|Photography by Eleonora Collini|
Founded in 2009 as a side project of Wooden Shjips' Ripley Johnson with ex-school teacher Sanae Yamada, Californian psych outfit Moon Duo combine guitar, keyboards, Moog bass and a drum machine to produce a simple, yet massively hypnotic and effective sound.
Their third album Circles came out last year but these guys are still touring. I met them in a Tufnell Park pub before their London gig to discuss their music, inspirations, and love for the American West Coast.
Eleonora Collini: You recently got to play in some exotic places like China and Vietnam. How was the experience?
Ripley Johnson: It was very different. In Hanoi we played in a small club, so it was a really small show, but in China it was proper music venues.
Sanae Yamada: It was an amazing experience to travel to Asia and get to play where American bands usually don't. So it was fantastic to be able to be there and to meet the people that we met on the way. Especially Hanoi was really special as people there are very different. It was really memorable.
Eleonora: You released Circles Remixed for Record Store Day earlier this year. How did you get to choose the artists that remixed the original tracks?
Ripley: That was very easy. We just picked bands that we like and asked them, and I think we got almost every one we asked on this one.
Sanae: Yes we did. We were trying to have a sort of different flavour than Mazes Remixed which was pretty rock, so we asked bands that play a kind of keyboard-based, electronic music, hoping to have a different sound which we got, so we were very happy with the result.
Eleonora: What do you think of the current Psych Music scene and all these Psych Festivals?
Ripley: I don't know. The way I think about it is that "psych" doesn't necessarily mean one thing. It's such an inclusive term that it can really mean any genre. And I think in that sense all these festivals are really well curated, they are really interesting and can be fun as they are very inclusive. On the other end I think this is just a rock resurgence, as a lot of bands that are called psych, including us, are essentially doing rock 'n' roll. So I think there is a sort of resurgence of the interest in some instruments and that rock energy. At least that's my perception of the whole thing.
Eleonora: You seem to be moving around a lot. You are from San Francisco but you moved to Colorado's Rocky Mountains for a while, you got to spend a lot of time in Berlin and now you live in Portland. Out of all those places, which one do you feel that you belong to the most?
Ripley: We both lived in San Francisco the longest so that really stays with you. Colorado was just a temporary thing while we were working on the last album and that was an amazing experience. And Portland, I think we may stay there for a while but the thing is still pretty new. So when people ask us where we are from we still say from San Francisco as that's where we spent the most time even if we are not there anymore.
Sanae: Yeah, we were on a sort of exile economically from San Francisco. We both had full time jobs, and it was fine working and living there, but as soon as we decided to make music we just had to make that work and we thought of a lot of places, like Miami or Detroit…we were looking at very depressed cities in the United States, but ultimately we just wanted to be back in the West Coast. So we were considering Seattle or Los Angeles as well. I don't know, there is just something about the West Coast that makes us feel at home.
Eleonora : What inspires you more: cities or wild nature?
Ripley: Just everything. Probably cities more. In nature you are more with your own mind, whereas in cities there are distractions, and of course you constantly react to things in the city, which is very interesting. In nature we found that it was almost hard to make noise. Up in the mountains in Colorado where we were it was so quiet that we almost didn't want to disturb it. There is so much going on in your head when you are in such silence, and that's an expression as well.
Eleonora: I mainly asked you that because I know you called your last album after an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right?
Ripley: Yeah that's true but I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that (laughs). It was a book I was reading at the time, so some of the ideas clicked with me and I just agree with a lot of things he said. But that kinda made sense at that time as we were living in the mountains. It's like when you go live on a pond and you are reading Thoreau… it all makes sense as you are on a pond and he's talking about nature, and you feel sort of immerged in that.
Eleonora: How difficult do you find to transpose your songs' instrumentation from the record to the stage?
Sanae: We don't usually worry too much about trying to sound like the record. I like it when you go see a band live and it's a different experience than listening to their records. So when we play a song on tour we just don't think about how to make it sound like the record, but more about how to make it sound in a live situation, how to interact with the crowd and make it more interesting and dynamic.
Eleonora: Do you ever write songs thinking about playing them live already?
Ripley: No I just write songs how they come to my head, then we deal with how to play them live later. Some songs we don't even play them live as somehow it just doesn't feel right. Whereas some others almost ask to be played live and they just sound better on stage. So when I write for an album, the idea of playing live is still far down the road, it's such a long process that's not really in my mind yet.
Sanae: The process of making a record allows you to make things you can't do live. When I write the keyboards parts I just have lots of freedom creating layers in a way that's not possible to do live. So when we play live it's just a balancing process.
Eleonora: British comic book artist Will Sweeney did the Circles cover art. How important is an album artwork for you?
Ripley: It's important but obviously not as important as the music. Sometimes we just make a record and the artwork idea is already there, but sometimes we really have no idea or we have an idea that then simply doesn't work. So for instance for the last album we just had an initial idea of making something black and white, very minimal, sort of dark waves, but then it just didn't really fit the music at all, as we were writing a record that had a sort of optimistic sound to it. So we were really struggling to find an idea that could match the music, but then we were very lucky as when we asked Will to do the artwork he did something totally amazing which perfectly fit the music. We couldn't haven been any happier. But it was just a last minute thing, like a week before the deadline.
Sanae: Yeah I agree that the artwork doesn't matter as much as the music, but when you have that experience like we had with Will's artwork, and you just look at it and think 'wow this is just perfect', it's such a great moment, when the artwork fits the music even better that you can imagine.
Eleonora: Ripley, how is your relationship with Sacred Bones in comparison with the other labels Wooden Shjips have worked with?
Ripley: We have been very lucky to work with some cool labels. We absolutely love Sacred Bones. The guys that run the label are just the sweetest people ever. They are essentially music fans, they really care about every small detail, and they are very serious and supportive. So we are just happy that when we write a new record they still want to work with us, and the fact that they like it is great so that we can keep working together. As for the Wooden Shjips labels we can just say the same about Thrill Jockey. We worked with Holy Mountain in the past and that was great. Every label has sort of their own thing that they bring to the table, but we try to work with people who really care about the music. Beyond that you also want someone that really runs the business and has a certain transparency in doing that. The business side of our job is almost something I don't want to talk about, as I just don't care, I only want to make the music. So yes, we have been very lucky.
Eleonora: Still talking about Wooden Shjips, I read somewhere that you are working on a new album. Can you tell us a bit more?
Ripley: Yeah that album is done. So far it has actually worked very well as we just put out a record, then we tour, and when we get burnt out we just go home. Then I start thinking about Wooden Shjips and working on something new with those guys. So we did the new album in winter, we recorded it in spring and it will probably come out in the fall, and then we will tour to support that. Wooden Shjips don't get to tour as much as Moon Duo do because of our day jobs and family commitments.
Eleonora: Sanae, you used to be a school teacher. What were you teaching and do you ever miss that?
Sanae: I was teaching literature to 13 and 14 year old kids. In a way I miss working with them because they were lots of fun. When you work with kids you just get attached to them because they are amazing people, they are interesting to observe as they are very chaotic at that stage of their lives. So I just miss the human side of that job. But I definitely don't miss all the extra work that's not actually teaching. I would never do it any differently from what I have done.
Eleonora: If you became very rich and could afford anything what would you buy or do?
Ripley: I would probably buy my Mom an apartment. I would definitely help my family. But we are pretty happy. The thing about money is that when people get a lot of it, they start ruining themselves. Things like winning the lottery totally destroy people. What people should want is just security, you just want to be able to do whatever you have always dreamed about doing without worrying about being homeless. So I am really not sure if I would want lots of money.
Sanae: Yeah we don't need that much. Maybe we would probably indulge and buy a flat in Berlin (laughs).
Originally published on The 405
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