"I was in a dream state to begin with, but twenty seconds into the start of the show I turned to my partner and said, ‘They've got it,’” recalls Franz Schuller, president of Indica Records. He's speaking of his introduction to rising Canadian rockers Half Moon Run.
The same force jarring Schuller from his jet lag mesmerized me as well. In my case, it happened under blazing hot sunshine in Ohio where Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road Stopover arrived this summer, bringing ten world class bands over two days. Although the first act out of the gate was brand new to me, they made an immediate visual impression, dancing and grinning, clearly happy to be there.
I didn't hear the music at first. I never hear sound when photographing from the pit, as concentrating on the perfect shot is too intense. It's like being in the zone.
After the customary three songs from the barricade, I moved into the crowd seeking more photo ops. An older couple swayed together as if in a trance. Others in the audience seemed just as riveted. And then it hit me, too.
"If you breathe in, I breathe in," a syrupy voice cooed before growling, “and slowly let goooo, ma-ma!" Confident the voice was singing directly to me, I turned on a dime, found a good vantage point in the stands, and forgot about taking pictures.
As the song finished, I Googled the lyrics, thinking it must have been a cover. Bands so young and fresh don't write like that; they don't coax such tasteful passion from a Fender. My search told me they do. It was their own song called “Need It,” and I was enthralled. I texted several friends: "You must look up this group. Right now."
Such arresting reactions to Half Moon Run are common. Critics and fans alike pull out ethereal terms like cathartic, haunting, and spellbinding. One writer copped to feeling flat-out possessed after hearing the group’s breakout single "Full Circle.”
What je ne sais quoi makes this little indie trio-turned-quartet so addictive on a first listen? What’s earning them fans of all ages, all backgrounds? Is it that aching, primal lead vocal? Trademark three and four part harmonies? Compelling lyrics? Entrancing tribal drum beats? Answer: all of the above, skillfully blended into complex, inventive arrangements incorporating a little bit of everything right with music over the last forty years.
Behind the Music
It turns out Half Moon Run almost didn’t happen.
The magic began four years ago in Montreal when Devon Portielje quit his new promotions job before lunch on his first day. The Ottawa native had just moved from London, Ontario, with a music production degree in hand, and couldn't leave because he'd already signed an apartment lease.
Nearby, Conner Molander entered his first semester at elite McGill University. He'd trekked across the country from his remote Vancouver Island hometown of Comox to study psychology.
Across town at Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, fellow Comox native Dylan Phillips was completing a master's degree in classical piano. He envisioned post-graduate study in Germany.
Another party, no longer with the band, posted a CraigsList ad seeking a bassist and drummer interested in Grizzly Bear and Radiohead. Charmed by the particular wording of the post, Portielje, a singer-songwriter, shot off a reply and was encouraged to attend an informal jam session which included Phillips, whose sister knew the organizer, and Molander, another friend-of-a-friend.
The cobbled-together jam happened, and the musical chemistry was undeniable. Soon, the three strangers devoted every spare moment to one shared purpose: to make the best music they possibly could. And so they have.
The Making of Dark Eyes
This is not an overnight success story. Far from it. Two full years of drudgery and dues-paying followed as the band members set aside scholarly pursuits to work as dishwashers, waiters, and janitors by day. By night, they built their repertoire inside a dark, dank jam space in Montreal's Mile End district.
The songs they developed together benefited from a cross-pollination of sorts. Phillips approached arrangements with his intense, structured classical training. Molander arrived with years of music lessons and experience in several other groups. Portielje, who had never taken a formal lesson or joined an actual band before this, contributed intuition and raw talent.
In 2010, Half Moon Run emerged from their cocoon long enough to play a few small shows around Ontario and Quebec, but financial concerns loomed. As their song “Judgement” alludes, the life of a starving artist is not a career most parents wish for their children.
"I think our parents largely thought that it would be a phase that would pass, and that we would move on to something else after we had gotten over the 'band’ thing," Molander shares. "That's not to say they weren't supportive because they all were, but it's hard for anyone to believe in making a good living as a musician these days."
Molander considered becoming a forest firefighter out west for a summer to make paying rent in Montreal easier the rest of the year.
"When the possibility of me leaving came, it started to look like we were going to break up," he explains. "The time away from each other, and away from our development as a band, was too discouraging to endure so ultimately I decided to stay. We made huge advancements that summer in spite of being broke."
Just as the band contemplated shutting down, a music miracle happened. They responded to an invitation from college students wishing to complete a recording project for course credit. The produced track was an early version of "Full Circle."
The twist? A faculty member was Kyria Kilakos, co-founder of Indica Records.
"The song blew her and subsequently me and many others away," Schuller, now Half Moon Run’s manager, notes. "We contacted the band, had them record some more songs live off the floor in our studio, were blown away again, and offered them a deal."
Indica fostered the trio as they navigated seven grueling months of recording, meticulous re-recording, and more dishwashing. The effort and perfectionism paid off. When they finally performed their album live, sets at the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest and M for Montreal Festival earned the highest praise from music publications as big as NME. A video for "Full Circle" was produced, and Dark Eyes made its commercial debut with a soft release in Canada in March 2012. Early fans took to Facebook, anointing Half Moon Run the reincarnation of The Police.
Musically, radio-friendly hits like the percussion-driven “Call Me In the Afternoon” provide a soundtrack for summer road trips. Lyrically, much of the album begs to be played in the deep heart of winter when you’re alone in a candlelit cabin at 3:00 a.m. contemplating your very existence. Dark Eyes demands a respectable set of speakers. Turn up the volume, and feel.
There’s an abundance of mindful caution here, with well-placed bursts of something more fevered. Consider the scene in Eddie and The Cruisers where Tom Berenger encourages room for a song to breathe, declaring, "I think he's right. I think it needs a caesura." Half Moon Run gets this, their silences are palpable, and it’s this intricate sense of timing and touch which takes their work -- both recorded and live -- from very good to great.
Guided by Indica and with eleven album tracks in-hand, the band launched an assault on small venues around the world beginning in the spring of 2012. The road warriors impressed SXSW audiences, opened for Metric and Patrick Watson, and booked gigs in Australia, Europe and the United States. Not yet big enough for a bus, they mostly traveled in vans they drove themselves, often covering hundreds of miles overnight and arriving just in time for each new sound check.
Criss-crossing the planet from the beginning proved smart, as regardless of the venue sizes HMR played, they built considerable cachet with every passing mile. It's easier to drag friends to a club show on a Sunday night in the American Midwest when you add, "Did I mention they just got back from Iceland?"
It's also easier to reach tastemakers when you're in their city, as Half Moon Run discovered on a serendipitous two-day trip to London in the summer of 2012. Ben Lovett and Daniel Glass were in the audience. Those introductions led to signing with both Communion (for U.K. pursuits) and Glassnote (for the U.S. release) and brought the enviable opportunity of touring with Mumford & Sons, arguably the biggest live act going.
Another dance around the globe ensued this year as the band opened for Mumford and then Of Monsters and Men between buzzworthy stops at Glastonbury, Greenman, Lollapalooza, Reading, and the Woodford Folk Festival.
With a core fan base already established from extensive touring, Half Moon Run released Dark Eyes worldwide in summer 2013. This time the album was remastered with a bonus track called "Unofferable." The addition is a standout on an album replete with winners.
Rock ‘n Roll Life
As radio play kicks up abroad, accolades mount. So do inevitable discussions about influences and likenesses. The most frequent? CSNY’s harmonies and Radiohead’s atmosphere, with the occasional whisper of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Is it fair to heap such lofty expectations on a band in its relative infancy? In a word, no. “Comparison,” Theodore Roosevelt so wisely noted, “is the thief of joy."
"I think we can all agree that we find the comparisons frustrating," agrees Molander. "It's hard to know how to respond to them, and it doesn't really feel relevant to contemplate."
Categorizing the band is a difficult task, as they really are in their own realm. Although HMR started with undeniable folk roots, playing the bulk of their album live more than 350 times has led the show to morph into something a bit stronger, and their concerts now offer a seamless mix of blues, classical, electronica, punk, and rock. The progression is especially clear on the stadium-sized closer "She Wants to Know" and on "21 Gun Salute," which has been reworked most notably from its recorded version. In encores, the group also shows confidence and versatility by stepping to the front of the stage unplugged for "Vampire," a sexy Pink Mountaintops cover.
Anything but pretentious, HMR is accessible. This is as authentic a band as you’ll see on tour today, and they thrive in venues from symphony halls to sugar shacks. There are no backing tracks, dancers, pyrotechnics, or other gimmicks here. No smoke and mirrors. It’s not about image for them; it’s solely about the sound.
Frontman Portielje, 27, shifts between dancing around his bandmates, talking with his hands, and smiling quietly to himself as he sings lead vocals. It’s not an exaggeration to say he controls his extensive range in a young Robert Plant or Jeff Buckley sort of way, and the result is captivating, especially on the impeccable “Fire Escape” and “Unofferable.” That nuanced precision shows in his guitar solos as well.
"I tried one in a jam before Half Moon Run and loved it," Portielje says of his Fender Jazzmaster. "I still haven't found a guitar more versatile or suited for me, even though I use it nontraditionally. It's used more in a harsh way generally, surf rock and that. I haven't physically modified much, though. I suppose it's just tone usage that might be atypical."
That’s a very humble way of explaining it’s all in the skill and emotion employed by the player, and both are on full display in “Need It,” a delicate yet commanding ballad.
Portielje, who also wields the occasional drumstick and hints at playing violin, has served as the band’s chief lyricist.
“I've been writing lyrics for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I guess I started getting serious about age 19 or 20, and people seemed to like it right away.”
Molander, 23, comes off as positively giddy, dancing like a sprite around his fourth of the stage. And, why not? He’s most at home behind his keyboard while also contributing considerable guitar riffs, vocal harmonies, and harmonica lines.
“I started taking classical piano lessons when I was five years old and continued into high school,” Molander remembers. “My relationship with music was developed on the piano, and I will always consider it my first instrument, my first love.”
In back, Isaac Symonds, 22, plays what seems like every instrument available in the music shop. Symonds, who originally jammed with the band in their earliest days together, rejoined the group on tour late last year.
"The trio decided to become a quartet because at the time there weren’t enough hands to play all the parts," Symonds recalls. His extra hands brought the ability to play banjo, drums, guitar, mandolin, piano, and ukulele among other instruments. An extraordinary musician, also born and raised in Comox, Symonds has released a self-produced and engineered solo album called Rain Spirit where he plays every part himself.
Behind the main drum kit, Phillips, 27, employs every limb. Imagine the level of concentration required to play bass via synth while striking cymbals, snares, and a kick drum ... often simultaneously while also adding to the band’s rich vocals.
"I actually haven't ever really met anyone who does the same thing," Phillips admits. "My inspiration to start doing it was simply because we didn't have a bass player, and there was a keyboard sitting next to the drum set.”
I ask which single instrument they’d bring along when stranded on a desert island. Symonds opts for a drum kit. Molander chooses the piano. Phillips has clearly planned for this detour, saying he’d bring a 9-foot humidity-controlled Hamburg Steinway.
And, those critically acclaimed harmonies? What inspired those?
"Singing is just a basic requirement of being in the band," Phillips notes, "and really helps to connect us all to the songs."
Six weeks after my first encounter with Half Moon Run in an expansive football stadium at Gentlemen of the Road, I find them in Columbus, Ohio, at a tiny club with a capacity crowd of roughly 250. It’s in these dark-lit, intimate venues where it becomes clear they aren’t just performing. They're bleeding the notes. It's visceral, it's deeply connected, and when the music, the players, and the appreciative audience all come together, the result approaches a state of nirvana.
In Columbus, they’ve added a new Police-esque track called “Turn Your Love” along with a sultry, honest dirty blues number called “Rock ‘n Roll Life.” The latter catches fire as the show’s grand finale. It sounds like what might have happened if Jack White had written and recorded "Bed of Roses" instead of Bon Jovi. As Molander and Portielje duel with searing guitars, both falling to the ground looking purely spent, you begin to feel what it must have been like for the band to venture down that long path together into a very uncertain darkness.
The Long Road
Half Moon Run has tallied more than 60,000 miles of driving in the last year. At one point, they notched 32 shows in 32 days. In the last eight weeks alone, they’ve played in fifteen countries with sold-out, headlining appearances.
Such effort seems worth it when the crowd feeds energy back to the band. The atmosphere has not always been so welcoming, though. HMR tends to win over its crowds within just a few songs, but they are not a household name yet and often open for larger acts. What must it be like to leave your family, friends, and any sense of home only to find obnoxious talkers in the audience, oblivious to your playing as they await the main event?
"It’s mostly just depressing," laments Phillips. "We’re on the road so much that it’s in moments like these that we feel the most homesick. We’ve been pretty lucky, though, and had great support from many crowds around the world. A good crowd reaction with lots of love really serves as a reminder for why we keep going. Without it, we’d be doing a lot more writing and a lot less touring."
That mutual love spills over past the encore as the guys stick around the bar post-show signing autographs and posing for snapshots with every last fan. Portielje is battle weary in Columbus, and I ask if he’s tired of smiling. “No, never!” Then he reconsiders, grins, and points to his cheeks. “Okay, it hurts a little here and here.”
Despite becoming more recognizable every day, they’re doing their best to remain down-to-earth. Band members point to Mumford & Sons as mentors in this area.
“I don’t want to be Kanye,” Portielje recently told CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Instead, he insists it's possible to progress in the music world without falling prey to the cliched pitfalls of rock stardom. The key? Treating everyone they encounter with kindness and remaining grounded in their most formative business and family relationships.
How else do they remain sane? Laughter helps. Asked to share their most embarrassing moment thus far, Phillips tells of a time when, after attempting to reduce caloric intake by replacing beer with whiskey, things got a little rowdy. How rowdy? “Devon kicked out the power for the front of the stage while trying to launch a guitar stand at Conner.” Oops.
To avoid injury, what’s the sweet-spot level of alcohol consumption for playing a live show?
“Well, I’ve been sober for a month or so trying to get over a bad cold,” Portielje confesses. “So I suppose I’m discovering that it doesn’t really matter how much you’ve had to drink before as long as it’s not too much. The show will definitely get more wild and spontaneous if we’ve all been drinking and are in a good mood, though.”
How does a modern-day band stay fit while collecting all those passport stamps? You don’t, Portielje says. “Being as healthy as we would like is essentially impossible on the road.”
On the Dark Side
What's on tap next? A week of homecoming concerts in Canada, followed by another trip to Australia in January. After two years of incessant touring, Half Moon Run hopes to retreat and record their sophomore effort in early 2014.
The second album's content could vary drastically given the band’s penchant for crossing genres. An unreleased song called “All At Once” can be heard on YouTube, and it offers a distinctly old-school country western vibe. Meanwhile, "Need It" aired in a recent episode of NBC’s wildly successful "Nashville" series.
So, is country a genre the band is ready to attack?
"We have a strong love of old time country music," says Molander, who has mentioned picking up a lap steel. "We’ve been known to play an old country cover once in a while during encores."
More often, HMR pursues an intensely darker path, as befits a band which lists Nine Inch Nails as their favorite act to see live.
On Halloween, they debuted a sinister new video for their latest single “She Wants To Know.” Directed by Pierre-Luc Racine and shot in a Montreal basement with chainsaws involved in the climax, the imagery would work in “American Horror Story.”
“The video deals with the notion of being trapped, which is relatable to our lives in many ways, both past and present,” explains Molander.
The theme isn’t surprising. "Full Circle," evoking visions of both drug abuse and the Exorcist, was selected for Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed IV game trailer, bringing an onslaught of new listeners. The official "Call Me In the Afternoon" video features disembodied hands and heads traipsing through a mystical forest.
Moved by the cinematography in their videos, I ask the guys about their favorite films. There isn’t a single comedy mentioned. Portielje suggests Yojimbo, the Japanese samurai classic, while Symonds mentions Alien and The Shining. Molander opts for television and says they've plowed through a long list of dark dramas to pass time on the road: Breaking Bad, Carnivale, Deadwood, the Sopranos, and the Wire.
"I’ve been on a horror rampage lately," adds Phillips. "I saw The Conjuring recently in theaters with my girlfriend. Insanely good movie with a terrifying soundtrack."
Maybe it's in Phillips’ film review that we finally find an appropriate summation for all that is Half Moon Run: an insanely good band with a terrifyingly bright future.
Kind thanks to Half Moon Run for taking time to talk. Catch these guys on the road.
Readers: if you were already a fan, how were you introduced to HMR? What are your favorite songs from Dark Eyes?
Photo: Dylan Phillips, Devon Portielje, Conner Molander, and Isaac Symonds treat Columbus, Ohio concertgoers to an acoustic version of "Vampire" on October 13, 2013. (Andrea Nay)