Moonlight Bride photo by Lesha Patterson
This month a year ago, Moonlight Bride packed up their 1999 Dodge van and drove 922 miles to Austin, Texas, for a show they’d booked only two weeks prior. They had no connecting dates, no sleeping accommodations, and little in the way of a plan once they arrived. When they did, they parked two miles away from the venue, unloaded the van and carried their gear through the crowded city center where the South by Southwest music conference was under way.
“It was a 16-hour drive for one unofficial show at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday,” said guitarist Justin Grasham.
For the band, it was one of the most important trips they’ve ever taken. And, given the chain of events that began there, it’s easy to see why. It precipitated a lineup change, putting longtime friend and collaborator Dave Maki on bass guitar. Their afternoon performance impressed a coterie of industry onlookers. They signed on with their current manager and drew the attention of West Coast producer John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Hot Hot Heat).
Most importantly, the trip broke down a wall of self-doubt that had built up over the preceding months. In its place, confidence took root.
“We just grew and bonded so much on that trip,” Grasham said.
They return to South by Southwest this week on stronger footing. Having put together a management team that handles day-to-day business, the band can concentrate on writing and performing. Last year, they covered thousands of miles up and down the East Coast, growing their fan base outside their hometown of Chattanooga and picking up some fantastic anecdotes along the way. (Getting Myrtle Beach drunk? Check. Raiding the minibar and feasting on crab cakes in a five-star suite in Baltimore? Check comp’d.)
And though it’s been more than two years of silence on the recording front, they have a spate of releases planned for 2012, starting with the “Twin Lakes” EP, which came out last month. Soon to follow are a collection of remixes—Tom Bromley of Los Campesinos! is contributing one of the tracks—an acoustic-based record in May, and a new full-length album in the fall.
“We’re going to focus on meeting people and spreading our music around as much as possible,” said frontman Justin Giles, who’s dropping his surname for future releases. “I feel like ‘Twin Lakes’ is just a little starter for everything to roll up into the next full-length.”
Recorded at As Elyzum Studio in St. Elmo, “Twin Lakes” captures the band’s confidence and energy upon their return from Austin last spring. It’s a departure from 2009’s “Myths.” There’s less keyboard, more guitar noise, and richer dynamics. The quiet passages come to a standstill before opening up and moving into new territories. Falsetto melodies haunt its darkest corners and seem to linger much longer than the brief, 20-minute runtime would otherwise suggest.
Two of the songs, “Drug Crimes” and the single “Lemonade,” were written literally days before the session began. They spent two weeks in the studio, a time consisting of live-tracking, very few overdubs, and the consumption of strong drink. (A clue to the latter lies in the title of the EP’s third track.) “In the studio, we were extremely confident,” Giles said. “We played better and sounded better.”
John Goodmanson mixed “Twin Lakes.” He got involved with the band after their performance at South by Southwest— his manager was one of the industry onlookers. “I’m always looking for people who are hungry and excited about what they’re doing,” he said in an email. “I liked the melodies and the voice, but that paired with the psychedelic, My Bloody Valentine vibe is what made it unique.”
Goodmanson’s involvement came at the tail end of a high-profile list of suitors. When the major labels came calling, as they did in 2010, Moonlight Bride was caught off guard. Copies of “Myths” circulated through the music industry, and Giles’ phone began to ring with calls from A&R reps, lawyers and managers.
“We didn’t even know the industry existed. It was a myth to us. It was just this thing that we heard of,” he said.
The attention, while flattering at first, became a little unnerving. Their music was critiqued outside their immediate fan base, which was too small anyway, they were told. “We want to see how it develops,” Giles recalled one person saying. “We needed to refine our image,” was another criticism. The legendary impresario Kim Fowley once told them they needed to be clean-shaven at all times.
It seemed like the majors were only interested in 12 remakes of “Young Guns,” the upbeat, radio friendly song from “Myths,” Grasham said. “And we didn’t want to do that. We’re not going to do that.”
The attention and criticism wore down their confidence when writing. A period of self-doubt set in. The stakes suddenly seemed higher, the internal barometer of “good” more elusive. “It seems like I spent a lot of time focusing on that when we first started getting a lot of attention. And it just kind of tainted everything,” said Giles. “That’s one of the reasons why we delayed putting anything out. We wanted to make sure that what we put out, we wanted to put out.”
“As an outsider, it seemed like the dynamic was kind of fucked up,” said Dave Maki. Prior to joining in 2011, he had worked with Moonlight Bride for several years. An unofficial fifth member, Maki co-wrote some of the interludes on “Myths” and served as a sounding board for ideas.
The rest of the band treads lightly when discussing the decision to part ways with bassist and co-founder Tyke Calfee. His exit came right before they went into the studio to record “Twin Lakes.” Calfee’s availability proved problematic in 2010. He had talked privately of leaving, and after he was unable to go to Austin, they came to the same conclusion.
“That was the thing that was tough for us. We love Tyke,” said drummer Matt Livingston. “But it came down to logistics.”
His former bandmates spoke highly of him one year later, saying that even though the transition with Maki went smoothly, it took a while getting used to Moonlight Bride without Calfee in it.
“It was really tough, but I knew in the long run it would be for the best,” Calfee said in a recent email. “Also, Dave was really the best and only choice to replace me.”
The band still plays material from Calfee’s tenure, including songs written during the self-doubt period. After putting some distance between themselves and that time, the band realized they had a great body of work they continue to add to. But the doubt is gone. “Way gone,” Giles said.
“Some of those songs will appear on future releases. We still have a large back catalog that we’re going to pull from for the next record,” Livingston said. “A lot of stuff that we haven’t played live. A few that we have.”
In spite of the attention “Myths” brought them, Moonlight Bride never sought mainstream success. They long ago set their sights toward an organic path, where respect is a more valuable commodity than fame or fortune, and the idea of “making it” has little to do with inking a fast deal.
So what constitutes “making it” then? What’s the goal? Or the next step? I posed these questions to Giles in a noisy Chattanooga bar last month. His initial reply—secure a booking agent and then indie label—was straightforward. For the next hour though, he spoke of the importance of building professional relationships with people who genuinely love the band’s music. He admitted to “seeing stars” when opportunity first knocked, but he and his bandmates decided that they prefer building a sustainable career over a longer period of time.
The bands that hit it big really fast seem to be the ones that burn out really fast. “They don’t really sustain,” Giles said.
The next day, he and Mike Scocozza, the band’s manager, planned to drive to Nashville to meet with a booking agency. It was one of many meetings they’ve had in the past year with industry players big and small. (This one was big.)
Giles looked forward to the trip. They would talk about the band’s month-long tour in March, he said, “Twin Lakes,” and their upcoming releases. But he didn’t behave as though the meeting was a make-or-break moment for Moonlight Bride. Instead, he compared the experience to dating, where both sides try to see if there’s any chemistry between them — in this case, whether their professional interests align.
In the not so distant past, he might have hung his hopes on one meeting, one deal or one record.
“Now I realize that’s not the case at all. It never is,” Giles said. “You’ve got to put out what you’re doing, what you like, and what you believe in. And forget all of that.”