A Few Minutes With Moon Taxi

Moon Taxi bassist Tommy Putnam chats with Pollstar about lessons learned on the road, the band’s brand new album, and moving on up from “an old van called Barbara” to a tour bus.  

Putnam and lead singer/guitarist Trevor Terndrup grew up in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., and formed Moon Taxi in 2006 after relocating to Nashville to attend Belmont University. The lineup also includes guitarist Spencer Thompson, drummer Tyler Ritter and keyboardist Wes Bailey.

Pollstar checked in with Putnam prior to the band’s Oct. 1 gig in Jackson, Miss. Moon Taxi’s new album, Daybreaker, was released the next day.

For folks not ready to say goodbye to the carefree days of summer yet, Daybreaker is just the set of tunes for you. As frontman Trevor Terndrup says, “This album has summer vibes all over it.” The LP can also help if you’re suffering from Bonnaroo withdrawals. The festival tweeted earlier this week that followers should “keep the new Moon Taxi on repeat to scare those Bonna-blues away.”

The 11-track release, which is described as Moon Taxi’s “most relatable album to date,” was produced by Jacquire King, who has worked with Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Tom Waits and James Bay.

“Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no doubt that the record sounds good and that these guys can play,” AllMusic.com writes in its review of Daybreaker. “Lead singer Trevor Terndrup, whose voice approximates a mix of Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, does big (“Who’s to Say”) and conversational (“Always”) with equal ease. As for the songs, mostly middling tempos transport a variety of deceptively complex musical elements, from duo guitar solos to funk to Caribbean percussion and rhythms, under earnest melodies.”

Speaking of Bonnaroo, Moon Taxi has become quite the festival favorite. Along with the Roo, the group has appeared at Governor’s Ball, Wakarusa, Houston Free Press and Lollapalooza. This weekend the band plays the second weekend of Austin City Limits. The band has more road work to do after that, with headline dates booked through New Year’s Eve.

“We’ve been at this a really long time,” Putnam told Pollstar. “We’ve been working really, really hard for about five or six years now and our ticket sales have just steadily grown throughout all these years and now we’re actually getting somewhere. So it’s been a lot of hard work for us but I feel like this album is going to help us make it all pay off.”

Photo: Joshua Wilkins Black

The band is playing Jackson, Miss., tonight. Have you had time to explore the city or are you just doing interviews all day?

No, I haven’t had any time. All I’ve gotten to do was go to the hotel, take a shower, get some coffee, I had some lunch at Quiznos and then I immediately went into sound check and then sound check just finished. We’re actually playing really early. I think it’s 5 p.m. … Rarely we play a show before dinner.

Apparently Jackson’s motto is “City With Soul.”  I’ve never been but that sounds promising. Maybe you guys can check it out after your show.

Oh, we’ve played here a bunch and we’ve explored the city a lot. … They have these juke joints here with blues music that will go until like 5 in the morning. I went to one of those one time and this weird thing – there were all these guys on horseback at like 4 in the morning. And that was their method of transportation. It was like a new cool thing of like ride your horse downtown to the venue about 5, watch some blues music and I guess ride your horse home? I don’t know. I thought it was really weird.

How’s the tour been going so far in general? You guys have been putting in so much time on the road.

We’re busy, of course, but I feel like most anybody who’s trying to do anything is busy. We travel a lot; we’ve had a lot of big shows. We did a citywide thing in Nashville called “Live On The Green” that had around 15,000 people there for that. We’ve played multiple festivals. We did Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza this summer. We’ve been all over. We actually did Governor’s Ball and Houston Free Press within 24 hours of each other. My flight from New York left, I think at 5 New York time, maybe it was 5:30, but I had to leave the airbnb I was staying at at 3 in the morning. I slept from 1-2:30 a.m. It was like, “Why even go to sleep?” But yeah, you know, we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love it.

For the most part, how do you get from show to show? Are you in a bus or a van? It sounds like you have some plane flights mixed in there as well.

Well, in the early days we had an old van called Barbara. That was probably five, maybe six years ago. And then we had your standard Ford band van, a white 15-passenger. … And then from there we bought a converted Sprinter that has bunks, a TV. … We still have that but we just made the transition pretty much full time to a bus about a month and a half ago. And a lot of that is just because there’s so many different press things we’re doing. … We have to be at the cities we’re playing a lot earlier and we’ve also got four crew members now so we kinda just couldn’t fit everybody. I was wondering at what point we’d be in a bus if I’d feel like we made it – and we are in a bus and I love it but I still don’t feel like we’ve made it yet. We’re still trying.

Even though you said you don’t feel like you’ve made it, you’ve obviously moved on up in the world so that’s gotta be a good feeling. And if you did feel like you’d already made it, maybe you wouldn’t have anything to strive for, to keep pushing ahead.

Oh, exactly. I had a guy tell me this a long time ago and this is really good advice. He said a million times, “As soon as a band gets caught up in their own hype and they think they’re so cool and they’re on top of the world, that’s when they stop growing.” We still have a lot we want to do. We’ve accomplished a lot and we’re really happy with the success we’ve had so far but, you know, there’s a lot more things we’d like to do out there. So I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like we’ve ever actually made it made it, you know?

You mentioned you guys have been playing a lot of festivals. Do you prefer playing the big festivals or more intimate venues?

It’s kind of like apples and oranges. I love the festivals because that’s how you can get in front of the massive crowds. I mean, at Bonnaroo we called it an infinite crowd because we just could not see the end of the people. It’s a real thrill. We don’t even know how many people there were. Maybe 30,000 people. So that’s a big rush and it’s fun. Then at the same time, we can get the same kind of rush, in some way, at a [small] venue indoors at night because there’s so many lights going off, the crowd is right there with you, there’s a little bit more of an intimate feeling. There’s definitely pros on both ends.

Spending so much time on the road, what’s one of the biggest perks and one of the biggest challenges?

Well, I think the biggest perk is we’ve been to 46 of the 48 continental United States and from all that traveling and spending so much time getting to see all these different cities I think it kind of helps you become a well-rounded person. Seeing so much and you’re being exposed to all parts of the country that any sort of closed-mindedness you might have had growing up in the South or whatever that kind of goes away.

The only drag to being on the road is sometimes you miss out on some good things that everybody else gets to enjoy and takes for granted. I’ve got tons of friends who have gotten married and I’ve had to miss their wedding because I’ve had shows. And just general hanging out with friends and stuff, that’s the only thing you kind of miss out on. But, you know, we’ve got our friends on the road, our band is really close and we have a really good time together. So it’s just different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Moon Taxi has been together for nine years now. And you and Trevor went to high school together.

That’s true. Trevor and I had a band in high school called Apex. And we were a great high school band, I’ll give us that. Were we a great band? No, we were not that good. We left Birmingham to go to Belmont, essentially to find more musicians, other guys to form a band with, like-minded individuals. We went through a couple different drummers. We met Spencer, our guitar player, in the dorms like the very first day and formed a band with him. And then we had a carousel of drummers for a minute. Believe it or not, our current drummer, Tyler Ritter, also went to high school with us. He was just two years younger than us. … By the time he was a freshman or sophomore at Belmont we saw him play and we were like, “Who’s this guy? Oh, he went to high school with us? Oh yeah, let’s get him!” And he stuck. So actually, three of us went to high school together.

You and your bandmates split songwriting duties on your new album, Daybreaker? Can you talk about that process?

We all do different parts of songwriting, I guess you could say. We have a private SoundCloud that we use and we can upload ideas, little melodies or cool beats or anything like that just to keep the idea river flowing. There’s lots of stuff that’s in the pipeline right now that just didn’t make the album, didn’t get finished or it’s just being saved for a later date. Sometimes we mix and match stuff that people come up with. Wes does a lot of the melodic writing, the melodies. Spencer actually did a lot of the lyrics. But, most every song, every single member has some sort of input on it that would qualify them as a [songwriter] in some way. Especially with this last record. We all got together a lot and teamed up on it and I think because of all of that that sharing of ideas and that open policy that we have, we came up with a really good record. I think it’s our best one to date.

Did you guys talk about a certain vision for the album prior to going into the songwriting sessions?

We never set out that we want to make this a happy album or a sad album. Or make this album about whatever kind of topical thing or love or hate or breakups or anything like that. … At the end of the day when we had this collection of songs we looked back at it and we were like, “Oh wow. There’s kind of its own theme going on.” Like “Year Zero,” to me, is a song about hope and starting new. “All Day All Night” …  I remember seeing on New Year’s Eve a bunch of girls that were staying up all night, hoping to hook up with some guy, like anybody they could, and then they were crying and upset that they were basically going to go up alone again. And so, to me that song’s about doing whatever you have to, staying up all night … trying to be with that person you’re crushing on. Again, that’s another element of hope right there. Those are two completely different songs. “Make Your Mind Up,” that’s about making your decision – either come home or not. … I don’t know if there’s a common lyrical theme but generally if you look at all the lyrics and the ideas behind them, you can kind of make it apply to yourself if you want to.

Photo: Wade Payne / Invision / AP
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Manchester, Tenn.

For the most part would you submit ideas through the private SoundCloud and then get together in person to work the songs out?

Sometimes it’s with email. Lyrics, a lot of that took place, we’d go over to Wes’ house and someone would have just the general outline of the lyrics. For example, “Savannah” – Spencer wanted one of the lines to say, “There’s an ocean between us” and I wanted it to say, “There’s motion between us.” He thought I said ocean, but I said motion. That one word completely changes the whole feeling of the song. It’s like, “OK, these are two people dancing together” and he had thought these were two people [separated] across the ocean.

Yeah, that makes a huge difference.

But motion’s what stuck. And that’s just one example of how we kind of work together on that kind of thing. But yeah, we’ll go over to someone’s house. Sometimes it will just be an email exchange. We’ll just update the SoundCloud. Spencer’s very good about doing pre-production with our demos. … I think we had 16 or 17 for this record. And then we only ended up tracking 11 of them. But yeah, there’s just so many different ways it comes about it’s really hard to give you one good answer. Just because sometimes we’re at someone’s house, sometimes it’s an email exchange, sometimes it’s over the phone – like singing a melody to someone else, sometimes we’re just sitting on the bus. It’s just anything and everything we can possibly do to keep the ideas flowing.

Your bio mentions that the recording process was different this time around. How do you think that ended up affecting the final product?

Well, this is the first record we did with a producer. We did it at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, which is a world-renowned studio. And we [worked] with Jacquire King, a world-renowned producer. He just brought so many different things to the table. One, we were confident the way everything was going to sound. We knew we were getting a good sonic product out there and we felt like we had the songs to do it with. That’s why we went in there and decided to pay the extra money and get a real record out there. I think because of those risks we took, we ended up with our best product yet – a really, really killer album.

This was the first time the whole band was in the recording studio together rather than self-producing parts of songs at home.   

Yeah, so previously what we would do is we would do it on a serious budget and we would rent out a studio for two days and we would do all the guitars and a whole track of pre-production with keys and vocal scratch and then we would just send Tyler, our drummer, and myself in there and we would lay down the drums and bass at the same time and just go for it that way. And we had a 24-hour period to get all of that right. This time we took one song per day, over a 12-hour period. And in the beginning, in the tracking session, we’d all be in there and we would try and get guitars if we could and as much vocals as we could. But the only thing that was for sure, we had to be no doubt about, by the time we left that room each day was the drums and bass. And we would get those down and we’d spend a lot of time making sure every beat and the bass line was exactly [how] we wanted it to be. Every song came out of that and the demos that we’d made before, some songs just became drastically different because we started with the bass and guitar and built it from the very bottom up. For example, “Always,” we actually played that song the most on the road before we even went in the studio and it was kind of this super pop, upbeat indie pop kind of rock song and we turned it into this very slow, just very chill love song. And I think it’s great. And another example of that is there’s a lead guitar line in the verses of “All Day All Night” that Spencer, we were all in the same room together just tracking it…  and Spencer just happened to play this one guitar line throughout the whole song, just one take. We finished it and Spencer was like, “I want to go over that and re-do my parts” and Trevor and I were both like, “I tell you what, man, that is some awesome shit that we caught in the moment. That stuff’s staying.” And it’s on the record. That’s something that never would have happened had we been recording the whole way.

So, if someone had never been to a Moon Taxi show came to one of your gigs, what kind of a night would they have? What can you tell readers about your live show?

You’re going to end up hopefully seeing one of the best shows you’ve seen in your life. I feel like we’re one of the best live bands out there for so many different reasons. One, we’re all very, very good at our instruments. Tyler’s an incredible drummer, Spencer’s an incredible guitar player, Trevor’s a great guitar player and singer, Wes is a phenomenal keyboard player and everybody gets their moment to kind of shine just a little bit. There are short solos so you can see the musicality from everybody. And then also, we have a way to build tension in our songs that might not necessarily be on a record. …  At the same time we have an incredible light show to go with our music and our L.D. Matt does a really, really good job of getting everything set. He knows the set, he knows our songs really well and there’s a lot of synced-up lighting cues and musical cues that go into that.

It sounds like a lot of fun.

Every time I look at our audience, everybody’s smiling. That’s something Trevor says a lot. He says, “Man we sell smiles.” And that’s something I agree with.

Photo: Joshua Wilkins Black
Tyler Ritter, Wes Bailey, Trevor Terndrup, Spencer Thomson, Tommy Putnam

Upcoming dates for Moon Taxi:

Oct. 9 – Austin, Texas, Zilker Park (Austin City Limits Music Festival)
Oct. 10 – New Orleans, La., The Civic Theatre        
Oct. 31 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29        
Nov. 5 – Englewood, Colo., Gothic Theatre
Nov. 6 – Colorado Springs, Colo., Black Sheep       
Nov. 7 – Richfield, Utah, Sevier Valley Center        
Nov. 8 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas         
Nov. 10 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Nov. 11 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour       
Nov. 12 – San Francisco, Calif., The Chapel
Nov. 13 – Portland, Ore., Star Theater          
Nov. 14 – Eugene, Ore., WOW Hall
Nov. 15 – Seattle, Wash., The Crocodile      
Nov. 17 – Sandpoint, Idaho, The Hive Music & Event Space          
Nov. 18 – Missoula, Mont., Stage 112          
Nov. 20 – Saint Paul, Minn., Turf Club         
Nov. 21 – Madison, Wis., Majestic Theatre  
Nov. 22 – Chicago, Ill., Thalia Hall   
Nov. 28 – Atlanta, Ga., The Tabernacle        
Dec. 4 – Louisville, Ky., Headliners Music Hall       
Dec. 5 – Louisville, Ky., Headliners Music Hall       
Dec. 6 – Cincinnati, Ohio, The Ballroom      
Dec. 18 – Birmingham, Ala., Iron City         
Dec. 31 –Nashville, Tenn., War Memorial Auditorium

For more information please visit RideTheMoonTaxi.com