The Art of Rock: The Moth & the Flame

“When we first moved here I was really in love with the donut shops that are on every corner. I thought that was pretty amazing.” That’s what the Moth & the Flame keyboardist, Mark Garbett had to say. The musical road from their native Provo, UT to Los Angeles, CA measures approximately 645 miles and at the end of the travel rainbow apparently there awaits a pot of donuts. “They all taste really good.” he added. Welcome to LA, gentlemen.

If you’re an LA resident, Mark’s observation makes perfect sense. It’s so on point that it may even instill some local flavor pride. Brandon Robbins (vox/guitar) is on a similar train: “For me, I’d have to say it’s all about the food. A million different restaurants that are all amazing and you can go whenever you want. Just awesome. And the weather is perfect all the time.”

That leaves us with drummer Andrew Tolman’s opinion to judge. “There’s a lot that I love about the city, but I’m kind of a sucker for the beach.” he admits. “Anytime I have spare time, my wife and I will drive down and I really enjoy it. I think it’s a bit therapeutic for me.”

For seven months now the Moth & the Flame (TMTF) have called Los Angeles ‘home.’ They’ve been busy: they secured a month long Monday night residency at the Silverlake Lounge. They’ve been productive: they’ve recorded an EP (plus enough material for an upcoming full album) and they’ve a musical vision that’s currently under construction. Brandon and Mark had Norther; a band which Mark calls “the earliest version” of TMTF. Andrew (founding member and former drummer of Imagine Dragons, a band partially from Provo) rounded out TMTF to where that vision can fully flesh itself out which it began to do with the 2011 release of their eponymous full-length debut. Somewhere among the blurred lines of art, indie and alternative rock (as opposed to the Robin Thicke-kind of blurred lines) with perhaps a dash of math thrown in, genre-fication gets a little cloudy (yes, I just made that word up). You can hear shades of what makes Radiohead so vibrant, fascinating, hypnotic and occasionally confusing (the song “Winsome” is nothing if not Exhibit A). At the end of the day, it’s irrelevant as long as the music stands up but the ability to identify can be helpful.

“I like to say art rock fairly often.” Mark offers. “I’d also say our music is kind of an introspective mood, like a mood rock. We like to really focus on the feeling of the song when it’s first written and just kind of really dig into feeling to enhance it, if we can. That’s always one of our main goals in writing.”

That particular focus on the sensory nature of their sound is key and prompts Brandon’s response: “It’s hard to say. We’re looking for another term I guess it’s just like Indie alternative rock, more like moody rock or introspective rock. I don’t know. Intelligent rock.”

Now along with the donut-thing this, too, makes sense because of the distinctly cerebral nature of the music. There’s nothing linear about the song structures: the layers of melody, the rich sound, the shifting and alt rhythms, the build-ups into languid releases. Perhaps there is a goal of capturing a particular aesthetic, harnessing a specific chaos to morph along with a personal artistic view. Not everyone’s going to get it, but those who do will do so because it taps into a place that perhaps straighter edged rock or fluffier, self-centered pop does not.

For Andrew, a link to feeling is paramount. “At least for me when I listen to music, the music that I connect to the most is when I can feel that [emotion] transmitting through; the emotion that the musician or the band is portraying seems real to me.” he added. “We just try and take that song we’re recording and perform it the way that it was meant to be performed and the way we envision it when it was being written. One of the key elements is just portraying the right emotion, tacking them to the song and whatever the song is about. And the emotion that it’s portraying, we try to enhance it.”

That being the case, when it came time to record their next EP, Brandon, Mark and Andrew went into the studio with the fairly like-minded ears of Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace and Beck drummer). Mark explained how that association came to be.

“We hooked up with Joey through our manager who was friends with him. He sent him some of the first album. He listened to it, really liked it and he was kind of the middle of producing a couple different projects and he had some free time in between his tours with Atoms For Peace and with all the things that he’s been doing with Beck.

We met with him in LA and he was really cool. We decided to do one track with him to kind of feel it out and see if it was something that we wanted to keep doing. The first track we did with Joey was “Sorry”, it’s the lead off track for this EP. It went really well. At the time we were moving to LA so when we moved here we did four other tracks with him.”

The result was the October 29th release & (ampersand): the symbol, itself, turned upside down for artistic and disarming affect, the music an exercise in stylized substance. Its apologetic lead off single, “Sorry,” which boasts the stinging bridge, “How is it we were always running out of love but never walked away?” is an easy read: Something or someone fucked up.

“Yeah, that one’s an interesting one.” said Brandon. “It came together very quickly and very emotionally. It’s about betrayal and relationships and just all these very, very strong emotions.” As singer and songwriter of the band, Brandon bears the weight of being not only the author of the messages but also the messenger. “I have a very unorthodox way of writing lyrics and I try and let my subconscious do most of the writing. I’ll guide it a little bit with certain things that I want to get across but, for the most part, I just kind of let it come to me. I think that’s the best way to let your feelings write the lyrics.” Now we have 1 ½ albums worth of messages to dig into for reference. As for what he sees as the difference between their 2011 offering and &, Brandon says, “We’ve had two years since the full-length album to kind of figure ourselves out and I think it shows in the music. I think it’s just a more mature The Moth & The Flame. “ And as for his songwriting that, too, has matured.

“I think it’s been a transition for me. As I get more comfortable and find myself as a lyricist I’m growing a little bit more towards literal, but still even then I’m much more abstract. I think the first album was very abstract and kind of hidden and I think I’ve grown a little more towards a little less abstract for the EP.”

From the 2011 album to the & EP there is carryover: the dramatic and ultimately tempestuous “How We Woke Up” which was inspired by the first album’s artwork (the image of a pilot in a state of uneasy suspension) and serves as a complementary bonus piece to & and a fair place to compare and contrast the lyrical then and now.

“The artwork depicts this pilot in this precarious situation in the desert and that image is just so powerful. There you wake up, not necessarily literally, but you wake up in a situation that is precarious or that you didn’t want and you are having this realization of where you are in life: what you decide to do from that point is what “How We Woke Up” is about.”

Personally, I give him cool points for creative thinking on that one.

Speaking of waking up in a precarious or “decide what to do from this point on” moment, one day the three woke up living in Los Angeles having left things known, friendly and successful behind in Provo, UT. Not a lightly made decision. Mark explains:

“It’s something we all talked about. We had been playing in Utah and felt like the music scene in Provo is really amazing and we love it and we love everyone there. We felt like we’d reached the point where it makes sense to move to L.A. We felt like there’d be more opportunities for us out here and not just because of the success we were having in Utah. Our manager talked to us about it and thought it would be a really good idea and so we did it. We moved out and I’m really glad we did.”

As a city less than 45 square miles, lets play the odds and assume that Provo’s music community is modest but concentrated with artists comfortable, familiar with and fairly supportive of one another which might make the decision to leave difficult. “Yes and no.” Brandon explained. “We’d been in the Provo music scene for quite some time with The Moth & the Flame, but also with other bands. I think it was difficult because we had made such good friends and acquaintances that it was just hard to leave. But at the same time I think we had been there long enough and we were all kind of itching for something new and we knew that it was the best thing for the band.

For that reason we were all very excited to move to LA and we definitely make decisions based on feelings and vibes. All three of us felt like LA was pulling us to it. It felt very natural and so it was a really easy decision for us, strangely enough.”

You know what’s not strange? TMTF as tour mates and opening band on the Fall leg of Imagine Dragons’ European tour. For approximately seven weeks Andrew, Mark and Brandon road tripped with one of 2013’s biggest breakout bands. Yes, that happened. How the hell did that happen?

As Andrew explained, “They reached out to us and offered some show opportunities: one in Utah, where we have a lot of home fans, and one in Idaho. Those shows, they went really well and the crowd reacted well. So they wanted us to stay in touch about having us do some shows later with them.” Some shows. Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna, Belgium, Berlin, London, Luxembourg: some random shows. Impressive places to begin supporting an EP, touring its new music and testing it on unfamiliar ears. In its recorded form, the songs are bold and textured, stormy and sometimes bleak but they are packaged to be affecting. So believe me when I say that live is truly where TMTF’s music lives: in heady translation. “Ultimately the live experience is what we work for,” Andrew added. “Hopefully we can win over as many fans as possible through our recordings. We want to be able to do that and more with the live experience.”

Considering that live experience is exactly how we became acquainted, mission accomplished.
@dharma69 aka Diary of a Concert Whore