The psychedelic trance-rock pair come from the same planet as Wooden Shjips but strip down to necessities. Photo by Aylin Gungor, text by Shaun Mulrooney.
In 2009, San Francisco-based singer and guitarist Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips teamed up with partner and then-school teacher Sanae Yamada to form a trance-rock two-piece with minimal gear requirements and maximum DIY touring capacity. One EP and two LPs later, Moon Duo’s sound has evolved into a master class of how much more less can be. The band’s repetitive drum patterns, hypnotic organ/synth lines and bursts of fuzzy, halled-out guitar riffage function as discrete parts of a single engine, driven by the elegant simplicity of Johnson’s songwriting.
And while they’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls of over-identification with any specific genre (self-imposed or otherwise), Moon Duo still proudly wear their influences on their proverbial sleeves; from the pulsing rhythms of Martin Rev and Klaus Dinger to the rock and roll heart of bubble-gum pop and the Velvet Underground. Their most recent release, 2012’s Circles, was recorded in psychedelic pseclusion in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where Johnson and Yamada honed their trusty formula of stretching catchy, three-minute radio zingers into ultra-stoned, ten-minute searches for truth. Lucky for us they’ve managed to grab the torch from the hoary old bands of yester-millennia—even thought they’re far too modest to admit it.
Where are you guys right now?
Sanae Yamada: We’re in sunny Florida by the pool.
Jealous. I thought you guys were in Portland?
Ripley Johnson: Yeah, but we’re visiting family now, mostly Sanae’s, but my mom is here too. Portland is where young people go to retire.
RJ: We actually came to Berlin thinking we could live here. We wanted a place where we didn’t have to make a lot of money to live. We looked at Detroit, Miami, Berlin and Portland. And we ended up in Portland. People talk about Detroit like it’s going to be the next Berlin, but it’s not that advanced yet. Portland is there, already established. There’s a good music scene and food scene and all that. There’s cheaper real estate than anywhere on the West Coast. That said, in Detroit you can buy a house for $2000. It won’t have plumbing, but you can do it.
SY: The cool thing about Detroit is that it’s just so wild. Such vast areas of the city are abandoned and if you have a notion to create a massive sculpture garden in some abandoned lot, nobody’s going to stop you. You can kind of do whatever you want. Which was the appeal for us in the first place. But the downside is that we travel so much, so any place we’re living would be extremely vulnerable to petty crime, which is rampant there. Portland has creative opportunities but more stability.
I don’t think you guys are Berliners.
RJ: No, I’m a morning person, so socializing late nights is tough. There’s too much partying and we could never get our gear over there. Americans have lots of stuff, so we’d need a big place for it.
So you’ve had quite a tour so far, huh?
RJ: Last year we did three weeks in the States, then a month in Europe and then a few weeks on the West Coast. We’ve just gotten back from China, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Japan.
Was this your first time going to Asia?
RJ: Yeah, but we knew it would be amazing. When we played Bristol there was a guy from China who was texting his friend in Beijing asking him about about the Psychic Ills show. His friend told him there were, like, 500 heads at the show, which is amazing, because I know they’d never been over there either. He said the scene is really happening there right now, and he’s right.
The market is opening up. Well, you’re lucky you’re a two-piece. All you guys have is a drum machine, a couple of amps, a guitar. It’s not like you need a big bus, right?
SY: That’s the whole point of our thing: to be able to fit everything in a car.
Ripley, funnily enough, I was turned on to your music by a guy who did sound for Wooden Shjips a few years ago at West Germany here in Berlin. From what I remember, he said there were only, like, 20 people at your show. Now, you’re selling out venues left and right with both Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo. How did that happen in such a short time?
RJ: That’s a good question. I don’t think it was 20 back then. But anyhow, I remember that the show was really good and attendance has ramped up. It’s one of those things you don’t have any control over. As a musician you have control over your songs, hopefully over the recording process, over the mixing and mastering. But when it comes to touring, you show up at the venue and just hope that people are there. It’s like throwing a party. You just have to have hope—and make sure that Thee Oh Sees aren’t playing the same night around the corner. And in Berlin there’s always so much going on, so we’re just praying.
Yeah, Berlin is pretty saturated and there’s a lot of competition.
RJ: I tend to tune out everything that doesn’t have to do with music. We have a manager now, which has changed a lot. For the album’s release, we relied almost entirely on the record label. Probably too much. And we rely on booking agents. You have to trust people to a certain degree. Because with the business side I really can’t be bothered. I don’t look at statement sheets, I don’t think about money stuff. It’s too distracting.
The best bands are almost always the ones who can focus exclusively on their art. Otherwise you become like Mick Jagger. I caught three of your shows in Germany recently and each time I found myself increasingly drawn in to this special kind of hypno-groove you create. I could see that everybody around me was hypnotized too. Do you feel entranced when the crowd is? How do those energies feed off each other?
SY: Personally, I try not to think too much about the crowd when we’re playing because it distracts me and makes me self-conscious. But I do think there is, for lack of a better word, an energy that comes from a crowd. And when people are into it, you perceive it. It helps. And it snowballs. It becomes a reciprocal thing.
Do you need people there to be into it? Or would you just be goofing off to your music anyway?
RJ: A lot of crowds don’t want to give away too much. They just want to play it cool. And I go to plenty of shows myself and I’m not necessarily jumping around, even if I really like the music. And I know that going in to playing our shows. But when you’re playing trance-y kind of music, you’re not going to get people flipping out every night. So we just try to do our thing. If it’s a really bad crowd and you want them to move or do something and they’re just not at all, then I get energy from that too. You just think, “Fuck it.” You make more feedback; it gets louder, a little bit more aggressive. You want to feel like the crowd’s on your side, like they’re moving with you. And sometimes you don’t feel that. I feel a disconnect every other show. But maybe it’s because I’m not such a sociable person. I play tricks with myself trying to get into a space where I can feel free. Maybe it’s imagining things or thinking about things. For me it’s always about the concept of “No Mind”. I play a lot of improvisational stuff and I need to get lost. I don’t want to overthink things. That’s why I try not to pay attention to the audience: because if they’re not doing what I want them to, it’s going to bum me out.
SY: Provocation. There’s nothing wrong with provocation.
It would be different if you were, say, Nick Cave or Sonic Youth because they’re very engaging and interact with the crowd. You guys use visuals instead. But I don’t even have to watch. I just have to let go.
SY: The visuals are important for us. Our concerts should be multisensory. And we’re not super extroverted, so it’s nice people can focus on other things.
The name Moon Duo is great both graphically and in terms of the images it conjures up.
RJ: Well, the “Duo” part was us really planting a flag, you know? It always surprises me when people ask us at venues how many people are in our band, how many musicians we are on stage. I’m always like, “Uh, two.” The “Moon” part comes from the idea of twin moons, this cosmic sci-fi imagery. There’s also something about the moon that’s part of every culture.
According to David Ike, the human race and the human mind are being controlled by reptile overlords living on the moon. Is there any truth in that?
RJ: Um, I doubt it.
Could Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth be part of this larger masonry family?
SY: Anything’s possible.
RJ: We’re true agnostics. We’re open to anything. But I don’t think we’re part of it. But who knows? Maybe we’ll be invited to play a lizard ball on the moon.
David Ike is a fascinating madman conspiracy theorist from the UK. After being a football commentator for years he went on a TV show and claimed he was the son of Godhead, whatever that means. He’s as wacky as a scientologist, but sometimes what he says makes sense. Like the stuff about the elite few controlling the world. But I supposed that’s another conversation.
SY: Maybe it’s just a metaphor…
How comfortably can you live from what you do? When did you quit your day jobs and what were you doing before being full-time musicians?
SY: Some times are tighter than others, but we get by pretty comfortably at the moment. I have no complaints. Ripley worked in the tech industry until 2008. I was a schoolteacher until 2010.
What was the last new thing you heard that you got excited?
RJ: We just picked up Kurt Vile’s latest record and I think it’s great. He’s cultivating his own sound. His records manage to be classic and fresh at the same time, which is very hard to do.
Maybe. Do you guys pick your support bands?
SY: When we were in Germany we really wanted to play with Camera! because we’d seen their videos. Sometimes it’s nice not knowing who the support is and then you get really positively surprised by a great local band. I try to always see the support band. It’s important to me.
RJ: We like touring with another band and seeing the same people every night, especially if they’re good and they inspire you to play together and you feed off each other. So, yeah, we love doing that.
I know Ripley is usually emailing while the opening band is on, but that’s another story. Do you have a formula for writing your songs? Do you work with explicit restrictions?
RJ: Not really. The restriction is the band itself. We play with repetitive beats because we don’t want complex backing tracks. It’s just a sampler playing basic beats. Rhythmically it’s very minimal and repetitive. We just think about how much noise we can actually make with two people and how we make it work. That said, we’re thinking about trying out a drummer, though less can be more. We wrote the last album Circles in, like, ten days.
Circles was also recorded in isolation in the Rocky Mountains and is named it after a quote by one of philosophy’s most famous hermits, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Why was it important to work in seclusion?
RJ: We were based in Colorado for a couple years, in a house that was tucked away in the woods up in the mountains. We worked on the record at home, so the seclusion was just a serendipitous byproduct of where we were living. It was a wonderful environment to work in—there were no distractions, and the natural splendor of the area was very meditative. Emerson’s prizing of the natural world was definitely something we could relate to.
You write the songs together?
RJ: No, I write the songs and then I show Sanae and let her come up with the keyboard parts. Usually I write on guitar and program the beats too and then hand it off. But that process is very quick. We don’t want to belabor the point. Whatever your first idea is, that’s probably your best one anyway.
SY: This is the first record I’ve ever sung anything. But it’s fun.
Ripley, you look not dissimilar to the second coolest man in rock and roll. Can you guess who that is?
RJ: Is it Warren Ellis?
Yes. If you had a suit jacket you would be him. You just wear t-shirts. Somebody told me you were thinking about shaving off your beard, but I think that would be the end of your career, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
RJ: Maybe I’ll start a country career. Just a moustache then.~
Published May 12, 2013. Words by Shaun Mulrooney.