Moon Taxi: Peace Symbols
On Jan. 21, 2017, millions participated in women’s marches across the United States. In cities both big and small, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to South Bend, Ind., crowds of people of all ages, genders, professions and backgrounds took to the streets to have their voices heard. Among them was Trevor Terndrup. Discussing the experience almost a year later, Terndrup says he marched in South Bend for many reasons—women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the environment, racial inequality—and as a songwriter, he couldn’t help but feel a lingering sense of inspiration. “I wanted to convey that if you have something to say, you should say it because you’re not alone,” he says. “Maybe other people will hear you and they’ll agree with you.”
After returning home to Nashville, Terndrup’s inspiration began to manifest itself. The lyrics for what would become the breakthrough hit “Two High” poured out of him. He sat on his couch with his wife and penned his hope-filled verses quickly and efficiently. “When you feel the world around you/ Spinning out of control/ You can find someone around you/ To bring you out of the cold,” he declares, backed by thumping basslines and rallying saxophones. The chorus came soon after, when keyboardist Wes Bailey’s iPhone autocorrected his message to read “two high,” bringing to mind the iconic, ‘60s Summer of Love image of a hand extending the two-fingered peace symbol. As Terndrup sings passionately, “Put ‘em up/ Two high/ We can walk together/ With our hands up in the sky.”
Moon Taxi churned out “Two High” faster than any other track on the record, starting with a single musician on the streets of Indiana and ending with a band-wide collaboration that would launch the outfit into a new realm of success. “Everyone was excited about it. It had a special something to it,” affirms lead guitarist and producer Spencer Thomson.
Released in May 2017, it blossomed into an undisputed hit in a matter of months: It currently has over 70 million streams on Spotify, and it almost immediately caught the eyes, and ears, of major labels. By September, Moon Taxi had inked a deal with RCA, officially completing the transition from self-starting indie-rock outfit to certified hitmakers. “It just happened to be the right time for that song, and I think it appealed to people because it came from a good place,” Terndrup surmises. “I don’t think we had any idea of how big it would be and continues to be,” Thomson adds.
Between performances on the Today show and soundtracking commercials for mega-brands like McDonald’s, Moon Taxi have reached far beyond their original grassroots following. But for over a decade, they’ve been paying their dues and working hard. Since their 2007 debut Melodica, the quintet—Terndrup on vocals/ guitar, Thomson on lead guitar, Bailey on keys, Tommy Putnam on bass and Tyler Ritter on drums—has been grinding out records and hitting the road constantly. Their fourth, and most recent album Daybreaker was a success in its own right, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard New Artist Chart, and spawning catchy singles like “Red Hot Lights” and “Make Your Mind Up.”
“For the past 10 years, it’s been nonstop recording, touring, festivals,” Thomson says. He’s not complaining—the band thrives on collaboration, and they’re driven by whatever exciting possibility rests on the horizon. “We just like to stay busy,” Terndrup admits. “We’re always working on new songs, or new arrangements for old songs, and creating new setlists. We just enjoy the process of working, recording and playing live, and that’s why we’ve never stopped for 10 years straight.”
Moon Taxi’s origins can be traced to the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., where Terndrup and Putnam played local talent shows under the name Apex. After graduating in 2002, the two young musicians enrolled in Belmont University, a liberal-arts school in Nashville. The move allowed them to pursue music in their off hours, and take advantage of the city’s endless industry resources. During their first day on campus, the two friends stumbled upon Thomson tinkering with his acoustic guitar on the steps of their shared dorm, Maddox Hall. “My first impression of him was, ‘God, this guy can play. I want to stick around him and learn as much as I can,’” Terndrup recalls.
Thomson grew up with a deep admiration for Duane Allman and cut his teeth on blues-rock riffs, instantly bonding with his future bandmates over their shared love of Bob Dylan. He introduced Terndrup to Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s 1969 stripped-down, country-rock record that was recorded in Nashville with collaborators like Johnny Cash. In hindsight, Nashville Skyline allowed Terndrup to see the connection between Dylan’s legacy and his own locality for the first time. “That was a new record to me,” he says. “I was familiar with the really old stuff, the folkier stuff, but I didn’t realize he went through this stage and recorded in Nashville.”
The band officially formed in 2006; their festival-ready energy and mix of styles made them favorites on the Southeast jamband circuit, and they had eye-opening experiences camping out as fans early in Bonnaroo’s history. Arriving at a time when the scope of the jam scene was rapidly expanding outside roots-rock, they were never afraid to incorporate modern influences into their sonic mélange. At one point, Terndrup, Thomson and Putnam even gigged as a backing band for two rappers. Yet, somehow, even when they dipped into the world of hip- hop, they maintained the Moon Taxi sound, playing riff-based guitar parts that were similar to what they play today, “just with not as much swagger,” Terndrup jokes.
When the bandmates look back on their college years, they realize that their meeting on the steps of Maddox Hall was either a fortunate coincidence or—if you’re willing to entertain hyperbole—fate. “We’re lucky that we were so young when we started the band,” Thomson says. “We were 18, 19, 20, which gave us a lot of time to work through things and figure things out to get to where we are now.”
And where they are now is on the cusp of their fifth LP and major label debut, Let the Record Play. It seems like Moon Taxi got the best of both worlds in their deal with RCA, enjoying the full-fledged support of their label while maintaining the creative freedom to release the record they want, with Thomson sitting comfortably in the producer’s chair. “We felt sort of unhindered, like we could do whatever we wanted,” he explains. “We felt comfortable and free, and got to a place in our careers where we felt comfortable with who we were. We felt confident that we could do a record on our own, just make ourselves happy. It wasn’t a conversation, like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make this kind of record, or it’s gonna be this kind of record.’ Songs just started slowly coming out and things started taking shape over a period of time. It wasn’t like we recorded the whole thing in two weeks or something. It was a process, where we were kind of slowly chipping away at it.”
To Terndrup, Thomson’s role as a producer is just as vital as his work on the fretboard. The guitarist studied music production at Belmont, and his strong work ethic, in tandem with his skills at the mixing board, make him an ideal collaborator. “It’s just such a breeze having Spencer in the producer role because he knows how to negotiate between each band member; he knows how to summarize the ideas and sort of package them in such a way to where they sound, and look, way better than anybody outside of the band ever could. It’s not that we didn’t trust the producers that we’ve had in the past, but it just feels a lot more natural when it’s all of us together and not someone else.”
Let the Record Play was practically finished when RCA came knocking on Moon Taxi’s door and, after delaying the record to publicize “Two High” and tour even more, the band is eager to finally let it out into the world. Anchored by the smash hit, the 10-track LP features songs like the synthy anthem “Not Too Late” and the reimagined “Trouble,” a song originally considered for their previous album but retooled for this release. Interestingly, the band was moved to change the song’s chord structure after they were invited to perform at Dylan Fest in 2016, honoring Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. “We covered ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ which is just a three-chord progression. And then one day, I was thinking about the lyrics for ‘Trouble,’ so I just started playing that same progression and singing ‘Trouble’ and it worked. I was like, ‘OK, this is a song now.’ Don’t tell Bob Dylan,” Terndrup laughs.
The bulk of the LP was recorded at Thomson’s home studio, which he self-deprecatingly describes as “nothing but a modest computer and some instruments laying around.” And while some vocals and instrumental tracks were laid down at Nashville’s Sputnik Sound studio, a lot of the work on Let the Record Play was done on a laptop while the band was on tour. Between sets and soundchecks, they’d prep songs for the studio, experiment with layering tracks, or sometimes scrap recordings entirely, in a piecemeal process that allowed the band to have a hand in every aspect of the record from top to bottom.
“The irony of the whole thing is it’s the most homemade, DIY record we’ve ever done, and it’s the one that comes out on a major label,” Thomson says. “It’s not like we signed with a major label and made a record with Max Martin or something. It was like, ‘Do you guys want this record? We’re making it on our computers for fun.’”
At a time when online streaming and multi-band destination events have opened up the floodgates for how eclectic bands can be, Moon Taxi’s anthemic bangers and natural stylistic shifts will be more in line than ever with the mainstream summer sound—even if they’ve barely altered their approach. And, with crossover appeal, an ever-growing fanbase, and a passionate, versatile live show that can excite a club in New York just as much as a massive crowd at Bonnaroo, Moon Taxi are poised to transition the momentum of “Two High”into more songs, more records and more tours.
“We’ve had the record done for under a year,” Terndrup says with determination. “We’re just ready to get out and play the songs for people live.”
This article orginally appears in the March 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.