For Sanae Yamada—one half of psychedelic rockers Moon Duo, along with Ripley Johnson—the most surreal aspect of relocating from the Bay Area to Portland a few years back was the difference in seasons. Portland’s were pronounced, but she had barely noticed the cyclical shifts in San Francisco. Over time, her memories of Northern California became more difficult to place in time, because there weren’t weather clues attached to them.
This realization, in part, inspired the group’s most ambitious project to date: a two-album exploration of the hidden energies in our universe. It’s kind of about weather, but it’s also about the unseen spiritual energies that guide our world. The album is divided into the dark (Occult Architecture Vol. 1, released this month) and light (Occult Architecture Vol. 2 comes out later this year).
“It wasn’t like we sat down and were like ‘let’s make a record about the seasons,’ but removing myself from the context of the seasons gave totally different qualities to my memories,” Yamada says. “It was more the binary aspects of things that we were talking about—the existence of opposites that contrast each other, at the same time define each other, and make up this whole.”
In a way, the concept of the record isn’t different than anything the group has done on its previous three LPs. Examining the occult, the spirituality of the natural world, and even the weather (the album Circles was partially inspired by the sunniness of Colorado, where they recorded it) has always been a part of how the duo makes music. What is different is the size and scope of the project—the two albums were made back-to-back to give them the feel of a single project. Going into it, they didn’t know if it would even work.
“It’s a very daunting concept to take on. I don’t by any means think that we covered it. We just opened a few doors, I guess,” Yamada says. “I think that the investigation of the cycles and the patterns and structures that make up our reality, matter and consciousness and all of those have been an enduring fascination for both of us.”
The first record, which is supposed to represent darkness, doesn’t sound how one might imagine it would. It features fast-driving, precise playing; a heavy dose of New Wave synth offset by guitar parts. The vocals are different than any previous Moon Duo album—it sounds like singer/guitarist Johnson is in a trance. It’s squashed, almost expressionless.
Yamada explains to me that the intention wasn’t to make a dark album in the sense of something evil or drowning in sadness. The word that stuck out for them when they made the album was “claustrophobic.” Yamada achieved this texture by using exclusively synthesizers (i.e., no organs), and keying in sounds that had “a lot of growling sounds and gurgling sounds, little sharp stabbing textures.” She was thinking about a cave space, she says, like liquid bubbling up from the ground. The vocals were recorded normally, but were mixed in a way that gave them the compressed sound.
The upcoming second album has no such effects applied to the vocals. The most important thing was for it to sound expansive and summer-y. Yamada still only used synths, but this time she applied a different sound palette. “I tried to make more sugary sounds, like granular floating textures,” she says. “Like dust in the air.”
Sheer ambition of the project aside, the most remarkable thing about this pair of records may be the way it has expanded the group’s sound beyond the confines of the psych rock genre they are most often associated with.
“We definitely get labeled psychedelic, which I actually don’t mind so much, in that the term itself is a pretty expansive term. I think a lot of things could fit under the heading,” says Yamada. “But I think in its current iteration, there’s definitely a fairly identifiable sound that goes along with it that we don’t necessarily fit that well.”
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