While she was too young to observe the ’70s club revolution first-hand, she believes that “the concept of the space of the disco is something that holds a lot of relevance today”.
“It was a space of fluid identity and self-expression for people who maybe felt marginalised by mainstream culture. In a disco you’d have amazing fashion and amazing dancing in this very expressive space where people could go and do whatever they had in mind to do and be whoever they had in mind to be. I think that type of inclusion and that type of liberation is something that holds a lot of appeal.”
That might be part of what we still feel whenever a Chic or Donna Summer record throws a party into hyperdrive: freedom hardwired to the groove by the dark art of the disco beat. What’s certain is that compared with the density of Moon Duo’s previous two albums – Occult Architecture Vol. 1 and 2 – this new one is a decidedly feel-good affair.
Yamada says she was “wanting really effervescent textures: sonic glitter, kind of”.
“Our music has always been a kind of conversation between guitar and electronic music; synthesiser and drum machine and stuff like that, so we wanted to bring the machine-type elements more on top on this record. When we finished the Occult Architecture pair of records, we had the sense that we had completed a cycle of our musical project. We had sort of found this sound as a band and cultivated it over a series of records and … both Ripley and I had this sense that we needed to change our tack a bit; that to keep going with that sound, we would just end up repeating ourselves.”
It’s a slightly ironic turn for a band that has valued repetition, at least as a compositional element, for so long. While they never actively pursued the psychedelic label, fundamental elements of reiteration, drone, obscure lyrics and impressionistic sound layers have always applied.
As a member of San Francisco drone-rock experimentalists Wooden Shjips, Ripley Johnson’s psychedelic allegiances are well known. Yamada met him through mutual friends when she moved there in 2004. They promptly went to a Bob Dylan concert in Berkeley (“it was a great one, actually; he was playing piano most of the night”), but it was in a shared love of the Velvet Underground that they found their essential aesthetic.
In that respect, Moon Duo is far from a lone voyager. Lou Reed and John Cale’s marriage of rock and avant-garde birthed a movement that echoes seemingly eternal, wherever walls of electric sound collide.
Yamada expresses reservations about the guitar-worshipping limitations of the so-called “neo-psych” movement but concedes that “the ideas of transcendence and the psychedelic are in the DNA of what we are doing”.
“To me, the idea of psychedelia is an idea of endless expansion; an idea of revealing things in a different light; turning the mundane inside out to show its extraordinary essence somehow. I’ve always loved that as a concept. I think that’s a really expansive concept and it applies to a massive range of artistic expressions so I’m perfectly happy to fit in with that concept of psychedelia.”
Visually, Moon Duo’s emphasis on stage projections and trippy lighting design also draws clear lines from the mid ’60s experiments of the Velvets and Pink Floyd. But inevitably, the new-found disco undertow has brought a new shimmer to this ingredient too.
Last April in Manchester, in collaboration with local projection artist Emmanuel Baird, the band unveiled a show called Stardust Highway: Experiments in Stoner Disco. The intention “to explore ideas of time and ritual, as well as the human desire to transcend material reality” has since evolved into their current stage show.
The good news, 40 years since the night of the White Sox smackdown, is that this disco insurgence has largely escaped the wrath of the rock police. Sure there was the odd music press sulk about “duff synth” and “tinny drum machine”, but for such a brave evolution, critical response to Stars Are the Light has been overwhelmingly positive.
That’s transcendence for you.
“One of the big things is just the need for connection on a really human level,” Yamada says of the Duo’s renewed intention. “The lyrics are less esoteric, less occult, as it were, than they may have been in the past. They’re more about just the struggles of humanity. Love and loss, feeling lost and seeking out other humans. That’s kind of where this is coming from.”
Moon Duo perform at Melbourne Recital Centre, Feb 11; The Zoo, Brisbane, Feb 12; and Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory Feb 13.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer