by Patrick Barcus
It’s 5:30 in the evening in early April and Gus Moon is sitting at my kitchen counter watching out the window as the weather changes with the speed of a time lapse film. It was hailing when he showed up, then the sun came out in full, followed by rain, then snow, and now it’s sunny again. He’s only been here for ten minutes.
photos by Brittney Way,
Jennifer Taylor, and
The constant flux outside is a fitting backdrop for Gus Moon’s life these days, which seems to be heading in new directions all the time. He’s got a new, self-produced EP and another already in the can, set for recording this summer. He’s also in the midst of his most far flung and extensive tour to date, playing towns and venues he’s never hit before. Gus Moon is a lot like Indiana weather, always moving. And just as winter’s dying is the food for a colorful spring, Gus Moon’s past is forging a fruitful future.
I offer him a drink as we await the arrival of his one-man rhythm section, Dennis Furr. Gus Moon takes his whiskey neat. He’s never been one to overcomplicate things, which is a lesson he learned while recording the latest EP, I Know Enough to Know Better. It’s his third release, following 2012’s Worn Out Shoes and 2013’s Splendid Noise. But this time around was the first time he used his own recording studio, one he built with his bare hands, tucked amongst the farmland of northern Putnam County.
Being his first attempt at being his own recording engineer, he says he found the process of learning as he recorded an arduous but rewarding one. “We learned so much,” he says. But the process took longer than his previous records. “We would get a new piece of equipment and it was like, here’s this new piece of equipment, we have to start over.” While his first two records took about a week each to get down, I Know Enough to Know Better took over a month.
They’ve played their raw acoustic sounds in such musical strongholds as Nashville and Athens, as well as several out-of-the-way venues in out-of-the-way towns. And they’re loving it to the point that being home makes them crave the road.
But the labor was worth it. The EP is a haunting collection of confessional songs built around themes of change, both physically and psychologically. It also reflects the presentation the songs are getting on the latest tour. “I chose songs I wanted to present in a stripped down manner,” he says. “I’m so used to playing solo or with Dennis that it was important to keep this project simple and have it come across on the recording that way.” Leaving is certainly a central motif on the new EP, like in “Witches on Fire,” when he sings “I’ve been thinking about leaving / at a moment like this / disappear without warning / no note, no last kiss.” His own description of the album echoes those themes. “Subject-wise, these songs definitely fit together. Songs involving moving on, travel, seasons, and heroes.”
Outside the weather is settling down with the dropping sun as Dennis Furr, Gus Moon’s longtime musical cohort strolls into the kitchen. A tall, lanky man sporting a gruff, lumberjack-like beard to offset his deceptively innocent-looking eyes, Furr has been by Gus Moon’s side for all three of his records and countless performances, all while playing in as many as three other local bands at any given time. He’s a hardened musical veteran and can sit in with almost anyone on bass, like some sort of four-stringed chameleon. He’s also a solid drummer and is known to play piano at gigs when the mood strikes him. It’s a safe bet to say that Gus Moon might not be the musician he is without Furr, but neither of them would ever take credit for the other. And it’s their shared even temperament and humility that makes them work so well together. On stage, it sometimes appears like you’re listening to two sides of the same brain, with Gus Moon bringing the raw imagination and emotion of lyrics and melody, while Furr provides the analytical, logical grounding of the rhythm. He pours his own glass of whiskey and settles in for the duration.
I’m actually lucky to have Gus Moon sipping Four Roses Single Barrel in my kitchen. He and Furr have been crisscrossing the southeastern U.S. on an extensive tour since the beginning of March, returning home only when necessary to regroup, earn extra cash, or play one-off local shows, which is why he’s able to grace my counter tops tonight. They’ve played their raw acoustic sounds in such musical strongholds as Nashville and Athens, as well as several out-of-the-way venues in out-of-the-way towns. And they’re loving it to the point that being home makes them crave the road. When asked if being stationary makes him restless, Gus Moon is quick to respond. “You get back and it’s like, Wow! I’d rather be moving around, playing every single day, just boom, boom, boom! Put a check by that. That’s living.” Occasionally, he says, it even borders on temporary depression: “Sometimes, I’m like, do I have to slit my throat in front of somebody today in order to go paint?” which is a side job he’s done for years. “I want to paint those walls in blood.” It’s a chilling image. One I wouldn’t be surprised to find in a yet-to-be-written song.
But Gus Moon is not suicidal, even if some of the characters in his songs might approach that state of mind. He’s truly in love with life on the road. Yet, he’s quick to dispel any Romantic notions people might have of that life. I asked him how people responded when he told them about the tour and he replies that most people react with something like “Oh man, you’re going on the road to play music?! Party time!” but he’s much more realistic. “Not true,” he says. “We’re not Poison. An acoustic-based singer songwriter without a nationally-recognized song repertoire, playing coffee shops, songwriter rounds, and hitting open-mics is not a very wild time. Sleeping on people’s couches and floors doesn’t lend itself to being very glamorous either.”
And he’s not kidding, as he mentions them sleeping on a friend’s hardwood floor in Nashville one night. They also splurged one night on Airbnb accommodations, which they say they’ll only do again if they can afford it and the homeowner is not there. “The place was so clean it reminded of us of Christian Bale’s character’s apartment in American Psycho.” Neither got much sleep that night, as they pondered Jared Leto’s fate in that film. But not even such humble bedding or the threat of axe-murder can get Gus Moon down about the road. “With that being said, I love everything about it. The energy of a new town, the possibility of a new audience make you feel like an explorer out searching for some lost treasure. It makes doors open in my mind that would otherwise remain locked. Meeting other musicians, songwriters, and local business owners is a thrill. Everyone has stories and ideas to share. Unglamorous beauty. The best,” he says, taking another sip from his glass.
On “Cold Desire,” from I Know Enough to Know Better, Gus Moon sings “The wind is blowing so hard / it might carry me away / Oh that’d be alright.” It’s that yearning to strike out for new places and his love of meeting new people that is driving Gus Moon and paying dividends as well. As much as musicians must ply their time with self-promotion and social media these days, often forging false personae in the process, Gus Moon’s recent expedition to the southeast has reminded him of the grace and generosity that is often lost in “me-first” America. And he also realized that word-of-mouth is as powerful as any amount of followers on Twitter.
At a recent stop in Johnson City, Tennessee, he and Furr played a short, afternoon set on a local radio station. Afterwards, with almost 24 hours to kill before the next day’s gig, they stopped in at a local brewery. While there, they met the owner, who struck up a conversation with them, fishing out that they weren’t local, just in town for their gig. After a few hours of talking, the man invited them to stay at his house, insisting they forgo their original plans for a motel. “I was initially a little weirded-out,” says Furr, probably recalling Christian Bale again, covered in his clear poncho, ready to strike, as the strains of Huey Lewis and the News thumped through the stereo. But what resulted was nothing more than a grass-roots effort to accommodate and induct the two to the Johnson City scene. They met and socialized with many of the brewery-owner’s friends and spent the night at his house in the hip Tree Streets neighborhood of Johnson City, where all the streets have names like Maple, Pine, and Poplar. The next day, the brewery owner assembled many more of his friends and neighbors for a pre-show cook out and all attended the Gus Moon gig. All without a single push of a button on Gus Moon’s cell phone.
Other stops along the road have paid similar dividends, especially in terms of going over well with new audiences. “It’s been positive,” Gus Moon says. “A lot of what the audience feels is a reflection of your own attitude or excitement. If you believe in what you’re doing and you’re having fun, it’s infectious. We’ve been having fun and we believe in our sound.”
By now it’s too dark outside to tell if it’s snowing or not and Gus Moon’s eyes betray that he’s already thinking about his gig tonight, where he’ll be backed up by the full band who helped him record Splendid Noise, and who will also back him up at his upcoming gig at the Hi-Fi in Fountain Square at the end of April. He also plans to use them to record his next album, which he’s already trying to book time for at Bloomington’s Primary Sound studio. He’s going to leave the next album to another engineer, so he can get in and get back out on the road. He and Furr will head back down south, hitting Florida and the Charleston, South Carolina area, among others, before coming home again to regroup and plan their next trip. “I’m looking forward to travelling through the Northeast. I went to Maine last year and since then I’ve been looking forward to playing through New York, Vermont, Maine, and down into Pennsylvania.”
Temporarily, though, Gus Moon is home. But the itch to keep moving is evident as he twitches on the stool before me. He and Furr finish the last drops in their glasses and head out into the Hoosier dark like some modern version of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, ready to grab some dinner before they set the night on fire. Catch them while you can, because soon, they’ll vanish, headed for whatever lies out there, on the horizon.