Moving Units made its second stop of 2017 in El Paso at Lowbrow Palace. Their first visit was close to the release of their album, “Collision with Joy Division,” which features covers of the iconic band, Joy Division.
Making an album of covers is an audacious task – one that can be a huge mistake as well. But Blake Miller and Moving Units have done it time and time again that they make risks so that their music can stand out and be bold. Their music is exactly what the 90’s punk bands would be playing when they were feeling happy. It has traces of sad tones that linger and are consistent throughout their discography; traces that are reminiscent of bands like Joy Division and other early dance-punk bands like Rapture or Modest Mouse. Those sad tones are carried by quick beats that make you want to dance.
Miller explained the process of how a Joy Division cover album came to be, his and his band’s history with El Paso, and his favorite song to sing along to.
Antonio Baca: It’s not even your first time this year in El Paso; how’s the tour going?
Blake Miller: It’s been fun because, you know, we wanted to do some shows before we wrapped up our year. We basically just did a tour in the southwest and this is the last show and then we’ll be back in Cali in December doing weekend dates for the rest of that month. But God! To be honest Texas is just one of our favorite places to be because the crowds are always so much fun. Texas just has that something special, that energy that crowds from this part of the world just seem to resonate so we always look forward to it.
A: I read an interview where you compared the music scenes between El Paso and LA. Could you go into a little bit more detail and say what do you think are the real contrasts and comparisons and why do you think they are there?
B: Like the scene from the perspective of the musician or from a music fan?
A: From a musician, and especially because of the venues you play in, the people that go out to your shows, and the reactions and how the crowds are.
B: Well, I mean there are a lot of similarities, which is something I really like. We obviously got our start in LA. We came up sort of the old-fashioned way just playing punk rock shows and fortunately the crowd reacted really quickly. We didn’t have to do a whole lot of like, you know, painful gigs where nobody knows you and nobody cares and that happens to everybody and I’ve been through that experience in previous endeavors. But we were very fortunate to have very strong high-energy reactions from crowds and punk rock venues all the way through, moving into larger established venues. So that’s the impression that we sort of brought with us in our minds when we started traveling because that’s what you hope to recreate everywhere you go. And it was just a really cool cosmic sort of surprise that the same kind of energy was happening here in El Paso. I remember we placed like an all ages pizza venue back in the early 2000’s. I think that was the first time we played El Paso and that show was on fire and it was the first time we had ever been here. We didn’t really expect anyone to know or care yet and it was just an immediate and organic reaction to the music. The chemistry just happened spontaneously. And basically every time we’ve come back it’s just continued to sort of mature. Now of course we come back and there’s people that know the music and there’s people who’ve come back and seen multiple shows so that’s a new layer of coolness that we look forward to; seeing people again, developing a familiar attachment to your fans, recognize their faces, talking, taking pictures, and stuff. I don’t know enough about El Paso’s cultural history to necessarily have an intelligent opinion about why that is but is I really appreciate the fact that a scene as large as LA and as diverse as LA isn’t somehow inferior or like less than a smaller scene like El Paso. It’s cool that they both seem to be infused with same kind of crazy excitement and energy and positivity and passion for music. Bottom-line, that’s why we’re here, to play music. If people who are passionate about music enjoy it, then that just makes everything better for everyone. And I feel like that’s something I’ve noticed- a real genuine passion for music. Some people seem real and down-to-earth, genuine. So those are all qualities I appreciate about this scene and I feel like those were the kind of people that we were connecting with when we were first coming up in LA because obviously LA is full of a lot of people who are like that as well, but we were fortunate enough to connect with your kind of people from where you are from. I feel like that’s the way I look at it, it’s like “oh, these are our people.” And I’m going to go to these other places and I totally feel like El Paso is our kind of people.
A: And Moving Units has existed for several years now but it’s gone through a lot of changes. Can you tell me what the band is for you in terms of genre or just what it is to you personally? How do you define it?
B: Obviously for me, I have a very personal point of view because I’m kind of neurotic about details and appreciating details, and really exploring deeper layers of things. So for me, the band is basically just an extension of my tastes, my instincts, my musical inspiration, and I have a very diverse taste in music. But when I started Moving Units, I was channeling a very specific type of flavor. Right? I was really immersing myself in records, by a lot of my favorite post-punk groups, my favorite no wave groups, basically crowd rock-no wave-post punk-synth wave- like all the sort of darker, emotionally complex music genres that basically started happening in the late 70’s, early 80’s. So that’s the flavor that I was really cultivating when I started Moving Units so for me it’s always been a very clear sense of what motivated me to try and create songs that sound like this. At the same time, it was like a real revival of indie rock going on, so bands like the Faint, Rapture, Radio 4, there were a lot of contemporary bands that were also doing something that was very high-energy, hooky, you know that moved people on the dance floor. I was also inspired by that. So it’s sort of like listening to my old records and then going to shows and being blown away. Like seeing the Rapture play. Stuff like that, I was just feeding off of stuff like that. And I’ve tried to carry that through my vision for the band ever since. You know, I surround myself with musicians who have that similar taste and background musically, so that it just makes it a more natural chemistry when we get on stage. It’s like this person might not have been there when I started the band or when I wrote these songs, but they like what I listen to, to write those songs so it would make it more natural that they would just understand how to interpret the music, kind of like express it the right way. So that’s been something that’s been really important to me to kind of control that vision, and make sure it’s consistent, because when our fans show up to a show, even though musicians change or come and go, that’s just sort of the nature of the way life works at this level when you’re a smaller band and everybody’s gotta figure out how to survive, pay the bills, and be able to leave town. It’s a difficult thing to manage so sometimes people’s lives tales them in different directions. I just wanted to make sure that whenever we do a show, it’s legit and that I feel just as excited and proud of what we do today.
A: And you mentioned that this band is a culmination of you listening to this contemporary music and older music that really influenced you; I’m sure you’re tired of all of the Joy Division questions.
B: No, I love that band! I could talk about them all day.
A: How did the idea for that specific band, to cover their music come about? And were you nervous at all about the reception that album would get, just because it is such a legendary and iconic band?
B: Well no I wasn’t nervous. But it’s not because I’m cocky, it’s because I was just so passionate about those records, those songs, those recordings, that I knew that if we jammed to those songs, and we enjoyed it, and it was fun, that’s all that matters; because if you can jam, and it sounds great and you’re enjoying it, then that’s going to translate. That part really gelled easily. The thing I was challenged by, was the idea of can we pull it off to meet our own standards? Because you know, I’ve studied those records like a religious zealot, like sacred texts. I know those things inside out so I wanted to be able to capture all the nuances and all of the triumph and majesty of those songs. So the idea was actually pitched very casually to us by a promoter named Jeff in Southern California and he’s been a supporter of the band for a long time and he knew we were getting ready to go touring. So he just threw out this idea, what if Moving Units covered their favorite Joy Division songs for a set and then played a second set of all of their originals and that’s what that happened, because I never would have thought of that myself. It just never would have occurred to me. I’ve never been a cover artist. I’ve just never really spent anytime exploring that expression. It was a challenge. It’s one of those things in life, like sometimes friends or people in your life say, “dude! What if you did that?” And it’s something that if you had thought of it yourself, you probably would’ve just been like, “I don’t know, why would I do that? That’s crazy, like I’m not good enough,” or something; you question yourself. But when someone else you trust challenges you sometimes it gives you a little confidence and gives you some focus. And I was just like, you know what, that’s a pretty fucking cool idea. I went back to the band to see what they think and they were super stoked on it. It was a very natural organic thing. So then we just jammed. I think Disorder was the very first song we jammed. Everybody went home, did their homework first, brushed up, got all their chops, then we came in and were basically like alright, let’s just play the song based on memory and see what happens. If it totally sucks then we won’t do it. And we got really lucky, it sounded awesome, it sounded like Moving Units covering Joy Division. So once we got through that first jam session it was really just an enjoyable experience, just learning the material and rehearsing it. We spent a lot of time. I got really methodical about it. It took about two or three weeks then we were ready to produce the songs in the studio and that’s the thing that really kind of sort of made everything fall in place for me, because as any musician knows, if you’re going to record an album, you’re going to have to know how to play those fucking songs, like flawlessly, otherwise there’s no point being in the studio. So the process of being prepared well enough to go in there and smash those recordings and just own it, was just an amazing way to prepare to go and playing them for people, because we didn’t do any shows until after we recorded the album so by the time we played a show we were like we know this, we just produced this. We can like, do this now on stage and take it to another level.
A: So that album came out really early this year. Finishing up the tour for this album, what’s next? What do you see in terms of music that you produce and sounds that you’re liking?
B: Well I had a really great summer, that was different from any summer I’ve had probably since I was a teenager. My family doesn’t live in California so I rarely get to spend a lot of time with my family just due to the nature of what I do. This summer I was just like, I’m going to go visit my family out of state and I’m going to hang out and not look at the calendar for the time being, and I brought some home studio gear with me, my guitar rig and stuff, and I was like I might get inspired. I might get some creative and stuff but most of all I just wanted to go and detach and let my mind recharge and it was a really great experience. I basically just got super clear in my head and realized I’m in a good mood, I just want to write a bunch of songs. And that’s what I did, I’ve basically written an album’s worth of new songs. I’ve demoed them to completion and in doing so, I was like okay I’ve got a new album already completely demoed and written and some extra tracks as well. Originally I was like, I’ll just go home after tour and then record, produce the album, and then put it out. Then when I started thinking about it when we were touring I was like you know, it’s a new time in the history of recorded music in a way, especially in how younger fans engage with music and bands. I was like, it’s kind of dub or pointless to just disappear for six months or a year to make your album and then drop it out of the blue. I’m really into the idea of playing with just putting songs out there, sort of ramping up to an album. So basically what I’m planning on doing is getting back from tour, choose one of the songs, going into the studio, finish it, because we sometimes use the demo as the template for a final master, and then just put it out there. If it’s fun and it seems like people dig it, then I’m going to do that. So much times goes by needlessly, and I’d rather enjoy getting reactions and seeing the songs out there one-by-one.
A: You mentioned the art process for doing an album; what’s your favorite artwork for a Moving Units album and what’s the story behind it?
B: Well, that’s a good question. I really like the artwork from all of the albums. I mean the very first EP is very special because we had a friend named Matt Damhave in LA and he’s a really talented artist. And he was just like hey I’ll do something for your EP. It was so casual like no deadlines, I really liked the fact that it was just a friend saying “hey, I like your band and you guys are going to put something out there, here I’ll just do the art.” Then he actually made the art with his hands, and tape, and glue, and it was just like he created a tangible replica of the artwork that you can hold and that was just so cool. Nobody does that anymore, it’s all digital. So I just remember enjoying watching that happen. He was working on that over a period of time, he’d drop by the house and be like oh, what do you got so far? I just remember that being really fun watching a fun create that with his hands and with real materials. So that first EP has a special residence for me for that reason.
A: Alright, so you have been touring, driving through right?
B: Yeah. The private jet is like in the shop; ordinarily that’s how we roll of course, but every now and then, you just have to keep it real. You give in to the car and the trailer, drive it yourself.
A: So how do you pass the time? What do you guys listen to?
B: I’ve learned over the years, that band members when they’re young and inexperienced, quite often overthink things. I was guilty of doing that. Before you know it you’re treating traveling on tour and on a band as some sort of job or some sort of chore. We are all people who enjoy hanging out with each other, we enjoy the same kind of music, we like being dorks and making dumb jokes, and we treat it like a fun road-trip. We’re just friends road-tripping and the thing that makes it different then anyone else going on a road-trip with their buddies is that we get play shows at night and have this awesome experience with a bunch of music fans. It’s basically like the best road-trip experience that I can imagine. We really enjoy. There’s obviously days where we’re driving like ten, eleven hours, and you’re just like eh, another truck stop, another 500 miles. But you kind of learn how to own that. It becomes like a cool challenge, like we got from here to there, we saw some crazy things along the way. We’ve made it fun. That’s the only way to live right? If it wasn’t fun we wouldn’t be doing it, right? I think that’s important to remember because we don’t want to be a band that gets to the level where we’re just forcing ourselves to go out there and punch a clock, or because we just want to make money, or because we feel obligated. We do it because we love it and because we enjoy it, playing shows for fun people.
A: You mention liking the same music; is there a song that pops into you’re head for the best sing-along song with your friends that every time it comes on the radio, you just have to sing along to it?
B: For me, it’s “Into the Groove” by Madonna. I’ll just always love the track and if it’s bumping and I’m in a good mood, I’m just going to sing along. We haven’t spontaneously burst into unison karaoke yet, although that would be rad if that happens. But we’re always geeking out on music, it’s not even like there’s one song. We’re always like “oh shit!” Like we listened to Bad Brain on the first leg of the tour just because they played Growlers Fest in LA and I was like, let’s play some Bad Brains and we all just geeked out on listening to Bad Brains for 45 minutes. That’s kind of the routine we follow when t comes to listening to music together and celebrating it.
– Antonio Villaseñor-Baca