Psychedelic rockers Eric “Ripley” Johnson and Sanae Yamada have arrived at a new phase in their sound. Gone is the fuzz-driven esoterica and occult imagery, and in its place comes a luscious exercise in new-age disco. We caught up with Sanae Yamada to talk about the new album Stars Are The Light and their upcoming show at the Volksbühne on October 21.
What inspired this project?
After our last albums, Occult Architecture Vol. I & II, it felt like we had completed a cycle in the identity of the band, and the next album needed to be something different. We turned our focus in a new direction, and disco started coming up a lot. Not just the music, but the concept and the physical space of a disco. It’s a space of collectivity, self-expression, and acceptance, and that felt very attractive to us.
It’s dancier than before but still retains that Moon Duo identity. What is at the core of the Moon Duo sound?
Obsession with repetition is right up there. But generally, It’s a musical conversation. How can the guitar and the synthesizer work around each other against a backdrop of silence?
What do you think is in the power of repetition?
It’s primal. Repetition is a factor in the most basic kind of music. Our earlier music wouldn’t necessarily be called dance music, but to us, there was an element of physicality involved in it, and that’s because of the repetition. All dance music has that. For example, 1950s R&B, when you strip it down, it’s all about this repeating groove that you can move to. The connection between repetition and physical response has always been a significant factor for us.
You’ve taken a step away from the occult, but would it be fair to say that dance shares the ability to bridge the gap between our physicality and eternity?
Absolutely, I think that dance is inherently spiritual. We all have this physical form of matter, that’s our body. Then there’s the energy that occupies that matter. That energy is connected to this vast eternal thing, and when the energy moves the body in dance, it’s almost like a communion with some greater oneness.
Still, there’s more of an earthly feeling to this one.
Our lyrics on this record a very much about the human experience. Those lyrics are the least esoteric and the most personal of any of our work. We are singing about love and loss and struggle and fear. That’s definitely different from our other music.
How do your natural surroundings inform your music?
Ripley (Eric Johnson) is extremely affected by where he is and in what season he’s making music. For me, it’s hard to pinpoint, but the place that probably had the most impact was Sintra in Portugal. We spent ten days there, mixing the record with Pete Kember in his studio. It was this gorgeous lush area with so many beautiful birds and flowers. I think that being in that place where nature was so dynamic and present all the time had a real effect on the forming of the record.
Which season is this record?
I’d say this is a spring record. It’s the flashpoint of a new phase.
You worked with Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) from Spacemen 3 on this one, how did his input affect the album?
He was crucial in the final sound of the record. We had already written and recorded all the tracks, but we were in new territory, sonically speaking. Pete had a vision for all of the tracks, and I found working with him amazing. Sometimes, mixing engineers have an incredible technical ear, but Pete has this unconventional approach that suits our music. He doesn’t worry so much about anyone else’s rules about what works best; he pushes it until it sounds right. He goes by feel and instinct, and I found that incredibly inspiring.
The guitars take more of a back seat on the album, which brings your synthesizers to the fore. What was the concept there?
We were playing with changing our sound, but it’s also a nod to disco. Disco, since the 1970s, has been foregrounded by electronic elements. We wanted to push the synths to the front and have the guitar occupy a different space.
All those synth sounds were all created by you. How do you recreate the textures of a disco sonically?
When I’m making music, I close my eyes a lot. In my head, I see music as shapes. Every element in a piece of music has a particular geometry, and I mostly work from that. I examine the geometry of the beats and the guitar and play around with synth sounds until I find something that completes the picture. I’m looking for something that has just the right shape and fills out the song. Synthesizers are great because they straddle that line between the rhythmic and melodic elements in a song. They can be pushed in either direction, depending on the function you want. I thought a lot about rhythms on this record because it’s a dance record, and the rhythmic repetition inherent in a synthesizer is so conducive to dance and groove.
Can you describe those shapes?
It’s really specific to every song. I would have to go back and listen to the songs but say, for example, that the beats could be like heavy spheres, laid across the bottom of the plane. Then, the snares and the symbols might be a series of diagonal lines, and they will be sitting just above those spheres. If I wanted to find a rhythmic element, I might try to find a synth sound that is like a cluster of tiny berries, or mini spheres, and place them just so their relationship to the diagonal lines and heavy spheres has a kind of strange symmetry to it. Or maybe, so that it hits at just the right point, and all the little berries burst, right before the diagonal lines slice through the air. It sounds bizarre, but that’s how it is.
Is there some underlying geometry, beyond what we can hear, inherent to music?
Definitely. We receive music aurally, but the life of it is so multidimensional. It has a physical form that we can’t necessarily see with our eyes, but we feel it with our bodies.
Who are your influences on this one?
Early in the process, I watched a documentary about Grace Jones. To be clear, we weren’t trying to sound like Grace Jones, I think that’s impossible for us, but to me, she’s such an avatar of the spirit of disco because she’s such a self-actualized human. She occupies a space that only she can occupy. That spirit is what we were aiming for. We thought, so we’re going to make a disco record, what is the disco record that only we can make?
How does the album translate into a live performance?
A number of the songs from this record are probably more faithful to the recordings than with our previous work.
What’s the atmosphere like at a Moon Duo show?
We always have a visual element, and we like to have the room quite dark because people can relax in the dark. I don’t want to tell people what they should and shouldn’t feel at our shows, but we’re going for feelings of community and joy.
Tell me more about that visual element?
We are collaborating with a visual artist Emmanuel Biard. He developed this whole visual part of the show, based around the new record. He’s a total wizard, and that’s going to make its debut on this tour.
What is Moon Duo?
I guess we’re a weirdo rock and roll band. It’s an open question, as soon as you answer that one, you’re done.
Moon Duo | Volksbühne, Mitte, Oct 21. Starts 21:00.