Even though it was formed a mere five years ago, Montréal’s Half Moon Run already belongs to the World Rock Major Leagues. As their second album is coming out, the band met with us to talk about their world-conquering ambitions.
It seems like it was only yesterday. With only one song, the hypnotic “Full Circle,” Half Moon Run had staked its claim at the heart of a music scene already replete with quality bands. In less time than it takes to yell “Arcade Fire,” the band was tipped as the Next Big Thing out of Montréal. But unlike many other bands who faltered before making it to the international scene, Half Moon Run proved that it would stop at nothing to make it.
Following the release of their first album, Dark Eyes, launched in Canada by Montreal-based Indica Records – and by Communion, a subsidiary of Glassnote Records (Mumford and Sons), for the rest of the world – the band embarked on world tour that saw them play more than 350 dates. This infernal rhythm has nowadays become the band’s routine.
“We toured so much that there were days when we didn’t know who and where we were… We were numb,” remembers Conner Molander, the band’s guitarist, vocalist and keyboardist. “When we finally stopped, we couldn’t see straight and we almost lost it. Luckily, that whole tour made us much better musicians and we found a way to channel that energy into something positive using our common language: music.”
“Nothing is premeditated in Half Moon Run: we know what we’re looking for only once we’ve found it.” – Conner Molander of Half Moon Run
When Dark Eyes came out, there was much talk about the somewhat “artificial” nature of the band, because it was born out of a Craigslist ad and united two B.C. natives, the aforementioned Molander and Dylan Phillips, as well as the Ottawa-born singer Devon Portielje. All three of them were in Montréal to study, but chose the rock life instead. Theirs is far from an unusual story, since Montréal welcomes, year in and year out, dozens of musicians seeking a similar path.
Few, however, make it with as much brio as HMR did. Signed to Indica before even going on stage once, the band had to evolve at warp speed. When the folks at Glassnote tapped them and Half Moon Run started playing the world’s biggest stages alongside Mumford & Sons, it was obviously too late to go back to playing bars.
“One thing’s for sure, believe me: there’s nothing like pressure and adversity to build solidarity,” says Molander. Today, he can confidently say that the guys in Half Moon Run are literally like siblings: “We went through crazy times, like that one time in Europe where we played 33 gigs in 30 days. That stuff can drive people mad, but if you get through it together, you have a bond that’s nearly unbreakable!”
Strangely, the absence of deep friendship between certain members of the band was never a problem, to the contrary, even. The internal dynamics of the band evolved at the same time as their sound, in a very organic way. When one points out to Molander that the band doesn’t seem to have a leader, he immediately concurs.
“I’m actually happy you say that, because that is how we’ve felt since the first day,” he says. “Obviously, Devon is at the forefront, because he’s the lead singer, but we’re all equals in the band and everyone contributes. Even though we didn’t know each other at the beginning, we rapidly found our common language. In the same situation, a lot of musicians would’ve gone into power struggles, huffing and puffing to impress the others, but in our case it was very different: we were [each] very subdued and paid great attention to the others.”
To get a feel of how well the guys gelled, one need only listen to the vocal harmonies that are present on almost all of their songs, the best example of the fact that it’s better together. “That’s definitely something that defines Half Moon Run,” says Molander. I”f you want to be in this band, you have to sing! But seriously, that’s also something that happened on its own. At our very first jam, we all started singing and it stuck with us.”
Isaac Symonds joined the band after the recording of Dark Eyes, and HMR further refined its musical approach, which is a blend of instinct and hard work. Keys and strings became part of the mix, but without affecting the original recipe, or turning their back of the influences that were already becoming obvious on that first album.
“To us, the joy of creating music doesn’t come for establishing a goal and doing everything we can to attain it,” Molander explains. “Nothing is pre-meditated in Half Moon Run: we know what we’re looking for only once we’ve found it. It’s very cool to be able to jam together, but you still need to know when it’s time to stop, because when you play the same thing over and over again, you risk exhausting the original impulse and killing the song.”
In order to break their routine – and to surf a little during their downtime – the band members went to California to work with British producer Jim Abbiss on their follow-up album. They only had a few demos in their pockets and a desire to take their sound further. “Sometimes, you only realize in hindsight how much you’re influenced by your environment,” says Molander. “We went to California to see some new sights, and now, when I listen to the album, I find some of the songs have a bit of a beach-y feeling to them, notably ‘Hands in the Garden,’ which is definitely the most Californian of the lot.”
The Sunshine State is omnipresent on that song, replete with Byrds-like folk-rock and Beach Boys harmonies. In between those Cali sessions and the work they completed back in Montréal, the guys in Half Moon Run realized that their well was far from dry, so much so that Molander says they already have enough songs for a third album, even though the plan now is to devote all their attention to the promotion of the new one, Sun Leads Me On. “It’s become my full-time job, so I’m giving it my all,” says Molander. “I’m like everybody else: I get up early in the morning, I go for a run and then get to work. And I’m not just about music: I’m interested in all aspects of our career, from the creation to the marketing. I’m not too into the marketing side of things because I find that there’s just a little ego flattering involved, but I’m really into establishing partnerships and developing strategies to help the band’s career grow.”
Strategies? Partnerships? Is Half Moon Run’s conquest of the world a commercial venture? A game of Risk? One could be forgiven for getting that impression when listening to Molander explain it in military terms: “We’re going to start with a few small dates in the States, then move on to Europe where our fan base is solid so that we can grow it and galvanize the troops for the final assault. Of course, truly making it in the more difficult U.S. market is our goal. But it’s not a make or break issue for us either. Our main objective remains to make good music.”
Luckily for everyone, Half Moon Run knows how to do that well. Judging by the initial reaction to Sun Leads Me On, as well as a mini tour of Québec to hone the tunes, it seems unlikely the band will run out of steam. Yet, if by some unfortunate set of circumstances, international success does not materialize, Half Moon Run will always be able to count on Montréal: all four of the concerts slated at Métropolis in 2016 were sold-out in a few hours.
“There are things that can make you lose your mind, and that’s one of them,” enthuses Molander. “When we heard that all of those concerts were sold out, I got a little dizzy, so I went for a run at Jarry Park to kind of re-centre myself. Believe me, that’s not something we take lightly. Montréal is where our band was born and raised. It makes me incredibly proud to know that our hometown crowd is on board with us in this adventure.”
And that pride is mutual.