You never know who’s listening.
When Montreal’s newly formed Half Moon Run went into a studio to provide a track for a student project, they had no idea they’d get a record deal out of it. In fact, as Dylan Phillips explains, going into the session was a bit of a blur.
“I was super sick, so I can’t remember much of that day,” says the band’s drummer and keyboard
“You meet people and they’re clearly more interested in being in a band than writing songs, making music… We don’t want to turn into those guys. – Dylan Phillips of Half Moon Run
player. “I know it was pretty rushed. I do remember that soon afterwards we heard from Kyria [Kilakos, label manager of Indica Records]. She was teaching at the school and the recording caught her attention. We hadn’t even played 10 shows yet, but a couple of weeks later we were signed. It was quite exciting, although it was also faster than we were able to handle.”
The song was “Full Circle,” a nimble bit of hypnotic folk-rock highlighted by the double-time, three-part harmonies of Phillips, guitarist Conner Molander and lead vocalist Devon Portielje. The three had come to Montreal from across the country for different reasons: Molander to study psychology at McGill University, Portielje for a music industry job, and Phillips to pursue his masters in classical piano. They met through a Craiglist ad, and (with exception of a short-lived high-school rock group for Conner), Half Moon Run was their first band.
Still, they weren’t newbies. Portielje had studied Music Industry Arts at Fanshawe College in London, ON, which is why he says he met the initial offer from Indica with “raw skepticism.”
“I wanted to be DIY,” he says. “I wanted to go viral on YouTube, and have a position of power when
“Songwriting was like going to a new job. Keep your head down and start working.” – Devon Portielje of Half Moon Run
talking to labels. One of the main things covered [at Fanshawe] was getting ripped off by contracts. But we had an entertainment lawyer look at [the Indica contract], made some amendments, and signed.”
After initially telling Indica they could have an album’s worth of songs ready in two months, the band took almost a year to do it. Dark Eyes was released in March 2012. The band’s sound is delicate and intimate, a mix of au courant sensitive indie rock and retro psychedelia, with subtle electronic flourishes. Dark Eyes found its place onto the shelves of Radiohead fans, Band of Horses listeners and the like, and Half Moon Run found itself touring North America as the opening act for Wintersleep and Metric.
Then last October, they got a major boost from Ben Lovett of international chart-toppers Mumford & Sons, who told the influential U.K. magazine New Musical Express that Half Moon Run was his favourite new band, and “potentially one of the most important bands debuting an album this year.”
Since then the group (which now also includes multi-instrumentalist Isaac Symonds) has been capitalizing on the attention – playing the Glastonbury and Reading festivals in England, touring with Mumford and Of Monsters And Men, getting airplay on BBC radio, and signing deals to release Dark Eyes in France, the U.S. and the U.K.
But the men of Half Moon Run haven’t been able to squeeze in much songwriting. “It’s really tough,” says Phillips. “We do have seeds of ideas. We try stuff on acoustic guitar, we harmonize, and then I take it to my computer in the van and add keys. I have used iPhone recordings into Logic. We’ll try anything. But we really need our set-up and some meaningful time off. You can’t see a song to completion on the road.”
For a new group, Half Moon Run already has a defined system of creating music. Portielje says this is partly because the band members weren’t friends first, so from the get-go, their get-togethers were focused on production. “It was like going to a new job,” he says. “Keep your head down and start working.”
When the band is finally able to settle down to craft the follow-up to Dark Eyes, its four members will continue to apply the rules that served them so well the first time. For Portielje, that includes writing the melody first, then syllables, then words. But don’t ask Phillips about his lyrics. “We don’t discuss what a song means,” he says. “That’s why sometimes the lyrics might be dark, but the music is not.”
Most importantly, Phillips says Half Moon Run will never forget the real reason they came together, and flipped their lives upside down to pursue their opportunity.
“You meet people and they’re clearly more interested in being in a band than writing songs, making music,” he says. “We recognize those moments in ourselves too, and we can make fun of ourselves. But we don’t want to turn into those guys. Songs always come first.”
Publisher: Universal Music Publishing Canada, Indica Records Inc.
Discography: Dark Eyes (2012)
SOCAN Members since 2011