Moon King

Interview by Jack Dolan
Photography by Dani Dabney in Hamtramck, Michigan

At the end of 2015, Daniel Benjamin, better known as Moon King, relocated from his hometown of Toronto to Hamtramck, a special little spot in the middle of Michigan. It wasn’t an obvious move. The obvious move would have in the opposite direction; to Montreal, where his label, Arbutus Records, and the majority of his musical peers are. Lucky for us, ‘cause his gamble paid off.

Over the past few years Benjamin’s developed a delicate feel for the different environments he performs in; his music draws on obscure disco cuts and a love for karaoke nights. Without the move south of the border, these elements may never have surfaced in his music. We caught up to find out more about the inspiring neighbourhood he inhabits and how it has changed his sound.

You live in Hamtramck in Detroit.

It’s a separate city, that’s technically not Detroit but it’s surrounded by Detroit. It has its own mayor and its own police.

People are just really good at karaoke here.

Are there a lot of people doing similar things to you there?

I’ve met a lot of like-minded people who were interested in dance music, DIY-type parties and having this kind of positive environment. Not to sound egotistical, but I do feel like what I’m doing specifically is unique; at the same time it’s only because of all the people here. I’ve met so many talented DJs and artists living within a few blocks of me.

The other thing is karaoke. People are just really good at karaoke here. A really good karaoke night becomes almost like a show here.

What’s your karaoke number?

Last night I did INXS Never Tear Us Apart. I’ve been doing that a lot the past few weeks. I’d say that’s my new go-to.

I read somewhere that you were a big Bee Gees fan. That must make for good karaoke.

I mean I wish I could do it but their voices are crazy. How do you sing like that? They sound like little gremlins or something. I’m a huge fan though absolutely. Even though it’s literally the most obvious disco related music, I do think some of those songs have great melodies and weirdly have aged better than a lot of disco.

Okay, so, I need to ask: what do you do for fun around Hamtramck?

Honestly, karaoke, DJs; a lot of the bars around here have turntables and people will just go and spin records any day of the week. The neighbourhood is also home to lots of Polish, Yemeni, and Bengali communities which are all pretty unique within Detroit, so the food is incredible.

There are a million social issues that need to be addressed before people can come and be like ‘oh yeah, I heard Hamtramck was cool’ or whatever.

I do want to stress this though: I am not from Detroit at all and I would never claim to represent people here. There’s so much more to this place than I could ever possibly understand just from moving here from Canada. Even though Hamtramck is a bit separate, it shares all of Detroit’s problems – from things like the roads being fucked up to the school systems are completely underfunded. There are a million social issues that need to be addressed before people can come and be like ‘oh yeah, I heard Hamtramck was cool’ or whatever.

I think people need to be careful of the way they interact with this city. There’s a lot of corporate and artistic interest, too. There’s opportunistic big corporations and then there’s this idea of techno-tourism which is mostly people from Europe or New York coming to check out Detroit because of dance music and that’s great, but it does feel pretty easy for people to bypass the people actually from here and not give them the respect they deserve.

What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

I’m gonna look at my recently played songs now… This week; Was (Not Was), Patrick Cowley, Company B, International Music System, Psychic Mirrors from Miami which is actually new. I’ve been getting into a lot of old music and it’s been tough to find recent stuff that I’m into but I like the Psychic Mirrors project a lot.

Get people moving around don’t just hide behind your gear.

My favourite DJ in Detroit is this guy Scott Zacharias who has a very freeform style of DJing. The first time I saw him was at Movement Festival in 2015 was just around when I started doing the Moon King stuff and I was directly inspired by some of the stuff that he was playing in that set specifically.

Your music is dance music orientated but also definitely song driven. What’s the ideal scenario for you to perform in?

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The ideal is a very community-based DIY atmosphere. In Detroit, there’s a lot of physical space that you can use to make an environment that’s conducive to that. I used to throw parties in Toronto and we’d rent out a hall and set it up so that people have the freedom to do what they want. I’m happy to play this music wherever though, as long as people enjoy themselves and are good to each other at the shows.

Do you play differently when you’re in different spaces?

Yeah absolutely. Sometimes it can be more of a DJ type of thing. One of the things that I’m able to do regardless is bring a lot of energy. A lot of it is pressing buttons, it’s hard to make that into a physical show. I’ve always tried to be aware of that. Get people moving around don’t just hide behind your gear.

How do you think your music has developed over the years?

I think of music as being quite spatial. Some music is big and some music is small. Some music is meant for a very big room and previously I thought of Moon King as being big sounding. I thought it really worked when we were opening for somebody in some huge venue. Something kind of changed in the last couple of years and I’ve been more interested in the individual listening. If there’s twelve people in the room making sure it makes more of a difference to them than it does trying to just play for as many people as possible. Make more of an impact for less people.

Hamtramck ’16 was released on Arbutus Records in August, 2017. Don’t miss Moon King at De Nieuwe Anita, Amsterdam on 1 June.