Mick’s Pick: Moses Guest
Moses Guest is a Texas-based band fronted by guitarist/singer-songwriter Graham Guest. The band is named after Guest’s fifth generation grandfather. It has actually been around for almost seven years, but is now finally making its mark on a larger scale, and quite deservedly so.To date they have released five CDs, the most impressive is undoubtedly the self-titled double disc (released a couple of months ago on their own label). However, each of the band’s albums is worth investigating, although one can certainly see the progress they have made with each disc.
They had several of their songs used in the MTV “Real World New Orleans” TV series. Back in 1998 they performed on the second stage at the H.O.R.D.E Festival in Antioch, TN after winning a battle of the bands type contest in Houston.
Since originally forming, the band has undergone a number of personnel changes but has retained the same four-piece line-up for the last five years. Since then they have been honing their musical chops and fine-tuning their sound with tours through the South and West. Musically they offer a refreshing sound that incorporates a wide array of American music elements. There’s pop, rock, jazz, funk and country, that’s all put through a Southern blender and laced with imaginative improvisations. The thing that sets them aside from a lot of other upcoming bands is that they truly don’t bog themselves down with any one genre and they have solid and strong songs to boot. They should attract typical “jamband” fans as well as alternative country fans, classic rock fans and even roots rock fans. The band’s music is unpretentious and honest. They are not afraid to experiment both in terms of improvisation and in song arrangements. They manage to flit from complex highly arranged songs (with strings, sax, pedal steel,) to way-out improvisational jams. The new album captures a perfect marriage of those elements and comes highly recommended.
What better way to introduce a new band to readers than through its own words. The following interview took place this month with the articulate and friendly band leader Graham Guest just after the band finished a recent two week tour.
M.S. Why don’t you give us a bit of background on how you got into music and how the band came about?
G.G. In 1995 I had moved back to Houston, from at that time, New York, after a stint of going to school and trying to find what it was that I wanted to do. In 1993 I moved to New York and I played in a little group there and I worked for a short time for TVT Records. I realized, in playing the songs that I was trying to develop up there that I needed to go back home because they had a Southern or a Southern/Texas feel to them and that was what I was really interested in. The guys that I was playing with didn’t seem to hook up on that, so I moved on home. I searched around for a while to find some players and in the summer of 1995 or perhaps the late spring I started Moses Guest. At that time it was a three-piece. I’m the only common player between then and now.
M.S. Who was in that initial three-piece?
G.G. It was me, a guy named Sean Simon and a guy named John Chupin. We got going on that, and I made the decision which was controversial both to me and everybody that however much I didn’t want to, I would attend law school as opposed to working or trying to start a band, mostly because I thought the schedule would work out better for me; summers off, big vacation holes for travel. Also it is a lot harder to get fired from school than it is from a job. My plan was to do poorly in law school, which I succeed at. In fact, I did very poorly but I made it through.During that time I developed the band. In 1996 and 1997 we started to change members. First came in Rick Thompson on keyboards and organ and he came in sometime in 1996 and he is still with us. He is an extremely excellent keyboard player. Then we had James Edwards, he is a jazz trained drummer. Both Rick and James went to a school whose acronym is HSPVA, that’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston. It’s an art oriented school for kids who are talented in music, acting or dance, writing or whatever. It’s a school unique to its kind. They both graduated from there which gives them the distinct advantage especially in jazz training. When you take the jazz and put it into some rock you get some interesting mixtures, definitely reasonably intelligent mixtures. Those two guys came on board and we went on a trip to Colorado with a bass player. When we came back from that, which I think was in early 1997, we added Jeremy Horton on bass. He is just one solid bass player and he has been with us ever since. Since ’97 until now, which is over five years, we have been a four-piece consisting of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. We can swing sort of either way as to whether we play an acoustic oriented set or an electric oriented set. Generally we start out electric.
In the last year or so with the Colorado experience we have had, and the general sort of new grass movement that has been going on and this alt country stuff that is going on, we thought we wanted to join that sort of legion and start playing acoustic instruments, banjos and what not, so we have set that we can do by now. Some of the developments that have been critical over the years for me, to summarize maybe more accurately and comprehensively – traveling has been very exciting – we have focused primarily on the south-east, Colorado and Utah. We have an annual ski-fest set of shows up in Wyoming each winter where we bring up a bunch of people from home and wherever else. This year’s show was very successful we had a lot of people. It was four nights of skiing and music and fun. As long as our shows have steadily improved, traveling out to these places, to the South-East, we feel we can make these shows larger.
M.S. Do you plan on expanding to the Northeast and other regions of the country?
G.G. Most definitely, we plan on hitting everything eventually. I think just about now we are ripe for that. Initially picking a couple of relatively accessible territories given the fact that we are at the very bottom of the country and have to drive a long way to get to another market I think that was a fairly judicious move. We didn’t think we could just spread to where ever on our first trip and to go somewhere that we can’t ever return to for like three years. So, we kept banging Colorado and Utah and Wyoming and the South East. We’ve been to Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama and that kind of thing. It’s been working but I think that now is a better time. We are working with Ariel (publicity) and we have One Wing radio promoters. The guys name is Joe Sweeney. He is based out of New Jersey. In the first two weeks or so of our radio campaign of our new CD we got 51 adds in the first test mailing, which was pretty satisfactory to the radio promoter, because I don’t know what is good, but it seemed good. It ranged from Alaska down to Florida and from up in Maine to Southern California. So with this sort of fire power and all cylinders going I feel like we can go ahead and publicize a trip to places that we haven’t been such as the North East.
M.S. I think the new album is a very strong effort. I’ve heard a couple of your other albums and this is light years in front of them. It’s got a lot of color and textures. It’s more varied and yet cohesive at the same time.
G.G. I appreciate that, thanks. We worked on this thing for a little over two years. That’s exactly what we meant to do. The albums to start with the good parts about them – were that I think we were starting to generate song writing ability a little better. But those albums were really admittedly stepping stones to something else. A lot of bands do that I think. A lot of bands just make albums that are stepping stones that lead to nowhere and that very well could have been the situation here, but what happened was we met up with Dan Workman at Sugar Hill studios on Houston. He is an awesome producer and he just gets down and dirty with the band. It felt like, and I don’t know if he treats every band like this, but we felt that “he was giving us the love” that was one of his statements and whatever the case whether he does it with everybody or just us, it doesn’t matter. The love was perceived. He just ended up guiding us around. He has both the technical ability to both engineer and produce at the same time. He did it very economically but it took a great deal of time. We thought that if we didn’t come out with a light-years-in-front-of-the-other-albums, album, like you said, then we didn’t know where we were going to go, but fortunately it did develop. It came out strong.
M.S. The other aspect of it is that it’s a double CD of studio material. It’s hard to put out a double studio album that doesn’t have a ton of filler. A lot of the bands that get lumped into the “Jamband” genre or wear that moniker get hooked into doing double CDs and trying to recreate the length of their shows, but they are often short on strong songs and the jams go on for the sake of it. With your album the songs are strong and everything seems to have a purpose and a place.
G.G. That’s exactly what we tried to do. We had a lot of material to work with and one of the things that we were afraid of was just what you said. Because we get put in the jamband moniker, which I guess we don’t mind but do mind just a little bit, because we didn’t want to over jam the CD and we do that with our sets live too, a jamband as you know can stay on one note for an unbearably long time. That is something that we really want to avoid in both live performance and on CDs. However, we also wanted to get that sort of spontaneous improvisational thing going. The way we compromised that was we spent one whole day in a studio and had the whole thing to ourselves, now this was aside from our regular tracking, and we called it jam day. We just went from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock at night. We set up everything and did whatever. Dan Workman, as you’ll notice played guitar with us on several songs, he did a wonderful job.
We took all those hours and after breaks we had about eight hours of stuff. We chipped that down to “A Phyrigian Way,” “Elohw’s Path” we took from there, and we took “Mario’s End” and that’s just a couple of minutes from all those hours. That was the day that we sort of put the glue to everything. It also showed our improvisational ability. The rest of it was just tracked songs that took forever. All the instrumentation that was added such as pedal steel we had to bring people in. Steve Palousek is a country player that plays with Ray Price. We had a couple of sax guys come in. A lady named Yvonne Washington came in and some background vocals and of course we had that miniature orchestra come in and work on “Song For Dead” with us, which I think came out remarkably well. We can hardly play that song live anymore because we feel so naked without all that stuff. That’s the way it all came together and we knew we had something when it was done. We were very careful to arrange the songs in an order that made it as a narrative sense. I have to go back a bit, “In Transit” is actually another jam we took from the jam day. That had a kind of brooding quality and we wanted to end the first CD with it so that we could come in with the drama song “Song For Dead” on CD two. We even have a transition between the two CDs and even that made sense.
M.S. I think the album has a very polished feel. It’s good to hear that you keep the live and studio sides as two distinct entities. Some band’s just go into a studio and recreate their live sound. If you are going to do that you may as well just record live albums. Just because you can’t do a song live because of the added studio instrumentation should be no reason not to add those textures and tones to an album.
G.G. Absolutely, you are right.
M.S. What would you say your musical influences were growing up?
G.G. Well, it must have started off with goofy stuff like “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and “Me O My O on the Bayou” type of stuff (laughs). My parents wouldn’t let me listen to rock and roll or anything like it. It was just all classical music. I had to struggle. I had to take classical piano lessons from a mean piano teacher and all that kind of crap but by the time I got to about 12 I kind of said up yours. I was sneaking out to the car at night and listening to the AM station in the old Buick and picking up the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” stuff and finally I had my teenage rebellion and they got me a guitar. I quit piano lessons and I started to get new friends. My new friends and one guy in particular, introduced me to Little Feat. Because this band was the first one that I got to buy all the albums for I got pretty affected by Little Feat. That was a big one, another one would be Steely Dan and then the Grateful Dead. I never did the whole Grateful Dead thing and touring around but there was certainly some excellent lessons to be learned from the Grateful Dead. I did take some jazz lessons in college but those are the big three for me.
M.S. Your music has a strong Southern influence. I hear little bits of Cowboy and the Allman’s and even the Marshall Tucker Band.
G.G. The Allman Brothers is one I forgot to mention. They were a Southern band that could write really good songs and jam. That’s a good equation. Today, the alt-country band is so wide with potential like that.
M.S. The problem with labels is that everyone wants to put people in neat little categories whether it’s “Alt-country” or “jamband.” Actually, the so called “jamband” genre has immense potential but it’s its own worst enemy. So much different music gets lumped into the genre and when uniformed people hear the word “jamband” they automatically think 20 minute guitar solos and no songs and there are so many bands that are not even remotely like that.
G.G. Perhaps we can help in passing out what a “jamband” really is by articles and just by keeping on playing because the dynamic is just too great to leave it under that one moniker. We have to start passing it out a little.
M.S. What made you actually create your own record label?
G.G. It was just out of necessity. Initially it was just a shell but the name, Aufheben, has become kind of connected collection of individuals. It is sort of headed by Jeff Sporl. He is an entrepreneur. He got a hold of our stuff about three years ago and really liked it and just wanted to help us. He didn’t know a damned thing about the music business.
M.S. There’s a lot of people in the industry don’t either!
G.G. Right! He didn’t care, but by fire he has gotten an education and both financially and with the Internet he is very good with the Internet he has been a great help. He has gotten us on the Internet in a big way but he is also very good with his searches. He can get people, find people. He is just extremely good with the publicity and the promotion with us. He is like an extra publicist aside from Ariel. He has been the ring leader for the record label being something more than just a name.
M.S. What’s the music scene like in Houston?
G.G. It’s actually pretty good. I have been to enough places to know what is good and what is not. Music scenes are tough in general. I don’t know if I have ever seen one that was just bristling. You can go to Austin, and the misunderstanding is that you can go down 6th Street and hear all these good bands, but you’re not. You are hearing a bunch of cheese. There are places that have electronic drum kits and they are singing songs from the 80s. Austin is also a small pond with a lot of fish in it and it is kind of hard to get started in a place like that. Houston is a big pond with a lot of little fish in it, so it is a little bit easier. There’s more space to move around and a lot of clubs to play. There’s a lot of this alt country stuff going on around here, not so much on the jam side but in the Wilco kind of vein.
M.S. I like a lot of that stuff.
G.G. We do too. We kind of like to bend over that way as well. There was a band here called Horseshoe, they’ve broken up now, but they did it really well. We’ve got the Continental club which is also in Austin and shares the same owners, so a lot of the same acts come through, a lot of Texas style acts. There’s just a variety of other good clubs to play. I wouldn’t say that this is a city to count on the city getting behind you and bolting out a career for you if they really love you. The music industry in this town is disassociated enough or are not communicating enough or are not on the same page enough that a band can be put to the next level, but it is an excellent place to get your training wheels going and work clubs around town and learn how to promote and get a crowd. But then you need to start traveling at that point.
M.S. How did you get the word out, was it the Internet?
G.G. A little, it started slow but it was basically just word of mouth. You can do it better now. I didn’t know the advantages of the Internet when we first started.
On a parting note I asked Graham what albums or artists he has found himself listening to lately and his answer was the Beatles rather than anything recent. I guess that art of songwriting still is timeless. Well, take my word for it (or better still don’t and check them out yourselves) these guys have a lot to offer. Watch for them in your area in the coming months as they spread out and tour throughout the country. You can find out even more information about them on the band’s website at www.Mosesguest.com. If there’s any justice, this is a band that we will be hearing a lot more from.