“I’m proud of the fact that, as we live and grow, we’re able to continue to make music that evolves and changes and seems to be meaningful,” Conner Molander observes as his band, Half Moon Run, crosses the 10th-anniversary mark. “It’s not like we found a trick and had a successful album because of that trick, but 10 years is a long time to be with a group of people doing creative work. You have to keep on allowing yourself to change and grow… and leave things behind.”
And by that standard, Half Moon Run are in the midst of their most profound evolution to date.
When you consider everything the Montreal band have accomplished and achieved and gained and lost in their lifespan, the past decade may as well have been a century. This was a group born between revolutions: B.C natives Molander and Dylan Phillips connected with Ottawa expat Devon Portielje in the Mile End a few years after Arcade Fire had put the city on the international indie-rock map, and just before the trio’s fellow jam-space tenant Grimes would usher in a new chapter of Montreal DIY lore. But in the midst of this transitional moment, Half Moon Run forged a singular sound that looked beyond Montreal’s past and future toward the realm of the timeless. Theirs is a sound that inspires all sorts of colorful, contradictory descriptors—folk music for the modern dark age, art rock for harmony-pop enthusiasts, rustic indie anthems for neoclassical heads—but no matter what you call it, the physical and emotional responses among listeners is always the same: heartbeats accelerate, goosebumps rise, eye sockets well up. “The chemistry just fused,” says Molander of the group’s formative period. “We decided that we were going to drop everything else that we might want to pursue in our lives and just go full steam ahead with the band. I dropped out of university—there was no going back at that point.”
The gamble paid off almost immediately. From the moment Half Moon Run dropped their 2012 debut album, Dark Eyes, on Indica Records, they no longer belonged to Montreal, but to the world at large. As the album’s pulse-quickening lead single, “Full Circle,” galloped up the alternative charts in Canada, a U.S. deal with Glassnote Records landed them in the upper reaches of Billboard’s Heatseekers list, while steady BBC airplay lured the group overseas and into the welcoming embrace of Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett, who signed Half Moon Run to his Communion label in the UK. But as the international tour offers came rolling in (including opening stints for the Mumfords and Of Monsters and Men), the trio soon realized they would need to shore up their ranks to fully realize their widescreened sound in a live setting.
Enter Molander and Philips’ old B.C. pal Isaac Symonds, who—like the founding trio—was a talented vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, albeit one initially brought on board in a supporting capacity. But after two years of road-testing Half Moon Run’s quartet formation, the band promoted Symonds to permanent-resident status. And for many of the group’s fans around the world, this was the Half Moon Run they first came to know and love: the restless eight-armed organism that could seemingly swap instrumental roles on a song-by-song basis—with members bounding between guitars, percussion, keyboards, pedal steel, and back again—while delivering their now-signature four-part harmonies with a telepathic ease. “The live show became a really well-oiled machine, we were super-comfortable onstage,” Molander says. “We just became so adept at playing the music that we had written, and we could improvise a little bit. It was really a good time for our live show, it was this really a fluid thing.”
However, as Molander notes, the downside to becoming seasoned road warriors is that “it became harder to write, because touring interrupts the mental flow that’s required for writing and introspection. The actual writing process for us takes a lot of focused, scheduled work.” That would explain the extended gaps between Dark Eyes and its successors—2015’s Sun Leads Me On and 2019’s A Blemish in the Great Light—but Half Moon Run’s meticulous ethic has consistently worked to their advantage, as the group has continued to expand its reach with each release while its sound has blossomed in unexpected ways. Embracing both the surface sheen of ’80s yacht-rock and the intricate song structures of prog rock, A Blemish in the Great Light was Half Moon Run’s highest charting release in Canada to date (debuting at No. 3) and landed them their first Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year. “Blemish was a real leap in a different direction for us, sonically,” Molander admits. “We’ve been accused of sonically hiding behind dark curtains—like, things on our first record were a bit damp and obscure and cloudy. And though I’ve always liked that kind of smoky sound, with Blemish, we thought, ‘Okay, we’ll brighten up and come forward with the sound.’”
But once a band hits a new creative peak, they’re inevitably faced with a nagging question: Where do we go from here? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took everyone’s show off the road in 2020, Half Moon Run were already bracing for some internal upheaval on the horizon. “Partway through the Blemish album cycle, we were talking about how we needed to have a week-long retreat with the band and management to just discuss where we’re at,” Molander recounts. “At that point, it had been almost a decade of the band being a thing, and you just accumulate this deadwood—any enterprise does. Our touring operation had gotten way too elaborate: We had a bus with a trailer on the back, and then another semi-truck following, and it was just too expensive. So things like that had to change. And it just felt like we had burned through what we had in terms of creative resources. We weren’t super-excited about getting back together to write during the Blemish cycle.”
As plans for a week-long retreat gave way to an enforced international year-plus lockdown, Half Moon Run kept their heads above water with stopgap releases like the Seasons of Change EP (a collection of leftovers from the Blemish sessions) and their popular Covideo Sessions series on YouTube, where the band reworked selections from their back catalogue in split-screen virtual jam sessions, with each member performing their parts in isolation at their respective homes. (The results were eventually compiled on the namesake 2020 LP.) However, behind the scenes, the band was marking the end of an era: After eight years of serving as Half Moon Run’s crucial fourth wheel, Isaac Symonds announced he was leaving the band on the most amicable of terms. “When COVID hit,” Molander explains, “everybody in the world was going inside themselves and asking, ‘Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? And what can I get rid of?’ And in that context, Isaac decided it was time for him to take a new direction. So somehow, in the midst of COVID, we just found the three of us—me, Dev, and Dyl—back together again, as we were 10 years ago.”
Only this time, that back-to-basics simplicity is complemented by a decade of recording experience that’s allowed Half Moon Run to take complete control of their means of production. After enlisting A-list rock producers like Jim Abbiss and Joe Chiccarelli in the past, Half Moon Run recorded their new six-song EP—the aptly titled Inwards & Onwards—entirely on their own in their practice-space studio. Beyond relieving them of the pressures that come with working in a $1,000-a-day recording facility and trying to reconcile their vision with an outsider’s opinions, the DIY set-up allowed Molander, Phillips, and Portielje to naturally reestablish their three-way chemistry at their own pace. “I heard [the Dark Eyes track] ‘Drug You’ on the radio recently,” Molander shares, “and I was just like, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s Dev, there’s Dyl, and there’s me’—you can hear the three of us playing our parts, but they fit into one cohesive whole. I always wanted the band to feel that way, and a lot of the tracks on this EP do have that triangular quality—the separation in the voices, but the unity in the whole.”
The EP’s stress-free genesis is reflected in its noticeably relaxed feel and air of effortless experimentation: the opening “How Come My Body” fuses a gentle finger-pickin’ lullaby with stalking dub rhythms, while the foggy nocturnal atmosphere of “It’s True” imagines Radiohead trapped inside the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. And of course, Inwards & Onwards abounds with showcases for Half Moon Run’s heaven-sent harmonies, which shine brightest on the breezy motorik folk-rock of “On and On” and the organ-smoothed soul ballad “Tiny.” But you’ll also hear Half Moon Run’s underrated sense of humour come to the fore: While the piano-rumbling build of “Fxgiving” reflects the interpersonal turmoil described in Portielje’s verses, you can’t help but crack a smile when he delivers the kiss-off chorus. (“What on earth were you thinking?/ Did you think I would be forgiving?/ Have you got that sinking feeling?/ Because I don’t celebrate fucks-giving.”)
Half Moon Run have certainly come a long way—musically, spiritually, geographically—since their humble beginnings in Montreal’s Mile End. But after 10 years, three albums, hundreds of shows, and one global pandemic, Half Moon Run have truly come—in the words of their 2012 signature song—full circle.
“The reason that we quit our jobs and dropped out of school in the first place is because the three of us do have this kind of triangular chemistry,” Molander says. “I think if we had gotten back in the room together and we felt that wasn’t there, then we’d have to quit, because it was the time to make those kinds of decisions. But it felt wonderful. It really was a pleasure, and I can’t wait to make a full-length album in this new-but-old configuration.”