As recently as November 2009, Jesse Garza and Amaris Aviles of Killer Moon were living in Miami, under circumstances most bands would envy. "We lived together in our own house and were jamming every day and partying and stuff like that," says Garza, the talkative member of the local heavy-psych outfit. "That's all we did for two years. It was awesome."
Garza worked at a skate shop, and Killer Moon's drummer at the time, Alex Santoyo, worked for a church. Aviles didn't work at all. Santoyo's church was paying for the house and had moved him from Chicago to Miami in late 2007. The band, which had only just come together, moved down to Florida as a unit, and soon their daily rehearsals became the bane of their conservative neighbors.
Last Thursday, when I met Garza and Aviles in a Wicker Park coffee shop to talk, it was especially difficult to imagine why they ever chose to come back to Chicago. (Santoyo has left the band since, and now lives in Nashville.) The city was still digging out from its third biggest blizzard on record, and even on well-trafficked streets snow was piled knee-high if not higher. Garza, who lives with his parents near Midway airport, had lost his cell phone that Wednesday—the power at his parents' had been out for most of the day, knocking out the heat and lights, and he hadn't been able to find it in the dark.
But Garza and Aviles, who are both 23 and have been a couple for seven years, don't seem to regret the move. They came back because they wanted to be part of a bigger, healthier music scene, and they've already done one of the things they wanted to do here—this fall they recorded an album with Chicago engineer Sanford Parker, who over the past few years has had a significant hand in shaping a new fusion of psychedelia and metal. "That was probably the heaviest our music's gotten," Garza says, referring to the songs he and Aviles wrote for the as-yet-unreleased Killer Moon. "And he just made it heavier."
While in Miami, Garza and Aviles kept up on the Chicago heavy-psych scene, a diverse bunch of acts ranging from black-metal bands like Nachtmystium to acid rockers like the Great Society Mind Destroyers—taken together, these variants probably represent the closest thing to a "Chicago sound" since the heyday of postrock more than a decade ago. But Killer Moon still have to find their own place in that scene. They've played dozens of shows here already ("Probably way too much," Garza admits), mostly as an opening band, but they're just beginning to develop a fan base and build connections with other groups—locals like Apteka and Del Rey as well as out-of-towners like the Neurosis-affiliated U.S. Christmas.
"We still kind of don't know anybody," Garza says. The main exceptions he points out are psychedelic garage punks Rabble Rabble (with whom Killer Moon share a practice space) and hardcore-inflected metal band Blood of the Tyrant (with whom they share Chris Avgerin, their live drummer—on Killer Moon's recordings, Garza plays drums as well as guitars, and Aviles plays bass). "In Miami we were there for two weeks and had like 20 friends already. I feel like here people are a lot more close-knit with who they associate with."
Garza and Aviles left Miami in part because of its scarcity of music venues—not a serious problem here—but Chicago has turned out to be less hospitable than Florida in at least one way. "I feel like there's a lot of band-to-band competitiveness," Garza says. "So that's a big weird thing."
Killer Moon may not feel quite at home in Chicago yet, but it's safe to say the quality of their music isn't holding them back. Garza and Aviles favor long, sprawling, largely instrumental songs that seem custom-made for bong-smoking sessions. (Asked about their songwriting process, Garza says, "Basically we get stoned and just play.") On recordings their music is impressively heavy and onstage it carries a physical heft, as a small and surprised-looking audience of mixology nerds discovered during a CHIRP-sponsored Killer Moon set in November at tiny Logan Square craft-cocktail bar the Whistler.
The group has settled on a couple of major themes—heaviness, drugginess—but is otherwise still figuring out its style. While Garza and Aviles lived in Miami, friends turned them on to bands like Sleep and Neurosis, which have influenced an uncountable number of psychedelic metal acts without ever crossing over to the mainstream. These new elements nicely complemented the classic stuff the couple were already listening to, like Black Sabbath and the Doors. The move back to Chicago has pushed them further into metal. "When we first got here, our music was a lot different from when we left Miami," Garza says. "It got a lot harder."
"The bands we play with here," Aviles adds, "we had to kind of change the tone."
Killer Moon balances old influences against new ones and finds points of contact between them. The haunting end-blown flute and distant, deliberate, vaguely menacing hand drum that lead off the opening track, "Lost Tribe," bring to mind southern California hippies tripping on peyote, but they also sound like some of the tribal bits on Neurosis records. The chunky, distorted bass chords that underpin "Lords of the Nine" are pure sludgy metal, but when a soaring classic-rock guitar solo swoops in, it doesn't feel out of place.
The band's sound is still in flux, and their release schedule even more so. Killer Moon's most recent release is still the CD-R demo I reviewed a year ago, recorded just after their return to Chicago at Rockness Monster Studios in Pilsen. In January, after their sessions with Parker, they recorded an album's worth of entirely different material, then ended up shelving it.
"We went to a studio in the suburbs," says Garza. "They had Pro Tools HD and some things I was looking for in a studio. And they were 300 dollars a day, which is like half of what it would cost everywhere else, so I was like, 'Hell yeah, let's go here.' I feel like the guy who recorded us . . . they do a lot of poppy punk albums there, like Fall Out Boy stuff, you know what I mean? I feel like he did not have the vision that I was trying to get, like, at all. To me it sounded way too clean and not like us. You know, dirty."
Killer Moon remains unreleased for more practical reasons. "We spent so much money on it that after we had it mastered and in our hands, we had no more money to press it," says Garza. "So we kind of screwed ourselves there." Aviles tends bar, and Garza has been living off the money he saved living rent-free in Miami, augmented by the unemployment benefits he receives thanks to his sympathetic boss from the skate shop. He lives with his parents mostly to keep his costs down.
The band hopes to release Killer Moon this spring as half of a double-LP set; the other LP, provisionally titled Tunnel Vision, will consist of material they've been working on in Garza's prosumer-level home studio. It's an ambitious plan for a group working without management or a label, but Lance Barresi, cofounder of Permanent Records, has offered to help them find a distributor if and when the set ever comes out—they're currently talking to metal-leaning vinyl-only local label I'm Better Than Everyone about pressing it.
Before any of that happens, though, they need to finish Tunnel Vision. Once again, Garza's perfectionism is holding things up. "I've already recorded this album at my house like three times," he says, "and just completely scratched it because there are things that I hear and I'm like, 'No, that's not it.'"