Luna Honey may be a fairly young band, but it has hit the ground running.
With two releases on BLIGHT. Records and one of the best live shows I’ve seen in DC in a long time, the quartet is clearly wasting no time.
At the band’s cores is the dynamic Maura Pond. Maura’s misty voice can echo like a siren call, then turn into a chalky growl as she angrily deconstructs the farce of modern existence. Heard over the repetitive bass lines of Levi Flack and aggressive no wave guitar antics of Ben Schurr, one feels the spirit of Nick Cave drift in and out of every moment. And spooky Bari sax in the form of Madeline Billhelmer adds an extra cherry on top.
The result is a hell ride through Motown’s darkest alleys, a no wave birthday party with electronic beats, and a series of songs that creep inside your spirit and like ghostly infestation, never leave.
I sat down with three of the four recently to discuss their recent full length Peace Will Grind You Down, as well as their thoughts on life and music in general.
Things got deep.
Let’s start with “Exorcism”. The way you deliver these lines is very harsh and guttural; it’s no surprise you went with the title “Exorcism”. Were you exorcising something out of yourself?
Maura: That’s a really interesting song because the first take of it did not sound that intense. We recorded it the first time and Ben was like, “You gotta bring it a little harder.” That was the most screaming I’d ever done.
Levi: That was her introduction to screaming.
Maura: Afterwards I was like, “Oh God! I’m not doing that again!”
Ben: And I was like, “We don’t need to do it again!” The first take was kind of understated and melodic. And I think at first I was just gonna play it safe, but then we all agreed it didn’t sound right, so I was like, “You just gotta scream it.” So, you screamed it in the bathroom. You screamed surrounded by lit candles.
Maura: Yeah, it was funny because the light switch in the bathroom was tied to the fan so we couldn’t have that on or the fan would be going during the take, so I was in the bathroom with a candle and the cat was trying to get in.
So you’re in this sensory deprivation chamber. Where does that put you mentally?
Maura: I definitely felt pretty crazy. Also that was relatively early in the recording process, so I was just getting to the place where I was like, “It’s ok to do this.” I’m not used to yelling. I didn’t even know I could. I’ve done choir singing before, but I’d never done anything like that. I’d say it was uncomfortable in a way. I felt weird afterwards. I thought, “Let’s wait a while before I do that again.”
Levi: And I remember listening to it while you were doing it. Ben and I were just looking at each other like, “Holy Fuck! All right! This is the take!”
Ben: And there’s this unhinged quality to it. It’s literally this first document of it. That’s the magic of it anyways, when you get those moments when it’s like: this is the first moment you ever screamed and it’s there. It’s recorded. That to me is a close a thing as you can get to lightning in a bottle.
Let’s jump to the last track, “Relinquish”. Here we have a kind of drone with very minimal percussion, not much more than a few quiet bass drum hits over which you sing as though you are dragging the words out of yourself, like they are causing you pain. It really feels like dread. What moves you to explore this mood of dread in your work?
Maura: I like to think of this song as one of the classic love songs of the album. It’s uplifting to me. When you navigate through life and you’re trying to avoid things that cause you pain and things that tie you to others, you can only get to a state of happiness and freedom by accepting a certain amount of pain and being open to it.
There are number of songs about me processing getting married. This one is about an experience on Levi and my honeymoon in Colombia. We stayed in this survival camp in the mountains, and it was pouring rain, and we rode on this motor taxis and the whole road had turned into this muddy river. It was just fucking terrifying because these 14 year old kids who are driving are just speeding through this. Levi and I were each on our own bike and I thought “Well, this is unsafe.” But it’s also really cool, I mean you have rain splashing in your face and you have absolutely no control of what’s happening around you. The whole thing was a kind of metaphor.
Levi: Yes! You see you’ve got to relinquish control. There is naturally fear all around us and we can’t let that stop us from doing things.
Maura: In the pursuit of something meaningful, you can’t be fear based. There’s useful fear that you should pay attention to, but it shouldn’t control everything you do.
Is it that desire to be comfortable with fear and risk why you make the admonition that “peace will grind you down?”
Maura: “Peace will grind you down” came out of a really bad day. You know, there was some typical stuff in the news, bad day at work. You come home feeling like, “what am I doing with my life?” I feel like I tried a bunch of stereotypical things you do to try and make your time meaningful. I mean, there’s activism. You could go out and try to change the world, but most of my friends who are activists eventually it really wears on them. People turn to religion with varying degrees of success. People go after money and power in their jobs. I was just having a day where I was like “none of that works.” But I was hoping I was wrong. I was really just hoping there was some meaning to life.
Is this album meant to help listeners find meaning in times of trouble?
Maura: So it’s not even about finding meaning in times of trouble. I think it’s a lot easier to find meaning in times of trouble than it is to find meaning in times of just boring life, which is how we spend most of our time. I’ve hit my official 10 years at my job. I work a very stereotypical middle class job in terms of going 9-5 at the office. It’s pretty much on paper what you’re supposed to be doing. Got a house, got married. Checked all socially acceptable boxes but that’s not enough.
Do you think the times we’re living in now are a positive thing since things are so turbulent and risky? It’s like, yes things are chaotic but adversity can spur you to action while peace cause you to atrophy.
Maura: It’s important to observe those two different states as existing, but I don’t attach a value to either. I just think it’s an interesting thing to delve into. The question of what do each of those states do to you. It’s very easy to lose pieces of yourself when you’re comfortable, which is something I felt I had done, but at the same time it’s really unpleasant when everything around you is horrible, so if neither of those are great, which are you supposed to strive for?
Ben: Well, you have to maintain a sense of self through it all. Your inner peace, your zen state has to be resilient for both. We came up with the title for the album because we were working on this song. I think it was just called Strings at the time because we had Casio strings on it.
Now, when Maura and Levi sent me demos, I couldn’t hear any of the lyrics because it was just some bad iPhone recording, but when we started working on it in the studio and I heard that lyric “peace will grind you down.” I was like “That has to be the title of the record. You know, for all intents and purposes people would consider the Obama era a period of domestic peace for the most part with the exception of police brutality and immigration problems. So the period of peace we thought was was before the Trump era, I mean, the city was still being gentrified, all these horrible things were happening, everyone was ironic and sarcastic. It degraded this sense of indignation that people should have felt. And then they woke up to this period and now they’re more angry that they’re even more limp than they were before.
Being outraged all the time is a kind of numbing experience. It’s not a strong way to behave. If you can see both of these periods, when things are chaotic and when things are benign and you can maintain a sense of actual inner peace to it, you can actually see these things in an objective way. You can navigate these things in a way that’s more practical instead of being ironic or outraged because neither of those things are effective.
Do you feel like being involved in this whole thing (creating a band, creating a record, touring the DIY circuit) is an outward expression of your striving to maintain that inner peace in the face of whatever the times are like?
Maura: Yes, that is what ties most of the songs on the album together, because they sound pretty different, but most of them are trying to examine that idea.
Levi: So we have there’s this line in “Peace Will Grind you Down.” I can’t remember exactly how it goes.
Ben: Let it be known that Maura is looking up her own lyrics right now.
Levi: Here it is. “You see us struggle like so many others/ and peace will come when you work long enough/ and peace will let you down/cause you’ve earned more than they have/ and you deserve it all.” It’s just if you really think about all these people. Everybody is so focused on what they can earn. What they can win. How they can achieve the most in their life on a very materialistic level. I feel like that lyric is so subtly sarcastic. You’ve earned more than they have and you deserve it all. Look at you! You’re great. But peace will grind you down. All of this wealth, all you’ve accumulated, will grind you down.
Where is the line between bitterness in criticizing the world and empowerment? There’s a way to criticize, let’s say, the government over a glass of whiskey where you just sort of exclaim “everything’s shit,” and just nihilistically shout into the darkness and there’s another more positive way. Which mode of criticism are you feeling on this record?
Ben: If you make a song, if you make an album, you can’t be a nihilist. You just wouldn’t bother doing it. If you make a song in any capacity and put it out there and perform it, your action speaks louder than anything. And I’ve thought about this a lot as someone who’s written some scathing lyrics myself. I never think about it as self-serving or complaining. It’s just a matter of doing something. If you’re just on social media making a racket, you know, you’re not doing anything. Even if you have a ton of followers. But if you make a piece of music, just by the virtue of what music is, it has an effect. It reaches people and it gives you a sense of empathy. It’s a very open ended thing. It’s a form of communication that’s inherently powerful. That’s why hate music is so awful because music has that power and when it can be weaponized for hate, it’s can be really destructive.
It’s interesting that when you talk about music having a dangerous effect, I can’t help but think not of hardcore but of Top 40. That shit really grinds me down. It makes me feel more cynical, it makes me feel powerless, whereas music that’s dark and sinister sounding often makes me feel excited and empowered.
Levi: It feels real. It just has this very honest quality.
Ben: Well it doesn’t lead you the same way. Pop music shepherds you in a certain direction. It tells you how to feel and it’s not subtle. I think the reason experimental music is so powerful is because it can’t lead you somewhere you’re used to going, it’s taking you somewhere else, so your brain has to make the decision to go there. The reason formulaic music is so bad is because you already know where you’re going. But if you’re making music where you don’t know where you’re going with it, it forces you to make a decision to listen to it, to pay attention.
Maura: Singing this particular song was really difficult when we were recording because it was a song that was really depressing to sing, and we kept not getting the vocals. And I was just real done with it. I just didn’t want to go near the song again. Once we started playing it live, particularly when we played it in front of others, it’s totally different once you introduce other people into the equation. As a new performer that surprised me. Once when we performed it, I saw someone in the crowd cry. And it’s not a depressing kind of crying, it’s catharsis. So even though there’s bitterness in the song, it feels fundamentally positive.
How do you maintain levity in the studio when you are working on such deep and personal music?
Levi: We just had a blast. It was actually really goofy and fun. We were just goofing the entire time. So we recorded five tracks at our house, the Honey House. We recorded five of the tracks there, and I remember we were just working on it and we were like “Whoa, we can make this sound using this weird thing,” like using the walnut cracking on Honey.That insect clicking noise we used for the beat was a walnut cracking.
We also had a can with a chain hanging out and we recorded the sound of the water in a bathtub swishing. The punchbowl that never made it on the record. It’s that sort of thing of “What can be done?” And it’s not just our first record, it’s our first musical project ever. I’ve never played in a band before and Maura’s done maybe one or two songs at a wedding. I mean this is completely new territory for me. And Madeline, our saxophonist, is new, too. Only Ben has been in bands before. And it’s all fresh. And it’s crazy because we’re just constantly working on new stuff now and whenever we practice we just jam and explore ideas. Maybe some will stick, some won’t. But we’ve got so many ideas floating in the ether. We started with a very narrow vision of the band but now we’re watching it grow and expand in ways we can’t even imagine.