Perhaps at its heart, Bob Moses is an electronic band. After all, Jimmy Vallance, half of the Vancouver-bred, L.A.-based duo, started his career as a progressive house DJ.
The other half, Tom Howie, while steeped in punk rock and educated at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, feels every bit as comfortable playing an acoustic set as he does a major EDM festival.
But, at least for now, the Grammy-winning twosome, who play Sept. 30 at CRSSD Festival in San Diego, is looking to push their boundaries a bit.
Released earlier this month, the pair’s highly anticipated sophomore full-length, Battle Lines, spends most of its 48-minute runtime thinning the thump and strengthening the song structure.
“When we first started,” Howie said from a recent band rehearsal in Los Angeles, “we were really trying to squish songs over dance beats. That way, we could also DJ them in a warehouse at 4 a.m. The song had to be secondary to the beat. But having some success gave us the confidence to push our songwriting and really let the songs shine through. There’s a balance.”
A precise delineation between the two isn’t readily apparent in a lot of the work from the Bob Moses catalog. But it sure is on Tearing Me Up, the smash hit single from their 2015 debut, Days Gone By.
Although Howie claims both men in the band knew the song would be well received, there’s a very specific reason the nearly 8-minute track has such a long, beat-filled intro and outro.
“It’s funny now looking back,” he said. “But we were worried that it was going to be too ‘song-y.’ We felt so much more confined when we started than we do now. It feels like our entire career has been about getting one step closer to being able to write the records we really want to write.”
And Battle Lines is a successful stride in that direction. Album singles Enough To Believe, Heaven Only Knows, and Back Down all still feature the band’s trademark lush production, but the once front-and-center bump tends to take a supporting role. Structurally, the songs share far more in common with pop and new wave tunes than they do EDM.
Despite the changes, old fans shouldn’t fret. Howie’s laid-back vocal delivery, as well as the pair’s ability to write a catchy melody, is still front and center. The pair just made a concerted effort to construct their new songs without worrying if they could also bang in the club.
It was a liberating move that Howie believes has already paid dividends.
“We feel more free than we ever have before,” he said. “With the first record, it was like standing 20 feet in the air on a balance beam trying to hit a mark. This record feels like we’re standing on the ground. There’s a foundation. It’s a much stronger position to be in.”
That newfound position also helped to open things up lyrically. Where their debut turned things inward and primarily focused on the good and bad of their own private relationships, Battle Lines more frequently speaks on universal themes.
And, as its title suggests, the new album is political. Maybe just not in the way that the word seems to evoke more times than not these days.
“It’s political,” said Howie. “And maybe this is because I came up in punk bands, but I tend to think of political in terms of ‘F*** the man’ and ‘we the people.’ But it’s not political in that way. There are plenty of other themes on the record, but politically, it’s asking questions.”
The questions that Howie and Vallance are most interested in asking are things like, “What are we doing wrong?” and “How are personal reflections showing up in our discourse?”
Both men realize that there are no simple answers to the queries they’re posing. But where the songs on their first album represented a dialogue with themselves, Battle Lines looks to open the conversation to their audience.
The change is just another example of how the band is trying to find the right balance between their newfound creative impulses and the songs that have helped to build their career.
And it’s something that Howie does not take lightly.
“If you’ve done something that makes people give a s***,” he said, “it’s worth paying attention to what it was and holding it in fairly high regard. It’s best to try to stay true to that while you explore the stretches of your artistry. The skill in that balance comes from molding that creative impulse.”
According to Howie and Vallance, they’ve really just started their molding process and Battle Lines represents only the first of what is sure to be many sonic progressions of Bob Moses. It’s just too early to ask them what might be coming next.
“I’m not really thinking about the next one yet,” said Howie. “But I do get a bit emotional thinking about how lucky I’ve been to have some of the dreams I had falling asleep as a kid — like being on stage with thousands of people singing songs I wrote back to me — come true. But whenever I make music, I just want to make music that’s good enough for what I thought it should be. And that feeling has never really changed.”
CRSSD Festival Fall ’18
When: Saturday, Sept. 29 and Sunday, Sept. 30
Where: Waterfront Park, 1600 Pacific Highway, downtown
Cost: $165 (weekend pass), 21+