Aaron “Chainsaw” Moreland talks about the hard-driving Delta blues he and his partner Dustin Arbuckle have been serving up since 2002.
The first thing you might notice when Moreland & Arbuckle take the stage is Moreland’s guitar, a cigar box-shaped, four-string instrument that looks as if it might have come from someone’s attic. Perhaps someone named Muddy, B.B. or Lead Belly.
Although the ax looks homemade, the sounds Moreland coaxes from it are a bit more contemporary. Cranking out powerful riffs while Arbuckle blows harp and sings, and drummer Kendall Newby bangs out the beat, Moreland & Arbuckle don’t just play the blues; they strip the music down to its DNA components and then rebuild it for 21st Century audiences.
Moreland recently talked with Pollstar while he was parked on a road at a college campus in Winfield, Kansas. The guitarist described what he and Arbuckle have learned during the past nine years, their recently released second album on Telarc International, Just A Dream, and who he’d like to jam with if only he had a time machine.
How is your new album, Just A Dream, different from your previous releases?
I think we took a step up. Our songwriting is better. We’ve been working real hard the last couple of years. We traveled and toured a lot. Naturally, we tightened up as a band – better musicianship – and I think we did a better job of crafting the jobs, production-wise, then we ever had before.
Was it always the plan to present yourself as “Moreland & Arbuckle?
No. At one time we straddled the fence between our all-acoustic duo that played blues, and at the same time we had a quartet, a full band with a bass player. As time passed, the band seemed more viable as far as bookability. After a period of time it was pretty clear we had not had good luck finding a bass player to fill that role, so it was kind of a natural evolution.
Were you already playing the four-string “cigar box” banjo?
No. We had played without a bass player and without the cigar box, for about a year-and-a-half. The four-string cigar box with a bass string was not planned. I just happened to meet the gentleman, who is a now a good friend of mine, who built it for me and I was intrigued by the sound and the possibilities and took it from there.
The new album rocks more than past efforts, as if there’s no such thing as a ballad in the Moreland & Arbuckle universe.
Just a Dream is the first recording effort we ever had that did not have any acoustic stuff on it. When we finished all the electric portions, it seemed like the record was complete. It didn’t seem like there would be room to add acoustic things like we had on albums past.
Did you start with the blues or did that come later?
I started out when I was young playing classic rock. That was what I heard on the radio the whole time I was growing up. In my late teen years, all the stuff from Seattle hit and I found that to be a pleasing sound. But all the while I had always been a huge blues fan. When I was about 22 I discovered Son House (blues guitarist/singer Eddie James “Son” House, Jr.) and really got hooked on the Delta sounds with a resonator guitar, so I spent quite a few years just working on that. I listened to a lot of different music, different styles, and a lot of different things have crept into my sound over the years.
How did you meet Dustin Arbuckle?
Dustin and I met at open mic. I had just moved to the Wichita area and was going out, hitting some open mics, and the second time I went out I met him. We started playing together maybe about four to six months after that. It’s been almost a decade ago at this point.
Your website mentions how you and Arbuckle have learned how to entertain larger audiences while moving up from clubs to theatres. What can you tell us about that?
Playing these opening slots like we’ve been doing the last few years, we’ve really had to develop what we call a power set – a 30 to 35 minute set where we come out to usually a sold out or packed house and play to that size audience and people really don’t know who we are. Coming out and opening for Buddy Guy or George Thorogood or ZZ Top, Los Lobos – somebody like that – and the crowd we’re jumping in front of may have not heard of us at all. We really have refined that power set over the last two years to have maximum impact in a minimum amount of time. Our set construction and how we hit and leave the stage is entirely different now than it was at the beginning of that time.
Do you just expand on that power set when you headline a gig?
When we have an hour or more – that’s perfect. We can stretch out, maybe try out some new material, do a bit more improvisational jamming and not stick so much to a formula. I’d never call us a “formula band” by any means, but when we do the power set I would say we’re more closely tied to a formula than ever before. There are certain things we pretty much always play in those power sets.
About improvising – Is it easy for you and Justin to go off on a whim in the middle of a show?
Yeah, it really is easy. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed. A lot of musicians are scared to do that, especially in a live setting but I’ve always enjoyed taking chances. He’s the same way and that’s something that has been ingrained in our musical connection from the beginning.
Are there moments, say, when you’re doing a soundcheck or warming up for a recording session, that you and Justin just play whatever comes to mind?
That’s typically how we write our best songs. Some of my best riffs, best progressions, some of the best hooks I ever came up with were 100 percent spontaneous. I just pick up a guitar at a rehearsal or soundcheck and all of a sudden I’m playing something really cool that I’ve never played before. And I just hope that I can remember it or somebody is recording it because I have forgotten some of the best stuff I have ever come up with.
Do you carry a recorder or notebook with you for those moments when something pops up in your head?
I just joined the modern world in the last month and got an iPhone. [I] discovered the voice memo on the iPhone and I think I have about a dozen entries in there with snippets of three minutes or less of cool ideas that I almost certainly would have forgotten – the phrasing, the particular way I was playing it or the time signature. I have plans this weekend to go back and revisit that stuff and see what I got.
You had Steve Cropper guest on your album. Was he one of your influences?
I think he was probably a bigger influence on Dustin because Dustin is a big soul guy. I like all that stuff a lot.
There’s no doubt Steve Cropper, I think, has influenced every single electric guitar player that plays any type of roots music. To say he wasn’t a direct influence would be naïve.
What other guitarists influenced you?
Jimmy Page. [I’m a] big, big Led Zeppelin fan. Fred McDowell, Son House, Charley Patton.
If you could step into a time machine and play with any blues artist during their prime, who would it be?
I’d love to play with Muddy [Waters]. The things he did on slide guitar throughout his whole career still sends a chill up my spine every time I hear it. I’d love to see that firsthand and not study it on a poorly recorded, what now would be a DVD. He was long gone by the time I was able to appreciate it. He was amazing.
Do you think it’s a better time now for a group like yours to make it when compared to the pre-Internet days when major avenues of music discovery were limited to radio, television and word-of-mouth?
I think you can make a case both ways. In some ways I think it’s more difficult now than ever because of the way the record sales industry has gone. But there is more opportunity to promote in a different way to a way-wider audience. You can present yourself to a million fans in Poland and that was a lot tougher to do in 1976.
I’ve pondered that question many a time. I’m not sure the climate has ever been any easier or harder for a band. It’s such a crowded field and there’s so many great musicians, so many great bands. It’s a tough business. You got to be in it because you love it. You’ve got to have a work ethic to really push through and make it unless you’re incredibly lucky.
Is anybody doing the guitar/ harmonica duo like you and Dustin are doing?
No, not really. Guitar, drums and harmonica – that is the format we tour in. We don’t ever do duo gigs anymore. Pretty much everything we do is that trio format. We get compared all the time to The Black Keys, the North Mississippi Allstars and The White Stripes, but those bands don’t have a harmonica like we do. That’s the primary lead instrument. Those three contemporary acts we get compared to the most. But I don’t know of any other bands that’s as rooted in blues as we are, that has the same instrumentation we do and still has a heavy-handed guitar player that rocks as hard and is as creative as what we do.
What do you see in the future for Moreland & Arbuckle?
Every year has gotten better for us. We’ve made more fans and traveled more, made better records and [played] better gigs. I think that’s where things are headed, as far as I can tell.
Upcoming shows for Moreland & Arbuckle include Charlotte, N.C., at the U.S. National Whitewater Center Oct. 29; Kansas City at Knuckleheads Nov. 3; St. Louis at Beale On Broadway Feb. 4 and Cedar Falls, Iowa, at The Hub Nov. 5. Visit MorelandArbuckle.com for more information.