It's tempting to regard John Moen as purely an emblem of Northwest indie rock's transcendence. The neighborly, well-rhythmed gent co-founded eternally name-checked alt-rock heroes the Dharma Bums. He played with Elliott Smith at his landmark SNL appearance. He persuaded Stephen Malkmus to start the Jicks and joined the Decemberists just before they conquered the world. He's kept beats for, among so many others, the Fastbacks, Oblivion Seekers, Spinanes, Minus 5 and Pete Krebs.
But—however grand his drummer résumé—Moen also once fronted the Maroons through two beloved power-pop albums. And Perhapst, Moen's first solo release, continues the trend of cultivating his underused talents for melodic songwriting. The album (also released under the Perhapst name) features intricate, infectious tunes perfectly cast for winsome vocals trilling over, as you'd imagine, lock-step rhythms. And Moen, 39, played most parts on Perhapst himself—with some notable exceptions.
"Malkmus ended up on a couple songs because he got home from vacation, and I was recording in his basement, making a big mess. He came down and played bass on one song and guitar on another. I think he was trying to hurry me on. I was overstaying my welcome," Moen says, laughing.
Guitarist Eric Lovre, a longtime bandmate of Moen's from his days with the Dharma Bums, also appears on the record. Though the Bums disbanded right before Northwest alternative became a viable career, Moen's kept plenty busy since their demise.
He formed the Maroons in '93 and continued drumming with an enviable selection of local acts: In 1998, after Janet Weiss' Sleater-Kinney duties precluded a European jaunt with Elliott Smith, Smith asked Moen to fill in. "I'd gone to New York to do some rehearsals, and [Saturday Night Live] came up at the last minute," says Moen. "I was a little slow learning parts, already super nervous, and I had to put a metronome flashing underneath the floor tom so, when [SNL host] Lucy Lawless said: 'Ladies and gentlemen, Elliott Smith,' I'd be watching that light and wouldn't race ahead too much. That's a little tip for when you play Saturday Night Live."
After Weiss reclaimed her role, Moen busied himself with various jobs—tree surgery, art installation—but grew more and more disenchanted with his day band, the Maroons. "I was kinda re-interested in playing drums," he says. "I didn't want to be the front guy anymore, and the Maroons had become Tuesday night shows at Dante's. Not that that's a bad thing, but...you get a little burned out." He continued ghosting in various groups until, suddenly, another legend expressed interest.
"When Steve Malkmus moved to town, we hung out at a couple parties," explains Moen. "And I said we should jam. Then Pavement broke up, and I was like, 'We should really jam.' I'd been friends with [bassist] Joanna Bolme [Jr. High, Calamity Jane, Quasi] since I moved to town, and the three of us made the first Jicks record."
Moen toured with the Jicks and played on their first two albums before switching over to the Decemberists once there was an opening. "That was my first audition ever as a musician—which was weird, scary." The months between band commitments allowed him time to record the songs he'd been working over, and find a newly liberated voice.
"Working with Stephen as long as I did, I got a new lease on listening to music—things like British folk. He has a really amazing record collection that goes way back. I got interested in exploring music a bit more, and that ended up being Perhapst."
And Perhapst, the record, is gorgeous—hummably evocative backdrops in which Moen's breathy falsetto saunters about, reflecting the breadth of the man's influences—and collaborators. "I had a lot of help from friends," says Moen. "If you live in one town for as long as I have and stay in one kind of scene...you end up knowing lots of good people.
"I'm winning the indie-rock battle by attrition," he adds. A tip for those wanting to play Saturday Night Live: "Get in early, and never leave."
Moen celebrates the release of
Wednesday, June 11, with Norfolk & Western and Two Beers at Holocene. 9 pm. $8. 21+. Listen to a song by the Maroons on LocalCut.com.