If ever there were an indie-rock orchestra, Moonspeed is it
Three vocal mikes. Three D.I. boxes. A condenser mike, a bass mike, a melodica vocal mike and a percussion mike. Two acoustic guitars. Two amplifiers for a pair of synths. Two drum kits.
Moonspeed, which at times boasts an eleven-piece roster, strives to ensure that every note is played exactly as it was once recorded — and the above is just a short list of the gear needed to make that happen. If ever there was an indie-rock symphony, this is it. Every thunderous guitar chord and seemingly minute triangle ding carries an equal amount of significance and must be heard. This is a challenge that Moonspeed's Jeff Suthers never imagined he'd have to tackle. From its earliest inception, Moonspeed was nothing more than Suthers with a guitar, some recording equipment and an idea.
"It all started as a recording project I was doing by myself; I think it was around 2002," Suthers recalls. "I started recording and experimenting with ideas I wasn't using in my other band. I was able to texture a lot of synthesizers and layers of guitars and drums. I was just kinda playing around."
Suthers recorded an album's worth of material under the name Moonspeed, with no real intention of ever playing it live. With no official release, he began passing out the tracks to his friends and anyone he thought would be interested. To his surprise, many people were: "My friends started listening to it and started digging on it."
At the time, Suthers's attention was focused on his then-band, Bright Channel. Not thinking that he or anyone else had time to devote to Moonspeed, he was comfortable leaving it as a solo side project. Around August 2007, however, Bright Channel announced that it would be going on indefinite hiatus. It was around that time that Suthers felt the itch to start playing live again and started recruiting members.
Initially, bassist Adam Shaffner, guitarist Ryan Sniegowski and drummer James Barone joined him and began playing shows as Moonspeed. There was just one problem: "It didn't really sound like Moonspeed," Suthers remembers. "That's what inspired us to get together and start playing, but we realized that to sound like the Moonspeed stuff, it needed a lot more layers and instruments to sound less like a typical rock band. We went crazy and just started adding people!"
Suthers's girlfriend and former Bright Channel bassist Shannon Stein was the next to sign on, adding another layer and filling the keyboard slot. "I don't even know what came next," Suthers jokes. "We started adding acoustic guitars, second synthesizers, a second drummer, triangle, chimes and weird stuff I never thought we would use."
Suthers put his feelers out to see if any of his other talented friends would be interested in helping the then-five-piece flush out the sound and help Moonspeed sound more like the recordings he had done by himself. Jim Sweeny signed up to play acoustic guitar, Kit Peltzel took the second drum stool, Darren Cheek was added on second synthesizer, Hayley Helmericks was enlisted on percussion, vocals and melodica, Matt Brown picked up acoustic guitar, and Doug Spencer stepped in to play wind chimes and something called a donkey jaw.
Before long, Suthers had put together an orchestra capable of playing every part of the Moonspeed recordings, and the players each had impressive pedigrees: Past projects included Moccasin, Dressy Bessy, Space Team Electra, Mr. Pacman, Joshua Novak, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and Monofog. He's assembled quite the supergroup — a designation he's not exactly comfortable with.
"I feel a little bit guilty contributing to the incest-fest that people talk about in Denver," he confesses. "Everybody that's in this band is in like three other bands, and it's just a web with all of those bands. At the same time, its slim pickings to find people who play music that you can relate to."
Because of the members' demanding schedules, Moonspeed understandably took a while getting off the ground. Practice becomes a daunting task when you have to deal with eleven different itineraries.
"It drove me crazy," Suthers admits, "because for a while there, Moonspeed was my main band, and it was frustrating to know that it was everyone else's third or fourth band. I think now, though, everything is locking into place as far as when we can all get together and do this, and it becomes a very special time."
One of the pieces that locked very securely in place was an invitation to play 2008's Monolith festival at Red Rocks, which turned out to be only the band's second gig. Playing alongside such heavy-hitting national acts as the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses and Akron/Family was an honor for the band, despite the fact that it wasn't exactly Moonspeed that was invited in the first place.
"We stole our old band's slot," Suthers admits. The invitation initially went out to Bright Channel, which had already called it quits. Moonspeed leapt at the chance to take its place. The way Suthers tells it, he left a "sad and pathetic" message on the promoter's phone, telling him about the demise of Bright Channel and how he had a new band with a lot of members who could bring in just as good of a crowd.
"He totally gave us the slot," Suthers says, still marveling. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Moonspeed gets to play Monolith?!'"
Presumably because of the act's pedigree, the turnout at the festival was great. Since then, the band hasn't exactly set a land speed record when it comes to playing shows. Nonetheless, the pace suits Suthers's songwriting process, a system that seems as deliberate and painstaking as restoring vintage pinball machines, something he does in his spare time.
The Louisville home Suthers shares with Stein is full of vintage pinball games — eighteen of them, to be exact — that he buys on the cheap from various sellers around the state. Some don't even work; Suthers fixes them up, restores them and gets them working to near-perfect condition, essentially breathing life into machines that were once considered nothing more than scrap metal.
He takes similar care in crafting Moonspeed songs. Starting with the frame of a song, he adds lights and whistles in the form of percussion, a guitar loop or a melodica, transforming something once dull into something brilliant enough to widen the pupils of anyone who plays or hears it.
While you can definitely hear elements of Bright Channel, instead of the dark uncertainty that enveloped that group's songs, Moonspeed offers a brighter and more hopeful landscape, sonically layered and seemingly never ending. It is as orchestral as a band can get without its members wearing matching tuxedos and waiting for cues from a conductor. For this same reason, you will never see a member of Moonspeed stand while he or she plays.
"Aesthetically, we want to make it look like an orchestra," Suthers explains. "We also all sit because we want to have it be like a studio-type quality performance. That's what it feels like to me as I sit in the middle; I get to hear this perfect blend of everything, like we're just doing takes in the studio."
Maybe Moonspeed is still a recording project after all.
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