"We still get people yelling for us to play Wooden Shjips songs": DiS meets Moon Duo
Having formed in 2009, Moon Duo were initially seen by many as a side project to co-founder Ripley Johnson's other, and perhaps then-more established outfit Wooden Shjips. However, along with co-conspirator Sanae Yamada, they've gone on to produce a highly acclaimed body of work, elevating them to the upper echelons of the new psychedelia movement.
While debut EP Killing Time gave them a platform to build on, it was the sprawling intensity of 'Motorcycle I Love You', the opening track off 2010's first long player Escape that really sowed the seeds for what was to follow. Combining the simplistic nuances of Suicide with Spacemen 3's penchant for driving, feedback-drenched drones coupled with a blues sensibility, it still resonates intently to this day as a centre piece of their live shows.
Two follow-up albums later, last year's Circles being the most recent, and Moon Duo are now one of the most revered outfits on the psych rock circuit. Having recently released a remixed version of Circles featuring contributions from The Horrors' Tom Furse among others. Having also just acquired a third member in new drummer, Berlin-based Canadian John Jeffrey, DiS caught up with them prior to last month's headline set in the I Arena at Latitude festival.
DiS: You played at the Dome in London during the week leading up to Latitude. How was that?
Ripley Johnson: Yeah that's right, we played with Gnod and Novella. It was great, a really cool show to play.
DiS: Would you say Moon Duo have a more receptive audience in the UK now than back home?
Sanae Yamada: I feel that with the UK and Europe in general, we have a much better reception when we play live compared to the States. It's always a lot of fun to come over.
Ripley Johnson: The UK was good for us straight away, which is great because it's a good buffer for when you go to different parts of Europe and try to build an audience. So when you already have that support initially it gives you a lot more confidence to play the show. Germany and France have been good too. We get a pretty good reception every time we play there.
DiS: I guess this one's for Ripley, but do you see Moon Duo as an extension of what you're doing with Wooden Shjips?
Ripley Johnson: I guess so. I don't really analyse everything in the same way. I just think about writing songs and making records. Obviously our approach is much different. It's just two people for a start. In some ways we're just like any band. Who you're playing with can sometimes define what the music will sound like unless you're a taskmaster tyrant of music..."You're going to play this and you're going to play that!"... Which isn't the way it works even though I may try to do that sometimes! I think we have a different relationship and different energy. I try not to think about it too much or over-intellectualize it.
DiS: Do you think that's a failing of the media at times - especially here in the UK - that we do try and compartmentalise music into different genres and categories too much?
Ripley Johnson: I think it's really hard to write about music. It's easier to write about external things. I guess it's all about trying to maintain context, which can be difficult, so the easiest way to do that about music is categorise it. People do it everywhere though, not just in the UK.
DiS: You're headlining the I Arena later tonight, which is the stage Ripley played on last year with Wooden Shjips. Are you surprised to be elevated to that kind of status for what is still a relatively new band to a lot of people in the UK?
Sanae Yamada: Well, I'm certainly thrilled! It's the kind of thing you hope for when you make a record. That someone will care or react to it in some way, and if it's in a positive way then that's so much better.
Ripley Johnson: When you're in a band that has records out and you get some sort of press, then you do some other thing on the side there's always gonna be a comparison. So the benefit is that people may listen. It's like a knock-on effect whereby people that like a certain band will tend to listen to other related bands. But then again, you can only get so far on that, and the day will come when people won't listen just because they're a fan of my other band, so it's up to us to keep working on writing new songs and if people like it that's great. We tour a lot and we've tried really hard to build an audience.
DiS: I know we've already touched on Moon Duo being an extension of Wooden Shjips but in some ways, it could be argued this project has usurped your other one. In terms of recognition and status anyway.
Ripley Johnson: Well, that was the goal, to create a separate identity for this band. We still get people yelling for us to play Wooden Shjips songs at our shows every so often. Or someone may walk up to me after a show and say, "I really like your band, but I like Wooden Shjips better!" And then sometimes we've had the opposite; "I really like your band but your other band is terrible!" A lot of people may be fans of both and that's wonderful, so it's not really that easy to compare and contrast the fortunes of one band against the other. But we've worked really hard to create an identity for Moon Duo, and we tour more.
Sanae Yamada: We're able to, which is nice. For me it's not a side project or anything like that. This is my deal. I'm all in. This is not a side project from my perspective. I think because we've been able to tour as much as we have, which was one of the goals we set ourselves, the escalation of opportunities that's come our way has been amazing. And surprising too I guess.
DiS: You're also playing at Green Man Festival in August and Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia in September. Do you choose which festivals to play, or at least have a say in them? For example, would you do a major corporate event like Reading or Leeds if the opportunity arose?
Ripley Johnson: A lot of that we leave up to our booking agent. He's Irish and he's a real character, and he has really good taste in music. He's been booking bands for a while so we really trust him. He has good relationships with lots of different promoters, and he tries to work with people who are cool, and decent, which is important to us. That isn't to say we wouldn't play a big corporate festival if it fitted in with our schedule. In terms of exposure it would be crazy not too. But again, a lot of those decisions are made by him rather than us.
DiS: You're touring the UK in August, although there's still no Nottingham date, which is where I'm based!
Ripley Johnson: Yeah, we're really looking forward to that. Whenever we come back to England we always try to play towns where we've never played before. So we've played in Leicester, Newcastle, Milton Keynes...
Sanae Yamada: Last year we played at this festival called No Direction Home, which is situated in part of Sherwood Forest. As a child living in the States I always had this association of Nottingham with Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood, so when I heard we were going to be playing there it got me really excited!
Ripley Johnson: Whenever we post up tour dates there's always people commenting on Facebook, "Oh how come you're not coming to my town?" We'd love to come to your town! We want to come to all the towns but there's a financial reason why we don't go to certain towns. When we play in London there's a bigger audience and we get paid more for that, which means we can then do more of the smaller provincial shows. And then there are some venues that we just end up favouring for one reason or another. The Brudenell in Leeds for instance. They're just great people. It is fun to play smaller towns we've never played before. We had a blast on our last UK tour but we just can't make it work every time. Sanae Yamada: There's gonna be some great shows. You go to a big city like London or Paris with some idea of what to expect, but when you turn up in a small town you've never been to before it's like stepping into the unknown. You really have no idea what's on the menu for the night. The surprise is really great, even if the show doesn't really pan out. I mean, we've had some real duds in small towns in the States. Some real shockers..!
Ripley Johnson: It builds character.
Sanae Yamada: It does. It makes me more grateful for the good ones.
DiS: Which is the worst place you've ever played in?
Ripley Johnson: We don't want to diss people but we once played a show in North Dakota that wasn't so good.
Sanae Yamada: They had a tight local community and... I mean, the people were really nice but kind of didn't get what we were about at all.
DiS: I guess there's nothing worse than being booked by a promoter that doesn't really know your music.
Ripley Johnson: We got booked to play in this sports bar once and all the television screens were left on.
Sanae Yamada: We had to ask them to turn off the screens so we could play our show!
DiS: Your last record Circles came out at the back end of 2012. Are there plans for a follow-up? Will there be any new songs in tonight's set even?
Ripley Johnson: Our new thing for tonight is we now have a drummer.
DiS: Moon Trio then I guess?!?
Ripley Johnson: Ha, yeah! Moon Duo and band.
Sanae Yamada: Or Moon Duo and friend maybe?!?
Ripley Johnson: Or Moon Duo with special guest? But no, we're not playing any new songs. Just mostly stuff off Circles, some from Mazes, maybe one or two Escape songs as well. But it is quite a different feel. Less of a Spacemen 3 or Suicide vibe and more swinging, kind of garage even. It has a totally different energy and is actually more fun to play the old songs with a real drummer. They're all rockers now!
DiS: Going forwards, will John (Jeffrey) the new drummer be involved in the songwriting process?
Ripley Johnson: Probably. We only met him two weeks ago.
Sanae Yamada: Our manager found him. They both live in Berlin. We've been scouting around for a drummer for a while now so our manager called us up and said, "I think I have the guy!" But we didn't actually meet him until we went over there to start rehearsing.
Ripley Johnson: It's all very new but he's great. We've been getting on really well. I can't imagine us not working with him in the future.
DiS: Will logistics be a problem with him based in Berlin and you both being in the States?
Ripley Johnson: I guess it could, although we spend quite a lot of time in Berlin ourselves. We really like it there so it's a good excuse to have to go there and work. We don't have any plans to record another album just yet but I don't see it being too much of a problem when we do. We'll just fly him over to Portland. What we want to do next is record a live album, so we'll be recording a few dates when we tour next month. The energy is quite different to how we play in the studio.
DiS: Are there any specific shows in particular which you'll be recording?
Ripley Johnson: We only just came up with the idea, but the show in Berlin is being recorded, one of the shows in Italy too, and Manchester. We're gonna play them back after and see what they sound like, and then decide whether to put the album out as one whole show, or a combination of songs from different shows. Like they used to do with live albums in the 1970s, "fix" things into place with segments of crowd noise in between.
DiS: And going back to Wooden Shjips, will they have a new record out in the foreseeable future?
Ripley Johnson: November. It's not been announced so I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to talk about it but yeah, November. I'll be doing a lot of touring around that with the Shjips. And then maybe January 2014 start thinking about the next Moon Duo album.
DiS: Are there any new bands or artists you're excited about at present?
Sanae Yamada: I'm really excited by this guy from Philadelphia called Steve Gunn. He just released his first LP a few weeks ago. He's been playing in different bands around the Philly scene for a while, but this is his first solo record and it's great.
Ripley Johnson: Do you know Umberto from Kansas City?
DiS: Yeah, I've heard him.
Ripley Johnson: He's made it across the pond then! I always love it how people in the UK know all about these American artists that most people back home haven't heard of! Sometimes before I do even. I read about a lot of new American bands in the UK press. I love the UK press. I always get excited whenever we go on tour because that's when I can get to read most of it. I always go to WH Smith and buy copies of all the magazines. Music magazines in the States are generally really terrible. There's a couple that are good but...
Sanae Yamada: And the British ones are so expensive back home.
Ripley Johnson: Most of the US ones tend to focus more on fashion and general culture, which I don't really care about to be honest.
Moon Duo can be seen at the following places in August:-
16 Brecon Beacons Green Man Festival
17 Manchester Gorilla
18 Skipton Beacons Festival
19 Newcastle The Cluny
20 Brighton The Haunt
For more information on the band visit their official website.