It's not hard to understand the hubbub surrounding Bob Moses. Their music has a casual, easy brilliance, with a sexy smoulder that's half borrowed from vintage Massive Attack and half inspired by Crosstown Rebels-style deep house. After getting their start on Francis Harris and Anthony Collins' well-received Frank & Tony EPs, they dropped their debut, Hands To Hold, in 2012, which laid a blueprint for their pop-friendly sound. That was only improved by their next EP, 2013's Far From The Tree, which featured last year's Ibiza smash "All I Want," a landmark for both Bob Moses and Scissor & Thread.
It's Howie's smoky vocals, repeating simple and sometimes cryptic lyrics to hypnotic effect, that really seal the deal. "All I Want" is the perfect example of why Bob Moses works so well, with a gently rising progression that feels relaxed and urgent all at once, perfect for sets at sunrise or twilight. Now, fresh off a headlining world tour and signed by Domino for a bluesy single and an upcoming album, Bob Moses seem poised to earn an audience away from the dance floor, too.
Howie and Vallance are best friends now, but they were only acquaintances when they met at high school in Vancouver's Dunbar-Southlands neighbourhood. Though they moved in different circles, both were underage scenesters with an interest in music. Howie played in a punk band at bars like The Roxy and The Media Club; Vallance had a residency at former superclub Cyber, where he would spin trance.
"We both had fake IDs," Howie says. "I had a band and we'd play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night and Jimmy would play something on a Wednesday and we'd both show up in art class on Thursday and be fucking hungover and tired. We had this whole train of everybody getting fake IDs."
Towards the end of high school, Howie's tastes mellowed and he became a singer-songwriter, selling CDs out of the trunk of his car. "He was killing it," Vallance says. "At 17, everyone knew that Tom was going to have a career in music. I remember I was like, 'Holy shit, this guy is the real deal. I've gotta somehow get my shit together and get to that level.' But I was making trance in my parent's basement. The only acts from the house scene that really made it over to Vancouver were M.A.N.D.Y. and Booka Shade."
Howie landed a record deal after finishing an EP in his last year of high school, which led to an album and a Canadian tour before the whole thing went, in his words, "tits up." After a half-hearted year at the University Of British Columbia, Howie's mother convinced him to apply to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston, where he would win a scholarship.
"I went to Berklee and in the first couple of weeks had hand-picked some musicians, and my girlfriend had this big Subaru—some huge fucking car—and we would just pile in the back of it and drive all over the North East and play these gigs," he says. "After a year of going to Berklee I decided I was just gonna move to New York because it was close and I'd already played there and I liked it."
"I followed a girl here," Vallance says sheepishly of his own transition to New York. "I had a high school sweetheart in Vancouver and I knew I wanted to get out of there but I didn't know where I wanted to go. She got accepted to Parsons [School For Design] and you know, I was in love, so I'm gonna go with her. To make a long story short, the girl's gone but the city is still here."
During their early days in New York, Vallance landed a job engineering records for the Dutch producer Matthew Dekay, an experience that gave him valuable experience in the studio. This was just as Dekay was starting the All Day I Dream series with Lee Burridge, and the veterans' laidback, dreamy take on dance music had quite an effect on Vallance's tastes. It was the start of the deeper streak that would later come out in Bob Moses.
"Dekay liked me," Vallance says. "I inspired him a bit, too, and it was fucking great. I really owe those guys a lot for the inspiration and for setting me on a different musical path."
Vallance and Howie's first encounter in New York was purely by accident: both had studios in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and eventually they bumped into each other walking through Lowe's parking lot on a shortcut to the G-train. "I was like, 'Are you fucking kidding me?'" Vallance says.
"I always listened to bands like Radiohead," he continues, "and even though I was inspired by learning all this new production stuff and making deep house and techno, I always had aspirations to make songs, but I can't sing, so I never took it seriously. Tom was kinda at the same place, where he was bored of doing the band thing and wanted to get cooler productions behind what he was doing."
"Jimmy and I had dinner and we were both pointing in a similar direction," says Howie. "He was like, 'Why don't you just come to my studio and we'll, like, just dick around and listen to music."
The two spent nights listening to records, jamming and writing songs, which fostered a deep musical connection. Vallance had started doing writing and engineering work for M.A.N.D.Y. member Philip Jung, who asked to sign the two, still without a proper name, to his Get Physical label. Hesitant to release music so early into their partnership, they said no. Jung instead introduced them to Francis Harris, who was working on a track with Jung under his Adultnapper alias that he wanted a vocal for.
"They sent us this track called 'Kindling,' and Tom and I wrote a hook for it," Vallance says. "If you listen to the track now it sounds like Bob Moses, it's really funny—it could have been a Bob Moses record but we weren't called that then. I was a huge Adultnapper fan—like, I was sneaking into clubs to go see him."
Harris liked their contribution so much that he asked them to help him with the first releases on Scissor & Thread, the label he was starting with Anthony Collins. He sent them what would later become "Worked," the A-side of that first Frank & Tony 12-inch. "Worked" was much closer to the distinct sound they would develop with their work as Bob Moses, built with organic textures like piano and strings. Impressed, Harris asked them to contribute again and again, and soon they'd finished a handful of songs together.
The duo needed a name for their project. They told me they took "Bob Moses" from the famous Depression-era New York architect, but the story changes depending on who asks: they've also claimed the name comes from Andy Warhol's hair stylist and an old gym teacher of theirs in elementary school.
The musical inspiration behind Bob Moses was more obvious, starting with those early Frank & Tony records. Howie and Vallance repurposed the warm, simmering quality of Harris and Collins' music, admitting that their intent was simply to "copy" what they had learned from their mentors. "We loved the depth and the ethereal quality," Howie explains, "and we were already exploring that sort of thing. They really helped point us in that direction."
"It's underwater," Vallance adds. "It's not sharp on the high-end, the bass is more hinted at than obvious. It's this deep, pulsing thing, but it's melodic. Maybe it's just that Pacific Northwest thing that's in us. We both grew up listening to a lot of alternative and grunge and stuff. Punk music. It's raining and grey every day, I think that's just something that's in us.
The group achieves their sound through a mix of recording and sampling. They pay particular attention to space and room feel, an unusually detailed touch for dance music producers. "We'll do things like put a mic in the back of the studio," says Howie, "and record it really quietly, and then just layer that. And also sometimes we'll sample what we've recorded. We play around with a lot of stuff like that."
Bob Moses started to receive offers from a raft of non-dance labels eager to invest in their pop-friendly sound. They settled on Domino, trusting the indie giant to let them do what they wanted. "We told the Scissor & Thread guys and they were like, 'Man, you guys have got to do this. They can take you places, you know, we're just not at that place yet,'" Vallance says. "The whole thing has just been amazing."
"Yeah, it's been natural and good," Howie says. "Maybe it's our West Coast-ness, but we just want good vibes and good people, you know?"
"People who are excited about working with us just as we are excited about working with them," Vallance finishes. "Tom and I love waking up every day and just making records, and Domino are in touch with us every day and are genuinely excited about what we're doing."
Their first single for Domino is a bit of a shift away from the house-friendly Far From The Tree EP, but not too radical a turn. "I Ain't Gonna Be The First To Cry," a cover of a 1970s Bobby Bland tune, is a bluesy jam with searing guitar licks. It might be the most pop-friendly thing they've released yet. Flipside "Grace," however, is the real stunner, with one of their most confident vocal melodies yet and a rhythm section so gentle you barely even notice it's there. It's a promising hint at their upcoming debut album, which they'll be working on for the rest of the summer
"We want to keep growing and we don't just wanna make club tracks," Howie says. "The indie side of the label gives the feeling that we don't have to pigeonhole ourselves into clubland all the time. Domino have some great indie acts but also some great dance acts like Four Tet and Caribou. We look to those guys."
"Yeah, if I was explaining to someone, I'd say we're kinda like indie music," Vallance says. "Dance music you can dance to, but still indie. It's indie dance."
As unique as their recordings are, however, it might be the live performance that truly sets Bob Moses apart. It only takes seeing them once, audience rapt and singing along, to be convinced. Still relatively new to performing their music live, it's still a thrill for them, too.
"To put music up on the internet and then to go to places, far away places, and seeing people singing along... that is the most unbelievable thing as a musician and artist to experience. That's the dream, man, and we are so grateful," Vallance says.
"It's a great thing. There's been a couple times where I have been sitting in the hotel room after gigs and just thinking, you know, it's so cool that these kids pay for a ticket and show up. We are so fortunate that people want to do this and spend whatever time they have on their weekend to come see us. I mean, that's fucking awesome."
Getting there took some growing pains, however, and turning their recorded songs into something they could perform live proved to be a lot of trouble. "Basically, we were DJing at first, with Tom singing over our records. We saw that Francis put together a live show for his album and he hated playing it, he was always a nervous wreck. But we got to see how to build one through him," Vallance says.
"Although it was a bit of a math problem for us," Howie says bluntly.
"It's like, OK, how can two guys fulfill the job of a band and also have it flexible and open-ended?" Vallance says. "I have files saved on my computer called 'live set bible' and it's basically an instruction manual I've made based on Jordan [Lieb, AKA Black Light Smoke] and Francis' instructions, because putting on a live production like this is a science project and a half."
"Basically, Black Light Smoke—without him, we'd be fucked," Howie interjects, laughing.
"Yeah," Vallance agrees. "Without Black Light Smoke we'd be up shit creek without a paddle."