Poor Moon: Lessons in Lunar Formation

Music Features Poor Moon
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A pair of Fleet Foxes teams with some of its oldest, dearest friends to create an otherworldly panorama of sound

In the middle of the last decade, future Poor Moon frontman Christian Wargo suddenly found himself in limbo. After two records and several years spent burning up the American highway, the first bonafide nationally touring band he’d ever fronted, Crystal Skulls, was unraveling. Drummer Casey Foubert had begun touring alternately with Sufjan Stevens and David Bazan; guitarist Yuuki Matthews eventually ended up in The Shins, and keyboardist Casey Wescott joined a new Sub Pop band that was about to break in a big way—Fleet Foxes.

“I was like, ‘Alright, now what?’” Wargo recalls. Not knowing the answer, he threw himself into the only thing that made sense, the one thing he’d done consistently since he was 11 years old—hide out in his bedroom, write songs and make demos.

“[I was] coming to terms with how little control you have over things,” he says, “and how making plans doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to be.” Wargo’s new songs also dealt with the pressures of aging and the limited amount of time we have in life compared to what we hope to accomplish. “All the while,” he says, “[you’re] trying to keep yourself from slipping into despair; trying to find some purpose to keep doing what you’ve always done and derive some sort of pleasure from it.”

Oftentimes back then, when Wargo did venture beyond the confines of his bedroom, he’d catch his old bandmate Wescott’s shows with Fleet Foxes. Soon, he’d been invited to sing with the band, and then to fill in on bass. Before long, he was a full-fledged member. “I was looking for a chance to back somebody else, to be in a band [again] and learn,” Wargo says. “I saw Fleet Foxes as a way to be a part of something that felt natural, and to give me time to re-evaluate what I was doing with my own [music].”

Several years passed as Wargo relished his supporting role and, in his spare time, added to the batch of songs he’d begun puzzling together between Crystal Skulls and Fleet Foxes. He wasn’t sure when he wrote them whether they’d be for either of those bands or some new project, so he decided not to stress about fitting a particular aesthetic and instead wrote whatever felt right at the time. This seemingly disparate backlog of songs would eventually provide the material for Poor Moon’s debut EP, Illusion, as well as its new eponymous full-length.

“Music is a mirror into what’s going on with me,” Wargo says. “I try not to push it any specific direction. ... It tends to show me things about myself that I didn’t even know were going on.”

THE MEN IN THE MOON

Last year, Wargo enlisted a trio of his friends to back him at a handful of house shows—his Crystal Skulls/Fleet Foxes bandmate Wescott, and Ian and Peter Murray of The Christmas Cards. Having met all the way back in high school (except for Wargo, who joined them soon after in the trenches of the Seattle music scene), the group had deep roots and instant chemistry.

Peter—an accomplished classical guitarist—brought a passion for minutiae and his impressive chops to the band, adding both technical skill and imagination in equal measure. Ian held the reins—keeping things simple and sparse where they needed to be, and expertly dialing in the hooks, while Wescott pushed the sonic boundaries, always shedding light on the the music and getting the most out of stoic leader Wargo, who came equipped with his arsenal of tunes.

“We all have our own projects, and we wouldn’t just get behind any old songwriter,” Ian explains. “We recognize that Christian has a really unique knack for songwriting. ... We believe in his material.”

The new band’s early performances were a success, and at Ian’s urging, the whole gang soon moved into a house Peter was renting from their parents. Over the course of the next year, they turned the place into a studio, recording Poor Moon tracks during Fleet Foxes tour breaks. Musically, they pushed themselves, seeking out a slew of esoteric, organic acoustic instruments to capture and further flesh out the elusive digital sounds of Wargo’s bedroom demos. They used marimba, harpsichord and more—even a type of fretless zither known as a Marxophone, which resembles an autoharp, but with tiny hammers that bounce off the strings.

“We’ve all been doing music for so long,” says Ian, who played mandolin all over the Poor Moon record, though he’d never picked one up before he joined the band. “We all look at each instrument as an object that makes notes, and then you just figure out where the notes are. I’m not a mandolin virtuoso or anything … but I think all instruments are similar enough to where we can figure out how to play them. I mean, we couldn’t play a solo concert at Carnegie Hall on Marxophone, but we’re all pretty quick to get comfortable with whatever.”

Challenging themselves by trying these new sounds inspired creativity. “There were lots of magical moments,” Wargo says of the Poor Moon sessions. “A standout for me was the harpsichord on ‘Phantom Light.’ Hearing it come out of the speakers—moments like that happen while you’re recording and it just raises the bar.”

The sounds on Poor Moon are diverse, its velvety vocal harmonies the cherry on top of its lush baroque-and-bossa-tinged chamber folk. “I sometimes envision [Poor Moon] as a music box or small machinery,” Wargo says, searching for the just the right words to capture the intangible. “It’s angular, but it’s not jarring. I like the attention to detail.”

And because they recorded almost entirely in the house and not a professional studio, Ian says, they were able to really dive into the subtleties of the music. “We weren’t worried about day rates,” he says, “so we took our time and made sure we had everything exactly the way we wanted it.”

And now with an EP, a 7-inch single and a new full-length under their belts, Poor Moon is about to hit the road for the first time ever, playing several late-summer European dates, and then supporting their Sub Pop labelmates Beach House for a dozen Stateside shows in October.

“To get back in a van, and drive ourselves everywhere, and set up all our own stuff,” Wargo says, “has been a lot of fun. It really has felt like coming home.”

“And there’s an element of trust that’s just built in with this band,” Ian adds. “We’re all so simpatico. ... There’s a very cards-on-the-table communication element. We all respect each other as musicians and people.”

“For now,” Wargo says, “this really feels like the right thing.”

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