Fingerstyle guitarist Matt Schneider uses two acoustic guitars—a 1960s Harmony and a Martin D12-20, with a Radial Engineering Tonebone PZ-Pre acoustic preamp, and no effects. Photo by Dan Mohr
Musicians’ bios generally have more bubbling adjectives than a Harlequin romance, and they can be just as fantastical. As Frank Zappa famously noted, it’s hard to describe music in words. Yet the description that came with the Moon Bros. new album, These Stars, summed up the music and the man behind it in a single fitting word: idiosyncratic.
A veteran of Chicago’s jazz-rock underground, Matthew Schneider spent his early career in bands like the Exciting Trio, Toe, and HiM. Then he decided to retreat to his rural roots and refocus his attention on fingerstyle acoustic guitar, honing his formidable technique while exploring the textured and eclectic compositional approach that defines his evolving project known as Moon Bros.
The Illinois native considers These Stars (Western Vinyl) to be the fifth Moon Bros. album. But with its predecessors not readily accessible to the public, it serves as a de facto debut for many listeners. Schneider says it’s also the first Moon Bros. album to feature a full band: Matt Lux (bass), Sam Wagster (pedal steel), and Dan Bitney (percussion). Recorded in three days with everyone playing together, the music has a “live” feel. It’s also free of the sweetening you’d expect from an album circa 2016. Instead, Schneider and company draw unusual textures from familiar instruments to give These Stars a distinctly emotional sound that rewards repeated listening.
On the title cut, Schneider’s high tenor voice and delicate guitar deliver a plaintive ballad that’s underscored by Wagster’s pedal steel. “Pitch” starts with folky harmonica (played by Schneider) over a guitar bed driven by some breathtaking picking. That’s followed by the upbeat instrumental, “El Conejo,” which somehow recalls both Leo Kottke and Frank Zappa. Songs like “Wool Blankets” and “Oh So Cold” offer a nod to country-folk.
Schneider’s dynamics on “Corrido” give the song power, while the use of steel guitar and percussion offer an interesting contrast (or is it compatibility?) between Spanish and American sounds. Similarly, “Blues” evolves beyond the genre of its title. The final cut, “AC/DC,” may be the most emotional of the bunch, as Schneider again creates a guitar foundation of fast arpeggios and tremolo for his voice and the sobbing steel guitar.
Perhaps it’s fitting that we spoke to Schneider while he was riding in a car, occasionally interrupting our chat to give directions to an unnamed driver. If the music on These Stars is anything to go by, the person behind the wheel was in for an interesting ride with plenty of sudden turns.
The songs on These Stars sound very organic and unfiltered. Was that the goal?
I wanted to make a live band record that really sounded like us. We basically just went into the studio and tracked it as is. Even the vocals are the “scratch” vocals. There are no dubs or anything like that. This particular band came together when we did a residency at a place in Chicago called Analogue. I wrote the material and rehearsed it with the band during that residency.
Did you arrange it with them or develop it on your own and teach them the parts?
The music is pretty simple, so they just ran with it. I didn’t really conduct them very much at all. Maybe more so when we got into the studio, but that was more for time because a lot of those tunes in “real life” are a lot longer than they are on the record.
I’ve been playing with everyone in the band for years and years in the improvised music scene in Chicago, so it had more to do with the players being themselves than me telling them what to do.
FACTOID: Matt Schneider, the principal songwriter for Moon Bros., wrote the material for These Stars and rehearsed it with his band during a four-week residency at the Analogue in Chicago in late 2014.
The music is very textured. The vibe is Americana, but doesn’t seem to be especially traditional.
Thank you for noticing [laughs]. You can have an acoustic band, and the music can be a bit more than meets the ear. A lot of music I like falls under that category. Just writing for other instruments—I kind of got into that sort of thing. Like, “Oh, you know, we have a trumpet, a bass player and a drummer—but don’t sound anything like a trad jazz band.” Would you say this music is rooted in a folk vein?
I was really just going with the flow instead of thinking, “This is supposed to be a folk song.” The way I view music these days, after playing and being interested in a lot of different styles, is they all just seem to be one thing to me now. I can’t really pick apart the small stylistic differences between one record and another. There’s so much overlap in the world now. And the more you learn about music history, the more you see that one style or genre comes through the other.
Your guitar obviously plays a prominent role in the songs, and the band lends a lot of the texture. Did you compose with that in mind?
Necessity is the mother of invention, I guess [laughs]. I’m a guitar player, and I’ve thought about the guitar in a lot of different ways over the years. I wanted it to be more clear and unaffected—like a piano or something like that. Learning to play the guitar, I grew up playing stuff like Chet Atkins when I was a kid. That’s what I was totally into.
Interesting: Atkins played classical guitar as well as country. This music has an almost classical approach in the way the songs move through different textures. Is that just from his playing?
Aside from Chet, I’m influenced by Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté; his music saved my relationship with fingerstyle guitar. I also love Clarence White, his legato stuff—also his B-bender playing—but the legato shit is really crushing. Johnny Smith, too: I’m super into those big-ass arpeggios he used to do. I love that stuff.
There was no specific influence I was trying to draw from for this album. But there were non-musical influences for sure: language- and communication-based influences. Taking an idea, and searching around for it like you were writing prose.
In what way?
Like if you have a jazz tune and it has a 12-bar form or a 32-bar form, and everyone plays the head and then improvises over the changes—I was trying to think of that kind of experience, creating that sense of dialogue for the listener or the performer. When we play this material live, the songs are usually a lot longer and go so many places. A lot of it sounds free composed in some ways. But there are a lot of sort of trap doors in unexpected places, so it’s not just like “we played the head, now we’re going to blow through the changes.” The tune can change. I was more influenced by communication than a musical style.