Greg Dunn and Frank Graniero of Moving Mountains talk gear, recording, and balancing a full-time tour schedule while still in college.
It’s a quiet Sunday evening in New York City, and many of its residents are away for the April holidays. But it’s anything but calm in a chic Brooklyn industrial loft at an invite-only secret show, where Moving Mountains is creating a spectacle with its ambient-infused rock. A giant video screen serves as the backdrop, with reels of loose 8-track tape sprawled all over the floor, and ’70s–era mini televisions are strategically planted atop the band’s amps. The scenery oozes every art school student’s fantasy come to life—fitting, considering it was at SUNY Purchase, a music and art school in Westchester, New York, where the band met and formed. The Purchase scene has also provided the likes of Regina Spektor and NYC’s “anti-folk” artists such as Kimya Dawson and the Moldy Peaches.
Greg Dunn was a music production major at SUNY Purchase (still is) and had a studio project with drummer Nick Pizzolato in 2007 that evolved into Pneuma, a full-length independently released record. Soon after, guitarist Frank Graniero and bassist Mitch Lee joined the fray, and the studio project turned into a four-piece rock band. Moving Mountains quickly generated an underground buzz, and through grassroots promotional efforts, their songs soon hit the mainstream. Though the band’s songs have appeared on MTV shows like 16 and Pregnant, College Life, and Teen Mom, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re destined to become yet another corporate shill of a band. The band members personally manage their social networking sites, and through the band’s online forum—in true indie-style—they strategize places to crash while on the road. “Families are the best because they’ll cook you breakfast in the morning,” reveals Dunn. Yes, they have a wealth of stalker stories, but Dunn explains that “it's never really a good idea to talk about it.”
Waves, the band’s first full-length collaborative effort, debuts on May 10th. Coinciding with the album’s release, Moving Mountains will embark on a national tour along with dates on the Warped tour. We caught up with Greg Dunn and Frank Graniero on the campus of SUNY Purchase to get the details.
You guys still go to college even though the band is a full-time gig. How do you manage to do that?
Frank: Um, badly—we manage it very badly. It's a really weird balancing act and each semester and each tour is a different situation. The two of us graduated high school in 2007 and came here right after. Mitch was done with school, and that was really nice, but he was working full-time. And that was just as hard to balance.
Greg: It's horrible but we're almost there.
Since you guys are “famous,” do people bother you on campus?
Greg: Not really. SUNY Purchase is a very introverted and quiet school.
Bernie Williams used to be a student at Purchase.
Greg: Yeah, I had a digital audio class with him. I’d also see Joe Girardi hanging out at the Starbucks on campus. At a place like SUNY Purchase, not too many people are that into sports, so nobody really knew who Joe and Bernie were. Bernie Williams was a musician first—he just realized that he was really good at baseball too, and went with that.
Tell us about your gear.
Greg: Mitch and I are both endorsed by Fender. I play Telecasters and use a ’90s American Thinline and a Mexican-made Blackout through a Fender Twin Reverb reissue. They're all stock, at least I think they are. I wish I knew more about my guitar stuff—I'm just more of a recording gear dude.
Frank: I play two Gibsons including a 339—I love that guitar. I was searching for my perfect guitar and the 339 came out. I also play a Les Paul Studio Plus that I’ve had forever. I use a Mesa/Boogie Express 5:50 amp that has some great clean tones.
What strings and gauge do you use?
Frank: I use .011s, usually D'Addario or whatever is free. I'm not too picky about strings.
Greg: I've been playing D'Addarios. We don't have a string endorsement and since they cost so much money, I’ll usually use the cheapest I can find. When we’re recording I use .009s, and when we're playing live I like to use .011s.
You probably have to adjust your touch for such a drastic difference.
Greg: When we're practicing for a tour, we strum so hard and get so into it. Even though my fingers just get destroyed, I gotta have a bigger gauge so they don't break.
And straps and picks?
Frank: Most of the time, I just use picks I find on stage floors.
Greg: The strap for my Blackout is a stock strap with strap locks. But the strap that I use on my Thinline—I wish I could remember the name of it—was a gift from my girlfriend for my birthday. It's the same strap Bruce Springsteen has on the Born To Run cover—it was apparently really expensive.
What about pedals? I noticed that all of you, including your bassist Mitch, have the Line6 DL4.
Greg: We all play Line 6 DL4s.
Frank: I actually use it multiple times during particular songs. I know Greg will too.
Greg: In our genre of music, I feel like all you need for pedals is a delay, a reverb, and a distortion.
Early versions of the DL4s were notorious for breaking down. Have you had any problems?
Frank: So far no.
Dunn screams some vocals at a Vans Warped Tour Kick-Off Party in Brooklyn, NY, March 2011. Photo by Tim Hrycyshyn.
Greg: We don't but we probably should.
Frank: I've owned the DL4 for probably three or four years now and have never had a problem with it. I also loan it out to people since there have been many times I’ve borrowed stuff when I was in a pinch. We play with pretty nice people.
The tricky thing is that if you're done first, you can’t leave until their set is done.
Greg: Yeah—you always forget that. But you have to be like, "of course dude."
What other pedals do you have?
Frank: An Ernie Ball volume pedal, which really does a lot for me. But I've had two break on me—I’m on my third one.
Greg: The volume pedal is probably just as important as the delay, because it's tough to have one without the other. A lot of the swelling and playing with the delay is all done with the volume pedal.
If you had to, could you do the volume swells with your pinky?
Greg: We've had to in the past but it's tough.
Frank: With the volume pedal you can feel it and move your body. We use it a lot, so when mine would break, it would suck. For a while I was using the volume pedal to go to my “clean.” Since I was playing with distortion, I didn't really have a clean, and I would bring it back and get a softer fuzz.
What do you use for dirt?
Greg: I use the [Boss] DS-1 distortion pedal, a thirty-dollar pedal I found in the basement, and a Tube Screamer overdrive. A lot of kids at shows will run up and start taking snap shots, and when they look at our pedals they’re probably like, “that’s it?!"
Frank: I use the Danelectro Daddy-O overdrive. I used to use the Mesa amp distortion but it didn’t switch channels perfectly. It had a weird delay when I changed channels where I would hear silence for a second. For the past couple of shows, I’ve been keeping the amp on the crunch setting, and then using the overdrive for an extra little distortion kick.
Do you route the delays into the Mesa’s effects loop?
Tell us about the new album.
Greg: Waves is the first full-length album that the four of us have made together. To me, it's like our first record. It's the best representation of what Moving Mountains has been trying to be and what we are now. It was recorded in the basement of our old house using Pro Tools, the same way we did Pneuma and Foreword.
What was the songwriting process?
Greg: We do it a little bit differently than other bands—wait, I don't know how other bands do it. Many of our songs aren't jammed out. Since we’re all into recording and computers, we usually demo stuff on our own and then bring it to practice.
Frank: It's mostly Greg's stuff and then we'll take it with us and write, but not in practice. That's how I write my parts—having demos and taking them home. Every song was different too. Sometimes it would be a last minute thing in the studio, while other parts would be really old.
What about something like the harmonics in the intro of “Always Only For Me?” Did you come up with that part or the chords first?
Greg: That was a guitar part that Frank brought in. He was like, "I have this section of the song."
Frank: Then Greg came back later with the end part. It's not a lot of jamming. For us, practice is really thinking about the songs when we’re on our own.
Greg: It's all about what sounds best. It's cool when we go into the studio, because we really just have the skeletons down—just these ideas. Then when we start recording, we're actually still writing. A lot those textures and what we're writing is really how it sounds. This is cool because other bands will write parts, but then get to the studio and think it doesn't sound very good. At that point, they don't have a lot of time to try other things out. Luckily with us, since we record all this stuff ourselves, we just try new things until we like it.
Your sound is greatly influenced by bands of the 2000s. What bands in particular would you cite as influences?
Greg: The ones we resort to the most are Thursday and Further Seems Forever.
Frank: Appleseed Cast. Recently, we've all been into newest album from The National and their other stuff. I know Greg's listening to a lot of Underoath right now. It changes as we go along, but the main stuff is bands like Thursday.
On the album there are synth and string parts.
Greg: A lot of the synth stuff was done in studio. I had string parts written and I did it in MIDI first. For this record the strings were done live by Caitlin Bailey, one of our friends from Purchase, who used to play in the Austin-based ambient rock band Pompeii. She is one of the most talented people I've ever gotten to work with.
How are you going to reproduce this live?
Frank: I'll play piano and parts on guitar. Like on our new song “Tired Tiger,” I was playing the guitar part that I played on the record, but Greg said "Nah, play the piano line."
Greg: That was sort of a goal with this new CD—not having so much of that stuff going on—because it doesn't really represent what we're trying to do live anymore. Though I don't think it sounds empty when we do it. Maybe down the road, if we ever have the space and the money to hire some people, I'd love to have a string section and a piano player.
Greg, I understand that you also produce other bands?
Greg: I went to school here for production, and I do a lot on the side when we’re not on the road. We tour so much and meet a lot of bands that have a similar style, so we usually end up working with them. Recently I did this band called Athletics, which Deep Elm put out. Right now I'm mixing an album by a band called the, another friend of ours.
How do you find time to do that?
Greg: Whenever we have a few months off. Frank and I can't come home with three months off and go out and get a simple job, so I do this.
Frank: By the time you get done with your job training and you get comfortable working somewhere, you've gotta put in your two weeks.
How about the origin of the band's name?
Greg: We get asked that question a lot, and every time I tell myself I'm gonna come up with a good answer to give. The honest answer is it just sounded cool.
Any problems from Usher with his song “Moving Mountains?”
Greg: Usher has ruined our Google image, Google search, and YouTube search. You type in “Moving Mountains” and you've gotta fish through that Usher song for about twenty pages. We were joking about writing an album called “Usher” just in spite.
Greg Dunn’s Gearbox
Fender ’90s American Thinline Tele, Fender Mexican-made Blackout Tele
Fender Twin Reverb
Boss DS-1 distortion, Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive, Line 6 DL4 stompbox modeler.
Frank Graniero’s Gearbox
Gibson ES-339, Gibson Les Paul Studio Plus
Mesa/Boogie Express 5:50
Ernie Ball volume pedal, Danelectro Daddy-O overdrive, Line 6 DL4 stompbox modeler.