interview: Moon Duo

Ed: More photos over Moon Duo’s performance at Moogfest over on our Facebook page.

Positive Destruction caught up with Moon Duo over Halloween weekend at Moogfest in downtown Asheville, North Carolina after their pulsing midnight set on Saturday. Ripping through songs off of Mazes as well as the excellent Escape, they brought the horror and the noise. The band has recently relocated to Colorado where they continue to assert their spooky physc informed idea of dance while maximizing the efficiency, ability and creativity of two brains and two sets of hands. Below contributor Charlotte Simons discusses composition, gear and the long road with keyboardist Sanae Yamada and guitarist Ripley Johnson.

Charlotte Simons: So you guys are stationed in Colorado and no longer San Francisco. How did that come about?

Ripley Johnson: We couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco any more. It’s kind of sad but we decided to do Moon Duo full time and we wanted to go on tour and just go for it so we had to move to make that work. Sanae quit her job and I had been laid off already. The place we live now is called Blue River. It’s in the mountains near Breckenridge.

Charlotte: What were your San Francisco day jobs?

Ripley: I was a systems administrator for an Internet company.

Sanae Yamada: I taught middle school English.

Charlotte: Oh wow. I’m always interested in how bands travel and make rent and in what they do when they’re not practicing or playing shows.

Ripley: I’m always interested as well, like how do people make it work? We don’t really talk to other bands about this but it is always a big problem because someone will be like, “Oh come play this festival in Scandinavia! We’ll pay you $500!” Are we’re like, we can’t do that, there’s no way even if it covers the cost of getting there and back it doesn’t pay your rent. So yeah, how do you keep a job and how do you keep an apartment and tour? It’s interesting how people make it work.

Charlotte: Was it always this way? Do you think it was this difficult 30 years ago to do art and live?

Ripley: I don’t know. I mean I think so. I mean because for example if you’re a painter, you work a shit job, you’re not going anywhere and there’s no travel expenses and you’re not gone so you can work some day job and come home and paint all night. You’re not touring with your paintings so there’s not that extra burden for most other kinds of artists.

Sanae: I think actually for musicians it’s a special problem in the United States because in Europe it’s a lot easier to get funding or federal funding for playing music or for putting on a festival or doing something that’s not necessarily classical music, opera or ballet which is what seems to get the bulk of federal funding in the States. Also in a lot of European countries, the state covers your health care and any education that you or family might want. So all these pressing concerns in the Sates create a unique situation for people who want to make art full time.

Charlotte: How has Moogfest been for you guys?

Sanae: Really great, really fun.

Ripley: Yeah we’ve been chilling out a little bit, we haven’t seen that much music.

Sanae: We wen’t to the movies yesterday.

Charlotte: Oh yeah, what did you see?

Ripley: Contagion

Charlotte: I was in that scene downtown where people are fighting for a vaccine in the convenient store off of Clay Street. You know the scene? Like people are dog piling and Jude Law is prevailing? They never paid me. I stood around doing that for like 9 hours.

Ripley: Ohhhhhhh yeah. Yeah that scene. Can you see yourself in it?

Charlotte: I don’t know I never saw it. Another day job… this one was unpaid though.

Ripley: Yeah well we never get to go to the movie theatre because we travel so we took a chance, or we took the opportunity rather, to see something.

Sanae: Whenever we have the day off we always sort of see if going to the movies is a possibility.

Charlotte: Why movie theaters?

Ripely: We just love film. And also in Colorado there’s a theatre half an hour from our place and that’s it and they just play four or five movies at a time and it’s what’s ever the big movies are so any chance we get to see something that’s not Disney or something we try to take the opportunity.

Charlotte: So your set was at the same time as Suicide’s set this evening but you still got a really great urn out. At the end of your set I talked to those guys who were right up front watching you and I asked them why they were interested in your music. They were from here (Asheville, North Carolina) and they said that they felt really comfortable and safe doing acid listening to Moon Duo. I feel like there’s this gentle drug sound you have. It’s not so direct and it’s not overtly psychedelic or overwhelming or over the top. So what he said could make sense for a lot of people in terms of how they experience Moon Duo. How do you feel about that comment?

Ripely: I mean I think it’s great, I mean I’m glad people feel safe you know like that they’re not playing music that’s going to freak them out. We don’t really think about it too much you know but you always want someone to like your music, you play a show and you know it’d be great if everyone came and liked your music but when you’re making the music initially and you’re creating the song and the ideas for your music you don’t think about that kind of stuff. It isn’t until after that you think, “I hope someone likes this.” While you’re doing it you’re not thinking, “Oh well what about someone in Asheville that’s going to be on acid, will they be able to deal with this?” It’s never part of your thought process so anything that someone says is interesting, it’s always good if it’s positive but it’s always fascinating to hear what people say after a show.

Sanae: You make the music and the primary concern is, “Does this sound right to us? Do we like it, is this what we want to do?” But then with any other art form you put it out into the world and then what comes back at you is always kind of fascinating because like Ripley was saying, it’s stuff that you never would have thought to consider. But I think that’s one of the great things about music. A piece of music can mean so many things to different people or it can work or not work for different people for an infinite number of reasons. The interpretive aspect is I think one of the most interesting things about it, about the experience.

Charlotte: You said that it could work or not work. Sometimes when it’s not working it’s working. Right?

Sanae: Yeah definitely. Any reaction is a positive thing I think. If someone feels something whether it’s revulsion or ecstasy it’s worth something.

Charlotte: Despite talking about music tonight as something that is intuitive and something that is so much so a part of what is considered to be spontaneous I want to breach that a little bit and talk about the composition and the structure of Moon Duo songs. I feel that if I had to describe the bulk of what you guys do I would say that there are these prolonged, consistent drum sequences and then an explosive guitar solo that comes about and is kind of supported by these loud organ sounds. Then you listen to {Mazes} or {Killing Time} all the way through and learn that that’s not necessarily always so. I feel that you push length in terms of song duration and I think that you’re doing something different.

Ripley: I mean for us it’s easy, we could go for 20 minutes. It’s not that hard for us to go long. I think though that a good way to think about it is how rock ‘n’ roll… well we consider ourselves a rock ‘n’ roll band and from a rock ‘n’ roll perspective the whole idea of dance music is sort of lost on rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not considered a dance form anymore or a dance genre. In fact dance music is a genre right? Although there are all these subgenres of dance, rock ‘n’ roll is not one of them. Rock ‘n’ roll is a separate thing and where as rock ‘n’ roll started out as a dance music, we are interested in rock ‘n’ roll as a dance music. It’s interesting because in every interview, nearly every interview, people will talk about the repetition of the drums or the length of the songs or how they go on and on and on and how it doesn’t change. But that’s something that’s so common, especially at Moogfest and it’s great that we’re here and in seeing bands tonight all of them are like, “Boom chhh- Boom chhh- Boom chhh-,” it’s the same beat over and over again and a lot of the songs are really long but no one would ever ask a techno artist, “Why is the beat the same for ten minutes,” or “You play these long songs that are very repetitive, what is up with that?” That’s because that’s accepted in that genre but in our genre, rock ‘n’ roll, people don’t expect that. It’s considered unusual which is pretty fascinating because in the ’50’s at dances and stuff people would play repetitive groves and longer songs. Maybe not longer but an important part of the music was the rhythmic aspect. This is something we think about and are interested in and that’s why we do that.

Sanae: I think because early rock ‘n’ roll was so focused on dancing that dancing was an integral part of the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll so the establishment of a primal, repetitive grove was really an essential thing. The essential question in early rock was, can you dance to it? And I think that repetitive beat is obviously really great for dancing and that’s what sets it in motion.

Charlotte: Since we’re at Moogfest I feel like it’s okay if we nerd out on some of the equipment you guys are using.

Ripely: I’m running my guitar through an MXR Distortion Plus, it’s like an early ’80’s late ’70’s distortion pedal. There’s an MXR Phase 100, a Geoffrey Tease Real McCoy wah pedal and this Big Muff, I forget what it’s called.

Charlotte: It’s huge!

Ripely: Yeah it’s like a double Big Muff, it’s like two, it’s really strange, it’s like one side is regular Big Muff and the other side is over drive so it’s like a double pedal. Then there’s a looper pedal which is a Boss something or other. There’s also a Memory Man.

Charlotte: In terms of what you start and end your chain with is there an effects loop that you set up, does it matter which pedal you place in front of the other?

Ripely: Yeah but it’s not an effect loop in the sense that there’s a dry signal as well, the guitar is just run through all of them. But the order matters, people suggest different things but it’s sort of trial and error. And that’s one of the problems with this Big Muff, this Big Muff is an amazing pedal because you’ve got your boost and your distortion so it’s sort of like this great all in one pedal but the problem is that if you use something like a phaser or something that modulates or something like flanger you want put your distortion before that because you want your distortion to feed into that and really give a full whooshing sound. But you don’t want your boost pedal or over drive for leads. It has to be something that’s sort of at the end of the chain.

Charlotte: Because it will sound muddy?

Ripely: If you put the phaser before it just won’t sound as powerful, it will just sound kind of weak and you want your wah before your distortion.

Charlotte: Do any over your pedals ever give out live?

Ripely: Sometimes they just stop working. I don’t use batteries anymore but if you use batteries then yeah. That’s another thing about that Big Muff pedal that’s interesting because it’s got a voltage knob on it so you can simulate low voltage so with some pedals if the battery starts dying it can sound really interesting and it’ll sound really fucked up because it’s not getting enough power. It can sound very fuzzy and weird.

Sanae: I play a Nord Electro 3 which has some really great organ settings. I play a lot of simulated B3 sounds. The Electro 3 has a lot of great tremelo effects and phasers and a ring modulator. There is also sort of a rotary simulation so I use a bunch of the effects within the keyboard. And then from that I go into a Fulltone OCD which is essentially a drive pedal for guitar but it has the effect of a distortion pedal for the keyboard. It kind of makes things sound raw and on the fritz and kind of fuzzy. From that I go into a Sansamp compressor so that I can regulate the levels myself. That also has a drive so sometimes the drive on the Sansamp combined with the OCD pedal creates a really interesting effect. I like it anyway, it’s a good level of distortion. From that I go to a Boss looper and into my amp.

Charlotte: And programming drums?

Ripely: We use a sampler. A lot of it is sampled live drums. We also have an old Rhythm Ace from the ’60’s.

Charlotte: Holy shit your visuals tonight were spooky.

Sanae: Well the visuals tonight were a bit unique. We just played this movie called Begotten it’s kind of this crazy ass cult horror flick. It’s really, really weird- it’s so fucked up. Usually we always try and corporate visuals. I like to do video collages. We bring a projector on tour. We try to take the projector far back into the room so that it covers the entire stage and it becomes like an immersive atmospheric aquarium element to our show.

Charlotte: I’m feeling homesick enough this weekend to ask you what you miss about San Francisco.

Sanae: Taquerias.

Ripely: I was going to say that ha ha.

Ripely: It’s the whole vibe of San Francisco that I miss. I lived there for 15 years and whenever I would travel I would back and I would feel safe again. There’s something about the United States where outside of San Francisco I feel a little on edge. You feel like no one is going to fuck with you in San Francisco. The cops aren’t aggressive and stuff. It’s just when I’m back there I feel at home again. I feel safe. It’s a weird thing because there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel safe in the rest of America but I don’t. I don’t feel relaxed. There are aggressive people and a weird vibe that I just don’t pick up on in San Francisco. Even though there are aggressive people in San Francisco they are just kind of whack you know? You’re just kind of like, “Oh that guy is off his rocker,” and it’s an exception. It’s not like he’s a type of guy that I have to worry about.

Sanae: I miss my friends. I feel like I have really good friends in San Francisco. Being on the road in some respects is amazing because you go so many different places but at the same time you meet different people every day and that’s amazing in it’s own right but your interactions with these people are always sort of on the surface. I miss having that more in depth experience and spending time with friends that I know really well.

Sanae: I miss the light in San Francisco. I think the light there is special. I mean it’s not just that’s it’s sunny it’s that the light has this incredibly specific character that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially in the afternoons when the sun is starting to go down, the way the light hits the buildings and the colors are so uniquely beautiful. It’s something I’ve always loved about San Francisco.

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