Brendon Moeller on being a DJ: "If we want to call ourselves musicians, we have to step up."
Brendon Moeller was born in South Africa but moved to New York after reading about all the great early wave of electronic music artists that emerged out of the late '80s industrial, experimental electronic and house music worlds. Moeller's natural curiosity and drive has lead him to exploring a plethora of electronic music styles.
While he has most often been associated with dub techno, Moeller's career and palette is much broader; there isn't much that the prolific musician hasn't tried in his chosen field of making music. We recently had a chance to speak with the affable and articulate Moeller about his own path to creating a diverse body of work, why he now uses all hardware live and why he has tried so many styles of music.
Westword: You were in a band when you were a teenager. What kind of band was it?
Brendon Moeller: It was when I was in college that I got around to playing the instrument I wanted to, which was the drums. The first band I was in, we were very much influenced by, I guess, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth -- the noisier end of rock. We did some noisy cover versions of Neil Young and Byrds songs. It was fun, and it was with a good group of friends, but it was also at a time when we were all young and more interested in chasing ladies than going to band practice and being disciplined.
After three years, it kind of fell apart. The band was called Honeyslide. We got the name from a Neil Young interview, and he was asked how he recorded the album On the Beach, and he said, at the time, he was spending a lot time in the desert doing "honeyslide," and honeyslide is basically a diet consisting of marijuana and honey fried in a pan over a fire.
Why did you want to play drums initially?
I guess, from the very get-go, with music, I was attracted to rhythm, groove and beat, more than anything. My parents had three kids, and lived in a small house, and a set of drums just wasn't going to work for anybody. So they sent me to piano lessons and trumpet lessons, which I did for a number of years, but I finally kind of gave up because it wasn't really where my head was at.
Also the lessons I was getting were far away from the music that was really inspiring me. The piano lessons were more about a woman trying to teach me was classical music, and all I wanted to play was Billy Joel, or Elton John, or whatever shit was on the radio. So it sort of killed my initial passion. In retrospect, I wish I was disciplined enough to stick with it because it would be great to have those skills now. But when you're a kid you get restless and bored very quickly.
Kahn Morbee from a South African band called The Parlotones said it was kind of challenging being in a band because if you wanted to be in anything beyond a small, local level every major city was relatively far apart, and you kind of had to bring your own sound system and so forth to wherever you are playing. Did you find that to be the case?
Absolutely. It was why I left South Africa. Once I got a taste of being in a band and playing music and felt compelled to take it all the way, it was difficult to get people on board because the scene there was so small and fragmented, and there was very little money to make a career from it.
So it was definitely problematic, unless you decide you're going to go for pop or traditional roots. It's something we do for fun over there because there's not enough. And it's a very small country that's sort of closed off and isolated. The distance wouldn't have been a problem. I would have happily got in a van and traveling around, but when you get only nine or ten people at the gig, it's a losing proposition.
I can't really speak for what it's like now. I know things have opened up a lot more. But I think it also depends on the kind of music. I'm hoping to get there next year and do some shows, and see if there's any potential. It's a great fucking country, and the beaches and the weather are just [amazing].
My roots are there, and it's something I've never really thought about, but I realize now at age 45 that my roots do have some pull, and they pull me back there. I definitely feel at home here, mainly because I now have a wife and kids. Roots are roots. You probably have a similar thing where you grew up.
You got into Acid House or trance or ambient in the late '80s or the early '90s?
How did you become aware of that sort of thing and become involved with it before moving to the States?
The good thing about Johannesburg is that, at the time, in the late '80s and early '90s, there were some great record stores, and you were able to get newspapers and magazines, like NME, Melody Maker, Q et cetera, and my lack of interest in college and high school was basically where I threw myself into reading those religiously every week.
So I was able to read up on all these scenes like Acid House and what was going in Manchester with the baggy scene.
Then The Orb and Aphex Twin started arriving on the scene, and those are what really inspired me. I was a huge fan of hip-hop as well. I had access to all of that music, thankfully, and stuff I didn't have access to, I would end up writing to bands in the U.S., and they were all so grateful and happy to send me packages of vinyl and t-shirts. That's one way in which I didn't feel isolated in the fact that the music was there and you could get a hold of it.
Oddly enough, the Orb is playing in Denver on Saturday.
Oh yes, I am going to miss them. I'll be missing them in Denver, as well, because I'm playing Friday and heading off to Vancouver for Saturday. I'm kind of bummed because I was hoping to spend some more time in Denver because I've heard great things about it. I'm only going to be there one day, but I hope I can make it back to spend some more time. I'm having the time of my life in upstate New York and enjoy the wide-open spaces and no longer does it matter to me that I have to see this or that.
When you first started getting into making electronic music, what gear did you use? Presumably you researched it a bit and talked to people about what might suit what you wanted to do.
I did a little research, and talked to people here and there, and I knew that I needed a drum machine, a sampler, a synthesizer and a four-track. I think the first purchase I made was a Roland R-8 drum machine; I got a Roland JV-90 keyboard. I got a Tascam pretty standard four-track. My first sampler was an Ensoniq Mirage. And I got some effects like Lexicon reverbs and stuff.
But I realized going into it it was going to be sort of a trial and error thing because I had no idea where I wanted to go or wanted to do. I kind of went into it knowing I would be trading things back and forth. It made it easy to do that in New York because there are so many music stores.
Even now, you can do that with eBay and try things out for a couple of weeks and if they're not something you want you can sell them without losing too much, just the postage really. It's great because you can ask and do research but there's nothing like having the gear and trying it yourself.
As you were exploring what you wanted to do and the direction that interested you, you mentioned The Orb and Aphex Twin, was there anyone else you were getting to see at the time, especially in New York, that impacted what you would end up doing?
Yeah, when I got to New York, I immediately began going to a ton of shows because obviously in Johannesburg, as you know, most bands pretty much refused to play there, and rightly so. So I took full advantage, and I caught The Orb and Aphex Twin, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays and Ministry and Slayer and Helmet, Dinosaur Jr and John Spencer.
The first demos I actually recorded were kind of pop songs with singing, and I was doing guitar samples and stuff, and I really thought I was going to go the Primal Scream route. Then one day, somebody called me, a friend, and said, "Let's go down to Sound Factory Bar, Junior Vasquez is playing there. I went down and went in and someone slipped me a hit of ecstasy and next thing I know I'm back home trying to make house beats.
It's kind of a strange thing that the impact of hearing that stuff on those systems relentlessly had such a huge impact on me that I immediately got sidetracked and sort of gave up on the vocals and focused on the beats and tried to make club records.
Where were you able to try out your music live then?
I had some friends that I was fortunate enough to be able to bounce ideas off of. At that time, I didn't really make any effort to go out and DJ myself. I had been deejaying when I was in South Africa, and I'd been collecting vinyl there, and played in industrial clubs, but when I got here, I didn't really pursue the DJ thing. I just had some sort of close friends all over the place to bounce ideas off of, and finally, once I had a little confidence, I started reaching to some labels and seeing what kind of feedback I could get. That process still seems to be ongoing.
That aspect of making music and getting out there probably hasn't changed too much in a fundamental way.
Yeah, no, it really hasn't. That's part of the process, shopping stuff to labels. I'm kind of fortunate now, having labels wanting stuff from me, and there are labels I feel are a challenge because what they're releasing really strikes a chord with me, and I feel like I would like to reach out and get something on that label.
Who, for example?
I guess a recent label that falls into that category would be this release I'm doing with Prologue Records. They're based in Germany, and they released Voices From The Lake and George Delia and some of the deeper, hypnotic techno stuff. When I heard about them, I reached out to the owner, and we developed this thing, and now I have this Echologist album coming out in November on that label, and that was a case of sort of wanting to reach out. I guess it's sort of creating a network.
Part of what this whole scene is about is trying to connect with like-minded people and sometimes I notice younger guys reach out to me because they feel there's a musical connection, but essentially, some people are doing it just for the politics, and they send demos, and it has nothing to do with what I'm doing. But I guess that comes from experience, and you figure out who you can connect with and who you can't. That's also part of the process.