When Moon Boots hits the booth, he’s got one mission: to give you the best night of your life. Whether playing at iconic clubs like Chicago’s Smart Bar — where he cut his teeth watching legends like Frankie Knuckles and Derrick Carter — or the world’s biggest festival stages, he gives people a release they’ll remember long after the party’s over. The start for his amazing journey when he aligned when he had a chance encounter with Perseus, founder of an adventurous new label, French Express. A fellow junkie and fan of French House and R&B-infused dance music, Perseus became a friend and mentor, the Splinter to Boots’ Donatello. The label eventually disbanded but Boots has stayed true to his mission of making dance tracks that can’t be confined to one style. Pete blends the music he loves — jazz, house, funk and soul — into songs that last longer than their runtime. Songs not just for DJs, but for everyone. After moving back to Brooklyn, Dougherty was introduced to the beloved Anjunadeep crew. His relationship with the label and their artists has flourished, leading to his debut album First Landing (out August 4th.) It’s an album where cavernous club music meshes with classical melodies, warm harmonies, and bright and beloved melodic soundscapes riddled with soul.
Give us a little bit of background about where you’re from.
I was born in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and I live in Williamsburg. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, but I really started making music in Chicago.
Where did you start learning music in your formative years?
Formative years of production were in Chicago, but I’ve been playing piano pretty much my whole life — definitely as long as I can remember.
I was experimenting with keyboards and synthesizers in high school and had a jazz piano teacher who lent me his Yamaha DX7 as a freshman and that blew my mind. I had no idea how to program any synthesizer, so I was completely at a loss with that thing.
Those are pretty difficult to program, so you’re not alone on that one.
I have never read a synth manual in my life, and I was trying to make sense of it and was hooking it into my Gateway 2000. That was the first, and then I had a Moog Prodigy, which I’m sad that I sold not long after I moved to Chicago. I got a Roland JP–8000 and didn’t hang onto it very long.
I started going further into keyboards and synthesizers around that time, and I only started to learn how to produce and DJ at the end of college. I was always playing in bands and playing jazz, and I kind of got a late start with production. But once I really of discovered it, I became completely obsessed. I still am.
I know that you attended Princeton University for undergrad. What did you study there?
I went there, originally, to study engineering. I thought I was going to do electrical engineering, but I realized I didn’t have the passion for it to put in those hours, so I didn’t go the distance in the program. I just wanted to do music, but the music program was very small and very academic.
I tried different liberal arts majors, economics, even a bit of religion, and then I was just like, “Screw it man, I just want to do music.” A lot of the program was classical composition, musicology, and history, but also world music and jazz, especially.
There was this one professor there, Paul Lansky, who’s an amazing experimental electronic music guru and computer music pioneer. He was sampled for the Radiohead song “Idioteque,” and he was very inspiring.
What was your biggest takeaway from your academic studies there, in music especially?
It’s something that I put on the shelf for a little while, and you might not be able to tell, but while I was working on this album, I wrote out charts. I really tried to approach it like writing a piece of music on manuscript. I think of it that way even when I’m writing MIDI. I just can’t help it. I have this sort of eerie thing I can’t shake, so I think that’s definitely crept in.
A lot of the music was very abstract there, they weren’t interested in you making a record or making a pop song. In a way, I sort of rebelled against that. However, it taught me about all the music that’s really out there and what it takes to really master it.
Where does the name Moon Boots come from?
It comes from a disco song called Moon Boots by a band called Orlando Riva Sound aka ORS. It’s a record that my bandmate Jonathan from Hey Champ introduced me to. That’s really where I learned how to DJ and produce — while playing with those guys. We would feed off each other all the time.
He got that record at K Starke, and I just thought it was such a cool record. When I started making my own music, it was just sort of stuck in my head. I had a couple other ideas about what I should use for a name, but my roommate at the time, Kyle, was like, “Dude, you’ve got to do Moon Boots. You’ve got to do it!” So, that was that.
How did your style of making music come together? How did you arrive at something you felt was your own thing?
Trial and error, I guess. I know some producers who are really skilled — they can hear a song on the radio or in a mix and just make something that sounds exactly like it. Maybe not as memorable, but it will just have the same feel and same sound. I’ve never really been able to do that. I’ll try, and then it ends up sort of going through whatever process I take through, and it ends up, hopefully, sounding like me.
What are some musical influences that you had when you were starting out? How about now?
Well, it changes every day. But I think when I started out, I was definitely listening to a lot of Aeroplane, Tiger & Woods, and coming out of Metro Area and the disco revival scene. I still listen to a lot of disco, but I feel like I listen to and play more Chicago House now than when I was in Chicago, which is ironic.
Who are some Chicago House artists that you’re discovering?
I’m not discovering artists, per se, but rather discovering records. Where you know this guy and you’re like, “You made this, too? Holy shit!” It just never ends. There’s this one Glenn Underground track I’ve been playing a good amount lately called “Mess Of Afros (Glenn Underground Remix).” It’s really amazing.
Also, it’s easy to overlook how many amazing tracks someone like Steve “Silk” Hurley has done. I like extended jazz chords, and I’ve always gravitated toward the smoother, silkier side of things. It started with stuff like Change by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
I still listen to a lot of that stuff. I like a certain glossy factor mixed with something that’s dirtier and funky. I try to work both of those ends. I think that’s really what I love about a lot of Chicago House music. At times, there’s a certain sheen to it, but also dirty, and I love that.
What inspires you, and where do your ideas come from?
Generally, [I’m inspired] when I am sitting at the piano and playing along with either music off my computer, music off of records, or music off of mixes that someone sends me. It always seems to work the best if I’m listening to something that’s a little different from what I normally make.
If it’s a hip–hop thing, I can come up with a riff and then turn that into a house track or a techno thing. I can take an arpeggio and sort of work that into something. It normally happens when I’m sitting at the keyboard.
What’s an ideal creative day?
I have a piano at my apartment, and I have a studio in a basement about a 20 minute walk away in Brooklyn. My favorite days are when I come up with an idea on the piano, record it in the voice memos on my phone, show up at the studio with my computer in Do Not Disturb mode, and just sort of build it from there.
I generally like to work during the day. I feel like I get the best stuff done during the day. And if I have a good day, I’ll just keep it going until whenever — until the sun rises.
Explain the biggest production challenge you’ve overcome.
On the album, I would say working with vocalists — mixing vocals and producing vocals. I’d done it before, but I still felt like it was reinventing the wheel each time. I’m not a vocalist myself, and most of the stuff I’ve put out — especially for the first few years — was music based on vocal samples and acapellas.
However, when you’re actually producing an original vocal, there are more things to to consider. You want to craft it to a level of quality where, theoretically, someone would want to sample the acapella you produced. That’s a lot of work, as well as putting your own stamp on it.
I really enjoy producing vocal stacks and harmonies. In the same way I love lush chords, I love lush backing vocals. It’s definitely more work and a challenge to get them on point, but it’s something worth doing.
Can you share some techniques you have discovered over the years that are now routine in your production work?
Now that the album’s done, I’m trying to not do those [techniques] as much. Not that I’m throwing my computer into the fire or something and starting from scratch, but I’m trying not to lean on those techniques as much.
There are many things I have used a lot, but there’s this M1 plugin I’ve had since day one from Korg that has a choir sound, and I’ve used that thing to death. I love it in the same way that I love backing vocals.
It’s the Korg Legacy Collection Wavestation, hard to edit, but the M1’s nice. I’ve used that sound a lot. I have a Roland SH–101 that I use for most of by bass lines now. My earlier tracks, I used the rack mount Moog Voyager, and I still use that a lot.
The UAD Lexicon 224 has different modes where if you crank it up all the way, you get a sort of a high–pitched feedback sound that I find useful for intros and breakdowns or for murky, trippy ambience that I like to have in the background. I’ll sort of re–sample different things from there.
I do a similar thing with Soundtoys EchoBoy, where it has different modes of different types of delayed models, like echoplex, chorus echo, space echo, and that kind of thing. That can create some really cool balance.
What are some must–have instruments?
I have six keyboards that I use. Years ago, I had a bunch of different plugins and all these presets, but I realized I didn’t even know how to use half the stuff on my computer in my studio, and it got frustrating.
So I really just stick to stuff I love to use, which is good. I’d say the Roland SH–101, the Moog Voyager, the Roland D–550, an Alpha Juno, a Roland JV–1010, and the Roland Juno HS 60, which is sort of like the station wagon model of the Juno–106. It’s uglier and has internal speakers. Love me some Roland.
Any plugins/software you’re into right now?
Diva has been a mainstay since I got it awhile ago. I started using some of the Arturia stuff again recently, which I haven’t used in a long time.
The V Collection?
Yeah, the Synclavier V has some cool sounds on it, the Matrix 12 V is fun to play around on, and the Oberheim SEM V. I like how the filters set up on the Oberheim. I also like the FM8.
Any other software that you want to pick up next that you’re looking forward to?
I actually just got the PPG Wave plugin from Waldorf. I wanted to try that out because I’ve been using wavetable synths for a while. I’ve also used Serum, too, but I don’t love it, to be honest. There’s things I like about Serum, but I’m not totally feeling it. But PPG is pretty interesting.
Next instrument purchase?
What I want to get soon is an actual drum machine. I’ve been thinking about getting a Vermona DRM for a while. I should really just pull the trigger on that when it makes sense. I would also like to pick up a TR–909, but they’re just so expensive.
I know that SoundCloud was a huge part of you gaining some traction and visibility early on, especially with French Express. Their model makes giving away music for free easy. How did this come about, and what was the business plan?
Assuming there was a business plan, good question. I think the idea was that we just wanted to get it out there and to not have people stand in our way and say, “You can’t do this,” or “You have to sound like this.”
I really do hope that SoundCloud is able to keep going because it was very important for me, and I feel like it’s been on the rocks for a while. It’s taken a lot of punches, and a lot of those feel kind of self–inflicted. I feel like they’ve been in this position so many times now that it’s hard to get too excited or to feel like a recovery is around the corner because now, I just don’t see it.
I hope they’re able to keep it going, though, because I think that it’s valuable, and it allowed us to make a label out of scratch without having any kind of overhead and marketing muscle and the honest experience to run a traditional label.
I understand why people who work in labels have mixed feelings about that. We’ve hit a time now where the majors are more consolidated than anyone would have guessed. I feel like SoundCloud — at least by their original mission — is necessary.
I assumed that French Express and the artists on the label were using the back–end data that SoundCloud provides to assist in making decisions about where you would market yourselves or schedule tours. Was that something that definitely informed that?
I would notice, for instance, that one of the places where I’d get the most plays was Mexico City, and then an offer would come in from Mexico City. At some point, it just sort of made sense that if something gets more plays in a certain area, it’s more likely to get an offer from there.
But also, the interest has to come from whomever is going to take the risk and book you. You don’t get to pick where you’re going to go and who is going to host you, they have to choose you. It was cool to see that and notice just how international the scope of the fanbase is.
That’s one of the great things about SoundCloud. It’s so international and as a label, at French Express, we were all over the place. One guy was from Sweden, one is out in Jersey, and me in Chicago. There’s also a guy in Australia. People thought we were French, and none of us spoke any French.
Tell us a bit about your first full–length release, First Landing.
First Landing has been out since August 4th on Anjunadeep. I’m really excited to see what it does. I feel like the response has been good so far. I think that it’s allowed me to explore more than just the typical genre I am known for.
I really stitched together the songs, wanting to make an album that’s not just club music. I was exploring different moods, genres and feelings, and there’s a lot of vocal collaborations that I am really happy with.
Who are some of the featured vocalists and how did any of those collaborations come together?
They came together through word of mouth, friends of friends, people that I’ve met, my studio neighbor, etc. They’re all really, really talented. One of the singles I put out is called “I Want Your Attention.” That one’s with Fiora, who is Tensnake’s girlfriend, and I’ve known Tensnake for a while and look up to him. Fiora is an amazing vocalist.
The previous single, “Keep The Faith,” is with this kid Nic Hanson, who actually is my studio neighbor. This guy Will — who is originally from Chicago and used to work with Gant–Man back in the day — manages a singer. The singer kind of sounds like every soul vocalist. He can do Michael Jackson, Curtis Mayfield, etc. He came in and did the last one. He’s just graduated from NYU, so he’s just getting started.
There’s a singer named Black Gatsby, who sang a song called “Power” on the record. He can really do these powerful gospel harmonies. I love what he does. There’s an R&B singer named King Kona from Atlanta who works in LA and sang on “Fortune Teller.” That’s actually the first song on the record.
Any particular reason why you waited until now to do a full length?
Mainly, with French Express, it’s because there wasn’t a business plan or a set method to make it last long term, and it started to just not be happening anymore. I really tried to keep it going, but I just hit a point where I would self–release music.
One of the tracks on the album was originally self–released two years ago, and I felt like I needed to do something more. I started thinking I was going to do an EP, but it just didn’t feel substantial enough, honestly. That’s when I kind of put my head down and said, “Alright, it’s time to do an album. Let’s do it.”