Moon Duo adds new tricks

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      Ask him to pick a favourite of the two projects that now make up his full-time job, and Ripley Johnson doesn’t take longer than a second to answer.

      As much as he loves hanging out with old friends in the guitar-heavy quartet Wooden Shjips, it’s Moon Duo that is now his first love. And that’s not just because Sanae Yamada, his collaborator in the latter project, happens to be his wife.

      “Moon Duo is nearer and dearer to my heart because I do it more,” Johnson says, on the line from a Montana tour stop. “It’s just more active—it’s now, and it’s happening all the time. With Wooden Shjips, it’s like an old friend because it is a band of old friends. We don’t all live near each other, so when we do it, it’s more like a special thing—we get together, we make a record, and we catch up. Then we’ll do very small tours—a couple of weeks here and there to promote the record. Moon Duo is more my daily life. This is what I do.”

      Along with Yamada, he does it incredibly well. The project’s third and latest full-length, Shadow of the Sun, is already being labelled a shoo-in for this year’s Top 10 lists. There’s good reason for the early gushing about the songs, which are being hailed as a directional shift for Moon Duo. Previous full-lengths have established the group as a favourite among those who live on Purple Sunshine, and not just during Austin Psych Fest.

      Those with a taste for mind-expanding sonic freak-outs won’t be disappointed by Shadow of the Sun. As on previous efforts, there’s lots to suggest Yamada and Johnson worship at the Church of Sister Ray, with epics like “Slow Down Low” and “Wilding” almost hypnotically transcendent.

      But Moon Duo also adds some new tricks this time out, with diversions like “Zero” and “Night Beat” suggesting that Johnson and Yamada would look pretty good stomping out of the garage in skinny ties, ’80s-vintage neon clothes, and wraparound shades. The pneumatic “Ice”, meanwhile, is Berlin techno cranked up in a nightclub 20,000 leagues under the sea.

      Johnson acknowledges that the band, which now includes live drummer John Jeffrey, has evolved on Shadow of the Sun. Looking back, he knew he wanted to do something different.

      “When you have a band, at the beginning you have carte blanche in a way,” he offers. “There aren’t these expectations and you’re free to form a sound and an identity. Then, after you’ve made a few records, it becomes ‘Where do you go? What’s inspiring you?’ And then part of that is also wondering ‘How are people going to react to it?’ We had a specific direction we wanted to go with this record where we figured we were going to go darker, more difficult and experimental.”

      Both of Moon Duo’s founders have skills outside of music, with Johnson having worked for web companies and his wife holding a teaching degree. Moving from pricey San Francisco a couple of years ago to hipster-cool Portland enabled the two to walk away from the 9-to-5 grind and devote themselves to music. But that has a downside, Johnson says, in that when you finally get back from touring—which he did last year with Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo—adjusting can be hard. Sometimes the darkness descends, and that coloured Shadow of the Sun.

      “The trouble last year was coming home, and the weird transition,” Johnson says. “It’s always hard to settle down at first, because you’re used to something happening every night. Basically, I was dislocated for a while, which is funny because I have a real love-hate thing with the road. I’m actually more of a homebody by nature, even though I’ve grown to like travelling.”

      While a period of melancholy hung over the creation of the record, Moon Duo has been shocked to find that Shadow of the Sun is being lauded as its most radiant and accessible outing to date.

      “We thought the songs were really dark,” Johnson says. “But the feedback I’ve been seeing is that it’s a bright record and more balanced than anything we’ve done before. A lot of the time, what you’re hearing during the recording process is so different than what you end up with in the end.”

      Which, of course, doesn’t make him love Moon Duo’s new baby any less.

      Moon Duo plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (March 27).