Blues-rock trio Moreland & Arbuckle make their home in Kansas but play around the world, and this month they’re coming to Australia to bring their amazing sound to new audiences in support of their latest album, Promised Land or Bust. I spoke to guitarist Aaron Moreland about the band’s genesis and sound, and what he’s hoping to find in Australia.
Whereabouts in the United States do you originally hail from?
I’ve never lived anywhere but Kansas. It’s always been my home. I grew up in a little tiny town called Madison, Kansas – I had a grand total of fourteen people in my graduating class.
It sounds like it was rural, then.
Exceptionally rural. I’ve never lived in a city bigger than 25 000 people.
What sort of music did you listen to while you were growing up?
Mostly I heard what was on the radio. I grew up listening to classic rock and then I discovered blues. As I got older more, different kinds of rock ’n’ roll and once I had wheels I was able to drive to the closest city and buy music, then it kind of opened up more. But up until I was about thirteen it was mainly what was on the radio or eight-tracks or LPs or cassettes that somebody happened to have. Mostly it was classic rock and the blues.
Given that you were in such a small community, did you have any musical friends to talk about music with or share music with?
I did. I grew up with a couple of different people who were good musicians. One of them was a few years older than me, so I learned about some things I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. Then another was my age but he would go off to summer camp really far away from where we grew up and he’d come back with all this interesting stuff that you couldn’t hear on the radio back then, at least not on a commercial radio station, like Depeche Mode and The Cure. He was into stuff like that but I’d never even really heard of it. It was before the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers made it big – that kind of alternative scene before it really blew up.
At what age did you start playing the guitar, and what made you start?
Well, my biological father was a guitar player. He left when I was really young, but for as long as I can remember all I ever wanted to do was play guitar and listen to music. I started playing when I was fifteen. I got a guitar when I was thirteen and I couldn’t really make any music out of it at that point, so it mainly just stayed in its case. I really didn’t start playing until I was fifteen and then I picked it up and things kind of made more sense. I don’t know if it was a mental maturity thing or what. Music’s always just been really deep inside of me. As long as I can remember it’s one of the things that I’ve always had. I think it is the thing that I’ve had the longest-standing passion for in my entire life.
I know you don’t sing in this band, but have you ever sung?
I do sing a little bit. I’m not a very good singer. Some of our early records, actually, I did some singing on but I just don’t have a very good singing voice.
I tend to find that people who say that are better singers than they think. But I’ll leave it and move on another question. As you started to play guitar and find your musical voice in that way, did you develop different musical influences to the ones you’d had before that? Did you start to listen to music differently, to pick up guitar parts or because it seemed interesting?
I think I did as I got older. Right at the beginning I’d say no, that was not the case, because I was so limited in what I could do. But as I’ve gotten older and still to this day I’ll hear things differently that I maybe didn’t notice even just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if this ever happens to you but there’s times when I just have certain days that things just sound different and I’ll notice things that I’ve never noticed before and I’ll hear songs almost like I’ve put a different filter on my brain or over my ears. It makes me hear things like I’ve never heard them before and that still happens to me with a good bit of regularity.
That sort of experience is ephemeral – you hear it but trying to record it in your brain is quite difficult. Do you then tend to pick up a guitar and try to … it’s almost like working out a puzzle.
Sometimes. One of the best songs that I’ve ever writ kind of just dropped into my lap. I either had it in my head and picked up a guitar and figured out what it was in my head or I was just dinking around, playing, and suddenly I had a new tune.
And that sort of activity suggests that you don’t tend to censor yourself too much – you trust what comes through. You may edit it afterwards but you certainly trust the source.
I think so. If I hit onto something that’s pretty good I usually know it almost always in the moment. The biggest mistake that I make is that some of the best songs I’ve ever written I forgot before I could get them recorded. A friend of mine and I used to joke that we were lifelong members of the Forgotten Licks Club. So much comes out sometimes and if you don’t capture it exactly how it was, it’s gone. If I know I’m kind of in a real good spot when I’m playing around on my guitar by myself, practising – I don’t do as much as I should these days – I will record myself. It’s so easy now with cellphones and such. But I’ll record myself and oftentimes go back and listen to it and think, ‘Well, I don’t remember that at all’ – so that’s good. Some of the tunes that have appeared on a record have been that way. They’re songs that I wrote or riffs that I wrote that I’d kind have forgotten about but luckily I was rolling some kind of recording device to help revisit them.
You said that music is a lifelong passion – did you always want to be in a band?
I always wanted to be in a band. I started playing guitar in December of 1989 and I think I was playing semi in a band, at least very informally, within four, five, six months. It happened pretty quick.
And were you the band leader of those early bands?
I was always the one that seemed to find the guys, yeah, I would say so. I look back on it and realise that for my age period and where I lived I had a resourcefulness that I am amazed that I had. I remember calling up to the local university when I was fifteen years old and speaking with the vocal professor there and asking if he had any college kids that may be interested in singing in a rock ’n’ roll band. The guy literally just printed off his entire class list of all his male singers and sent it to me in the mail. Looking back on that it’s, like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty unbelievable.’
Except I wonder if it’s not to do with that passion you mentioned earlier – you had that drive to be involved in music and the practical side of that is, ‘If I want a band I have to get the elements together.’ I can certainly see that continuum.
I hadn’t thought of it like that. I certainly found a way to make what I wanted to happen, happen, from pretty early on.
And, of course, the current band is now seven albums in. When did Moreland & Arbuckle form, how did you meet? Did you like each other straightaway?
I did like him straightaway. I met Dustin Arbuckle at an open-mic in the early part of 2001 then later crossed paths with him again because I was just doing this little solo home-spun thing and I needed some harmonica on it. I didn’t even know he could sing at that point. I hadn’t heard him sing, I’d just heard him play harmonica. Then we got together and I heard him sing and I said, ‘Damn, man, you’re a really good singer. This really works good.’ We were both at that point wanting to play pretty much pre-war traditional blues and even though Wichita’s about half a million people there really weren’t a whole lot of other people around that were interested in that, so it clicked right away.
And pre-war traditional blues is very specific, so it seems almost like you might have been destined to meet.
I would say that’s absolutely right. I’m a firm believer that everything in our lives happens for a reason. I think most things are predetermined to an extent. I’m a big believer in fate, as you are saying.
Your current album is your seventh and there’s a sense on the album that this is a band who knows exactly what you’re doing – you know what your sound is and you’re not trying to prove anything or sort things out. But did it take you a while to find your own sound?
Well, it’s kind of interesting – it sort of goes back to your question of how the band formed. It’s been an evolution, for sure. We’ve gone from playing just the two of us, as a harmonica and acoustic guitar duo doing the pre-war blues stuff to playing in a quartet with typical guitar, bass, drums, singer and Dustin would play harp, and some of that early stuff was really more of a blues-rock jam band typical of what you’d hear out of an average band. And once we lost our second bass player we realised at that point that we were just going to move forward without a bass player and see what happens. I wasn’t really that excited to do it but Dustin convinced me that it was what we should do and it’s actually really worked out well. There have been many permutations that have got us to where we are now and the sound has evolved very much in an earthy, non-planned way.
When you mentioned that you weren’t too excited to not have a bass player, was that because that was convention and you wondered if you could do without one?
That’s exactly right. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how I’d ever do this’, and actually I kind of had a knack for it and I didn’t know it because I’d spent all those years just sawing away on my resonator guitar playing old blues stuff … I had it in me and I just didn’t realise it at the time.
Certainly, listening to your music it’s not like it’s a thin sound – there’s a lot in each song. I can’t imagine there is room for a bass in there now. Which may mean that your sound’s evolved that way but also it’s perfect as it is.
And a recorded album is a totally different experience to our live show just because a record is a forever thing because you have more opportunities to add layers. There are bass parts on some of our recordings. Dustin does play bass a little bit now live, so a handful of our tunes live have bass, which frees me up a little bit, but by and large the best compliment I could get is really the compliment you just gave: when somebody sees us at a show and says, ‘I don’t even miss the bass player. You guys have such a cool sound.’
When I was first listening to the album I went back to the bio checking for the name of the bass player – I didn’t miss it either but I was convinced there had to be one because of the sound. But I’ll move on to talk to you about your tour schedule. Before you come to Australia you’ll be in the UK, you’re back home in Kansas for a couple of shows and then you’re on a cruise. Is your schedule usually like that – do you pack the year out?
Our schedule’s pretty insane sometimes – we go all over the place. Travelling all over Europe and North America. It can be pretty intense. It’s the hardest part of the job of being a musician. The intense travel can really turn it into a grind.
It would be one thing if you could be magically transported to a gig but so much of your time is spent travelling that I would imagine it could sometimes be counterproductive in that it’s quite tiring.
At this point I honestly would say that only 10 per cent of the amount of time we spend on our jobs as musicians is playing music – if 10 per cent, maybe less, because of everything that goes into it. We’re not at the point where we’re on a tour bus or a private jet. We’re driving ourselves to all shows in the US, all shows in Europe. That’s one nice thing when we come to Australia: we actually have somebody that’s going to be driving.
I’m glad about that because Australia’s very big and just looking at your list of gigs, to get around would take up pretty much all the time.
Yeah [laughs]. I’m all too familiar with taking up lots of time. There’s times when we’ve driven 30 hours non-stop to play a one-hour show.
Do you have any expectations of your Australian trip or do you tend to go into all your gigs expectation free?
I’m excited about it. I’ve learned over the years that to have too many expectations can be good and/or bad at times so I try to shy from too many expectations. But based on everything I’ve heard and everything I’ve read, and everybody I’ve ever talked to that’s been there as a visitor or as a performer has told me that it’s one of the most amazing places they’ve ever been and that the people in Australia love live music and are really down to earth, and [it’s] a fun place to be, so my expectation is that it will be really, really cool.
MORELAND & ARBUCKLE AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Saturday 18th February
Holler Roots Music Festival
Caravan Music Club
95-97 Drummond St Oakleigh VIC
Ph: 03 9568 1432
Sunday 19th February
314 Sydney Rd Brunswick VIC
Ph: 03 9380 8818
Monday 20th February
29 Fitzroy St, St Kilda VIC
Ph: 03 9536 1168
Dinner & show tickets also available
Wednesday 22nd February
Stag & Hunter
187 Maitland Rd, Mayfield NSW
Ph: 02 4968 1205
Thursday 23rd February
Black Bear Lodge
322 Brunswick St Fortitude Valley QLD
Friday 24th February
165 Duringan St Currumbin QLD
Ph: 07 5534 7999
Saturday 25th February
7 Macquarie Place, Sydney NSW
Ph: 02 9251 2797
Dinner & show tickets also available
Sunday 26th February
The Brass Monkey
115A Cronulla St, Cronulla NSW
Ph: 02 9544 3844
Tickets to all shows available at