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TAS In Session: Moondoggies

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When last we heard from Seattle's The Moondoggies, they were blogging for The Alternate Side about their Labor Day weekend adventures at at the Bumbershoot Festival, just before they released their sophomore album, Tidelands, on Sub Pop's imprint Hardly Art.

The quartet, comprised of guitarist and singer Kevin Murphy, keyboardist Caleb Quick, drummer Carl Dahlen and bassist Bobby Terrebery, have had a promising year, not only releasing Tidelands, but touring extensively and finding themselves featured in MTV's $5 Cover web series, focused on Seattle's contemporary music scene.

Not long ago The Moondoggies, who kick off their winter tour in San Francisco tomorrow, January 18, and play Brooklyn's Rock Shop on January 30, dropped by The Alternate Side's Studio A to chat and play four songs from Tidelands live. You can listen to the entire interview on TAS' sister station 90.7 WFUV this Wednesday, January 19, at 9 p.m. EST which you can also stream here.

Alisa Ali: So you were in a band in high school?

Kevin Murphy: Bobby and I were. We played in this punk rock high school band.

Alisa: Are you still into punk rock?

Kevin: Sure. I think it just became a lot more full circle; you could listen to everything . The angry feelings coming back full circle to the records that I grew up on, like The Beatles. My sister got me into a lot of Camper Van Beethoven, Nirvana and The Pixies. I think when I was around 10 my sister dug out my mom’s old records and that kind of changed things from that point on.

Alisa: You guys are from Seattle and I was there recently and noticed a Nirvana backlash.

Kevin: I don’t know. I have a lot of pride for that. There might be some kind of feeling that Seattle’s annoyed with being associated with grunge, but I think a lot of people are really proud about that time. But we’ve moved on.

Alisa: When you were younger you played in bars and stuff like that?

Kevin: Yes, we’d get chased off at the end of the night even though they were giving us beer underage before the show, they were worried about liquor enforcement and chasing us off after the show. We got to play a secret show with Mudhoney and we didn’t get to meet them because I was 16 and they chased us right off after. I remember seeing Kim Thayles there and being so broken that I didn’t try to talk to any of them. That was at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard, still crowded a lot of nights of the week and it was awesome being a teenager and getting away with it. They got busted for that, so I’m not ruining anything.

Alisa: What about you, Caleb? Were you performing at an early age?

Caleb Quick: Yeah, in front of my church. We grew up pretty differently.

Alisa: Not doing punk songs there.

Caleb: In my own way, I suppose. Messing with the lyrics and stuff. I was performing playing the piano so four or five times a year I’d have to play recitals. We had one piano teacher who would make up dress up in an outfit of whatever song you were playing? So if it was “Camptown Races” at age six, which I did, you had to dress up as a jockey. And I did. And then I showed up and none of the other kids had dressed up. It was a family ordeal to get the outfit and [I looked] so dumb. Everyone else was there in slacks, shirts and dressed.

Alisa: You could wear it for Halloween.

Caleb: It’s pretty small. I was six.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qM_i2GvLyg]

Alisa: The reason I brought up the early start of things, Kevin, you moved to Alaska at some point during a pivotal point in the Moondoggies’ time.

Kevin: I lived in Bellingham, Washington - Caleb and I got our start playing there. I went up to Alaska to get out of Bellingham, I was done with it. My friend had an opportunity for me to work on a dock, but it was tourist work; you get people coming from all over the world and not treating you too well, asking you how far above sea level they are after they get off a boat and where the polar bears are. Ketchikan is one of the most southernmost cities in Alaska. It was more dealing with the time I had on my hands and being productive. I was very inspired up there and wanted to get better from what Caleb and I had done. So I set up a little area up in the attic, set up a four track and tried to write songs every day. Caleb and I had been playing coffee shops in Bellingham and I’d moved there with the idea that I wanted to focus on writing music, rather than doing what I was doing before. Writing lyrics, understanding harmony and challenging myself more. That was the first step and we started doing that with piano, acoustic guitar. When I came back down, we met up again in Seattle.

Alisa: While you were in Alaska you were sending Caleb tracks, but you could only hear one track at a time?

Caleb: I received a couple of tapes but one in particular that had a bunch of songs he’d recorded. I was only able to hear only two tracks out of the four tracks. So I’d hear a guitar and then a random harmony he put over his main vocal. So I had no idea what the song was; just randomly, a voice would come in.

Kevin: So the guitar and the fourth vocal which was probably off.

Caleb: And I’m like, “Yeah, there’s one song on there that’s really good” but it happened to be one where I heard the main vocal. Pretty funny.

Kevin: And I said, “Only one?” I listened to it in the truck and realized you couldn’t hear it.

Alisa: But you took one song from the Alaska time, “Empress of the North,” and it made it onto this record.

Kevin: That was the one song. It’s exactly how I recorded it up there.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-weIb9klY8&feature=channel]

Alisa: Kevin, are you singing differently on this album? Have your vocals changed?

Kevin: I think there’s been improvement since the last one. I’m more confident to take it somewhere new. I think with that confidence, I think I sing out a lot better on the acoustic ones. We feel like getting loud sometimes, we’re in a quiet mood.

Alisa: On some songs it starts out quiet and then it gets loud. Is that an easy transition to make or challenging?

Kevin: I feel like it shocks the vocal chords awake a little bit. I’ve only had a couple times on tour where I’ve lost my voice and last time, luckily, it was the last show. You just get through it, look at the other guys and mouth, “I’m sorry.”

Caleb: Everyone’s had that point where you’ve lost your voice. You definitely feel the pain; nobody wants that to happen, everyone has their parts to sing. I think what we try to do in that scenario is almost arrange a set list that’s easy to sing.

Carl Dahlen: Singing together was really hard when we started as a band, but I think that harmonizing is naturally like that.

Alisa: What makes it difficult about singing together?

Carl: Because we’d never done it before. I remember when Kevin got back from Ketchikan, he used to write on paper, squiggly lines that meant sing up and straight line meant go down. It was so confusing.

Kevin: Purple meant, “go down.”

Alisa: So do you still have a color-coded system?

Kevin: No, no, no. I do remember that scenario. Carl had just started the drums so we’d sing along to records, I knew he was capable but it was funny to say, “You sing a high part, but I’m going to stay here.” It’s kind of nice, the spectrum. Carl’s more instinctual and Caleb’s more trained. It’s the balance of, “This doesn’t make sense but it sounds good.”

Caleb: I think the idea is, in some scenarios, someone will show up with an idea in mind. Kevin might have the skeleton of a song with an idea of harmony. We work on it, but what I like the most about singing with these guys, the final product is usually different from the intention. The harmonies gets the ball rolling.

Kevin: It’s learning about not overdoing something. The last song on the album was originally recorded as a three part harmony thing and we recorded it and Caleb and Eric felt [not to add extra harmonies], saying, “That’s good enough.” It’s learning to find the feeling of the song and capture that rather than layering it.

Caleb: [Too many harmonies] can act like a wet blanket in way. That’s what we’re learning too; finding that balance.

Alisa: What about songwriting?

Kevin: A lot of it is skeletons I have or we jam out on certain things. There’s a song on the album called “Lead Me On” that Carl would play on the banjo late at night. And we said, let’s make it happen, let’s bring it into the practice. The more participation the better. A lot of times it might be Caleb and I with these parts that you cut up and put back together.

Caleb: We have suitcases full of those.

Alisa: But you always press “record.”

Caleb: We didn’t used to. We do now. I wish we did earlier on, but we’re better about that. But then we have these recordings that are three hours long because we get into it. You intended to get this 30 second part because you wanted to remember it, and you end up using the entire memory card. You don’t know where to stop.

Kevin: I get a little flustered by it sometimes. You’ll be humming a song, you realize it’s an old thing you’d written and those are the songs that are telling you that they want to come out. You want to be excited about it, amped up about the potential of it. If it keeps coming back up, you’ve got to seize on it.

Alisa: Is it a little like looking at an old photo album when you listen to those old parts?

Kevin: Yeah, but it would be like looking at a photo album where you’re a really ugly baby and hopefully you got more attractive. And you only want to listen to when you were nine.

Caleb: Kevin and I have these old recordings that we did right before Kevin moved to Ketchikan. I found it the other day and it’s painful. I listened to ten seconds [of it].

Alisa: Do you think it’s the whole self-critical thing?

Caleb: No, they were bad!

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks0uyAQhQUE&feature=channel]

Kevin: A lot of the songs bleed into each other in some way, key wise or otherwise. That one’s sort of the title track.

Alisa: Was there pressure to shorten your longer songs?

Kevin: No. A little bit. There were suggestions for sure.

Caleb: It’s just trying to make the album work and be cohesive, so there’s always suggestions, like is there a way to shorten this up, or even lengthen it, or do you want more rock.

Carl: Our last album was too long to be put on vinyl.

Kevin: We found out after the fact even a possibility.

Alisa: Would that have changed anything?

Kevin: Yes, I think so. I like how its tracked on the first album, but it was our first and I didn’t know if they’d give us another opportunity. It was like, “Oh, these are all of our best songs.” But this one we actually had awareness beforehand into making a record, making it comprehensive where there’s a feel to it, rather than putting a song here or here. I remember getting kind of tired of the first album and asking someone else to do the track list.

Alisa: Is [Tidelands] on vinyl?

Kevin: Yes it is.

Alisa: Awesome.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRgi73VkKY0]

The Moondoggies Winter Tour:
01.18.11 - San Francisco, CA - The Independent #
01.20.11 - Tucson, AZ - Solar Culture
01.22.11 - Austin, TX - Lambert's #
01.23.11 - Dallas, TX - Club Dada #
01.24.11 - Memphis, TN - Hi-Tone Cafe #
01.26.11 - Atlanta, GA - The Earl #
01.27.11 - Chapel Hill, NC - Local 506
01.28.11 - Arlington, VA - IOTA Club & Cafe
01.29.11 - Philadelphia, PA - M Room
01.30.11 - Brooklyn, NY - The Rock Shop #
01.31.11 - Cambridge, MA - TT The Bear's Place #
02.01.11 - New London, CT - The Oasis
02.02.11 - Toronto, ON - Horseshoe Tavern
02.03.11 - Pontiac, MI - The Pike Room at The Crofoot #
02.04.11 - Chicago, IL - Hideout #
02.05.11 - Minneapolis, MN - 400 Bar #
02.12.11 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir #
04.02.11 - Bainbridge Island, WA - Treehouse Cafe
# - w/ Quiet Life