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Interview: Moon Duo

Here's a little chat with these transcendental psych-boogie ambassadors before their live show at Arkham this Friday.
By Mar 22, 2013 Nightlife


Moon Duo are the latest in a steady flow of neo-psych bands from around the world to filter through Shanghai. The band closest in spirit to Moon Duo to have come through China recently are New York's Psychic Ills, who toured here last November. Both bands are on respected Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, and in fact released a split 7" together in late 2012. Where the Ills have a full-band, space-guitar-based classic psychedelic rock'n'roll sound, Moon Duo are more kosmische with their vibe, sublimating '50s garage boogie in more kraut-influenced drum machine grooves and atmospheric, floating synth layers.

Moon Duo comprise keyboardist Sanae Yamada and guitarist Ripley Johnson, the latter of acclaimed space-psych quartet Wooden Shjips. Originally from San Francisco, Moon Duo got priced out and holed up in the affordable isolation of the Rocky Mountains to record Circles, their most recent LP. They've subsequently moved to Portland, OR, a current home base for their aggressive international tour schedule.

Sanae took a break from the Australian leg of their current tour to email in a bit about Moon Duo's philosophy, instrumentation, and expectations for their first trip to the increasingly relevant tour destination that China is becoming.


SmSh: So I asked this exact same question to Psychic Ills, but I want to repeat it since Moon Duo is also at the apex of a sort of American psych revival, and you're more West coast with it as opposed to the Ills's New York via Texas vibe: “Psychedelic Rock” has concrete Asian influences, both in terms of instrumentation and mystical philosophy. But it’s also a musical style with a strong alt-Americana identity. What is your interpretation of “psych”, as a genre or a mode of writing and thinking about music?

Moon Duo: For me, the concept of psych has to do with a merging of the senses and the dissolution of boundaries. In the '60s, the term “psychedelic” generally referred to drugs and the trip experience as a mode of opening visionary doors in the mind. I think when applied to music, it is about opening sonic doors in a similar way; about breaking down pre-formed notions of the structure of rock music and the roles that particular instruments can or should fill.

SmSh: You started in San Francisco, have mixed a few of your records in Berlin, and recorded Circles in the Rocky Mountains. How have these locations affected your music? More specifically: how has San Francisco influenced your process of practicing and playing live, how has Berlin influenced your recording/post-production process, and how did holing up in Colorado affect your songwriting process?

MD: It’s hard to parse out what aspects of our music are specifically influenced by certain locations. Since we lived in San Francisco for many years and founded the band there, I think there is a San Francisco vibe at the heart of everything we do. In Berlin, working with the guys at Kaiku Studios, we discovered a much wider and more varied palette for mixing beats and percussion. When we did the initial recordings for Circles in Colorado, we were living in a very isolated spot, high in the mountains, and there were few distractions. To me, that album feels the most holistic of anything we’ve done because it is a product of that intensely focused period of time.

Moon Duo live in Berlin (photo via The Craze)

SmSh: I read in this interview you did a little over a year ago that you moved to Colorado mainly to be able to maintain a cheaper cost of living and focus more on the band. How's that working out so far? You're currently in the middle of a pretty long Australia/Asia tour so I assume it's going well…

MD: Actually, we just recently moved again — this time to Portland, Oregon. Colorado was great for a couple of years, but it was always a temporary situation. All of our stuff was in storage, and we would just sort of land there in between stretches of touring. It was very beautiful, though, and we could really relax. Portland is a little more balanced. It is a pretty mellow place, but there are still interesting things going on in terms of music and art. We felt cut off from that in Colorado. But yeah, the plan to adopt a lower-cost lifestyle has definitely worked out. We’ve been able to do so much.

SmSh: Speaking of which, how's the tour going so far? You getting good reactions? I think in Australia it should be good because people there are pretty familiar with Sacred Bones and would know Wooden Shjips, etc…

MD: The tour has been fantastic so far. There has been a lot of positive feedback. We started out in New Zealand, and we’ve been supporting The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in Australia, which has been amazing. They’re a brilliant live band and are really nice guys as well.

SmSh: Have you heard any music coming out of China? Heard stories from any bands that have toured here before? What are your expectations?

MD: We have a Carsick Cars record, which I really like a lot, and we just started listening to Streets Kill Strange Animals, who we’re playing with in Beijing. They sound great, and we’re looking forward to seeing them live. On the whole, I get the sense that the U.S. is unfortunately not very exposed to Chinese rock. We heard from Psychic Ills that they had an amazing time touring in China. We don’t really know what to expect, but we are very excited to find out.

SmSh: What is your instrumentation? Is it all straight guitar + keyboard? How does your live setup differ from your studio vibe?

MD: We use guitar, keyboard, Moog bass, and a drum machine. On our recordings, we tend to develop multiple layers of guitar and keys — we have that luxury in a studio setting. I think our live sound is a little more raw and raucous. It’s just the two of us up there, and we try to make a lot of noise.

SmSh: Who did the cover art for Circles? It's really good…

MD: The cover is by a British comic book artist named Will Sweeney. We love it.

SmSh: China's the second to last destination on this tour, after that you hit Tokyo then go home. What's next?

MD: A little down time in April and May, then back on tour for June, July, August, and possibly part of September. We’ll mostly be in Europe. The road goes on and on…


Moon Duo play on Friday night at Arkham supported by the Yours and STDJs.


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