You have beer?" Ripley Johnson asks our waitress at Jim's Restaurant in the Mission. When she shakes her head, he grins: "Good, I'll take coffee instead." He quickly explains that he isn't a "beer for breakfast" sort of guy, but he's still dealing with a hangover incurred by an Oakland show with his rock band, Wooden Shjips, the night before. Seated beside his keyboard-playing partner, Sanae Yamada, to discuss their new band, Moon Duo, coffee seems a more apt libation anyhow. Dark, buzzy, propulsive, and minimal, Moon Duo offsets the heavier Krautrock psychoactive properties of the Shjips.
"It's interesting to do Moon Duo because I have to be much more present," Johnson explains. "There's little to lean on, soundwise, so you have to be 'on' a lot more." Moon Duo recently released its first LP, Escape, for Brooklyn's respected Woodsist imprint (following on the heels of an EP recorded for another Brooklyn label, Sacred Bones) and is slated to play a handful of shows at SXSW. That said, the Shjips aren't in peril. "The Shjips get offers all the time to do crazy cool things," Johnson says, citing a spring tour of Australia, but vetting these opportunities with three other members with jobs and families means passing up others. "Having been laid off from an Internet company, I just had all this free time. So in doing a duo with Sanae, the idea was that we would be flexible. You just have to ask one other person to go off on tour."
The two met and originally bonded over a rather auspicious subject. "We were talking about Lou Reed," Yamada recalls. To which Johnson interjects: "You don't meet many girls that are into Lou Reed, especially girls into nonvintage Lou Reed, like 'Red Joystick' (from 1984's New Sensations)." From there, a musical relationship flowered.
On record, the two are of a like mind. Escape features four six-plus-minute excursions, funneling Johnson's saw-toothed guitars and Yamada's propulsive but bare-bones keyboards through all sorts of Echoplexing, backed by a primitive drum machine chug seemingly stolen from Suicide's 1977 art space. Opener "Motorcycle, I Love You" revs with an incessant tock and Johnson's indecipherable whispers until his guitar combusts around the three-minute mark, spiraling wider over its remaining five minutes while Yamada's organ pumps keep the road in focus. "In the Trees" slows things down just a tad, but burns just as brightly. The title track closer mines Jesus and Mary Chain, but with more flange and another soaring Johnson solo.
"The thing with Moon Duo is we like the same music," Johnson says. "The Shjips guys are less like that. Sanae and I did a Spacemen 3 cover, and those guys had never heard of Spacemen 3! And just this morning we covered a reggae song [Errol Dunkley's 1978 roots jam, "A Little Way Different"] for this comp. That's something the Shjips would never do." Yamada adds, "We're music obsessives. We're just more attuned with new music stuff that we like together."
Sure enough, perusing the new arrivals at Aquarius Records after breakfast, the two grab at all sorts of titles. They pick up Brazilian fuzz-guitar comps and weird electronic sci-fi soundtracks before settling on a gnarly Zambian psych-rock reissue, a Sic Alps/Magik Markers split 12-inch, and thunder-throated reggae toaster Prince Far I's 1980 dub album, Cry Tuff the Dub Encounter III. Records in hand, the two then set off, no doubt to enjoy new musical vistas together.