Ripley Johnson Discusses Moon Duo’s Hypnotic Music

Moon Duo on the Intersection of Psychedelia and Hermetic Inspirations

Moon Duo is an American psychedelic rock band originating from San Francisco, California. The group was established in 2009 by Ripley Johnson, also known for his work with Wooden Shjips, and Sanae Yamada. Their sound is characterized by a fusion of repetitive, trance-inducing rhythms and heavily distorted guitars. Their early work culminated in the release of their debut album, Mazes, in 2011 under the Sacred Bones Records label.This album established their musical style, combining mesmerizing loops with saturated guitar effects to create an ethereal listening experience.

Their music often explores themes of the mystical and unseen, influenced by their interests in occult literature and the hidden forces that shape the world. In 2017, Moon Duo released the double album Occult Architecture Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, addressing the dual themes of darkness and light. Vol. 1 focuses on darker, introspective sounds, while Vol. 2 presents lighter, more expansive tracks. Their 2019 album, Stars Are the Light, produced with Sonic Boom (Peter Kember of Spacemen 3), marked a shift towards ’70s disco and funk influences. Moon Duo’s creative process is deeply personal and introspective, often inspired by the natural world and their philosophical readings. 

Moon Duo’s official site & Bandcamp

Can you tell us about your earliest musical influences and how they shaped your approach to creating music?

I went through a few phases when I was a kid, first getting into classic rock, which was the music of our parents. My first favorite band was the Rolling Stones. Then I got into skateboarding and through skate magazines discovered hardcore and SST records, bands like the Meat Puppets, Black Flag, and JFA. Then I got back into 60’s and 70’s music in high school. More tripped out stuff like Funkadelic and the Grateful Dead. From that I took away an interest in a DIY approach but also in a detailed and layered production approach, like that in psychedelic music. 

What inspired you to start Moon Duo with Sanae Yamada in 2009?

We had the idea of doing a psychedelic band but as a duo and working creatively with the limitations of that. The general idea we had was that it could be like Suicide, with drum machine, keys, vocals, but with the addition of guitar. We saw that as an interesting setup for a rock band, and it was certainly less common back then. 

How did your experience with Wooden Shjips influence the formation and sound of Moon Duo?

The biggest influence was that Wooden Shjips couldn’t tour a lot, because of jobs and such. And it was hard to make any money touring as a four-piece. So that inspired the duo idea, because it was easier to travel as a couple. We could fit all of our gear in our car and it was easy to find a place to sleep. So it was really a practical consideration that influenced us. 

Moon Duo 01 Paradiso Noord, Amsterdam (20 oktober 2019) Foto Benny van der Plank
Moon Duo 01 Paradiso Noord, Amsterdam (20 oktober 2019) Foto Benny van der Plank

How would you describe the atmosphere of San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene when you first started Moon Duo?

I always felt it was kind of dispersed and that a lot of bands actually got more attention outside of the city. But there was clearly something in the air. I actually started a little festival with a friend because of this, called the Frisco Freakout. I kept getting asked about the scene when I travelled, but I felt like there weren’t that many local events that brought bands and scene together. We had bands like Earthless, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, The Bad Trips, Sleepy Sun, and lots of others. 

What are some non-musical influences that have impacted your work with Moon Duo?

We’re both very inspired by nature, in general, the cosmos, and various esoteric topics. We both read a lot. The album Circles, for example, was influenced in part by writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Occult Architecture albums were inspired by various occult writers and artists we were reading at the time, especially Manly P. Hall. 

How does your personal life influence your music and vice versa?

For me, music is primarily about expressing a feeling, so it’s all very personal. And as an admitted music obsessive, it’s really hard for me to separate my music from my personal life. It is my personal life in many ways. It’s all intertwined. That’s one of the things I love about music. There’s music for just about every moment in life. 

MOON14
© Moon Duo

How did the creative process for “Stars Are the Light” differ from your earlier albums? How did the collaboration with Sonic Boom influence the sound and production of “Stars Are the Light”?

The biggest difference for me is that it is an album very much defined by Sanae’s synthesizers. That was by design and I think she really created some of her most beautiful work. We wanted to have a lot of light and space in the record. We had worked with Sonic Boom on a 12″ previously, as a sort of trial run for the album. So we knew we would work well together. And we went to mix with him in his studio in Portugal, which has a very bright and tropical vibe. So it was all aligned to achieve what we wanted for the record. Environment is very important to music creation. 

What are some of your favorite pieces of equipment or instruments that you use in your recordings?

I’ll often just use whatever is at hand. We have lots of gear around in our basement studio, but I’m not really particular. That said, my Airline guitar is usually nearby. And I’ll usually record through a Fender amp, a Twin Reverb, or Vibro Champ, or Showman –it doesn’t really matter. For Stars Are the Light, I think Sanae used her Prophet synthesizer a lot. 

MOON10a
© Moon Duo

How did the idea for the twin albums “Occult Architecture Vol. 1 and Vol. 2” come about? How did the concept of Yin and Yang influence the thematic and musical composition of “Occult Architecture”? 

That came about very naturally. Taoism has always resonated with me, and it’s also just the reality of life. Everything has its opposite. That’s the balance of nature. The music we were making at the time just started fitting into the two distinct categories, light and dark, before that was even a conscious theme. Once we noticed it, we thought maybe we’d do one record, one side light, one side dark. But we had more material, so then we decided to make two records. And we had the idea to mix one record in the winter in Berlin, and one in the summer in Portland, to emphasize the differences. 

Can you discuss how the esoteric literature of authors like Aleister Crowley and Manly P. Hall inspired the lyrical and conceptual elements of “Occult Architecture”? What specific aspects of gnostic and hermetic literature resonated with you and influenced the music of Moon Duo?

I don’t really like to draw literal connections like that or dissect lyrics. I work more intuitively anyway, often using stream of consciousness techniques when writing, trying to get at some unconscious truths or content for the lyrics. So whatever I’m reading or thinking about, or places I visit, forests I hike, will find its way into the music somehow.

As far as gnostic and hermetic literature, I think it was largely the idea that there is this secret knowledge, or hidden truths and patterns behind what we see and experience in everyday life. And I liked that people had tried to figure this out, tried to document it, or create ways of incorporating it into their lives, whether through ritual or art or literature. The world is clearly full of mysteries and wonders and the modern world seems intent on numbing us to this. I’m trying to get in touch with these other realms, and I think music helps me to do this. 

MOON08b
© Moon Duo

How do you balance the different musical styles and projects between Moon Duo, Wooden Shjips, and Rose City Band?

It’s pretty easy. I just have different interests. And the bands take on lives of their own, so I just go along with the flow. If I had more time I would probably have more bands because there are some other things I would like to explore. 

What future projects or collaborations are you currently looking forward to?

I’m working on a new Rose City Band record now and we’re planning to do a lot of touring in 2025 (everything has to be planned very far in advance these days.) I’ve just started playing in a free-improv band, The Barry Walker Unit, mostly around Portland.

Photos courtesy of Moon Duo

Last Updated on June 18, 2024 by retrofuturista

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