“Onward and Upward and to the Moon” with Moon Taxi
By Emily J Ramey
Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel
Spencer Thomson, Tommy Putnam, Trevor Terndrup, Tyler Ritter, Wes Bailey
With the word “songwriter,” a lot of people will conjure images of a guy in a collared shirt strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning melancholy ballads, or scribbling lyrics on scraps of paper and humming mechanically, fleshing out the next big radio hit. Rarely does band practice come to mind, and yet, five guys, each on their respective instruments, piecing together their parts to blend cohesive instrumentation into the context of a new song, albeit less commonplace or clichéd, is songwriting nonetheless. A prime example of this communal technique, Moon Taxi is a band of songwriters.
I met with the guys on a Sunday afternoon in July at the “Moon Taxi House,” as they have oh-so-cleverly dubbed it. The little place on 12th Avenue S in Nashville once boarded three of the band members; however, over time, they have spaced out (probably for sanity’s sake). Now, band practice is held there, and all the band’s gear, including their van and trailer, is stored at the house, but only one of the guys still calls the place home.
I situate myself on an electric blue couch and wait. A giant black lab tosses a dirty sock on my lap and begs me to play along, whining and slobbering until I comply. Three of the guys are in and out of the room, promising me they’ll “only be a few more minutes; Spencer’s not here yet anyway.” A tall, thin guy in glasses opens the front door, steps in, and sits down next to me without a word. Miles (I have learned the dog’s name at this point) turns his attention to this new companion as though greeting an old friend. Within moments, the remainder of the band is assembled and after discussing a recent soccer game for a bit, they rest their eyes on me.
On the Early Years
Tommy Putnam, bass, and Trevor Terndrup, lead vocals/rhythm guitar, I learn, have been buddies since grade school. When they graduated Vestavia Hills High School outside of Birmingham in 2002 and moved to Nashville in the fall to attend Belmont University, they brought their jam sessions with them. At Belmont, they met and began collaborating with a quiet kid from Bowling Green – Spencer Thomson, lead guitar. The three of them graduated Belmont in 2007, but not before meeting their fourth and fifth members: Tyler Ritter, drums, in mid 2006, and Wes Bailey, keys, in mid 2007.
The band weathered a few modifications to their cast, the most significant of which was former drummer David Swan, whose vacancy allowed Ritter to join the line-up.
“When Tyler came along, we started really getting into it, like, ‘Okay, let’s build this.’ It took forever. It’s still taking forever,” Putnam admits amiably. “But what’s so cool to me is that there’s a lot of things we do now that just seem like the next phase, but back then, if I saw some of those things happening, I would have been like, ‘Wow, that’s huge.’”
“Yeah, back then, a guarantee would have been unheard of, but you know, it’s those baby steps that you take,” Terndrup adds, the anticipation of those early days mounting in his voice. “I don’t even know when we got our first guarantee, but our first band purchase was a PA. And then, we started making a little bit more money every single time…. One night, we came out with a thousand bucks, and we were like, ‘Whooooa.’ That was jaw-dropping.”
Moon Taxi went into the studio to record their debut album late 2006, while all four of them were still in school. Melodica was released the following spring, and soon thereafter, Moon Taxi toyed at the idea of a fifth member – a keyboard player.
“We had a show at The Five Spot, and it looked like it was going to be a kind of run-of-the-mill show,” Terndrup explains. “But one of us said, ‘Well, do you want to call that guy we jammed with at that party?’ And he came and sat in on ‘The Stand,’ not knowing the chords, and there’re about 27 modulations. So we were like, ‘Yeah, he’s alright.’”
“So we picked up Wes,” Putnam sums up. “But it was kind of a long process. You know, he’s a good player, but he changes the dynamic of the band. How do we fit this new instrument in there when we’ve been playing together for so long? But I think we’ve got it; I mean, everybody knows their boundaries now.”
“We all have strong personalities, and so does [Wes],” Terndrup rationalizes. “But I think we’ve all found a way to exist relatively in sync with each other… relatively.”
That harmonized existence has been the key to Moon Taxi’s success at songwriting. With five minds churning out ideas, trust and synchronization are crucial to the process.
On the Songwriting Process
Live at 12th & Porter, Nashville, TN
“A monarchy in songwriting – where somebody is saying, ‘This is what you do, this is what you do…,’” Terndrup begins. “A dictatorship – that works for some people, but it doesn’t work for us.”
Putnam and Terndrup are the primary songsmiths of the group, but Thomson and Bailey collaborate frequently with them as well as contributing songs of their own. Each has an individual method of writing, but they all understand that ultimately every song is a combined effort and a collective result.
“Sometimes it’s good to have little parts that aren’t quite finished yet, so you can say, ‘I don’t know what should go here; what are your ideas?’” Putnam describes. “And someone’s going to have something to say, and it’ll be better. I mean, three heads are a lot better than one. That’s why I think we’re a lot better off than some of these bands with just one dude writing all the songs. They get a lot of the same things going on and the same ideas and not a lot of group input, so they’re really limited that way.”
Ritter explains what having multiple songwriters in the band really means: “Each of the guys has a different presentation method. Trevor generally has a more defined idea of what he wants the song to sound like. Spencer does that too, most of the time. Tommy’s style is more trial-and-error, ‘let’s jam on this and see what works,’ on-the-spot experiment.
“But all three of the guys have gotten a lot better at figuring out what the identity of each of their songs is going to be from the beginning,” Ritter goes on. “I think, now someone brings something to the table and says, ‘This is the feel of this song, here are the parts, let’s see what happens.’ I mean, the identity is there from the beginning, as opposed to us trying to find the identity halfway through the writing process.”
Another part of the writing process is ascertaining one’s inspirations. When asked about Moon Taxi’s muses, each of the songwriters has something entirely different to say about his lyrical catalysts.
“I’m always listening for different lyrics from people,” says Putnam. “You go out and hear people talk and they say different random things, and I think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good; I’m going to write that down.’
“I get material from life experiences, or other people’s life experiences,” Putnam continues. “You got to listen to people because people are going to say the best things. …Or books, I guess. Trevor reads a lot.” He turns to Terndrup.
“I don’t get ideas from books very often, though, and I can’t do the people thing either. That’s way too complicated,” Terndrup picks up. “I like to write about smaller things. Maybe instances, like someone will have a conversation, and I’ll take one little thing and kind of expand upon that and try to exhaust the topic.”
“If I’m writing a song that I know I want to have lyrics, and I’m going to attempt to do it, I try to write [the lyrics and music] at the same time, if not [lyrics] first,” Thomson describes. “But I never write from a personal level, I just come up with stuff I think sounds cool. It feels like more of an exercise to me, like I’m trying to fit lyrics and music together, I’m working to make these words go with this melodic interval. I’m not too worried about it making sense.”
With a fresh understanding of the early stages of their songs, I attempt to steer the conversation toward an explanation of their further development in band practice. In doing so, I get what seems like a pretty accurate feel for what band practice itself is probably like – each of the guys begins an account, alternately talking over each other, interrupting, and finishing each other’s sentences.
“Our songs come in, and it’s like a senate, right?” Putnam illustrates. “One person writes the bill, and the others come in and cut it up and put their little earmarks in it and amendments… and the person who wrote the bill, I mean, yeah, it’s his, but in the end, you know, we all really finished it and made it a song.”
“A lot of times, each of us will have different ideas of what to do with a certain part of the song, and it’s not like there’s a right or wrong way,” Thomson explains further.
“And we usually try everybody’s ideas…,” adds Putnam.
“Yeah, at least give them a run through to see how they’ll sound,” Terndrup chimes in.
“And to the best of your ability,” Putnam finishes. “So it’s not like, ‘I really don’t think it’s going to go that well, so I’m going to play it so that it doesn’t work.’ You know, there’s that trust there. Everybody plays honestly.”
“We’re better, too, about talking music to each other,” Terndrup expands. “I mean, I didn’t have any formal music training, but I’ve definitely gotten that from these guys. I know what to call chords now. I picked Tyler’s brain for a while about time signatures. At first, especially with David, I feel like we were just grunting at each other, hoping that something would work…. We were very caveman-like in our approach, and now we’re in sort of our renaissance period, you know. It’s better than ever.”
A renaissance period, yes, and one that Moon Taxi as individuals and as a band has been perfecting since their start, making a point of constantly learning and growing in order to become finer songwriters and stronger musicians by broadening their musical tastes and perfecting their collaborative abilities.
“I think we practice smarter now, write songs a little smarter than we did,” Putnam asserts.
“Playing our songs over and over and even learning other people’s songs helps us to figure out what works and what doesn’t in a song,” adds Thomson.
“We know our strengths and weaknesses, and you know, you definitely want to adhere to your strengths, but at the same time, you want to improve on your weaknesses,” reasons Putnam.
“And then you improve by challenging yourself,” Terndrup elaborates. “Like, I feel like ‘Anchors’ was a bit out of our genre and style. The first time we played it, I think we were kind of shaky, and we didn’t really know if we could pull it off.”
“A lot of people don’t like that song the first time they hear it,” Putnam admits.
“They don’t like it in the context of us,” clarifies Thomson. “But then what they’re not seeing is that it’s really just broadening the context of us.”
“People like [‘Anchors’] now as a result of us playing it better. We’ve learned how to play that style, and we’ve made it our own. People that I would never expect to like a more mainstream song of ours are digging it now,” Ritter concludes.
There’s a lot to dig about Moon Taxi, too, and not just their music. These boys also happen to be avant-garde entrepreneurs, unconventionally self-reliant, pioneering a business model of their own invention.
Live at Headliners, Louisville, KY
All five members of Moon Taxi graduated from Belmont, Thomson, Ritter, and Putnam with degrees in Music, Bailey in Music Business, and neither in the case of Terndrup (who majored in Spanish and Philosophy). Their collective backgrounds and knowledge of the industry have aided greatly in their ascent thus far.
“Opening our own LLC, our own record company, making it legit and professional in the eyes of the government, keeping track of things, booking all our own shows, buying equipment like a PA, lights, and a van and a trailer,” Terndrup articulates. “[Those measures] show that we’re in it for something more than just having a good time, drinking beer and chasing chicks.”
“Yeah, a lot of the money we make [from our shows], we just immediately reinvest into the band,” states Putnam.
“…Because we all believe in it, and we think that it’s going to be profitable, and ultimately, a great adventure in our lives,” Terndrup declares optimistically.
Moon Taxi started 12th South Records in 2006, on which they produced their albums, 2007’s debut Melodica and most recently 2009’s live album. Live Ride was recorded at Nashville’s 12th and Porter in August 2008 and released this past February to dazzling critical acclaim.
Beyond recording, they have spent the past couple years touring relentlessly, honing their distinctive sound with a rare, inexhaustible enthusiasm. This young group has had opportunities to play festivals such as 10000 Lakes in Minnesota, Moe’s Summer Camp in Illinois, Birmingham’s City Stages, among many others, and clubs from Texas to New York, establishing major cult followings in cities like Bowling Green, Birmingham, Lexington, Knoxville, Oxford, Louisville, and Tuscaloosa.
Moon Taxi is turning heads everywhere they play; their music is infectious. Their sound has been compared with Phish, Allman Brothers, Rush, The Doobie Brothers, and Rage Against the Machine, but in the end, they have cultivated a purely unique blend of all of these influences, in addition to many others.
Their most popular tunes include fiery, rebellious “Gimme A Light;” straight up rock tune “Mustang;” brisk, Reggae-inspired “Here to Stay,” which features a blistering, jazzy keys solo on Live Ride; intensely rhythmic “Funky Respiration,” with its sweltering jam; tight, progressive instrumental, “Gibson;” dynamic single “Common Ground;” smoldering, complex “Skipping Stones;” and radio-worthy rock anthem “Anchors;” however, some of the group’s newest material (“Gunflower,” “The Hideaway,” and “Tumble,” for example) challenges all their current standings.
The band’s most recent accomplishments include touring with British funk band The New Mastersounds, winning Nashville’s independent music contest “Music City Mayhem,” and opening in Birmingham for Gov’t Mule.
With such a long list of successes, it seems only a matter of time before Moon Taxi’s inevitable musical stardom. The band themselves are physically itching for bigger things.
On the Future
“We have really high expectations. I mean, we’re not anywhere near close to where we want to be, like not even… we’re just scratching the surface here,” Putnam tells me enthusiastically. “But the thing is we’re getting bigger. We have so many things lined up. One thing’ll happen and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s huge,’ and then something else is going on later, and I think, ‘Wow, that’s even bigger. That’s great; I can’t wait till we do that.’ And then more….
“So I can see us going up,” Putnam continues without stopping for breath. “Whatever we’re doing is working great. It’s just a matter of time. We are getting better every day. I look back at some of the things we did, at recordings from a year ago, and I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t believe people liked us.’ We are so much better now. And what excites me is if we made that much progress between last year and today, I want to see what happens and where we are next year.
“We’re probably going to make a new album soon too,” Putnam reveals, almost as an aside.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to get back into the studio,” says Terndrup.
“I can’t wait to see what we can do in the studio now,” Ritter agrees.
“We’re hungry; we want it more. It’s serious. Now it’s our bread and butter. We’re even more inspired to get the job done,” reckons Terndrup.
Do it, boys. We’re ready for you.