Moon Duo interview: Psych, the occult and yin and yang

One of the biggest bands on the psych scene currently, Ripley Johnson of husband and wife duo Moon Duo chats to Dan Wray ahead of their UK tour and album release.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 13th Mar 2017.
Originally published: 9th Mar 2017

Image: Moon Duo by Katie Price

Whilst psychedelic music, or modern variations of it, may be going through something of a stylistic resurgence at the moment, Ripley Johnson has been burrowing into its lysergic core for well over a decade now. Whether it be through his third eye-splintering space rock group Wooden Shjips or his equally cosmic Moon Duo project with his wife, Sanae Yamada, Johnson can generally be found pushing boundaries and expanding forward the idea of what music can be through these various forms. 

Now a resident in Portland, Oregon it’s Moon Duo that has become a more constant project in recent years than his previous San Francisco based outfit. This year the pair are releasing two albums, Occult Architecture Vol. 1 & 2 (the latter out in May this year). Whilst released separately the two are intrinsically linked conceptually and sonically, exploring the Chinese theory of Yin and Yang, essentially creating one record that celebrates darkness and night whilst the other explores light.

Through enveloping swirls of fuzz-drenched guitar tones and hypnotic and ever-expanding grooves it also delves into the mysterious world of the occult. A project that truly defines the concept of making someone leave their own headspace. Ahead of their UK dates, Johnson discusses the band, the concept and the boom of psychedelic music and what it means to him. 

You guys have got a good eight years behind you now as a band. How do you feel you have evolved from the band that released the Killing Time EP?

Looking back now, we didn’t really know what we were doing when we started. I was just looking at an old live photo and Sanae wasn’t even using a keyboard stand. She was set up on top of someone’s amp. But I think it’s good to just charge forward and let enthusiasm guide you. We still do that, really.

Psychedelic music has become hip. It’s a genre you’ve been deeply involved with for many years and I get the feeling you're interested in exploring vast possibilities rather than it being a fleeting trend. How do you feel about it being an in-vogue musical style at the moment?

It’s interesting because it was much more underground when I was first in bands in the 90s. I feel like it started bubbling up ten years ago or more, so it’s been having a sustained renaissance. But nowadays trends never seem to truly go away. There’s always an audience somewhere that can be reached through the internet. 

What does psychedelic music mean to you? 

To me, it means music that takes the listener somewhere outside of their everyday reality. In a general sense, any good music should do that to some extent. So it’s a slippery term. It’s not really a genre. 

How’s life in Portland at the moment? Is it a city feeling the knock-on and dividing effects of the current political goings on or is it a city that exists in a little bit of a liberal bubble and is reacting together as a community? 

There are a lot of fighters in Portland and people are pretty fired up to resist the current insanity. I don’t think the term bubble is appropriate, more like a haven. A lot of US cities are like that. 

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I’m intrigued into the role of the occult on this most recent record of yours. I think there’s quite a bit of a misconception about what the occult means, so I wondered if you’d be happy to talk about its role in your lives and its impact/influence on this record? 

We’re using the term occult both in the sense that it is about things beyond the normal range of understanding, and also playing on the idea of a secret knowledge that is communicated to initiates - the initiated being our fans. On a personal level, we believe that there are things going on in the universe that can’t be explained but can be experienced.

On a very simple level music is one of those things. It’s a powerful force and can communicate ideas and feelings in a unique way, and might even be called magic. Science can only explain the power of music up to a point. There is an ineffable quality that is really better not explained or understood. 

I understand this most recent record is part one of two to fit into a concept. Did you plan this concept in advance and make the music based around it or did the idea present itself during the creative process? If the former, how did working to guidelines of sorts alter your approach to making a record?  

It came about as we were recording the material. We realised that we both had too much music for one LP and that the songs were naturally moving in different directions. So the music really dictated the split and the mirroring. We figured it out pretty early in the process, so it guided our approach from that point. We even mixed the first record in Berlin, and the second in Portland in the summer, to give it a lighter vibe. 

You speak about the physical aspect and geography of the Northwest having an influence on your psyche’s for this record. Just what is it about the elements in that part of the world that you find so inspiring? Is it unique to other places that you have lived?

We started the band in San Francisco and there aren’t really any seasons there. The Northwest has very strong, distinct seasons, and that affects one's life in many ways. It’s really dark and wet and mossy in the winter, and unbelievably sunny and bright in the summer. Portland is also a city very close to nature, so that has a strong effect.  

How much is the Yin and Yang component explored on this record representative of you as people  / your relationship?

I think it's part of everybody, part of nature. We’re not unique in that sense. It’s a helpful thing to ponder and reflect on, for anyone, but also working in this business, which has a lot of ups and downs, positive and negative elements. 

When you’re back in the UK you will be visiting such venues as the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds again. You’ve worn a shirt of that venue in a few promo shots – is it important for you to support such independent venues across the world when you tour?

The Brudenell is one of our favourite venues anywhere. We do try to support places like that, but I feel more like they are supporting us, as well as the music fans in their communities. Small venues struggle everywhere. It’s a really tough business. God bless ‘em. 

Has Moon Duo superseded Wooden Shijps as a primary creative output? If so, is there a reason behind that? What do you get out of Moon Duo that you don’t in Wooden Shijps? And maybe vice versa too? 

Well, half of the Shjips guys live in San Francisco and half in Portland, so we can’t really get together that much. If you’re not hanging out, jamming, etcetera it’s hard to get things going. But yeah, they’re different bands, different people, different energy, so it’s fun to work with both. But in a way it’s all just rock ’n’ roll to me. 

Moon Duo play at Manchester's Band on the Wall on Thursday 16th March and Leeds Brudenell Social Club on Friday 7th April

Manchester - Band on the Wall, Thursday 16th March

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Leeds - Brudenell Social Club, Friday 7th April

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