Every band that manages to make it to the recording-and-touring stage develops its own creation myth, a story that becomes wound into the band's DNA. Moondoggies keyboardist Caleb Quick and singer Kevin Murphy met in Bellingham through Murphy's brother. They would get together to play cover songs—they preferred Bob Dylan's Planet Waves album and Crazy Horse—and they didn't think much more of it than that. To hear Murphy and Quick tell it, the pivotal part in the Moondoggies' story came when Murphy moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, for a few months.
Murphy got a job dealing with the tourists who funneled off cruise ships for day trips, effectively doubling Ketchikan's population for hours at a time. ("People would get off the boat and ask me how far above sea level they were," Murphy says.) Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a lot to do in the town, so Murphy started recording songs and harmonies on a little four-track tape player in his free time and sending them to Quick.
"Kevin was writing songs like a madman," Quick says. Quick would play the tapes on his pickup truck's tape deck, and it took a few days before he realized he was listening to only one out of four tracks at a time: "I had missed some really awesome stuff." Those tapes are what made Quick realize that Murphy was a talented singer and songwriter; Murphy admits to holding back in those Bellingham jam sessions. (Early interviews suggested that Murphy has some anxiety issues about performing, but now he downplays that anxiety, admitting, "[Our music is] out there, people are listening to it. You kind of tell yourself, you know, you're doing something right.")
The Moondoggies are definitely doing something right. Their latest album, Tidelands, is a huge leap forward: It's a masterful, old-fashioned album that fearlessly pushes at the edges of what the band, rounded out by drummer Carl Dahlen and bassist Robert Terreberry, is capable of. (But the Ketchikan story lives on: One track on Tidelands, "Empress of the North," was pulled almost directly from Murphy's Alaska tapes.) While it's easy to lazily box the Moondoggies into a genre—the word that gets thrown around most often is Americana—Tidelands refutes charges of being nothing more than a glorified nostalgia act. For broad swaths of the album, the country influences that appeared on the Moondoggies' previous album, Don't Be a Stranger, almost completely disappear as the band nudges into new territory with surprising confidence. "A Lot of People on My Mind" is a raw ballad that opens Murphy's voice up to new levels of emotion. "We Can't All Be Blessed" is a gorgeous, multilayered epic that owes more to the Beach Boys and gospel music than, say, the Allman Brothers.
Both Quick and Murphy bristle at the lazy country-rock labels. Quick calls Tidelands "more all-encompassing. I hope that will slightly change those descriptions of us." He wishes one comparison in particular would die: "The Allman Brothers." He addresses those critics directly: "Have you ever heard an Allman Brothers record? Because I have." Murphy thinks the association with jam bands comes less because of their music—in fact, they don't jam onstage or, really, at all, except for during the songwriting process—and more because the Moondoggies' setup is old-fashioned. "You'll probably never see us up there with a laptop," he says, adding, "I've seen us get compared to bands from [the 1970s] that I never listen to, like the Grateful Dead." So what does Murphy think the Moondoggies sound like? "I think it's just simple rock and roll."
The Moondoggies have a tendency to write longer songs; four of Tidelands' 10 cuts run longer than five minutes (and they're four of the best songs on the record). They're a digressive band, taking the time to stretch sounds out and then patiently following them back home to their original groove. They describe their songwriting as combining a series of parts until they discover a central spine that brings everything together. (Quick says they have "50 freakin' half-written songs" that are just waiting for completion.) Has this tendency to run long been a problem? "Our manager was asking us to cut out the last 45 seconds [of a song] because it's too long to make it on the radio," Quick says. The band is unmoved by pleas of radio-readiness: "We're like, 'Yeah, well, that's how the song goes.' You don't take out the last chapter of the book."