Ripley Johnson of Moon Duo on the move to Colorado and the duo's tapestry of sound
Erik "Ripley" Johnson first came to prominence in the rock underground with his San Francisco-based band, the Wooden Shjips. That project's hypnotically dark, droning psychedelia became a favorite of fans and critics alike. In 2009, Johnson teamed up with Sanae Yamada to form Moon Duo (due at The Hi-Dive on April 16). Rather than the gritty, Chrome and Spacemen 3-esque sound of Wooden Shjips, Moon Duo often seems to explore a poppier, more meditative side. Its recently released Mazes finds the duo creating what might be described as space rock for people as into the primitive sonic mayhem of the Seeds and the boiling harmonics of Silver Apples as Spiritualized's twisting, warping melodies.
Photo courtesy of the Agency Group. Moon Duo
The key to Moon Duo's music is how Johnson and Yamada work within the limitations of their numbers and the equipment on hand, making the minimal seem maximal. Johnson and Yamada recently moved to Colorado from San Francisco, and we had a chance to talk with Johnson about that move, his songwriting and the equipment used to do it, as well as some misconceptions of the roots of the band's music.
Westword: What prompted your move to Colorado -- and what part of the state did you move to?
Ripley Johnson: We moved to Blue River, which is up near Breckenridge. We moved because we spend most of the year on the road, and we needed to get out of the city because it was just too expensive in San Francisco. And we were just looking for a change of pace as well.
Sanae had spent time in Colorado and she knew the area, and I'd been there a few times. We just really like it up there, and we wanted to live somewhere rural. We had a bunch of different things we thought of doing, and they were all kind of extreme. One of them was, we thought about moving to Detroit, or somewhere like that, and buying a house for a thousand dollars. But we ended up going the rural route, and we really liked the idea of being up in the mountains. We travel so much that when we're home, it's nice to be somewhere where it's mellow.
Whenever anyone writes about your band, they bring up the Velvet Underground, Suicide and The Silver Apples, as they should. But your sound is also reminiscent of '60s psychedelic garage rock like Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators and the Music Machine. Was any of that music inspirational to you and if so, how so?
Some of it, certainly. We have so many influences it's hard to narrow it down, but definitely the Seeds. Link Wray, 13th Floor Elevators...I think that's it as far as garage-y stuff. I'm a big Seeds fan, I think all their albums are brilliant. There's certainly some element of that influence. The really repetitive songs. They had some great songs that were just two chords and lots of organ.
Do you sample drums and beats for your live shows? What do you use to capture those beats and then trigger them at the right time?
We use a Roland sampler. SP-404SX, I think. We recorded live drums directly into that device. Then we used that to build the beats for the recordings. Then we take the beats out of the recordings and put them back into the sampler for the live shows. We have mostly programmed drums. Part of the idea of the band was to be as compact as possible. We're just two people and we drive around in our own car. We don't need a van. Things like that to make things economical.
Do you still use a Memory Man in your effects rig, and why that particular delay rather than others?
I actually started out with an Echoplex. That's what I really fell in love with -- that sound. Mine was a mid-'70s unit, and it was really fragile, and it would break and be really unreliable. It's also really big and heavy to carry around. I also tried a Real Echo -- Danelectro made it, I think -- it looked like a tape echo and even had a slider. It didn't sound great for guitar, and I tried the Memory Man next and was going for that analog sound. The new ones I'm not as big a fan of because they changed the knobs. The old ones had these giant knobs that you can play with your feet a little bit. I like it for that reason, because I can adjust with my foot and still play guitar -- which I do a lot of.
Your new album is called Mazes, and you recorded it in Berlin. Why record there, and what is the significance of the title?
We actually recorded most of the record in San Francisco, and we mixed it, and we just weren't happy with all the elements of it. Our tour manager lives in Berlin, so we spent some time there. And we knew these Finnish guys who had a studio there, and we talked to them about it and they said, "Come on over, we'll be happy to work with you on it." They had access to this old Nieve board. It's an amazing board, and I'm not a huge recording geek, but it's just a beautiful old board. We got to do some work on that, and it was at this amazing studio in Berlin that doesn't actually rent out studio time except to these guys, because they befriended the guy that owns the studio. We revamped some things. It was more like sonic upgrades and re-doing the mixings. We recorded one of the songs there in its entirety.
As far as Berlin itself, our tour manager runs a club there as well. He's in the music scene, and he knows everyone in town, so when we're there, it's just amazing. We get to go around to whatever shows we want to go to -- he gets on guest lists for everything. There's a really cool scene there. There's not as much for rock music going on, but as far as art and club stuff, it's pretty amazing. People from all over the world live there. It's really cheap, and for Europeans, it's easy for them to work, because they can cross borders and get jobs without having to have work visas.
What's that club your tour manager runs?
It's called West Germany. It's actually not a legal club. It's an underground art space, I guess. For bands like us -- we're playing there in April -- who are not packing huge professional clubs in Europe. Bands like Ariel Pink. A lot of American touring bands end up playing there, even though it's not an official space. But because it's Berlin, there's lots of venues like that, that are semi-legal or totally underground. Really cool spaces.