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Moon Duo

Moon Duo

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 25th February, 2013 9:28AM

Moon Duo is the side-project of Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada. The duo released their latest album Circles, based on a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay of the same name, last year. UTR caught up with Johnson to discuss writing Circles in the Rocky Mountains, what made him want to start a side project in the first place and why the location of a gig changes the whole vibe, for both better and worse.

Hey Ripley, what are you up to at the moment?

I’m actually doing a day of interviews.

Are you on tour or at home?

Yep, I’m at home in Portland, Oregon, staring out the window at the rain.

Cool. I wanted to start by talking about your latest album, Circles. It sounds like the recording process was quite drawn out.

We started in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. For two years we lived in the mountains so last year we started the album there. We wrote and recorded the basic tracks and then we went to San Francisco into a studio where we worked with Phil Manley from Trans Am, who did all the tracking. Then we went to Berlin and mixed it. It was kind of a long, drawn-out process.

How did both that process and living in the Rocky Mountains for two years affect the sound of the album?

Yeah it did because where we lived in the mountains it’s very quiet and so a whole lot of the tracks were written on acoustic guitar – we weren’t making a whole lot of noise up there. That’s not really the sound of our band so it makes sense that we went to the city to finish it. That was probably the biggest effect, that and the lyrics. It’s interesting what you start thinking about when you’re up in the middle of nature away from everything and everybody: they tend to be quite different from when you’re living in the urban jungle.

Totally, tell me about some of those themes.

I was getting really into Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote an essay called Circles, which is where the title of the album came from. He was a member of a group known as the Transcendentalists in the 1800’s in the States, and their philosophical angle was all about getting back to nature. It was sort of a Buddhist philosophy from an early American standpoint, which makes it really odd in the history of the United States, but also really interesting.

We’re into meditation so it sort of fits with where we're from and so it was really influential when I was sitting up in the mountains writing lyrics: it fitted our mood and what we were going through at the time.

Do you draw inspiration from philosophical or intellectual works for your songs more generally?

No, I mean we’re not intellectuals by any stretch but we do read a lot. Personally I’m just interested in the big existential questions of life so that’s where I draw a lot of things from and I tend to write very quickly. I write things in a stream-of-conscious way and arrange them later into something that's coherent and makes sense. A lot of times I’ll write a song very quickly and go back and realise that it’s about something I didn’t realise at the time, and sometimes I’m surprised it’s about anything at all. It’s funny how the mind works that way: when I free myself up the better it works in that manner really. I don’t tend to write songs about people or story songs, a lot of it comes from the subconscious.

I guess spending two years in nature must have been pretty freeing in that existential way, right?

It’s interesting because we spent so much time on the road that we’d be in in airports and in hotel rooms for a month or two, and then we get home and it’d be utter quiet and all you’d hear is your own blood and Tinitis – there was nothing going on at all. It was kind of shocking and it was something we couldn’t maintain for that long because it wasn’t a very well-balanced way to live. A lot of action to a lot of nothing is a bit strange.

Do you enjoy the touring process or do you find it tough and straining?

We enjoy it. There are things I love about it and things I hate about it and that's probably common. We like to travel and we like seeing different places and we like meeting people. We’ve been to some amazing countries and places that we never would have been to otherwise. Plus the access we have when we tour is amazing: you’re staying with a local promoter and they can show you those special places, and it’s a much different experience doing it that way. We’re actually taking a couple days off in New Zealand which we’re really looking forward to.

You've got your Wooden Shjips project too: what made you decide to want to start a secondary project?

Basically Wooden Shjips were getting all kinds of offers to do fun things and we couldn’t do them because people in the band had different responsibilities. I wanted to say yes to everything and that was one of the things we talked about when we started this band: we wanted to say yes to as many things as possible. We started off saying we’d say yes to everything and that turned out to be a bit much but we’re still saying “we’ll try this, we’ll try that”.

I guess logistically it’s much easier taking two people on the road rather than a full band?

Absolutely and that was the reason. When someone asks us to play a show and we have to fly there we’re much more likely to be able to do it if there’s only two of us, and we don’t have a lot of gear.

How do you see the two of sonically? How you separate out writing for Wooden Shjips and writing for Moon Duo.

I don’t actually. Right now we’re going to do a new Wooden Shjips ablum this year so I have to write all the songs and I'll just do it. With Moon Duo there are things that we tend to not do because we don’t have a bass player or a drummer and on the other hand I write with those musicians in mind for Wooden Shjips. Practical differences are the only differences really.

Both projects but particularly Moon Duo – to me anyway – have this rhythmic minimalism, and it seems like a cornerstone of both bands. Is that a fair statement and what drew you towards that?

I had an epiphany when I first started Wooden Shjips about what kind of music I liked and what kind of music spoke to me on a really deep level, and that was one of the things. I didn’t want to hear any changes, I didn’t want to hear drum solos or anything like that. So that was a big reason for starting the first band: I finally knew what I wanted to do basically. It came from things like early rock ‘n roll to some of the Velvet Underground recordings and Krautrock – I just found that the repetition or trance quality was something that really spoke to me.

And it’s rhythmic and repetitive like it’s dance music but it’s totally not dance music. What are your thoughts on straddling that line?

I like it. Dance music is interesting and I don’t know a whole lot about it but I would hear certain things sometimes and I would love the way it didn’t change, it would just go on and on. The dance stuff can be a little cheesy for my taste but that was part of this revelation: that I wanted to do that but with rock ‘n roll. The palette that I like is different but the structure is the same. I talk about this a lot but rock ‘n roll used to be dance music when it started and it sort of lost it’s way: popular rock in the seventies, especially with cocaine, became more about progressive music and how well you could play and show off and all that, and people stopped dancing. We try and get people to dance at our shows, people still don’t dance that much but we try. There’s something about the atmosphere of a rock club where people feel self conscious, but if you took the same people and put them in a dance club they’d definitely dance.

I was reading an interview with you where you said you try to play in interesting locations as much as possible because the social expectations of a typical rock venue are so pre-established. Do you notice when you play those interesting locations that there’s a difference in how people appreciate your music?

I don’t know if there’s a difference in how much people appreciate the music but people don’t fall into the same patterns necessarily, and certainly not as quickly. When someone walks into an art gallery they behave differently than if they walk into some dive-y punk-rock club. If I go see a performance in an art gallery I expect it to be different: I expect there to be less drinking going on and I expect the performance to have a different sensibility. The expectation has a great effect on how the concert is perceived.

It must be interesting touring a lot and playing in these different locations and witnessing how the crowd adjusts.

Yeah, we’ve played churches and big old theatres in Germany and the nicer the venue people feel like they have to respect the venue in some way and the performance is elevated because of that. We feel a different pressure too, it’s fascinating. I was just reading an article about opera and how people used to talk and yell and cheer a lot in opera and now days people are very quiet and polite and it’s this hushed atmosphere. It’s interesting how it changes like that.

You are based in Portland. Tell me about the music community in which you’re based - is it an important part of either band?

We just moved here and so we’re still finding our way a little bit. There are scenes and you can sense they’re important but you get the feeling these things don’t matter so much anymore, particularly not to me. In San Francisco a lot of people have this impression that all the bands are hanging out together, but it’s not really the case – some bands do but it’s not the norm. Personally I’m kind of a homebody and don’t go out that much. Portland is great though, there’s so much going on here and there are so many musicians here – maybe too many. People joke about it, the whole Portlandia thing, but it is actually like that here. I think a lot of people here find that show annoying because of how true it is. When I moved here I saw these moments from the show in real life: I saw people on really tall bikes or people playing bike polo in the park.

Why do you think that’s happened in Portland right now?

I think it’s because it’s relatively cheap for the West Coast, and there are a couple of colleges here too. I don’t know, I’m so new to it I can’t really give you an answer. We moved here because it’s cheaper, we probably would have just stayed in San Francisco if we could have afforded to. The joke is that it’s where hipsters go to retire because you can move here and not really work and start doing your arts and crafts thing. That’s one of the cool elements of it: you’re not working so hard that you can’t do other things that are interesting to you. If you want to be a writer or a painter you can come up here and live a relatively normal life – you don’t need five room mates necessarily. Plus, there’s a scene for all that stuff.

It’s interesting how living costs have really affected where creative’s are living in the States at the moment: on the West Coast it seems to be Portland and on the East Coast it’s Baltimore, and as a result really interesting music scenes have been established there.

Yeah and I think it always has been that way, but the change used to happen more slowly in the past. Since the nineties there was the whole internet boom and that brought a whole lot of money into certain cities very quickly and that continued through the early part of this century when there was the real estate boom: house prices just went up, up and up. People who only want to work 20 hours a week couldn’t afford to live in these places so they just got pushed out. It’s unfortunate really and it’s not good for anyone.

Looking ahead to 2013, you said you were writing a new Wooden Shjips album. Is that the main focus for this year?

That’ll be the focus in between touring with Moon Duo. So we’re coming to New Zealand in march and then in the summer we’re going to do some more shows in Europe and then the fall, I don’t know! Everything’s planned out six months and then after that I don’t know.