Fueled for Interstellar Overdrive
Let The Record Play combines Moon Taxi's DIY ethos with a major-label debut
More than 100 screen-printed posters cover the floor of Moon Taxi’s dressing room. They stretch from wall to wall like plants in a greenhouse, with long lines of bare floor running between each row. Before they can be transported to the merch table and sold at tonight’s show — the first performance of a sold-out, two-night stand at the Mill & Mine in Knoxville where their latest release, Let The Record Play, will be performed in its near entirety — they are to be autographed by all five band members.
At the moment, however, most of the band members — vocalist and guitarist Trevor Terndrup, keyboardist Wes Bailey, drummer Tyler Ritter, lead guitarist and producer Spencer Thomson, and bassist Tommy Putnam — are busy. Several are onstage, overseeing the setup of their equipment. Thomson is wrapping up some work on a laptop — the same one he used last summer, when he mixed Let The Record Play’s 10 songs both at home and on the road. The only one currently attending to autograph duties is front man Terndrup, who crisscrosses the room on a four-wheel scooter, coming to a stop at each poster. Marker in hand, he scrawls his signature before wheeling his way toward the next print. After two minutes, he climbs off the scooter and begins squatting down instead. “I’m giving my legs a workout!” he announces to no one in particular. Then, after signing another dozen or so posters, he loses interest and jumps to his feet, flagging down the band’s in-house photographer as she walks by.
“Hey, have you been working on the yoga flow I showed you?” he asks brightly, before dropping to the floor and demonstrating a complicated series of postures. He does a chair pose, then a crane pose, then another chair pose. It’s an easy routine for the singer, who keeps himself in shape with daily yoga workouts aboard the band’s bus. As he launches into a prolonged headstand, though, the photographer laughs and shakes her head.
“I can’t do that,” she says.
“I thought you told me you were ready for beast mode,” Terndrup replies with a smile, before standing up and retrieving the marker from his back pocket. He returns to the posters. This time, he finishes them all.
Multi-tasking. It’s been a crucial part of Moon Taxi’s DNA for a dozen years, ever since their early days as Belmont undergrads. Back then, the guys balanced their college coursework with dorm-room band practices and local gigs. They played everywhere, performing their first show at Windows on the Cumberland — a now-shuttered bar on 2nd Ave. — before quickly climbing their way up the Nashville ladder. As their homegrown promotional campaigns grew, so did their audiences.
“Trevor and Tommy used to drive around the Belmont campus in a Subaru Hatchback with a huge flag off the back, advertising their upcoming shows,” says Dawson Morris, the band’s co-manager. “They had a very DIY approach from the start, almost like a punk band. Tommy would book most of the shows, and they’d hang signs around town to promote them. They’ve never really waited for someone to tell them how something works — chances are, they’ve figured it out already.”
When the band’s debut album, Melodica, was released in 2007, everyone but bassist Putnam and guitarist Thomson was still in school. That didn’t stop Moon Taxi from touring the southeastern college circuit hard, earning their stripes as a killer frat party band before graduating to bigger venues. Although heavily influenced by the jamband scene during those years, Moon Taxi’s sound offered something for everyone: plenty of guitar-fueled improvisation for the stoners; the occasional classic-rock cover song for the jocks; dance beats for those looking to burn off the kegerator calories; and finely crafted pop hooks for more discerning listeners. Few bands were better suited to creating the soundtrack for 20-something coeds in the SEC than Moon Taxi.
Even so, the band’s aspirations reached far beyond the college world. Running their own business with help from a booking agent and a small management team, the guys began touring nationally. They purchased their own lighting rig and hired a classmate to operate it. They edited their own music videos. They produced their own albums. Most importantly, they revamped their musical approach, this time focusing on concise, song-based pop/rock that could pack a punch not only in concert, but on the radio, too. Cabaret introduced that new sound in 2012, while Mountains Beaches Cities blew the doors open one year later, catapulting the group into the world of late-night TV performances and BMW ads. Proudly independent, Moon Taxi operated like a wildly successful mom-and-pop business for years, not partnering with their first (and only) major label — RCA Records, home to heavyweights like Kings of Leon, Justin Timberlake, and Foo Fighters — until last year.
It was “Two High” that changed everything. Bailey, who shares the bulk of the band’s songwriting duties with Thomson and Terndrup, credits the song’s existence to his iPhone’s autocorrect function. (Truth be told, a good buzz might’ve been involved, too.)
“We were in Asheville, playing a gig at the Orange Peel,” he remembers. “A few days back, I’d typed ‘too high’ into my phone, and my phone automatically changed it to ‘two high.’ I thought that was hilarious, but nothing would’ve happened if I hadn’t shown it to Trevor. He looked at the words ‘two high’ on my phone and said, ‘Oh, like a peace sign!’ It was a mic-drop moment. He walked out of the room, and I thought, ‘Damn, that’s good!’ ”
The next day, while the band drove 600 miles to a gig at Notre Dame, an estimated 5 million activists across America hit the streets, rallying together against sexism, racism and other social injustices personified by the newly elected president, Donald Trump. The 2017 Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, and its magnitude wasn’t lost on Moon Taxi.
“We were watching C-SPAN as the march was happening, and a lot of the lyrics were formulating at that point,” Bailey says. “Trevor got a good handle on the verses, and I came up with the chorus: ‘Put ’em up, two high.’ I took that idea and wrote some chords once we got home, and Spencer wrote the guitar lick. Everything was finished one week after the Women’s March.”
“We haven’t always written from that place of social consciousness,” admits Terndrup. “We used to write about travel and escapism — things that don’t always concern themselves with reality. With ‘Two High,’ we focused on people’s need for hope.”
Meanwhile, the guys were nearing completion on a new album. They’d worked with producer Jacquire King on their previous record, Daybreaker, and the results had been fruitful. “All Day All Night,” Daybreaker’s anthemic tribute to the party that never stops, had even found its way onto a McDonald’s commercial, providing the soundtrack for a slow-motion montage of cracked eggs and airborne sausage patties. Moon Taxi’s songs were reaching more people than ever before, but the band craved more control over the music’s creation and presentation. With Thomson resuming his role as in-house producer, they began recording new material at the guitarist’s house, where a computer and a handful of microphones constituted a simple, frills-free home studio.
“Nothing’s acoustically treated,” he says of the recording space. “It’s not that kind of place. Honestly, we don’t need that kind of place when we make our albums. The songs on Let The Record Play were built largely on the computer first. I programmed a lot of the drums, which we folded into some live drum tracks that we recorded at Sputnik Sound in Berry Hill. We spent a total of five days at Sputnik, but most of the work was done on my computer, either on the road or at my house. It was hugely liberating. Staying in one location feels like a nightmare to me. I love being able to go anywhere in the world and work without feeling tied down to one place.”
“He’s actually working right now,” Terndrup chimes in, pointing to Thomson’s open laptop. “You’re literally inside Spencer’s studio at this moment. Take your shoes off!”
To whip up excitement for the new material, Moon Taxi released “Two High” as a single in May 2017. The reaction was seismic, particularly on Spotify. Tens of millions of people listened to the song, making it the most popular track — at least by digital standards — in Moon Taxi’s catalog. Today, the single has racked up 80 million streams, a stunning number for an independently released track.
“You could sit there and watch the numbers climb,” says bass player Putnam. “It was clearly a hit song, and the next thing you know, every label in America is calling us. At first, we weren’t sure we even cared about that. For me, the turning point came during a show in Opelika, Alabama. We were in the middle of playing ‘Run Right Back,’ which is one of our favorite songs. There were all these young girls in the front row, singing along with Trevor, and I thought, ‘Man, this song is so good. It’s making those girls happy. If we’d been with RCA or Sony or Atlantic when that album was released, maybe so many more people would know this song, and it could somehow make their lives better.’ I started thinking perhaps this new record did need to be put out by a label, because it would have more reach.”
Multiple labels came to see the band perform. They held meetings and took the guys out to dinner. It was something of an old-fashioned bidding war — the kind that doesn’t often happen these days. For an independent band, Moon Taxi enjoyed an almost unprecedented amount of leverage during those negotiations. After all, the guys had an established fan base that stretched across the country. They had an album in the can, and a hit on their hands, too. They didn’t need to sign with anyone. In the end, Moon Taxi chose to work with the label that most clearly understood their vision, inking a deal with RCA.
“ ‘Two High’ changed our lives,” says a wide-eyed Terndrup. “We released it in May as a teaser for our fans, and by the end of the summer, we had a major label deal. Ten years into our career!”
When Let The Record Play hit stores earlier this year, it bore RCA’s famous logo on the album’s rear cover. Even so, the record remains a homemade album at heart. Written before the major labels came calling, it shows just how savvy the Moon Taxi bandmates have become. They’ve carefully crafted a sound rooted in a modern, festival-friendly blend of gauzy synthesizers, four-on-the-floor kickdrum stomp, blasts of brass, and short, meteoric choruses. There are hints of world music, too: an Eastern-sounding scale here, a hint of syncopated Afro-pop there, and a whole lot of reggae throughout. Highlights like “Not Too Late” and “Good as Gold” even push the band into EDM territory, thanks to a combination of builds, breaks, and drops.
It’s a sound that combines the organic with the electronic, folding man-made and synthesized sounds into the same beat-heavy blend. For millennials raised on Spotify rather than FM radio, Let The Record Play offers up the right blend of diversity and dynamics, never limiting itself to one genre. For older listeners who prize the familiar over the fresh, though, the guys remain a guitar-driven rock band on songs like “Moving to the City” and “Keep Me Coming,” both of which are propelled forward by meaty, fuzz-pedaled riffs. The result is a sound that still appeals to the 30-somethings who caught Moon Taxi’s college gigs back in 2007, while targeting their younger siblings, as well.
“We’ve been playing some of our oldest markets long enough to go through two and a half senior classes,” notes Don VanCleave, who began managing the band shortly after Melodica’s release. “It all started in the SEC schools. The band found some of their earliest fans there, and those kids would turn their younger brothers and sisters onto the band, too. When those siblings became old enough to go to college, they’d tell their friends about the band. That’s how we’re able to get all the incoming college classes. It’s cool to watch. We still do some all-ages shows, and we’re stunned at how young it can go.”
Morris agrees, adding, “There’s an inherent positive message in Moon Taxi’s music, and I think young kids pick up on that. It’s something they can connect with. It’s not like the guys are playing heavy metal, psychedelic rock, or some type of music that’s more narrow and genre-specific. They have a wide sound filled with positivity, which lends itself to youth.”
Appropriately, a children’s choir makes an appearance during Let The Record Play’s title track, doubling Thomson’s distorted guitar lick with a thick chorus of “na, na, na” vocals.” Thomson wrote the song in frustration, after spending an afternoon answering reporters’ questions at a music festival. Once Terndrup tracked his lead vocal, though, the song became something different: a bright, summery urge to tune in, turn on, and drop the needle onto the wax.
“Spencer created the song as a form of venting,” the singer says, “but that’s not really what it means to me. Personally, I think it’s about divorcing yourself from constant cell phone usage and social media. It’s about unplugging, disconnecting, and trying to figure out what really matters. I’m happy to find some irony in the fact that we had this huge streaming song, and it got us signed to a major label, and we decided to name the record Let The Record Play. At the end of the day, that’s what we want people to do. Listen to the whole thing. Don’t just listen to ‘Too High.’ Don’t just play ‘Good as Gold.’ Listen to the entire album.” “I think it’s a metaphor for life, too,” Putnam offers. “Just let it be. Live your life. Let it happen.”
“ ‘Let it Happen’ is already a Tame Impala song, though,” Terdrup points out.
“Oh, damn,” Putnam says with mock disappointment. “Can I change my answer?”
Rather than transport an entire children’s choir to a recording studio, Moon Taxi met the kids on their home turf, bringing Thomson’s mobile recording rig to the School of Rock on Belmont Boulevard. For a classroom full of musicians in training, the chance to perform on a major-label album was a once-in-an-adolescence event. The School of Rock shared a building with an adjacent Iron Tribe gym, though, which presented some challenges.
“The walls weren’t exactly soundproof,” Terndrup recalls. “You’ve got the Iron Tribe gym next door bumping bro-country, and then you’ve got a sixth grader practicing his drum set in a classroom down the hall. It wasn’t an ideal sound environment, but we made it work. And really, that’s the essence of Spencer’s recording philosophy — just get good sounds, no matter where it comes from. All that matters is, ‘Does it sound good? Yes? OK, go with it. Does it sound bad? Yes? OK, delete that shit and move on.’ ”
Other songs came together in green rooms across the country, with Bailey often leading the charge. The guys are quick to point out, however, that there’s no chief songwriter in Moon Taxi’s lineup; the songs, just like the band that wrote them, are a collaborative effort.
“We were touring behind Daybreaker,” the keyboardist remembers, “and I had a little riff from each city we visited. There was the Boston lick and the Baltimore lick. If I remember it right, the Boston riff became ‘Moving to the City.’ The Baltimore riff became ‘Let The Record Play.’ All of a sudden, we had those little musical ideas in our arsenal to use. After the tour, Spencer went to Florida for a family vacation and had a creative explosion where he wrote a bunch of poems. I told him, ‘Send me something; I’ve got musical ideas!’ We already had these musical riffs we’d written on the road, so we mashed them together with Spencer’s lyrics and wound up with the first few songs on the album.”
“We don’t sit down in the same room with our acoustic guitars, showing each other chord charts,” Terndrup says of the songwriting process. “Instead, we’ll sit down at a computer, create sounds and mash up loops. We’ll explore tones. We’ll run banjos through distortion pedals and see what comes out.”
“Trevor usually comes in when we’re starting the demo process,” Bailey adds, “and he helps arrange everything and get the lyrics in order. Then we’ll bring in the rhythm section and prepare for the studio. That’s how a lot of the music came about. Spencer and I would do the formulating, and then the guys would come in and we’d knock it out as a group. It ends with us all working together.
Hours after Terndrup’s poster-signing shenanigans in Knoxville, it’s showtime at the Mill & Mine. The place is packed to capacity. When Moon Taxi launches into the first chorus of their kickoff song, “Let the Record Play,” roughly half the audience sings along. By the third refrain, nearly all 1,500 people in attendance have learned the words. It’s only been two weeks since the band released Let The Record Play, yet the track somehow feels familiar.
Such is the beauty of Moon Taxi’s music. There’s enough sonic complexity here to encourage repeated listens — or, in the rare case of “Two High,” 80 million streams — but the songs are built with large audiences in mind, engineered to unleash their hooks as frequently and directly as possible. It’s easy to “ride the Moon Taxi,” a phrase the bandmates still deploy with self-deprecating smiles. And these days, that Taxi’s headed skyward.