Moon Duo’s Multi-Sensory Stimulus Act
Moon Duo’s music has been described – fairly accurately, if ultimately unsatisfactorily – as psychedelic Krautrock. My housemate, however, misheard that term and thought it was “sauerkraut rock.” Well, hey, maybe we need to invent a new ridiculous genre name for the groovy stew conjured by soulmates Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada. Hallucinogenic and hypnotic, from a base of motoric repetition their pieces swirl and weave and melt into new patterns and potentials. Aside from the oft-cited Silver Apples and Suicide, there’s a lot of Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3 in their formula, but it’s brighter than the former and more urgent than the latter. Impeccably minimalist, their songs revolve around drumbeats (programmed), guitars (Johnson) and organ (Yamada), with both members contributing to the breathy, obscured and reverbed vocals that sound like slouching, disembodied spirits spinning in the din. For the most part, their songs have been getting progressively more compact, at least on their recordings. I’d go as far as to say there’s a slight but significant framework of pop music guiding their excursions into the far hemisphere.
Johnson and Yamada met a decade ago, but did not start making music together until around four years back, by which time Johnson was also playing in the still-active San Francisco band Wooden Shjips. The couple moved from that city to the bucolic, isolated mountain wilds of Blue Ridge, Colorado after making their first full album, Mazes, in 2011. Now, upon their release of its follow-up, Circles, they’ve relocated once again, this time to the hipster haven of Portland, Oregon. I caught up with Sanae as they made their way home from Austin after finishing their North American tour, just a couple days before they took off for Europe to do it all over again there.
I was curious about the titles of your albums. There’s probably no significance, but Mazes implies getting lost and trying to figure out a way back, whereas Circles implies no real beginning or end – you start in one place and end up right back there, and nobody gets lost although some may get dizzy.
“Well… I think the albums weren’t titled specifically to be in relationship to one another. But I think in retrospect, they do work, with sort of where we were and what we were doing at that time. I mean, with Mazes, sort of leaving California and launching into this great unknown of trying to do the music full-time. To me, when I look back on that phase, it works with where we were, ‘cause when you’re in a maze, you don’t know what’s around the bend, or where you’re gonna end up. And that was very much true, I think, to our mental state when we were preparing to leave where we’d been living for a long time, and embark on this, some would say, calculated risk (laughs). And Circles… I’m not really sure what to say about Circles. It wasn’t titled to have any relationship in particular to Mazes, but when the album started coming into being, when Ripley was home in Colorado, and I was off on a meditation retreat, Ripley read this Ralph Waldo Emerson essay, ‘Circles,’ that’s sort of like a meditation on the nature of existence. Not just human existence but all of existence, and the common cyclical aspects of everything that tie it all together. And I was on this meditation retreat sort of thinking over much the same kind of concept. So I came home, and he had written a bunch of songs and gave me this essay to read, and it really seemed of a piece.”
Where was this meditation retreat?
“It was in northern California. It’s a ten-day silent retreat.”
Is that a regular practice for you?
“Yeah, I started doing it a few years ago, maybe five or six years ago, and Ripley’s done the same style of practice – it’s called Vipassana. It’s pretty fascinating… It’s hard to describe. I think it’s a little bit different for everybody. But it’s very intense, and it’s more or less a period of intensive self-observation. It’s kind of an exercise in removing all of the usual distractions that stimulate your brain. You don’t really interact with anybody, or talk to anybody, and there’s no internet or TV or job – whatever it is that fills up your days is removed. So it’s pretty amazing to see how your brain reacts to that. Like, you go through this process of the brain kind of freaking out, trying to generate distractions, because you’ve removed all these usual distractions, but then after a little while things settle down and you start to see things differently, I think. I don’t think I’m being very articulate, ha ha ha!”
I have read a few interviews with Ripley where he’s asked if Moon Duo makes good drug music, something along those lines. And he’ll reply that he doesn’t really advocate drug use; meditation, on the other hand…
“Well, I think for a lot of people, the goal of using drugs in the first place is a certain experience of cognitive expansion, or just opening doors of your brain that you don’t know how to open otherwise. And I think that meditation is a similar endeavor. So I think that saying that our music is druggy, it makes sense to me in a lot of ways, because I think the impetus to do massive amounts of hallucinogens and the impetus to meditate might come from the same place.”
I will say this: the film backdrops you use are certainly druggy!
“Ha ha! That’s cool, thank you. I mean… I guess!”
When I’ve seen you play, there are few if any lights on you and Ripley, and the visual focus is on the films. And the films are usually quite trippy. Like at your recent show at 529, that film sort of approximated the trajectory of a powerful acid trip. It started out mild – sort of weird and cool but not overwhelming. And then as you kept playing, it became more and more disorienting, more intense.
“Yeah, I make the videos for our shows, and that’s kind of the goal. So that’s good to hear! I think we really had to have some visual element to the live show, because it turns them into a more multi-sensory experience. Not just an auditory experience, but a kind of visual aspect that interacts with the auditory. And I guess the hope is to create a different type of stimulus than a show without a deliberate visual presentation.”
So for instance, with the film you were using at 529, when you made that, were you intending to simulate a psychedelic drug experience in some way?
“I wasn’t thinking that specifically, but I did want to have a trajectory of intensity for the film, and I definitely was going for a hypnotic element. So I did deliberately start off a bit simpler and then gradually add color and more activity. And it’s sort of a collaging process – like layering different clips over each other – so I sort of experimented with different clips, and certain ones would sort of cycle through in relation to each other and relate in some ways, so I got kind of into that. These crazy undulating textures, which I like a lot.”
What’s your personal musical background, prior to Moon Duo?
“When I was a kid, I took a lot of piano. But it was very different from what I do now. It was very rigid and structured and sort of classically based. Significantly it was a very solitary endeavor. I never played music with other people – it was always just sheet music and practicing scales and solo pieces over and over again. And when I was a teenager, I quit that because I just wasn’t that into it anymore. I kind of walked away from music for a little while, and got more into other things, creatively speaking. Moon Duo is actually the first band I’ve ever played in. And I really like it. It’s a really different way of thinking about music when what you’re playing is one part of a bigger mass, when you’re contributing an element of a larger composition.”
How did King Khan become the star of your video for “Sleepwalker”? It’s hilarious…
“(laughs) Well we spent about three months in Berlin earlier this year. We had played a bunch of shows around Europe, and we were mixing our record, and we met him, ‘cause he lives in Berlin, and he agreed to be in this video, which we were really stoked about. And we had sort of an idea for the video, but when he agreed to participate, that’s when the storyline really came together, and it kind of became what it ended up being. He’s an amazing guy.”
The video’s great because you’re not sure whether it’s an aerobics class or some kind of weird cult.
So you’ve done a Christmas-themed single and you did a Halloween EP. Are there any more holiday releases planned?
“We actually wanted to do another holiday 7-inch this year but we didn’t have time. So we may do another one of those in the future, but nothing is planned immediately.”
You should do a Thanksgiving song. Nobody ever does Thanksgiving songs.
“That’s true. Ha ha ha!”
The only one I can think of was Arlo Guthrie’s. I think you should tackle Thanksgiving. It kind of gets overlooked amid all the hoopla between Halloween and Christmas.
“That is a very good point. You know, I agree. I really like Thanksgiving, it’s a really good holiday. That could be the next one!”