On their second full-length album, Desperation Pop, New York City-based indie pop quartet Brother Moses sound more vital than ever. They’re still making music with an energetic shell and a soft, heartfelt center, but compared to their debut album, Magnolia, the track list is shorter, the arrangements are punchier, and the hooks are hookier.
Probably no single thing explains that lean, desperate edge, but the immediacy of Desperation Pop does reflect a drastic shift in the band’s surroundings. Singer James Lockhart, guitarists Moses Gomez and John-Lewis Anderson, and drummer Corey Dill got their start in Arkansas, but moved to the Big Apple after the release of Magnolia.
You get the picture clearest in the subway samples and saxophone breaks of the single “What Does It Take?” The urban bustle brings a certain dynamism and thrill, as though anything can happen. But then, in a guitar and backup vocal buildup, Desperation creeps up on Pop and the question mark turns into an exclamation point. There was always something to shout about on Brother Moses’ past releases, but here, everything is heightened, especially on the closing track, which asks the album’s most urgent question: ”How many years do you think we’ve got left?”
Between witty one-liners, brutal self-reflective honesty, and danceable beats, Anderson and Gomez’s twin guitars keep everything glued together. Shortly before the album release, the two spoke to The All Scene Eye about the cross-country move that shaped Desperation Pop, plus the encounter with Jeff Goldblum they’ve immortalized in music five years after the fact.
What has been the biggest change for you as a band since you released your last album, Magnolia?
Gomez: Relocating to New York was probably the biggest major change for all of us. We decided to move over here as a band, and that definitely influenced a lot of the record.
How did you end up making that decision?
Anderson: I think we–you know, Arkansas has always been good to us. We all grew up there, and it’s treated us really well, but we knew we wanted to move to a bigger city, and we all loved New York. For a while, we had discussed the idea of, “Well, maybe we should move somewhere else and then move to New York,” but in the end we just decided to go for it.
What are some ways that change of scenery came out in the making of this album?
Gomez: I would say just the day to day aspects. Going to a grocery store in Arkansas is completely different than going to a grocery store in New York. [laughs] A simple task is completely turned on its head. You have to get out of your apartment, maybe walk ten minutes to the subway, then wait on the subway for maybe another ten minutes, not even knowing if that particular train or that line is even going to be running today. So many things have little variables that are little asterisks attached to them, so I think you can–we say it a bunch, particularly in “What Does It Take?” Everything is just so out of your hands, it feels like. Out of your hands, but also at your fingertips.
Anderson: Wow, that was good. [laughs] There’s definitely an excitement that comes with it. There’s always so much going on, so many people trying to do new things here, and obviously, there is such struggle. You see everyone having their own struggles and their own passions, and there’s an excitement in that, so it’s all kind of bundled together.
Can you walk me through the life cycle of a Brother Moses song? How do you all put these together?
Gomez: Honestly, every song seems to start out differently, but I guess it all comes back to, one of us will have an idea–it could just be a guitar part, or someone comes with a fully-fledged song. If it’s just a chorus or one part of the song, one of us will come to the rest of the band, and we all try to flesh out the rest of it together, whether that be, like, “What kind of mood is the rest of the song going to live in?” and then we might even break out to even smaller groups to figure out the particulars within that mood, you know? Once we’ve decided, “Ok, what’s the idea of this song?” Then we can figure out the particulars and sort of match up one-on-one, whether that be me and J-Lew, James and Corey, or any combination of us, really.
Anderson: A lot of times it’ll bounce from person to person. Another thing that changed with the move was that it’s a lot harder for us to all get together at the same time, so over the past couple years of living here, there’s been a lot of times where we’ll send ideas to each other, just through a text or something, and then somebody will add a new part to it, so it could go through a few different variations before we’re all able to work on it in the same room together.
You released Magnolia in 2018, and then in the same year, you released “Sam & Diane,” which is the first single from Desperation Pop. When did this album start to take shape?
Gomez: I would say around that time. We had been sitting on the songs from Magnolia for a good while, so it felt like even though it had only been out for a few months at the time, to us, we’d been with those songs for a year. We were just ready to write more stuff, so pretty much whenever you heard the first single, “Sam & Diane,” that was the first inkling of this new project. At that time, we already sort of had four of the tracks that you’re going to hear on this album–they had their start around the time that “Sam & Diane” came out. So it’s been a little bit.
Anderson: A few months after releasing Magnolia, we all went out to Colorado on kind of a writing retreat, and like Moses said, we wrote four songs while we were out there, and we only felt like one of them was at a place where we were ready to actually put it out there, so over the next year and a half or so, we ended up rewriting a couple of them and adding some more–just a steady process of refining.
How do you know when a song is ready? Is it just an intuitive thing for you?
Anderson: I think it is very intuitive, and there are times where not everyone is on the same wavelength with that, but a lot of the time, we can feel when it’s either there or when it’s really close, and it’s almost like a physical reaction. Especially if we’re all together, you’ll see us start moving and getting really excited, and that’s when you know it’s there.
Gomez: Yeah, whenever we’re all there, when you feel it, it’s super exciting, and you realize, “Ok, yeah, we got something here.”
The album is called Desperation Pop–when did that title emerge for you all?
Gomez: I can’t specifically remember–it was pretty early on that we started talking about that specific name.
Anderson: James had thrown it out there as, like, “Hey, here’s maybe a helpful description term. Here’s what we can be going for.” We all really jived with that idea, and then as the album progressed, we decided that we wanted that to be the actual title rather than just a working title.
Gomez: It sounds like a genre itself, but it’s more like a feeling we were trying to get and something to push towards with each song that we were writing.
So that was something you had in the back of your mind as you were working on these songs?
Anderson: I think it was really helpful because some of these songs come from such different areas. If you were able to listen to the earliest versions of these, you might say, “Oh, these don’t belong together at all.” [laughs] One of them started out as this weird bossa nova thing and one of them started out as a drum loop that Corey had done, you know, five years ago or something, so to have that descriptor that we were pushing towards really helped us refine them in a way that–I think they fit together pretty nicely now.
Of the final track list, which song changed the most from its initial concept?
Gomez: I feel like “Bathroom Floor” did.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say because that was one of the ones that we started on that first trip, pretty soon after Magnolia. We came out with a pretty full, fleshed out song, and we were excited about it–we knew something was there, but it never felt quite right, so we just kept trying to re-work it and ended up re-writing so much of it, to the point where it has a completely different feel.
Gomez: The arrangement of that one took a long time to nail down.
What finally brought that one together for you? How did you know you had it?
Gomez: With that particular one, it was the night before we were going to record it. We were staying at the studio that we were recording at and we had all of our gear laid out, so we went ahead and took a stab at it, trying to re-work the whole thing. I remember we were like, “Ok, what if the second chorus, we just changed the whole beat of it?” I don’t know about John-Lewis, but that really got me excited for the rest of the song and it felt like it opened up a bunch of new possibilities. Whenever it finally opened up for me was about a day before we actually recorded the song. [laughs]
Anderson: For me, it was even later than that. I remember being very excited after that night–we had thrown out all these ideas, and I was really excited about everything we had put out there, but I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” [laughs] Like, “We’re completely changing this song,” so I don’t feel like I knew that it was there until we actually were able to listen back to it after recording it, and then it was like, “Oh, okay, we did it.”
You worked with Calvin Lauber on making this record–tell me a little about the studio dynamic.
Anderson: Calvin is such a good guy to work with. It almost feels like he’s just part of the band when we’re working with him. We don’t ever feel any pressure, and he’s always throwing out ideas and stuff, so–yeah, in certain ways, it feels like he’s part of the band, and in certain ways, it felt like we were able to do production elements and have ideas free-floating both ways.
Gomez: Yeah, that whole thing was super collaborative between all of us, especially Calvin just being down with trying some crazy things, and he had some crazy ideas himself that we could try. It just felt like a super open environment, and that was super cool about it.
Do you have a favorite moment from those sessions where that openness made something happen?
Anderson: My favorite part was whenever we got to record the saxophone on “What Does It Take?” because that was another one of those ideas where we kind of threw it out there half-jokingly, like, “Oh, what if we put a saxophone in this song?” That was so far into left field for us, and Calvin was like, “Oh, yeah, I have a friend who plays saxophone. I can just text him right now.” He came out there, and within 20 minutes, the whole thing was recorded. We were just amazed by it. It was so cool.
Gomez: I would also say that’s probably my favorite moment [laughs] about that whole recording process.
The horns play a role in the videos on this album–you did videos for “What Does It Take?” and “Bathroom Floor,” and there’s even some continuity between the two. John-Lewis, you edited the videos. How did those concepts come together and interweave?
Anderson: Well, I edited “What Does It Take?” and then James edited the “Bathroom Floor” video. James and I were discussing what we wanted those to look like, and James had had this idea of, “What if one of the very small parts of the ‘What Does It Take?’ video, like, that’s the person you see in the ‘Bathroom Floor’ video?” We used that as a jumping off point to connect the two.
You also did the video for a track on your last record, I believe. How did you get into video editing?
Anderson: I’m not a video editor [laughs] so it’s very much a hobby of necessity. I’m a graphic designer, so I’m kind of in contact with the elements of video editing, but I’m still very new at it. With being in this band and trying to do the things that we’re doing, there’s always a need for stuff like that, so any time I get the opportunity to dip my toes in the water, I’ll take it, and it’s been exciting. It pushes me further and further out of my comfort zone, you know? With some of the stuff on this release cycle and the “What Does It Take?” video, I got to experiment with doing animations, so–yeah, I didn’t study video editing or anything, but it’s been a slow process.
Gomez: John-Lewis is the visual engine of the band, so he therefore is the de facto video editor of the band as well. [laughs]
Anderson: I studied graphic design in college, so I do have skills in that area–it makes its way over to video sometimes.
If you could have anybody star in a Brother Moses video, who would you want?
Anderson: Maybe Owen Wilson. I could see him being in–
Gomez: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I would love that.
Anderson: Or Jeff Goldblum. I mean, that would be–
Gomez: Yeah, that would be the ultimate.
We have to talk about Jeff Goldblum–there’s an interlude on the album where he introduces you. How did you get that audio?
Gomez: So, back in 2015, I think, we were recording our EP, Legends. We were in L.A. working with this producer out there, and we just discovered that Jeff Goldblum has a jazz band, and he plays at this club in L.A., so we just went ahead and decided to see if there were tickets while we were in town. We all got tickets, we all sat front row–it was a smaller little jazz club, and we sat at the table right in front of the stage, and Jeff Goldblum called us out because we all sort of dressed up for it. We thought we needed to, but it was a very casual place, so [laughs] he called us out for it, and then after the show, he was just walking around talking to people. As simple as it sounds, we just went up to him, told him we were recording an album, and could he say something for it, and then he did. And it has been a dream come true ever since.
Do you have a favorite Jeff Goldblum role?
Gomez: For me, it’d be Jurassic Park.
Anderson: That’s pretty great. You know, I gotta go with Cats and Dogs. [laughs]
[laughs] That’s equivalent, I would say.
Anderson: That was the height of his acting career for sure.
At the end of that interlude, there’s a Groundhog Day reference, and you start the album with “Sam & Diane,” with the Cheers sample. How do those references work their way into the songs?
Anderson: I think it’s a very natural thing at times. Certain songs will conjure up memories or feelings that will relate to the song, and I know with James, he’ll sometimes push that into the lyrics. With “Someone Make It Stop!” it started with that line he wrote that was like, “Like Bill, I’ll make it right.” He was referencing Groundhog Day there, and then I had the idea of putting that little sample of the alarm clock in there. Sometimes we just kind of feed off each other.
Do you all have similar taste in movies and TV?
Anderson: I would say in general.
Gomez: Yeah, for the most part. We’re all fans of Cheers, we all love Groundhog Day. We’re all very, very big fans of Jeff Goldblum. [laughs] A lot of other things, too–when we go on tour, we usually try to find a movie to watch together as a band that maybe some of us haven’t seen before.
Who’s the biggest cinephile in Brother Moses?
Anderson: I feel like that’s gotta be Moses.
Gomez: Yeah, I would say so.
Anderson: Moses will, like, read screenplays in the car sometimes, or–you know, he’s the one in the band who will always refer to it as a “film” rather than a “movie,” so I think that answers the question.
There it is.
Gomez: Don’t judge me for it, alright?
I would never–I studied media in school, so I’m right there with you.
Gomez: Ok, nice. [laughs]
The two of you have worked together for some years now–what’s one thing each of you admires about the other as a guitarist?
Anderson: I’m always impressed by Moses’ chord choices. We’ll just be playing around and he’ll very naturally play something that I never would have thought of. He’s got a very unique and really great approach to chords, and it just feels really natural.
Gomez: I was going to say, I am very envious of your jazz stylings. I feel like John-Lewis–a lot of the lead parts he writes, he brings this very delicate jazz styling to it, and I’ve always greatly admired that. I think you can hear that in a lot of the tracks.
The last song on this record, “How Many Years?” deals with wanting to say things while you still can–it’s the real desperation moment in Desperation Pop. Thinking about mortality, do either of you have any musical bucket list things that you want to do while you’re together as Brother Moses?
Anderson: We have a whole list of bands that we would love to open for, and then of course there are venues where it’s like, “Oh, this would be so cool to play before you die.” I just recently watched the concert of Vulfpeck at Madison Square Garden, and I was just like, “Oh my goodness.” That’s a once in a lifetime kind of thing, so–I feel like it’s hard to choose just one. I don’t know if you have any specific ones, Moses.
Gomez: There’s a lot for sure. As far as the venue thing, it’s always been my dream to play at Red Rocks. I’ve been to shows at Red Rocks, but to play one would be truly a bucket list moment–just a general life bucket list thing.
Anderson: If I was talking about specifically venues, it would probably be Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa just because I’ve been to so many concerts there that completely changed me as a musician. One of them was whenever Moses and James and I saw Local Natives there–I remember us going crazy when they played “Sun Hands.” Everyone was jumping, the floor was shaking, and in my head, that’s always been my–“Oh, that would be such a cool experience to play there.”
What’s next for you all now that this record is out in the world? What are you most looking forward to about this next phase?
Anderson: I’m really excited to start writing again.
Gomez: Yeah, same. I think as soon as we get to the point where we’ve played these songs live for–almost all of these songs we’ve been playing live for about a year now, and that seems to be what happens. Just itching to write something new and to have more excitement in the air, you know? And to have anticipation for the next thing to come out.
Anderson: There’s also a couple songs off Desperation Pop we haven’t been able to play live yet just because we wanted to wait until they were actually released. For example, “How Many Years?” I’m so excited for us to play that live. I just know that’s going to be killer. In the more immediate future, something that I think we’re all really excited about is going to South by Southwest–just going to play as many shows, go to as many shows, you know.
Who are you most looking forward to seeing at South by Southwest?
Anderson: I’m really excited to see Kevin Krauter.
Gomez: Yeah, White Denim is also going to be a big one for me. A bunch of our friends are going to be there this year too, so we’re excited to see some friends over there.
[Editor’s note: this conversation occurred on March 5, 2020, before the cancellation of South by Southwest]