Siobhán Kane spoke with Erick Johnson of Moon Duo ahead of their gig at The Workman’s Club on Friday May 13th
Erick “Ripley” Johnson and Sanae Yamada started making music in 2009, and since then have released the EP Killing Time, 2010’s Escape and this year’s Mazes that all benefit from a slow-burning hazy charm. It is easy to see something of a crossover from Johnson’s other band Wooden Shjips, but there is something more romantic about what Moon Duo does; their sound goes from Suicide to Phil Spector in a well-timed drum beat, and though they reference free jazz and krautrock as influences, there is a little tilt towards the vast meadows of pop, perhaps through their engaging rhythms and dreamy melodies that are psychedelic, blissful things.
In a sense, their ethos is captured in their own take on Christmas, with last year’s ‘Silver Bells/Winter‘ 7″, which was a wonderful 1950’s-inspired piece of work that provided layers of sleigh bells and nostalgia, along with a real sense of honouring the past whilst exhaling something just as mysterious and new, Siobhán Kane talks to Erick Johnson.
You formed Moon Duo with Sanae in 2009, how did you meet?
We met through mutual friends but didn’t start playing music together until later. We have very similar tastes in music, so there was that kinship. But Sanae had never played in a band before, so it was an experiment.
You said you were “initially inspired” by the pairing of John Coltrane and Rashied Ali, do you remember when you first heard their recordings? What is inspiring you and Sanae now?
I got really into free jazz about ten years ago, so it was around then. In jazz a duo formation is not as unusual, so there’s a lot of inspiration there. Now we’re mostly inspired by each other. Once you get going and have a base of recordings, it’s sort of like rolling downhill, the momentum begins to drive everything.
Your second record Mazes, is just beautiful, how were you were feeling about life and music when you recorded it? Is it a love letter of sorts to San Francisco? That place has such a tradition of interesting music and musicians, did you feel that quite acutely?
There was no intention to work on a particular theme, but once the songs were written I realised it was generally about leaving San Francisco. We moved recently after living there for some years, so it is about leaving things behind and forging new paths, being open to change. It is an amazing city, and of course one often doesn’t appreciate something until it’s gone, but we visit often, so it’s not completely gone!
How important is a sense of space to you, a sense of ‘home’? I am constantly amazed that Shakespeare wrote so much and so well in his very meagre surroundings, but I suppose sometimes creativity finds a way through in the darkest of places. What are your thoughts?
I love the western United States quite a lot. But I think I’m also one of those people who can make a home anywhere. I love being home, and it has little to do with what’s going on outside my little space. We travel a lot also so I get to enjoy a variety of different environments. Some days I think I could live in Berlin, other days I want to move to LA or Detroit. But one thing I have learned about myself is that I love the sunshine. I would not do well in Shakespeare’s hovel.
Your guitar-playing particularly astonishes on this record, was there a sense of you being even more inspired?Has your relationship with the guitar changed much over the years, and with your playing with Wooden Shjips as well as Moon Duo?
I’ve always struggled with the recording process, or rather with recording improvised guitar. For Mazes I recorded most of the guitar parts at home, so it was a much more relaxed, and sunny, atmosphere. I would take breaks and go out to the yard and play with the dog, or something like that. It helped me stay more in the zone for the recording.
Sometimes your work sounds like an aural version of misty fog, you seem to be inviting people to get lost for a while. Dan Deacon said that he wants to create a blanket of “radiant positivity” because there is so much pain in the world, which is a lovely impulse.Do you think that your sound has been influenced by that hazy sixties-seventies west coast psychedelic sensibility?
Certainly. I think my life has been influenced by that! There’s certainly way too much negativity in the world. I don’t know if our music is much of a balm, I hesitate to attach any specific prescriptive qualities to it, but we try to do things with the correct intentions. I think that’s very important in life in general, to have right intentions, because everything follows from that. So if you have positive intentions you are likely to have a positive impact, on a subtle if not gross level.
You have so many musical influences, but there seems to be a subtle pop sensibility to your most recent record. Is pop music important to you in any way?
I’ve never been a fan of strict pop music but of course there are always exceptions. Are The Who a pop band? Lou Reed? Probably not, though they have pop elements in their music. I like early rock n roll pop songs; Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Neil Diamond. I don’t know much about modern pop.
How has it been taking out the new record live? Does it take a huge amount of rehearsal time?
When it’s just two people it takes more concentration and precision, but not necessarily more practice. With a full band it’s possible to be looser in the performance, which is nice. For the duo we strip things down to just the necessities, so it’s very minimal. We don’t like to over-rehearse because it takes away a lot of the spontaneity.
How important is jazz to you? There is sometimes something quite reminiscent about jazz in your work, perhaps its ethos rather than sound, the elevation of the improvised.
I love jazz. I love instrumental, improvised music because it is a purer sound. But the language of jazz is so diverse and deep that it is infinitely fascinating to me. At it’s purest I think it’s like baby talk — a wordless, primal expression. There is no side to take. It’s inclusive. Rock music is different, but I do think there is as much flexibility, and the songs can be interpreted in endless ways.
Your Christmas music for both bands is wonderful, so nostalgic and so innocent, was it that you wanted to capture a purity about that period, that lovely sense of childhood and potential? There is something about that period of the year that is so bittersweet, it is a really shared experience, though everyone has different experiences within that culture – will you do some more do you think?
Yeah, it’s the nostalgic aspect that I love. I’m not into religion so we’ve tried to avoid any overtly christian songs. Of course the holiday comes from pagan tradition but the nostalgia is tied to specific songs from childhood. We’ll probably do more. The problem is that they need to be recorded so far in advance to do the vinyl and it’s hard to get in that spirit in the late summer. Plus we need to find the right songs. We don’t want to do anything schmaltzy.
What else are you working on at the moment?
We have some things in the pipeline but can’t really talk about them yet. We’re hoping to have something special out in October.
What are you reading and listening to at the moment?
I am reading a lot of Los Angeles-related literature, because we’re spending August there; Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald’s noirs, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, City of Quartz, and Riot on the Sunset Strip. I am also listening to the new Kurt Vile, Fabulous Diamonds 2, Jim Sullivan’s UFO, and Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor.
Moon Duo play The Workman’s Club this Friday, May 13th.