— they reconnected to travel to Havana, Cuba together to study Afro-Cuban music. After that, they grew enamored with electronic music, and dissatisfied by what their hometown's scene had to offer, they moved to Brooklyn and soon formed No Regular Play as a production outfit, utilizing Paulus's trumpet skills and vocals while DeBruyn did the mixing. While there, they quickly befriended the hard-partying Wolf + Lamb crew while hanging out at their notorious headquarters inside the Marcy Hotel and began releasing their music—a house-leaning culmination of their hip-hop, jazz, and electronic influences—on Wolf + Lamb's eponymous record label in 2008. In 2012, they capitalized on a string of buzzy singles and EPs and released their debut album Endangered Species, which earned modest praise from critics, but mostly made Paulus and DeBruyn want to start working again. "After we did the first album, we were ready to get out another one," DeBruyn says. "Like, right, let's do it!"
The following year, plans changed. The duo were already thinking about their follow-up when Stephen suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. For a year and a half, Greg split his time between touring with DeBruyn and flying back home to St. Paul to be with his family. The Paulus family was convinced Stephen would come out of the coma; at one point, he woke up and laughed when an old friend came to visit. "Everyone was like, 'Oh shit, this is going to happen," Greg says. "And it just never did."
Stephen's passing in October 2014 hit Greg hard, as it did DeBruyn, but they sought to navigate the grieving process the only way they knew how: working on music. According to Greg, it's what his father would have wanted. When he was alive, Greg explained, Stephen believed doing manual labor was good for the creative process. When he accepted an honorary doctorate at St. Paul's Macalester College, "the whole speech was about mowing the lawn and raking leaves," Greg recalls, laughing.
"I'd never thought of this until now, but I think that definitely translated into the way that we work," Greg realizes mid-memory. "We worked for a little bit, and then go out on the patio and look around, stand there for a while, and then go back in. Makes it feel like you're not working, really."
Understandably, as they explain, loss plays a significant role in the album, from wistful-sounding song titles such as "Hear You Sing" and "Never Be the Same" to the lyrics on "Lake Gilmore": "Without you, I don't know what to do" That said, No Regular Play didn't want the album to be purely about Stephen's death. The duo mined their personal lives for failed relationships, carefully wording the lyrics to leave them more open to interpretation and give them a little more mystery. The presence of nostalgia is evident in the production, too, as the heavy use of filters and reverb makes Paulus's vocals sound like a distant memory, gradually ebbing away into the ether.
Despite its somber undertones, Can't You See also has its happier moments. Like "Summit Avenue," the track "Lake Gilmore" is named for a place from Paulus's youth: a lake in northwestern Wisconsin where he spent summers with his family. Another track, "Hollywood," fast-forwards to a more recent time, when they both traveled to LA and spent the day driving their old agent's car (a sweet 1979 Corvette Stingray) across town, to Santa Monica and Malibu.
Once they'd finished a rough version of the album, however, something was still missing. Throughout the 54 minutes, they'd deliberately left gaps to fill in with piano, and they felt it only fitting to use Stephen's treasured Steinway. Sitting in the Paulus' house, in that same room off the main living room, Greg played on his father's piano, slipping in some of his trademark melodies on tracks including "Lake Gilmore," "Be Together," and the album closer, "Never Be the Same." Those melodies were some of the last notes played on the piano before it was packed up and sent to storage.
In Can't You See, No Regular Play have managed to turn a story of loss into one of resilience; though one of their mentors may no longer be around to share his favorite records, his influence now lives on in their own hour-long opus. They've loved, they've lost, and they've learned that the only way to move forward is to get back behind the wheel and hit the gas.
"You can't just sit around feeling sad," says Paulus. "Anybody that dies would roll over in their grave if they knew you were sitting around sad about it."
Krystal Rodriguez is on Twitter.