Within only a few seconds of listening to The Moho Collective's new acoustic EP, "Soma," the listener is presented with possibilities.
It's laid out like a roundabout. The trio - Kurt Johnson on acoustic and steel guitars, organ, and banjo, Justin Rister playing upright bass and toy piano, and drummer Ryan Barclay - has taken a slight detour from its well-known manic, eclectic, electric strain with a series of five dexterous, acoustic breakdowns that preach beauty and comfort, and beg speculation. The purpose wasn't to befuddle or confuse, but to tone things down a bit.
On Friday, October 26, the Lovin' Cup crowd will get a taste of these acoustic tunes at the album release show for "Soma." According to Johnson, the EP, named after the Hindu word for moon, has been in the works for some time. "We had a batch of tunes that lent themselves to this format." Johnson says. "Really, with every other record, we recorded as quickly as possible - within a day or two. We did everything live. We just wanted to capture what we do and just trying to show the essence without getting bogged down."
But Johnson says "Soma" is different.
"This one is different in two ways," he says. "There is the acoustic element, but also we really went all-in with the studio magic and trickery that is available." The Moho Collective didn't need to go acoustic to get wild in the studio. They laid down some plugged-in Moho mojo, too, for the yet-to-be released "Arca," named after the Hindu word for sun. "To be totally transparent," Johnson says. "This is a multi-part thing we're doing. We have the electric EP we've done as well. There are horns and lots of percussion, multiple guitars, and keys and stuff."
With this sort of atmospheric instrumentation sans vocals, the music leaves room for the listener's own story, be it rapturous or melancholic. "Soma" saw the band through some tough times. "We're dedicating this album to my mom, who I lost a few years ago," Johnson says. "The music was written and recorded with her in mind. I just wanted to make something beautiful. My mom was just a big fan of the moon. It's hard to listen to the music without thinking about those times."
But when the music doesn't overtly qualify what it's about or where it's coming from, Johnson doesn't mind if people listen to it with their own experience in mind. "Hopefully it'll be something beautiful," he says. "Something that will leave an impression and stick with somebody. Our music is instrumental, so we don't have lyrics coming right out saying what we want to say. I'm totally cool with people not necessarily knowing the story and creating a story of their own."
Soma was recorded at Mike Brown's Temperamental Recordings in Geneseo. The Moho Collective was joined by Aaron Shewan on French horn and whistling, as well as violinist and violist Lauren Rister. The band recorded in the spring and did the overdubs in fall, mirroring the transition of seasonal splendor.
"We recorded basic tracks live, as we always would as a three-piece, and we left a lot of space texturally to add stuff in later. And Mike was up for anything, adding horns, adding strings. There was one tune where we trekked out into a field with a laptop and banged a shovel on a big empty silo." Silos and shovels aside, I once saw Johnson play a lap steel with an Allen wrench.
But it should be clear, listening to "Soma" doesn't necessarily require definition or backstory or explanation. It can simply be enjoyed for the sheer talent that goes into creating this band's sound.
"We pay a lot of attention to arrangement and structure and keeping things fresh because it is instrumental," Johnson says. "We try to distill it down to its most necessary parts to keep it interesting. Because we're instrumental, we get lumped into the jam band thing. We don't play pop songs, but we have pop song structures, as opposed to jams."
Johnson says The Moho Collective is entering a phase of less traveling, less gigging out, less touring, and "being more of a studio entity and just adding something beautiful to the world." In addition to the second EP, "Arca," The Moho Collective has a third, still untitled recording to get on the street. "We recorded the two albums together but they were two separate, distinct things. Johnson says. "So we did our due diligence and separated the two."
Unlike previous recordings, in which the new songs were road-tested, the five songs that comprise "Soma" will make their debut at the disc's release party. "In the past whenever we debuted songs, we'd already played them and got them tight live," Johnson says. "Now we're learning how to play these new songs live. We're being very overt with what we're doing. We're really proud of this record."
In fact, Johnson's an unabashed fan of his band and especially this album, fleeting as its sound may be. "The dynamics of the band is my favorite thing," he says. "And I think the rhythm section is great. This record, in terms of being a fan, is a quieter, more thoughtful, gentle kind of whisper, but it's just part of the journey. We're not somewhere we're going to stay too long."