Six Questions For ... The Moaners


Melissa Swingle, left, and Laura King wear sunglasses at night. And during the day, on stage...

"If Sleater-Kinney and Mary Timony had a baby named Lightning Johnson."

That's how the Moaners are described on a flier for tonight's show at the Black Cat and it was such a good and funny description that I'm it to use right here. The North Carolina duo - Melissa Swingle on vocals and guitar, Laura King on drums - is certainly informed by the post-riot grrl indie-rock sounds of S-K and Timony's sorely overlooked '90s band, Helium. But the Moaners are a blues band as much as an indie band, with Swingle's slide guitar and Southern drawl giving the songs a distinctive Delta feel. Last year's "Blackwing Yalobusha" was recorded in Mississippi and you can hear the influence of the locale in the swampy, blues-rock sound. Swingle chatted about the next Moaners album, the Chapel Hill scene and why she's always wearing sunglasses.

Do you ever catch audiences off guard with how loud you are?
It depends on who we're playing with. If we're playing with a quiet band and the audience has never heard us before and they see us setting up, they're thinking it's going to be some singer-songwriter crap and they're not expecting to be hit full force with loud guitar. Occasionally we'll see an older person, like somebody in their 50s, with their fingers in their ears. But the kids can usually handle it.

For "Blackwing Yalobusha," it seemed you really wanted to immerse yourself in the Mississippi experience of recording.
We just went down with a batch of songs and set up in a recording studio in Water Valley, Miss., where a lot of the old Fat Possum guys had recorded. We had a good time. We recorded the whole thing in three days and mixed on the fourth day. It was almost like a live experience. But the vibe was good.

Do you think that "the vibe" of recording can have an effect on how an album turns out?
I do. I think it depends on the musicians. If the musicians are sensitive, like we are, to our surroundings and sort of sensitive, too, to how we're feeling - if we're feeling in the pocket, it's going to be a lot better performance than if we're clinically hashing it out note by note. So, on our last record I felt like emotionally we were feeling the vibe. We didn't play perfectly and sometimes I can't listen to that record without hearing a few little mistakes that maybe other people can't hear. But I can hear them. You have to ask yourself: Is it better to have a good performance, or a perfect performance that may or may not have the same emotion?

Any similar plans for the follow-up?
We may do it not all in one spot. We're thinking it might be good to do a few songs here and there in different spots so that our next record is even more dynamic. So that the drum sound isn't exactly the same throughout the whole record. I have in mind a special guest performer, I haven't asked him to actually join us, so maybe I shouldn't talk about it until I ask him to record with us. But I was thinking one song would be great with some honky-tonk piano. Maybe I should call him today. My cousin is Earl "Pool" Ball who played piano for Johnny Cash for years, actually produced one of his records. He lives in Austin, Texas. Our idea is, and I need to get on the phone today to try to make this happen, is we're touring this summer and we're going to be going through Austin and then we have a few days off there. So I think it'd be really fun to record one of the slower numbers with him. He plays just the greatest honky-tonk piano; he also played on the Byrds record, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." So I think it would be just a great extra spice on maybe one song to have that on there.

Chapel Hill had a reputation as one of the coolest towns in the country during that original indie boom in the '90s. What's the Chapel Hill scene like these days?
There was a lull a few years ago; but in the past two or three years, there's just a lot of really good bands on the scene. It's weird because Chapel Hill's really not that big of a town and just about all the musicians know each other. It's really cool, in a way. It's also really incestuous since a lot of the bands are sharing members. But what's wrong with that? There are a lot of really good bands starting up. Unfortunately some of the best bands don't tour very much, so in order to hear a lot of these bands you have to come visit us.

You wear sunglasses in lots of pictures and on stage a lot, too. What's up with that?
I've just always worn sunglasses and I've noticed in the past four or five years, being in a two-piece band, I tend to get nervous before we play and sunglasses serve as a way to distance myself and still connect to the crowd. I'm actually kind of a shy person and when I was a kid the last thing I thought I'd ever be doing is getting up on stage in front of a lot of people. So I guess sunglasses are just my way of coping with everybody looking at me. I can block people's faces out and concentrate on the music. Also, I've been told that sometimes when I play, if I'm in the moment, my eyes roll back in my head and it looks kind of freaky. So I don't want to freak anyone out.

By David Malitz |  April 30, 2008; 9:47 AM ET Interviews
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