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Photo credits: Steve Morse
Cover art credits: Mat Brinkman
“Hope Will Pass” is a helluva way to open a record. Underground heads will be drooling when exposed to the song’s warped collision of Chrome-stained futurism and working-class greaser rock. It’s weird; it’s bruising; and best of all, it’s utterly hypnotic. This last quality is key to understanding the debut from Rhode Island’s Oceans of the Moon. Ever since coming together a few years back (though their story reaches back decades) the trio of guitarist and singer Rick Pelletier, drummer Jon Loper and synthesizer whiz Dare Matheson have devoted themselves to what can only be tagged American motorik, a minimalist approach to DIY rock that grounds science fiction-tinged jams in tight, relentless grooves informed by older forms of blues and funk.
I Heart Noise recently talked with Pelletier about the band’s first album (which drops July 8 on Castle Face Records). We cover the group’s love of J. J. Cale, their backwoods rehearsal space and how they grew out an older Rhode Island group, La Machine. What’s more, we dive into Pelletier’s long and winding legacy in the underground. After all, he is one of the most important artists to emerge from Providence’s now legendary noise-rock scene.
The multi-instrumentalist has played drums (guitar, too) with Six Finger Satellite, bass in The Chinese Stars and sat in with those post-hardcore brutes known as Landed. The dark, discoid beats he devised for Six Finger Satellite are especially visionary as they wound up influencing a long list of musicians who formed bands during the post-punk and dance-rock revival of the ’00s. As you’re about to discover, the ideas embedded in Oceans of the Moon thread themselves throughout all of Pelletier’s previous projects. In this sense, both past and present are inextricably linked for the guy. Let’s now dive in.
I Heart Noise: A few years back, around the time Oceans of the Moon came together, we chatted online about the idea of an American motorik tradition. We tossed around names like J. J. Cale, Junior Kimbrough, John Lee Hooker, James Brown and other heavies from the realms of funk and blues who create hypnotic music with minimal, repetitive rhythms. This idea seems to have influenced the band’s debut.
Rick Pelletier: Definitely. This record is, in terms of concept and influence, on the right track for us. A big thing is the minimalist approach: less is more. A James Brown song can be just one rhythm part that toggles between different sequences, yet the listener doesn’t realize this because it has so much power. As far as J. J. Cale goes, he’s a big influence on our drummer, Jon Loper — me, too. Cale may have more than one part in his songs, but they’re still simple. I started listening to him when I was 30. It’s 17 years later, and I still love him. I enjoy discovering just how many different directions he can take a rhythm. You always hear new subtleties. Maybe it’s not for everybody. After all, the La Machine record [Phases & Repetition] went over like a fart in church. I don’t think folks were down with its simplicity.
La Machine is your previous project, and it shares some commonalities with Oceans of the Moon. A love for minimalist repetition is a biggie, so is the fact that they use the same core personnel. Yet the latter ultimately is more varied, with more classic-style moves. Can you talk about how Oceans of the Moon grew out of your old band?
The Castle Face label released La Machine’s Phases & Repetition in 2013, but it was made a long time ago, back in 1997. Just the passage of time makes a difference. Back then I was a drummer who had just switched to bass. I had played it before, but it never was my main instrument. And Jon was pretty new to the drums. He taught himself how to play by watching early Six Finger Satellite concerts and listening to classic rock. Jumping back to Oceans of the Moon, I now play guitar, which I have been for a while, and I’m singing more than I did in the La Machine days. We were able to take the basics of what La Machine did and expand on them. I basically see Oceans of the Moon as an extension of La Machine, just with the instrumentation and personnel tweaked. It’s now Jon and I with Dare Matheson on synthesizer. We know each other well and playing together comes naturally.
Regarding those singing influences, I hear a little J. Ryan of Six Finger Satellite in “Hope Will Pass.” It’s those dark vocal contortions.
I was definitely thinking of J. He is always an inspiration. I grew up making music with him. His content, context, rhythm and delivery are as solid as some of my favorites. He could channel Little Richard, Alan Vega and John Brannon all at once.
Since Oceans of the Moon and La Machine are so closely linked, why change the name?
That was more from me. I tend to want the past to stay in the past. I like moving forward, and I thought continuing the La Machine name didn’t make sense with the big gap between recordings. Having said all that, we did put an old La Machine song, “Blowin’ My Mind,” on the album. I don’t even recall us having written that song. We nicked a Suicide riff more or less and said the phrase “blowin’ my mind” over and over. But when Oceans of the Moon added guitar and synthesizer, it began to stand on its own. The song goes back to 1999.
That’s the year I saw La Machine. You played with Olneyville Sound System, Arab on Radar and Dropdead at a benefit show in Providence.
I don’t remember who was in the lineup then.
I believe it was you with a synthesizer rack and Jon on drums.
That makes sense. I had a Moog Rogue at the time, as well as this archaic vocal setup with a Leslie speaker and a Korg Stage Echo. Wherever we played my vocals bounced all over the walls. It was trippy. I miss the Leslie. I left it in a shed, and apparently, mouse piss eats away at printed circuit boards. I had a ceremonial burning in our yard. It was a fitting end for Leslie. She put in a lot of hours for La Machine.
Do you live in the woods? The band recently posted to Instagram a far out photograph of a trailer with a goat next to it.
I live 30 minutes east of Providence, in the woods at the south end of Watuppa Pond. I grew up here. My family has a plot of land that my father and brother bought for cheap in the ’60s. We jokingly call it The Compound. It’s more like swamp Yankee than family estate. My family built most of the buildings, and there’s all sorts of flora and fauna: chickens, ducks, wild peacocks and the occasional stray goat.
The band rehearses in the camper, right? I love the thought of Oceans of the Moon’s music — which definitely has a science-fiction vibe – getting created in woods. There’s something about fusing the cosmic with swampy earthiness that nails key aspects to your sound.
The camper is known as The Swamp Lab. After a neighbor gave it to me, I gutted it and fixed the leaks, and that turned into our rehearsal space. We wrote and rehearsed the record in there. Not the most ideal of acoustics, like a cannon, really. This is when Jon gained the nickname Chief Thunder Drums. The Swamp Lab is like a Soyuz rocket from the ’60s: not safe or technologically up to speed, but by some miracle the intended result is achieved. We certainly subscribe to a primitive-futurist approach. Incidentally, we also wrote and demoed Six Finger Satellite’s A Good Year for Hardness in the shack in my yard. That was fun: four guys crammed in an 8’ x 12’ space. What a bunch of dummies.
Even though Oceans of the Moon represents a new chapter in your music career, it does seem to express a certain sensibility that I’ve long associated with a specific cluster of bands — early Six Finger Satellite, Olneyville Sound System, La Machine, Von Ryan’s Express, et al. — that helped build Providence’s noise-rock scene in the ’90s. It revolves around this idea of working-class, greaser rock intensity colliding with experimental, avant-garde ideas.
That’s pretty spot on. It isn’t something we intend, but I hope it comes out. It’s a physical take on esoteric music, like Krautrock for instance. For me, a big part of growing up and getting into music was post-punk from England, say 1979 to 1983. Especially important were The Pop Group and The Birthday Party. That stuff is fascinating because it’s kind of like art rock but made by musicians coming out of the working class. I grew up lower middle class, so that made sense to me. It’s a primitive take on well-thought-out concepts. I approach music on an instinctual level, and I think the other guys in the band are the same.
Being working class myself, I could detect those qualities instantly. Shifting gears somewhat, it seems to me you laid low between The Chinese Stars, your main band in the ’00s, and Oceans of the Moon. Were you having to find a job and all that normal stuff?
I had been doing music since 1990, and I left The Chinese Stars in 2005 or 2007. I was disenchanted with the DIY rock thing. The landscape was changing radically due to Internet usage. In the past, you could tour and see small, but very real gains. But that disappeared. When you’re a working-class musician and shit dries up you have to go out and find a real job. I kept busy, but I basically fell back on carpentry for a while. We did do a Six Finger Satellite record [2009’s A Good Year for Hardness], and I played with Landed a few times.
Another thing about this record I dig is its emotional honesty. I get the feeling the band is grappling with the light and dark sides of life. It opens with a song titled “Hope Will Pass,” yet listeners later encounter “I’m on a Roll,” a fairly anthemic, even uplifting song.
I think Jon came up with the phrase ”I’m on a roll” — the verses, too. He also took the lead on “Bill Fill,” which is rather playful. He’s definitely more like that, whereas I’m more fatalistic. “Hope Will Pass” is an idea fitting for some of the stuff I’ve grappled with over the last decade — “Borderline,” too. My mind tends to go to dark places.
Speaking of “Borderline,” I first met you in 1998. You were living with Ben McOsker, whose Load Records I was covering for the zine Yourflesh. You were hanging in the living room and spinning Led Zeppelin IV. I thought it was cool that this weird, underground rocker was into Zep. I mention this because the drum shuffle that opens “Borderline” reminds me of “Rock and Roll.”
Stuff like that always rises to the top. I love when other people detect them. Early on with Six Finger Satellite we met with the folks who ran Sub Pop and stayed with Bruce Pavitt, who broke out his record collection. He played us stuff we had never heard. He kept saying, “You guys sound like The Pop Group.” But none of us had listened to them. When he played them I could hear the parallels. It led me to the discovery of the collective subconscious of music and how you can detect commonalities between bands separated by decades or bands scattered around the globe. Rather than thinking of musicians as creating music, it’s more like we’re pulling it from the ether.
I want to ask you about “Metatron,” the La Machine track that appears on 1999’s You’re Soaking in It… The Sounds and Smells of Load Records. Looking back, it’s a mind-blowing piece of music. Here’s this ’90s noise-rocker creating freaky basement disco. This is well before the rise of DFA, noisy disco and all that. You were way ahead of the curve. How did you start working with disco?
In the early Six Finger Satellite days, I traded this shitty guitar into a pawn shop for a Moog Rogue. I brought the Rogue home and did a bunch of four-track stuff with it. At the same time, I was crate-digging for old disco records I heard when I was a kid. The two things just kind of came together. It then spilled over into Six Finger Satellite, who started using my Rogue and building on that. In the later Six Finger Satellite stuff, I’m obviously dropping in disco beats. Anyway, I had this old record player. If you raised its tone arm just a little bit, you could make it play loops by itself. I would go through my disco records and find loops that played in perfect time. Sometimes, I would hit the table on which the record player sat to make the needle jump to a new loop. I would then overdub drums, bass or guitar. That’s the earliest La Machine sound, like “Metatron.”
That’s fascinating. It sounds like this deeply modern sound was born out of a bout of childhood nostalgia.
I got into ’70s nostalgia in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was big into disco records, as well as the clothing: wide collars, full-length trench coats and so on.
The ’70s thing was in the air, wasn’t it? The Beastie Boys sported polyester suits in the “Hey Ladies” video, while Pussy Galore created a Blaxploitation-style cover art for Dial ‘M’ for Motherfucker.
It was. Stuff from the ’70s was what you found in thrift stores in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And if you were a musician, that’s where you shopped.
Where does science fiction fit into all this? I know it’s always been there, lurking in Six Finger Satellite, La Machine and now Oceans of the Moon. When growing up were science fiction and rock intertwined for you?
I got into rock first, around 14. I was more into the comic book scene, but I guess you could call a lot of that stuff science fiction. And then when I was 18 or 20 my bandmates started giving me a lot of reading recommendations. They turned me onto Philip K. Dick. I have always gravitated towards the existential stuff–perceived reality as opposed to underlying reality. I’m not sure how linked they are, but rock and science fiction are certainly two things that go good together.
Pivoting off this idea of looking back to create something new, I ran into a relevant quote from this awesome musician Debby Friday. After having the opportunity to play TONTO, the world’s largest analog synthesizer, she said it was like “touching the future and the past at the same time.” I feel like that sensibility is something that runs throughout your history, from Six Finger Satellite through La Machine and Oceans of the Moon.
That’s a great quote. I’m not familiar with her, but I get where she’s coming from. That’s something everyone should try to achieve on a daily basis. I hope there is a detectable thread running through all of my bands. To me, the greatest thing about being in a band is the unspoken language and intuition that’s developed with other musicians. It’s almost a psychic bond when it realizes itself. And if you’re lucky enough, you can be your true self and let that come out in the music. As a wise New Englander named Joe Perry once sang, “Let the music do the talking.”