ON ELABORATE SYMPHONIES: An Interview with What Moon Things

Jake Harms & John Morisi

Jake Harms & John Morisi  •  photo by Eric Sowalskie

What Moon Things, brainchild of New Paltz’s Jake Harms and John Morisi, released their first Self-Titled album in June of 2014. The pair kindly sat down between gigs to discuss this dark and hazy work of art, how it came to be and why vampires.

W: How’d you guys first get together and start playing?

Jake Harms: I moved to New Paltz when I was twenty — John was a freshman [at the University] and he came to a few basement shows at this house venue I was running. When his band finally ended up playing [a show], I realized that our voices were really similar. We both had a summer off from our respective bands in 2012 and we decided to make some music for the hell of it. We ended up writing almost all of and recording about half of an album, going song for song. It came together really fast because we both play a bunch of instruments and communicated well. It was fun! — less stressful than being responsible for writing an entire album and teaching it to a band. I feel like when we make music together, we don’t have to talk too much. A lot of stuff is just understood and heard.

But then the 2012 school year started. He went back to his project and I to mine, and we put down the record. We basically stopped working on stuff together for another year — by which point our [former] bands had both broken up and we had both just come out of relationships. So we started trading ideas and writing a new album, which would become the S/T. That was the summer of 2013, which I’d call the legitimate starting point of the band. We added our ex-bass player, Chris, and started playing out.

W: Where was the album recorded & produced?

JH: We recorded the S/T in John’s bedroom at our apartment on S. Chestnut in New Paltz. We started trading ideas in May of 2013, wrote and recorded it between May and August of 2013. I then took the record to Athens, GA to get mixed by childhood friend, Scott Nicholas, and it was mixed and mastered (mastered by Jesse Mangum at The Glow in Athens) between August and October 2013.

W: I have no concept of how these electronic space elements are created or evolve; yet they seem so harnessed & precise. How do you create that kind of consistency out of what appears to be so fluid?

John Morisi: It’s all about the experimentation. We usually babble for a little while about what the recording lacks in terms of atmosphere, whether it’s effected guitar or synthesizers, then we try to find that sound. Sometime there’s miscommunication, but that adds to the fun of it, because describing sound in words is so subjective to the person and their style. As for the notes, the played part is usually entirely improvised, and I think that’s really what gives the feeling. You can spend hours rehearsing a part and go to a studio to play it perfectly, but because it’s so played out you can’t even enjoy it at the end. There’s something beautiful about the spontaneity of improvisation. It’s a jazz thing.

JH: A lot of the textural stuff we do when recording is improvised and then edited later. So you capture the feeling and play with it after the fact. Consistency happens from doing it a lot, I’d say. John and Scott are really good at creating atmosphere… I think you just have to have this very meticulous brain and a deep knowledge of whatever recording program you’re using. I don’t really do much of that, I listen more to what John does and say what I like. Then Scott will go through everything really precisely in the mixing process. A lot of crossfades—das dat fluidity.

W: The record is comprised of a lot of gothic images in these lyrics. Where do those images come from? Why are you taken with them?

JM: About a year and a half ago I was taken by the ’70s/’80s gothic wave. One day I was just surfin’ on the web, and I heard “Lullaby” by The Cure for the first time, and it clicked. I know I was a few decades late, but it all sounded so contemporary. I used to always see these teens in the ’90s and early ’00s walking around looking like Marilyn Manson, and I never really got it. I think it’s a different breed. I wanted to take it back before that, when the darker style of writing was less depressing and violent and more romantic and humorous.

W: Oddly enough, I had the same discovery of that song only a few years back, too. Makes a lot of sense in how it fits. How do you think you were able to achieve that same gothic, grotesque element in the instrumentation?

JM: The lyrics kind of set the mood, and we started all of those songs with just lyrics and chords. Naturally all of the little things just played around those ideas. If a note didn’t fit the mood, you could just feel it. The vibes from the music play the biggest role in how we play. The same goes for our live setting. If we’re in a grimy basement, with grimy people, we can’t help but get a little grimy.

JH: The lyrics definitely inform the feeling in the music, i think you can’t help but make music that sounds like what you’re talking about, it’s definitely your subconscious at work. Listening over and over and over again. Smoking way too much, basically letting yourself get in the vibe of it. We’re from New Paltz, man, it’s impossible not to be a little vibey. [smiles]

W: Where’d the cover come from? What’s that all about?

JH: it’s our take on a painting called The Vampire by Phillip Burne-Jones.

The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones

The Vampire • Philip Burne-Jones

JM: The cover was shot by our friend and old roommate, Terry Phan. It was taken in the attic of the barn beside our old New Paltz house. I think it was pretty fitting for the album. Our old bass player is the guy in the shot and the lady is his friend. If you look hard enough you can find us though.

W: Just because I’m curious—What is it about vampires?

JM: It just struck me one night.

JH: I think the vampire is a romantic villain. Our idea was a stoned vampire alone in his room with delusions about being an astronaut. It’s kind of a funny idea to us, and also was a metaphor for our recently failed relationships I think. I also came into the writing process after John had started with the vampire idea. It was fun to me to not have it quite figured out as an idea. It allowed me to be more creative, I think. I love in lyrics, and in music generally, when there are intangibles and ends that don’t quite meet. I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to make sense in life, and it’s weird that that’s the case because a lot of life is random and senseless and scary. I’d rather look at that in the face and maybe find it funny or even enjoy it than try to assign everything a meaning. It’s always going to be impossible to know what happens when people die, and I don’t think that has to be scary. It’s actually kind of beautiful that we don’t know where we’re going. That idea also entreats you as a human, with a life, to make the most of it while you’re here. I think the detachment borne out of dealing with these kinds of existential crises is another reason for our use the image of the vampire. But I think our goal is to explore and make the haze, to write and play slow while the world moves fast, to create space instead overfilling our songs with bullshit, to not feel guilty for not believing in god… I think maybe the vampire is our version of god on the record. I’m still not sure what it means exactly, but I like that — I feel like we created something bigger than ourselves.

W: I’d say so. Just coming from this fan’s POV, this record certainly is momentous, both in sound and existential depth. What’s next for you guys?

JM: We’re working on a trippy heartfelt dance record and we’re going down to SXSW next month for part of our longest tour yet. The dates should be posted soon on our Facebook, Bandcamp, Grand Jury’s website, and our often forgotten Tumblr.

JH: We’re about 3/4 the way through writing and recording our new record, which will probably be called SWIM (Someone Who Isn’t Me) and which we’ll be releasing some time this year on Grand Jury. It’s a very groovy record, and I’m excited for people to hear it.

Hear What Moon Things’ Self-Titled at their bandcamp and then pick up a limited-edition record for yourself online or at a show. They’re pretty sweet and sound even better.
What Moon Things