By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The sun melted into the rocks of the high desert, setting just as the Echo Park band the Moon Upstairs took the outdoor stage at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. The band, along with 20 others, had made the trek to the honky-tonk just outside of Joshua Tree last month for the Clean Air Clear Skies festival to help raise money for anti-global-warming charities. Earlier in the day, the sun had pushed temperatures into the 100s, but by dusk the soft, pretty harmonies and trippy rock riffs of the Moon Upstairs were drifting out into the cooling air, settling at the dusty feet of the long-haired hippie chicks, aflutter in headbands, short dresses and feathers. They danced barefoot in the sand, high on any number of substances. It all felt so Summer of Love.
A week later back in Los Angeles, I meet the band on the front lawn of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon under a shady oak — their choice because the spot is “peaceful” — the flower-child vibe that was with them in the desert still holds, mainly because most Moon Upstairs members wear long flowing locks, mutton chops, jeans, vintage tees and beaded necklaces. They’ve even got a horse-with-no-name kinda thing going on with the cover of their first release, Guarding the Golden Apple (Gifted Children Records), which came out earlier this year. The group is posing on a stage in desert artist Noah Purifoy’s massive outdoor installation. Maybe they feel a special connection to the desert?
“We live in California,” says front man Sharif Dumani, “so we feel a connection to it as much as the gutter of fucking junkie row downtown. Joshua Tree, the rivers and lakes and the streets — it’s all totally connected, but it’s not like we’re going for one thing, like ‘desert rock’ or ‘street rock.’ Our influences are so wide ranging, from punk to experimental to classic rock to country, to you name it. We never want to get pigeonholed as a particular kind of band.” In fact, he adds, the deep resistance to being labeled led the band to search for a cover image that wouldn’t pin them to one particular type of music.
They found it accidentally, in the desert at Noah Purifoy’s, a decaying, sun-faded blue stage spangled with stars. It was, to Dumani, a little statement about America. “It looked beautiful, and had this Neil Young vibe — really roots,” he says. “We wanted to have a more organic record cover to separate us from the pack, and this image wouldn’t hold us to this psychedelic thing.” Dumani pauses to bum a cigarette from his publicist, who sits quietly on the grass across from him in our little circle (which includes the rest of the band: bassist Aaron Ebensperger, drummer Josh Mancell, ?guitarist Mark Sogomian and keyboardist/guitarist Dave Baine).
Dumani, Mancell and Sogomian played 10 years ago in a band called the Dining Room Set (an Elvis and the Attractions–like outfit). The Moon Upstairs, which began five years ago, evolved out of that band, adding Minnesota native Ebensperger. They performed sporadically, between side projects and hired gigs — Dumani and Ebensperger toured with rock & roll soul man Cody Chesnutt — and recorded some songs at their pal Dave LaChance's studio in Echo Park. Two years ago the band added New York transplant Baine and plunged into the Moon Upstairs full time.
Guarding the Golden Apple was finally released earlier this year, and, like a drug-induced head trip, it’s as haunting as it is beautiful. Some songs, like “Sing a Song for Me,” are happy and safe, and jangle like the Byrds. But the Moon Upstairs can create danger as well, with ghostly hooks that travel down fuzzy rabbit holes. They visit utterly unfamiliar and otherworldly places in songs like “People in the Trees,” which suggest late Beatles and early Floyd. In a burgeoning L.A. music scene that’s increasingly producing homogenized sounds, why deny the psych-rock roots?
“That term,” says Dumani between drags of his borrowed smoke, “gets lumped in with like ’60s acid rock. In reality, it’s not even a drug-use thing: Psych rock really lumps into so much, like electronica music and punk — in certain ways the Butthole Surfers were psychedelic rock.”
Mancell agrees that the term is loaded. “If the music takes you to a different place, then that’s psychedelic, but you can’t twist someone’s arm into believing that definition. It’s always gonna mean Jimi Hendrix.”
Baine, who has been playing with a blade of grass, looks up. “When I think of Jimi Hendrix I think heavy blues.”
“See,” says Mancell, “it’s different for everyone.”
“But to me,” says Mancell, “Kraftwerk is psychedelic. That’s my head trip.”
Dumani agrees and adds, “Afrika Bambaataa is psychedelic,” with a laugh.
Still, though band members may resist categorization, the reviewers never do. They write about smoking fatties and rolling through quiet pasture towns while rocking the Moon Upstairs. And all those trancing Hollywood chicks spinning circles in the sand know a thing or two about psychedelia.