STUDIO TO STREET: Damon Moon

Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters

There is a sadness that pervades Lungs, Dirt & Dreams, the sophomore full-length from Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters. It lingers in the air and seeps its way into every note, filling the space between each whispered lamentation and howling guitar chord. Recorded in a remote cabin in the Georgia mountains, the album is draped in cold and mist; it exudes a sense of loneliness and isolation that’s both heartbreaking and hypnotic with each devastated guitar strum and shimmer of pedal steel only serving to draw you deeper into Moon’s melancholic vision of rustic folk and experimental Americana. It’s a hauntingly beautiful record—the sound of man struggling with his inner demons, lost and alone, but still not resigned to his fate.

Recently, I got the opportunity to talk with Moon via email. Among other things, we discussed the making of his new album, why he chose to record in an isolated cabin and what he misses most about Atlanta when he’s out on the road.

Can you give me some background on the recording on Lungs, Dirt & Dreams? Why did you feel the need to hole yourselves up in a remote cabin?

Well, at the beginning of 2011, we did a pretty lengthy U.S. tour, lasting nine and a half weeks. The plan was to return home after SXSW and head straight into the studio. Prior to the tour, I was living north of Atlanta, working full time, and pretty much buying recording gear—vintage and new—all the time. I wanted to have everything we needed for the record before we started the tour, so that when we came home, we could go right in and do it. Doing such a long tour, we all had to quit our jobs, and I knew that coming home from that would be the opportune time to take another few weeks off and do nothing but record.

The location was decided while we were on the road, if my memory serves me. The cabin we recorded in belonged to the parents of our bass player at that time, and they were totally cool about us using it. We were there a total of three weeks, which we broke up into two sessions, breaking in the middle to come play a show in town.

There was a definite desire and need to do it the way we did. One, as an artist and engineer, it’s always been a dream of mine to do a record that way, where there’s zero distractions. No worries about time constraints, noise laws, annoying things like that. Total creative freedom. And two, we’re no strangers to the road. We all knew from experience that coming home from a tour of that kind of length, we’d really need a kind of buffer time, or hell, a vacation, before we could all get back into everyday life. It’s really hard to jump right back into the day-to-day—work, responsibilities, real beds, solitude, consistency… those are all things that can be pretty hard to mentally jump back into right away. So, I thought that doing the record would be a good balance between what we had been doing for two and a half months, and normal life.

When I listen to this record there are certain adjectives that I keep returning to—darkness, loneliness and isolation being the most frequent. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal mindset when you went into the studio?

It was a whole other experience, different than anything I’ve done before. Unlike our first record, this one is intensely personal for me, and when we went into the studio, I had been singing all these songs for a while. It was pretty easy for me to jump into the vibe of everything when I needed to, as I was already doing that (pretty much on command) every night for two and a half months. It was a pretty interesting experience though, as I was navigating between the vibe of the songs, to thinking like an engineer, to all around excitement that we were recording a record the way I’ve always wanted to. It was a roller coaster for sure.

Compare for me Damon Moon as you are in your everyday life and the Damon Moon that we hear on record.

Haha, that’s an interesting way to think about it for me. Well, as I said, this record is pretty personal. It’s largely about a pretty difficult time in my life, and it this point, that time has come and gone. None of the things that it deals with are experiences that I think are unique to me, by any means. Deaths, personal growth, closure (or the lack thereof) the hardships of traveling a lot, and the beautiful parts of it… I’m definitely the same person, and I’ve been affected by everything on the record, but in general, I’m definitely more cheerful on the day-to-day than I am in these songs. I think everyone goes through terrible things and everyone has some really dark parts of their existence. I think those parts are going to materialize in your life, one way or another. So, I think if you allow them to come out in a constructive and creative way, then everything else in your life will be less affected by them. Because I let them come out in my music, I’m not an overly dark person.

This record is what people often refer to as a “headphones record”—there are a lot of details and layers in a lot of your songs, especially with all the various guitars. How much of was written beforehand and how much was improvised in the studio?

I’m really stoked on the way things translated from the stage to the record. The fact that you, yourself, could consider it a “headphones record” is a wonderful thing for me. We really put a lot of energy into trying different guitars, different amps, mics, placements, anything and everything, to get the tones and sounds we wanted, so I’m really happy that shows up. My other guitar player (Chris Cooke) and my lap steel player (Jacob Smith) are really great at working together melodically. None of us are big on guitar wankery, but we all love intertwining guitar parts when it’s tasteful and dynamic. Most of that kind of thing was written beforehand, though a few things definitely came together in the studio. “Ten Sleep, WY” was written beforehand, but originally was only going to be a short transitional track. The idea for the full band part was hatched once we started recording, and was kind of improvised until we were happy with it. That one was really fun to work on.

And the same goes for the three instrumental tracks. “We Make Our Own Traditions (Homesick Blues)” was written while we were on the road, though it didn’t really come together either until we were in the studio. It was actually recorded twice, because once we started working on it, more ideas led to more ideas that had to be reworked, and the whole song had to be rerecorded completely.

Your band, the Whispering Drifters, has featured a revolving cast of players throughout the years. Is that by design or circumstance? Also, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of that sort of fluctuation?

Well, when I started the project, it was going to be a studio-only thing. But once I felt I needed a live band, I knew it might be hard to keep people around when it was a “learn these songs and play it this way” kind of thing, but I was alright with that at first, though that way of thinking died pretty quickly. So originally, I did kind of like the idea of having a revolving door of musicians, and I still embrace that to a certain degree. One great thing about it was that after I let go of trying to get people to play something the way it was recorded, and was more open to ideas and experimentation, it was pretty cool because everyone did their own thing to the songs. So with every new player, the songs sometimes got a breath of fresh air, which was a pretty cool evolution to go through with some of the tunes. The song “Restless Roads End” on the record was originally way different, for example, but over time, it became what it is now. Who knows, maybe it’ll develop even more down the line. I don’t really like to place those kinds of limitations around the songs anymore. I don’t know if songs are ever really done; I think the potential magic down the road dies when you put that label on them.

One of the biggest disadvantages to doing things that way, is that the band’s ethic of “book the tours, the players will be there,” often ends up in some pretty unpredictable, last minute lineups that can be a little less than ideal. But other than that, it’s definitely kept things interesting over the years.

Tell me about your relationship with Adair Park Recordings and how you got involved with Gavin.

Oh man, Gavin is great. I think I first met him while I was playing guitar in Ocha La Rocha, and we played the Drunken Unicorn a time or two. We worked together more and more over time, as we played the DU pretty often. I remember chatting with him at our tour kickoff show, when we started our big nine week tour, and I told him we’d be recording a new record when we got home, and he said we should talk more about it when the time came. So here we are, the record is out today, and I have nothing but good things to say about Gavin. Honest, fair, supportive, helpful. He’s been great to work with; I think we’re all stoked on the decision to work together.

You’re on the road constantly. What’s the first thing you do when you get back into town after a long trip?

Sleep. On tour, you’re often sleeping in some pretty weird spaces, and you almost never get good rest. If it’s a long tour, you don’t notice it after a while, your body just gets used to it. But once I get home and hit my own bed, I usually turn my phone off, cover the windows with blankets, and disappear for a day or two. Another thing—it’s so loud on tour, all the time. There’s constant audio stimulation—riding in the van, restaurants, traffic, the shows, even sleeping in the same room as everybody, it’s constant noise. The silence is definitely something I enjoy as soon as I get home. I typically don’t listen to any music at all for a few days. I just relax, read and just space out.

Similar question—what’s the thing you miss the most about Atlanta when you’re out on the road?

Hmm, aside from people that I miss when I’m away, I’d say my kitchen. I’m a pretty good cook, I think, and I love to make big meals for my roommates and friends. So I do kind of miss that and everything that comes along with it when we’re out.

If you had to eat at one Atlanta restaurant every day for the rest of your life what would it be?

I’m huge on Mexican food, but it’s a little tough to pick just one place. Right now, I’d probably say Tomatillos in East Atlanta.vThat place has burritos down to a science. But other than good burrito places, which there’s a few in town, I don’t think Atlanta has any really good Mexican food. Maybe I’m spoiled from the gems I’ve come across in Texas and New Mexico though.

What’s your favorite local venue to perform at and why?

Probably 529. Aside from the manager, Kyle, being such a great dude, we always have a good time there. The location is perfect, the room is small enough so that it feels good when there’s 30 people in there, the sound is good, and the vibe all around is perfect, I think.

Give me three local bands that don’t get the respect or attention they deserve.

Under White Pines is the project of Adam Laidlaw. He’s a solo folk artist from Flint, Michigan, but that guy is writing some of the best stuff I’ve heard come out of Atlanta in a long time. He’s not largely established here yet, but I think this year he’s going to gain a lot of very well deserved attention.

Sleepy Genes have been a favorite of mine since I first saw them play, and since then we’ve become really good friends. I’m recording their EP at my home studio right now, actually. The musicianship in that band is nuts, and they’re ALL amazing singers. They’ve been really great to work with, and I think they definitely deserve more attention this year.

Cassandras are another local favorite of mine. Great dudes, solid players, great songs. They don’t get quite as much attention as they should I think, but again, I think this year they’ll really start to bloom in the local scene.

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Lungs, Dirt & Dreams is out today via Adair Park Recordings.

Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters will celebrate the release of Lungs, Dirt & Dreams on Saturday, February 25th at the Basement. Supporting them will be Sleepy Genes (Single Release) and Cassandras (EP Release). Doors open at 9pm. $8 gets you in, plus a free copy of all three records.

More Info:
Web: www.lungsdirtanddreams.com
Bandcamp: www.dmatwd.bandcamp.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmatwd