What's the first thing you do when you've thought up a clever band name?
Google it, of course. When Koala Fires singer/guitarist Matt Mooney did this, he was pleasantly surprised that he didn't find any other bands that had claimed the moniker. What he did find, however, was pretty depressing.
"There were all of these stories about Australian bushfires, and it was so sad," Mooney recalls, "because koalas are really slow, so when a fire starts they just climb trees. You can actually hear the ones that are trapped screaming in the forest. So as I was reading through all this tragic stuff the name evolved into this analogy for humanity."
That's heavy stuff from the jovial frontman whose last band, Super77, was the most carefree bunch of crazies to ever bounce around a stage. Since his departure from that group, Mooney has penned about 30 songs, the catalyst that enabled his new group to be gigging regularly and brandishing a cherry EP four months after their inception.
When the guys in The Koala Fires talk about how they always wanted to be in a band with each other, the lineup seems almost inevitable.
As soon as he was courted by longtime friend Dan Johnson (bass), Mooney immediately tapped guitarist Kendall Bruns (formerly of And How, I Invented It!), an art school chum with whom he'd jammed when they were bandless a few years ago. Kendall in turn snagged phenomenal drummer Mike Paolucci, who had recently parted ways with local Power Pop icons Fizzgig.
With the lineup set, it was easy to pick 10 gems out of Mooney's demos. Even amid the silliness of Super77, his talent for crafting great hooks, dramatic arrangements and poetic lyrics was apparent. These songs are open-ended stories with tantalizing imagery pulling them in and out of focus. His writing is as complex and hopeful as ever but with an unmistakable weariness.
"I was probably the saddest I've been in my life when I wrote these songs," Mooney says. "When you're a kid you have this really idealistic world view, and I think I held onto that for a really long time. So they're catchy and upbeat and everything, but there's this melancholy side."
His bandmates have latched onto this duality and developed their sound accordingly. They found musical common ground in the Indie Rock of the late '80s/early '90s, when a strong sense of melody coexisted with raw intensity and dissonance.
"I tend to like bands that don't really have a format, so every song has its own sound," Paolucci says. "I think that's why the '80s is my favorite musical period, because all of the songs all had their own personality."
Koala Fires' songs tend to have multiple personalities. "The Friendly Ghost," from their new EP, Sleep Tight, Lucky Grills, slips back and forth between a churning samba, pounding 2/4 and stop/start Punk rhythms worthy of the Minutemen.
"I think when people say something sounds like the '80s they're trying to say it's more melodic than music now," says Bruns, whose guitar lends texture and depth to the KF sound. "The bass lines really drove the songs. Contemporarily, that's not really the case."
Johnson is more than happy to drive. Even though he claims to enjoy the "mindlessness" of bass, he plays it like a lead instrument.
"I've always been into prettier stuff, though," Johnson says. "I like the Beach Boys. But I'm immediately skeptical of any band that lists them as an influence."
The Koala Fires could certainly make that claim, with all four members contributing strong harmonies and assorted "whoas," and "ahhs." On "Voyager 2," the vocal arrangements sound like they could have been penned by Billy Joel in his "Innocent Man" phase, helping to provide those slivers of inspiration that shine through otherwise cloudy skies.
"Sometimes the koalas get rescued," Bruns reassures. "So it's not all bad."
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