Video Interview with Devon Portielje of Half Moon Run – Seasons of Change

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Conner Molander (left) – Devon Portielje (centre) – Dylan Phillips (right)
Photo by Alexis Sevenier

Nothing can stop creativity.  Even when the world came to a screeching halt, Devon was working with his hands crafting objects out of wood.  

In isolation, they produced a video for I Can’t Figure Out What’s Going On (Isolation Version)

Half Moon Run are masters of chiseling down the raw ideas in their brains into very intricate and polished songs that are always fresh and new.  Not resting on their laurels, they have earned the right, from fans, to take chances musically and evolve with each album.  

The new EP Seasons of Change speaks to their evolution as a band, and their ability to keep us intrigued by what these songs will sound like. 

Seasons of Change EP

Link to album

The mug of coffee is hot and awakens my morning brain as Devon Portielje of Half Moon Run joins Montreal Rocks to talk about the new EP, childhood memories of big choruses, exploring the process of reducing ideas into songs, looking to the future as a trio again amid the uncertainty of the future and the one world that encompasses their DNA.    

Watch or read our interview with Devon Portielje.

(As always, lightly edited for a better reading experience)

Montreal Rocks:  Welcome Devon to Montreal Rocks.  I want to talk about the new EP, going back to a trio, but first, I want to go back in time. 

Usually when we are a child, there is a time in our lives where music takes on a new meaning.  It goes from something we hear to something we feel.  

Take us back to your childhood, maybe flipping through your parent’s collection and you hear something that unlocks that passion for music.  Is there a band or a moment when that happened for you?

Devon:  I remember my dad playing me to sleep, playing guitar and singing folk songs.  He was a folk singer in bars in and around Ottawa in the 70s.  He would play me to sleep or just play for fun.  There were always guitars around the house.  

I remember just loving to dance.  I think Michael Jackson was my first CD.  As long as it had a good beat, that’s all I cared about. 

I remember, as a kid, Celine Dion had these big choruses: “The Power of Love” <Devon doing his best Celine impression>

I just noticed that feeling or Toto’s Africa song.  

MR: Big comeback song because of Weezer!

Devon:  Yeah. <laughs> I remember feeling that song…it had these big drums and this big chorus.  I remember thinking:  Wow, that’s powerful.  

Just noticing this big wave, big peak-and trough.  I remember thinking there was something powerful about this sensation of music.

MR:  That explains a lot.  My first introduction to you was waiting in line for <long awkward moment trying to remember the band and even singing a few notes.  I will leave that to the professionals.> Of Monsters and Men.  I remember being in line, but you were on stage.  We could see you on the big screen.  “Wow…I’m missing something”, I thought, “I wish I got there earlier!”  

As a Canadian band, you rose to fame pretty quickly, well…still a decade…but you made it up there, even winning a Juno.  Fame is this double-edged sword, right?  With fame come people who are attracted to fame, but maybe not attracted to you.  They just want to be around fame.  How do you deal with all the attention you are getting and how do you stay grounded?

Devon:  I’m pretty isolated, actually. <laughs> I don’t socialize very much.  I’m kind of absent, I don’t really go to events, unless we might get invited to Cirque du Soleil.  I’m not a network type of person.  If you don’t want to be in the limelight, you don’t have to be.  I guess I’m lucky I don’t have paparazzi following me around. 

Where it has been weird is when I’m on tour for so long, and you don’t have to manage your own schedule, or do dishes, cleaning or anything.  You are moving from hotel to bus to venue.  You just float through life, like being a kid again, and someone’s taking care of all your needs.  

Then you get home:  OK, I gotta do dishes, I have to make food.  Groceries!  I haven’t done groceries in a year.  

Just getting back into the normal routine of life, it’s very bizarre.  

A simple thing like doing menial tasks, connects me back.  

I recognize what a privilege that sounds like, but it’s funny.  

Building something with wood.  Rather than everything being delivered to you, creating with your own hands keeps you grounded.  

MR:  Maybe touring is like paint by numbers…a little too easy, granted there are hardships.  Sometimes creating something on a blank canvas and going back to the basics is the best.  

Now with the quarantine, you are forced not to tour.  How is that affecting your day to day?  Is it putting you in a creative mode, an introspective mode, where you are working on yourself or reading more?

Devon:  Yeah, reading more…building a lot with wood.  I was at my cabin basically the whole quarantine.  Left every 7 to 10 days.  I was building things, not really writing at all.  

It’s important to think like; sometimes there is a time for planting and a time for harvesting.  It seems to be a time for planting, there is not much product being harvested.  There is a lot of observation, the world is changing so quickly.  There are so many powerful movements happening.  I’m observing it all.  Eventually, it works its way into music over time.  

MR:  That same bible verse (Ecclesiates 3:1-8) talks about a time for laughing and a time for crying.   

Devon:  Interesting.  That’s a biblical verse?

MR:  Yeah.  This is going to be a recurring theme in our conversation, contrasts.  If I take the moon.  Because of the way it rotates around the earth, we always see the same side.  There is the bright, light side we see, and the dark side we don’t.  

When it comes to darkness, we all have a darkness within.  There is quote by Mark Twain that says: “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”

What is that dark side that we don’t show to people or how do you deal with your dark side?

Devon:  I try to give it some light.  Openness and sharing are the ultimate ecstasy.  If you look at an animal, for example, that is incapable of hiding that darkness.  They are what they are.  We are just an extension of those animals.  We have these complex social minds that have found ways to repress feelings and hide things.  I don’t know if that is a positive evolutionary step, but it does serve for survival if you need to push something down to get through a process.   

Openness, revealing and honesty with yourself and others is the ultimate salvation.  

MR:  There are two parts to this.  A chameleon or someone might try to blend in or reflect back what they are getting.  That’s one way to survive.  Another way, like you said, openness and sharing…gratefulness is a great quality.  You can’t be grateful and afraid at the same time.  You can’t be grateful and angry at the same time.  Having a gratefulness practice takes away a lot of that darkness.  If you can wake up and write down 3 things you are grateful for, how can you not have a good day?  You are starting off on such a positive.

Devon:  Gratefulness replaces or removes the ability to be fearful or angry.  That’s interesting.  I hadn’t thought about it like that.

MR:  Coffee with Montreal Rocks…we tackle the big subjects! <laughs> 

Even your last album A Blemish in the Great Light talks about light.  You shared with Zach how that album started with 40 rough cuts, then down to 20 to finally release 11 on the album.  You now have this new EP Seasons of Change.  What is the criteria to pick the winners?  Are they the best ones or the ones that best fit the mood of the album? 

Devon:  There are so many factors that go into it.  Basically, we wanted the album to fit on a single vinyl.  We are not a big fan of those double vinyl.  Functionally, it’s annoying, as a vinyl listener, to have to flip it every 2 or 3 songs.  

Obviously, the amount of music you are allowed on a vinyl is limited.  We wanted two full sides, and for it to be stylistically cohesive.  In doing that, we discovered that we can’t fit these 20 songs onto this one vinyl so we have this other material that seems to be cohesive in and of itself, which is now this EP.  Most of this was recording during the same time as A Blemish in the Great Light.  It seemed to be more folky, more mellow, more wistful.  That’s its own cohesive package right there.

MR:  I feel that.  First of all, I’m a big vinyl lover.  I have all three records.  The first one (Dark Eyes), I instantly loved.  I have to be honest that the Sun Leads Me On & A Blemish in the Great Light I didn’t initially like.  It was something that grew on me.  Yet, it’s those albums that I don’t instantly like that seem to have a deeper impact.  I tend to appreciate it without this pre-conception.  

I believe that as a band, you guys take chances.  You keep changing and evolving your sound.  I think you’ve gotten permission from your fans where they say:  I don’t know what this is going to sound like, but I trust it is going to be good.

The last album and this EP start off with a 70s vibe.  That’s why I was curious about what you listened to when you were younger, because I want to see where that came from.

Devon:  Oh, I listened to tons of Classic Rock when I was younger.  There are thousands of micro-influences that make their way in.  Whether it’s something you heard on the radio recently, like top 40 or Sultans of Swing or some more obscure 70s soft rock or Yacht Rock as they called it, which I was really into before writing A Blemish in the Great Light.  

All that stuff is not by design, it just happens.  The vetting process, when we are recording is, we do so many recordings with a simple two track in the room while we are playing a song.  It’s very much like chiseling a sculpture.  It’s not just following your heart and doing it off the cuff.  A lot of artists go into the studio with a bunch of hired musicians and create a song with a lyrical idea and finish it off in just one day.  

For us, it’s really time intensive.  One song has 105 two track recordings before we even went into the studio…just running different arrangement forms, melody ideas, vocal, lyrics and instrumentation until we reduce it to this final version that has been tried and tested.  We still enjoy it after all this time of chiseling away at it and we are not bored by it.  We figured it make the cut.  Naturally, if we stop wanting to play it, it doesn’t make the album.  If we don’t like it, who will?

MR:  True.  The whole 70s decade is known as the Pivot of Change.  I believe we change as individual.  We grow, we mature.  For us men, we eventually graduate from boys to men…took me longer than normal…but as a band you change.  Why do feel change is important in creativity, not resting on your laurels?  Every album seems to be a different style, but that’s OK. 

Devon:  Complacency is where art dies.  If you just bask in the glory of your own achievements, you stop trying.  If you are not growing, you are shrinking.  If you stop moving, you die.  

There are a lot of artists that their second album didn’t go well, because it was after the fame.  They stopped living in their buddy’s basement on a mattress on the floor.  They didn’t have the hardship to inspire this kind of thing.  

Complacency is where art dies.

Devon Portielje

Change is essentials.  Part of art is change…transformation.

MR:  My take on the second album is that you have your whole life to write your first album.  Often, you will write it just for a few people.  Next thing you know, if it becomes big, you are writing the second album for millions of people.  That changes the dynamic.  If you can remember to go back to your roots and write for only a few people.  That, to me, is the key.  If you try to please everyone, you please no one.  

Devon:  Yes, exactly.  There is a lot of industry pressure to do certain things.  If you do this, it will be more successful.  If you do this, BBC will want to play you more.  You have to take that with a grain of salt and get back to; OK, I’m in the bedroom.  I’m all alone.  It’s just for me, or what would I want to say to my unborn child at this time.  Really intimate and try to touch something special and forget about all that frontal lobe kind of stuff.  Just go back to something deeper.

MR:  Speaking of the writing process, are you someone who likes to write more intellectual vs emotional?  What wins in your songwriting?  Something that is more clever or melodic?

Devon:  It pretty much always starts with lines that come to me and I write them down.  I’ve never been able to work them in.  The writing, for me, always starts with gibberish.  <Devon proceeds to sing gibberish…which is already catchy!> It’s wordless, and then I have this very difficult task of fitting in words into a melody and syllable count that I’ve already established with gibberish.  It’s like a puzzle to fit the words and to make it cohesively and intelligible.  That’s very difficult. 

Sometimes, it’s like latching onto this slipstream and ridding it and all the words come really quickly.  Sometimes it’s like chiseling and it takes forever.  

I try to forget grammar, bend phrases, all of that stuff, and just make it emotionally resonant and intelligible.  It’s both easily understandable on a first listen, but you can really read into it.  

MR:  Having people listen to your songs and come up with a completely different narrative is interesting.  For example, on your EP, you say in All at Once “I can’t be your man”.  It seems like one of those moments where you are enjoying your last moments, but you know it’s not going to last.  I right away thought about Isaac, who is leaving the band.  I’m sure it’s not about that, but it could mean something like that…you are enjoying the last moments, he is still playing with you, but he is leaving.  How big of a gap is it for him to leave this quartet?

Devon:  It’s funny you say that.  That song would have been written in 2010, before Isaac was even in the band.  We released Dark Eyes and Isaac wasn’t in the band yet.  It’s funny that it comes full circle.  

No, it’s not about him, but it’s funny.  Words and feelings come into play whether you realize it or not.  Maybe there is an unconscious connection between those two events that I hadn’t realized until speaking to you.  

If you are asking about that change, it’s a big change.  We spent our 20s together, 8 years.  It’s much closer to a brotherhood than friendship, although it does includes friendship.  

It’s a big change, but like you said earlier, change is incredibly important for music.  We wish him the best.  He has his own path that he wants to explore with art.  Now, we have this new dynamic that we have to explore and figure out how to do it.

MR:  In the journey, we all suffer loss.  With COVID, people are having extreme loss, losing parents and grandparents.  There are also opportunities to grow as a person and explore new things.  As artists, you can take this time to rebuild and see what’s important.  What’s reality and where do you want to go from here? What’s the next step for Half Moon Run?

Devon:  We’ve got to circle the wagons and figure out what we are doing.  This is a big change for our industry.  

With the reports I’m reading that it could be 5 years before we get mass inoculation or herd immunity, we have shows booked, but who knows if they will happen.  

If we look down the pipeline at years of potentially not doing shows, our whole business and creative model will change.  Right now, we have this time to go back to the source.  By that, I mean, just getting in a room together and receiving what the universe provides for our creative energy.  Literally listening to silence, the three of us, and letting some notes come out of nowhere.  Fall back in love with playing music together.  That will lead the rest of the way. Back in 2010, that’s what we did.

MR:  I find that fascinating because we are in a world where social media is bombarding us with constant noise.  Instagram noise, Facebook noise, the news cycle is noise.  People don’t appreciate silence.  You can’t create something truly original if you don’t have silence.  You are not allowing yourself the time to absorb your own thoughts, to let them flourish. 

If you are planting something, you have to give it time and water and I believe silence is the water that allows you to grow new ideas.  But, if you are constantly bombarded with the media, you can’t create…not something that’s going to be original. 

Devon:  I agree.  Like you said, it provides a lot of noise, psychological noise and distractions.  A lot of these apps and devices are built with this study of Captology, keeping people psychologically captive, imprisoned!  It’s crazy that there is a study of this and these apps and devices keep you on them for as long as possible.  

Especially as a creator, the rules change so frequently, that if you don’t pay attention the new Instagram, Facebook or Twitter policies, you will miss out and not be as efficient as someone who is paying more attention and engaging more.  Boy, that’s a slippery slope.  It’s really bad for creativity.  We are just one step away from being social media content creators rather than being musicians, it feels like.  

It’s very important to shut it all out and look at the bigger picture and try to reclaim some of that intellectual space.  

MR:  We were talking about shows.  The Pixies were known for Loud Quiet Loud.  You guys are known for the Large Small Large shows.  You play big festivals, sell out multiple nights in a row at MTelus, for example, then you have the secret shows for fans.  What do you get from the small shows that you don’t from the big ones and vice-versa?

Devon:  It depends night to night, the crowd and everything.  In a smaller 500 people theatre, in a quiet moment, you can really draw out the pauses longer and really emote a lot harder.  

If you are playing a big outdoor stage to 20,000 people, it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and people are just getting out of their tents and they are starting to drink…they are distracted.  The energy level has to go up.  They are not going to notice the subtleties as much because there are so many distractions.  It’s more like a power punch.  

With the smaller shows, you can be more nuanced and hopefully, my sense is that people observe the subtleties.  That makes for a more emotional performance.  

Bigger crowds tend to respond more to big moves, big sounds and high energy. 

Devon:  You’ve got that in spades.  Hitting the big drums and the big moves, even in an intimate setting, it electrifies the crowd.  It’s one of the secrets to your success.  

You guys put everything in your performance, you don’t hold back.  Your willingness to take risks your sound is very brave.  It’s so part of your DNA, that that is why the success is coming with it.  Not so much because of the catchiness of it, but it’s touching real emotions.  Being the real you…they don’t want that fake…let’s do this to impress Instagram or do this to attract the biggest audience.  You perform just as good in front of 50 as 50,000.

Devon:  In 2010, we toured with Phantogram.  They had this piece of gear on stage and they all had to turn knobs on it during the show.  Written on it in big letters was:  This is the most important show.

Every show, they turn the knob, and this is the most important show.  It’s a reminder that whether there are 20 people at some showcase, or 50,000, you shouldn’t put a proportional effort into more people.  Respect your craft, do the best you can every single time.

MR:  I remember hearing stories of bands going to Europe, breaking into a market.  They are used to playing big venues and they go to small ones and there is like, 1 person at the bar.  

They played their heart out.  Hey…that 1 person made it out.  They deserve 100% of their effort, not because they are 1 person that they should get 1%.  

Devon:  Yeah, that’s a good attitude.

MR:  You talked about how a lot of what you do is about reduction, like a wine reduction sauce.  You get to the essence.  Like the song that starts with 105 tracks and you reduce it to where it is done.  Let’s reduce the essence of Half Moon Run into one word.

Devon:  Dynamism.  Responding and reacting to each other.  

MR:  That makes sense.  You are obviously getting a lot of love from those that listen to your albums.  I had one of your songs in a playlist for a recent supper, and someone who never heard of you said:  Who is this? 

That’s Dynamism.  To attract someone with just a few notes, and in the background!  We were having a deep conversation about life and they hear something that is the background and go:  I need to know what this is.  

That’s a real-life example of how your music can reach people.  What you are doing is great and I wish you a lot of success going forward.  Any last words?

Devon:  Be kind to each other.

MR:  Great way to end it.

Interview: Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music.  You can follow him on InstagramTwitter and YouTube. His Podcast RockStar Today helps musicians quit their days jobs. 

Photos – Alexis Sevenier

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