An Interview With Moon Taxi’s Tommy Putnam: A Love Of Phish Turns To Guerilla Warfare And Going Full Blues Brothers

Tommy Putnam Moon Taxi

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Moon Taxi’s origin story dates back to 2006, but its roots are founded in a love of musical improvisation, extended jams and genre-blending sound.

When Trevor Terndrup moved from Syracuse, N.Y. to just outside of Birmingham, Ala., he was drawn to a kid in his gym class wearing a Phish shirt. He didn’t talk like the rest of his school and the new student in class always sticks out, but he hoped to find an avenue to fitting in through music. Terndrup decided to approach the jam band enthusiast the next day and let him borrow an album called Junta. That kid was Tommy Putnam, who listened to the record a few days later and loved it. He spoke to Terndrup after putting it on, and as it would turn out, one played guitar while the other played bass. From top to bottom, the friendship just clicked.

The two teamed up with a drummer to form Apex (their first band) and just started making music. They played house parties, middle school dances and eventually at a few bars in the area. People were into it. That symbiotic musical friendship continued as the duo went off to Belmont University in Nashville and now, nearly 20 years later, Putnam and Terndrup are two of the five members of Moon Taxi.

Equal parts progressive rock, indie, jam band and pop, Moon Taxi released its sixth full-length album ‘Silver Dream’ earlier this month and continues to wail. I received the opportunity to speak with Putnam about his bass guitar influences, the importance of evolution in music, fitting six people in a hotel room and pineapple on pizza. Here is our conversation:

Turning up the bass.

Grayson – I would tend to imagine that, in most instances, a kid that has an interest in playing music doesn’t immediately think to pick up the bass guitar. When and why did you first pick up a bass? Had you played an instrument before?

Tommy – It was in sixth grade, around 11 or 12 years old. I might have played trumpet for a six-week program in middle school, but it didn’t stick. That’s about the time where your hands kinda get big enough to where can actually start playing an instrument like that. Everybody started picking up the guitar… the guitar… the guitar… and someone started playing drums… it’s something that everybody seemed to be doing. I thought that if everybody’s playing guitar and I’m already behind, I might as well get a bass because then I can be in a band. I just fell in love with it. I got one for Christmas at my grandmother’s house in Missouri and I remember practicing in the back seat of our family van the whole way back to Birmingham. Sometimes it finds you, you know?

Grayson – Definitely. That seems to be the case with a lot of the best musicians, where it just comes naturally. As you found your love for the bass, is there anyone in particular that you found, or even find today, to be influential for your style or sound?

Tommy – Flea is one of my favorites. I love his melodic baselines and he’s a really big part of that group. They’re just drums, bass, lead guitar and singer, sometimes two guitars, so he has to fill out a lot of the tonal landscape there. He’s very successful with that. Another good one is Rocco Prestia, who just died this year. Rest in peace Rocco. He was the bass player for Tower of Power and his style was just really fast, sixth notes. It’s just constant, really fast the whole time, and it’s exhausting to play like that. I think he’s one of the greatest to ever play.

Grayson – What did you take away from those two guys? Like, you say that Flea is so important to filling out the melody. Is that something that you carried with you into your own music?

Tommy – I want my baselines to be good, but I’m very careful not to step on anything else, especially Trevor’s vocals, so I find my place and my time to do things more melodically. A lot of what they’ve done and I try to do is fill out the little spaces in between, where I can find space to put myself.

Hailing a cab.

Grayson – Fast forward… you get to college and you met Spencer (lead guitar) on the first day, with Tyler (drums) and Wes (keys) coming later on. Belmont is a unique place in that everybody is always writing, always performing, and always doing something with music. How did you settle on the five of you? Did you try forming a band with anyone else or was it always going to be you, Trevor and whoever else?

Tommy – 

Grayson – Once you found your bandmates, your band needed a name. Where does Moon Taxi come from? I know there’s a legendary story behind it.

Tommy – Trevor mooned a taxi outside of Red Door Saloon in Nashville. Hence, Moon Taxi. But if you ask him, he’d probably tell you that I did it.

Grayson – Moon Taxi is formed and as things start to take off, the band gained a huge following in the Southeast. I’m from Connecticut originally and wasn’t introduced to you guys until I went south to Ole Miss, at which point I was hooked. Why do you think that the success has been so prominent in the region, even more so than the West or the Northeast?

Tommy – One of our goals, before we had a booking agent and I was our booking agent, was to find places to tour without breaking the bank. And to find places where we know people, so our friends can start spending the word. For example, my fiancé’s older brother was a good friend of mine in high school and he went to Auburn. I talked to him and said, “Matt, when you go into whatever bar, just talk to the bartenders and tell them about how badass we are,” and he did. I was having such a hard time getting any shows booked in Auburn, Tuscaloosa, Oxford, any of those big college towns. Like no one would even talk to me. The next time I called that bar he went to, the owner was like “oh yeah, I’ve heard of you guys,” and had us come play. That was the only thing we could do— we had to go where we could guerrilla warfare like that, and it worked. That led to us building a base in the Southeast, and we just have a lot more history down here.

Grayson – You guys have since taken off and played all over the world. What’s the one performance that stands out to you?

Tommy –  I think most of the band will tell you the same one. It was our first Bonnaroo performance in 2012. We’d been touring around the Southeast so much, and we did what we affectionally call ‘Disastour’ where we expanded out and did the whole country with limited success— like five people at every show. Especially in the Northeast. There was one bar that didn’t pay us because we drank more than we made at the door. It was the classic Blues Brothers thing that actually happened. We come back, regroup, make a new album and get booked to Bonnaroo for a Thursday slot. Everybody brought everybody they knew and we had 14/15,000 people there. We had the chance to really crush it and we did.

Grayson – You talk about your ‘Disastour’ and going full Blues Brothers. It’s a crazy life to live that way. How did you guys stay sane and keep focused?

Tommy – 

Grayson – The grind eventually paid off and now you’ve released Silver Dream. When did you start putting this album together? Has it been difficult to get everything together with what’s going on in the world?

Tommy –  We finished this record at the end of 2019. We were completely independent when we made this, Spencer produced it and it felt very natural. But it’s gonna seem like we wrote all the songs last year, when they were actually clairvoyant, I guess. There are so many songs on there that are completely appropriate for the last year. ‘Light Up,’ has the lyric, “yeah, it’s been a hard year for me too,” and it’s like, wow, this is so 2020, but it wasn’t. After we wrapped the record, we delayed putting it out because we were trying to find the right avenue to do that. Then COVID hit and we were hesitant to put it out at all because you can’t tour on it. The conversations have been crazy about what to do but we ultimately decided to release it, and I think it’s really good.

Grayson – I’ve listened to it on repeat since it dropped, and I think you can agree that it’s a little bit different than the other albums you’ve released. How important is evolution in your writing and in your sound without straying too far from that main thing that makes Moon Taxi, well, Moon Taxi?

Tommy – Think about it like this. I look at Red Hot Chili Peppers, right? When you listen to some of their earliest stuff, it is just crazy. It’s very fast and there’s a lot of going on. Anthony Kiedis is basically rapping— and then you look at them evolve into Blood, Sugar, Sex Magic and Stadium Arcadium. It sounds different. We’re the same way. We’ve evolved, but I think we’ve kept our core element. The heart and soul of Moon Taxi is always gonna be there.

Grayson – What’s your favorite track on Silver Dream?

Tommy – ‘Say’ is a great one… I really like ‘Take The Edge Off.’ I hope that it gets the attention it deserves because I think it’s a great track.

Grayson – Is there a song that you’re most excited for other people to get their ears on?

Tommy – I think ‘Say’ will be the one that people will enjoy the most. I’ve always sat really important to say what you wanna say and say what you mean, and that’s how I interpret the song. I think that people are gonna really appreciate that sentiment and take their own spin on what it means.

Grayson – Moon Taxi’s music is all over commercials, T.V. and media these days. Did you intentionally pivot down that avenue?

Tommy – You want to get your music out to the masses through as many different avenues as you can, and T.V. and film is a great way to do that. They need music, we have music. One cool way to tell that people are liking your stuff is that your Shazam numbers go up. Generally, if someone Shazams something, they like it. So people are hearing our music in whatever they’re watching and they’re liking it!

Slobberknockers. (Heavy hitters)

Grayson – You’re in the Southeast, so I think I can guess the answer, but do you have a drink of choice?

Tommy – Bourbon, splash of water.

Grayson – That’s what I would have guessed. What type of bourbon?

Tommy – The lady and I like Basil Hayden’s a lot… Maker’s Mark is definitely a key one… I’ve also got some Calumet, it’s really nice.

Grayson – After the grind, after sleeping six people in the hotel room, things start to catch. The check obviously comes with success. What was your first purchase where you really treated yourself and spent money on you? Maybe it was a bottle of bourbon?

Tommy – I bought myself a PS4 years ago. It was like $400 and, actually, I felt so guilty about it. I was questioning myself like “why did I do that?” But I played it a lot so it worked out alright. And then I bought a condo that I saved up for over a year to buy and it was a very rewarding moment that I could purchase a piece of property.

Grayson – What is your go-to game on the PS4?

Tommy – I’ve done Red Dead Redemption a few times. I’ve played a lot of Madden in my day…

Grayson – Do you play with the Titans in Madden? Moving from Birmingham to Nashville, have you adopted all of the local teams?

Tommy – Definitely, but I wasn’t a Titans fan until I moved here. I moved to Birmingham from Atlanta when I was a kid and they ask you right when you get there whether you’re rooting for Alabama or Auburn. You kind of have to decide, and we picked Alabama. So the Tide was really my first team.

Grayson – What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Tommy – Chicken, easy.

Grayson – How do you feel about pineapple on pizza?

Tommy – It’s delicious. Especially with some bacon.

Grayson – Okay. The time has come for the most important question. Take some time to think about this. Is a hot dog a sandwich?

Tommy – No. You can’t close it all the way! It sits on its side. A hot dog is not a sandwich.

Grayson – If Tommy Putnam had a slogan, what would it be?

Tommy – *laughs* People say that I need to smile more.

To keep up with Moon Taxi’s next whiskey-fueled jam session, follow Tommy and the guys on Twitter or Instagram. For more exclusive interviews and unmatched #content, follow BroBible on Twitter and keep up with Grayson on the site.