Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ian Murray of Poor Moon On Their "Illusion" EP and Self-Titled Debut

Poor Moon is Fleet Foxes' members Christian Wargo and Casey Wescott, along with brothers Ian and Peter Murray. Before there was officially a band or a record, Christian Wargo wrote a series of songs over several years. So in essence, the band came together in response to the songs Christian was writing, as opposed to the more common model of a band getting together first and then writing songs.

Poor Moon have released their Illusion EP and their self-titled debut album, both via Sub Pop. I'd also recommend fans of Poor Moon, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, and Father John Misty to check out the band's fairly-recent Daytrotter live session here. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ian Murphy about the band's experiences.

When/ how did Poor Moon get together?

Ian Murray: We have officially been working together on this project for maybe 3 to 4 years now. It's hard to nail down the exact starting date because we have talked about it for so long, had to take long breaks to accommodate other projects and schedules, etc. But the ball really got rolling maybe 3 years ago when I moved back to Seattle after a few years of living in the bay area.

We began rehearsing the songs with different outfits. Sometimes stripped down to just Christian, Casey, and myself. Sometimes with Peter on bass (he had also been living in the bay area and would soon be moving back to Seattle as well) and Josh Tillman on drums. And sometimes as a 7 piece band, similar to the outfit we play with now but with the addition of an EWI player.

We have been friends for a long time. Casey, Peter and I met in high school. Casey new Christian through musical circles in high school, and Peter and I met him through Casey not long after high school. We have been really close friends ever since and have always drawn musical inspiration from each other regardless of what projects we were working on.

I feel like there was even a period of awkwardness leading up to us becoming a band. Sort of like a platonic friendship that you don't want to complicate by getting in bed together. But eventually things synced up in a way where it made perfect sense and everyone was on board. Peter and I had made a couple of albums under the moniker The Christmas Cards while living in the bay area. We didn't really promote it or play it live, but I think it was what sort of put us on the map as far as being recognized by other musicians that we respected as dudes that knew what we were doing.

Can you talk about how things progressed and the writing and recording of the Illusion EP?

Ian: Christian had been working on this batch of songs from even before joining Fleet Foxes. Some of the songs were written 5 years ago and some were written right before recording. We recorded the Illusion EP and our self-titled LP all at the same time, and later decided which songs would go on each. By the time we were in a position to record, most of the foundational material, particularly for the EP songs, had already been written. So it was just a matter of getting the parts down and then elaborating on them.

I, at the time, was set up with a home studio rig in a rental house and suggested that we start recording this stuff. I figured worst case scenario we have the recordings as a relic, some things we would keep and others we would re-record in a studio down the line. In the end, almost the entirety of the EP and LP were recorded in that house.

The first sessions we did, we recorded "Phantom Light" (LP), "Illusion" (EP), "The Widow" (EP), and an early rendition of "Birds" (LP). We later on recorded the rest of the songs with Jared Hankins as engineer. We did a bit of recording at Avast! and at another studio called Fastback, but most of it was done in this house. Peter rents this house now and we still do a lot of recording here. It's a nice vibe. I think we put together which songs we wanted on the LP, and the EP was songs that we liked, but couldn't quite fit in to the flow of the LP.

How would you describe each member's unique contribution, and how do you see these culminating as Poor Moon "the band"?

Ian: Christian is the songwriter of this band, so that is obviously the biggest part of the whole project, which is really his vision. Casey is, and has always been sort of the ultimate band member. He has endless ideas and enthusiasm. Without his energy and inspiration things can often feel very flat. He is very creative and thinks outside of the box as far as instrumentation goes. He is the guy that will sit in a store for hours and try hundreds of Tibetan singing bowls before finding the three that make the chord he wants. Peter is probably better at guitar than any of us are at any instrument. He studied it for years, but isn't your typical trained musician in that he remains very creative and doesn't approach music as an academic thing. There are very few parts that he is not technically able to execute.

I can't speak about myself too much but I try to serve the song itself. If it requires something simple I can contain myself to that and don't feel that I have to throw the kitchen sink at every part I write. I try to listen to a song, hear where it could use a boost, and focus on that part without that part necessarily taking over the song. I also do a lot of singing in this band, which might be my strongest musical ability and intuited most of the harmonies on the record. I also spend as much time recording as I do as a musician, and did a lot of the engineering for this project before we brought Jared in.

Did you have a preconceived direction set for the record, or was it more of a song-by-song accumulation?

Ian: I would say it was a song by song accumulation. Initially it was a concern that it didn't totally flow like a record that was written with one concept in mind. But for me it resulted in what I feel is a very fun, diverse, and unpredictable record.

The concept of this record is a songwriter's growth and context over a very interesting five year period, that started with being at times practically homeless and resulted in traveling the world in a wildly popular band.

Was there a tune that set the course for the LP?

Ian: We often talk about "Phantom Light" setting the tone. It was the first song that we recorded when we first got into working at this house. Josh Tillman came in and sort of overdubbed this really bizarre and awesome percussion idea with a washboard at the center of it. He kind of just did it as he went along and I think we were all, including him kind of like, "Whoa, what the fuck was that" when he finished.

I remember him coming in later to overdub a tom part and having to take a minute to figure out exactly what he had done. Casey came in with this crazy harpsichord part that I remember initially we were sort of on the fence about, but when we heard it come through the speakers we were like "Holy shit, this song is so weird!" We loved it. That was a song that we had been playing around with for awhile, and when we finally put it down and played it back we were like "Fuck yeah, we're making a record."

Since the writing and recording of both the EP and the LP was all done together it was all very similar. I will say that the songs on the LP felt newer and were more collaborative. Like "Phantom Light", "Birds", "Come Home", "Bucky Pony", "Same Way", and "Waiting For". Those songs in particular were really transformed once each band member had an opportunity to put their stamp on them.

What were you listening to/ influenced by (musically, lyrically) during the writing and recording of the album?

Ian: I can't speak for Christian on this, but since it was such a long period of time that these songs were written over, I would imagine it was quite a ton of music. There is some Zombies and Kinks in there. There is always gonna be some Beach Boys and Beatles in any band like this. The Christmas Cards I'm sure worked its way in there too. And of course, as a member of Fleet Foxes and writing for that world, some of that got in there.

Christian often references a band called Eggstone that he loves quite a bit. But there is a vast wealth of music that I'm sure he loves that made it's way in that only he could let you in on. If I could add one thing about the lyrics from my perspective, I find them to be very sly and subtle. What it "sounds" like he is saying isn't exactly what he is saying. I think the subtlety of his lyrical character is lost on a lot of listeners, but is extra rewarding for those who pick up on it.

Was there a tune that was particularly challenging?

Ian: Each song had challenging moments but I don't think one was especially more challenging than another. If I had to pick one I would say "Waiting For". There is this wailing slide part that is kind of the main hook of the song. Christian has worked out the feel and tone in a demo and we found it really hard to replicate.

We brought in a pedal steel player, tried recording it in various ways at different sessions, but it never quite recaptured the magic. I think we ultimately wound up layering the demo with another slide part we had overdubbed and maybe even the pedal steel part and panned them all in different directions. Overall, the biggest challenges though were dealing with dirty electricity, planes flying over, garbage trucks going by, and all the other charms of recording in a house.

How would you say the Illusion EP and Poor Moon LP compare and contrast from each other and/ or inform each other?

I think the LP flows much better from start to finish. The EP is all songs that I like a lot, but also songs that we couldn't really find a home for. Having said that, I think "People In Her Mind" is one of our stronger and more definitive tunes. I love all those songs. I just think we probably prioritized the LP as far as having everything fit together in a way that flowed nicely and so that all the songs helped each other along.

What have you been listening to lately?

Ian: In the van as we have been touring we have listened to a lot of Sun Kil Moon. Al Stewart pops up quite a bit. The new Beach House record comes on quite often. The last two Here We Go Magic albums. We are all stoked on Pure Bathing Culture right now and have been privileged enough to get some of their new demos.

Some of our label mates like King Tuff, and of course, Father John Misty. I've been listening to Kate Bush a lot and have just hit a second wave of interest in Elliot Smith. We've got some big Gillian Welch fans in the van. Casey has pretty much only had ears for R. Kelly for a while now. Peter always has his ears in some classical music. We are always looking for new touchstones and are often surprising each other with our new and fleeting infatuations.

What are some of your biggest non-musical influences?

Ian: Tom Skerritt.

What's next for Poor Moon this year?

Ian: We take off for a full US tour in one week (yikes!). The first half is with Beach House who we all love. Super excited about that. We will be touring pretty much all throughout 2012 and I'm sure in the new year as well.

We're Hoping to get back overseas. We had a really great but short trip to the UK in early September. We just finished shooting our first video for the song Holiday and we are ecstatic about it. Want to keep certain details a surprise, but it should be a good one.

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