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FOR YOUR EARS ONLY
By Tim Roberts
"The atmosphere of constant bad news in which we have lived for years while surrounded by everything we want. . .is really killing me."
Twelve years from now. . .
The buttery scent and sticky floors of a movie theater are mildly nauseating at seven in the evening. Especially since you haven't sat yourself in one – foam rubber peeking from cracks in the armrests, the back loose and leaning into the row behind you – in nearly two years. Flatscreen TV, a home theater system that could blast sound into every square centimeter of an opera house, DVDs of new releases that hit the stores before the movies can snake out into the second-run screens have kept you mostly at home.
Yet you have a personal tradition: every other year you are willing to peel off $10, swap it for a ticket, and, with a bag of Raisinettes in your lap and a sweaty wax-paper cup of Pepsi forming a wet circle on your knee, you wait for the lights to dim, the white circle to slide across the screen, and the blatty eleven-note introduction to the theme music. The familiar gun barrel point-of-view tracks an elegant figure dressed in black. He turns, fires. A thin drape of red flows over the gun barrel. It wavers and falls to a corner of the screen. A tingle flows up your spine.
You were born the year The Spy Who Loved Me was released. At twelve you became a fan with License to Kill. On a long snowy weekend you and your dad viewed his entire collection of the other movies on video. You began to seriously consider who was the best at playing the main character, which of the women was the hottest, which villain was the scurviest, which theme song was the best.
Tonight, in the fiftieth anniversary year of the release of the first film, you continue your personal tradition with the twenty-fifth entry in the series. The opening segment – sometimes unrelated to the story – has finished. The main titles begin, every frame a surreal montage of explosions, of silhouettes of women and guns. The sultry theme song flows around the imagery, its vocal harmonies coating the theater (now in 128-bit Dolby digital, "more real than reality"). It doesn't have the brassy gaudiness of Shirley Bassey's rendition of "Goldfinger," the silkiness of Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does It Better," the slow airy pop of Sheena Easton with "For Your Eyes Only," or the steamy techno-thwump of Garbage singing "The World Is Not Enough," yet it fits within the thematic template unaltered by the previous 24 films: there's a man, there's danger, there's romance, there's action, there's death.
You note the name of the song's composer when his credit dissolves into the montage. You notice he also scored the music for the entire film. His name is now part of an exclusive pantheon: John Barry, George Martin and Paul McCartney, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti. It's a single name. And if you forget it all you have to do is look into the sky on a clear night for a reminder.
The song spins in your ears long after the opening montage dissolves into the first scene. You do a mental finger-cross in hopes that the new actor playing James Bond is worthy of his five predecessors.
"I have this fear that keeps me awake at night that one day Hugh Grant will be Bond and I'll just have to disavow movie theaters," Moon said, "just because he's English and he's at the appropriate age. He stares too much at his feet."
Grant may or may not aspire to be part of the James Bond cultural franchise (as the hero, the villain, or the twitty bureaucrat who has shown up in a few of the films), but Moon does. "My dream is to do a Bond title song, write the score, then die," he said. "Or at least retire." Should that happen, his name would join an influential list of others that have scored music for films, the stage, television, and the pop charts. One of them composed a massive Broadway hit that became one of the longest-running shows ever. Two of them – as co-songwriter and producer – changed music history. Collectively they have won as many Oscars, Grammys, and Tonys as anyone ever nominated.
One word summarizes them. . .and Moon: composer.
Thirty-years-old, lanky, quiet-spoken, and a James Bond fan, Moon (who's first name is Stephen, a name he claims "only my enemies and co-workers use") considers himself to be a composer more than a songwriter. "A songwriter, I think, is lyrically inspired," he said. "A composer is musically inspired. I'm definitely musically inspired. I'm also left-handed, which means I'm right-brained. Which would follow the music writing. My wife's much better at crafting words than I am."
To develop the distinction between "songwriter" and "composer" may split a few more semantic hairs than necessary ("And, remember, I'm not only president of the Hair Club for ASCAP Members, I'm also a client."), yet modern music history gives a fingercount of examples. Songwriter Irving Berlin was quick with clever phrases, but all his works were in a narrow range of keys ranging from F to F. Composer George Gershwin left the lyric writing portion of the job to his brother, Ira, while he rolled out Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.
For Moon, the distinction between songwriting and composing also manifests during the creation of a piece – the eureka moment, if you will – and any subsequent live performances of it. "I like two moments of inspiration," he said. "When an idea becomes put down on the keyboard for the first time, then when a song has been arranged, crafted, and produced, and it clicks on the playback. Performance is a drudgery for me. I'm not an extrovert. I'm not good at small talk or social speaking, and it relates to my performing. But in my theory that music must relate to other people, the way I do it is through the final product."
Moon's first final product, The Funeral of Mr. Disappointment – released on MoonRover Records, the label he created with his wife, Victoria – demonstrates his focus on the supporting elements of a recording – composition (or songcrafting), instrumentation, arranging, and production – instead of performance, without sacrificing song quality. Released last autumn, the songs contained on Funeral are Moon's personal testimony about the universal topics of love (unconditional and otherwise), dreams, failure, mortality. In Funeral, Moon views those common topics philosophically, using allusion and parable instead of the spongy cudgel of rhetoric normally found in self-help books or greeting cards. A single copy of Funeral says more about life than a whole spinner rack full of parchment verses from Blue Mountain Arts.
"A religious testimony always puts your flaws out before people for them to digest," Moon said. "You show how you've overcome them. I guess Funeral is my testimony. The songwriting flowed well. It had to be shaped and crafted. But because it was a personal statement, it was easy. It's not pretend. I haven't made a character out of myself."
And what is his testimony in Funeral? "Here I am. Imperfect."
"This album is the first project of mine to keep an audience listening without being uncomfortable," Moon said, "[without] preachy lyrics that pretend that I know all the answers and that my listeners don't, and that by listening they can become enlightened. You're trying to build a relationship and tell what's going on inside you. I think this is my best project that tells people about me."
He continued. "I think the whole album is obviously about the disappointments we face. I work. I don't lie around in my pajamas playing acoustic guitar all day. I have to pay the bills. By working full time, I don't have to spend Wednesday nights in smoky bars, or in Skokie opening for a magician with ducks. I choose to work in a career that's demanding and very stressful. That comes out in several songs on the album, about the value of work and why we do it, all the things we want out of our careers other than compensation. The album also talks about my battle in and out of depression, keeping a grip on my life, staying active with my friends, my job, and my responsibilities as a citizen and a human being."
Through his testimony on Funeral, Moon is an agent to the rest of us imperfect mortals. The message: gods don't have it any easier, so why should we? Wing-footed Mercury delivers for UPS. Zeus changes the light bulbs at Yankee stadium. Agent M-double-O-N's testimonial dispatch says we need to work to make our dreams come alive. We bear burdens to accomplish our personal perfection. The titan Atlas, Moon's subject matter in the song with the same name, is often depicted in a painful position, down on one knee with the world resting on his shoulders and cradled on the backs of his arms: his eternal task after leading the losing side in the Titans' war against Zeus. In a piece with the same title, the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, "I carry that which cannot be carried / And my body and soul would like to break." Two key words in that line are would and like. It would be too easy for Atlas to shrug his burden. He doesn't. Instead, Moon invites him to stand tall, glorious, and lift it high.
"The human crap we go through is all from insecurity," he said. "We're either trying to please other people too much, or we're trying to make ourselves into something greater than we could ever be."
That kind of life is pointless. Our mortality has seen to that. Heine also wrote, "Do you think, dear foolishness, / Everything is here to stay? / What we lovingly possessed / Fades away like reverie. . . ."
Or, as Moon sings in the final track of Funeral, "We've reached the poles / But they're still digging six-foot holes / Oh no, away we go."
Born and raised in Marietta, Georgia, Moon studied classical piano and composition theory during his childhood. He sang in church choir and later taught himself guitar, bass, and drums. He met Louisville native Eddy Morris ten years ago in Atlanta while attending architecture school. Son of Eddy Morris, Sr., former vocalist with such Louisville bands as The Premiers, The Tempests and The Monarchs, he and Moon formed a short-lived band called All Night Virgil. "We developed a unique songwriting and production rapport," Moon said. "Unique in that it was two songwriter-bandleaders-lead singers who, somehow, learned to co-exist peacefully. [There was] a lot of compromise, a lot of constructive criticism taken on the chin at odd hours of the evening and responding to it well."
After Moon graduated from college in the autumn of 1993, he decided to pursue a career as a musician, but in a smaller town. He reconnected with Morris in Louisville and created a Christian pop band called Fish Tales.
"It was progressive rock and pop on the order of Spin Doctors or Counting Crows," he said. "We made two studio albums together and toured in the tri-state area for several years. Fish Tales was a compromise in that I was pop and Eddy was rock. We kind of met in the middle with the progressive sound. Some experts who got ahold of our work said they loved the groove, they loved our image and the songs we were writing. But the songs needed a professional vocal. The experts were the Gospel Music Academy Awards."
In 1996 the academy placed Fish Tales as midwest regional finalists in the artist category. Moon won for songwriting in that competition. The academy's suggestion about the vocals later sent Moon to voice lessons. "The singing I had been doing wasn't up to a professional level, so I spent two years studying under Margaret Ann Oates, a regular with the Kentucky Opera. She only teaches the classical method, and I told her we were doing a pop album. She said singing is singing. Once you learn to do it right, you can do it the way you want to. There are only a handful of sounds you can make with your mouth in classical singing. Once you master those sounds and those scales, then you move into piece-work. It's an anatomy lesson."
However, the voice lessons and professional recognition couldn't keep Fish Tales together. "After three or four years we decided to grow our own wings," Moon said. "We'll still support each other. Eddy will perform with me and I'll perform on some of his albums. But the creative effort is now solo."
Moon was able to rely on that support when called upon Morris and his drummer brother Mike in March of 1998 to begin initial track work on Funeral. The songs were ready. "Most of the songs," he said, "were fleshed out in mid 1997. I finished them in a penthouse suite of a Ramada Inn on the Baltimore harbor. While my wife was at a convention, I spent three or four days in my pajamas finishing the songs and getting them to the point where I could get the studio band involved. That was December, 1997."
"I spent January" he continued, "working on the first part of the album with one studio band, the remnants of Fish Tales, which was Mike and Eddy Morris. I spent February working with L'Woo (Ray Rizzo, Danny Kiely, and Maurice Hamilton) on the other half of the album. It required more of the jazz sound and instrumental proficiency that Danny and Ray had."
The recording of Funeral included two milestones. "In March we did the basic tracks at Allen-Martin Productions. Todd Smith was the engineer. It was the final recording session there. We closed to no fanfare at midnight on a Friday in March. As unique as it was to be the last project there, it was equally unique as the first independent project into the Distillery Sound studio. I had to wait throughout the spring while Days of the New broke it in. It was a long wait. It was June before I could get back with the project. But it gave me the time to do the charts for the orchestration and backing vocals."
That time between studio gigs was not wasted. Throughout the entire work, Moon's arrangements include parts for strings, horns, a banjo, traditional pop instruments, and, particularly in the song "For You," dreamy vocals. "I learned to arrange from listening to '70s pop and movie scores," he said with a small chuckle. "But the skill went back to piano lessons from first through seventh grades, and music theory with my piano teacher.
"On a basis level, the tape itself was different [back then]. Analog tape will pick up more warmth from bass guitars, acoustic pianos, deeper voices, cellos, things like that, than do the digital formats. Besides that, I think there was more musicianship back then. There was more arranging of a song. It wasn't all product. There was time in '70s pop, whether it was Steely Dan or Elton John or Billy Joel, to have a break within the song, an intro, a second movement. Even some Wings songs have three or four different movements that were totally unrelated. The radio format allowed that back then. It wasn't all three-minute pop."
Consider the seminal Wings song "Band on the Run." Three portions, each of which could develop into its own piece: the mellow opening ("Stuck inside these four walls"), the harsh center portion with its tinny vocals ("If I ever get out of here"), then the steady drive of the finale ("Well the rain exploded with a mighty crash as well fell into the sun") that includes the song's chorus. A few songs on Funeral, though not as long, also have separate parts. "Something's Always Happening to Me" is driven by rapid vocals and a slamming piano rhythm. It smoothes out in the coda when Moon's questioning title is answered with, "Something's always happening / Ain't no use in asking Him why / It'll be all right." Or consider the two-part bridge in "Happy the Dog," Moon's tribute to all the dogs he's had and the unconditional love they've given. He goes from a fast 6/8 waltz to a slow ¾ when he sings, "Happy sees colors in the sunset every night / Most dogs only know black and white." It bounces into a punchy 4/4 with "Life can bark but it can't bite" before resuming its waltz tempo.
Moon also trained his ears with film scores from that decade. "The cinematic style, the imagery, the slower-cut footage. Editing wasn't so intense. The score was more pastoral rather than chopped up into tidbits of pop. It hasn't resurfaced until recently. I guess Disney has realized that their lush animation productions needed music to go with them. It's an attention to detail, to mood, that has to support what's going on lyrically. Because I'm not doing any angry rap, my production would require some lush harmony and orchestra work."
And what is one of Moon's favorite film scores from the 1970s? The one Marvin Hamlisch wrote for The Spy Who Loved Me.
"I'd like to do an even bigger production for this next album," Moon said of his plans for a follow-up to Funeral. "Maybe some remote recordings. Full orchestra. I think the new trends in music will be more indulgent songcrafting. Indulgent meaning that it doesn't conform to commercial format. Plus we're still in negotiations for me to produce the second MoonRover Records album. It will be my first outside production job for another artist. It will be something to further legitimize our label."
With negotiations finished, Moon later announced that he will produce the next release for musician and former LMN cover photographer Hunt Sidway. It will be a full-length album will full orchestration. Moon said his challenge will be to help Sidway achieve the sound his music seems to want.
Moon is one of many of the unsigned acts in Louisville who have become entrepreneurs in creating, marketing, and selling their own products. "Bands are getting their own acts together," he said, "promoting themselves independently of the major labels, getting airplay, and getting royalties. That's what we really try to do with our tiny label and company. It may be nothing, but we own 100% of it. What most people don't realize is that a record contract is a loan or an advance to be paid off in the future. It's not carte blanche. Why play their game? Why give them all your money?"
He supports his entrepreneurial musicianship as Project Manager with the architectural firm Godsey Associates. He's also preparing to take his architect's license examination. "Some of the things that I do are similar to the music project. It's inspiration, implementation, coordinating the mundane details of personal relationships. There's an adage that architecture is frozen music. It has the same rhythms and relationships, proportions, scales."
So what kind of building would The Funeral for Mr. Disappointment be?
"It would be a funhouse in the middle of a prairie on some train-stop. It's geared up for a short time. It entertains some folks. And you are sad to see it go."
Connect with Moon at www.mp3.com/Moon. There you can sample The Funeral of Mr. Disappointment, buy it, or contact Moon.
"I have always loved broad horizons and new things. But as I get older, I want more and more the home I have never had, and the more of a home I have, the less I shall leave it."