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Northern exposure

Moondoggies frontman Kevin Murphy recalls the Alaskan exile that drove him to Americana



Although he plays a now-fashionable rustic Americana rock blend that's deeply in thrall to the Band, Neil Young and Little Feat, it wasn't always thus for Kevin Murphy.

The frontman for Seattle's Moondoggies started out playing music with the Familiars, a high school band whose garage-punk sound was based on a shared love for the MC5. But as the effect of teenage hormones subsided, Murphy found himself being drawn to alt-country's revered forefathers.

That attraction was only strengthened during the summer of 2005, when he moved to Alaska with the idea of getting away from it all.

Murphy still shudders at the thought of that time. "I didn't shave the whole time I was there, and all the tourists would be like, 'Ooh a real Alaskan!' And they'd pull my beard, like I was some kind of animal," Murphy recalls with a rueful chuckle.

Murphy lasted four lonely months before returning home, but the sojourn had a lasting effect, as evidenced by Moondoggies' moody 2010 sophomore effort, Tidelands.

"It had been four years, but I felt like I was in a similar place and drawing from that time," he says. "Maybe it's a cycle of ups and downs, but it was definitely a less-than-sunshiny mindset."

Before he left for Alaska, Murphy had begun working with keyboardist Caleb Quick. Five years Murphy's senior, Quick encouraged his young protégé, collaborating and harmonizing on a number of four-track recordings. When Murphy came back, he brought with him a sense of renewed purpose and greater confidence, all of which he channeled into starting his current band.

"Basically Caleb's the guy who pulled me out of my shell. I wouldn't be in this scenario had it not been for him and his encouragement. He's the one I gave a tape to like, [barely audible mumbling] 'I have some songs.' 'Come over to my house, and let's sing them.' [more mumblemouth] 'They're stupid.' 'No, they're not. Just sing.' So, I give him tons of credit for this," Murphy says. "I would do these really quiet, whispery demos and Caleb was like, 'You can sing,' and he would sing with me and sort of map out these harmonies."

The harmonies are a big part of Moondoggies' charm, much like the Avett Brothers, with whom they share a tuneful, vaguely ramshackle quality. Murphy's wavering tenor also recalls Seth Avett, whose voice is suffused with the same sweet innocence and self-doubt.

If anything, Tidelands is actually a moodier album than its relatively vibrant and upbeat 2008 predecessor, Don't Be a Stranger. That debut album featured big harmonies and a catchy, open-hearted spirit that evoked Crosby, Stills & Nash. By comparison, Tidelands ended up being darker, more withdrawn and mysterious. Its texture and tone overshadow the driving rock, making effective use of the band's growing studio confidence.

"I would say Don't Be a Stranger is more something you could put on in a room and people in general might have fun," says Murphy. "Tidelands is more of a headphones kind of record. I felt it was a record that needed to be made at that point. I would've being lying to myself singing happy songs right now."

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