“It’s about balance,” explains Tom Howie – one half of Canadian duo Bob Moses, completed by Jimmy Vallance. Howie is talking about their unique sound in the short documentary that accompanied the August release of their extended album, Days Gone By (Never Enough Edition), and in this single phrase he perfectly encompasses the genius of Bob Moses.
There’s an incredible flow to their sophomore album – and to their œuvre in general. Each song slots effortlessly next to each other, forming a patchwork of dusky music that places as much emphasis on smooth vocals as it does on snappy beats and refined, catchy melodies. Hints of techno are scattered throughout their music, but the relaxed quality means that you’re able to really pick apart all of the intricacies in their songs. With these subtle electronic stylings, it’s no wonder that the guys were able to score a handful of impressive remixes for the extended album, with names such as Joris Voorn, Tale of Us, A-Trak and RAC offering their own takes on already stellar tracks ‘Tearing Me Up’ and ‘Like It or Not’.
This hybrid sound makes their live shows a real treat. After a summer packed with dates, the Canadian duo came to London at the end of August with a headline show at Village Underground. In one word, the performance was magnetic. Their set-up is hard to label – somewhere between live band and traditional club mixing – and it’s exactly that which gives them an edge. Different to most, and scaled-back enough to offer a real intimacy in relation to the crowd, their shows keep you on your toes at all times without overdoing it.
After their performance came to an end, we caught up with the duo in the shadowy train carriages perched on the venue’s rooftop. “The first or second time we played here, we had a massive party in these”, they mention. This time it’s a different story – with their swelling tour schedule and growing reputation, there’s less time for partying now as they tirelessly graft away. Before they jetted off on their next tour date, we asked them about everything from their musical origins to the necessary ability to let go of their songs.
Where does the name Bob Moses come from?
Tom: Jimmy you take this one.
Jimmy: Alright, we are named after Robert Moses who was a city planner and city architect of New York in the 1950s. He was considered the most powerful person at the time – he displaced lots of people from their homes and built highways that we took all the time, like the FDR and the BQE. We decided to shorten Robert to Bob, but to be fair we were dubbed ‘Bob Moses’ by a man named Francis Harris, who ran our label at the time called Scissor and Thread. So he thought it was quite ironic to shorten Robert to Bob… Bob Moses – quite a revered yet also quite hated man of New York. The label that we were with – their vibe was to kind of name themselves after New York icons, and so Francis had a good name – Frank & Tony – which was meant to be a Larry Levan-Paradise Garage-New York 1970s kind of thing.
Tom: [Pulls out his wallet] I got you a new wallet.
Jimmy: Yo you have to check this out. I hate to interrupt the interview – this is the part where you can say, “Jimmy proceeds to pull out his wallet,” which is one of these, which holds some cards and some bills. Save money where you can. Get one of these as a wallet.
It was pretty interesting to be in the crowd. You had the live mixing and instruments all together, and I struggle to categorise that [Village Underground] as a club or a concert venue. What would you say would be the ideal setting for your music?
Jimmy: That room’s pretty great for it. That room is not a club or a concert venue and we are not a club or concert band.
Tom: We’ve been doing a lot of concerts lately at concert venues, and that’s pretty sweet. So long as there’s no seats, so long as everyone’s standing, ‘cause people need to dance you know? So that’s cool. I mean, we’ve been playing mainly concerts, but this last month we’ve done a few club sets again. So last night, plus we played Watergate in Berlin. So it’s very fun to do those. But I think the sort of hybrid club-concert venue… I mean, lots of concert venues are just big boxes, you know. We started playing in warehouses and stuff in New York, which wasn’t really a club. It was just about finding a space where people could dance and you could go late and you could bring a good sound system. So that’s kind of all that we require.
You guys have had pretty different backgrounds in your musical upbringing. Do you think those differences are what helped you to arrive at your sound?
Jimmy: I think it’s funny – a lot of people bring this up, saying how Tom and I come from different musical backgrounds, and we actually really haven’t. We grew up in the same town, we listened to the same kind of Top 40 pop… Not pop, but like, we were both big into alternative music. Vancouver only had a select few – maybe one or two – alternative music radio stations. Whatever got to those stations, like Nirvana, all this post-grunge stuff. We all listened to that, and I think if there’s any differences in anything it’s that Tom went down a more of a singer-songwriter path at one point and I went down kind of a trance-DJ path at one point. But our core music that we like is very similar.
So before that you had the same taste…
Jimmy: Yeah. I like a lot of singer-songwriter stuff and Tom likes a lot of electronic stuff. For some reason in the press, it’s been like: “Tom is the singer-songwriter guy and only listens to this, Jimmy only listens to that…” It wasn’t like that.
Tom: We both played in bands in high school and we played at the same talent nights and stuff. I think we both got sick of our bands, then Jimmy was a drummer so obviously he gravitated towards rhythm and stuff like that, so like DJing… And I was always the songwriter-singer-producer guy, so I gravitated towards that. We sort of like both explored that for a bit, but I never wanted to be a ‘singer-songwriter dude’ and Jimmy never wanted to be a ‘DJ dude.’ So we had a similar musical journey in the sense that we almost chose slightly different parts, but I think we both have had the whole understanding of everything, and that’s why our project works and working together so much at the beginning right away. Lots of times, as a musician you play with other musicians or producers who are very one-trick-ponies, but we saw the whole picture of our producing and writing and hearing all the parts, and coming up with a bit more of a vision than just like making a club track or writing a song that was just a very ‘songy’ song with like vocal and one instrument. So when we came together we were kind of like, “OK, yeah, I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter – I am a songwriter and I sing, but I want to make this project that has this whole vibe. And Jimmy was like, “I am a songwriter and I don’t sing, but I don’t just want to be a drummer, I don’t want to just be a DJ, I want to have a project that has more of a full voice and a vibe.
And you don’t want to be pigeonholed, right?
Tom: It’s not even that. For me, it was just kind of boring to do one thing. We spent a lot of time at the beginning, when we were releasing EPs – especially as we were starting in this warehouse scene – with dance music, it’s very typical to release singles, like A side and B side, and just do that for a while, and release a load of EPs. Our first EP had four or five tracks, and it had a club version and an acoustic version of the same song, and we kind of always wanted to paint more of a picture and lay the groundwork to be able to have more of a wide palette so to speak. Our favourite bands, like Massive Attack or Radiohead or Pink Floyd, at times they had great songs that were quite simple, but at the same time they have these big, lush productions that are kind of ‘songy’ but not really. So there’s a lot more room… Jason Mraz writes his pop songs on his guitar, that’s what he does.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Radiohead and Massive Attack. I was reading up on Tale of Us and they cited exactly the same people as examples of how they want to build a body of work.
Jimmy: They did a remix for us.
Tom: And we just played Afterlife with them.
How was that?
Jimmy: It was great! I think when we started up, they were like guys of a pioneering sort of what people call ‘deep house’ and have really been the DJs that have spirited this movement of melodic, almost trance-y house music that a lot of people gravitated towards. When Tom and I were starting up, kind of going to little parties and playing little parties in New York, their music was very much what DJs in the clubs at the time were playing. And now they’ve sort of become staples of that. It’s like, you know, we’ve sort of inspired them in ways with the live electronic music, and they’ve now done this remix for us and we’ve had the chance to work with them a bit. They’re awesome dudes you know?
Tom: I remember, before we were even playing, we’d go to see them when they came to New York. So they were always kind of like a step ahead of us. They’re very different than what we do, but they had their own sound, and even though we didn’t want to have a sound necessarily exactly like that, we always looked up to them in the sense that: “OK, they’ve got this thing, very much their own.” So it’s cool to have a remix by them and be invited to play their party. We don’t necessarily see our music as super similar.
It’s almost like a Venn diagram – it overlaps. Your music is often put to a very chilled beat but it works so well with techno. Could you see yourselves moving in that direction, with a quicker beat or a different vibe?
Jimmy: When we started we made faster things, and it’s definitely not something we would rule out. I think if we just found something that we groove to… For example, over the weekend, we had the Sunday off in Berlin, and I went to Berghain Panorama Bar, and I was listening to a whole bunch of techno stuff. It’s definitely something that’s influenced us. Whether or not that’s something that we’d implement into our music is something we’d only be able to tell if we did it and went, “Oh that’s sick.” But it’s not something that we’d actually say, like, “Oh, let’s make a techno track.”
Tom: I think we’re honing our sound – especially being on the road so much this year has really taught us a lot… We’ve been able to play different festivals and been able to play alongside a lot of acts, and also see a lot of acts. So it’s cool to see what people like and see what people react to in our sets and in other people’s sets. That all informs the creative process. So we’re not married to a tempo. There’s certain elements of our sound that I think are unique that are core bits, but those are malleable so that we’re not just doing the same thing over and over again.
You were talking about how ‘Tearing Me Up’ became a breakthrough track for you guys. In what sense?
Jimmy: I think it’s just the track that people immediately gravitated to more than all of our other songs. When we wrote it, I think that we knew it was kind of going to have that impact – we went to the label and said, like, “Look, we think this is the single.”
Tom: We knew it was special. You just kind of know with that stuff. When we wrote ‘All I Want’ before our EP, we kind of knew that ‘All I Want’ was going to be a special one, and it was. When we had ‘Tearing Me Up’, we had that same sort of feeling. You don’t know because it’s like, maybe nobody is going to like this, but you also have a gut thing.
That track has been remixed quite a bit. Do you find it difficult to let go of a track in this way?
Jimmy: No it’s cool! Our original version is our version, so if they said, “Hey, we’re going to take your original version and like, change the levels, and call it Bob Moses but it’s not Bob Moses, then we’d be like, “No. That’s not cool.” But it’s like, you can do whatever you want to it if it’s like, bracket, so and so remix. We just wanted to pick guys and work with them when they made sense to us. But like, as far as the remixes go, we’ve either heard a remix and go “I don’t think it’s that good,” or go “wow, that’s a really cool interpretation, different, and unique.” It sounds like the artist – they’ve done their own spin on it. We don’t care – I think that’s the beautiful thing about remixes. It’s like someone taking your music and doing something else with it.
When it comes to a remix, do you have a lot of say in it?
Jimmy: It depends on the remixer. A-Trak just kind of sent us the finished thing. Tale of Us was talking a lot with Tom, like, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?”.
Tom: We chose people to be remixers in the first place that we knew had their own voice and we just wanted them to do them, you know? It’s like, the whole point of the remix is that you don’t want to have to coddle somebody along, you choose people who are really awesome. You trust that, if they’re going to put in the effort, they’ll just do a great job. We spoke to Tale of Us a little bit, but they sent us maybe three versions and we gave maybe one or two little pieces of feedback. I think the first version they had one thing in that they took out, in the second they took it out and we were like “No put that back in!”, so they put it back in, but it was all them you know.
“You remember when you were a kid and you used to wake up for school? And you’re like, ‘Fuck I really don’t want to go to school right now.’ It’s like that all the time except the point when you’re on stage and that’s when it’s all worth it.” – Jimmy Vallance, Bob Moses
I’ve noticed that you guys don’t do the whole glossy music video thing. Is that not the direction you want to go in?
Jimmy: We feel that we haven’t got the music video thing right yet. What’s happened is that the record’s come out and certain songs had more success than what the label had envisioned. So then they’ve caught up and said, “Oh we should get a music video made for this!” and we’re on the road, and it’s like we don’t have time to do it…
Tom: It’s like, the way that the videos usually get pitched is that they’ll source a bunch of things and show us something and we’ll work with a director or something like that, but we haven’t really had time to be in the videos, because of what Jimmy said. I think also we didn’t have a strong creative vision on how to make videos. We did this documentary thing for the repack and the guy who made it is really good and we really liked him too. So now that we have more of a creative friend – a friend who’s creative and who you really respect.
What is your tour schedule looking like?
Jimmy: We’re going on a 27-date bus tour in the States and Canada.
Tom: It’s going to be hardcore.
Jimmy: Yeah it’s going to be savage. Then maybe a New Year’s play or something like that? But I think after that we’re going to kind of take it easy. It’s been a savage year – I think it’s been over like 150 shows or something.
Tom: More like 180 or something.
Jimmy: Yeah it’s ridiculous – we’ve done a lot of shows this year. More than what a doctor would recommend.
Tom: And I’m sorry to be yawning, but you know, we got two hours sleep last night, we’re going to get like three now. It’s fun but…
Jimmy: All the energy is like: “Save it for the one hour and whatever that you play.” Then right before and right after you’re like a fucking…
Tom: A mess!
Jimmy: You remember when you were a kid and you used to wake up for school? And you’re like, “Fuck I really don’t want to go to school right now.” It’s like that all the time except the point when you’re on stage and that’s when it’s all worth it. You have enough adrenaline to keep trudging along.
Days Gone By (Never Enough edition) is out now via Domino Records. Feature image by Brook Linder. Special thanks to Village Underground.