The Long Way Home

The Moondoggies turned modesty, tragedy and wanderlust into a brilliant new album.

From atop Capitol Hill, St. Mark’s Cathedral stands sentinel over Lake Union, its illuminated rose window a cyclopean eye peering out into the night. When construction began in the 1930s, St. Mark’s was envisioned in the traditional ornate style, but the Great Depression altered the plan and, due to cost concerns, the cathedral ended up a minimalist, modernist anomaly, all purposeful lines and hard angles within a massive, 60-foot-tall chamber. Given its sanctified ambiance and austere architecture, St. Mark’s is one of Seattle’s most dramatic landmarks—and certainly the most dramatic place in Seattle to see a concert.

Over the last couple of years, a handful of Seattle rock and folk bands have played inside the cathedral, harnessing its soaring ceilings to impressive acoustic effect; musicians speak with fearful admiration of the room’s three-second reverb. Back in April, the Moondoggies were one of those bands.

Standing side-by-side on the low dais, playing to a packed house of silent people in pews, the five Moondoggies forewent drums and electric instruments in favor of mandolin, acoustic guitars, banjo and piano. More remarkable were their voices: three-part harmonies melded into St. Mark’s sublime setting. They deconstructed a bunch of old favorites, turned blustery rockers into hymns. But the song that stood out the most was new, from their upcoming album Adios I’m a Ghost.

The Moondoggies had been playing “Stop Signs” since at least May of last year. With a newfound emphasis on thoughtful lyricism, the song is an extended metaphor about recognizing danger before it arrives and moving forward anyway. This rendition inside St. Mark’s—it was extraordinary. Elevated. By the setting, the occasion, the acoustics. Swathed in holy reverb, lead singer Kevin Murphy poured out his heart.

No more swimming in our heads
A love supreme somewhere instead
I know you hear it all the time
Put this foolishness behind
We just roll right through stop signs…

The song sounded like beautiful, bittersweet resignation. The band and its audience were reverent, succumbed to the moment and its meaning.

Moondoggies songs have always been good, but they were never this good. Their early material is mostly beer-swinging boogie-rock singalongs propelled by bashful group harmonies. Raucous, but with a tender side comprised of equal parts humility, introversion and stage fright. Some of their appeal has always been a dressed-down regular guy-ness that emphasizes their outsized talent.

As sweet and sensitive as they are hell-bent and haphazard, the band embodies Seattle’s urbanized ramble-rock spirit better than anyone, and Adios I’m a Ghost is the strongest collection of songs they’ve made. It comes from a band reborn, beholden to its influences but newly possessed of a confident artistic vision.

The Moondoggies are the kind of band that exists to work on music, not to work on being a band. A meandering journey to the here and now was inevitable.

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Born amid the beards-n-belt buckles boom of the mid-’00s, the Moondoggies initially appeared not as inspired freewheelers but as studious acolytes of rustic Americana. Seattle at the time was a hotbed for acoustic-leaning folk-rock: Band of Horses launched from here. The Cave Singers emerged from the angsty ashes of other bands. Fleet Foxes signed to Sub Pop, affirming the label’s evolution toward softer stuff. This was the new sound of Seattle, mellowed and redolent of the great outdoors, seemingly a throwback to a corduroyed, bell-bottomed past—though Murphy points out that people have always sat around playing guitars and singing harmonies.

Twang wasn’t confined to the Northwest; it was taking off from every corner of the country. Seattle was simply leading the pack. Audiences dove in, but critics here and afar were quick to dismiss what they saw as a trend. One album review on a tastemaking website declared the emergent style a “genre exercise.”

Not that the Moondoggies caught wind of any of that in Everett, the Boeing town 25 miles north of Seattle where they first came together in the mid-’00s. At the outset, they were more a loose collective than serious band, teenaged musicians getting together to jam on the songs Murphy was writing at the time. They included singer/keyboardist Caleb Quick, bassist Bob Terreberry and multi-instrumentalist Jon Pontrello, plus an assortment of other friends and family.

They’d known each other as kids growing up; all but Quick attended Everett’s Cascade High. They’d been making music together for a few years in a band called the Familiars, mostly in Pontrello’s parents’ basement. The Stooges and MC5 were their rock ’n’ roll ideal, stupid-smart proto-punk rock bands who played with primal abandon. Nirvana and the Beatles, of course, were subsumed by osmosis.

The Familiars did OK locally, especially for a crew of underage kids from a Seattle suburb. But punk was not the future the band members were leaning toward.

“I remember this moment where someone brought in The Brown Album [the Band’s eponymous second album],” Murphy says, “and we were listening to it, and I felt like they were doing the same thing as the Stooges—except it was a different version of rock ’n’ roll. Like, the extremes of it.”

In the years following high school, Murphy went deeper into rock’s roots. He spent a year in Bellingham while his older brother attended Western Washington University. There, he and Quick paired up to play coffee shops, trying out Murphy’s new material. During performances, Murphy would joke that his originals were obscure covers. He was reluctant to own his songs, but they were so good listeners took his word, believing they belonged to a more experienced songwriter.

Murphy’s true creative breakthrough came much further from home. He left Bellingham and took off for Ketchikan, Alaska, with vague dreams of idyllic escape. He lived in a converted furniture warehouse and worked at a dockside souvenir shop, but his energy and imagination were focused on the four-track tape recorder he brought from home. Alone, with an acoustic guitar, he worked out the songs that would give shape to the ideas in his head. These he’d mail to Quick, a long-distance connection that furthered their songwriting partnership.

After four months in Alaska, Murphy returned to Everett, ready to reconfigure his musical direction. The Familiars were disbanded. Pontrello had taken an indefinite hiatus from drumming, so Murphy recruited his friend Carl Dahlen to play drums—though he had no idea how. Terreberry was the old standby on bass and now added occasional mandolin. Plus his parents had recently bought him a Rhodes organ for Christmas; this rare instrument was the lure for Quick, who’d been playing keys in a different band.

“If I had a manager at the time, he would’ve coached me to go with my other band, not Kevin Murphy,” Quick says. “But Kevin and I had such chemistry that I quit a band so I could basically go jam around a campfire.”

Quick came from a musical family and grew up singing and playing piano in church. With his input, the quintet began composing songs with movements and diagramming three-part harmonies rather than blasting out the ragged punk of their formative years. The different version of rock ’n’ roll Murphy had dreamed of was taking shape. It was time for a rechristening.

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The name was an inside joke, a reference to a character from the vintage teen-surf franchise Gidget. Why take a serious moniker when the endeavor was entirely for fun? They were just a few friends drinking beer and smoking cigs in a garage in Everett. But they cared enough to spend copious hours in that garage practicing harmonies and vamping on the same three chords over and over, honing their unpolished original material until it sounded like something they’d want to listen to themselves.

As they practiced, the name became an emblem, a reminder of the band’s humble beginnings. Maybe, in true Northwest-neurotic tradition, it was also self-sabotage. The Moondoggies had decided to take themselves seriously, but they didn’t expect anyone else to.

Their early Seattle gigs were played at the Blue Moon, the oldest, weirdest dive bar in the city. Their very first show there, opening a triple-band bill in 2005, drew a sizable, enthusiastic crowd.

“It was an early show but everyone was focused on their set,” recalls Jason Josephes, booker at the Blue Moon. “It was impressive. Warm and familial, but the songs had gravity—a great combination of old sounds and new sounds. It was a beautiful thing to see. And right after they played, up next was a hardcore band with a mosh pit.”

The Blue Moon became the Moondoggies’ home base for a couple of years. Removed from the default Capitol Hill-downtown-Fremont-Ballard nexus of venues, it was an ideal incubator, frequented by a bizarre clientele of aging paranoiac poets and neo-bohemian college kids. Among these people, they began to grow a following.

“It’s a comfortable fit between the band and the room,” Josephes says. “Every time they play here, it’s hard to describe, but there’s this warmth in the room. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. They command attention well.”

With their stomping grounds established at the Blue Moon, the band found another ally in Hardly Art Records, a subsidiary of Sub Pop, established by the label in 2006. Nick Heliotis, a friend of Murphy’s from Bellingham who worked at Hardly Art, was intent on signing the Moondoggies, but first he needed a co-sign from the higher-ups. He took Sub Pop A&R guys Jonathan Poneman and Tony Keiwel to the Crocodile for a Moondoggies opening set in 2006. Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes was in the audience, as were a number of other up-and-coming Seattle folk-pop luminaries.

“A lot of people were talking about the Fleet Foxes in the same sentence as the Moondoggies, but the main criticism was that they weren’t polished enough,” Heliotis says. Sure enough, that night Murphy’s guitar kept falling out of tune and he spent half the performance tuning up with his back to the crowd.

“That show bummed me out so much because I brought everyone to see them and it was as rough as it gets,” Heliotis says. “Then I saw them three nights later at some shitty bar and they were perfect.”

Eventually, the strength of their self-recorded CDR won them a contract with Hardly Art. They teamed up with producer Erik Blood, who was already a fan, and headed to MRX Studio in SoDo to record. They recorded every song they had, 22 in all, because they never expected to record an album at all, let alone save songs for a potential follow-up.

Released in 2008, Don’t Be a Stranger was a small epiphany, bursting with full-throated singalongs, rough-edged harmonies and swaggering, mid-tempo groove. It established the Moondoggies as a hometown favorite and immediately aligned them within the constellation of Seattle’s burgeoning country-folk-pop-rock-whatever scene. Among the 14 songs that made the album, the shaggy, amiable influence of the Band, Crazy Horse and Gram Parsons is keen but the tunes themselves are entirely unique. Patches of melody from the previous few years are interwoven within the same songs, resulting in supremely catchy structures, hooks within hooks within hooks. Stranger is a modern pop record dressed down in thrift store clothing, a document of the youth and discovery that spawned it.

Its follow-up, Tidelands, not so much.

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The artistic and commercial 
success of Stranger might’ve invigorated other bands, generated confidence. Not so with the Moondoggies. They hired a manager and immediately came to creative differences with him. Quick and Murphy, for various reasons, were at each other’s throats. Fault that hoary hurdle the sophomore slump, but the Moondoggies’ second record came at a heavy price.

“Kevin describes it as the realization that people were listening to our music,” Quick says. Now it’s a no-brainer; then it was nerve-wracking.

Terreberry was going through an emotional tempest of his own, dealing with the death of his father. Soon after the late-2010 release of Tidelands, right before their first major West Coast tour, he announced that he was leaving the band. The night before they left Seattle, they brought back Pontrello to fill in on bass. He learned his parts through headphones in the back of the van on the way to their first headlining show.

Reviews were tepid, but musically, Tidelands was no disaster. It contains the song “We Can’t All Be Blessed,” a gorgeous, wall-of-sound symphony that stands as one of their finest songs on record and a major leap in sonic ambition. But owing to a dark mood and distant vocals, most of the songs weren’t fun to perform live. On top of that, the increase in touring kept Quick away from his wife and newborn daughter. The band returned to Seattle ambivalent about its future.

“We were all feeling this negative feeling,” Murphy says. “We went back to practicing in Everett, and it’s like, are we even a band right now? You know, our PA is broken and no one’s talking and songs just weren’t flowing.”

It was a make-or-break point that fortunately turned the band’s way. Credit, of all things, Jansport. The backpack company, which was founded in Seattle decades ago (but is currently HQed in California), sponsored a promotional event that brought the Moondoggies and a hundred fans to Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville for an invitation-only concert. There they met studio head Ryan Hadlock, who was floored by the band’s live set and invited them to record at Bear Creek any time.

Most pro musicians in Seattle will tell you that Bear Creek is the best recording studio in the Northwest. Its bucolic setting 40 minutes from Seattle feels like old English countryside (if you ignore the Arco gas station a quarter mile down the road), a place to escape to and immerse fully into music. It’s where Lionel Richie and Eric Clapton recorded “Dancing on the Ceiling,” where Soundgarden recorded Badmotorfinger, where the Foo Fighters and the Lumineers recorded platinum records. The Moondoggies loved working with Blood, but they jumped at the chance to spend four weeks recording at Bear Creek with Hadlock as producer.

For his part, Hadlock was equally excited. “We don’t end up working with a lot of bands from the Northwest for whatever reason, but the Moondoggies have an old Seattle vibe to them,” he says. “I was like, I wanna be a part of this.” As much as possible, Hadlock recorded the band together—playing live in the same, spacious room, which used to be a barn—or singing harmonies into a single mic.

Each member’s skills had 
progressed drastically and the rapport between them was more solid than ever. Terreberry is simply a fantastic bassist, with a knack for subtle, undulating melody. Dahlen has evolved into a propulsive drummer and golden-throated singer. Pontrello’s natural ability syncs with Quick’s craftsmanship. After many years, Murphy has embraced his role as lead singer and lyricist.

He admits his lyrics used to be mainly verbal filler to build harmonies on; sometimes the band made them up on the spot. “Now I’ll actually try—like ‘Stop Signs’—to have more lyrical vision or something,” Murphy says. “Embrace it. Rather than say, ‘That’s good enough, I don’t want you to know too much.’”

Where harmonies were once the band’s cornerstone, Quick points out that there may be fewer harmonies on this record than previous ones.

“I remember way back, the first moment we all sang together, it was a protective layer,” he says. “We didn’t have anything to sing, so we just sang together. ‘All night long’ or ‘I lost my bong’ or ‘what’s that song.’ [On] Adios I’m a Ghost, there’s a level of confidence to say any one of us could sing by himself. When a harmony is needed, we’ll do that. It’s a totally different attitude.”

Songs are shorter now, too. “Red Eye,” the album’s first single, rings in at a rollicking two minutes, 22 seconds. Which is no coincidence—Hadlock points out that from “Love Me Do” to “Lovely Rita,” many of the Beatles’ best songs are exactly that length. The songs on Adios are still cobbled together from snippets of songs past and present but with an eye for delivering the point and then moving on.

“We repeat ourselves less,” Murphy says.

Adios I’m a Ghost is the sound of coming home. Not only because the studio is only a few miles from where the band members grew up; not only because it’s the first time the original band, with Pontrello and Terreberry, worked together on a record. It’s an album a decade in the making and the band is finally ready to give it to the world.

“You have to know what the start of this band was like to understand how we got here,” Quick says. “Adios I’m a Ghost, and the band as it is now, wouldn’t have occurred if we didn’t do Tidelands. It needed to happen, otherwise we’d be at the same position that we were then. Bobby left the band for a reason. Kevin needed to work out his shit. We all did. It’s like your marriage is stronger because you went through a shitty time.”

Murphy puts it similarly. “In a weird way it all felt very necessary,” he says. “It was a weird way of getting Jon involved, and having it feel like it’s all these people who grew up together and care about each other and want to encourage each other.

“We like to create constantly. You can’t just sit around and chug beer all day and smoke cigarettes and listen to records.”

Photo by Jake Clifford