Magic on Menlo: The Making of Moontower

Seniors Jake Culver, Tom Carpenter and Devan Welsh will release their concept album this September. Photo courtesy of Anastasia Velicescu.

Three piece indie-electronic band Moontower — comprising Thornton School of Music seniors Jake Culver, Tom Carpenter and Devan Welsh — has been on a meteoric rise through the Southern California musical circuit and is poised to distribute its genre-defying sound across a much larger scale.

Each bandmate matriculated at Thornton’s contemporary music degree programs touting lifelong passions for music that came to influence their respective roles in the band. Culver, a music industry major, picked up a toy guitar when he was a toddler and has never put the instrument down, even briefly touring as a guitarist and backup vocalist after high school in his previous band. Carpenter got his first taste of the bass at summer camp and had been producing music since middle school before coming to USC as a music production major. Following a wayward stint on the flute motivated by a futile attempt to impress a girl in fourth grade, Welsh, also a music industry major, took up the guitar and keys and developed an affinity for experimenting with recording technologies.

Once at USC, the trio began writing and producing for other student artists but soon realized they worked well together and shared similar visions — it didn’t take long for Moontower to become a reality.

“We had this idea for a project where the sound would be a crossover between alternative songwriting and electronic music production,” Culver said.

Although they aspire to resemble bands they collectively look up to — including Bilderbuch, Daft Punk, Glass Animals, Talking Heads and The Strokes — each member brings a distinct flair to the group.

“We all bring a very different appreciation of music to the circle,” said Carpenter, whose preferences lay with industrial groove.

“I just write really sad lyrics and let Tom and Dev put big dance beats behind it,” admits Culver, the pop aficionado.

Welsh, who is partial to stadium rock, considers himself the most analog-savvy band member. “I like going back to the keys and guitar elements of the song and trying to bring melody back into things,” he said. “The thing about dance is it can be very repetitive if you don’t introduce these groove elements into it.”

The meaning behind Moontower’s name very much reflects its internal diversity and fusion of musical talents. A reference to the site of the iconic “party at moon tower” scene from the 1993 comedic film “Dazed and Confused,” Moontower implies a melting pot of personalities and represents a gathering place for people from all walks of life.

“The idea is that it’s somewhere where no matter what grade or social scene you’re in everybody’s allowed to go there and mingle and have a good time,” Culver said. “We found it fit in really well into the ethos of what we’re trying to do here. We wanted to provide something that was unique and cool but also not exclusionary. On the surface level, we just want people to come to our shows and let loose.”

To that end, the guys cite the vibrancy and supportiveness of the USC community as the primary catalyst to their early success. Moontower’s manager, Carina Glastris, is a Spring 2018 graduate and the former director of Concerts Committee, while the band’s lighting and visual effects engineer since its very first show, Jacob Fishman (endearingly dubbed “Fish”), is a senior at the Iovine & Young Academy. From playing on-campus gigs like Thornton Friday Night Live and Trojan Vision to haggling with Department of Public Safety officers at every local house party show, the essence of Moontower was forged in the heart of the Trojan Family.

“There are so many things we’ve learned from USC; for example, don’t project the visuals over the audience so that they can’t see it, it’s not a great call,” Carpenter recalled. “We’ve done kind of the whole USC circuit and that’s how we got started. We wouldn’t be anything without the USC community.”

“Not that we’re necessarily anything yet, but USC gave us this place to just try sh-t, play for our friends and make fans,” Culver added.

Thanks to Moontower’s origins performing in backyards and living rooms for hundreds of college students, its current roster of shows in front of 1,000-member audiences seem far less daunting. In recent months, Moontower has shared the stage with artists such as Bad Suns, YUNGBLUD and MAGIC GIANT.

“This project feels different, like there’s some weight behind it and [like] there’s magic in the air a little bit,” Culver said.

The magic happens within the walls of an inconspicuous house on Menlo Avenue occupied by the trio, their friends and some members of their production team. The guys say that being roommates is astronomically conducive to their creative processes. In fact, nothing — no school work and certainly no songwriting — would get done without living together.

A typical song is first composed on piano or acoustic guitar; a stripped-down version replete with chords, melody and lyrics must exist before the guys start layering on more flavorful dimensions. Most demos are 80 percent complete in the first two hours while the final 20 percent of details can take up to six additional months.

“[When we’re writing a song] we have this meshing process that keeps going until we end up with Moontower’s sound, which never sounds right until everyone has put their hands on it,” Carpenter said.

Moontower’s second and most recent single, “Leaving You Behind,” was written by Culver and Carpenter in just 20 minutes and debuted in July with a sold-out release party that drew over 300 attendees. The track sends a melancholic, yet positive message about making the best of a bad situation, and supersedes the inaugural single “William,” which now boasts over 200,000 streams on Spotify.

Both tracks revolve around themes of love, loss, crushed expectations and frustrating outcomes, set against the familiar backdrop of American suburbia. The titular “William” refers to one of the trio’s close friends and housemates, William Hollywood, who not only inspired them to tell a personal story through him but also directed and starred in the music video and designed the album covers.

“In a lot of ways William was someone we were able to tell our story through,” Culver said. “We found that we all had very similar experiences growing up. This first record about William is about our shared experiences of love and suburbia, and dealing with the false expectations of what relationships are supposed to look like.”

The debut single’s hand-illustrated artwork features a solid orange border and a cartoonish carton of orange juice — a testament to the feelings of domesticity and childhood nostalgia Moontower hopes to procure through its music. For Culver, it’s also a reference to his upbringing in Orange County and his father’squirky habit of drinking orange juice every night.

Keeping with the motif of suburbia and youthful innocence, “Leaving You Behind” is branded with a drawing of a retro car (also orange) meant to evoke the thrill and freedom associated with obtaining one’s license.

Along with a third single, Moontower’s 22-minute concept album, wittily titled “Season 1: The Ballad of William Hollywood,” is set  for release in September. The album chronicles the journey of a teenage character who serves as a projection of the bandmates’ own upbringings and adolescent experiences. Orange juice will, in fact, be a significant plot point, Carpenter hinted.

“This is going to be our very best attempt at a concept album,” Welsh said. “The fact that we’ve been able to agree upon subject matter and a storyline and all the small details, it’s gonna be amazing to have that out as a cohesive unit of our production and storytelling.”

Each track on the album will be accompanied by a music video; altogether, they will form a visual episodic narrative of William’s adventures. But individually, they will offer refreshing vignettes of a young man’s coming of age.

“We’re trying to start at the beginning of our lives — and William’s life — and as our music evolves, we’re gonna go chronologically through our experiences as people,” Culver said. “The overall theme of this record is relationships that are doomed to fail because we haven’t grown into ourselves enough to truly understand what we need to love somebody.”

However, as Moontower matures, the trio hopes to evolve its sound to reflect the new, deep connections they are continually forging with fans. Traditional formalities and metaphorical walls between Moontower and its fans are broken down by the sheer shared enjoyment of music, the guys say.

“We want to tie in the experiences of the people that we meet because this project is about being on the road, meeting people, learning about the human experience authentically and then retelling that,” Culver said. “Our favorite aspect is getting to meet our fans and making new fans after the show.”

With regard to the human experience, the members of Moontower also feel a responsibility as musicians to take a stand in favor of gun control; recent mass shootings at concerts, including the 2017 tragedy at Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, particularly hit home for them. To this end, they have publicly encouraged youth activism and voter registration at their shows, hoping to influence legislators but more immediately to ensure their fans feel safe at concerts.

From performing on yachts to inspiring a couple to come out to each other at one of its shows, Moontower has come a long way since its inception. In the coming year, the guys are more eager than ever to bring their music to USC and other campuses, grow their relationships with fans and get on the road touring with bigger bands to see as much of the country as possible. Ultimately, as demonstrated by its upcoming album, commitment to social causes and mission to tell human stories, the core of Moontower is and always will be, as they put it, “about the people.”