Half Moon Run – Interview – 2016

One of the aspects about being a music journalist is that you get the chance to find out how a band came together, what elements were brought to the table in forging a distinct sound. And when you learn that sometimes bands come together by sheer chance, with little or no pre-conceived notions of what it is they want to do, the story writes itself…

"We started in October 2009, or something like that," says Dylan Phillips, singer, drummer and keyboardist with Half Moon Run. "We had all, within a span of six months to a year, moved to Montreal, so we were all new to the city. I was in Montreal for school to study classical piano. Conner Molander (vocals, guitar and keyboard) had arrived to do psychology at MacGill University. It was me, Devon Portielje (vocals, guitar, percussion) and Connor in the beginning. I wasn't planning on being in a band at all, I was very invested in school. I only ever wanted to play the piano, but my sister had a friend who was looking for a band as part of a college project, and said they are looking for a drummer. 'Do you want to go and try it out?' She pushed me really hard. I went to this jam on a whim, with no real expectations. It was a little bit the same with the other guys too. And the first jam, there was something pretty magical that happened. None of us can describe how or why that happened. We were songwriting right away, getting right into it. It was a chance encounter. Just one of those things where none of us would have crossed paths in a normal sense."

It seems that accidents are what often makes for great music. When a bunch of people come together on a whim and see what happens. More often than not, it'll get filed in the bin. But sometimes, magic is made.

The band quickly signed a deal in 2012 and released their debut album, Dark Eyes. Part of a small but influential zeitgeist that included the likes of Other Lives and Fleet Foxes, their quirky, off-kilter melodies and song structures featured tonnes of percussion, and vocal harmonies. In particular though, the brilliantly propulsive Call Me in the Afternoon gained some attention, and their performance at 2012's Great Escape was a much anticipated showcase. "I remember that show, that space, a basement near the beach (it was in fact Digital, which is now known as The Arch). Everything that happened with the band between 2012 and 2014 is all a blur," laughs Dylan.

It turned out to be full on for the band who recruited fourth member Isaac Symonds (vocals, percussions, mandolin, keyboard and guitar) when touring beckoned, who has since become an integral, co-writing partner. When the touring finally came to a halt, talk inevitably turned to the new album. But it seemed that all had not been happy within the Half Moon Run camp, and it took a monumental effort to kick start the creative juices. "Yeah, for sure, it was natural that we would feel that way. Being on the road for so long will take a toll on anybody, and when you are trying to do something creative, make music that inspires you, and you push yourself and you want to come out with stuff that is exciting, it can be tricky when all you want to do is relax," he laughs. "But we found it, it just took a while to get there.

"The whole (touring) experience was incredible. It wasn't like we were sitting in the van going 'I hate this'. It was just exhausting! When we got home it was like 'what just happened? 'I know Montreal is supposed to be home, but 'is this home?'

"I think the real challenge for Sun Leads Me On was in finding our voice again after having essentially lost touch – both individually and collectively – on the road. The idea of songwriting for the new album started to become a source of internal pressure that we viewed as somewhat of a daunting task. There were definitely some frustrations. When you're forcing yourself to go to that jam space and try and write, and nothing is working. It was a brute force sort of approach," he laughs. "Well, something will eventually work so let's keep going at it and eventually we'll find our feet again. Really, we just had to let ourselves unwind for a while. After a few months we started to settle down a bit, getting into the swing of being at home again. Just letting that sink in. And it started to make its way into the songwriting."

Indeed, the album title alludes to their new found optimism. “We kept powering through because ultimately we knew it was worth it. We had this beautiful thing, this wonderful chance, but we were also working our way through a lot of darkness, losing lots of friends, struggles at home, losing our sense of home, trying to let the music guide us but having trouble even finding that. There was a lot of strife in it all, but at the same time the sun just kept pulling us forward, and we just kept powering through and trying to find beauty in what we do.”

After the initial false starts and lack of creative traction, the band on a whim, decided to head to California, and it was there that they found their mojo again. "It was totally written (the album) in California. We spent a few weeks at a place called Ocean Side, just north of San Diego, just to shake things up a bit. We were writing in Montreal, but maybe, maybe we had a bit of an addiction to being on the road, and we needed to go somewhere. So, off we went in the van to California to shake things up a bit.

"It was like a working holiday. We did some surfing. Sometimes when you are taking it easier, and you're working less hours in the day – you're getting exercise, eating well – and when you put in the time at night you get more done".

The Sun Leads Me On is a more eclectic, cosmopolitan affair than the darker Dark Eyes. Whilst retaining elements of Fleet Foxes and Radiohead within the mix, it is by and large a more diverse potpourri of west coast vibes, country and folk favours, even a little bit of disco and so-called 'heartland rock', with bands such as Midlake a new signpost. Furthermore, they get their fluid guitars out more and largely ditch the percussive elements that was a feature of their debut. "In terms of the instrumentation itself, we have all expanded and experimented more with our sound palettes. Becoming a four-piece was a big part of the change, and also exploring quite a few new instruments… a lot of analog synths, an actual electric bass, and some new options for guitars, both acoustic and electric."

Another factor in the creative success of The Sun Leads Me On is the presence of producer Jim Abbiss, known in particular for his work with Arctic Monkeys. "We had demos done of everything when we talked to Jim. We sent him the demos and he really liked the songs even though they were in rough shape. But, our philosophies lined up, we liked the way he talked about his processes in the studio. We learned after doing Dark Eyes that we are best as a live band, in the studio as well. We had to do everything we could to retain the live energy on the recording, which is a very hard thing to do, to make a recording sound live. That was where his judgement was really helpful. We can be very hard on ourselves in terms of playing in time, and in tune. Sometimes, when you focus on that stuff you miss sight of what is really important, the real communication that you are trying to put forward with the songwriting. Jim was really good at hearing when you had done a great take, and when it contained a really special energy. One of us might be going 'I want to do that again' but Jim was like 'Nah. That's perfect. We're done'."
Jeff Hemmings

Website: halfmoonrun.com
Facebook: facebook.com/halfmoonrun
Twitter: twitter.com/halfmoonrun