Wipe your finger along the music on Moon Maan's self-titled debut album and you'll come away with a gob of grit and grime—but you'll also have exposed an anodized, metallic finish. Underpinning the mostly straight-ahead classic-rock vibe of former Afghan Whigs guitarist Rick McCollum's current project is a most unorthodox instrument: the theremin.
"I got one from Big Briar down in North Carolina—Robert Moog's place," says McCollum, on the phone from his home in Minneapolis. Moog was the inventor of the now-famous synthesizer that bears his name. "It was on the Whigs' last album, 1965, and it wasn't really a forefront thing—it was more a backing-vocal type of thing. It's kind of the next step past a slide, where slide is fretless, but this is fretless in the air. It was built around the 1920s, so it's kind of a thing where you have to have the talent for it. That was the appealing thing of it, because anything that's challenging is more fun. Guitar gets kind of boring after a while; slide gets kind of boring."
Maybe you've never seen a theremin. You might be entertaining visions of Nikola Tesla (as played by David Bowie in The Prestige) emerging from an electrical storm, or maybe you're thinking about a Jacob's Ladder, or one of those glass balls with the purple lightning from the Sharper Image catalog. Sadly, a theremin just looks like a set of antennas, but the sounds you can produce by moving your hands through the air around it are otherworldly.
"You can get so low on the thing; even lower than a bassoon or the lowest bass instrument," McCollum explains. "And you can get some nasty hard horn sounds, too. Especially if you just keep layering the thing and you get this wall of sound behind you. It's definitely an exacting instrument where you really have to concentrate when you do it."
The extension out from slide guitar makes sense, since one of McCollum's most notable contributions to the Afghan Whigs was his excellent slide playing, which is a prominent element of Moon Maan's sound. Like the Whigs, Moon Maan run their grooves along the seamy underbelly of rock, but with less sex and more menace, as on the hazy, almost Alice in Chains grind of "Feed the Methman." The bluesy roll of "Yesterday's Fool" breaks open into a gospel-tinged chorus, McCollum's vocals recalling Robert Plant's after being ground down and sandblasted. And where the theremin makes appearances, as on opener "Be Good to Me," it bathes the swagger and sweat of the track in a ghostly haze of science fiction. The emphasis throughout is on feel over melody, an end result that comes naturally out of McCollum's songwriting process.
"The main thing that I like doing is working from the drums out," McCollum says, "rather than coming up with something on acoustic like a straight chord progression. If you work it from the inside, it makes it easier to come up with words that are comfortable to sing in front of people. It gives a little more soul to it." It's evident from the record's jam-soaked vibe that Moon Maan is not a one-man band; McCollum draws heavily on the crackling contributions of drummer Erik Mathison, guitarist Bryan Knisley, and bassists Kate Clements and Mark Pakulski (Clements plays on roughly half the tracks, having left the band after their first recording session).
With the support of Catlick Records and the fortuitous timing of the recently released Afghan Whigs retrospective, Unbreakable, which came out the same day as Moon Maan's debut, McCollum is hoping to build some momentum. He's looking toward more local shows and touring in the fall, but that doesn't mean he won't have plenty of responsibilities to take care of at home.
"I've been working every day for the past three or four weeks," he says when I first get him on the phone, "and I'm kind of burnt." So what's he up to when he gets the chance to catch up? "Folding six baskets of laundry," he laughs.