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Spotlight: Moon Taxi

by Jewly Hight on September 10, 2013
“Wait, guys,” cautions Wes Bailey, glancing around the rectangular restaurant table from one bandmate to the next. “Are we ready to talk about the Disas-Tour on the record?”

As the other four members of Moon Taxi tuck into their tacos, tortilla soup and margarita chasers, they reassure their keyboard player that this isn’t the first time that their early road woes have come up during an interview. Still, anybody who’s weathered an awkward adolescent phase – which is to say, most of us – can identify with Bailey’s impulse to bury the evidence.

Taking a trip down memory lane can, however, be worthwhile when it inspires appreciation for how far you’ve come. And that’s the case with this Nashville quintet, whose members have convened at a chic Tex-Mex spot a couple months out from the release of Mountains Beaches Cities, their accomplished fourth album.

It doesn’t take long for Bailey, drummer Tyler Ritter, bassist Tommy Putnam, guitarist Spencer Thomson and singer/guitarist Trevor Terndrup to warm up to the topic of their 2010 tour from hell; they can’t help but laugh at how spectacularly demoralizing the whole experience was for the band.

There was the time they pulled up to a venue and discovered that rather than advertising their show, the marquee gave notice that the place was for sale. Or the time they drove seemingly endless hours in a van, only to find out they’d been booked to play a tiny, strip-mall coffee shop.

“We’re in a band where there’s zero promotion going on – we’ve never been to any of these places, no one’s ever heard of Moon Taxi,” Putnam reasons. “So what do you think is gonna happen when you show up to play a show? No one’s gonna be there.”

Artist managers and booking agents worth their salt don’t send their clients into such dire situations, so Moon Taxi limped back to Nashville and did the only rational thing: They fired most of their team. But the more significant outcome, by far, was that the experience initiated the band’s total self-reinvention.

“Instead of letting that break us,” offers Terndrup, “it actually brought us together in a more brotherly way. And there was a conscious effort to say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta change this. We want our music to be represented better.’”

The guys are invested in the long-term creative and commercial health of their music-making enterprise. They locked in their lineup six years ago at Nashville’s Belmont University. But the seeds of Moon Taxi were planted before they ever set foot on campus. Terndrup and Putnam’s collaboration dates back to their high school years in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., where Ritter, who was two grades behind them, was already a fan and plotted a way to meet them and join their band.

Moon Taxi was a hit from the start among fellow music geeks – mainly guys, they’ve joked – thanks, in part, to the band members’ formidable chops, onstage energy and ability to leap time signatures with ease. They’d recorded a muddled pair of albums, Melodica and Live Ride, a few years before their notorious tour.

Following the Disas-Tour, says Terndrup, “We stepped back and looked at what we were doing and how we were presenting ourselves. We came to the ultimate conclusion that we needed to make a good studio record. ‘Cause we already had the live thing in the bag.” After putting a serious dent in his bowl of soup, Thomson weighs in on the tendency that formally trained musicians have to unnecessarily complicate their work. “We found what’s more interesting are simple, fundamentally good ideas that are done in an ornate way,” he says. “A lot of the bands that we liked, we liked them because of their records. And we couldn’t say that about ourselves.”

All of that changed with last year’s Cabaret, a sparkling, synth-rock set featuring a guest turn from Matisyahu. And now that these five have followed it with their shape-shifting, sleekly catchy, brilliantly prismatic Mountains Beaches Cities, they have every right to be pleased with themselves. It’s the handiwork of musicians who haven’t dumbed things down as much as harnessed their musical intelligence and exploratory spirits into New Wave-informed pop smarts.

Clouds of echo hover over the wistful, windswept expanses of “Beaches,” the scissoring, bluesy riffs of “The New Black” are refracted through surreal effects, and on the danceable “Struck Me Down,” the synthesizer parts are chopped up into the aural equivalent of quick zaps of electric charge.

“The hooks – that was a big thing,” Bailey affirms. “That’s definitely an integral part of the songwriting process that we didn’t really consider as much before that we really strive for now. It’s a great feeling to go to a city and have people singing along, because the songs get stuck in their heads.”

A far cry from the empty rooms they played a few short years ago, Moon Taxi wowed a crowd of 15,000 geographically and demographically far-flung music fans during their Thursday night set at Bonnaroo in 2012.

“That’s part of why we’re never gonna have another Disas-Tour,” muses Putnam, “because we can’t go anywhere where no one’s gonna have heard [of us].”

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