Sean Solomon, Pascal Stevenson and Andrew MacKelvie have been making music together for over a decade. As teenagers, they traversed the DIY L.A. punk scene in the band Moses Campbell. Looking to bands like No Age, the Mae Shi, Abe Vigoda and many more for career inspiration, the trio—along with two other members—crafted a devoted following while still in high school. The wear and tear of keeping the project afloat eventually led to the band breaking up, and it wasn’t long after the dissolvement that Solomon approached Stevenson and MacKelvie to play bass and drums in his new project.
The trio began writing songs in 2015 and recorded their debut LP with veteran producer Alex Newport. But it wasn’t until Sub Pop executives checked out the band’s live show at South By Southwest a year later that the group secured a record contract. That the band would gain a deal off their live show makes sense. Already seasoned veterans after years of The Smell shows with Moses Campbell, the trio’s nervous, raw energy on their debut LP was harnessed and perfected on stage. Opener “Don’t Go” punches along with post-punk vigor and a pulsing, new wave bass line, with Solomon’s vocals haunting the track. “Does This Work For You” thrashes in an off-kilter introduction before moving into the loose feel of tropical punk pioneered at their DIY home.
Moaning’s self-titled debut is an affirmation of hard work, of days spent toying with a single guitar tone to get the sound just right. With Moses Campbell, this dedication never paid significant dividends outside the occasional billing alongside some of their idols. But Moaning is different. The trio sounds invigorated and tough, yet packing enough emotional catharsis to carry this album on multiple levels. We sat down with Solomon and Stevenson to discuss their DIY roots, their favorite musical memories of growing up in the San Fernando Valley and the work it takes to make it as a musician.
VMP: When your previous project, Moses Campbell ended, how did you decide to move onto Moaning? Was it a quick transition?
Sean Solomon: We only put out two Moses Campbell records over the span of 10 years. That project was more for fun and more of a learning experience. I started it when I was 14 years old, so it’s a little bit embarrassing. I think of it more as something I did when I was learning to play music as a kid. Because of my lack of knowledge in terms of amplifiers and effects, all I really had was a guitar; so I was leaning more on folk and punk music. We finally stopped playing in that band because everyone was getting kind of bored and distracted. I spent a year thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I finally wrote a few songs and came up with the band name Moaning after a lot of thought. It took me about a year to come up with the band name. I wanted something really deliberate. Once I came up with the name, I immediately contacted Pascal and Andrew because they’re my best friends and we’ve played in every band together since we were kids. That’s how Moaning came out of these projects we had when we were younger.
Pascal Stevenson: We actually brainstormed for a while before coming up with Moaning. We had a bunch [of names] that were terrible [laughs]. We played a few songs and were like, ‘We’re doing it now!’
Solomon: We had talked about getting the band back together. The reason Moses Campbell broke up was because we didn’t like the music. We were getting into arguments with the other members over the style of the band. There were expectations for what we were supposed to sound like and we were over it.
Stevenson: It started to feel limiting.
That was around 2015?
Solomon: That sounds about right.
Did Moaning come into fruition as an avenue of exploration? To work outside of what you’d done with Moses Campbell?
Solomon: I feel like Moaning is the band with the training wheels off. Moses Campbell and Heller Keller were always just for fun and because we wanted to try playing with bands and experimenting live. Moaning is the band where we took all the knowledge we learned and realized we wanted to do something mature, serious, and thought-out. Everything in Moaning has been much more conceptual.
Stevenson: It’s also a band without as many limitations. Our music is more open-ended, it’s no longer, “This is your band, this is what you sound like.” There are so many bands we like that have evolved over their albums and do different, unexpected things; but they still manage to remain themselves. We’re now working outside of things we’re completely comfortable with or is expected of us as a rock band.
How did the DIY punk scene in LA help influence Moaning’s sound and approach to music as a career?
Solomon: All of the bands we saw at The Smell growing up really influenced us and made us feel like it was a possibility to perform in a band in front of people. I think seeing them do it made us feel like we could also do it and it was an attainable goal. A lot of bands playing at The Smell started playing small shows but would later graduate to bigger venues and festivals. Seeing our peers succeed made us believe in ourselves more.
Stevenson: Some musical influence came from those bands, but a lot of the influence came from feeling like that’s a possibility, doing music on a bigger scale.
Solomon: Musically, I think we take a lot of influence from Abe Vigoda and No Age, but I don’t think it’s something people will necessarily notice.
Outside of those bands, there’s a little bit of shoegaze and a little bit of new wave on the debut LP. Where do those less obvious influences come from?
Solomon: I got really depressed and was listening to a lot of Slowdive. A lot of the guitar playing is influenced by Sonic Youth and punk bands—but there’s a lot of New Order and The Cure in there too.
Sean, does songwriting and making music help with your depression? Or does your depression make it impossible to create?
Solomon: Songwriting has been very cathartic for me, especially lyrically. When I write songs, I do it to figure out my feelings about something. The guitar playing is so repetitive and I need to focus on it so much that it becomes meditative. It helps to play music. I tend to be an anxious over thinker, which I think seeps through in the lyrics and kind of goes hand in hand with shoegaze music anyways.
When did the band begin working on the new LP?
Solomon: We spent a year writing the songs and then we spent a few months working with a producer [Alex Newport] to record it. We did a lot of pre-production, too. We also held onto the record for almost a year before we found Sub Pop. So the record is about three years old since we started.
I know the band put out a few singles in 2015 and then there was some time off. But that wasn’t from a lack of playing, that was just waiting to find the right home?
Solomon: Yeah. It took until now for it to finally come out. By the time we found Sub Pop, it took a year from that point to pick a date for it to come out. We waited for it to fall into place the right way, which is something else we learned from playing in bands for a long time. In all of our other projects we would rush to get the record out, but with this project we really wanted to take our time and make deliberate decisions.
How did Sub Pop come on board to help put this record out?
Solomon: I originally emailed someone from Sub Pop and sent them the record. They sent people to see us at South By Southwest, and after the set, we were signed within a month. I don’t know why it happened so quickly.
Stevenson: I think timing had a lot to do with it. The time we spent on the record, South By coming up, it all lined up well. It was weird how well everything aligned.
Solomon: Other labels had expressed interest, but Sub Pop jumped on it. I grew up listening to Sub Pop pretty intensely. Nirvana was one of the bands that made me want to be in a band. It felt sort of perfect. The label feels like a family that I’ve always been involved with. I grew up listening to those bands. It’s perfect to have found them.
Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, what’s the one record for each of you that best represents growing up in the Valley?
Stevenson: This is kind of funny because we were talking about shoegaze earlier, but I have a very vivid memory of taking the bus to high school and falling asleep multiple times on the bus listening to Loveless.
Solomon: Nirvana was a big band for me in middle and high school. I had a speech impediment growing up, and my dad would drive me to speech therapy. I would sing along to Nevermind in the car.
Can you reflect on what it’s been like to play in bands with your best friends all your life, and then have this one find notoriety in such a quick way?
Solomon: It’s pretty cool [laughs]. I couldn’t imagine doing this with any other people. We’ve always wanted this. The experience of actually doing it is constantly changing our expectations of what it’s supposed to be. I think we’re constantly learning. Every time you have a goal in mind for what you want to achieve with music, it changes when you meet the next one. We’ve always dreamed of being a band on Sub Pop. We’d joke about it when we were teenagers, about how one day we’d get signed to Sub Pop. It is a little bit bizarre. I hate when people say that they’ve manifested things because I don’t believe that, but I think when you’re relentless and work really hard and don’t stop, sometimes things do work out. We’ve been playing music together for over 10 years. We never succeeded, never made money, and it’s really nice to have someone acknowledge the work you’ve put in. It makes us feel like it’s not a waste of time.
For a long time, I felt like I was wasting time by playing in a band. I could have been working or getting a job or doing whatever adults do. But now, suddenly, it’s not that stupid to buy a new guitar pedal or think about playing guitar all day instead of working on boring real life stuff.
Stevenson: It’s pretty unreal. In the last 10, 11 years we were playing music, we never had a goal we thought we could attain. We never thought we could reach that goal and take it further. It’s kind of wild sitting at home, playing guitar or the bass or messing around with a synth sound for hours. You get validity. Sitting at home writing music all day is a means to some end. Before it just felt like fucking off. Now it feels like we’re doing this for a reason. Like, “We need to write new songs for the new album.” There’s an endgame.