Moon Taxi is helping to cultivate a new scene in Music City.
It’s no secret that Nashville is a lot more country than rock ‘n’ roll. But Moon Taxi is helping to cultivate a new scene in Music City, where the guitars have more reverb than twang. For the past five years, the dynamic quintet has built a loyal grassroots following behind an expansive live show that finds balance between rock’s experimental outskirts and tuneful center.
The band formed in 2007 when they were students at Belmont University. Soon after, they started building crowds around the Southeast with a steady touring regimen.
“We used Nashville as a good springboard and then cut our chops on the road,” says lead singer and main lyricist Trevor Terndrup.
While country hit makers on Music Row may dominate Nashville’s music landscape, Moon Taxi has won over sizable crowds at longstanding clubs like the Exit/In with irresistibly energetic live gigs that blend high-minded jam-band bombast with fist-pumping sing-alongs.
“In Nashville it’s not easily handed to you with this type of music,” adds Terndrup, who’s flanked on stage by bandmates Tom Putnam (bass), Spencer Thomson (lead guitar), Tyler Ritter (drums), and Wes Bailey (keys). “It’s not easy in a town that’s dominated by country, but a good rock scene has definitely developed. We carved it out through hard work and years of playing in town.”
A few weeks ago, the band released a new album, Cabaret, which is ripe for a national breakout. While the group’s sound lands squarely between the worlds of jam and indie rock, the new effort leans toward the latter. The record was made at Alex the Great Studios in Nashville with help from producer Hank Sullivant, whose resume includes work with the Whigs and MGMT. As a result, the songs on Cabaret are concise and catchy, while drenched in experimental studio effect.
The huge soaring chorus of the opening track, “Mercury,” is enhanced with distorted synth walls, while “Radio” sparkles with an infectious garage pop stomp. On the gritty hip-hop flavored “Hideaway,” Thompson added samples of a chant he recorded on his laptop at an anti-war protest in New York City.
“It’s the first time we’ve tried to think about a good studio record on the whole,” Terndrup explains. “We wanted to challenge ourselves with this record to make something cohesive and concise. We’re listening to more current popular music, and that found its way into how we wanted to make the record. We wanted to find unique sounds that we’d never experimented with before.”
Even with a wash of hipster edge in the sonic mix, lyrically, Terndrup leans more toward the soul of the South. “Whiskey Sunsets” romanticizes adventurous long nights with a buzz in front of anthemic arena rock riffs, while the intoxication in “Southern Trance” comes just as much from being “naked, lit up by moonshine” as it does from “Georgia jasmine blooms.” Terndrup says his songwriting is influenced by the literary work of Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and authors “that stretch your imagination and put together wacky metaphors that you wouldn’t think about in a normal state of mind.”
With a broad arsenal of appealing sonic characteristics, the band is poised to infiltrate a diverse range of music scenes. The group already has firm footing in the jam band world—sharing the stage with the likes of Gov’t Mule, Umphrey’s McGee, and Perpetual Groove—and they don’t want to alienate that supportive crowd. But with the new album, the band members believe they can reach new audiences, like they did when they opened for Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, who delivers a rhyme on the track “Square Circles.”
“He’s a really great performer that I’ve always looked up to,” Terndrup says. “Even though he’s coming from a very different genre of music, he gets off on the very same thing that we do, which is the live performance and being there in the moment.
“With our live shows we have catered to the jam crowd, and there’s an expectation when people come to our shows for over the top guitar solos and a crazy light show. That’s not something we’re going to aim to change in the future.”
Moon Taxi’s Mercury is featured in our March 2012 Trail Mix. Listen or download for free here.