GEN F: Moon Duo

Photographer Ariel Zambelich
July 16, 2011

There is a lunar couple more famous than Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada of San Francisco’s Moon Duo. Phobos and Deimos (Greek for “panic” and “dread”), the bastard asteroid orbiters of Mars, were named after the mythological twin sons of a bare-teeth, animal-breath love affair between Ares, god of bloodlust, and Aphrodite, queen of sex. The low-gnarling hunger that bonded the gods and produced the twins and their sister Harmonia, reads no differently than the half-obsessive compulsive disorder, half stoned-blind feeling behind the particularly human practice of falling outside your brains in love.

“Making music is a compulsion, too,” Johnson explains. “I am constantly looking for a new sound that I love. In a way, it’s a search for myself.” Music and love have been equated with drug use a million times, and, although they’ve only been a band since 2009, so have Moon Duo. “People associate the disorienting phasing and tremolo of psych music with acid trips,” says Johnson, who, nearly a decade after his band Wooden Shjips sparked the most recent San Francisco space race, sounds plenty used to saying it. “But I’m more into meditation than drugs. We’re not a druggie band.” Vipassan, an insight-based Buddhist tradition, is Johnson’s technique of choice. He describes it almost exactly as he does his own music: as a tool intended to pierce the skin of everyday reality and open gateways to new sensation. But Moon Duo isn’t a meditation band or a Buddhist band any more than a druggie band. Moon Duo is a straight up love band.

After six years leading Wooden Shjips in their amorphous and phenomenally difficult charge, Johnson loses his job, recruits Yamada (an English teacher with no musical background) and starts playing pop songs. Next to all the Shjips’ droning and impenetrable noise, Moon Duo’s debut LP Escape is dance music. It sounds like it’s goddamned smiling! Johnson attributes the change to moving from a quartet to a duo, in effect removing two legs of a chair and attempting to go on sitting, but the double entendres persist. “When you have two people completely feeding off of each other, it's a different dynamic, especially live,” he explains. “You start to feel vibrations all over your body. Your temperature and your heart rate rise. And you can actually, physically feel the air being moved in the building.”

Neither Johnson nor Yamada confesses to any romance, but Moon Duo’s blistering night noise—like cranked Suicide tapes outgrowling desperate sex in the long, dank hallways of horny teenage house parties—reeks of new love’s ecstatic compromises. Johnson’s transformation on Escape has the unmistakable glow of Ares folding into Aphrodite, matching her rhythm and letting her perfume soften his stormy vision as she takes the reins. In the sound that comes out, panic, dread and harmony are indistinguishable siblings.

Stream: Moon Duo, Escape

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GEN F: Moon Duo