Moonshine Still: Searching For The Truth In Sound
There is nothing better than getting in on the ground floor with a great band. It’s a very special feeling to be in a small club or theater and hear a band that makes you rethink the future of music. I’ll never forget seeing moe. in front of 40 people (a generous estimate) and thinking to myself “Those guys are going places.” The next thing I knew, they were selling out the 5000 seat Fox Theater.
Right now, Moonshine Still is such a band. Still fairly unknown to most people, it’s hard to believe they will remain that way for much longer. They combine rigorous musical composition, heartfelt and intelligent lyrics, soaring vocals and killer improv skills into a potent blend that builds on the legacy of jambands past, while sounding completely original at the same time.
At a recent show in Atlanta at the Variety Playhouse, I couldn’t help but think of the gaping hold Phish has left in the jamband world, and the similarities between Moonshine Still and the young, hungry band from Vermont I saw blow people’s minds at similar venues 12-15 years ago. Like that band, Moonshine occasionally plays above their audiences’ heads and isn’t afraid to get a little weird. Like that band, they live on the road, playing over 100 shows last year alone. Like that band, they have immaculate technical chops that allow them to play virtually anything they want. Like that band, they have the limitless imagination that means the sky is the limit for their music. I know it’s a heady comparison, and it’s one I don’t make lightly.
IN THE BEGINNING
This story begins simply enough, when future Moonshine Still lead singer Scott Baston was stood up for a date.
“She had double booked,” explains Baston. “She forgot she already had a date for that night, so she said You should go play music with my friend.’”
“It started with the three of us,” says bassist Ray Petren about the beginnings of the band. “Originally it was Scott, myself and our buddy Jeremy, who went back to Maine. It was just us with a crappy bass amp and microphone hung from the ceiling, just having fun at the house. We picked up Will (Robinson, Moonshine Still’s drummer) shortly after Jeremy left.”
Oddly enough, Robinson wasn’t a drummer to start with. At the time he met Scott, he was mainly a mandolin player, although he played guitar and keyboards as well. He made the switch to drums because that’s what the band needed, in a true display of team spirit. That same sense of all for one, one for all is what makes Moonshine such a cohesive and tight live band.
“We put the melody guy on drums,” Ray says with a laugh, but don’t think Will’s gifts are wasted. “He sings and composes a lot of our music.”
One key element in the band’s early growth was the addition of guitarist David Shore, who is capable of shredding solos with the best of them, and can also modify his playing to serve the song. His hard-edged attack owes a lot to his years as a teenage heavy metal junkie.
“When I joined, they told me it was going to be like Van Halen,” David says jokingly. “I had my finger tapping technique all ready.”
They recorded their first, self-titled album in 1997 and hit the road, slowly building up a unique sound and a devoted fanbase. Many people consider the band’s coming out party to be the “5th of July Fusion Festival,” a little-known but very special event featuring the Derek Trucks Band, Col. Bruce Hampton, and a special guest performance by Mike Gordon of Phish.
“I lost my mind at that festival,” says Baston. “And I haven’t found it since.”
MOON OVER GEORGIA
The band paid a lot of dues back in those days, and along the way they picked up one of their distinguishing characteristics, which is yet another similarity between them and Phish: A commitment to the highest production values their limited resources could provide.
“I think it started with the monitors,” says Will reflectively. “We realized pretty early on as a band that these little clubs we were playing, very few of them had decent monitor systems. So we decided to reinvest all of our money in a PA system.”
Over the years the band has continued to insist on the finest in sound and lights, and their light man Michael (the Chris Kuroda of our story) can tell you why.
“The audience can tell,” he says simply. “It completes the circle for them, it fills that gap.”
Today the band tours with some of the best light and sound of any band on the scene at any level.
After some hard work cemented their local following in Macon, the next logical step was for the band to record their second album, Circle Around the Sun. It is only fitting that Moonshine was one of the last bands to ever record in the old Capricorn studio there that saw so much magic over the years. (It has since been demolished)
The band saw that session as a grand experiment, recording several bits of home audio for use on the album.
“For one of the songs we had a bar scene, and we had a big party and recorded that and used it,” says Baston. “We recorded a friend of ours walking on gravel, we had a friend who worked in a pawnshop and had him get a gun and recorded him pulling the trigger. It was empty, we just wanted that click’.”
Armed with these fragments of audio verite, the band assembled their entourage and headed into the studio for a weekend to remember.
“They locked us in the studio with about 20 of our friends on Friday night and just told us to not be there on Monday,” says Will with a wicked grin.
Even if the process was fun, the results were somewhat scattered, and didn’t capture the fiery power the band was capable of generating onstage. Over the next few years, the band continued to evolve, with keyboardist Trippe Wright joining the band and adding yet another layer to the band’s sound by dabbling in electronica and techno sounds. Wright’s wide variety of keyboard sounds and textures was one element of the band that became more prominent over time, helping give Moonshine a prog-rock flavor that differentiated them from the Southern rockers that dominated the Georgia scene.
Drummer Will Robinson was also a major influence in taking the band in a more electronic direction, and thanks to technology, he’s responsible for more of what you hear at a Moonshine Still show than you might think. When the band gets into a deep trance space, some of the synthesizers you’re hearing are coming from the drum riser.
“I use Ableton Live, it’s a program that’s like a root-based software,” he explains casually. “It’s all mappable to MIDI, so I can cue it all with drum pads.”
WORDS AND WEAPONS
The other thing that always distinguished Moonshine Still was Scott Baston’s rich, soulful voice and quirky, clever lyrics. Baston is one of those creative, left-brained individuals who seem to have a direct connection to the muse, and his bandmates all vouch for his ability to channel words that seem to come from elsewhere.
“Sometimes I don’t really understand what I’m writing, I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Scott says sheepishly. “It’s not me, I tell people that all the time, it’s true.”
“Scott will write words, and I know he doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying,” says Ray with a mix of awe and brotherly love. “He finds it somewhere and he’s not even conscious about it. There is definitely something in music that lets you step beyond your normal self.”
Baston’s rich, powerful voice is also the biggest difference between Moonshine and Phish. Whatever you think of the band from Vermont, they never had a vocalist who could sing like Baston. However, especially in the early days, he was often accused of the same clever yet nonsensical lyrics that some criticize Phish for, but that would change
The band members went through various upheavalsmarriages, children, lifeand despite the ups and downs, they persevered. The songs started to take on a new depth, and the band started to reach another level. Scott began to reach inside his soul and come out with darker, heavier lines like “I’m wearing a dead man’s clothes and old second hand shoes” and “Swallowed by the darkness I am trying to transcend.”
“There’s a lot of bad and a lot of good,” Baston says philosophically. “Without both of them, we’d have nothing to write about.”
Combining the two can create some interesting juxtaposition, and the band became expert at contrasting different moods and emotions.
“(Scott) likes to sing the happy song with the saddest lyrics,” Ray points out.
The songs began to get more personal, with lyrics like “This ain’t no candy-coated life/you’ll find the struggle is your own/And any stone can build a wall/But in the face of it all, if you’re a builder you’re alone.” A band that had once been dismissed by some as just another happy hippie band did something surprising: They grew up.
For their second studio experience, Moonshine Still was much more focused and very clear about what they wanted to accomplish, contrary to the anything-goes experimentation of their first record. Veteran producer Robert Hannon, who has worked with everybody from OutKast to Elton John, helped bring the best out of the band.
“A lot of bands don’t like to do anything in the studio they can’t do live,” says Trippe Wright. “But I say take advantage of what you can do in that context.”
They certainly did, creating an overlooked masterpiece of a record that may be the finest studio album the jamband scene has yet produced. Hot jams, intelligent lyrics, soulful singing and irresistible melodies made the appropriately titled evolution an instant classic. Baston’s continuously evolving songwriting had reached the next level, and the bands’ performance brought each song stunningly to life, with a little help from Hannon’s skilled hands.
“It’s really pristine,” Michael says admiringly. “It has lots of depth to it, lots of layers, it’s just a matter of how deep you want to listen.”
The experience was a very positive one for the band, and whereas some jambands don’t seem comfortable in the studio, it sounds like these guys wouldn’t mind setting up shop and living there.
“I can see how the Beatles could just get lost in the studio,” Ray admits.
Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studios deserves a lot of credit for the quality of the finished product, according to the band. Apart from being a state of the art facility, owner Paul Diaz and staff made the band feel right at home.
“They work so hard to make you comfortable,” Wright says gratefully.
The end result sounds like a band that is completely comfortable with who they are and what kind of music they make. Whatever trials and tribulations they may have faced in the past, they have survived, and they know the sweetness that comes from overcoming pain to reach the joy on the other side.
“The greatest experiences are the bittersweet ones,” says Ray. “When you’re feeling a little bit of everything all at one time.”
THE SEARCH CONTINUES
The band supported the record with a busy year of touring, including such high profile gigs as the Wakarusa festival and a successful New Year’s Run in Colorado. 2006 finds Moonshine Still ready to conquer the universe. This could be the year they become more than one of the best-kept secrets in the music world.
“Seek and destroy,” says Wright with a grin. “This will be the shock and awe tour!”
As part of their constant reinvention, the band has ditched a lot of their old playlist in order to focus on their newer material.
“We’ve discarded probably 50 songs,” Ray says with a laugh.
“So we only have 3 left,” Baston quips with deadpan humor.
In all seriousness, the band has a rotation of “about 35-40” songs, enough to play three nights of original material. They are able to do this while playing virtually none of their older songs. They can get away with this because they write music at such a breakneck pace, probably because they do it all the time.
“We don’t rehearse. When we get together, we write music,” Baston says. “I write a lot of the lyrics, but honestly, the music part of it, we all come up with little pieces.”
Their newer material like “Haste” and “Put Me In The Wind” carries forth the evolution set forth on their last album, and there is no mistaking that this band is on a creative roll and firing on all cylinders. When questioned, they seem like they don’t want to think too much about what is happening right now, as if they don’t want to break the spell and lose the magic. The band seems proud of how far they have come, but they are very hesitant to give a destination for their musical journey.
“We have no idea what we’re doing,” Baston says with sincerity. “We just do it.”
“We don’t like to analyze it too much,” says Wright.
“I don’t know if it’s that thought out,” Ray chimes in, then adds “Other than we don’t want to be like everybody else.”
Will sits quietly in thought for a minute, then looks up and says “We search for truth in sound.”
For now, the search continues