Two for the road

Pub date April 5, 2011

MUSIC Erik “Ripley” Johnson is on the road. As the mastermind behind psych rock quartet Wooden Shijps and krautrockers Moon Duo, he spent eight months on tour last year. When he started Moon Duo with Sanae Yamada, Johnson knew that there’d be a degree of convenience in traveling as a twosome: it’s cheaper and much easier to be flexible and mobile. He was ready to tour as a full-time job.

Since Moon Duo began in 2009, Johnson and Yamada have put out two singles, the EP Killing Time (Sacred Bones) and the album Escape (Woodsist). Moon Duo’s just-released second full-length, Mazes (Sacred Bones), relays the story of a wandering life.

“We decided to name the album Mazes after we moved from San Francisco,” Johnson says over the phone, while the pair is on the road from New York to Massachusetts for their next gig. “That song is about choosing a path in life, but how you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to take you.”

Moon Duo creates trance-inducing music that builds minimalist, rhythmic repetition from drum samples and keyboards that support Johnson’s guitar freak-outs. It’s an experience of texture and tone that is sustained and then rerouted.

Most of Mazes was recorded lo-fi in Johnson’s and Yamada’s Mission District apartment last spring, when the couple was in transition. While they worked on the album, Johnson and Yamada packed up. “We needed to get out of the city because we were never there and we were paying all this rent,” Johnson says. By summer, the pair had moved to the wild highlands of Blue River, Colo.

“We thought we’d finished recording the album in San Francisco, but we weren’t happy with some elements,” he adds. So Moon Duo headed to Germany. Although Johnson acknowledges the synchronicity of recording in Berlin, he says it wasn’t motivated by his interest in krautrock, which he came to through Julian Cope’s influential book Krautrocksampler. “Every record he talks about, he’s so enthusiastic,” he says of Cope’s writing. “I can’t say I agree with all his choices, but it’s a guide book, and I went through it and bought stuff that sounded cool.”

The process of making Mazes reached Germany because Johnson and Yamada’s friends in Berlin had a studio and offered to help mix the album. “It just seemed like we should try it out in a different perspective, and go into a proper studio,” Johnson explains. There, the pair rerecorded some parts, tweaked things, and played with a collection of vintage drum machines.

The results are tight. Mazes‘ opening track “Seer” is a variant of a song off Escape, but lighter on the fuzz and denser with the rock ‘n’ roll. It gives you a good hint of where the band is heading on the rest of the many-layered album. Forerunners in the current kraut revival, Moon Duo is inspired by two-piece predecessors Silver Apples and Suicide while also exploring other sounds, including psychedelic wanderings, Velvet Underground-style hypnosis, and Modern Lovers post-punk.

“When You Cut” starts with lush synth and deep-throated vocals, and upbeat claps keep the song going steady, providing the framework for an untamed guitar solo. The band goes pop with the two-step “Run Around,” then gets dark again on the reverb-drenched “In the Sun” and on the closer, “Goners.” Ultimately, Mazes is a personal journey through music history, but one that also reflects the travels of life.


With Lilac, Royal Baths

Mon./11, 9 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455