The fast-rising musicians open up about their sophomore album 'Battle Lines', a journey through some of life's most common battles.
The fast-rising musicians open up about their sophomore album 'Battle Lines', a journey through some of life's most common battles.
Text: Jake Viswanath
Battles are tough to fight and even harder to talk about openly, despite the fact that they may be the most prominent occurrence in our world today, whether they’re political, social, familial, petty, or perhaps most dauntingly, with ourselves. While touring around the world in everything from dingy nightclubs to vast festivals, electronic duo Bob Moses played the smooth house jams from their debut album Days Gone By to crowds that was facing battles of their own—some personal, and others inflicted by their own society and often influenced by unjustifiable political pressures. They realized the similarities in everyone’s battles and thought that perhaps the biggest challenge was to put these battles in proper melodies and rhymes, a task that they jumped to tackle.
With their second studio album Battle Lines, out today, Tom Howie and Jimmy Valance take account of what makes people come together and what makes them go into battle with one another, things learned through the unique lens of playing euphoric shows while strongly aware of the various issues that were facing the same people they were attempting to unite. Lyrics in "Back Down", like "Your reality is our insanity / Our humanity is tearing at the seams," jab at the threatening political landscape of the moment, while "Nothing to Believe" addresses more personal feelings, those where you just feel lost and it's hard to imagine a place of security.
These are not totally normal issues to address through electronic music, but Howie and Valance's rich chill house production, cinematic instrumentation, and psychedelic synths isn't your typical, blood-pumping EDM. It's a perfect pairing that defines Battle Lines, a vivid yet brooding journey into the human condition, the outside pressures that affect our own struggles, and all the melodrama that accompanies it, for better or worse. It's far from a battle cry, and yet it depicts those battles vibrantly. Before they start the touring circuit yet again by headlining the CRSSD Festival later this month, we sat down with the duo to talk about the record, how they managed to avoid the sophomore slump, and how their outsider perspective made them think about global battles in this way.
I always like to start at the beginning. How did you two meet and form Bob Moses?
Tom: We went to high school together and we played the same type of music nights. I'm a year older than Jimmy, we didn't have that many classes together and we weren't super close friends in high school, we were acquaintances and very much recognizing the other guy as the other music guy in school.
Jimmy: We both had fake IDs and got in nightclubs to play and [we would] come in to the next morning just haggard at school.
Did they suspect anything?
Tom: Oh yeah, our school, it was fortunate that they were very supportive of us doing that. The band program at our school was fine, but it was sort of a bit too straight and narrow as I think many band programs are. Our art teacher really helped, we had an English teacher who really helped, some of the teachers really liked the arts and really supported them so they created this vibe of having events and having extracurricular stuff, chances to play and bolster that idea, so they were pretty supportive. They thought it was cool we were playing. So we both go to New York. Jim went there after high school and I went to Berkley College of Music for a year in Boston, and we had studios really close by to each other in the same neighborhood. We ran into each other and were like, “Let's hang out”, and had a session and just immediately, it was really good chemistry.
Jimmy: I remember I was not sure how I felt about New York, and I was running out of money and thinking about going back to Vancouver for a bit to recuperate, save some money, and come back. We had a studio session a week before I was about to leave, we were just out at a bar during a break and I was like, "Man, we just have to do this.” I went back for a month or two and I saved up a bunch of cash. I came back and we moved into an apartment and started working all the time...
Tom: I always used to think that those stories are corny in the sense of when you know, you know, but it was pretty obvious right away because we both collaborated with other people in the past, but I think that we both always felt like we were contributing a lot more work to whatever we were trying to do, and when we were together, it was very much like, “Oh this other person was not only challenging me, but was also contributing so much.” When one of us would take an idea and walk towards the door and get stuck, the other one would be able to open in a weird way. We were really conscious of the fact that all of our favorite bands started in a scene. It wasn’t just about making music, you really wanted to be apart of a community and we really loved the warehouse underground rave scene in Brooklyn. We love the sound, that sort of production, but we didn't really think that there was that many songs being written in the genre, so our goal was always, "Let's have this band and let's really make sick productions, but let's also write the best song we can.” We met Francis Harris, this producer who started this little label that he called Scissor and Thread and it was an incubator for us, for ideas. He was our first A&R guy who, sort of like a mentor, would help us. One thing led to another—we played a bunch of parties here, and then we'd go to Miami and sleep on somebody's floor and play at some party, and then we do San Francisco and play the seedy clubs, and then we got asked to play Burning Man by Robot Heart and that was big.
Jimmy: We were able to build a about a foundation of fans everywhere, based on sort of the national dance scene, we were just plugging into that.
Tom: Yeah, and then we signed to Domino and that was sort of the time when we went from playing the clubs, like a 700-person club, we’d sell out in Toronto on a Saturday night at 2 AM, and we went back to that same club on a Tuesday and tried to play there at 9 PM and said, "Let's see if we can do the concert thing, and if anybody will come or if we're just like a by-product of this club scene.” We weren't sure and it was an overwhelming success. We realized that our goal was sort of real. It could be actualized in that people cared about us as an act, because the club scene is great and it's very communal, but it can be a bit like frivolous, things come and go very quickly. It’s not so much about the acts there, it's more about the overall experience. We have a very dance element in our music. We weren't sure if that was what people liked or if they also liked the song element, but that sort of proved to us that they like the song element.
Jimmy: Rick Rubin has this quote where he says “Anybody who thinks it's ever been about anything other than just making good music and putting on a good show is delusional,” and I think that that's true. I think there was a time that culminated in the late ‘90s or early 2000s where there was just so much money and you could literally plug an act into this outlet and they could be the biggest stars in the world overnight. We all grew up in that time. Now people have a choice what they listen to. On Spotify, you can find anything.
I have to ask how you guys came up with the name Bob Moses.
Jimmy: We were actually named Bob Moses by Francis. When we signed with them, we knew we wanted to make music together, but we didn't know how to do it. It's funny, the Reeces Pieces commercials back in the day, it's like they take chocolate and peanut butter and they do all these funny things to try to mix them together. We knew we wanted to do that, we just didn't know how to get it into the Reeses peanut butter form that people would like. We were taking it seriously and we had done enough with him where the label were gonna start putting in money, and he said you need a name. The next day, he called and said “Bob Moses”, and we were like, "Okay what does it mean?” Robert Moses was a city planner in New York who he did Shea Stadium and all the highways, he did art, he's got a bridge in Upstate New York. He was a very powerful figure and he was nicknamed the king of New York and Francis wanted us to be the kings of the New York club scene. It just stuck.
Going into this album, were you ever afraid of the myth of the sophomore slump?
Jimmy: Totally, but I don't think that's a sophomore slump thing. I think with every record, you’re gonna be afraid. I think as an artist, there's always a looming fear of, “What if the well runs dry? What if people don't think that what you're doing is relevant anymore?” I think that's just a natural thing but you have to just tune that out and ultimately if you actually make stuff that makes you happy and you don't do it for other reasons, at the end of the day, if people don't like it, they don't like it for you being you, and at least you can go to bed at night being like, “I did it for me, and we're super proud of it.” And so I think that that's ultimately all the kind of matters.
Tom: And if it connects with people, then better. I think you try and learn everything you can about what you've done and you just got to trust it so long as you always write from that place and you can't go wrong, and if you do go wrong, at least you can learn and try and learn where you went wrong. Sometimes there's records that don't connect with as many people but then they turn into something differently and later they become more important. I think if you just write from an honest place, then it's the best.
Did you guys learn anything from the first album?
Tom: I feel like our whole career has been for me, anyway, the process of getting closer, it sounds kind of corny to say, to writing more true music to ourselves, and I think that at the beginning when you’re trying to figure something out, it's a bit more nerve-wracking cause you're not really sure where to go. And I think that now, we're a bit more confident and just trusting our gut letting what comes up come up.
Jimmy: We had the fortunate benefit of, we’ve always had this slow growth, and so it's never really given people a chance to have too many expectations. By the time people find out about us, they go back and check out the back catalogue and it’s been nice that it's like, "Aww, here's this band that I just discovered that has great tunes from before.” It's like before they even get it, before it's like this brand new thing that's super sacred.
I think you're one of many artists where growth happens really steadily overtime, which is ironic considering how quickly the internet and music landscape today can change things.
Jimmy: Yes, it's too crazy when something happens overnight and it's this big thing and then you watch it, because with the internet now, I guess I'm like, “What would it have like 20 years ago?” You can really overdo it on something, just being everywhere all the time, and then people just go and they’re off that now. Some people aren't even in control of that, some things just take off and explode because that's what the people are really hungry for and that can almost be detrimental to a longer career in some cases, you know?
The album is very cinematic, dramatic, a little psychedelic. How did you guys arrive or build up to this sound?
Tom: It was a composer who said with every great artist, you should be able to hear their unique voice, but you should also be able to hear all of their main influences, not too much, but clearly in their work. I think the jury is still out on whether we're great artists or not, but we're trying to be good artists. I think that we're at the point now where just the natural culmination of both of our separate and joint inspirations work themselves out into that sound. I think that we just let what feels good to come together, and it just so happens that we liked that moody dark thing, it's just what we gravitate to naturally. We haven't really thought about it. It's like a feeling. We just both like that picture. And why do you like that picture? You could say, "Well I kinda like it for this," we just both like it and we just do that. And the sounds that we gravitate to, I think that's just sort of a by-product of who our influences are.
Jimmy: We like bright music that is fun, but also provoking thought, we're thoughtful people I think naturally, so it just works itself out that way.
Tom: The cinematic thing is an interesting thing because I don't think that's one that we're very conscious of. We both like movies, Jimmy specifically was really into making movies and stuff in high school.
Jimmy: I think it must be something to do with the sound design, the lushness of it, I think we treat that almost as cinematic. If you strip back the vocals in the song bits and take out some of the guitars and stuff like that, there's a lot of ambient stuff that would really work in a film, and I think having that take up some of the space lends it to that. We've been synced and linked a lot to various films and television shows.
So the title of the record is very apt, considering how the album really talks about all different types of battles, including political and social ones. What motivated you to address these sensitive topics?
Jimmy: We’re from Canada, we moved down to the states, I think that I love America, I was thinking the other day about why I love it. I think it is that it really is the battleground of changes, especially now that politically and socially, things are going on, and I think our record taps into that and the sentiments that are felt not only just nationwide, but now worldwide, about all these changes that are coming here, whether it's racial, sexual or for rights of people. On our last record, we wrote about things that came to us personally and were able to travel around the world and see how those lyrics have affected people. We played in Egypt a couple of weeks ago for a festival we headlined, we played for like 5000 people ,and they were all singing the words, and it all means something to them. It was written by two dudes in a windowless room in Brooklyn, but it relates to people in Egypt, and I think that we just realized that a lot of the struggles that we share are universal and that really inspired a lot of the points that we are trying to make on this record.
Tom: I think that coupled with the craziness of the world right now, we feel a bit confused or dismayed or worried or conflicted about all the change that's happening.
Jimmy: There’s another group of people that you don't know, somewhere, that don't agree with the way you're living your life. I think all that combined made us think a lot about those introspective things that we all feel. Humans aren't that set different even though we might wake up at a different time and eat a different thing for lunch because I live in South America or Turkey. All of our core desires are the same and those desires that we feel influence the world around us, and maybe this craziness that we're witnessing in the world is just due to what everybody is feeling inside. It’s reconciling how those things and ourselves are manifested in the outside world.
Do you think that you end up taking a political stance on this album?
Tom: We’re not taking a political stance. We're questioning the validity of political stances in general, and we're questioning… what have we done to get us to a place that may not be as desirable? Where have we gone wrong and how do we even reconcile that? With "Back Down", specifically that song is all about how our own limitations may have put us in a place that is threatening the things that we hold dear. It’s like an open question to ourselves, and to the outside world, “What's more important? Can you change your own thoughts or are you gonna stick to your sinking ship?” It's a bit more philosophical and I think good music and a good songwriter and good lyrics, specifically good writing, should put an idea into the listener's head but leave it open-minded, because music is a very personal thing but it's also personal for the listener as well. You wanna make people think and question themselves. We're not taking the political stance and saying, "This is the way the world should be." It's more about the idea of starting the conversation.
How do you plan to translate this album live?
Jimmy: We started off just Tom and I in nightclubs, and then the first time we played Coachella, we had a drummer, and now we've added a bass player, so we're performing it as a full band. This also falls into the the title of the record as well to think about our battle as a band being between man and machine, wondering where the balance of that lies. I think it's been a constant exploration for us, and this is a new iteration of it that we’re really excited about at the moment, and I think that we really built up a lot of our fans just from going out and touring. Something that's funny that we've heard from people in the past, they listen to our music at home and think it's quite chill, and they come to the live show, there's all of sudden they think, "Wow it's way more energetic than I imagined”, and the subtle trick to that in our music is the low end. There's a lot of groove in our low end that if you're listening to on a laptop speaker, you won't hear it, but live, it drives it so much.
Tom: This show will be also really focusing on always keeping that element of a journey. We are very, very conscious about pacing and connectivity and medleys, and really creating a journey for the audience, but also with the addition of a bass player and more vocals, we're making it more musical and dynamic. So I think that this is gonna be like the most exciting show we've ever put on.