Words by Luke LaBenne
In life opposites are often intertwined: light and dark, sweet and salty, melody and dissonance. Each of these relies on its opposing force to give it power and meaning. These are the ideas explored on John Moods’ So Sweet So Nice. Fittingly released first as two EPs, this album lives up to its title with magnificent morsels of music that are delightful and absorbing. Moods unassumingly lures in the listener with lush soundscapes made up of wavy guitars, airy vocals and smooth synths. Then, the songs build and flourish, reaching surprising heights as he balances the easy vibe with engaging instrumentals and haunting hooks. These songs are fun and funky, smooth and soaring, with each song bursting at the seams with unique sounds while remaining balanced and measured. Moods embodies the very duality that he explores on the record, constantly bringing unlike elements together in unexpected and captivating ways.
OS: You were in the band Fenster, how does your process of songwriting and creation for your solo work differ from your process with the band?
JM: First off, thank you for this interview. Hope you’re having a beautiful day. I actually still am in the band Fenster and we’re currently producing some very strange and interesting work. As John Moods I am able to tune into myself and follow my intuition without speaking, trying to catch those special melodies from the depths of the subconscious radio station, listening to what the heart wants. I am completely free which is amazing but when it’s not going well this can become really tricky. In the band it’s all consensus, negotiation, language – both musical and linguistic. Amazing things can happen between people with different musical sensitivities in a room. In the band there is rupture, pressure, dynamics, different belief systems, point of views and amazing synergy sometimes where things can happen that solo you would have never been able to conceive. I am really happy and thankful I get to experience both.
OS: Is there any knowledge you carried over from the band into your solo work?
JM: Definitely. The band has shaped me and we have toured the world extensively for many years. There’s so much I have learned about music and I am still collaborating with JJ Weihl [bass player and founder of Fenster] a lot.
OS: Your music was featured on two shows with amazing soundtracks High Maintenance and High Fidelity. How did it feel to be featured on such strong soundtracks?
JM: It felt great. I was so happy that I actually liked both of those programs. I always wondered how I would react when presented with the choice to give my music to something I didn’t believe in or enjoy artistically in exchange for a sum of money. Fortunately it hasn’t come to that yet. I find that these days artists have maybe gone a little too far with accepting advertising and corporate funding in the recent decades. I remember growing up in the 90s and 00s there were more ethical concerns about accepting money from dubious big companies and as an artist you were a little worried about coming across like a sell out. Obviously I am aware of how hard it is to say no. Many musicians don’t exactly roll in cash.
OS: You wrote these new songs in the Polish countryside. What about that setting inspired you to write these songs?
JM: It was a collection of songs I had partially already written and have been performing them live for a while already. I just went to the country house to focus on recording and a few songs were written while I was there. I had finished my previous record there, so I thought it would be good to go there again. It turned out to be harder than anticipated. So I’m glad I finished this record eventually.
OS: You collaborated with some great artists who are friends of yours: JJ Weihl as mentioned, along with David Carriere, Magnus Bang, and Joni Reiter. How did those collaborations help you take the project to the next level?
JM: JJ Weihl wrote amazing lyrics for this album. Knowing her is my secret trump card. She’s a genius. Growing up in New York City, her mother was a poet and from an early age she was exposed to artists, writers, and great literature. She has that great instinct and routine and through songwriting over the years understands the musicality of song language. I am now slowly getting more into writing lyrics and poetry but at the point of making the record I was very blocked and I couldn’t have done it without her.
David Carriere is the guitar and songwriting whizz of the Canadian band TOPS, that are such an amazing band by the way. It was all a big coincidence. He was hanging around in Berlin for a month or so and I asked him to play guitar on my new track “Without You”. We performed it at a festival and a week later, through some miracle, I got a recording slot for free in this amazing studio where my friend Dennis Juengel worked as an assistant engineer. So we snuck in and recorded it in a couple of hours with my friends and long time collaborators Ben Anderson and Erez Frank on drums and bass.
My friends Magnus and Joni really saved the record in the end. I just couldn’t get the sound I wanted and I was close to giving up. Desperate, I showed the song Talk To Me to Magnus and he got so excited that he organized a recording session at Joni’s studio in Berlin on his own accord. We spent many beautiful hot summer days working on music and getting along really well. They’re both beautiful and sensitive souls and I literally couldn’t have done it without them.
OS: I love how these songs are catchy and engaging yet very smooth and floaty. How did you manage to strike that balance?
JM: Thank you! I guess that’s what I’m into. It’s funny the sound of the record is very soft, that’s true.
OS: You have a great vintage sound yet with modern production quality, how do you make your music sound retro yet fresh?
JM: Do you want the honest answer? If I could do real retro, the sound that I love from the days of yore, I would. With the equipment I use the sound automatically becomes retro with a modern flavor. It’s all in the limitations. But I also am not dogmatic. For my first record I used an iPhone for most of the production and then added some 1960s drums recorded though an old UA preamp/compressor for example. It’s all very hybrid.
OS: Why was it important for you to break this project into two parts?
JM: I love the concept of dualities as paradoxes that need each other like in the Book of TAO. That I think is one of the wisest texts ever written – especially the Stephen Mitchell translation. This book to me sometimes feels as if it was written by the universe itself, so pure is the channeling. But nevertheless there isn’t such a huge philosophical reason for the split. I thought it was a nice way of releasing it, giving people some time with the first six songs until the next six songs are released and finally joined up in one record.
OS: I love your concept for the “Without You” video, a sort of sci-fi nightmare of a person being trapped in a TV show performing for a hollow audience. What inspired this concept?
JM: Thank you so much. The video is sort of about our world and how together we work hard to create an illusion and ignore what makes us uncomfortable about our existence and about the ancient role of the fool, the artist, the shaman or philosopher. About how many of us live in a trance from which it is hard to wake up. To me the reality of contemporary western capitalist societies is not dissimilar to the Matrix. We have managed to establish a narrow belief system and incredibly efficient distractions that make it possible to forget and ignore certain uncomfortable truths. We have successfully given name to the unnamable mystery and we dominate it with symbols and our pretense knowledge while not admitting to the many limits of our knowledge. In this video the message is simple, the protagonist suffers from the rigidity of the tv show setting and is longing to fly away and be a fool up in the clouds.
OS: It also touches on the idea of being an observer in life vs. being a participant in life. Do you think it’s possible to observe and understand life while being a participant in it or is it beyond our knowledge?
JM: I think it is possible to observe yes. We humans have this amazing meta level to our minds which is also the source of our immense suffering. But if trained the mind has that incredible other level to it, the observer awakes. It is slightly schizophrenic in a way. In meditation this observer is strengthened and the incredible constant flow of thinking can be tamed a little and awareness can be brought to the body and to existence itself. Understanding life seems impossible and maybe unnecessary but knowing is often talked about in Buddhist traditions. Knowing is way deeper than language, a direct access to the full scope of reality, a place of no thought, less cognitive than understanding. I’ve also been grappling with the concept of faith recently, something deriving from a similar place of intuition that the rational, sceptical, mind has a hard time with.
OS: What can we expect from the So Nice EP? Will the sound be significantly different from what we heard on So Sweet?
JM: No, not really, but there’s a few surprises there. I personally love this B-side. It could be an A side cause it has at least two singles but I’m glad it’s coming out now. I think it’s a pleasant addition to the first.
OS: What do you hope people take away from So Sweet So Nice?
JM: I hope it can make people feel good. I think the songs can be enjoyed on various levels. If someone wants to go deeper into the lyrics, he’ll find some themes there that could spark something, but if one wants to enjoy the melodies, the songs flow on that level as well. To me, this record was important to make. I learned a lot and it helped me to grow and move on. I am excited for the things to come and willing to evolve further. Maybe it’s the same for the listener. I certainly had that happen to me with music that accompanied me throughout my life.