Photos + Interview by Carly Tagen-Dye
Though synth pop may seem like a thing of the past, New York City’s Moon Gel is a clear outlier. Comprised of Khaya Cohen (vocals), Emily Sgouros (synths), and Leah Scarpati (drums), the trio is taking over the genre with their own original twist. Recent singles like “Drama Queens” and “Muscle Memory” are immersive experiences, inviting listeners to engage with both the music and meaning. With their eloquent arrangements and lyricism, Moon Gel’s artistry is clear. Carly recently had the chance to catch up with the group before a show in Brooklyn, where they talked about their sound, weirdest show experiences, and more.
HEM: It’s so nice to finally meet you guys! Before we start, I have to ask — did the name Moon Gel come from the drum pad brand?
Khaya: Yeah! When we were rehearsing for our first gig, we played with another drummer before we met Leah, and he said something about Moon Gel. I was like, “Is that a band name?” We didn’t think that we were going to be a band, so we just chose that name for our first gig and it kind of stuck. Now we’re wondering how to get in touch with the Moon Gel company to work with them and make those Moon Gel Moon Gels.
Leah: Moon Gel, if you can hear this, help us out! Don’t sue us!
Khaya: Give us our own LLC!
HEM: You guys should definitely get sponsored now! So, how exactly did the band come to be?
Khaya: Emily basically told me to get it together, and then we started playing. We’ve known each other since high school.
Leah: I met them at a New Year’s party. Emily was like, “Hey, I’m in a band, and we all kind of look alike!”
HEM: That’s very High School Musical, to meet at a New Year’s party.
Leah: Oh yeah! And then we just immediately started playing.
Khaya: The whole party was like, “Oh my god!”
Leah: We were singing and crying. There were spotlights…it was all very dramatic and theatrical!
Khaya: The amps and drum set appeared out of nowhere!
Leah: They just dropped from the sky and we were just jamming out in the spotlight!
Khaya: Yeah, that’s how we met.
Leah: That’s how this is all started! It’s crazy!
HEM: It sure sounds like! So you guys have a super interesting, futuristic sound. I definitely feel some space vibes in there. Was that the kind of music that you went into wanting to play, or was it something that developed naturally?
Khaya: I feel like it’s a combination of all of our influences. We are really conscious about who we listen to. We kind of have the same ultimate influences, but then also have our own unique sounds, so I feel like it’s that and just having synths. Having synths in a band makes a huge difference sonically.
Emily: It definitely gives it a specific vibe. Synths sound very spacey.
Leah: Yeah. It’s funny too, because when they sent me the demos and I first heard the songs, I was coming from a very different musical perspective. I heard the songs as stories. That’s kind of how I approach music. At our first rehearsals, Emily and Khaya were very much focused specifically on raw sound, which I had never even thought of before. So I think a lot of the futuristic thing comes from a sensitivity to vibration, frequencies and how things first hit your ears. Just like the first taste of it.
HEM: That’s such a cool way of looking at it. I’ve loved listening to both of the singles you’ve released. “Muscle Memory” in particular has been a jam lately. Was that song written before “Drama Queens” or after?
Khaya: It was the first song I’d written after a huge dryspell, and was the first good thing I did in a long time. I wrote it with our friend Lucas, who we all play with in different capacities. I had that loop that comes in at the beginning and I brought it to him and he played some crazy stuff over it. Then I produced it out and wrote on it.
HEM: Did anything interesting come about during the process? Did you find yourself with a new mindset due to the collaboration?
Khaya: I learn something every time I produce and mix, because a lot of these songs I have produced. Co-writing in itself, I learn a lot every time I work with a different person. Working with Lucas is a vibe! We’ve done two songs together for this band, and we just work really well together and come up with weird stuff that’s also poppy.
HEM: Kind of in that realm, “Drama Queens” is such a powerful song, sonically and lyrically. Do you feel like the message has related in any way to your experience as women in the music industry or in your life in general?
Emily: Yeah. We like for people to see us as musicians and that we’re really good at what we do. Like we’re not a girl band or that kind of thing.
Khaya: You really want to be seen as a human and not seen for your gender necessarily. We’re all super proud to be women, but I think when it comes to our career and our art, we work really hard at them. To be categorized with other people just because they’re also women is not something we’re about. In terms of the lyrics, it’s lifting women, but more so just lifting people as individuals. It’s about owning who you are and not being watered down to a stereotype.
Leah: I wasn’t part of the songwriting process, so I feel like I heard it as a listener first. The lyric that stuck out to me was, “You don’t understand why I can’t be emotional.” I’ve felt that way at so many different points in my life. As human beings, there are things that we just won’t understand with each other. There are things that men won’t understand with women, and ages won’t understand different generational things. There are so many different gaps, and when you’re a woman in the industry, it is a particular experience. There have been many times when I’ve been with a male colleague or musician, trying to explain a feeling, and there’s just a gap that happens. The feeling in that song is what I’ve been trying to articulate all my life.
Khaya: It’s interesting because that song was pretty stream of consciousness for me. I wrote the lyrics really fast, and then went back and edited with the mindset that I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just thought of that line, “No kings, just drama queens,” and then I was like, “Oh, this is like a feminist anthem now.” It’s cool because we’ve actually heard a bunch of different interpretations of the lyrics. To me, “You don’t understand why I can’t be emotional” means I’m working really hard for what I do because women have to work that much harder in such a male-dominated field. I don’t have time to get emotional over things. I just have to pick myself up and move on because I’m trying to reach my goals.
Leah: It’s all just different human experiences across the board. I think we can all understand each other if we’re willing to. If you want to relate to something, you can. You just have to be open to it.
HEM: What do you think has been one of the most important things you’ve learned in your experience as a musician so far?
Khaya: I have a bunch of little tidbits and tips that I like to keep. One is that you can’t filter yourself. When you’re going through a rut and doubting yourself, it’s the worst thing you can do. Just write what you feel and your audience and the people who believe in you will decide. The other is that taste makes everything. You should be proud of what you’re listening to.
Emily: For me, I think that being professional is a huge thing that a lot of people overlook. Like they think musicians aren’t that professional, but you have to be so on top of your stuff. It’s honestly harder than doing a different kind of career. You have to basically figure out this weird schedule of rehearsing at all these random times. You are constantly working. That’s a real challenge.
Leah: This is a little more of a touchy-feely answer, but the theme I keep coming back to is whatever you put forth into the world and into music and into anything you do is what you’re going to be surrounded by. I kind of thought about it like, “What do I really like? What makes me feel good, and what do I want other people to feel when they hear my music?” Love and empathy are the two strongest things guiding every time you play. You have to understand, and you have to be open to whoever you’re playing with and put care into it. You should be in love with whatever you’re doing. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.
HEM: Those are all such great answers. Moving away from the heavy-hearted music questions — New York is infamous for some pretty crazy shows. Do you have any memorable show experiences in the city?
Emily: Oh God! *laughs* I guess the only one I can think of is the Sofar that we played.
Khaya: We said to wear all black and Emily shows up in a rainbow t-shirt. I called her out in between songs. I was like, “We were supposed to wear all black,” and then some audience member was like, “Like your heart” or something like that.
Emily: It was kinda mean!
Khaya: Also, that gig was in the basement of a church, but when we first walked in, there was a funeral going on. Full on open casket! Then we went downstairs and were like, “Okay, I guess we’re gonna play down here.”
Emily: It was funny because people were taking photos on front of the casket. And we were like, “It’s a funeral!”
Khaya: Yeah, they looked kind of happy!
Emily: I don’t know about craziest show. They’re all very energized. But there was the one time I kicked the cymbol.
Leah: Yeah, it was in a little basement. We came prepared to do our acoustic set, which is just a little drum pad and some synth. We got there and the other band brought a drum set and we were like, “Oh, okay, let’s just do our regular set.” So we kind of came there with no expectations — it was very low pressure and the drum set was sliding everywhere!
Khaya: The sound was so bad. I was literally yelling, “I can’t hear the synths!” I get really aggressive with sound people because that’s my area. So I was just like, “Dude, you don’t know what you’re doing!”
Leah: Emily wasn’t amplified whatsoever. She played a solo and everyone was just like, “What’s going on?” I got really into it and threw my sticks, but it was in the middle of a song. It was “Runaway,” and there was the extended chorus that I didn’t play because I just threw the sticks! We kinda just went off at that gig.
Emily: Yeah, we just went crazy! Very punk.
HEM: That sounds like quite the experience! So I guess this kind of relates to your High School Musical-esque beginnings, but if you could collaborate with any Disney Channel star, would would it be?
Khaya: Honestly, as a producer, the Jonas Brothers are hot right now. I would get a Top 40 hit if I worked with the Jonas Brothers.
Emily: That’s true. I would say Hannah Montana, who is also Miley Cyrus.
Khaya: Yeah, Miley Cyrus is doing well too.
Leah: I’d like to collaborate with a cartoon character. Like Goofy!
Khaya: Woah! Game changer! You went old school Disney. Who’s the guy that runs really fast?
Emily: I think Roadrunner wins. That’s our answer.
Khaya: Yeah, we’d sample him. That would kinda be like a four on four, with the “Meep meeps!”
HEM: That would be such a sick single with your synth sound! Aside from these new singles, what else can fans expect in the future? Is there anything that you’re especially looking forward to this year?
Leah: Oooh! We’re doing an EP release show on June 22! We’re going to make it a whole art show and invite all these visual artists and maybe have some movies if people make weird MOMA stuff. Maybe we’ll have a pile of straws somewhere. We’ll see.
Emily: We’ll put a bike in there to really throw everyone off!
Leah: That’s going be fun. It’s going to be all of our local artist friends, and then we’re gonna play a show and just burn down the venue afterwards.
Khaya: Yeah, we can’t do that, haha!
HEM: That’s super exciting! Lastly, is there anything else you would like us to know?
Leah: There are so many things! I always have a bunch of thoughts. I think the last thing to know is to come to our live shows because it’s an experience. We have things to say non-verbally to people. I want to tell everyone individually in the audience what I have to tell them, but through the drums. I can guarantee you that it will be the best night of your life. If you don’t have a good time at our show, you can punch me in the face! You don’t even have to ask; you can just come up to me and punch me in the face.
Khaya: And she’ll just take it!