Bob Moses discovering that success is measured in many ways
Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance left Vancouver and ended up taking on the world
There are many ways to measure the success of Vancouver–via–New York breakout act Bob Moses, but let’s start with where the duo of Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance are blessed to find themselves on this summer day.
“I’m in my swimsuit and my flip-flops and it’s pretty gorgeous here right now,” says Howie, who’s talking to the Straight on his cellphone from the legendary EDM mecca of Ibiza, Spain. “It’s super hot and we’ve just been chilling at the beach all day. We play tonight at Space, but right now I’ve just been having a lazy day.”
If the singer-guitarist is savouring his downtime before taking the stage of one of the world’s most famous dance clubs, it’s because times when there’s little to do are now a rarity for Bob Moses. Also speaking from Ibiza, Vallance hops on the phone sounding like a man who can barely believe his luck.
“The last year has been crazy and overwhelming, but in the best way possible,” reports Vallance, who holds down the synth and keyboard duties when Bob Moses plays live. “There have been so many moments that the only time I’m really able to think about them is when things get quiet.
“Like I’ll be sitting on an airplane after playing an amazing show, or four or five amazing shows, and then sometimes I’ll look over at Tom and go, ‘I can’t believe that we get to do this.’ ”
Dream gigs have included last year’s appearance at the desert-baked bacchanal known as Burning Man. Even though Bob Moses was still months away from releasing its critically lauded debut album, Days Gone By, Howie and Vallance found themselves playing DJ Lee Burridge’s infamous Robot Heart bus.
Hop on YouTube and you’ll find the two locked into a deliriously chill groove on Burridge’s double-decker mobile stage. Flanking them, lost in a sonic world of Bob Moses’s making, are blissed-out revellers who look straight from the set of George Miller’s Road Warrior reboot.
On the mainstream side of things, Ellen DeGeneres is among those captivated by the group’s charms. This past January, Howie and Vallance found themselves seducing North America’s soccer moms with their gorgeous “Tearing Me Up” on the comedian’s Ellen DeGeneres Show.
The official story is that America’s favourite Oscar host heard Bob Moses on the car radio, pulled over, and then immediately told her producers to track down and book the group.
The triumphs haven’t stopped there. Days Gone By has been universally praised as an instant downtempo-house classic by critics, and Vallance and Howie have been profiled everywhere from U.S. institutions like Spin to the U.K.’s impossibly influential Resident Advisor. There have been high-profile appearances at blue-chip North American festivals Coachella and Lollapalooza, and invitations to Sonar and Melt! across the Atlantic.
Speaking volumes about the group’s trajectory, Bob Moses’s first appearance in Vancouver came in 2013, the Lotusland-born Howie and Vallance playing a house party. When the two musicians return to Vancouver from their adopted home of New York City in a couple of weeks, they’ll headline the legendary Commodore Ballroom.
For all of these accomplishments, something important stands out when you talk to Howie and Vallance. And that’s a sense of relief that things are working out more brilliantly than they could ever have dreamed when they left Vancouver for America’s east coast.
Howie, who initially headed to Boston’s Berklee College of Music before moving to New York, was mostly intent on not disappointing his family.
“I remember it being a troubled time in that I felt really restless, but I didn’t really know what to do musically,” he recalls. “I also had a lot of hang-ups about being a musician. My mom’s a lawyer, my dad’s a professor of engineering, my stepmom’s a doctor, my grandfather’s a theoretical physicist—everybody is super highly educated.
“My mom was my main champion—she was like, ‘You can do this—you’re really good.’ But generally the feeling was ‘What do you mean, you want to be a musician? Nobody makes money in music. Go and get a real job.’ ”
As for Vallance, he moved from Vancouver to New York after graduating to follow a high-school sweetheart who was studying fashion. The city had long fascinated him as a hedonistic but magical place, one that tied into his obsession with CBGB and the birth of iconic punk trailblazers like Talking Heads and the Ramones.
Electronic-music titans Moby and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem were also major inspirations, with Vallance loving the way they used art to convey both the good and bad sides of living in New York.
“My girlfriend was moving there, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to hitch a ride with her, and that will be my introduction into the big, scary world outside of Vancouver,’ ” Vallance recalls. “ ‘Either I’ll fall flat on my face and come back with my tail between my legs, or maybe I’ll find something.’ ”
And find something he did—namely, a kid he once knew in high school named Tom Howie, leading to a partnership that blossomed into Bob Moses.
Jimmy Vallance describes himself as 50 percent introvert and 50 percent extrovert.
“So which side is going to show up,” he sighs, “I don’t really know.”
Given the two sides of his personality, when he arrived in New York he found cracking the city both easy and hard.
“I had a little DJ career going, so I had a label that was asking me to hand things in,” Vallance remembers. “I wasn’t just aiming in the dark—I felt like I had something to accomplish. The first thing I had to do when I showed up in New York was a remix for Sia, way before she was famous. I think she’d just released an album called Some People Have Real Problems. She was doing more singer-songwriter stuff. We were with the same management company and they wanted an EDM remix back before EDM was EDM.”
Quickly, Vallance started to meet people who turned him on to a burgeoning underground electronic music scene in New York.
“People I’d meet would like the same music as me, and they’d be like, ‘You should come check this out,’ ” he recounts. “There’d be 50 people watching a guy who, ironically enough, is now one of the main headliners in Ibiza. Back then, it would be 30 people there for him in a little warehouse, and maybe the cops would shut it down. Sometimes you’d show up and there would be a sign on the door going ‘Sorry, the party’s over.’
“But I liked that there was this really cool-sounding type of house music that people were playing in these dark, smoky warehouses. You felt important going there, even though, looking back, it wasn’t a big deal. It felt special, and that made me go, ‘I want to somehow be part of this.’ ”
Back in high school, Vallance wouldn’t have picked Howie as the partner who’d help him punch his ticket into New York’s downtempo-house scene. Both were headed for careers in music at an early age.
Vallance—the son of songwriter Jim Vallance, who’s scored countless hits writing with Bryan Adams, including “Cuts Like a Knife” and “Summer of ’69”—was already immersed in the world of DJing at that time. Howie attended the same school, moving from fronting the early-teen punk band Coalition to a singer-songwriter phase in the vein of Jeff Buckley and Ray Lamontagne.
After graduating, Howie enrolled at UBC, where he quickly discovered that academics weren’t his calling.
“I did a year but barely went to class,” he reflects. “I took a light course load, would do my assignments as quick as I could—or not do them—and then go to my friend’s house and write music and produce demos.”
His mom suggested he attend Berklee, which Howie eventually did, excelling with nearly straight As.
“I moved into this shitty apartment in Allston, which is like the shitty student neighbourhood in Boston, with four other guys,” he says. “I remember the first night being there, or maybe it was the second. I had these curtains that I’d had at my childhood house in Vancouver, and my same duvet cover.
“I remember going, ‘Okay, now I’m here, and I’ve accepted money from my parents to go to music school, so I have to fucking make it—I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to do it.’ It was a very clear vision, also mixed with me being absolutely shit-scared. Like, so fucking scared that I couldn’t speak, but also knowing ‘I have to do it.’ ”
Howie figures he went out to socialize about three times that first semester, choosing instead to do classwork and then practise and write songs.
“I worked as hard as I could,” he says, “seven days a week.”
As academically oriented as his family is, no one should have been surprised that he ended up a musician.
“I don’t remember much as a kid, but I do remember being in the bathroom and singing a lot,” Howie says with a laugh. “My mom tells these stories when she’s trying to embarrass me at dinner parties where she’ll say, ‘Tom would go into the bathroom when he was four years old, and he’d just sit on the toilet singing. Three or four hours would go by, and then I’d have to go get him.
“Then one day, at four, he announced that he was going to be a musician, and as a backup plan he was going to be an actor.’ Being an actor isn’t a very good backup plan, but at least I had a backup plan when I was four.”
By the time Howie decided to move to New York post-Berklee, acting had long been off the table. And so was the idea of being the next Jeff Buckley or Dave Matthews.
“I had done this EP at the end of high school that was solo acoustic, and listening back I’m trying so hard to be Dave Matthews that it was cringeworthy,” Howie says. “I was playing all the local talent nights and I sold out my first run of 2,000 pressed CDs. I felt like a mini high-school rock star. But I was 18 and I needed a bit more guidance. Someone should have said to me, ‘These 10 songs that you brought in are shit. This one is okay, now go write 10 more.’
“So I was really confused,” he continues. “I’d written all these songs on acoustic guitar and done okay with it, but I definitely did not want to be ‘singer-songwriter guy’. When I wrote for my old punk band, I’d imagine all the parts and tell the drummer what to play. So I had a bigger vision of what I wanted to do. That was later actualized in Bob Moses.”
As has been repeated in every profile of Bob Moses, Howie and Vallance accidentally bumped into each other in a New York parking lot. Despite coming from different musical backgrounds, they quickly developed a chemistry, releasing a series of well-received EPs.
Days Gone By is rooted in a sublimely chilled-out strain of house, but also suggests that Howie and Vallance aren’t interested in being placed in an easily labelled box. Listen closely and you’ll pick up traces of everything from celestial psychedelia and chopped-and-screwed jazz to T.Rex glam and sunshine-superman pop.
The two acknowledge that they are very different from each other. Howie is happily obsessed with the business side of music, has little use for TV, and tends to be the reflective worrier in Bob Moses.
Vallance is less likely to obsess over things. When not making music, he can also have trouble focusing.
“I love, and I have always loved, video games,” Vallance says. “I drive Tom nuts. He’s like, ‘You can never just sit’—he’s always saying that. The thing about video games is that I can always sit still. It’s the only thing that shuts my mind off.”
Bob Moses quickly made inroads when Howie and Vallance began working together. Right from the start, the idea of being a live act was totally important to them. Vallance’s ability to network—even if he’s only successfully social 50 percent of the time—proved invaluable.
“I used to go and hang out at those warehouse shows, and because they were so small you could talk to the people who ran them,” Vallance recalls. “You could talk to the DJs. When people are just starting out—and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a party or a brand—they remember the first 50 people that show up all the time.
“And when you start getting successful, you remember those people from the beginning. Always. I just got in with these guys early. So when it came to Tom and I needing a gig, I’d say, ‘Hey, do you mind if we open the night?’ ”
As evidenced by Bob Moses playing places like Space in Ibiza, the days of asking to open at warehouse parties are long gone. The past year has seen Vallance and Howie tour the world relentlessly.
“We were in Australia at the end of April and May, and then all summer it’s been back and forth between Europe and Canada and North America,” Howie says. “Not just three gigs on a weekend, but 10 gigs in a row. It’s been a great adventure.”
Bob Moses has kept so busy that there’s been no time to work on a Days Gone By follow-up. (Until they are able to hunker down and begin writing again, fans will have to be satisfied with a new deluxe edition of Days Gone By loaded with live cuts, an acoustic version of “Before I Fall”, and remixes by heavy hitters like A-Trak and Joris Voorn.)
Vallance acknowledges that, even today, he has trouble processing everything.
“I try and wear cool clothes or whatever,” he says, “but there’s always this thing where… I dunno. I remember when I was a teenager—I used to have bad skin. I’d always be self-conscious about going out in public. It would be like, ‘People know, but they aren’t saying anything.’ That mentality has really stuck with me, where people are too polite to say anything, but it’s still there.
“When you’re a teenager going through adolescence and that happens to you, it stays with you for life,” Vallance continues. “You learn to deal with it. But even still, when I meet someone today, I’ll be like, ‘Don’t fuck this up—look them in the eye, shake their hand, and then remember their name.’ But now there’s also the part of me that’s like, when I’m on-stage, I don’t give a shit anymore.”
The reason for that is simple: there’s more than one way to measure success. And for Bob Moses, it isn’t necessarily just about getting to hang out in sun-soaked Ibiza, wonderful as such experiences may be.
“This is the kind of gig where you get put in the cool pool simply because of the nature of it,” Vallance argues. “Secretly, I’m not in the cool pool. It doesn’t make sense, and I find the whole thing really entertaining and funny. We have peers and colleagues who are just obsessed with everything being perfect—not in a musical sense, but all the kind of auxiliary things.
“We don’t care about getting the crazy light show or the latest LED system. We’re more like, ‘Let’s try and write the best songs that we can, and then have this almost punk-rock thing where you go up there, like, plug in, and go.’ We don’t take any of this all that seriously. And that is why we’re having so much fun.”
Bob Moses plays the Commodore Ballroom next Saturday (September 3).