Moon Duo's Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada play at the nexus of he/she psychedelic doom and dance. Ripley's guitar is a buzzing, gyratory spiral that heads out on possessed trajectories. Yamada's synths are go-go-drone palpitations. Together, with their bubbleglum™ vocals, the San Francisco/Portland duo billow out an oxidized and ritual trance-party cynosure. To write their most recent album, Circles, Yamada and Ripley secluded themselves within the bright glare of a house above the clouds in the Rocky Mountains. Six months later, they moved into an apartment above Lucky Cat Recordings on Mississippi Street in San Francisco to work with Phil Manley (Trans Am, Les Savy Fav, Life Coach). The finishing touches were mixed and prodded at Kaiku Studios in Berlin. Moon Duo know and open portals; their sounds of psychedelia have eyes if you let them. A sewer drain in the street becomes a window to the Mojave. The full moon is a medallion hanging off the necklace of a celestial hippie Orion. In the eye of their koi, you can see and hear the inner workings of outer space. Johnson spoke. He was extremely calm.
There's an element of drone that you hit on and do so well. I wanted to get your thoughts on the drone side to your music. I'm probably picking up on Sanae's elongated keyboard parts. Where does it come from?
I'm big into La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music crew, but especially Angus MacLise and Terry Riley. Angus is my favorite because of the bongos and the general hippie spirit of his music—it doesn't suffer from the overly intellectual vibe on a lot of the minimalist classical stuff. John Cale's early experiments as well, which of course all seeped into the early Velvet Underground sound. Later "rock" groups like Pärson Sound and Träd Gräs och Stenar have been a big inspiration.
Then there's your psychedelic aspect. Who are some psychedelic bands that you like and pull from?
We're really into sounds, so anything psychedelic is an attraction. I think growing up, hearing a lot of really commercial music, you can be pulled toward anything weird or different. Whether it's noise or punk or just outsider stuff. I have a soft spot for trippy albums, like Twink's Think Pink, Sergius Golowin's Lord Kirshna Von Coloka, Walter Wegmüller's Tarot, Cosmic Jokers' Galactic Supermarket, or Aphrodite's Child's 666. Records that sound like they were recorded on acid [laughs].
Seeing Moon Duo can cause transportation. Where do you go in your mind when you play? Do you sprout gills and voyage to the primordial space-land of trans-Neptunian protoplanets?
We aim to transport. I definitely go into a bit of a trance at times. That's the goal, anyway. We try to achieve a level of no mind—to stop thinking altogether and see where that leads. Of course, we do play songs, so we can't get totally lost.
You tour a lot and meet many people. How do you deal with rampaging frat dudes? Have you ever met a live Lemurian?
We meet a lot of crazy people—and a lot of great people, of course. Sometimes, people want to insert themselves into your trip; they don't appreciate social boundaries. I was dosed unwittingly one time. That's just a messed up thing to do.
You've mixed your albums in Berlin. What have those experiences been like? What sticks out about Berlin?
Before we spent time in Berlin, I had these romantic ideas about it, associations with Lou Reed, Iggy, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and others. But really, it's just a pleasant place to hang out and work a bit. It's a crazy nightlife town, so lots of late nights and partying. We met these Finnish guys through a friend, and that's how we ended up working at their studio in Berlin, Kaiku Studios.
Circles was written largely during a time of winter isolation in the Rocky Mountains? Please talk about that and how it affected your writing and sounds.
We were living high up in the mountains, so it was very snowy but also sunny most of the time. It's just white and bright and the air is clear, so everything looks very crisp and in focus. Plus the altitude messes with your head and body quite a bit—I think that seeped into the sound. It's brighter and more colorful than our previous records. I think there's a sunny feel to it maybe.
Gear-nerd time. Please describe how you get your guitar sound. What pedals do you use? How is your chain set up? What guitars do you play? What amps do you use?
I have a bunch of stuff that I've accumulated over time, so I just started using what I had, what hadn't been sold off for whatever reason. I use Fender amps, usually a '68 Twin Reverb, though I've been trying out a Deluxe because it's lighter. Pedals are MXR Distortion+ and Phase 100 from the '70s or early '80s, Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man with the big knobs so I can adjust with my feet, Real McCoy Custom Wah, the RC-3, which is fully tunable, and a Klon Centaur overdrive. I play a reissue Airline guitar by Eastwood, which is a real workhorse. That's about it.
Your playing is so otherly: nuanced, yet shredding, and astrophysical. What is the theory behind what you do? You know how to enter and leave the space of a solo. Is that an unconscious thing?
I try not to think about it too much. I went through a period, years ago, where I tried to eradicate any cliché guitar licks, or blues licks, or whatever from my playing. I was really into Leigh Stephens from Blue Cheer, who would play really unexpected notes, and things like Fushitsusha. Now I don't think about it, so the licks may creep back in at times, which is cool. I also went through a big free-jazz phase, just listening, and I know that has had a big effect on my playing. I really just think of it as communication, so a solo, to me, is part of a conversation. I just hope that I have something to say when the time comes [laughs].
What is your connection to Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Circles" essay? When and where and why did you first read it? Why the gravitation toward it?
I first read Emerson in high school. I've always admired the transcendentalists. They were almost like the first American hippies—rebels, anyway. But I think this past winter was the first time I read that essay—I was alone in the mountains, writing songs, and it just resonated with me, with where my head was at the time.
Are you into portals? Your sound is such a portal. I don't know if you own fish, but if you had a fish, it would be a koi, and in its eye I would see deeply into the void of space. What are portals for you?
The most obvious would be the eardrum, being where sound enters your mind. All of the six sense doors are very important, where consciousness arises. We're both into Vipassana meditation, so that's a big one for us.
Is that King Khan in your video for "Sleepwalker"? Who directed it? Where did the idea for the video come from? Where did you shoot it?
The original idea for an exercise video had been floating around for a while. Sanae came up with the cult leader and two innocents narrative, and when we got King Khan to be the leader, it all jelled. The other main guy, with the mustache, is Simon Wojan—he plays in the Shrines and used to be in Cloudland Canyon. He's so good! We were in Berlin and just rounded up friends for the cast. We were lucky.
What's next for Moon Duo? Besides building a koi pond.
[Laughs] We'll do another video, I think in January, and we're working on a 12-inch of remixes from Circles. We've got a bunch of killer folks on board for that. Stay tuned!
This article has been updated since its original publication.