“For me, playing music is a very therapeutic, cathartic thing,” says Lee. “I’m always trying to force some evil out onto the guitar, so the riffs I write tend to be very physical and busy as a byproduct of that.” Photo by Sean Ageman
Unbridled turbulence. Dexterous metal riffing. Soulful vocals over layers of melodies and shifting rhythms. Moon Tooth’s unique beast of a sound is forged from seemingly disparate elements, and the quartet unleashes it with the kind of intensity and surgical accuracy typically reserved for extreme metal bands.
Based in Long Island, New York, Moon Tooth is steeped in the essential fearlessness at the heart of prog-rock, and their debut LP, Chromaparagon, feels like an epic journey through countless sonic realms. But not once over the course of the album’s 12 tracks do the dramatic stylistic shifts seem like a distracting party trick. Instead, they simply underscore Moon Tooth’s single mission: to play music it describes as “aggressive progressive.” While the band’s genre hopping is certainly a part of Chromaparagon’s allure, perhaps the most impressive thing about the album is just how cohesively these various sonic worlds fit together.
Chiefly responsible for creating and commanding Moon Tooth’s controlled chaos is fleet-fingered guitarist, songwriter, and occasional vocalist Nick Lee. A virtuosic shredder with a flair for the off-kilter, Lee keeps his impressive fretwork at the center of Moon Tooth’s musical maelstroms. We spoke with him about the process of fusing the band’s sonic personalities, where he comes from as a player, and how he goes about recreating Moon Tooth’s mammoth sound onstage.
Chromaparagon has an incredible number of musical ideas stuffed into every corner. How do you guys decide where to take a song—and do you ever draw the line or say “no” to an idea?
I don’t think we’ve ever said “no” to a stylistic curveball. This record was written by myself and our drummer, Ray Marte, who is also a killer guitarist. We’d each show up with half-finished riffs or song ideas and then suss them out together. Neither of us ever says “that’s too this or that’s too that.” Previously we’d been in a three-piece together, and the third guy had a problem with a lot of the very heavy things we’d bring in. But Ray and I listen to a lot of death metal and heavier stuff, and that’s an important part of our respective musical identities. This band is very much a reaction to our experience of not being able to express that within our last group. We operate with no boundaries on purpose, and it’s fun!
How do you characterize Moon Tooth’s music to the uninitiated?
The phrase we’ve been using is “aggressive progressive,” but that’s really just because saying you’re in a rock ’n’ roll band doesn’t quite get the point across these days. We’re not trying to be a prog band, really. We totally get that there’s an element of prog in what we do, but to me we’re just a rock band in the purest sense of that term—we just happen to push the envelope of what we can do musically and push each other to do crazier shit.
But there’s still a lot of classic prog in your music, especially on an instrumental like “Bats in the Attic”—which sounds like you’re quoting a bit of Yes.
Oh yeah, the “Heart of the Sunrise” riff. That was totally subconscious, but we laugh about it all the time because we listen to that Yes record a lot and always go, “Oh shit, we kind of stole that riff!” But it just happened that way—we absolutely didn’t write it as an homage or anything.
That said, we don’t operate the way a lot of contemporary prog bands work, and there’s never been an effort to write something specifically to impress other musicians. Ray and I have been playing together for so many years at this point that we’ve developed this friendly competition of who can come up with the crazier riff, but I want to write stuff that is memorable, rather than just impressive.
The album has some very dramatic dynamic shifts, including some surprising death-metal-tinged passages.
Yeah, we love blast beats. Ray and I grew up on Cryptopsy and Cannibal Corpse, and we still listen to a ton of that shit! I primarily listen to music that’s far heavier than what Moon Tooth does, but this band is a product of all of our influences and I think that shows. Pantera was a very big deal for me and Ray, especially things like how tight they could lock in live. We really aspire to pull off that kind of pocket and groove within our own thing.
Moon Tooth’s debut album, Chromaparagon, reflects the band’s diverse stylistic interests. “We totally get that there’s an element of prog in what we do,” says guitarist Nick Lee, “but to me we’re just a rock band in the purest sense of that term—we just happen to push the envelope of what we can do musically and push each other to do crazier shit.”
Tell us a bit about where you come from as a guitarist.
My dad is a huge Black Sabbath and Motörhead fan, and I always had hard rock playing in the house. My parents’ friends and my aunts and uncles always had cover bands, so I was always surrounded by it. I heard Metallica for the first time when I was 6 and that changed everything. The darkness of it really hit me hard, and I just wanted to be James Hetfield when I was a kid. Once that started, I had the typical adventure and search through heavy metal. I discovered Dimebag and Pantera next, and eventually I got into Brent Hinds from Mastodon. His style, with the hybrid picking stuff, really opened up my musical world. I got into Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke through Brent Hinds’ playing—he changed the game for me a lot. The hybrid-picking and pull-off style of lead playing that comes from country music has become a big part of what I do. I really like to steal the best parts of country guitar playing and infuse my riffs with it.
I don’t really write simple songs naturally—most of it’s pretty physically demanding on me and I like that. For me, playing music is a very therapeutic, cathartic thing. I’m always trying to force some evil out onto the guitar, so the riffs I write tend to be very physical and busy as a byproduct of that. I’m also really into building a basic groundwork for riffs and expanding on that as a writing tool. A lot of the stuff I write for Moon Tooth begins as something simple in its infancy, and then I’ll add fills and ideas until it evolves into something unique.
You play like someone with a serious musical education.
I studied for 10 years under Mike Flyntz, who is best known as the guitarist for the band Riot—a classic New York metal band that has been around since the late ’70s, and which I also play in these days. Mike taught me everything I know. I took music theory in high school for a few years and I did a semester at college as a performance major, but I hated it at the time. I’d probably feel different about it now, but when I was 18 I didn’t want the guitar to be homework. So I’m educated enough to express what I want to, but I’m not like a deep theory head or anything, and I don’t consider it that much when I write.
How does Moon Tooth go about structuring songs and making these wild changes flow so well?
It’s pretty natural, honestly. A lot of those things just come together on their own, but a lot of the time we just add a little flair between the changes. It’s mostly organic.