Live on the Green was merely a tour stop for the first five of this year's six headliners. But for Moon Taxi — who opened for Dr. John during the free Nashville Public Square Park series last year and were bumped up to headliner status this time around — it's a hometown gig, and an unofficial album release show to boot.
The Moon Taxi guys have done plenty well for themselves on the occasions when showgoers have had to actually pay to see them, too. Bassist Tommy Putnam estimates they've sold out every club date they've played in town for the past four years. Plus at Bonnaroo 2012 they drew a Thursday night crowd of 15,000 or so, opposite the likes of White Denim and Yelawolf.
So we're not talking about a baby band here. And yet this is the first time the independent, locally based quintet with a formidable following has received a feature's worth of ink in the Scene.
As Putnam explains via email, "Until recently, nearly all the attention we'd gained was through live shows. It was all word of mouth for years, with little to no press at all."
They made up for it with self-promotional ingenuity. "[Singer/guitarist] Trevor [Terndrup] and I once built and attached a 4-foot sign that advertised the show to the roof of his car," writes Putnam. "We then drove around town honking the horn. I don't know if that one effort made a difference, but I think that 'whatever it takes' attitude is important. You have to stand out in so many different ways to get any kind of attention."
Getting the attention of music critics is another issue. Terndrup and Putnam — who were bandmates since high school — joined up with guitarist Spencer Thomson, drummer Tyler Ritter and keyboardist Wes Bailey while at Belmont, and they became a popular campus act with one foot firmly planted in jam-band territory. Bailey, for one, says he more or less earned his spot in the group by nailing an impromptu rendition of the Phish staple "You Enjoy Myself" when he sat in with the guys at a college party.
There's more to the modern jam-band archetype embodied by Phish than signature songs and extended soloing. Phish has largely existed in a separate sphere from indie-centric rock criticism, with its privileging of subversive bite over anything that smacks of a musically meandering indifference to fashion. For a long time, Phish got little love from such outlets, but it certainly didn't hurt the band's ability to tour and thrive self-sufficiently.
With Moon Taxi, it was never a question of instrumental chops, showmanship or stamina, all of which they have in spades. After 2007's studio debut Melodica, then a forced hiatus due to Thomson's severely injured chord-making hand, and finally the live album Live Ride, the members decided that their weakest link was their recordings. On Melodica, more than half the tracks sprawled past the four-minute mark, and a shorter one, "Nashvillian Amazon," was built on a combo of instruments that took the experimentation in a questionable direction.
"That has two harmonizing didgeridoos, which I played," Terndrup says during a sit-down interview earlier this summer. He and his self-aware but not overly self-serious bandmates are willing to laugh about it. "But we made a decision not to have two harmonizing didgeridoos on this record."
Though it doesn't change the fact that the attention's overdue, this piece catches Moon Taxi at a great time. Their brand-new Mountains Beaches Cities — out this week — is the first album Moon Taxi has put out through a partnership between their own 12th South Records and their publisher BMG. And more importantly, it's the second album they've put out since they began strategically applying the principles of mainstream pop architecture.
Says Terndrup, summing up the philosophy they adopted with Mountains' predecessor Cabaret, " 'Would the average person want to listen to that?' We're consciously thinking about that, not just trying to indulge ourselves. Because yeah, we could play in every single time signature imaginable, but would it be an enjoyable auditory experience for the listener?"
The tautness of Mountains' hooks — along with the iridescent gleam of the arrangements, achieved by stringing Terndrup's kinetic tenor over protean synth, pointillistic guitar and strapping dance-rock grooves dusted with astral effects — gives the listener a direct way into the epic changes of musical scenery that whiz by over a dozen tracks. It's the best of both worlds: sonic escapism that leaves no New Wave pop fan behind.
"It's not what you would picture," says Thomson of Moon Taxi's recording process. "It's not a big room with us jamming out, then pressing 'record' or anything like that." In actuality, he adds, they'll "sit down at a computer and construct a song, and then fill in the blanks [in a studio]." Jack White fave Vance Powell, by the way, is the band's go-to for mixing.
Cabaret's meticulous construction began in a small room, equipped with computer, keyboards and microphone, in Thomson's Belmont Boulevard apartment. Same deal with Mountains, except by that time Thomson had relocated to the nearby 12 South area. He's since moved again, though not by necessity. When working up new tunes, the band doesn't make enough noise to wear out his welcome with neighbors.
"No," he quips, "I'm well-respected in my community."
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