Poor Moon's Christian Wargo on how Danielson Famile and Pedro the Lion led to Fleet Foxes
Poor Moon is a side project of Christian Wargo of Fleet Foxes fame, who before joining that outfit toured with both Danielson Famile and Pedro the Lion. Through his time playing guitar in David Bazan's band, Wargo became friends with the guys from Fleet Foxes and ultimately ended up joining that group, where his talents as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist subsequently became integral to the Fleet Foxes sound.
Currently touring in support of the band's self-titled, debut full-length, Poor Moon is taking its dreamy, soothing, impressionistic pop songs around the country. We were able to talk with Wargo about the trajectory of his creative career and his imaginative songwriting.
Westword: You were involved with Danielson Famile for a little bit.
Christian Wargo: Yeah, a long time ago. I grew up in Jersey, and Dan [Smith] is from Jersey. We had another band back then, and we just started playing shows together. Then a tour came around, and at that time it was the Danielson Famile, with his brothers and sisters and stuff, but they were still in school. I came on to play drums and the glockenspiel, and I did a lot of the high singing vocal parts. That was one of the first full U.S. tours I went on. I was twenty years old at the time, and I would have to sit outside most of the clubs until it was time to play because I wasn't old enough to go inside.
What instrument did you start out playing growing up in Jersey?
My first instrument was a bass, when I was about eleven. I had this little band called the Ambassadors, and it was just me and my two buddies -- keyboards, bass and drums -- and we would just jam. It was mostly instrumental music. I would sort of pick up anything I could get my hands on. I had this Hawaiian harp. Any kind of weird, stringed instrument that I could find for cheap or borrow from somebody. And I had a four-track pretty early on, and I was making sounds. I started out pretty early making stuff in my bedroom.
Did the Ambassadors ever play out anywhere?
Oh, yeah, we played, like, flea markets and a couple of birthday parties -- whatever kinds of gigs little kids could get.
Was there any particular music that inspired you to pick up bass in particular?
I wasn't interested in bass, per se. I knew I wanted to play a guitar. And a bass was something somebody gave me because they knew I was interested. My mom got me into the the Beatles, the Animals, Steppenwolf. I was really into the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack at that time. I found an ABBA tape and played the heck out of that. I was into all kinds of stuff, but mostly older music.
At that time, '90s R&B was huge in New Jersey, so it was hard to escape, but I gave a couple of records to people around me because of the proximity. I was in a bit of a rough neighborhood. So when I would be in my bedroom checking out some stuff, I tended to like older sounds. I was a huge Beatles fan from an early age.
You were also a member of Pedro the Lion for a while as well.
I was. I was actually making a record with Dave [Bazan] for my band. I was living in Chicago at that time. So I was commuting from Chicago back and forth to Seattle to work on the record with Dave. Eventually he was just like, "I need somebody to come on tour with me. Do you want to move here?"
It seemed like a good idea at the time. There was a lot more music going on in Seattle that I connected with. It was a paid gig, you know, so I moved out, and we ended up not putting out the record that we worked on for like three years. For some reason, Dave felt I was a better guitar player than him at the time, and he switched over to bass, and I played all the guitar parts. It was around the Control album.
[I met] Dave the same way I met Dan. He was interested in my music, and he asked if he could record my album. At that time, I didn't really have any studio equipment, and Dave had a pretty good studio going on, so I moved out. I had gone to school for cabinetry and fine woodworking, so I was helping him build out his studio in exchange for recording time.
Were you a founding member of Crystal Skulls?
That was my band, yeah.
That name is very suggestive of many things. Why did you give the band that moniker?
You may or may not know of the religious associations between Danielson and Dave.
I've always been interested in spiritual things. But I wasn't necessarily finding that Christianity was the thing that was resonating the most with me. So I was exploring a lot of different histories and a lot of different sort of cultural things, and crystal skulls was one that always fascinated me. It's another sort of crazy explanation for how humans got here. It resonated with me, and I thought it was interesting and fascinating, and it has a snap to it. I read a couple of books about it.
When you moved to Seattle, at some point you came into contact with Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset of Fleet Foxes.
When I was in Pedro. Well, actually, before that -- I had known Caset Wescott for about fourteen years. He played in a band called Seldom, which toured a lot with Dave, and the drummer of that band, Casey Foubert, was also in Pedro, and Casey played keyboards occasionally in Pedro. We were all kind of bros and hanging out making music.
I think the three of us got fired from Pedro around the same time, just because that's sort of what Dave does. There's been like forty-something members of that band. And we were like, "Let's start a band." So Casey Foubert, Yuuki [Matthews] and myself started Crystal Skulls, and Casey Wescott was still in school at that time.
The Skulls did our thing for a couple of years, and it sort of came to an end. I heard Casey was playing in this band Fleet Foxes, so I started hanging out and going to shows. I had the big van from Crystal Skulls, so I would cart around his gigantic keyboard collection. He's kind of a purist about that stuff, so he would literally bring three pianos to one show.
So I was just sort of helping him out, and I was a fan. So just due to my proximity with the band and helping them out, I went to a few of the sessions when they were making the demos for the album. They had a lot of harmonies and high vocals, and again my ability to sing high vocal parts sort of got me in the door. I started singing live with them and eventually picked up the bass, and that was it.
It looks like Poor Moon changed up the name periodically before settling on Poor Moon.
It was never really even a band until now. We played a few shows with a couple of different bass players and drummers, just kind of having fun. It was during the down time of Fleet Foxes, and I obviously had tons of songs because I'm always writing. While I was home with not much to do, a friend of ours was putting together a lot of house shows at the time, and we thought it would be fun to jump on to some of those. The original Poor Moon songs were just being played by Casey, Ian [Murray] and myself -- just the three of us playing acoustic. We also had a little vibraphone at that time.
So we would travel around. I had all this professional equipment I had collected over the years, and we would show up at these house shows and set up a P.A. and run sound. It was fun. When you're trying to find a band, it's kind of difficult these days to find something that's not already used. So we came up with all these names that were a joke just to have something to put on the poster. Just ridiculous stuff like Awesome Torso or whatever joke we could think of.
Eventually we got a bigger show offer from Deakin of Animal Collective, who was doing a solo tour. He asked us to play for him at Neumo's, so we tried to think of the least jokey name, and it was Peppermint Majesty. I didn't necessarily think that was the one, but I really liked having the initials "P.M."
Around about the same time I was listening to a lot of Canned Heat, and I had been reading a book about Alan Wilson. So the song he wrote, "Poor Moon," I got obsessed with, the whole idea of the song. It's about his fear of mankind destroying the moon by testing bombs on it or something. He legitimately feared the moon would not be in the sky anymore.
It's a bit of a ridiculous thing, but it seemed real to him, and in terms of songwriting, that really connected with me, because I like the idea of songs having their own rules. Each song can be its own little universe, its own little world, that doesn't necessarily have to rely on the rules of reality. It's all really the perspective of the writer.
I tend to fictionalize a lot of true feelings that I have, or true experiences, and turn them into stories. It seemed like a cool way to honor Alan Wilson and that song. It's something that meant a lot to me at the time. I liked the way the name looked and the sort of imagery that it evoked.
You've put out an EP called Illusion, and there's a particularly interesting song called "People In Her Mind." Was that inspired by a story you thought about, or a person or an incident?
I think there is a tendency for creative people to isolate themselves. I know that I definitely did when I was having a hard time. For a while, I was doing a bit more drugs than I should have. I was spending so much time in my thought life writing and stuff -- that process can also become dangerous when you're just thinking too much about stuff. Drugs don't help with that. So I found myself feeling pretty alone and cut off from my peers and unable to connect with them on any sort of spiritual level because I wasn't investing in my friendships. I was isolating myself.
I think it was born from that sort of emotion. The way that I write songs is that I'll make some music, just kind of riffs, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics for a while over the music that I lay down, and eventually, sometimes rather quickly, [the songs emerge]. I think that song actually came in one fell swoop.
And it seemed to tie in with some of themes that I had touched on previously in Crystal Skulls, and it could almost have been considered a sequel to "The Cosmic Door," where the sky is explaining that he was following this girl down the street and then she suddenly vanished and maybe she disappeared into another dimension or something.
This could have possibly been the aftermath of that, and this woman did fall into a cosmic door and just didn't know anyone. It seemed to have enough tie-ins that it made it interesting, at least to me. I don't know if anyone else would ever pick up on any of that stuff. I don't really worry about that kind of stuff.
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.