Though they've since relocated to Portland, Moon Duo's Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada recorded the bulk of their pummeling new Circles LP in Blue River, Colorado, a tiny mountain town where they holed up last winter to catch a break between tours. We asked them to make us a mix of some of the "weird psych stuff" that laid the groundwork for their rusty, repetition-based sound. Download below, followed by an interview, in which the pair open up about taking a raincheck from civilization, and how their album is much more the product of peaceful introspection than its rock 'n' roll veneer would lead you to believe.
Download: Moon Duo's FADER Mix
Let’s start with the title of the new album, Circles. How did you come up with that name? JOHNSON: This sounds really pretentious the more I talk about it, but the title came from the Ralph Waldo Emerson essay [of the same name]. That was the inspiration. At the time, I was in Colorado, and Sanae was on a meditation retreat, and I had ten days just by myself in the mountains, and I was reading this essay, and I think it came from a Roberto Bolaño short story. I think it was a novella or something of his, and I think there was a quote in this essay. So that’s what got me into reading it, and it just sorta synced up with what was going on in my head at the time, and sorta crept a little bit into the songs. It’s sorta like a Buddhist essay, but coming from an American transcendentalist in the 1800s, which is unusual.
Can you summarize the point it was making? YAMADA: I think it’s about the idea that all of existence is of the same fabric. And that it’s sort of infinite in an inward direction and an outward direction. JOHNSON: And that there are these patterns throughout nature and these cycles that you might not notice on a day to day basis, but if you really look, they sort of pervade all of nature, to infinity. A season, a cell, the universe, orbits, everything. YAMADA: A life cycle, where everything is a constant state of cycling through. Coming into being and passing out of being. JOHNSON: We go out on tour for two, three months, and then we come home and then we don’t do nothing, but we stop moving. We’re writing the record and then recording it and then promoting and touring. It becomes this pattern. And we know that when this tour’s over, we’re gonna go back to the beginning again. It becomes kinda predictable and strange. It think it’s true of everyone. That’s why I think we have rituals and things to mark time. In one sense, it keeps us sane, and in another sense it maybe can drive you crazy.
What kind of meditation do you practice? YAMADA: It’s called Vipassana. It’s a non-religious meditation. You don’t speak or interact with anyone for ten days, which is a pretty intense experience because being up in the mountains, the stuff in your head gets loud. It’s really amazing to watch how your brain reacts to the this cutoff of all the usual stimulants. So the general idea of the meditation is to observe all the sensations in your body and watch things come up and exist for a while. It’s interesting what happens with your senses over that time, because I feel I start seeing things really vividly—just the colors and the shapes of things seem enhanced. You’re always in a remote location, and there is very little sound, and you’re not speaking, and nobody else is speaking. I feel like start hearing things that I don’t pay attention to normally.
Would you say that your interest in the meditation experience carries over to your songs? YAMADA: I’m really into repetition in music. I think there’s something very primal about it. JOHNSON: I’m the same, but I don’t think about it in a spiritual way or a philosophical way. I mean, there was some point that I realized that that was what I loved about certain music. When I started Wooden Shjips, I laid out an action plan—specific rules for the music. I just went through this process of trying to distill what it was I liked about these various things. That was one of them: repetition and simplicity and primal rhythms and certain things like that. I had a manifesto, a really short one. Might be in a box somewhere, but it was really basic. No more than two chords. It was really kind of silly, but it was kind of helpful in putting the band together and getting people on board and saying, ‘This is something we’re never gonna do.’ YAMADA: I think it’s good though to give yourself parameters within which to experiment. To say, ‘This is what we’re gonna work with, and let’s see where we can go with it.’ It's always interesting because it’s unexpected, the results.
You guys seem like very peaceful people, but your music has this dark edge to it. Do you feel that dichotomy? JOHNSON: No. I mean, I guess with the process of playing music you’re excising all of these things. You’re purging yourself, to a certain degree. Hopefully there’s some meaning there. You’re trying to get something out; you’re trying to communicate something even if it’s not something you can put your finger on. I like jazz a lot, and I like when I hear a John Coltrane solo or anything, they’re not telling me something they’re just saying [attempts to annunciate a Coltrane solo]. I just feel like wordless music can project things that are beyond words. It’s an in-between thing. It’s not something that’s interpreted one way or another way; everyone receives it in a different way. YAMADA: It’s like non-linguistic communication.
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