Attention to Dualism:
Mood Rings Find Harmony
“Balance, to me, is the most important thing in life,” Mood Rings frontman William Fussell attests.
While many 20-somethings are engrossed in fleeting attempts at self-content like partying or materialism, Fussell aims for a more lasting type of personal content. He’s no perfect purist, of course, but it’s fair to assume most college-aged kids don’t own a copy of The Bhagavad Gita. For his Atlanta-based band’s debut LP, however, the Hindu scripture served as a crucial reference.
“It’s interesting to me when I talk to people about it who pick up on [the theme of balance] from the get-go, because that’s probably the biggest element of the music that I try to write,” Fussell says. “It’s creating a happy or sad, a strong or weak, a masculine or feminine. It all comes around to that I suppose.”
Whether the listener consciously realizes it or not, the idea of emotional dualities permeates VPI Harmony. Mood Rings envelop their suave, sentimental pop in rich, thick velvet. The sound is super-soft and airy but sturdily contained, not at all abstract. Fussell’s cloud-high croon floats atop an imaginary world in which Pylon doesn’t sound so pissed and ’80s synthpop forgoes urgency for dreaminess. There’s a sweet nostalgia seemingly at odds with the bustling beat of tunes like “Pathos y Lagrimas” and “Promise Me Eternity,” but the effect is celestial, not discordant. Even the prominent guitar on “Exorcised Painting” and restless drumming of “Hollow Dye (Defected Crystal)” cannot overwhelm the otherworldly feel Fussell’s vocals exude.
“We were really into a lot of ancient ideas, like stories and conspiracies, anything like that. We’re very into abnormal thinking. Basically I mean different than modern day ideas,” he explains, then goes on to mention masculinity and femininity, chi, yin and yang and other notions of balance.
In keeping with those ideals, the five-piece – which also includes Tymb Gratz, Christopher Alley, Peter Cauthorn and Seth Bolton – has collectively agreed to avoid revealing the meaning of VPI Harmony.
“In this day and age that we live in, with music everything is put straight in front of you with social media, whereas in the past there was always an air of mystery about something. [Now] you know everything about anything – every band and every celebrity,” he explains. “As much as we are very much a part of that whole thing… we wanted to kind of leave an open-ended idea for anyone to interpret for themselves what it could mean. There are multiple meanings that we came up with for it but I don’t think we ever intend on discussing them. We want to leave it open for the listener to try to determine.”
Fussell is right to acknowledge Mood Rings’ presence in the era of oversharing and overexposure. Like a lot of their contemporaries, they owe some thanks to the Internet for their success. After neighborhood label Double Phantom released the Sweater Weather Forever EP in 2011, the band was embraced by several avidly read music blogs.
But that’s nothing compared to the massive major outlet press VPI Harmony is getting, and it’s somewhat a result of the band’s own push. While touring with Games they befriended Joel Ford, who also collaborates with Mexican Summer signee Oneohtrix Point Never, and gave him a copy of “Promise Me Eternity” b/w “Exorcised Painting.” It was Ford and another MS act, Tamaryn, who touted Mood Rings. The connection to fellow Atlantan Phil Jones and his solo effort Dog Bite – and now labelmate – probably didn’t hurt, either. Eventually, while riding Atlanta’s public transit to work, Fussell got a call. Mexican Summer wanted to know: Do they have a label yet?
By that point, Mood Rings had already completed VPI Harmony independently with likeminded friends. But part of the deal was that they’d record it again at Gary’s Electric Studio in Brooklyn.
“We were down for it,” Fussell assures. “It gets a little hard after playing these songs live after so long, trying to keep the inspiration behind everything because you’re like, ‘I’ve played this song a million times.’ However I think that we were excited enough to go to a different place and experience something for almost a month that we’d never experienced before. Which made it just as inspiring. Also having better equipment it led to more opportunities to experiment more and have fun.”
Fussell says the songs had been ready for years – they’d spent almost as much recording it – so they were able to wrap things up in a quick three weeks.
“With the limited resources we had [recording the first time], we kind of had to go our own way with it. That’s cool at the same time – I love cool recordings and we demo all the time. We never stop writing and recording music,” Fussell says.
Months before the release the imprint already had VPI on a media pedestal, and so far it’s working. Mood Rings’ atmospheric tunes have infiltrated the indie realm quite breezily. Could a blurb of approval from prolific indie staple Bradford Cox, tacked onto the end of their official Mexican Summer bio, be a reason? Fussell admits they were “semi reluctant” about its inclusion.
“We understood why it was happening,” he says. “We all respect Bradford and Deerhunter and everyone in that band. It’s definitely by far our favorite band out of Atlanta. We all know that very well and respect them and look up to them. But like any band we don’t want to be compared to local brothers.”
Fussell points out that while some influences are shared (“similar lifestyle and setup, we live in the same city, we’re surrounded by the same things”), the band plans to evolve its sound.
“We’re a band that wants to change always, and I feel like we’ve already done that with the difference between Sweater Weather and VPI Harmony, moving from a garage-shoegaze sound… There’s some element of the ethereal vibe still but we went for a pop thing with this. It may not come off that way but that’s what we intended.”
With the insecurity in that last statement, Fussell unknowingly nods to what he’ll touch on again: Doubting himself. He reveals as much in justifying the blurriness of the lyrics.
“I’ve always used vocal effects. Because especially in the beginning the lyrics were very, very personal,” he laughs. “If I were to sing without the effects, considering where we come from in Atlanta, everyone would just be looking around the room like, ‘Oh, this is awkward because we know who he’s singing about.’ So I’d use these effects to kind of hide that and make it easier for me to sing them. As well as just because it sounds really pretty and beautiful to me. I’m a big sucker for chorus in delay. No matter if that’s kind of overused today, to me it’s not about overusing it, it’s about making something that makes you good or sounds really good. To me, at least.”
Only a handful of words are decipherable on VPI Harmony, and rarely is an entire phrase completely clear. For example, on “Dark Flow,” most will only gather “I want to,” “a sense of” and maybe a few other bits before they stop trying and opt instead to simply soak up the mood. Some tracks are less cryptic, but really, Fussell doesn’t mean for any of it to be too concrete.
“The tones and the vibes that we wanted to create through the experimental sounds that we made in the nice studio that Mexican Summer offered us are also what [the album is] about,” he says. “It’s not always about the words, it’s more about the feelings that they evoke. The way the words sound, the way the music sounds with the words. If the words don’t mean anything, what you’re supposed to be feeling is the accumulation of the two things together.”
While that motif might stick around in terms of feel, it does seem certain that future Mood Rings lyrics – the actual ones, not their sonic auras – are going to get further and further from Fussell’s heart.
“It gets hard to perform the correct way because of how emotional the album is. It’s not something I can listen to a lot because of how, you know, things turn out in life. It’s strange to see the foreshadowing that occurred with some of the things I discussed in the album. They’re actually things that happened in life. It’s strange,” he confesses. “It makes me feel like I might do something different for the next record because when you become so emotionally attached to something it makes it hard to separate yourself and from that, when it becomes you, the music is everything. That song is everything that you’re feeling over a course of months, and it might make it seem less or contrived or something. It’s hard to really get into it when you feel like all you can think about is what you’re singing, and who you meant that song to be for isn’t in the room… it’s not the same thing anymore.”
He sighs after that long-winded turn, Fussell seems emotionally delicate. But being that Fussell is a person perpetually striving for balance, he’s incorporated that fragility not only in recordings but also in Mood Rings’ live shows. He often cloaks himself in a tropically colored sheet.
“It was there to create a visual effect and also let me hide myself from what I’m singing, because I have issues with that sometimes,” he laughs. “I have certain things that I have to do sometimes to break myself through it, which can make other people feel uncomfortable. If I feel like making other people uncomfortable, I’ll leave it off and I’ll stare at someone in the eyes until they look away. Or I can keep it on and not be awkward and try to create a moment in that song or time in that venue.”
Sometimes the fabric ends up tied to the mic stand, and increasingly it’s altogether absent. Whether it’s a sign of his comfort or that the setting is just too damn hot for an extra layer, he’s found a way to level out his anxieties. Offstage, he hasn’t yet found a no-fail option. Reaching out to friends in states on par with his, be it down or up, helps.
“Not to quote Kurt Cobain, but there’s a comfort in being sad. It’s strange how finding the good in the bad and the bad in the good,” he says. “When I say meditation, I don’t mean literal meditation, but…just talking to myself until I can’t think of anything else to say anymore, whether its gibberish or really meaningful poetry, I think that being by yourself or getting with someone is a way that I can find balance, depending on the situation. Sometimes vices are included.”
Photo by Zach Wolfe.