Brendon Moeller on being a DJ: "If we want to call ourselves musicians, we have to step up."
Brendon Moeller was born in South Africa but moved to New York after reading about all the great early wave of electronic music artists that emerged out of the late '80s industrial, experimental electronic and house music worlds. Moeller's natural curiosity and drive has lead him to exploring a plethora of electronic music styles.
While he has most often been associated with dub techno, Moeller's career and palette is much broader; there isn't much that the prolific musician hasn't tried in his chosen field of making music. We recently had a chance to speak with the affable and articulate Moeller about his own path to creating a diverse body of work, why he now uses all hardware live and why he has tried so many styles of music.
Westword: You were in a band when you were a teenager. What kind of band was it?
Brendon Moeller: It was when I was in college that I got around to playing the instrument I wanted to, which was the drums. The first band I was in, we were very much influenced by, I guess, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth -- the noisier end of rock. We did some noisy cover versions of Neil Young and Byrds songs. It was fun, and it was with a good group of friends, but it was also at a time when we were all young and more interested in chasing ladies than going to band practice and being disciplined.
After three years, it kind of fell apart. The band was called Honeyslide. We got the name from a Neil Young interview, and he was asked how he recorded the album On the Beach, and he said, at the time, he was spending a lot time in the desert doing "honeyslide," and honeyslide is basically a diet consisting of marijuana and honey fried in a pan over a fire.
Why did you want to play drums initially?
I guess, from the very get-go, with music, I was attracted to rhythm, groove and beat, more than anything. My parents had three kids, and lived in a small house, and a set of drums just wasn't going to work for anybody. So they sent me to piano lessons and trumpet lessons, which I did for a number of years, but I finally kind of gave up because it wasn't really where my head was at.
Also the lessons I was getting were far away from the music that was really inspiring me. The piano lessons were more about a woman trying to teach me was classical music, and all I wanted to play was Billy Joel, or Elton John, or whatever shit was on the radio. So it sort of killed my initial passion. In retrospect, I wish I was disciplined enough to stick with it because it would be great to have those skills now. But when you're a kid you get restless and bored very quickly.
Kahn Morbee from a South African band called The Parlotones said it was kind of challenging being in a band because if you wanted to be in anything beyond a small, local level every major city was relatively far apart, and you kind of had to bring your own sound system and so forth to wherever you are playing. Did you find that to be the case?
Absolutely. It was why I left South Africa. Once I got a taste of being in a band and playing music and felt compelled to take it all the way, it was difficult to get people on board because the scene there was so small and fragmented, and there was very little money to make a career from it.
So it was definitely problematic, unless you decide you're going to go for pop or traditional roots. It's something we do for fun over there because there's not enough. And it's a very small country that's sort of closed off and isolated. The distance wouldn't have been a problem. I would have happily got in a van and traveling around, but when you get only nine or ten people at the gig, it's a losing proposition.
I can't really speak for what it's like now. I know things have opened up a lot more. But I think it also depends on the kind of music. I'm hoping to get there next year and do some shows, and see if there's any potential. It's a great fucking country, and the beaches and the weather are just [amazing].
My roots are there, and it's something I've never really thought about, but I realize now at age 45 that my roots do have some pull, and they pull me back there. I definitely feel at home here, mainly because I now have a wife and kids. Roots are roots. You probably have a similar thing where you grew up.
You got into Acid House or trance or ambient in the late '80s or the early '90s?
How did you become aware of that sort of thing and become involved with it before moving to the States?
The good thing about Johannesburg is that, at the time, in the late '80s and early '90s, there were some great record stores, and you were able to get newspapers and magazines, like NME, Melody Maker, Q et cetera, and my lack of interest in college and high school was basically where I threw myself into reading those religiously every week. So I was able to read up on all these scenes like Acid House and what was going in Manchester with the baggy scene.
Then The Orb and Aphex Twin started arriving on the scene, and those are what really inspired me. I was a huge fan of hip-hop as well. I had access to all of that music, thankfully, and stuff I didn't have access to, I would end up writing to bands in the U.S., and they were all so grateful and happy to send me packages of vinyl and t-shirts. That's one way in which I didn't feel isolated in the fact that the music was there and you could get a hold of it.
Oddly enough, the Orb is playing in Denver on Saturday.
Oh yes, I am going to miss them. I'll be missing them in Denver, as well, because I'm playing Friday and heading off to Vancouver for Saturday. I'm kind of bummed because I was hoping to spend some more time in Denver because I've heard great things about it. I'm only going to be there one day, but I hope I can make it back to spend some more time. I'm having the time of my life in upstate New York and enjoy the wide-open spaces and no longer does it matter to me that I have to see this or that.
When you first started getting into making electronic music, what gear did you use? Presumably you researched it a bit and talked to people about what might suit what you wanted to do.
I did a little research, and talked to people here and there, and I knew that I needed a drum machine, a sampler, a synthesizer and a four-track. I think the first purchase I made was a Roland R-8 drum machine; I got a Roland JV-90 keyboard. I got a Tascam pretty standard four-track. My first sampler was an Ensoniq Mirage. And I got some effects like Lexicon reverbs and stuff.
But I realized going into it it was going to be sort of a trial and error thing because I had no idea where I wanted to go or wanted to do. I kind of went into it knowing I would be trading things back and forth. It made it easy to do that in New York because there are so many music stores.
Even now, you can do that with eBay and try things out for a couple of weeks and if they're not something you want you can sell them without losing too much, just the postage really. It's great because you can ask and do research but there's nothing like having the gear and trying it yourself.
As you were exploring what you wanted to do and the direction that interested you, you mentioned The Orb and Aphex Twin, was there anyone else you were getting to see at the time, especially in New York, that impacted what you would end up doing?
Yeah, when I got to New York, I immediately began going to a ton of shows because obviously in Johannesburg, as you know, most bands pretty much refused to play there, and rightly so. So I took full advantage, and I caught The Orb and Aphex Twin, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays and Ministry and Slayer and Helmet, Dinosaur Jr and John Spencer.
The first demos I actually recorded were kind of pop songs with singing, and I was doing guitar samples and stuff, and I really thought I was going to go the Primal Scream route. Then one day, somebody called me, a friend, and said, "Let's go down to Sound Factory Bar, Junior Vasquez is playing there. I went down and went in and someone slipped me a hit of ecstasy and next thing I know I'm back home trying to make house beats.
It's kind of a strange thing that the impact of hearing that stuff on those systems relentlessly had such a huge impact on me that I immediately got sidetracked and sort of gave up on the vocals and focused on the beats and tried to make club records.
Where were you able to try out your music live then?
I had some friends that I was fortunate enough to be able to bounce ideas off of. At that time, I didn't really make any effort to go out and DJ myself. I had been deejaying when I was in South Africa, and I'd been collecting vinyl there, and played in industrial clubs, but when I got here, I didn't really pursue the DJ thing. I just had some sort of close friends all over the place to bounce ideas off of, and finally, once I had a little confidence, I started reaching to some labels and seeing what kind of feedback I could get. That process still seems to be ongoing.
That aspect of making music and getting out there probably hasn't changed too much in a fundamental way.
Yeah, no, it really hasn't. That's part of the process, shopping stuff to labels. I'm kind of fortunate now, having labels wanting stuff from me, and there are labels I feel are a challenge because what they're releasing really strikes a chord with me, and I feel like I would like to reach out and get something on that label.
Who, for example?
I guess a recent label that falls into that category would be this release I'm doing with Prologue Records. They're based in Germany, and they released Voices From The Lake and George Delia and some of the deeper, hypnotic techno stuff. When I heard about them, I reached out to the owner, and we developed this thing, and now I have this Echologist album coming out in November on that label, and that was a case of sort of wanting to reach out. I guess it's sort of creating a network.
Part of what this whole scene is about is trying to connect with like-minded people and sometimes I notice younger guys reach out to me because they feel there's a musical connection, but essentially, some people are doing it just for the politics, and they send demos, and it has nothing to do with what I'm doing. But I guess that comes from experience, and you figure out who you can connect with and who you can't. That's also part of the process.
Your music incorporates so many sounds and styles. Do you feel your music fits into any electronic subgenre? It seems like you're probably not even going for that sort of thing.
Yes and no. Occasionally I feel like there's things that can fit in. But the funny thing is that by the time someone thinks it does fit in, I've moved beyond with that and I'm sort of bored with that because I've done that, and I want to try something else.
A lot of people have connected me with the dub techno thing, and I've had labels coming to me do a remix expecting something in line with a dub techno thing I might have done like five years ago, and I come back at them with whatever I have, and I can tell there's some disappointment and anxiety over it not being at all what they had in mind.
I guess in pursuit of me finding my voice and finding myself musically, I'm just moving forward, and I think maybe once I get to a point where I feel like this is me, this is my signature, and I'll hang around and really milk that for what it's worth. But I honestly, don't feel like I've hit that mark and I'm able to say, "This is my signature sound." I can't say that in all good conscience as a musician.
As you know, right now, any musician will probably corroborate, it's incredibly difficult to come up with a unique signature now because there's so many people and so much information about how to do things. So there's a lot of copycats and a lot of homogeny. A lot of people want to fit in and the way to fit in is by being like that, when ultimately, the goal should be to create your own scene and your own sound.
I've always felt like creating my own scene is the key. I don't think I've gotten there yet, and I think part of the process is trying as many different things. Like Hendrix went into hiding and learned to play rhythm and blues and jazz licks so well and get all those people that inspired him down, and then only was he able to move beyond that.
I think now with music, especially electronic music, there's so much that I'm still hearing new stuff to me from the '70s that'll be something that I'll think, "Wow, how was this made? What process was behind that?" Hopefully' at some point' I'll have that breakthrough where I come up with something that will be remembered as me' but there's a chance it won't happen. But I'll keep going whether that happens or not.
That frankness is refreshing, Brendon. What are some of the analog synths you would like to get your hands on someday?
I would definitely like to get an ARP 2600, and I would probably like to get an EMS Synthi. There's a lot of things I wouldn't say no to, put it that way.
Why those two?
Because I've actually had a chance to play with both for a certain amount of time. The possibilities of sound really piqued my interest, but I could never justify spending the amount of money people are asking for them now. I've been pretty happy over the last year because I bought myself a little modular synth, and it's been keeping me entertained, and it has put my gear lust a little at ease. In fact, I do my utmost to try and avoid the sort of blogs where I'm going to get enticed into that. Gear is an addiction that is pretty powerful.
I'm at the point now that I have such a great bunch of gear for my studio, and for live that it would take my years just to exhaust the possibilities of what I have so shut that out. I realized that with a guitar and a synth, you should pick your instrument and just stick with it and get to know your way around it and be able to play it better than anybody else. And if you're jumping from synth to synth or VST you're never going to get to grips with the real potential of something.
I enjoy watching and reading how technology is developing and where it's all going. I think Karl Krieger said in an interview about synthesizers, the more you know the less you need. If you've got a couple of oscillators, and a filter and an envelope generator and LFOs you can go to town and do a heck of a lot.
So there's no need to have racks of gear. It would be nice, but I have a wife and two kids now, and I would rather spend the money on them. There are more guitar pedals than synths that I want right now, but you just sort of have to hold back.
Do you operate out of the box for the most part these days for live?
Oh, no. I've been using hardware for my live set. I finally managed to move beyond the need for a laptop about six months ago. Just a drum machine and two synths, and I go out there punk rock style and just fucking wing it. It was a challenge I set out for myself, and I'm happy that I did because it taught me to understand these bits of kit and go out there and play them and jam.
I can hook up with other like-minded musicians, and we can hook up our boxes via MIDI, and we can jam. I would like to see that happen more in the future. As you know, there are synths and boxes that are so much more portable now and so much more flexible, and you can travel with them. There's no need to feel compelled to stick with Ableton or Fruity Loops or whatever and play it safe. In fact I think with electronica right now is what's killing club music.
Obviously there are going to be people that are going to hear what I do and go, "What the fuck is this?" But I'd rather have those people going, "What the fuck was that?" rather than another night of homogenized, undefinable, uncategorizeable impression. At least if they walk with "What the fuck was that?" it'll be something that was unique to me. When you see what they were doing in the '70s and what Suicide did in New York with a vocalist with a reverb and delay pedals and a guy on a synth -- shit man, I miss that when I go to a lot of live shows.
It has become so predictable right now, and it shouldn't be because these drum machines and synthesizers were made to be played. They're easier than playing guitars because they have arpeggiators and sequencers, and you can get a bass line going in a heartbeat, and you can program drums on the fly. You can play music and add effects. They're begging to be played. I'm not saying I've not seeing great Ableton-driven sets. Just on a personal level, there's so much more fun doing it this way.
It's probably more engaging and visceral for you as a performer and for people that show up to see what you're doing.
Exactly. I definitely use hardware for live and in my studio it's a combination of hardware and software. I love the fact that I can straddle the hardware and software thing because they complement each other so well.
How do you determine whether a track should be released as Brendon Moeller, Beat Pharmacy or Echologist?
You know, ultimately now what these three monikers have become for me a vehicle for putting out as much stuff as I can. From the get-go the monikers were never sort of a different style. It's more based on economics. Labels I signed with wanted exclusivity for the monikers. The first one was Beat Pharmacy which I signed to Francois K's Wave Music. He was paying me significant advance money before the whole thing collapsed. I came up with Echologist as another moniker and then there came the need for another one and I just used my name.
They've all been around, and I wouldn't say I've seen them as artistically unique in their own way. It was more just as a vehicle to put stuff out there and not have people go, "Jesus, Brendon Moeller is putting out a new record every month." Which is kind of what I do. And mostly because people want it, and I have the opportunity to do that. I'm a studio person, and I love recording music and I love making albums and that's what I do.
I've had a lot of journalists say, "This guy's output is too much. How can he put out five singles and an album every year." But if you look back at someone like Bowie, he did eleven albums in the first nine years of career. Or to take it to the extreme look at someone like Zappa, for instance. I love recording music in my studio, and if there's an outlet for it and somebody wants to put it out, I'm happy to put it out there, and I don't really sweat people who are going to come and me and go, "There's just too much out there."
I also realized that I'm not the best judge of my work. In fact, this Prologue record that's coming out and the single that's coming out, three tracks from that project I've had to retrieve from my Time Machine backup on my Mac because they were tracks I had deleted because I thought they were shit. I'd sent them to the guy three months ago and he finally came back and said, "That track is fucking dope. I played it."
Now I don't delete things anymore; I archive them. I've also got to that point as well where you do something in the studio and listen to it the next day and think it's garbage. But now instead of deleting it, I archive it. I've also written tracks, and been into it, and sent it to an A&R guy, and deleting it the next day, and hearing from them three months down the line. This has been happening to me for the last two years, so I said, "Okay, just stop deleting things. Especially things you send out to labels."
Sometimes when you're in the studio, when the muse takes over and the magic happens, you get to an end result, and who's to say if you like it or not. Also with live, you have shows where things work out, and there are times when it isn't. That's also part of the excitement. I'd rather have that than just hit record and just add some effects here and there.
If we want to call ourselves musicians, we have to step up. Which goes against the philosophy now that most manufacturers and marketing companies are pushing, which is, if you get that and use that, you can be a DJ; if you get that and that you can be a techno musician, and if you get that sample pack...People are starting to realize that there's so much more involved to be able to truthfully call yourself a musician or a DJ.
You're doing this full time these days. When did that switch over for you from having to have a traditional job?
I've been fortunate enough to be really be able to be winging it since 2005. At the time I was working for a big music distributor here in New York and the sort of collapse of the industry was imminent. Things were going south and vinyl sales were dropping from forty thousand copies moving and labels now struggle to move a thousand copies. The writing was on the wall and I was putting out my second album with Francois and it was a good time to see what the possibilities might be.
I never jumped off thinking I would never ever have to go back into working a nine to five. I'm still very nervous about my career because I have a wife and two kids. You're only as good as your last record or your last Facebook post at this point. I'm sort of winging it and taking it month by month, to be honest.
I've been clever about making sure I take care of every little possible avenue where money can come in. I make sure all my work is registered with every publishing company worldwide. I make sure that I've got music supervisors pushing my things. I get decent royalty checks every three months. I make sure that I get things licensed and I make sure I take care of the back end of things which a lot of people don't seem to do.
So basically I'm scraping by and thankfully my wife has a job that has enabled this scenario to occur. But like I said I don't see this as permanent and I know things can change as quickly as a month. I don't take anything for granted and I enjoy it while I'm doing. I'll always keep music and releasing it. In terms of making a living at it? Who knows? It's tricky.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.