I mean, I would say Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but then there would be too many miserable fucks in our band.
It’s an innocuous, yet tiresome question bands get asked with habitual frequency: ‘Why did you decide to call yourself so-and-so?’ For anyone looking to get a straight answer out of Brooklyn-based Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses, AKA Jimmy Vallance and Tom Howie, it’s a losing game, as the story seems to mutate from one inquiry to the next. Is it in fact a nod to Robert Moses, the controversial Depression-era urban planner? They’ve also claimed that the name comes from a Halloween past, involving Moses and Bob the Builder costumes (clearly a joke).
The musical inspiration behind Bob Moses, however, is less perplexing. Having found footing while ghostwriting on Francis Harris and Anthony Collins’ Frank & Tony EPs, their sound has a smoky, somnambulant feel, meandering between atmospheric deep house and moody electro-pop. After a string of three EPs—Hands To Hold (2012), Far From The Tree (2013) and First To Cry (2014)—with the compilation All In All (2015) in tow, the pair’s highly anticipated full-length album, Days Gone By, is now available to purchase via Domino Records. It’s phenomenal!
And as unique as their recordings are, it’s perhaps the live performances that truly sets Bob Moses apart. The guys are currently on a world tour in support of the forthcoming release—with a string of shows scheduled all across North America—so be sure to catch them live, rapt, and sing along.
So you guys are on this massive tour right now.
Jimmy Vallance: We’re always in the middle of a tour.
Tom Howie: It never ends!
How do you keep your head on straight?
Jimmy: It helps when you’re traveling with your best buddy, you know? If I was alone, maybe, it would be a different story. We get to share all these experiences together, so whenever there’s any issue, we get to laugh about everything. Nothing ends up becoming too serious—I’m talking about the little things like lost luggage. We just end up going, ‘Man, this is hilarious!’ Well, it’s not always hilarious, but… [Laughs] Eventually, it’s funny!
What have been some of the highlights so far?
Jimmy: There’s an uncountable amount, man.
Tom: It’s just highlight to highlight to highlight.
Jimmy: Yeah. Being able to wake up and just make music is all we’ve ever wanted to do. From that point on, everything else is just bonus, man. It’s just whipped cream on the cake for us.
A lot has been made about how you guys went to school together in Vancouver before meeting up, serendipitously, in New York. Were you buddy-buddy in school?
Tom: We had classes together and shit.
Jimmy: We shared an art class. I mean, we were friendly, but we weren’t hanging out on the weekends. We would basically see each other at school. We both had fake IDs and we were playing clubs. We were the two guys who would come into school the next day, just haggard. I was DJing and Tom was playing in bands, so there was a mutual respect there. Other than that, it wasn’t like what we are now—total besties.
What were you making in art class?
Jimmy: It was everything from collages to life drawings to painting. It was mixed media, so you could do whatever you wanted. Tom, what were you doing? Were you painting?
Tom: I forget what it was called, but it was this clear plastic that you can draw on with charcoal. I was obsessed with William Kentridge. I was basically trying to be him. [Laughs]
I gather that was just for fun, though. Music was always there in the foreground, right?
Tom: Well, the music program at our school was super lame. We both played in the band and quickly realized that the teachers were asses, so we quit. But the art teacher we had was super cool and she sort of spearheaded this thing we had called Contemporary Music Night. The visual art classroom was the focal point of all the artists who were actually looking to do cool art that wasn’t super rigid. We weren’t interested in super classical band music, you know?
Jimmy: We love classical music, but when I was playing percussion, I remember sitting there waiting through half a song to hit a triangle. And half the time the teacher would be like, ‘Everyone but percussion play,’ and I would be sitting there falling asleep. It’s like, ‘Why am I even here?’
Going even further back, can you recall a memory where you really connected to music?
Tom: I don’t know if this is when I got hooked on it, but my earliest memory is probably being 4 years old, driving in my parents car, and listening to Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” on the same mix cassette tape that my mom had made.
Jimmy: I remember being around the same age when my dad had the anthology of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He would play them ad nauseam. Every day, in the car, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, on repeat. We would sing along and stuff. It was great, man! But I think the real infatuation with music started in my teens. When you’re listening to it as a kid, you love it, but in my teens, that’s when I started diving into making music and take it seriously.
Tom: I remember being 11, getting a Green Day CD, and being like, ‘Woah. I want to make punk rock music.’ But my mom tells this story of me at 4 singing in the bathroom, announcing that I was going to become a musician. As a back-up plan, I was going to become an actor. That was my genius idea.
So it really did start with your parents.
Jimmy: Totally. My parents’ music collection totally inspired me and made me want to pursue this. My mom was in a band and my dad wrote songs. It was a really awesome place to grow up. Being in the Pacific Northwest, we caught the tail end of the whole grunge thing and Vancouver had a very successful music scene in the ’80s. It felt like a place where being a musician was possible, or there was a good foundation for it, instead of being tucked up in the middle of nowhere. It felt attainable. You can do it.
Tom: My dad was always singing around the house and my mom played the piano. Actually, my dad and my stepmom are currently in a rock band.
Really? What are they called?
Tom: I forget. [Laughs] They play once a week, and they play at a local pub once a year, I think. So everyone’s trying to make it in the music business.
What do they make of your music?
Tom: My mom likes it a lot. I send her demos and she plays them for people. I spend my time going, ‘Mom, you’re not supposed to play that for people!’ So she’s very proud. My stepdad is like a music encyclopedia. He knows every obscure jazz record ever made sort of thing, so he’s super into it. I think my stepmom once said, ‘I don’t get this techno stuff,’ but they’re happy. My dad’s like, ‘It’s quite listenable.’
Jimmy: [Laughs] My parents are like, ‘What’s going on in the beginning?’ but after a couple songs off the new album, they got bit by the bug or whatever. Now they get everything. Now they go back and listen to all of it. Everything makes sense to them now, which is great because, especially when your parents are musical and very accepting, you have to have that clash of like, ‘Okay, what are you doing?’ I think it’s healthy. Even if they’re super supportive of your music career, it’s nice to have that ‘I don’t get this’ and then win them over.
Tom: My parents are wannabe musicians and his parents are real musicians, so for him, it makes sense. My parents were just like, ‘Oh. Cool. Music.’ They’re not as hip, so to speak.
I wanted to clear something up with you guys because there are different stories floating around about where the name Bob Moses came from. You’re just fucking with people, right?
Tom: [Laughs] To be honest, we started telling the real story. But there was a while when we thought it was funny to make up different things.
Jimmy: Robert Moses was an architect from New York. He built the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway]. We used to have a studio in Red Hook and the demise of that place, ironically, is due to him. He envisioned that as the dumping ground, although it’s super fun now and all that stuff. He did a lot of things to make New York a lot more accessible by car and really created the metropolis that it is now. But, in order for that to happen, a lot of not so great things had to happen. And when our original label started, the goal was to name acts after New York icons. Frank & Tony were based on the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan from the ’70s and ’80s. When we came up with our name it was based on Robert Moses, another New York icon, and we just stuck with it.
One thing I do know about Robert Moses is that he was divisive and controversial.
Jimmy: He was definitely revered and hated at the same time.
So when you’re recording in the studio, is it pretty clear what the singles are?
Tom: Yeah, but all the tracks that we thought were singles haven’t been singles yet.
Jimmy: [Laughs] It’s a funny thing. You really don’t want to judge a track until you’re done with it and sit on it. Sometimes your opinions change. I think one of the worst things to do, creatively, is to peg something too soon and give it a title as to whether or not it’s a single. You just have to get it out, finish it, and try not to stress yourself out and think too much about it. You have to strike when the vibe is there and while the iron is hot. Over the past couple years of practicing and writing songs, we’ve gotten a bit better at ignoring those kinds of thoughts from the beginning.
Tom: When you write a track, you’re fucking stoked. If you’re going to see it through, it’s the best thing in the whole world. Gauging what will be a single or what we think are the strongest ones more realistically comes from playing it for your few trusted people. You kind of know what their musical tastes are. It’s ‘I know that this person really likes that kind of music, but they don’t really understand this kind of music.’ Even the deepest album cut, when you’re making it, still feels just as exciting to you as a single. The whole single thing is a bit more subjective. One of the guys at Domino, when we first signed with them, put it really nicely: ‘A single is an easily digestible and catchy thing that draws people into your musical world.’
I think that’s key, knowing whose opinion really matters.
Tom: Oh completely!
Jimmy: Also, it’s great that we were able to road test some of the songs over the last couple months. When you play something live, there’s no reaction more honest than that because you can see how it’s affecting a crowd of people. And you can hear on a big system what it really sounds like. You’re trying to take yourself away from it and look at it really objectively. The way to do that is to give yourself a bit of distance from it, play it live, and listen to it without paying too much attention to the details.
What were the parameters for Days Gone By? What kind of foundation did you lay down?
Jimmy: We knew what kind of record we wanted to make. I mean, at first, we were like, ‘Holy shit. What do we do?’ Then you come to terms with it and get more solid in terms of what you want. Since it was our first record and on a new label, we maybe overthought it for the first couple months. We didn’t get much done because of that. We wrote a few things that didn’t make it on the record because we kind of got back into our own selves.
Tom: We knew what the sound was going to be like. We’re not going to try to write a song for Katy Perry and then make it our track, you know? So there’s definite sonic parameters that you stay within. And, as far as writing the songs and the subject matter, you just gotta write and let it come out. Like Jimmy said earlier, once you get an idea and the inspiration, judging it too quickly can be detrimental. You have to write to figure out what you’re writing about. We finished a bunch of tracks that were great and maybe could be great in another setting but for this album didn’t work. That’s the kind of step back viewpoint you have to take once you’re further into the process.
Jimmy: It’s interesting because, the more you see it come together, the more you realize what you need or don’t have. You see that you have these kinds of songs and would like to write more songs that are upbeat or more downtempo, for instance. You start to then get inspired by the music you’re making. It’s a much more in-depth process than making an EP because you don’t feel as confined and you can tell a story. You can really have those high and low moments.
Were you given a deadline for this record?
Jimmy: We definitely pushed it back a couple times! [Laughs]
Tom: Yeah. We had a deadline that we missed. To be honest, we knew that making an album would be a big undertaking, but it was probably a bigger undertaking than we’d thought. We had a rough plan, but we also played a shitload of gigs. I can guarantee you that, at least 10 times and probably a lot more, Jimmy and I were like, ‘Dude, we should not have fucking booked so many gigs. We have to make this record.’ But looking back at the whole thing now, it was good because I think we would’ve gotten lost taking 6 months off. Like Jimmy was saying earlier, road-testing the songs informs the creative process in the studio, so it was good. So we had one deadline and it ended up being a few months later. We set a more realistic deadline and we hit that.
No one ever asks, ‘Why did you decide to make this happy song?’ but it seems entirely normal to ask, ‘Why did you go to such a dark place?’ Why do you think that is?
Tom: Being sad is scary and mysterious, and people want to know why you went there because they’re a bit in awe of it.
Jimmy: I don’t think it’s an intentional thing. Us writing music is a way to vent whatever it is we’re going through together, so it ends up being like that. Take someone like Kurt Cobain, for example. People just go, ‘Why?’ You’re right, people don’t question something like Pharrell’s “Happy” and go, ‘What’s up with Pharrell? He’s so happy.’ No one does that. There are documentaries about it. Why is someone who has everything and living the dream not happy? That’s a great question. It’s just the way we are, I guess.
Tom: I think it’s because there’s nothing mysterious about being happy. We know what it’s like to be happy, we wish we could be happy all the time, and with people that are happy, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay. I don’t have to worry about you.’ All of us do this thing like, ‘Why is that person so confused? How do I make sure I don’t get there?’ People like to solve problems. I think happy people are the problem solvers. We watched the Kurt Cobain documentary last month and we were kind of like, ‘Poor me. I sold 30 million records and everyone loves my music.’ [Laughs] There is a part of you that goes, ‘Man, why was he so upset?’ People have demons.
Jimmy: I think people listen to music in order to relate to that kind of thing, too.
Tom: A lot of the time, people listen to music to find some sort of solace or camaraderie in their own discomfort. It’s soothing, it’s emotional. People also listen to music to feel great and take themselves away from that. The most effective music, I think, is something that captures an emotion most purely.
Jimmy: I think there’s a reason why we have the blues and not “the stoked.” [Laughs] Maybe we should start a new genre, “the stoked,” and just write happy music.
What two bands would complete the formation of your supergroup?
Tom: Holy shit. That’s hard.
Jimmy: I would love Radiohead and Led Zeppelin together or something like that.
And you guys.
Jimmy: That would be awesome! If we could bring John Bonham back for the rhythm section, and get John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Johnny Greenwood, Thom Yorke and all those guys together in the band, I would be stoked! I would be like, ‘This is the dream right here. I quit.’
Tom: Thom Yorke and Paul McCartney or something. That would be good. I mean, I would say Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but then there would be too many miserable fucks in our band.
Jimmy: There would be no happy music.
Tom: There would be no happy music coming out of that band, for sure.
What do you think people would be surprised to find on your playlist?
Jimmy: That’s a good question.
Tom: I don’t really listen to anything on a day-to-day basis.
Maybe someone that you’re a fan of that people wouldn’t expect.
Jimmy: There are couple guilty pleasures that I have. I’ve actually been listening to Justified, the Justin Timberlake record. The production on the Timbaland stuff is amazing. When we were making our record, a friend of ours said we should listen to some of the Justin Timberlake albums because there are some cool dynamics in the percussion and stuff. There are no sweeps and swells or anything to create tension, to make changes. But the way that things happen with the drops and stuff is super well done. I got over the whole ‘This is a crazy pop record’ and saw that it’s masterfully done. So maybe people don’t expect me to say I like Justin Timberlake’s stuff.
Tom: I like a lot of 50 Cent and Drake and Kanye West and shit. Maybe that’s obvious, but I like the hip-hop stuff. You can’t really hear it at all in our music, but I also like the old funk/soul stuff like Curtis Mayfield and The Meters and shit like that.
Jimmy: “Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield. We listen to that almost once a week now.