Moontype and OHMME Talk Oberlin, Sound People, and Bodies of Water

The Chicago bands catch up.

Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart are the Chicago-based rock duo OHMME; Margaret McCarthy, Emerson Hunton, and Ben Cruz comprise the also-Chicago-based rock band Moontype. To celebrate the release of Moontype’s debut Bodies of Water — out this Friday via Born Yesterday Records — the groups hopped on a call to catch up about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Sima Cunningham: Can you guys tell me about how Moontype started? I know that’s a very basic ass question, but I would like to know.

Margaret McCarthy: It started with me playing songs alone in my room with the bass, writing songs that way. We all moved to Chicago separately but ended up in the same friend group, and I was playing those songs live — I played two solo shows with those, and then Ben was at one and he was like, “Do you want to play with together?” And I was like, “Yes, for sure I do.” And then we were playing together and were like, “It would be really nice to have a drummer.” And I was like, “Obviously Emerson is the drummer.” And that’s just what happened. [Laughs.]

Sima: I love that. So did you all meet in college?

Ben Cruz: Emerson and I knew each other well in college.

Emerson Hunton: We played a lot of music together at school, but we didn’t really know Margaret super well.

Sima: Is that at DePaul?

Emerson: We all went to Oberlin. 

Sima: Oberlin! So what brought you to Chicago? 

Emerson: Well, I was the first one who moved here, because I’m a couple of years older. I just had a lot of good friends from school who had moved here in the three years preceding who were really good at selling people on the fact that it’s a great scene — which is true! It just seemed like people were living in comfortable places and not paying a million dollars, and had really nice places to play and good friends. So it seemed like a good move. Also, I’m from Minneapolis originally, so it was like a city that wasn’t on a coast.

Ben: Yeah, that was all the same logic when I moved here, like, two years later. I had seen Emerson move here and be really happy and live in these, like, large apartments.

Sima: They had windows.

Ben: Exactly.

Sima: Your options post-Oberlin are like: Go to New York, no windows; go to Chicago, windows. 

Ben: Windows are huge. I didn’t know, but now I’m aware.

Macie Stewart: We love windows here.

Emerson: We love windows. 

Ben: Once you ring the bell, you can’t unknow how good windows are. 

Macie: Where are you from, Margaret? 

Margaret: I’m from outside of Boston. I’ve just been slowly inching westward. One day I’ll be in the Pacific Ocean.

Macie: [Laughs.] It’s a life long journey. 

Margaret: It is. I had a dream in high school. I was like, I want to move to California, but then I didn’t.

Emerson: You should make an illustrated kid’s book called Margaret the Glacier and Her Slow Path Westward. You could give it little eyes and a smile, and it’s very hungry and sleepy.

Ben: Little curly hair on top, too.

Sima: So this is your first record that you’re putting out, which I’m so excited for, it sounds really good. So the band has been together for how long? 

Margaret: Close to two years.

Sima: So you kind of at least got your foot moving forward right when the lockdown started. What had been your plans before all this? If that’s not too sad of a question.

Margaret: We were about to go on tour. We were going to go to SXSW — you know, classic.

Sima: We were gonna play a show with you guys. 

Margaret: Oh, yeah! I forgot. That was gonna be so fun. But yeah, we were gonna go, and then also Joey Nebulous who I play with, and Tenci who [Joey] plays with, so we were all kind of crisscrossing around. We were going to all go together, round south and back up. But, didn’t do that. At this point it’s like, yeah, we would have loved to tour right off this record, but that’s not gonna happen either. I mean, maybe sometime soon. Oh, yeah.

Sima: So you said a lot of this music was started writing from your bedroom. What is the most outside-of-your-bedroom song on the record?

Margaret: Well, I mean, I write them in my bedroom, but some of them are about the outdoors. “Blue Michigan” is about Lake Michigan. “Ferry” is about being on a ferry.

Macie: I love “Ferry.” I remember we played a show at — was that a gallery?

Emerson: It was that church thing in Pilsen.

Macie: Yeah, we played a show and I remember you all played “Ferry,” and that was stuck in my head for, like, probably weeks afterwards. I was just like, [sings] “Ferry to Canada…” [Laughs.]

Sima: What ferry do you take to Canada? 

Margaret: I don’t think there is a ferry from Chicago to Canada, unfortunately. There is one from Michigan to Wisconsin. I’ve never been.

Emerson: I think that was our first ever show as a band with all three of us.

Macie: Oh, wow! That’s awesome!

Emerson: You played an amazing solo set. I remember your really cool little guitar that you brought.

Macie: Yeah, I think I’d just bought that weirdo guitar.

Emerson: Yeah. It was like really cool and little and weird. Yeah. It’s insane to think that was the first show we ever played as a full band, and you were there. It feels like it was like a million years ago now. 

Macie: Yeah, wow. Yeah, that was really lovely, and I loved your music instantly. And Margaret, your songs are so frickin’ good. I watched music video for “Ferry” this morning just as a little refresher. How did you guys come up with that? Who did you work with to make that video? It looks so good. It reminds me of that movie with the head. [Laughs.] Do you know what I’m talking about?

Sima: Frank

Macie: Yeah!

Ben: We worked with our friend Jess Bass is a grad student at SAIC. We sort of brainstormed about this playful and kind of weird music video, and then Jess just went for it, like made all this Papier-mâché stuff. We worked with a videographer, Zack Sievers, who also did a great job capturing everything, it was really cool to work with him. But the art direction was mostly from Jess. It was just really fun. We were just kind of goofin’.

Emerson: It was also freezing. We shot that at the beach on the dunes in October and it was so cold. So it was like, do a shot, put all your winter coats on, run around for a second.

Ben: Like a true movie star. Throw on your UNIQLO winter coat. [Laughs.]

Sima: You didn’t have a fur coat? 

Ben: No, that would have been cool, though.

Sima: That’s great. Emerson, I’m curious — we had a similar thing with our drummer where we were a duo for years. For a long time, it was interesting because as we were developing songs, one of us would sort of gravitate towards being the rhythmic center, and then the other one would kind of like bend out of that, and then we would kind of do a lot of swapping for that. But then when we started playing with Matt Carroll, who is our drummer, it was a really cool experience of him coming in and finding ways to inhabit this very melodic, very vocal-driven music, but also create. So I’m curious what that was like as the drummer coming into this music.

Emerson: So much fun, mostly. It’s just like a really fun little task with your friends, so you can’t really beat it. But I mean, Margaret’s songs were so fleshed out in their vocal and bass zone — it felt like they really existed comfortably just like that, so I didn’t want to muddy anything or add too much. But also I think that the built-in bass and vocal melodies have really interesting rhythmic parts to them, so I kind of could just latch onto those. And I had played enough music with Ben beforehand that we could just kind of try things out and see what worked. 

I was actually wondering for you guys, since you’re both playing guitar for the most part, how it set up, and what that experience was like with Matt. Did you have to talk about what you wanted songs to sound like, or do you just kind of go for it? Because, I mean, people in these various interviews have asked us like, “How do you work with these different influences,” and “How do you work different genres into your music?” And It’s a good question, but I also kind of hate it. It’s like, I have no idea. You just kind of play the song and see what happens.

Macie: I feel like so much of it is just taking in information. You play all these different types of music, and then when you’re actually creating something, you don’t really have to synthesize it, it just comes out how it comes out. The reason why we love working with Matt is because he’s just so intuitive. I feel like we brought our songs to him and, for the most part, he got it. 

Sima: Yeah, we did not have to do a lot of talking with Matt. I think that because we had so much space in our music, there was a pretty obvious platform made available for him to take up some sonic space. And Macie had played with him in a band already, and I was very familiar with all the different kinds of music that he made. What was really fun about Matt is that he’s a total engine — not only for ideas, but also for energy. He really pushes us, especially live. I always feel like when we’re playing with Matt that I have, like, a burning furnace behind me that is like, “Keep going, don’t you dare stop ever!” We love to kind of dip off into an improvised exploration on some of our songs — both myself and Macie can get really into that. But having Matt go there — he’s just so committed to the energy of the moment. And that can be really nice, especially when myself and Macie have so many mechanical things going on, like if we need to get ready to sing something that is hard, or Macie’s switching between violin and guitar. 

Obviously by the time we got off tour last year, we were so well rehearsed, and we were so comfortable with Parts as a record live, and all the other stuff that we were playing with it that that all could happen really seamlessly. 

I will say, I don’t watch our concert videos a lot, but it is really fun going back and watching concerts from the end of when we were last touring with Matt, like fall 2019, because we are just so comfortable in that music. It’s like we reached a new level of relaxation in the songs that really comes through, I think, in a fun way. I’m really hoping that we can get to that point with Fantasize Your Ghost [OHMME’s latest 2020 album], because we’ve been practicing it and we know how to play the songs, but that’s so different than having really inhabited the songs on different stages, different sound scenarios, night after night after night with the same people. So I’m looking forward to getting back to that level of like, Oh, this is second nature

Emerson: That’s when playing music is the best, I think, when you all of a sudden are in that zone and it’s like, Oh, we can just have fun and not worry about playing the song right anymore. I liked what you said about it being a really cohesive platform when you guys have been playing together as a duo for a long time and Matt came in. I’m sure he felt the same way — Margaret and Ben hadn’t been playing together for that long before I came in, but these songs felt like they existed on their own, and it just felt like a very joyful experience to just show up and start shaping them together and not really worry about it because we’re friends. You can just try things and not [feel] like, OK, I gotta get the drum part right. It’s like, we can just try to play the song and see what happens.

Sima: Yeah. Margaret, you do lots of things — like, you are a sound person too. How do you dial in the sound for Moontype?

Margaret: I feel like I don’t, when I’m performing, try to get into the headspace of being a sound engineer too much, because it’s a really different headspace than when I’m playing music. I know how things are working in the venue, but I mostly just want to let somebody else do their job. But also at the same time, at the end of the night sometimes I just start wrapping cables because it’s what I know how to do, it feels right to do it. [Laughs.]

Sima: It’s better than talking to people.

Macie: [Laughs.] That’s always been my go-to if I’m feeling really antisocial after a show. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got cables to wrap up!”

Margaret: [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve definitely been at shows and been frustrated that it seems like the sound person is not really doing a great job, but ultimately it’s mostly fine. There’s a weird musician-versus-sound-person thing that happens sometimes, and I feel like the more musicians that are sound people and sound people that are musicians, the less that will happen in the world, which is what I want.

Sima: Yeah, I love sound people. I love them so much, they’re the best. I feel like there’s like this whole genre of jokes against sound people.

Macie: How did you start doing sound?

Margaret: I was in school, I was studying this program of music and music technology. Then there was a job doing sound at school for a bunch of different kinds of spaces — we had a little school-owned bar, club kind of place.

Macie: Oh! What was it called again?

Emerson: The ‘Sco. 

Macie: I think I’ve played The ‘Sco! Did we ever play The ‘Sco, Sima? I think I played there maybe, like, eight years ago or something. 

Sima: We never played Oberlin, but I solo played a house show at Oberlin. Couldn’t get no love from The ‘Sco!

Emerson: [Laughs.] You’re at the mercy of student bookers who may or may not check their email for three to six months.

Sima: We really booked the hell out of our own tours for, like, four years until we got a booking agent. I’d love to go back and look at some of the email threads and exchanges — they’re just funny. But also awesome. We still kind of do it sometimes, like if we have days off — which now I appreciate days off more, but back then felt like, This is ridiculous! No days off ever! — we would book a house show or some DIY venue. Which was always great because often those came with friends and a place to stay and a home-cooked meal.

Emerson: That was our whole first tour — or, only tour. It was that vibe and it was so much fun. Also, Margaret, you said you didn’t do sound, but when you’re playing a teeny tiny venue and maybe someone’s doing sound, maybe not, having you get things not sounding terrible and just not worrying about it is so nice. It is definitely valuable.

Sima: Even just to have all that language under your belt. My partner is a sound person and sometimes I’m still, like, grasping for words. I’m like, “It’s tinny…” 

Ben, what kind of guitar do you play? I haven’t had a chance to see you guys live yet, so I want to know more about what makes you want to change up how you play guitar, or what brought you to where you are.

Ben: I grew up playing classic rock, like in a classic rock cover band. I started playing guitar in sixth grade because I was playing a lot of Guitar Hero. I was like, “I just want to rip, you know?” [Laughs.] I loved Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, all that stuff. And I still love that stuff, but that was what brought guitar to me in the first place. And then I discovered a lot of other guitar based music, and I started playing jazz towards the end of middle school. 

Now I kind of do everything, and I am happy doing anything but for a while I didn’t play in a rock band. I was in jazz school and just playing jazz all the time, or improvised music. Moving to Chicago, I was just trying to figure out what it meant to be a “professional musician,” quote-unquote. I was like, I think this actually just means I should, like, do whatever I want. And so I played with all my friends, as one does, because that turns out is the way to make the best music and to have the best time. And it brought me to a lot of places. One of my favorite musical experiences actually was with both Margaret and Emerson, playing in this short-lived but very fun country band called Razor Shines, where we would sit on our friend’s back porch in the sweaty summer and just play, like, George Jones and fuckin’ Merle Haggard. I had never done that before. I didn’t even really know anything about country music. 

I think just in general, I’ve really been trying consciously to re-open myself to different musical experiences. Playing a lot of improvised music, playing jazz, and playing in these rock bands that I care about has brought me so much joy and has made the guitar better and better for me to do. It’s really something that’s important to my identity.

Macie: I feel similarly, where the guitar or our instruments are just a tool to explore all of these other things, different relationships with people, with music, with all of this stuff. It’s awesome.

Margaret: I have a question for you guys: How do you know if you’re working on a song if it’s just for your solo thing versus for your band?

Macie: That’s a really good question, and I think something that’s an ongoing thing between the both of us. We’ve been playing each other our songs for a long time, and I think that at the beginning of this band, the songs that we brought to it maybe weren’t as direct. I think as we’ve been playing together, we’ve kind of discovered what things feel good to play with each other and a lot of stuff that I’ve kept for solo things are more directly personal and directly experiential. But that’s also not always the case. It’s kind of a case-by-case basis when we’re playing things together.

Sima: Yeah. I think sometimes there are songs that are very much a singular experience that one of us had, and it just feels like, “This is my story, this is my song.” And also the songwriting —  our songwriting can always evolve towards OHMME, but we also have a very distinctive styles, too. So it just kind of depends. 

I wrote a bunch of super simple country songs this summer that just didn’t really feel like OHMME songs, even though Macie still sings them with me sometimes, like when I was playing them for her around the campfire. We love to sing and play country music together, but that sort of vein of Americana, I’ve always kind of held those songs for my solo project. And then songs that we’ve written together for OHMME — I think the one thing we always need is to find space for each other in the songs. So if there’s no space for each other, then it’s not really an OHMME song. We’ve had songs where we’ve brought it and said,” I want this to be an OHMME song,” and we just couldn’t figure out a place for the other person’s voice or the other person’s creative expression. 

I think it’s really freeing to have multiple projects. I’m already trying to cram so many genres into my solo music, but to have this clean highway of OHMME where I can send songs that feel right, it’s been really relieving for me to have that.

Margaret: Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that for us.

Emerson: Well, we’re about to be out of time. 

Sima: Well, I’m so excited for your record. 

Macie: The singles are so good, and I love the vids.

Emerson: Thank you so much! 

Sima: I’ll send you my reaction video as soon as it drops!

(Photo Credit: left, Julia Dratel)

Chicago’s Moontype is Margaret McCarthy, Ben Cruz, and Emerson Hunton. Their debut album, Bodies of Water, is out April 2021 via Born Yesterday Records.

(Photo Credit: Julia Dratel)