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.”
“When I think of psychedelic I think of Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead,” says Dumani.
“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.
Dumani smiles. “People are feeling something,” he says, “there’s a lot of flashy, bullshit, sassy nonsense out there. And in a live setting people get into it because it’s more of the energy, but are you really going to listen to those records?” The goal, he declares, is to create art that transcends time. “You can listen to a Neil Young record [from] ’71 in 3001 and it’s still going to kick ass.”
Dumani and Mancell have a regular program on Little Radio on which they interview bands of all sorts, from punk to trash metal to folk. Called We’re Gonna Be Timeless, the title’s a reference to a Zolar X song, but it sounds like the band’s mantra, a notion that drummer Mancell confirms — “if you equate the word timeless with classic.” He lists Sonic Youth as having the ideal situation. “They’ve paid their dues, they've got their fan base, for the most part they can explore whatever new territory. But people always know they’re Sonic Youth. They’re totally free, and at the end of the day that’s the best — to be free.”
Dumani agrees, with qualification: He doesn’t want the band to sound like Sonic Youth. But Sonic Youth is able to do whatever they want — and on a major label’s dime. For Baine, who’s never owned a Sonic Youth record, that band doesn’t represent him. “But when they describe the general idea of freedom to do whatever you want,” he says, “and having respect and longevity and doing crazy, weird stuff and then kind of re-rooting yourself and being creative and pushin’ boundaries, I think of Neil Young.”
“They’re both very different,” says Dumani, trading his cig to play with a blade of grass, “but they’re both the same in that they pushed forth, they kept trucking, not being too concerned if they were going to be the hot shit of the day. They just fucking did it.”
To the Moon Upstairs, music is all about freedom. There’s a looseness in psychedelia that allows the band, as Ebensperger says, “to try to invent something that feels like it’s [our] own invention.” The group is recording an EP that Dumani says is even spookier than their full length; they’re also getting ready to go on tour with legendary 1960s-era psychedelic electronic band the Silver Apples.
“I guess if you’re gonna have to have a fuckin’ category to be fuckin’ thrown into in the first place, psychedelia is probably the most wide-ranging one, the most free,” says Dumani.
Catch the band’s free outdoor show at Pershing Square, 532 Olive St., dwntwn.; Thurs., Aug. 9, 8 p.m.
Tune into Sharif Dumani and Josh Mancell’s Internet radio show, We’re Gonna Be Timeless, Tues., 6-8 p.m., ?www.littleradio.com.