Interview: Moon Tooth’s John Carbone, Nick Lee Talk New LP, ‘ Phototroph’

“Up and down forever, different every time. This is a just a wavelength at the curving of its line.” That’s just one of a barrel-full of lyrical wisdoms from Moon Tooth’s excellent new record. Phototroph, out May 13 via Pure Noise Records, finds the Long Island band leaning even harder into their blues, classic rock, and country past. Tooth fans (Teeth? Tooths?) fret not, as there are still some of the best progressive metal around to be uncovered in Phototroph; It’s just that you’ll have to be prepared to sing the blues along with headbanging.  

I’ve always admired this “weird metal band,” but this record is the musical equivalent of a Saturday night with longtime friends and a bottle of whiskey. There are some harsh truths here, but it’s an incredibly reflective, comforting, and uplifting record. Vocalist John Carbone shares the band’s ethos:

“One of our main goals has always been to be a comrade to anyone who needs it. What I’ve always loved about the blues is when you hear it, you hear something undeniably true, something that knows you like you know yourself. It says, ‘I know this is tough, but you’re not alone; so drink this whiskey, laugh or cry it off, and we’ll sing through this together.’ Though we don’t always sound like it, we’re a blues band in our DNA.” 

Moon Tooth are like a sturdy wood table held up by four knotted but strong legs (i.e., the members). Given the results of the album, it seems like that bond is as strong as ever, with how playful and connected Phototroph sounds. How has their friendship evolved with the group’s clear sonic evolution?

Carbone: “I share a bond with these three men that is unlike any other in my life. Traveled thousands of miles together; 30-hour drives, many breakdowns; many white-knuckled drives on winding, icy mountain roads. Experienced the thrill of adventure alongside them, the wonder of seeing places you grew up reading about. I’ve written with them. Writing is the only time my brain shuts off, the only time I experience serenity, and I’ve spent accumulative years sharing in that intimate state of grace with them. I’ve sacrificed with them for a common goal. We’ve all suffered greatly to pursue this. 

“We all went through pretty significant personal changes the last couple years,” guitarist Nick Lee adds. “A few of us moved off Long Island and a few of us had significant changes in personal lives and relationships. Those things compounded with the pandemic made it harder than ever to keep the band alive and vibrant but at the same time it made it clearer than ever that this is a thing we need to do to survive. We needed the band and each other more than ever to get through the last couple years. I think we leaned on each other more than ever to get through some tough times and that love permeated the music we were creating.”

Phototroph is the “most” everything record Moon Tooth have written—most progressive, most melodic, heaviest—while also feeling like the least weird Moon Tooth creation yet. It’s like if The Dillinger Escape Plan got together with a thrash band to write a Skynard, ZZ Top, and Allman Brothers tribute record. Carbone expands on the record’s goals and how they were different as the record went on:

“It’s always about letting the songs do what they need to do. If you start trying to force a sound or a vibe, you’re gonna end up with something weaker, watered down. The big hooks and classic rock vibes on this one surprised even us as we were making it. So it wouldn’t be surprising to imagine the next album sounding weirder in response to this. Like, ‘Alright, I’m sick of BBQ; Let’s make lasagna for dinner tonight.’ We couldn’t have ever pre-designed how the mash up of our styles would sound; It just had to happen naturally. As an artist, it’s important to remember that you’re a lightning rod. You don’t make the lighting, but by being truly yourself, you give the lightning a place to exist in this world.” 

“We had something like 30 ideas for songs demoed before we started the actual pre-production process, so it was difficult to pick and choose in the beginning,” adds Lee.

“It came down to what fit together the best to make a cohesive feeling and that feeling happened to lean a little more rock and roll than extreme metal this time around. Early on I felt excited about the idea of making an uplifting record at a time where people might need that more than ever. Once John had the album title and concept it really started to come together and make sense. We definitely have some gnarly, angry songs on deck but this collection felt right for this album and moment in time.”

I have a science background, and any time a band uses science as a creative springboard, I’m going to be all in. I love the notion of Phototroph and how the record plays with the notions (sonically and lyrically) of needing both light and darkness to create something beautiful. The optimism isn’t afraid to acknowledge the shit sandwich that is life. So how did the notions of phototropism weave into the record? Carbone answers: 

“The last record was about arriving at a crossroads, about facing dark challenges to make it there. Thematically (and actually, in my life) this next chapter needed to be about picking the road that led up towards light. Which is not to say that the road itself is well lit; it’s still dark and dangerous. But you walk it with the intention of making it through, of winning. In the epilogue of the last album, the lyrics speak about taking the calm moment of the storm’s eye to declare that intention. Life isn’t about hiding from storms. It’s about facing them when you have to and being grateful that you have the gift of being able to face anything at all, good or bad.” 

Carbone has a wonderful story of where the album’s title and themes came from:

“We stayed at a place called Orlando Band Camp on tour one time. The morning after a night of partying with Steaksauce Mustache and The Number 12 Looks Like You, I took a kayak out on the lake to a small island to write vocals for one of Nick’s demos. The island was surrounded by water lilies, and it struck me: what an amazing representation of strength and hope! How something like a flower will work its way through the weight and darkness of soil or mud to become something beautiful in the light.”

“As a band,” he continues, “we do in part lean in and explore the negative aspects of ourselves/the world. But it’s fair to call us optimistic. I have to create; it’s like eating or breathing to me. But I don’t have to share it with anyone. So now that we are sharing it, what do I want to say to the world? To the kid in her room who, like me, found something in music that makes her feel alive? To anyone who finds any kind of truth they need to pursue? I want to say ‘I know how hard this is and I know why you have to do it at all costs. HOLD THE FUCK ON, YOU GOT THIS!’” 

“I’m really not a person to gravitate towards optimistic or hopeful art,” Lee adds. “I pretty actively search for the darkest, ugliest music, movies, and artwork I can find and I’ve been that way since I was a little kid. I’ve realized though that what I like to listen to and watch and what I want to create and put out into the world are two very different things. There’s something about the vulnerability of putting a positive message out in the world that’s scarier because you know people are going to say ‘fuck you, everything is awful, we are all fucked, stop being a fool and climb back down into the mud with us,’ but the idea that maybe this album can help a few people out of a tough time has been my armor as we get ready to let it go.  

“It’s not exactly difficult to be reminded of how terrible and unfair this existence can be for most people. Hopefully, this album can serve as an embrace, a shoulder to cry on, or a friend to pass the bottle to when that’s what you really need to push through a tough time.” 

Watch the video for “Alpha Howl” here:

For more from Moon Tooth, find them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Korman

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