Hailing from the American Heartland of Wichita, Kansas, Moreland & Arbuckle have been described as heavy roots rockers who incorporate delta blues, rhythm & blues, folk, rock and soul into a power trio line-up with a difference
Aaron Moreland plays all manner of guitars – from cigar box and resonator to fierce slide and acoustic – while his musical partner of 12 years Dustin Arbuckle provides the deep harp tones and baritone voice. Drummer Kendall Newby anchors the ship, shapes the songs and adds an extra dynamic.
It’s music that shifts from the duo’s down-home origins, into shit kicking boogie, Zeppelin style riffs and great hooks that draw you in.
2011’s ‘Just A Dream’ crossed the band over to rock fans and for the new loosely defined concept album ‘7 Cities’, they’ve hooked up with Seattle producer Matt Bayles (Mastadon/Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) who brings sonic presence, focus and an imposing sound, worthy of a band on the verge of making blues exciting again.
Oh yeah, the concept? ‘7 Cities’ is based around the tale of the Spanish conquistador Coronado and his search for the mythical seven cities of gold which led him to the great plains of Kansas, home of Moreland & Arbuckle. The eternal themes of power greed, conquest and redemption bubble up in 13 songs that even find a place for the Tears For Fears classic ‘Everybody Wants To Rule the World’.
Pete Feenstra spoke to guitarist Aaron Moreland about life in the mid-west and recording the new album.
Moreland & Arbuckle sounds like a northern cheese shop. What’s your collective background?
Actually I’m not sure. I think Dustin’s background may be Scottish, but I was adopted and don’t really know.
You come from Wichita in Kansas, is that a tough place to earn a living from the blues?
Well there’s not a lot going on musically really, but the great thing about being here is that it’s central, so you’re about a days drive from either coast. It’s also relatively cheap to live here. I actually live about 30 minutes south east of Wichita but the other guys live there, so we call it our base.
Is your roots-rock style a direct result of adding Kendall Newby on drums, or was it a direction you were already heading in?
It was a natural evolution, we were already heading that way. We’ve actually had a drummer for the best part of 7 years, and Kendall has already been with us two years. In fact including Kendall, we’ve had 3 drummers in that time, so I think we’ve evolved during that time.
This is your third album for the Telarc label. Have they encouraged you to develop as artists?
Telarc are just cool guys and a cool company and basically they let us do whatever we wanted to do, which is how we came to be here.
‘Just A Dream’ was the rockiest album of your career, but you seem to have got more eclectic on this album?
Yes I guess this album is less harder edged and a bit more polished in a bigger production sense of things. It’s also the result of being in a better studio. A lot of the tunes on ‘Just A Dream’ were heavier songs.
You write the music, the songs and the riffs and Dustin writes the words, do the songs change after you initially knock them into shape?
Oh yeah, very much! Some arrangements and some parts get added or dropped and sometimes we come up with a new hook. One example of that would be ‘Time Ain’t Long’ which we originally did as a demo with completely different words and a different chorus. Dustin came to me with the words, but I didn’t like them and I told him so. I didn’t think they would work. I said we needed to re envisage the song and do it differently.
Do you fight over the songs at all?
Nah, things can get a little tense sometimes but we usually find a middle ground.
Do the songs change again after touring them?
Yeah a little. We’re on the road mostly all the time and we usually just start a tune and just jam on it. But the new album is a bit more concise and to the point, so things are a little different. On ‘Quivira’ for example, we mostly follow the arrangement to the T.
What drew you the history of the ‘7 Cities’ album title?
Well the story of the Spanish conquistador Coronado is common knowledge in these parts, we’re even taught it at school.
Did you have to research the lyrics to ‘Quivira’?
Not that much, though Dustin reads a lot of history as he really enjoys it, so I guess he must have read up about it.
How did the song come about?
I had some riffs and played it in the rehearsal studio and he pretty well jumped in on it and like a lot of our songs it was written in minutes.
Was that also the first song you wrote for the album?
Let me think about that, I’m not actually sure. Actually I don’t think it was.
At what point did it become apparent that you had the core themes of power, adventure, greed etc
It was really the case that as we recorded the tracks, the album started to take shape and we then noticed that the themes started coming through. It was the collection of the songs as a whole that gave us the concept.
So ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ wasn’t included as part of the thematic thread?
It was really another example of how the rest of the album came together. We were looking for something like an unexplored 80’s pop song, and it wasn’t until we heard it as part of the totality of the record that we realised it fitted perfectly.
On ‘Quivira’, what is ‘The Dog’ in the line: ‘Come and meet me in The Dog?
It was a kind of an in-joke that nobody really understood outside of the band. There’s a city north of here called El Dorado – pronounced El Doraaado (sic) – and it was one of the seven cities that Coronado was visiting. Anyway we would meet there when we headed east on a short tour and we’d call it The Dog.
‘Kowtow’ is the first of two Ryan Taylor songs, how did you come across him?
Ryan is actually from Dallas Texas and he’s a good friend. He wrote ‘The Brown Bomber’, the first song on our ‘Just A Dream’ album. We just like his stuff and if we can play it we will.
You seem to be well connected with local musicians as you’ve also covered songs by Curt Mitchell and Hans Judd?
Yeah they are local guys and we also like them as song writers and chose to put some of their stuff on the album.
Going back to ‘Kowtow’, it’s got great backing vocals which you also reprise on ‘Modern Boy’. What made you think of putting them in the arrangement?
Well we thought about putting some bv’s on there. Originally we had in mind just a female vocal, but then we thought about an African American female voice and Josephine Howell did that. In fact the producer Matt Bayles had come over to Wichita in advance of the recording and for some pre-production rehearsals and he thought it was a great idea too.
What was your relationship with Matt like?
Well sometimes we’d agree on something like that and other times he was hard on us, as he wouldn’t let us lose focus or slacken off, but in the end it paid off. His input was great, as for one thing he’s a great engineer and gave us a great sound and better still he gave us a really great mix.
He’d also pay attention to detail and make small adjustments to songs to give them a better hook for example. He gave the album more impact and made it more concise, with the emphasis on quality control. There was never any room for any half assed songs (laughs). It is very different for us as before we’d normally just jam on the solo until we were done.
There wasn’t any problem with control as I was ready for it and trusted him. You know we butted heads a few times but it wasn’t really about the music.
Going back to the record, did you record the southern rock and Americana sounding ‘The Devil And Me’, with the album’s sequencing in mind?
Sequencing is a very important part of the album, but it wasn’t thought about until the songs were actually finished and the final track listing was done by the band. Sequencing is hugely important.
Do you approach a cover song differently from one of your own?
No not really, we just try and figure out the best way to work with them. ‘Everybody Wants To Rule the World’ for example, has a few different bits but it’s the same basic arrangement and chord changes. It was almost effortless
Did you write ‘Tall Boogie’ before you toured with ZZ Top?
There’s a funny story to that song. Dustin had written the words to the song a long time ago but with a different musical back drop. It was more of a 12 bar blues thing back then. So he had these words from way back and still wanted to use them. We were going to record it on ‘Just A Dream’ but it just didn’t work. So what happened was we were playing a Slim Harpo boogie thing and we put the words to that and it fitted perfectly.
Did ‘Broken Sunshine’ start from the waltz like guitar pattern?
Yes I had this particular guitar waltz part that I’d done in the studio, also for ‘Just A Dream’. It was just a waltzing part that goes into a 4/4/time on the chorus and the engineer recorded it. So we tried to work on the song but the drummer at the time couldn’t come up with anything and we had no words, so it got shelved for 2 years, before we came back to it.
It’s actually my favorite tune because it’s more deep and complex and I like the way it fits with the words and the time changes. I think its one of our most developed songs.
Is the ‘Red Bricks’ instrumental a return to the kind of down-home country blues you played as a duo (albeit Kendall plays some nice brush strokes on there)?
100% right. It was the first song I ever wrote on the resonator and it was for the first album we ever made. It was the self produced, independently released album ‘Caney Valley Blues’ in 2005.
You’ve also got an unusual guitar tone on that song, is that the resonator?
Yeah the whole thing was done 100% live as one song in one room and the tone comes from the resonator.
‘Stranger Than Most’ is notable for its buzz guitar and a big sound that is almost Zeppelin. Did you try to use the studio to its full potential on that one?
Well kind of. There are actually only two guitar parts on that track. One is live with the drums and the other one is the funky part. It was all done in a really quick time as I got the tone right, but I think it’s the mix that makes that song. I’m a huge Zeppelin fan so I guess that influence is in there too.
Which songs took the longest to nail?
Well ‘Kow Tow’ took quite a while as Matt the producer wanted a better riff from me. Also ‘Broken Sunshine’ took a while with the end part. We called it the bridge to nowhere, as it’s at the end of the song. He was particularly hard on me on that one.
‘Road Blind’ is a Hans Judd song and swings like crazy. It also has what sounds like edgy radio distortion in the mix? What is that?
It might be to do with the fact that I cut the track using the cigar box guitar, which has a very interesting and weird sound to it.
Does using a cigar box guitar restrain you in terms of what you can do, or do you use with a particular feel in mind?
Oh yeah, it’s a limiting instrument, in as much as there’s not a lot of chord voicing opportunity and everything has to be vertical on it. There’s no horizontal movement like on a regular guitar. But it’s such a unique sound and fits some of the songs well, so it’s a trade off.
I love the hypnotic guitar line and the way the deep harp tone segues into your uplifting solo on ‘Bite Your Tongue’. How did you approach that song?
We’ve been playing that song a long time and we recorded it in the same way we play it live. But I had to record that solo about 45 times before Matt liked the piece. If you listen carefully you might notice that it’s not one fluid solo, as it was the result of different solo’s chopped up and re-put together by Matt. He wasn’t afraid to do that and it came out well.
‘Time Ain’t Long’ is a reflective song at odds with much of the swagger on the album, where did that idea come from?
It was a song that fitted well into the overall album, but needed to go in a particular place as part of the sequence.
Did the song start from the opening guitar motif?
Yes that was the start of the song. I’d never played anything like that before. I often write some cool things and then forget about them. But I really liked this and thought I mustn’t forget about it, so I flipped my phone and saved it on there.
It’s something that is outside of the box of my normal tendencies, you know the way I’m rolling the rhythm? I heard it later and thought how was I doing that?
Was ‘Modern Boy’ the kind of powerful end to the album you wanted?
Well when we recorded the album we had to cut one more song and ‘Modern Boy’ got my vote. The other song was ‘Thought Train’ which ended up as a down load only bonus track on the new album.
You toured Iraq in 2008, what was the response like to your music?
It was interesting, but we weren’t able to take our drummer and so we had to use a dep drummer from one of the other bands. We had no time to rehearse so it took about 5 shows to lock in. What surprised me was that the music did seem to have a positive impact on the troops. There was such a sombre feeling on the bases – after all, they were in the middle of a war – and those places lack real excitement so we had to work really hard.
How was it working with Steve Cropper on ‘Just A Dream?’
He’s the nicest guy in the world and one of the top 5 guitarists in the history of rock & roll. He didn’t spend a lot time on the album. We met him at a wedding sometime before, and he told us he had a song we should record which was ‘White Lightin’. And after that we sent him a track and he played on it.
Finally Aaron when is the album out?
Well it’s been out in the States since May and was released in Europe on July 30 and I think its out in the UK tomorrow
Interview © August 2013 Pete Feenstra
Album review (and video interview)
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