In 2013, Tom Howie had some very bad — but also very good — luck. The Vancouver-born musician, who with countryman and band mate Jimmy Vallance viscerally fuses tribal techno and aerated singing as Bob Moses, was driving along a narrow, exposed Caribbean coastline when he fell asleep at the wheel. “I was quite tired from a bunch of gigs we had done, flying around, and a bunch of parties and s—t,” he explains over french fries at a sunny cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “There’s no guard rails. If you drive off you’re, like, down a cliff into the abyss, and I hit the only wall,” he says. “He hit the only wall,” repeats Vallance, as if he still can’t believe it.
Even though Vallance managed to acquire dengue fever immediately thereafter, Bob Moses made it to their engagement to play that year’s Burning Man, where antithetical blends of pop and electronic (“like Adele’s ‘Rolling In the Deep’ over a Nicolas Jaar track,” says Vallance) swept the desert audience like tumbleweeds into the palms of their hands. When they returned to New York City, Burning Man’s Robot Heart camp — who had invited Bob Moses to the Playa after seeing them have the same impact on top of a bus at a 5,000-person warehouse party in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood — wanted to release their festival set before any of the other acts’ performances. “That October was the first month that we had too many gigs,” says Howie. “Since then, we’ve been on the road like savages.”
Even more so now that they just released their debut LP, Days Gone By, through indie heavy-hitter Domino Records. Though they went to the same high school, Vallance and Howie didn’t really know each other. “The last time I saw Tom before I left for New York was in a McDonald’s drive-thru,” recalls Vallance, “and he was like, ‘Whoa! Jimmy, man! What are you doing here?'” They collided in New York City, where both had moved to chase the proverbial ideal of “making it.” “I just wanted to get out of Vancouver and do the Bob Dylan [thing], dream big, American city,” says Vallance. “Like, go make some music.”
Howie tried to go the more academic route, spending a year at Boston’s Berklee College of Music with a songwriting scholarship that, even with partial loans, was too expensive with his family (Vallance jokes that with his doctorate in trumpet, he’d be “broke as f—k”). So he, too, took his career ambitions slightly south; there, he met his musical partner through Matthew DeKay, one of his good friends and Burning Man musical staple, who coincidentally had enlisted Vallance to produce a couple of his tracks.
After bonding over a Pacific Northwest born-and-raised’s love of grunge and its various offshoots — including Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails, and genres like hip-hop and trip-hop (“… Ya don’t stop!” adds Vallance, referencing “Rapper’s Delight”) — the two decided to try making music together. DeKay also brought them into Brooklyn’s underground electronic music scene, such as that Bushwick warehouse party that initially caught Robot Heart’s attention. “The warehouse thing was illegal, and if you were a bigger DJ, you wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole because you might lose your visa,” says Vallance. After finding a groove with each other, Bob Moses put out two EPs — 2012’s Hands to Hold and the next year’s Far From the Tree — of songs that found New Age-y hypnosis, somewhere between the deeply tribal techno of Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels crew and Iron & Wine’s whispery incantations. The closest, oft-acknowledged comparison is between them and Chris Isaak, who evokes similar feels with his proto-R&B beats and croons.
Both firm believers in the 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect rule, Vallance and Howie wrote Days Gone By while on the road, playing 80 to 100 shows a year. When they weren’t on the road together, they were living together, and writing lyrics together there. “Lots of times we’ll be sitting in the room together, and I’ll have the microphone, we both have headphones, and I’ll do a pass and [mumbles-sings] and say stupid s—t,” says Howie of their songwriting process. Once they’ve passed the mic back and forth enough times and sung enough gibberish to each other so that definitive words come out, that’s when the actual song comes into being.
Such seamless back-and-forth is audible throughout Days Gone By, but especially in a song like mesmerizing album cut “Too Much Is Never Enough,” which gradually fades into consciousness with a drum brush-tap-skip that falls in lockstep with the piano breaks, before a spray of guitars introduce their multi-tracked vocals intoning the titular aphorism. Or “Talk,” the album’s first single, volleying bongos and bird-like call-and-responses back and forth until the booming flares of bass kick in. “That was a conscious decision, to keep it flowing yet have moments where it dipped down, and other moments where it was a bit more upbeat, but keeping the theme the same,” explains Vallance, who says the record serves as a journal of their growing brotherly bond during the songwriting process. “It made sense, with Days Gone By, with us being on the road and making the record.”
“I was going to say it’s like our philosophical treatise, but it’s not,” muses Howie. “You’ve gotta lead with the music.”