Filmmaker Vincent Moon is a man without a home, and as a rootless traveler, he has shot brief but transcendent films that capture the essence of people in places like Peru, Russia and Malaysia, mostly featuring musicians. His filmography almost reaches 700 films— several almost feature-length— and there’s no sign of him stopping, as he seems to be only scratching at an essence that has drawn him to music and film. Having shot many famous bands like The Fleet Foxes, Phoenix and Yo La Tengo for the French on-line video channel La Blogothèque, Moon’s interest in music is actually beyond fame and celebrity. He is much more interested in how people commune with the music on a fundamental and elusive level.

During a phone conversation from Rio de Janeiro covering his many subjects, which also includes Sufis entranced in a musical chant and Peruvians slipping into song under the influence of Ayahuasca, Moon shares an incident that opened his mind to the power of music as a spiritual experience. “I think, like three or four years ago, something happened to me, and I ended up in a ritual in Cairo one night, very sacred, a very sacred ritual, and I knew this because of the way people were playing the music. I never expected that … I didn’t make any research or anything between music and spirituality, let’s say, or rhythms and trance, and when I saw this, it completely changed my way of thinking about this all, and since then I’ve been pursuing this quest of how people live with music.”

Moon brings up the book Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession by Gilbert Rouget. “It’s a very thick book about how tribes would use music to communicate with the spiritual, and there is not one answer to this,” he says.

He notes that as much as he tries to document a variety of musical experiences, not only are no two the same, from region to region and country to country, but they will infinitely vary once they are repeated without his camera present. His search to even try to document it all is impossible, and he has no pretense that he has the ability to create such a comprehensive survey even if he produced 700 million films. “This is not some archival project of any kind,” he says, “just a very localized experience. It happens there, at the specific moment, probably the next day it will not be the same. I do not try to say:  This is how it is.”

Moon left Paris in 2008,but he’s not even sure of the exact date. “I think it was six years ago. I just went traveling. I just wanted to change my surroundings.” He has not had a fixed home since.

Recently the Indie Film Club in Miami, who are the people behind Filmgate Interactive, invited him to its home base. They have presented his work in the past and have set up a talk with the filmmaker as well as a two-day workshop for other filmmakers to spend a lengthy amount of time picking the brain of this prolific auteur. Miami may as well be Singapore to him and will also most likely present a musical opportunity for him to document the city. He notes that the only time he has visited Miami was as a child on his way to Disney World. “So that really doesn’t count,” he says.

As a world traveler, Moon has experience putting biased expectations aside and wants to remain open to the city. As far as what band or subject he may shoot for his project “Petites Planètes,” the output of which can be found on his Vimeo page, he remains open-minded. “If you don’t make any research in advance, you have no expectation,” he says. “That’s the key for me to make such films … So really when I go to a shoot, I only have like two or three ideas before but nothing else. I really don’t want to think about the final result, the length of whatever film and so on. We just make a film and see what happens, and then we are all surprised in the best way possible because we have no idea,” adds with a laugh.

You can read more about Moon in my article for Cultist, the arts and culture blog for the Miami New Times:

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Also this interview continues in a second blog post, which covers Moon’s influences, his method and why he hates Leviathan. Read it here:

Filmmaker Vincent Moon talks about the influence of music and rootlessness in his craft, Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

The Vincent Moon retrospective and conversation takes place Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. at The Screening Room, 2626 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Indie Film Club Miami has set up an intimate 2-day workshop with Moon on July 26 and 27. Visit www.film-gate.org for more information.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The members of Fleet Foxes have been away from the recording studio a long time since the recording of their breakout self-titled full-length in  2008. Their follow-up, Helplessness Blues (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), reveals the Seattle-based folk rockers have grown up a bit since then. Most distinctly amiss from the new album is the lack of hooks that made a lot of their lush, dreamy debut such a darling in the indie rock world. However, in place of hooks, the band have conjured a work of immersive music that rewards patient attention.

With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes shows more concern with evoking atmosphere than pulling together catchy songs. The music more than ever buoys the words of singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold, making his lyrics stand out more than on any previous album, which also includes the band’s debut mini-album Sun Giant (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon.com). The first three songs alone on Helplessness Blues open with solitary acoustic guitar lines. While the guitars on most songs  sound as crystalline as on any other Fleet Foxes album, the opener seems to come out of some dark, cavernous chamber, echoing, as the guitar rambles along like some babbling brook. Then Pecknold sings the album’s opening lines: “So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” Throughout the album, Pecknold’s words seem obsessed with mortality and a search for place and purpose in the fleeting moment that is human existence. Helplessness Blues could almost be the soundtrack to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon.com).

“Lorelai” opens with Pecknold singing, “So, guess I got old/I was like trash on the sidewalk.” But lest one think this might herald a darker turn from previous albums, Pecknold also offers contrasting images of joie de vivre and enlightenment. On the title track there are experiences of finding passion in something as quaint as maintaining an orchard in contrast to the disillusionment of the predestined purpose of a person’s role in society.

Highlighting the lyrics further is the band’s more evolved use of vocal harmonies, more than ever recalling the Beach Boys. If it wants to, Fleet Foxes could make songs with only vocals. Pecknold’s voice alone is like a wind swirling up to heaven, then behind are these cooing layers of breathy vocals humming along. “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” opens with the gradual crescendo of vocals piling up on each other with various “oos” and “ahhs” at various lengths and tones, sounding like a Philip Glass organ piece.

Underneath the lyrics and voices is a new, more adventurous musical styling for Fleet Foxes focused on mood. On the title track, the shift in tone of the lyrics accompanies an extreme turn in the music. As Pecknold sings lines like “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me,” acoustic guitars drive the song along on ringing riffs like some troubadour folky piece by Bob Dylan. But then, halfway through, the song breaks out to another dimension with booming percussion and tremolo electric guitars, recalling the brighter side of Red House Painters.

Atmospherics in music does not come from hooks but from things like sound quality, subtle things like noise. A perfect example would be the abstract ending of “The Shrine / An Argument,” featuring the reedy freak-out of a bass clarinet and the warped plucking of strings. It offers a distinct contrast to the quiet babbling of the acoustic guitar that appears on many tracks of Helplessness Blues. On “The Shrine / An Argument” Pecknold even sings in a raspy howl contrasted with his more familiar ethereal exhalations, which is actually juxtaposed from one line to the next in the line “Sunlight over me/No matter what I do! Apples in the summer all gold and sweet…” The song then shifts to a chugging melody where even the guitar sounds percussive. With another sudden shift to the dreamy world of acoustic guitar plucking, something indecipherable hums in the background before the song swells to the aforementioned cacophony of clarinet and strings.

“The Shrine / An Argument” is practically a progressive rock moment unheard of in the Fleet Foxes canon until now. To top it off, this is not the only song that features extreme shifts in tone. The title track also features such a moment. Then, in the grander experience of listening to the album all the way through, the band explores a range of ideas that add to the dynamics of the work as a whole, almost like the prog rock of the late sixties/early seventies. There are not only surprising tonal twists within the songs but throughout the album. There is an acoustic instrumental at the center of the album called “the Cascades” that could have felt right at home on an album like Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound or King Crimson’s Islands. The quiet “Blue Spotted Tail” features a tremolo guitar line and Pecknold’s voice without any of the usual backing harmonies featured on the other tracks. The album then continues to the near bombastic finale of “Grown Ocean,” which sounds like Sigur Ros crossed with Yes.

This album is a challenging listen and may not win over the same kind of fans the first album gained for the band, and it probably will not reach the same kind notoriety in this age of immediacy and trashy delights. But it will reward those listeners who like to invest attention when listening to music. Indeed, Helplessness Blues is by no means background music. One should be prepared to have a seat, stare out the window, gaze upon nature, and follow Fleet Foxes on an elegant journey into music. Helplessness Blues offers a delightful and majestic aural experience for those ready to invest their attention to subtle yet rewarding songcraft.

One final note: Fleet Foxes released a video of “Grown Ocean” featuring home movies of the band as it recorded the album. Seeing the presence of a reel-to-reel machine among the images, gives hope for an analog source for this material, so hearing it on vinyl seems more appropriate than the mp3 version Sub Pop Records shared with me ahead of the album’s release (I have been listening to it off and on for the past two weeks before passing this judgment, and the more familiar I become with it, the more moving it gets). I leave you with the aforementioned music video:

If you want to hear the entire album now, NPR was granted the privilege of streaming the whole thing as one track, a week before the album’s official release, May 3 (Stream Helplessness Blues).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)