Drummer And Lead Singer
Beyond the Decemberists
Oregon native John Moen is probably best known for being the drummer and harmonizing vocalist with the Decemberists, one of Portland’s favorite indie rock bands. When the group’s fearless leader Colin Meloy announced in 2011 that the band would be on a long hiatus,Moen decided to take advantage of the downtime by exploring a variety of ways to curb his musical appetite. Amongst his most recent forms of melodic expression is a solo venture he calls Perhapst, through which he released an album titled Revise Your Maps last June. The project has not only afforded him time to write and craft his own songs, but also a chance to experiment with being a front man himself.
What most people may not know about Moen is that he has been at the heart of Oregon’s music scene for almost three decades, having performed with numerous local bands over the years. He first gained notoriety in the 80s with the Dharma Bums, and recently threw in with a band called Black Prairie. The group includes all members from the Decemberists by the way minus Meloy. Over the span of his musical career he built up quite an impressive resume, having played alongside a myriad of talented musicians including Stephen Malkmus, Bob Pollard and Elliott Smith. Through his experiences on stage he began to acquire skills as a multi-instrumentalist, which he exhibits while serving as his own band with Perhapst.
Even with just a casual listen of Revise Your Maps, Moen’s talent and creativity become immediately apparent. The album navigates a sprawling musical terrain with a blending of multiple genres. It dances from pop, to psychedelic rock, to bluegrass or country. Moen’s trademark falsetto voice and perfect pitch are what make the record cohesive and hold each song together for a unified collective. The opening track, Birds off a Wire, is hauntingly melancholic, which is a theme that can be heard throughout the album. At the same time, tunes like Sorrow & Shame embody a rambunctiousness reminiscent of 60s rock n roll. During a recent mini-tour with a pickup band Moen was able to showcase his songs, as well as his offbeat humor, for crowds in Portland, Eugene and Astoria.
Expanding upon an interview that first appeared on Oregon Music News, Moen took some time to talk about the joys of Perhapst, the future of the Decemberists, and revealed how his addiction to music is a habit he likely will never be able to kick.
How did the tour promoting Revise Your Maps go? Have people been enjoying the album?
The shows were great. It was kind of a limited campaign in a way since I’ve got a lot of other things I’ve been doing. I don’t get the impression that the album is sweeping the nation or anything [laughs] but people seem to have enjoyed it. Luckily the feedback you do get is generally the good feedback.
Have there been any songs from the album that are particularly fun to play live?
All of them are fun to play because I never really have a band. I put the record together mostly by myself, one track at a time, so it’s really nice to have it feel fleshed out with other people playing.
Are you starting to feel more comfortable as a front man now, after doing some shows?
Anything that you do a few times feels better and better for sure. It doesn’t feel like something I’ll do all the time, but I definitely feel more comfortable.
The banter between songs when you played at White Eagle was pretty hilarious. Is that something you don’t normally get to do when playing with other bands?
Oh yeah, that’s kind of how I usually operate [laughs]. Actually I’ll kind of ruin shows doing that as a drummer at times. If I’ve got a microphone, and there’s silence between songs and everybody’s just waiting for something to happen, then I’ll usually speak up. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it falls on its face [laughs].
How has touring with Black Prairie been going, in the midst of your Perhapst activities?
I’ve been doing a lot of traveling with Black Prairie and we’re staying real busy this summer. That’s one of the reasons I can’t really keep doing Perhapst as much as I’d like to, because I have other obligations as well. I just joined Black Prairie in the last year and a half or so and I love it. They had me play on their most recent record, and when they went on tour they said you might as well just join the band.
How does Black Prairie’s sound compare to your other bands?
You could say it’s Americana. They started off mostly instrumental. Jenny Conlee plays the accordion pretty exclusively, which isn’t really Americana [laughs]. But we try not to have a lot of rules. It’s really just the pleasures of the members.
Has the band been able to utilize your voice for harmonizing?
We’re figuring that all out as we go. In some songs I’m useful as a singer, but they’ve had a working situation before I arrived. We’re gonna record another record soon and it’s an opportunity for all of us to be writing together and to split the duties amongst everyone.
Have you ever thought about bringing some of your Perhapst songs to Black Prairie’s table?
I tend to compartmentalize what I write. There’s enough going on in my head, as far as music goes, that I’ll always have things to contribute. I seem to have enough ideas to contribute towards writing another Perhapst record, towards playing with Black Prairie, and I also have a pop rock band called Eyelids. There are enough outlets where I don’t need to bring songs from one to the other.
And what’s going on with the Decemberists these days? Are you guys really just on a break?
Yeah, the Decemberists are really on a break. Ultimately it’s all up to Colin our fearless leader. He was the one who called the break so it will be up to him when it’s over. But there will be some more recording in the not-too-distant future. When that kicks in again these other projects will be harder to spend time with. It’s a lot about just trying to take advantage of the downtime for me. Not that it makes the music any less important. If anything, these things are almost more important because it’s the time where I get to write.
How did Perhapst and writing your own songs come to fruition?
I’ve been working at songwriting for a long time. I had a band called the Maroons in the late 90s, and I wrote my own songs and fronted the band. I think I have a love for melody and song arrangements, which sometimes as a drummer you don’t get to do as much. This is my chance to do it.
My first band that made records was called the Dharma Bums and we considered ourselves a democracy, like four equal partners. We were pretty young and I think maybe in hindsight it might have been smarter to let the person who had the initial idea develop the song. It was a great band and I don’t regret anything we did, but I look back at our ideas and they seem a little bit more of a collage then maybe the song required. Since then I’ve certainly been able to contribute to things, but I also understand as a writer of my own songs that by the time you get the chord structure, melody and the words happening together, you have an idea of how it should go. It’s hard to let someone go crazy and change all of that up into a different song.
How long have you been crafting these songs and working on Revise Your Maps?
I’ve been working on the album for a couple years. Just a little bit here and a little bit there. I’d have a tour to go do and it would have to sit for a while. There are a couple tracks on the record, one called High Life, that date back to the Maroons. So there’s certainly some stuff that goes way, way back.
What all did you do on the record?
Singing, guitar, bass, a little keyboard, piano parts pretty much everything. I called out for particular friends to help pull it all together. I think if I really had a perfect situation, there would be a band. I like the idea, but it’s also really hard to keep a band together. Especially since the people I play with are a little older and have kids, families, and jobs. It’s a little easier to get my ideas out if I keep tinkering with something myself, I think. It’s not my first choice and I’m not trying to show off, but it is a chance to do the things that I love with music that I don’t get to as a drummer in some of those other bands. Just singing is a real joy for me.
It seems there are a lot of influences in your music. Is there a particular genre you were going for?
Well I hope it’s not too calico cat or anything [laughs]. I’m always trying to make something I’d wanna listen to myself. My record collection at home has a lot of different styles in it. You can’t judge your own thing. It’s really tough to know what you’ve done, and I have no idea what it is a lot of the time. It’s a compulsion and I’m lucky to be able to have an outlet for it.
How do you usually craft a song?
It’s almost always just sitting with a guitar and playing a pleasing progression of some sort, then singing along with it to get a vocal melody that would sit over top of it. If something catches my ear with sort of a chorus-type moment, usually it’s just a guitar phrase that feels interesting, I might have to double check that it’s not someone else’s. Maybe it sounds good because it already happened.
Is it difficult to keep your music original and free of other influences?
Certainly by now in popular culture there are a lot of people making melodies. It’s kind of hard to imagine there’s anything left to be stumbled upon. You just combine elements, and I think a lot of people don’t mind being reminded of something.
How is it juggling touring and playing music with being a father and husband?
I’m lucky to be able to keep doing these things and that my wife doesn’t mind being at home to take care of my daughter. Truth be told, I think that I felt comfortable enough to have a kid because it was a part of our culture at the time. The Decemberists have had a bunch of time off and I’ve been doing other music projects, but none of them have taken me out of town longer than a week. When it comes time to be gone longer than that it will be a challenge. Now that she can talk I can hear her reaction to me being away, so I might feel more guilty [laughs]. I’m also almost 45 and some of the exhilaration has been replaced with it feeling a little job-like.
Any further touring plans for Perhapst?
I would love to do more if it were warranted. I think that’s kinda how it is for me these days, having a family and being engaged in more projects with other people. I’m also not sure I could be a front man all the time. I see it sort of like a personal dare because it’s sort of a hard spot to go for me. At the same time though, it’s something I create. If people really like it then I could foresee doing more with the guys I’m playing with. It’s like being secretly ambitious.
How did you come up with the name Perhapst by the way?
I was drunkenly playing darts in New York City, and I said, Perhapst, I will do something [laughs]. You know, like when you’re drunk and you wanna speak medieval. To me it had a ring to it and summed up something about my weird personality. I wanna do these musical things, but I’m also really shy about it.
How do you define success? Is it the freedom to make the music you want as opposed to just selling records?
I have my family and I gotta live, so I won’t be sending checks back when they come my way [laughs]. I think you measure success differently from moment to moment. Black Prairie recently got to back up Michael Hurley at the Newport Folk Festival. I’m a huge fan of his, and that was a really big moment for me. It was like being Frank Sinatra’s backup band or something [laughs].
Has being John from the Decemberists been pretty helpful in opening other doors for you?
It’s benefited me greatly. I’ve been at it, playing in bands for a long time, and everything leads to the next thing. I’m very proud with what we’ve done with the Decemberists. It’s definitely helped me keep doing these things. Music is something I have always done and will always do. I can’t really kick music. I’m just very happy to be doing this and I’m grateful that people have interest in it.