Half Moon Run are having a killer year

An interview with one of the biggest bands to come out of Montreal in this decade.

Half Moon Run-Press Shot-2015-Yani Clarke-edited 01
Half Moon Run. Photo by Yani Clarke

One of the biggest bands out of Montreal in this decade, Half Moon Run still can’t quite believe that they made it to this level. But they know that they’ve still got a ways to go, and they’re pacing themselves.

When I spoke to guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist Conner Molander in the spring — when the band had just toppled Arcade Fire from the top of the Best Band category in the Best of MTL readers poll — they were in Houston, engaged in some not-very-rock-‘n’-roll behaviour.

“We actually all just went for a little exercise,” Molander says. “We’re getting better and better at keeping healthy — that’s kind of the objective of this current tour. I’m hoping to come home for the first time in better shape than I left.”

When Molander, Devon Portielje, Dylan Phillips and Isaac Symonds formed Half Moon Run in 2010, they had to pay their dues like any other band: sketchy vehicles and accommodations, bad gigs and bad food, but also plenty of partying. Life on the road was “everything that you probably think it is,” Molander confirms, but by now the band has learned to avoid the traps.

“When we were first getting started, the whole experience was quite taxing, but it was all for the sake of trying to get some lift-off with the project,” he says. “Once we got some momentum, a certain set of habits had set in and become part of the life. These days we’re just in a situation where we have every opportunity to be healthier, so there’s less and less of an excuse. We all just feel like we can’t let ourselves down by letting that opportunity go and half-assing the life part of this career.

“Professionally, we’ve never had an issue maintaining the integrity of the show,” Molander adds. “The driving factor is that you wanna have free mental space for more creative stuff inside and outside music and also to be able to feel like we’re young, healthy people. Being a musician doesn’t have to be synonymous with partying all the time.”

Those are wise words coming from a 25-year-old musician — Isaac is also 25, and their bandmates Devin and Joel are turning 30 this year. All four band members moved to Montreal from the ROC — Molander, Phillips and Symonds all hail from the small town of Comox, B.C., while Portielje was born and raised in Ottawa) to pursue studies, work and music.

“Basically the same reason I think a lot of anglophones move to Montreal, really, ’cause they know the music scene is super fertile. We met in 2009 and we had good chemistry, so we worked really hard on writing a lot of songs and practising long, long hours — five days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day for about 18 months — and it just worked out.”

Half Moon Run was formed in the midst of what Molander calls an indie explosion, when bands like Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver were at their peak. “That’s what we were sizing ourselves up against in the early days, when we were watching how our progress was going,” Molander says. Their 2012 debut album Dark Eyes and its 2015 follow-up Sun Leads Me On, both released by local indie label Indica, clearly place the band in that lineage, given that their classic pop and rock influences are similar to those of the American bands they looked up to. As Molander explains it, it was the infrastructure of the Montreal scene — more than any apparent “Montreal sound” — and the support of audiences across Quebec that elevated Half Moon Run to where they are now.

“There are just so many amazing places for bands to play, so it was so quick for us to get shows, and people were coming to the shows right away. Prior to us actually starting to get shows, we were really focused and insular, so good things happened really fast for us once we started playing. All of a sudden people knew the songs and it was amazing. I realize now that that’s partly a quality that Montreal has going for it.

“We also have a significant francophone base, because we travel to all sorts of places in Quebec, and I know from looking at our record sales in Canada that the vast majority of the sales come from francophone towns in Quebec rather than the English-speaking parts of the country.”

When asked about their French skills, Molander singles Dylan out as the best bilingual band member at this point, but he says they all feel “adopted into Quebec culture.”

“At this point I’ve lived in Montreal longer than I’ve lived in any other city, so I consider it to be my home,” he says. And this year has been a great one for Half Moon Run on the local front: Just prior to dominating in our readers poll, and before their second time playing the Osheaga festival, they played three consecutive sold-out nights at Metropolis in April. It was no less than a dream come true.

“It was just the best,” Molander gushes. “That whole weekend, the Friday to Monday, was a highlight of my life. It was wonderful to be able to go down there and feel that energy in that neighbourhood and during the show and then go home and sleep in my own bed and leisurely make my way down to the venue again the next day.

“When I moved to the city when I was 19, I went to a show at Metropolis and I remember thinking, ‘If I could play this venue just once,’ that’s all I wanted. If I could’ve told myself that many years ago that I’d have played there four times and that I’d be in Houston on the phone with somebody that was asking for my reaction about being on a best band poll — it’s all exceeded my expectations.”

As for the next album and other future plans, Molander couldn’t reveal much. But it sounds like fans have a lot to look forward to.

“We have absolutely no intention of slowing down.” ■

Half Moon Run play Osheaga’s River stage on Friday, July 29. The festival is completely sold out. See our festival guide here.