Half Moon Run Montreal band

Why Montreal’s Half Moon Run are the salt of the earth

We spoke with Montreal band Half Moon Run about exploring creative freedom on their fourth album Salt, out June 2.

Forming their band via a Craigslist ad all those years ago must feel like an impossibly ancient memory now for Half Moon Run.

One of this city’s biggest musical success stories in recent memory, the band — now down to a trio of vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Devon Portielje, Conner Molander and Dylan Phillips (ex-member Isaac Symonds departed the group earlier in the pandemic) — are back with their fourth studio album Salt, dropping this Friday.

Though the album is being distributed by BMG, the band isn’t signed to a traditional label anymore. With nobody around to tell them what to do creatively, the album represents a newfound sense of freedom for the Montreal-via-Ottawa and B.C. trio, as well as confidence and self-trust.

“We kind of did whatever the hell we wanted to do,” Portielje says, telling us earlier that the album has had “the best reaction ever” from loved ones and close associates. “We hooked up with Connor Seidel, the producer, and we recorded it at our rehearsal space. We write songs in this room. 

“Then somehow, it seems like a conventional idea to change every element about that: move to somewhere else, use a different amp, use a different drum kit, hire some guy you’ve never met, then record the same song — and you expect it to sound like the way it felt? No, why don’t we just get gear, record it in our rehearsal space with our speakers that we’ve had since the beginning, and do it that way?”

With their own gear in tow, the band split time recording Salt between that rehearsal space and Seidel’s treehouse studio in Sainte-Adèle, in the Laurentians (they’d go to that studio for two or three days at a time, sleeping on the floor with no beds or showers available).

The simplicity and relatively hassle-free nature of the process was a huge source of confidence in and of itself. The lack of a label was also beneficial, as they could just hire people themselves to do jobs like playlist pitching, radio work and digital marketing.

“It’s a lot more financially lucrative and creatively liberating to just fucking hire who you want to do those specific jobs, and take the money,” says Molander.

“Alco” from Salt by Half Moon Run

Of course, the word “salt” can be used to represent plenty of things metaphorically — improving something (e.g. adding salt to your food), experiencing anguish (pouring salt into your wounds) or bitterness (feeling “salty” about a perceived slight). For the band, though, it’s about the salt of the earth — a term that typically represents people who are honest, reliable and of good character. It’s also a tune that’s been gestating for much of the band’s existence.

“Part of it was that our previous record was called A Blemish in the Great Light. That was long — this is short,” jokes Molander. “That song, ‘Salt’, is from 2010 or 2011. That lyric kind of drifted in there. It wasn’t exactly metaphorically planned out. The song got put away for a long time. Then, we were putting this record together, and we were considering that lyric — which comes from the Sermon on the Mount. All of it is basically just contradictions and mysteries and riddles.

“Salt, in that sense, seems to refer to people. It also refers to the essence of a person — that’s a riddle. A lot of spiritual truths somehow exist in the contradictions that riddles embody. It felt stimulating and satisfying to simply put that on the front of the record, and just let it be a contradiction.”

The process of making the album began with many demos in the running for inclusion — as many as 50 to 80, according to Portielje. “We chiseled away at them,” he adds. “Some of them went to the wayside. When you boil down that ocean water, you get a bunch of salt, which is the 11th song on the record.” (“It’s a strangely poignant symbol for a piece of rock,” Molander adds later.)

The band recently played a secret gig at the Corona Theatre, where Portielje claimed their best ideas come around 8:50 p.m. — a rather inconvenient time while they were writing music during the 8 p.m. curfew enforced by the provincial government in early 2021. 

Despite those utterly draconian measures on top of a lockdown, the band still managed to make lemonade out of a less-than-favourable situation by working on songs together. “We weren’t allowed to hang out, but we were allowed to work,” Portielje says. “We went to our ‘office’, which was our rehearsal space, so we could work.”

“Busted a few work beers!” interrupts Molander, causing laughter from everyone.

“It was really fun to do, but also, there was not much else to do,” adds Portielje. “It was a great pressure valve release. It was very exciting, and it would get more exciting the closer we got to the limit. The fact that we had to leave at a certain time, urgently, or else we’d get a fine or arrested or whatever they were going to do, it made it that riffs (become) forbidden riffs that we must play one more time!”

Even as the clock ticked closer and closer to 8, the sessions bore plenty of fruit (Molander lightheartedly adds that the countdown to curfew “corresponded exactly with the crunchiest grooves”). 

Among these sessions, the most fruitful one for the band happened in 2021, while Portielje had decided to go back to school to study woodworking. Upon enrolling, a sudden burst of creative energy hit, even if he didn’t yet know whether woodworking would be a new career or simply a fun hobby.

“I signed up, and during the car ride home, I basically wrote an entire song,” he says. “It was almost like the thought of leaving the music industry was so sad that, all of a sudden, it came out. I remember those few weeks when I first started school (during curfew) were incredibly prolific. I’d go to school for a half-day, then we’d jam later. I think we got three or four songs out of those two weeks. That was crazy for us — normally, we’re kind of slow.”

Unpleasant as lockdown restrictions were, they turned out to benefit the band creatively. Such a situation also wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to them, and Molander says he actually “liked the creative restrictions” that were thrust upon them.

“It reminds me of back when we had to have other jobs,” he continues. “Right before you had to go to work, you’d always have an idea. When you have oceans of free time, somehow you don’t do anything.”

Those ideas have birthed some of the band’s most reflective tunes, including “Everyone’s Moving Out East” — a funny title, given each of Half Moon Run’s members lived further west before moving to Montreal. It’s also not simply representative of people literally moving east to places like Nova Scotia (though drummer/keyboardist/vocalist Dylan Phillips says he’s seen people move there during the pandemic for its cheaper housing).

“Everyone’s Moving Out East” from Salt by Half Moon Run

“I remember specifically talking to Afie (Jurvanen) from Bahamas in the airport lounge,” Molander says. “He was there looking pretty relaxed about life, talking about how he’d got his farm property in Halifax, and he was just loving it.”

Rather, it’s more about people generally dispersing from their bubbles during COVID toward new pastures. Portielje adds that it started to become “one friend after another” moving away, and there’s a certain intersection between beauty and sadness that the song is grounded in and draws inspiration from.

“There’s this feeling of yearning,” he continues. “People you love are going somewhere else — you want to go with them, but you can’t. Like you shouldn’t, or maybe you should. There’s that doubt or wistfulness… It’s topically true on one layer, but there’s a deeper feeling. Technically, everywhere is east, unless it’s due south or north… It’s not ‘everybody’, it just feels like you’re being left behind in general.”

Whether the grass is really greener on that side, or if it’s simply being overtaken by wanderlust and/or boredom, “Everyone’s Moving Out East” — a track musically and thematically reminiscent of Beck’s Sea Change (a comparison the band loved when I mention it in our chat) — is one of Salt’s emotional centrepieces. 

On the other side of that is the previously released single “You Can Let Go,” a hurried and almost paranoid-sounding track washed in John Carpenter-like synths while maintaining the quintessential Half Moon Run sound. There’s also “9beat,” an In Rainbows-esque number whose title was initially a placeholder for being in 9/8 time, before it stuck.

Multiple ideas on Salt have been in the band’s back pocket for years, and have only now been made into fully fleshed-out songs. Some have remained largely unchanged, such as “Dodge the Rubble,” which they’d started writing in 2010.

“We’ve changed a lot (over the years), which makes it crazy to bring up an old tune like ‘Dodge the Rubble’,” says Phillips. “Back then, we were like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not good enough to make it on a record.’ Now, we’re thanking our past selves for giving the gift to our future selves! (laughs) We hear it so much differently these days than we did back then.”

Other songs, conversely, have had quite the journey reaching their final form, such as “Alco,” “9beat,” “Hotel in Memphis.” The latter song’s backstory especially stands out for the band, and one dating back to their time on Montreal label Indica Records. Its genesis was as a “fluttery, beautiful, nostalgic” solo piano piece written by Phillips, but has seen many re-workings in the years since. 

Portielje — a big fan of ‘90s rap acts like Mobb Deep — finds there’s a “hip hop sensibility” to the finished product, almost akin to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s evergreen gangsta rap anthem “Still D.R.E.” (Molander tells us later that the production on another album cut, “Goodbye Cali” was inspired by the intentionally compressed and distorted masters you’d hear in rap songs, as they “slam so much harder than indie music.”)

“In terms of where ‘Hotel in Memphis’ landed stylistically, it’s gotten battered through the years,” says Molander. “We just chipped away at it. I don’t know what kind of style it is exactly — I’m just trying to do what Dylan did.”

At one point, the band had a chorus on their hands that the label felt could blow up (or make them “the next Coldplay,” in Portielje’s words) if they were to figure out how to make it into a full, proper tune. “The pressure was extreme,” adds Portielje, who tells us later he’s never actually been to Memphis, and that the title is more of a metaphorical reference to tour life.

“It was so extreme that we got together in this driveway down from the studio where we were recording it… We did not want to do it, but they wanted us to do it so bad. We went into the driveway in the woods, had a couple beers, and said, ‘Okay. We’re going to quit… And if this is the way it’s going to be, fuck it.’

“We wrote an email to everybody we knew in the business and was like, ‘Hey everybody… we’re out. We’ll just fly home. Sorry, we’re done with Half Moon Run.’ Then they backed down. Every album after, we’ve tried to resurrect it, and it’s gone quite bad at certain points. But there’s always been something there. Eventually, with Connor Seidel, we were able to massage it into a shape we like.”

Additionally, they’re feeling a sense of both relief and excitement as far as how those who attended the secret Corona show responded to the new songs. “I think it was maybe the first time where, with the three songs that were already out (before the album’s release), they sang along to everything,” says Phillips. “To the point where I almost had trouble tuning my vocal, they were singing so loud!”

This reception is great news for a band that celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2012 debut LP Dark Eyes in March of last year. Montrealers have truly embraced the band as one of their own over the years, having once sold about 9,000 tickets within less than 45 minutes for a run of four straight shows at MTelus in 2016. Despite being from other parts of Canada, and despite their success beyond Quebec’s borders, they’ve never moved out of town.

half moon run june 2023 magazine cover cult mtl
Half Moon Run on the cover of the June issue of Cult MTL

At the secret Corona show, fans were loudly chanting “Olé olé olé olé” after their first encore, looking to get a second one. Even though they didn’t, the question remains: why does Half Moon Run resonate with Montrealers so much? 

“It’s a tough question — how do you account for a cohesive cultural identity?” Molander asks. “That’s a sociological or anthropological question. It’s really hard to understand. You want to have your own version of cultural trends that you like from outside the province. There’s such a strong sense of belonging in this place that it seems like the trends you enjoy from America are really coming from the outside.

“When I was in B.C., you kind of felt like if you heard a band from L.A., it was all part of where you were from, too. Quebec has well-defined boundaries of what it is. So when there’s a version of a band like us that is from here, you take extra ownership over that, because you have extra ownership over your cultural identity. Whatever it is, I’m fucking grateful for it, because not every band has a hometown.”

Phillips, meanwhile, attributes how easy it has been over the years to start new bands in Montreal as another possible factor. “Back when we were (first) playing, there were lots of small venues where people would show up to discover new bands,” he says. 

“That’s not something I can say about a lot of other places. That was amazing for us — people would come, and then they’d come back. Montreal is such a melting pot of different people and cultures. People are open and willing to go and discover new things.”

As far as what’s next on the Half Moon Run agenda, the trio will be spending the fall months on tour, with some summer festivals and “various promo things” preceding it. The upcoming tour will take the band across Europe and North America, with homecoming dates at MTelus scheduled for Dec. 13 and 14, as well as Feb. 29, 2024.

What makes the band proudest of Salt is the process leading to its completion, and coming out of those sessions “not hating it,” in Portielje’s words. “It was a much easier process, and I’m happy that we’ve come to a place where it doesn’t have to be a sufferfest,” he says, laughing. 

“It was really nice. The scheduling was easy — we didn’t have to rent a block of time at a studio for five weeks and just go hard and pay a rate every day. It was just like, ‘Let’s work less, and have time to think about what we did at work.’” ■

For more on Half Moon Run, please visit the band’s website.

This article was originally published in the June issue of Cult MTL.

For our latest in music, please visit the Music section.