Interview // Moon Duo

© Antonio Curcetti

Moon Duo are back with Occult Architecture, an album separated in two volumes, one representing yin and the other yang. Clever mix between krautrock and 80s synth, the two parts of the album are trip going from darkness to light, from day to night. We got to meet Sanae Yamada and Ripley Johnson just before their show in Paris to learn more about these two groovy astronauts.

Manifesto XXI – Your last album, Occult Architecture, is divided into two separate entities. What was the concept behind that decision ?

Ripley : We didn’t want to initially, it just happened. Usually when we have a lot of material, some songs don’t make it on the record or come out as singles. With this one, as we were recording, the songs started dividing themselves between stuff that was darker and stuff which had a lighter feel. We decided to accentuate that and focus on a dark record and a light record and release them separately. We didn’t want to do a double album because it’s too much material for people to digest at once. We’d rather they have some space to exist on their own.

Did you create both records at the same time ?

Ripley : We recorded everything at the same time and we mixed them separately in two different places during different seasons so they would have a different feel.

Sanae : We also weren’t sure. We had a lot of material and it was just a matter of figuring out which songs would fit which album.

On the first album you managed to create something quite new by mixing psych rock riffs with post-punk and new wave sounds. It’s especially striking on the song « Cold Fear ».

Sanae : I wasn’t thinking about post-punk specifically but I changed up all my gear so with all the keyboard parts on this album, I wanted to go with a cheap-like feel. I really wanted that hybrid between the human sound of the guitar and electronics. I think that synthesizers have an amazing range of character. You can take them from being incredibly sinister to being really ethereal. That’s definitely something I worked on.

I could tell the synthesizers really shined on this last album, making the songs live rather than living in them.

Sanae : It’s nice to hear ! I was inspired by the sound and vibe, working exclusively with synths. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and tapped into things that I’ve been wanting to express.

Ripley : We talked about it when we were making the record. We agreed that we would feature that more because Sanae got this new gear and it was all about exploration. You’re not an expert yet, it’s the fresh moment. She was so excited by these synthesizers we thought we’d make that a huge focus.

On songs like « Will of the Devil » there’s a huge 80s sound and I was wondering if you used a rythm machine or an actual drumset.

Ripley : On our early records we used drum machines and samples but tried to make them sound more analog and humanize them. Now we use an actual drummer and make him sound like a drum machine. It’s a mix. We’ve been playing with our drummer for three years live. We kind of use him like a drum machine, we have him record a bunch of stuff and then we use different parts. There’s still a human feel to it.

At the time you started putting out music, there were a lot of other bands in the Bay area like The Wooden Shijps or the Lumerians who were geared towards the same sound. Did you inspire one another ?

Ripley : I play in Wooden Shijps as well. (laugh) It’s funny you made the connection without knowing. We lived in San Francisco for a long time but now we’re in Portland. When we started, we were influenced by all the different bands playing around us, there was a really good scene back then. I think cool stuff is happening in Oakland right now, especially because it’s cheaper.

You mixed your first volume in Berlin and the second one in Portland. Is the location important to translate the vibe of each album ?

Sanae : That is definitely part of the idea. We mixed the records in two different places to give them two different feelings. Where you are, what time of year it is and what’s happening definitely always bleeds in to whatever you’re doing with music. Being in Berlin when it was still a bit chilly, still a bit grey and then being in Portland in August when it was blazing hot and sunny really made the two volumes independent.

You’re both interested in occult literature. How did it impact your writing process, your sound and your life in general ?

Ripley : I think whatever we’re reading when we’re making a record always has an impact. The occult and the darkness start feeding into the imagery and the lyrics.

Do you follow the sayings of Crowley ?

Ripley : Oh no. (laugh) I think he’s kind of funny, kind of a jerk actually. That stuff is interesting, paganism, wiccanism. We always buy the Witche’s Almanac every season. It has awesome astrology stuff and spices. But we don’t take any of it too seriously although it’s an important part of human history. It’s things that exist outside of traditional religion which is where societies are trying to control people. Then you have these secret societies and occult things where people realize that maybe the religion they’re seeing doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t actually explain anything. They’re trying to come up with some kind of order for these fantastical things that you see in everyday nature. The rituals, the art that comes from it and the connexion with nature are all very inspiring.

Sanae : I think the idea of the occult is always this pursuit of the unseen things. It’s not unlike science or at least what science used to be before being this really specific body of thinking. Both were quite intwined because they both were about discovering nature reality. It’s a constant search, we’ll never know it all.

Your last music videos are poetic little animated movies. What was the idea behind those ?

Sanae : We had a general idea of the concept of a storyline where it was like a journey that continued over two videos to go with the two albums. What we really wanted was to find an animator who was into what he was doing and give him creative freedom. The guy who made the video was someone who wrote to us and sent a few clips. It was perfect timing and we loved the work that he sent us. We handed the project to him and he did an amazing job.

Ripley : It’s a tough thing to come up with a good and relevant video. You don’t want to be too literal and it’s expensive. It was a coincidence that we were thinking about an animated video and found this guy who isn’t a professional animator but did so well. We were really lucky !

The album cover arts are also responding to one another with a similar landscape but different moods and colors.

Sanae : The artist is called Jay Shaw, he also did our last record cover. He is fantastic, he does a lot of stuff for cinema, movie posters for re-releases of old 70s sci-fi movies. He’s got an amazing sci-fi aesthetic. When we came across his work, it felt really well-suited for us and our music.

Ripley : We just found imagery that we liked and sent it to him. We also sent him keywords and descriptions of things. Then we let him come up with his own ideas.

What kind of movies were you into during this last album ?

Sanae : We love sci-fi !

Ripley : We watch everything, we’re big film fans. I think for this record, and even for the last one, we were really into dystopian sci-fi, that’s a favorite genre of ours. Any crumbling technology and future doom themes. It feels relevant ! Even old dystopian sci-fi books from Phillip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard. It feels like they were writing about what’s happening now which is that technology isn’t this bright shiny solution, it’s something that comes along and is disposable, it crumbles and tears things apart in a way.

Sanae : I like stuff that explores how human nature is always there. There are all these thoughts about what great things technology can do like « the pure form of this and the pure form of that » but there’s always this human element which makes it tangled and complicated.

I remember hearing about your band when I was listening to a Kurt Vile song mentioning you guys. The lyric went « With the Moon Duo / Space partners ». How did you end up in his song ?

Sanae : We got to know Kurt and the Violators just by crossing paths with them over the years, playing different shows and festivals together. That’s how we got to be buddies. He said that the song was referring to that one time we saw them in Finland. We were playing a festival and our dressing room was this 70s tour bus that was parked outside the venue. So we told the guys « Hey, you have to come and hang out in our tour bus ! ».

Ripley : It was a really incredible bus ! It was vintage inside and they had cut the end off so it was like a balcony. Kurt and his band were stuck inside this really sterile building with boring square rooms. We invited them to come because we had no crew, we were lonely in this really awesome bus !

Sanae : So we were all drinking Club Mate in this 70s tour bus.

Ripley : And beer. But yeah, we partied a lot with those guys. They’re great, super nice. We played Philly a lot so we know a lot of people who are friends with those guys. There’s a really great music scene over there. But concerning the song, we were very honored ! It’s also a great song !

To conclude, do you have any insight on what the future will hold for Moon Duo ?

Sanae : This year will be a lot of touring. We put a lot into these last two records so we’ll see what comes next.

Ripley : You always work so long on a record, it comes out six months later and then you tour for about a year and at some point your creative juices get recharged and you start writing new stuff. Whenever the seasons change, there’s this magical moment where it messes with your head in a weird way. It’s a very fertile period creatively.


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