Moon Taxi keyboardist Wes Bailey frequently mentions his idea of "synthesis," of merging various moods and textures and genres into something slightly unexpected. That open-minded approach defines the band's latest album, last year's Cabaret, a thrilling set that blends eclecticism and radio-friendly pop smarts.
"We don't really discriminate," Bailey says, explaining Moon Taxi's combination of prog-rock technicality, soulful hooks, and colorful, high-definition production. "We're about embracing all these different styles, and that goes into the songwriting, too. It's like a Quentin Tarantino film, the way he mashes up opposing ideas that work together in this really cool synthesis."
After the release of their under-the-radar debut, Melodica, in 2007, the Nashville quartet were somewhat unfairly lumped into the jam-band and prog-rock scenes, mostly based on their expansive instrumental solos and extended grooves. But ever since, they've consciously aimed to expand—both sonically and socially.
"We don't really care too much for the term ‘prog,'" Bailey, a Knoxville native, says. "We don't want to be like Tool or Rush, even though we love those bands. I took my girlfriend to a Rush concert, and she said it was the worst thing she'd ever heard. We want a little sex appeal."
Nonetheless, that proggy, thinking-man's edge is an essential part of Moon Taxi's DNA. The band was formed at Nashville's Belmont University, where most of the band members majored in music-related subjects. The group's prog credentials were earned honestly; drummer Tyler Ritter studied his craft under legendary Frank Zappa/Genesis percussionist Chester Thompson. But with Cabaret, Bailey and company wanted to fuse their progressive side with a hookier, slicker, and sexier edge.
"We're trying to include progressive influences but put them in a way that's not too blatant," Bailey says. "Like when you listen to Rush, you can draw a line through it and still feel the groove. We want to keep the songs catchy, and the lyrics have to be about things that are real to us."
A good example of this new approach is "Mercury," a trippy psych-pop in groovy 7/8 time. Then there's "Gunflower," Cabaret's banjo-driven sing-along closer.
"There's an acoustic guitar on there," Bailey says, "But we're also including more synthetic sounds with it—synth pads, marimba, vibraphone. Eclectic as we may be, we would never say something like, ‘That's not too folky.' We're not Mumford and Sons."
"We went on a tour in 2010 that was pretty poorly put together," Bailey continues. "We were young, and I'd just graduated college. We weren't as focused at that point—we call it our ‘disas-tour.' It was kind of an awakening for us—we realized we were really bored with most of the music we were playing. It wasn't inspiring us. It wasn't doing too much for the success and trajectory of the band. So we really just started focusing on songwriting over these exploratory jams and really focused on the lyrics and making the most of a good three-and-a-half-minute song—trying to write songs that not only we like but other people will like, that won't get boring, that aren't under the jam-band mold, pushing that envelope.
"We took a real risk. No one could have liked it, and this last record could have freaked out all our old fans, and we could have missed the mark with creating new fans. Fortunately, that didn't happen. We worked really, really hard on it, and we had a great time."
Cabaret marks a new chapter in Moon Taxi's evolution, but Bailey puts as much importance on the band's break-out run at Bonnaroo last year.
"I think that was the real catalyst for us," he says. "That was the ultimate. That was our peak performance in our career, and we went from a regional act to more of a national name. ... A year go, we'd pulled 30 people in New York, and last time we went, a month ago, we sold out the Bowery Ballroom, which is like 400, 500 people. Looking out in the crowd, we saw some of the same people we saw at Bonnaroo."
Moon Taxi is carrying that momentum into 2013. The band has a new album in the works, and they're kicking off their new year with a show at the Bijou Theatre. It's a homecoming for Bailey, in more than one way. In 2011, the band opened for the Dirty Guv'nahs on the very same stage; two years later, Moon Taxi is headlining.
"That's what makes the show so special for me," Bailey says. "I've been going to Bijou shows for as long as I can remember. I was in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever when I was 7 or 8 years old, so I have a long history with the place. This is such an exciting time for us."