William Moloney loves a fight. Usually, it’s a war of words—over the course of his decade-and-a-half musical career, he’s gained a reputation as a somewhat, let’s say, “confrontational” live performer, goading his audience with needling stage banter, delivered in a dry deadpan that made it difficult to figure out whether or not he was serious.
At a solo show about two years ago at Brooklyn’s now-defunct Cameo Gallery, I watched him halt the performance, pull a copy of the Qu’ran from the bag he had with him, and ask if there was a woman in the audience who could come up on stage and read a passage aloud from it. The instant he said it, the air went out of the room. But Moloney didn’t relent. He dragged the moment out for an excruciating seven minutes, even as nervous titters started bubbling up and the usual cavalcade of white Brooklyn progressives burst blood vessels in their brains trying to figure out if they were supposed to be offended. (To be clear, Moloney is absolutely not anti-Islam—more on that later.)
After the standoff had been drawn out to the point where the room was crackling with tension, Moloney ended the stare-down by playing My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep” with only acoustic guitar and harmonica. At another show, he excoriated the entire music press—including me, personally and specifically—for not writing about him. I have seen Moloney play somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 times, and almost every one of those shows contained a moment where I was convinced he was going to get himself punched. Conspiracy theorists like to argue that Andy Kaufman isn’t dead, but Moloney onstage is definitive proof that he is—how else could Kaufman’s spirit inhabit Moloney’s body?
But on a recent August afternoon at the Greenpoint bar The Richardson, where we’ve met for drinks, Moloney has a different kind of fight on his mind. “I want to start challenging semi-celebrities, where I feel like I deserve their fame and fortune more, to battles in a regulation boxing match, for ‘hashtag charity,’” he says, his hilarious, flat affect once again blurring the line between sincerity and sarcasm. He rattles off a short list of genuinely beloved ‘90s indie rock icons—whose music, it should be noted, all shares certain characteristics in common with his own—offering no explanation for his choice in opponents except for, “Oh boy. That guy’s on the list.”
“What does someone have to do to get on the list?” I ask.
“I mean, first of all, I have to be able to beat them up,” he says. “And second of all, I have to feel like they deserve it. So, for example, someone like Bill Callahan—he doesn’t deserve it. The other guys, though—the other guys are on my shit list.”
“Does it have to do with the fact that they’ve achieved a certain level of popularity?”
“This is a marketing campaign, by me,” he says, redirecting. “I’m into creative marketing. I’m into blowing up the marketing game.”
He’s joking—I think—but like all of Moloney’s jokes, it bears a small kernel of truth. Moloney’s latest excursion into creative marketing is the creation of the group Climax Landers, after retiring his long-running, cultishly-popular band Old Table with 2016’s beautiful and triumphant single “Co-Own and Operate Your Local Supermarket NOW!!” The difference between the two bands—other than the name—is difficult to parse. Climax Landers, like Old Table, is centered around Moloney’s wry lyrics, which often blend socialist philosophy with Dadaist absurdism and his almost supernatural gift for melody. Climax Landers play Old Table songs live, and it shares members with a recent incarnation of Old Table.
Muddying the waters even further, Moloney claims he intends to relaunch Old Table as a rebranded project called Check Out Old Table. I asked five different people about this, and am no closer to understanding it than I was when Moloney first mentioned it. The difference, as Moloney blithely and somewhat mockingly put it, seems to come down to marketing. Which brings us back to celebrity boxing. Charlie Dore-Young, the bassist for Climax Landers, who has been sitting silently as Moloney outlined his plan, interjects, “I just want to say on the record that I don’t know if Will could beat any of these people in a fight—”
“But I’m prepared to throw down,” Moloney says, recovering control of the conversation with a combination of comic, performative confidence and winking self-deprecation. “I would train. It would be kind of like indie rock Rocky. You could make a documentary out of it. Put it on the Fuse network.”
Aiming for the “Fuse network” might be a bit ambitious, but Moloney is, by any measure, long overdue for broader recognition. For the last 14 years, he’s been quietly amassing one of the strongest and most rewarding catalogues in indie rock, issuing a series of albums and EPs that pair delightfully ramshackle instrumentation to a grasp of melody that feels almost intuitive. He’s also a cunning lyricist; his songs are political without being hectoring, sneaking lyrical swipes at capitalism, neoliberalism, the corporatization of America, and toxic masculinity into songs with non sequitur titles like “Mouse Taxi,” “Mary Poppins Trash Compactor,” and “It’s Horny Goat Weed, Bro.” That it never tips over into either polemic or childishness is a testament to Moloney’s steady hand. In “Co-Own and Operate Your Local Supermarket NOW!!” he attacks the ruling class by turning them into a literal cartoon: “And I will detest / Monopoly Man’s vested interest / In crushing our jest.” It’s like The Little Red Book, as written by Jonathan Richman.
“It’s never my inclination to write, like, a communist or socialist or anarchist song, necessarily, because I wouldn’t know how to do that anyway,” Moloney says. “It’s insulting to the listener. It’s not inclusive, and it might not make anyone think. Even if you were to go to a socialist meeting and start playing a socialist song, like, [sings] ‘Hey everybody / Let’s get together and rise up as a working class!’ I think everybody would laugh at you.”
Moloney’s interest in politics began as an outgrowth of his involvement in the punk community while he was attending college in Westchester, New York, where he also grew up. He’d always been drawn to punk—he cites Green Day’s Dookie as a formative early influence—but it was in Westchester, while cycling through roles in a staggering number of bands—“I’ve definitely had more bands than I’ve had sexual partners,” is how he puts it—that the do-it-yourself philosophy and the communal spirit of the local punk scene began to take hold. In 2003, after a stint in the band Motion Picture Cutouts, he released Mental Horse, his first EP as Old Table.
“For a long time, Will was always just a guy who was around, doing music. When Mental Horse first came out, I don’t think anyone was expecting that from him,” says Claire Lobenfeld, a music journalist who was part of the Westchester punk scene at the time, and whose band The Commas Are Tricky were produced by Moloney. [Disclosure: Claire and I worked together at the music site Wondering Sound and she writes occasionally for Bandcamp Daily.] “It was just so different than anything anyone else was doing in our local scene. There was just something really ‘lived-in’ about Will’s music. The exploratory nature of his songs was just really compelling.”
The Old Table discography contains a dizzying number of releases, but it does offer two clear entry points; your choice will depend on your own personal aesthetic sensibilities, and how much time you’re willing to devote to getting into a band called Old Table. The sprawling, 28-track Coloring, from 2011, is Moloney’s opus. While its songs have the same rickety construction and decidedly lo-fi approach to production as most of the early Old Table records, it contains fewer diversions into outright noise and chaos. Even the rambunctious “Slackjaw,” which sounds like a band falling down a flight of stairs, circles back again and again to the same instantly-singable refrain. The album also contains moments of genuine beauty: “Castle Catching,” sung by Moloney’s sister Becky, could be a lost Byrds demo with its bright, jangling chords and bobbing bassline. The more you listen to Coloring, the more it begins to open itself up, and the more its fast-and-loose approach starts to feel like a feature, not a bug. “The first time I heard Will’s music, I didn’t get it,” Dore-Young says. “But as I got older, I realized that, a song like ‘Mary Poppins Trash Compactor’—there are mistakes and elements of jank and confusion, but it sounds better that way. It was the first time I heard music like that and thought, ‘I wouldn’t like this as much if it were cleaned up.’ It’s the charms, the elemental ornaments of this guy doing whatever he wants to do, all the time. There’s something to be said for leaving in imperfections and not necessarily sounding pristine.”
Those who prefer something that does sound pristine should skip directly to 2015’s Save the Environment, the most easily-accessible Old Table record, and the one where Moloney’s gifts as a melody writer are on clearest display. “Commercials Make Me Sad” and “Turtle Van Evolution Stone” are taut and assured, the band clinging to the chord changes and the frenetic rhythm like a wooden rollercoaster hugging the track. Coincidentally, Coloring and Save the Environment contain two different versions of the same song; on Coloring it’s called “David Icke & the Terrified Collective Unconscious,” on Environment, it’s “Sonic Youth, the Reptilians, and Me.” Playing both versions back to back offers a convenient snapshot of Moloney’s growth. The “Icke” version feels like it’s held together with chewing gum and sticky tack, with voices and instruments veering in and out of time. When they revisit the same song as “Reptilians,” it’s like someone twisted the focus lens: the rhythm is steadier and more controlled, the guitar line more triumphant, the vocal harmonies cleaner and more tightly-knit. Both versions go from exhortations to play the “saxomophone” in a suburban street to excoriating a “shrink-wrapped” culture and societal apathy in a way that is so seamless, you don’t even realize it’s happening.
“His poetics are utterly sprawling, and without artifice and gimmick,” says Climax Landers guitarist Paco Cathcart. “I don’t know anyone else who is writing songs in that way, and who’s expressive in such an instantly recognizable way, on such a broad spectrum of topics. You’d have to look at someone like Bob Dylan to have a comparison. I can start getting specific, but then it would turn into, ‘Remember that one line from that one song? I love that line.’”
And while it may seem a little absurd to pay such fanatic attention to the minutiae of a small-ish band from New York, that’s exactly the kind of devotion Old Table inspires. The more you listen to them, the more you want to listen to them, to disappear into the weird passageways of their songs, and to tug connective threads between, say, “Balls Out Gary the Tennis Coach” from 2012 and “Ponytail Kid” from 2008. To paraphrase something that was once said about reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Old Table is the kind of band who teach you how to listen to them as you listen to them.
There’s no greater proof of the devotion they inspire than this staggering, 80-track tribute compilation, on which indie luminaries like Frankie Cosmos, Free Cake for Every Creature, and Palberta cover gems from across Moloney’s catalogue. That respect and dedication, along with Moloney’s songwriting, is perhaps the clearest line between Old Table and Climax Landers; in fact, all of the members of Climax Landers were Old Table fans before they started playing with Moloney. “We met at a show in New Paltz,” says Dore-Young. “I was already a fan of Will’s music, and I ended up sitting in on their practice [before the show], and the whole time I was like ‘Holy shit!’—just total fanboy status. Later that night we were all sitting around a bonfire, and I sat down next to him, offered him a joint, and said, ‘I love your music. Let’s talk.’”
Ani Ivry-Block, the group’s drummer, who is also a member of Palberta, had a similar experience. “In my freshman year in college, someone gave me the album Sexual Reproduction, and that was my first introduction,” she says. “It took a moment to get into it, but once I did, I was sold. Will’s songs are so beautiful melodically, and lyrically, he had so much to say. The way he describes emotions and connects to them so intimately—I’ve felt those feelings. I thought, ‘I have to hear more.’” Cathcart also came around to Moloney’s music at first slowly, then fervently. “Coloring was the first album I really got into. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this band is kind of smacked,’” he says. “I had to walk around in it and figure out what made it so alluring. It took a lot of listens for those albums to become pop albums, but eventually, they did.”
It takes decidedly fewer listens for the debut from Climax Landers to “become a pop album.” It starts pretty much from the get-go, with the band’s jubilant theme song, and its pinwheeling guitar line and plainspoken lyrics: “Climax Landers / Climax Landers / Two guitars, bass and drums, you climax landing son-of-a-guns.” “Up on a Hillside” might be the most joyous song Moloney has ever written, opening with a wheezing, Dylan-ish harmonica and sailing straight into an easy-gliding melody. “Flip Out First” further refines the clattering sound of Old Table into something like an all-join-hands sing-along (it also contains one of Moloney’s best lyrics: “Lovers bomb a warehouse full of condoms and bananas”). And the triumphant “Titmouse” is Moloney at his most immediately beautiful; piano, violin, and baritone horn spiral up the background as Moloney carries the song’s graceful vocal line.
But as with all of Moloney’s music, the more you examine it, the more layers start to reveal themselves. Just before the opening track, there’s a candid recording of a studio discussion in which Moloney says, “It would be funny if ‘Climax Landers’ is both the first and last song on the album,” to which Ivry-Block replies, “We should do that.” And then, in a deliciously meta twist, the album does, in fact, begin and end with “Climax Landers.” “Big Cross for Mary Ellen,” which at first feels like a Dadaist dreamworld, soon begins to seem like a pointed deconstruction of Christianity, particularly when Moloney gets to the line, “Broken institution’s mess was made / …Like living in a movie, myth was made.”
Nowhere is Moloney’s urge to provoke clearer than on “Pray For All Muslims,” the album’s centerpiece song, in which Moloney tackles both Islamophobia and monotheism in one fell swoop. He first adopts the voice of an intolerant bystander, snapping, “That book might as well be hieroglyphics to me!” before changing roles and demanding, “Pray for all Muslims, you backwater idiot!” But as the song nears its conclusion, Moloney goes for the coup de grace, questioning not only religion in general, but the American tendency to make a religion of pop culture. “Star Wars isn’t a religion!” he hollers, and then, “Religion isn’t even a religion!” If none of that seems remarkable, try to name another pop song that addresses religious belief in anything other than didactic terms. Needless to say, the song has gotten him into some trouble.
“One time, before ‘Pray For All Muslims’ was a completed song, Will would just read the lyrics during the show as a poem,” says Dore-Young. “And there was one show where he got to the part where he says, ‘I mean, if there really is only one God,’ and someone from across the room angrily yelled out, ‘That’s not OK to say!’ And he just said, ‘Why?’ And they didn’t have anything to say. They just stormed out.”
“That song is kind of the idea that all the violence amongst the monotheistic religions is kind of hypocritical,” Moloney says. “And, I mean, it’s also just about people being racist against Muslims. But there are a lot of questions about faith in our society that people don’t necessarily think of as ‘questions about faith’—for example, the whole idea that Bill Maher claims to be an atheist, but he supports the war on terror. It’s the idea that the state can take the place of religion. With secular humanism in America, people can call themselves ‘secular humanists,’ but they never question the Military-Industrial Complex, and how deeply our economy is tied to that idea of war and brutality, and the legacy of imperialism that we’re living under.”
That desire to storm brazenly into people’s comfort zones and knock over the fine china spills into Moloney’s live shows—not only in the one I witnessed, where he was trying to encourage a recitation from the Qur’an, but in a more general sense, with his running commentary on things like Democracy Now!, and subtle jabs at the indie rock industry’s hidden obsession with marketing and stardom. “The most recent show we played, Will was all over the audience,” Ivry-Block recalls. “It was like a comedy set in some ways. There have been moments where I’ve been really uncomfortable. And I’m OK with discomfort—I think discomfort can be amazing. And there are some moments when I’m like, ‘Whoah, I’m not comfortable with this,’ but then people in the audience talk back at him. And that’s what he wants—he wants the dialogue.”
It’s that drive for dialogue that makes Moloney’s songs and his stage persona more than just arch postmodern comedy. He’s not just playing a rock show, he’s deconstructing the idea of being a frontman playing a rock show, trying to smash the concert’s two-way mirror as forcefully as possible.
“You shouldn’t be in a band with Will if you’re afraid of moments like that,” says Cathcart. “And I feel like he’s consciously tried to sublimate those impulses in Climax Landers. That’s been a pretty important part of the development of the band, honestly—talking about what those moments of confrontation mean, and how to confront in a productive way. Because it never comes from a place of malice. I think Will just wants to touch everyone. He has a really high standard of genuineness and sincerity. I think he values real connection, whether it be entirely pleasant or not.”
And Moloney is not malicious. Lobenfeld remembers the experience of having her band produced by Moloney being defined by encouragement and generosity. “Our band was not considered very often in [the Westchester punk scene], because we were really scrappy,” she says. “But Will never treated us like, ‘These girls don’t take it seriously.’ He really gave a shit about us.”
In fact, at least part of the reason behind retiring the Old Table name was Moloney’s desire to operate in a band that was more democratic. “Fundamentally, they’re Will’s tunes, and his lyrics are pretty paramount, but arrangement-wise, we arrange the songs. It’s very collaborative,” says Cathcart.
“I think with Climax Landers, [the band members] inspire me to put my best performance—my most idealistic performance—forward,” Moloney says. “Sometimes, when I’m less than myself, I’ll get self-conscious, and I’ll go off on a tangent that’s too hostile towards the crowd. But the band believes in what I have to say, and they steer me towards my best performance self.” Sensing he’s becoming too unguarded, he pivots. “It’s part of a broader idea of exploiting yourself,” he says. “I think anytime you’re trying to make a career out of music in our current society in America, you have to exploit yourself a little bit. Really, anything you do, you gotta exploit yourself. Maybe the way Jesus branded himself was to get crucified.”
He can redirect all he wants, but there’s a nagging sense that everything Moloney does—Old Table, Climax Landers, his prickly stage persona—comes from a place of optimism. He’s the kind of person who wants to believe that absolute integrity is attainable, and if there are any knives in his lyrics, they’re as often directed inwardly as they are outwardly. “A lot of my songs deal with me being guilty as an American,” he says. “I don’t do as much as I should. A perfect person probably wouldn’t eat meat, or buy stuff they didn’t research fully in order to see what they’re supporting. A lot of that guilt creeps into my songs.”
It’s that willingness to interrogate himself as much as he does the audience that levels the playing field—and is, arguably, one of the things that has made his music such a communal experience. There are no casual Old Table fans, and there will be no casual Climax Landers fans, either. You’re either thoroughly baffled by it, or you’re all in. And when you’re all in, it feels very much like a family. At the Climax Landers record release show, I personally witnessed a room full of people belt out the lyric “The sky is a cataract” with the same rapture and fervor that the audience at the Killers show I attended two days earlier sang “Mr. Brightside.” The unbridled audience joy in this live clip from Brooklyn’s beloved venue Shea Stadium practically vibrates off the computer screen. The party is there to be had, if you want it, and it has acoustic My Bloody Valentine covers, socialist philosophers, indie rock boxing, and a Mary Poppins Trash Compactor. All you have to do is say yes.
“I’m a really fortunate and privileged person,” Moloney says. “I’ve had a good life and good family relationships and friendships. So there’s no reason for me not to be an optimist. You look at world events—that’s enough to make anybody have a lot of anxiety. But for me, myself—I’m a very fortunate person. I think there’s reason to be optimistic about humanity.”
“A lot of people seem too willing to reject something that isn’t easy,” Dore-Young says. “But Will can’t help but deviate from that. He literally can’t help it. A song like ‘Pray For All Muslims,’ you really need to listen to it and think about what it’s about, and what he’s saying. It really, really resonates with certain people, and other people won’t give it a chance. And that’s fine. You can be closed-minded if you want. It’s there for you to interpret. I think a lot of great artists from history have that same streak that Will has, honestly. They’re disagreeable, stubborn, uncompromising. They’re not universally likeable. I recognize that. But people who know what’s up, know what’s up.”
—J. Edward Keyes