Band of the Month: The Moonhangers
The Moonhangers give outlaw country a good name
By Darcie Stevens,
12:09PM, Fri. Feb. 22, 2008
As the first installment of my new (hopefully) monthly spotlight on a local band, I wanted to take a look at the new generation of outlaw country, the Moonhangers. The local threepiece moonlights as one of our favorite gritty blues bands Chili Cold Blood (see "Chili Cold Blood Loves You!" Dec. 23, 2005), but as the Moonhangers, Doug Strahan, Ethan Shaw, and Matt Puryear swap dirt and growl for astounding musicianship, classic songwriting, and lots of history. Their sophomore album, The Last of the New York Sessions (on the band's own Bloodchili Records), is a testament to traditional country filled to brimming with sweet pedal steel, intricate axe work, and Puryear's well-tended drumming. It was an instant classic in my mammoth collection. And if you were wondering, the album was recorded at Analog Convergence Studios on Austin's New York Avenue. It wouldn't make much sense for this level of Southern blood to flow from the North, anyhow. Guitarist/vocalist Strahan and pedal steel slider/bassist/vocalist Shaw indulged some of my curiosities and compared their two oh-so-different yet kindred bands via e-mail.
Shut Up: Which came first, Chili Cold Blood or the Moonhangers? Or did they evolve at the same time?
Ethan Shaw: CCB came first. Strahan and I met playing country gigs with other bands around town. We formed a band called the La Salles in 2000, which (long story short) morphed into CCB. We had CCB gig, playing pickup country gigs on the side for quite a few years, but CCB got busy, and we had to quit the other gigs and focus all of our time on the Cold Blood.
Doug Strahan: When we were focusing all of our time/energy on CCB, we realized that we needed to play country music in order to be happy – that in a way we were denying a side of ourselves by focusing strictly on CCB. So we started cooking up the Moonhangers.
SU: I remember y’all talking about studio work and being session musicians in a previous interview. Are the Moonhangers a tangent of that?
ES: Well, no. We both come from a wide range of music influences. Studio time from the past has certainly helped us with recording both bands as with managing the record label. We’ve learned that if you’re self-supportive, you need to use your studio time efficiently.
DS: Yes. We’ve become very economical with time in the studio. It’s all about preparation, basically knowing your shit before you go in to record. This is a virtue to us. We all spend hours of our own time preparing right before studio time – this way it’s in, out, and on with the show. The Bagpiper, Matt Puryear, spent a lot of time on this record as well – figuring out gear, mixing down, and what not. It’s been pretty impressive watching him grow into a studio engineer along Sachem’s [engineer, mixer, and masterer Sachem Arvidson] side.
SU: Do you have more fun playing traditional country or gutbucket blues?
ES: It’s all blues based. From the Moonhangers’ funkiest country song to our most Sabbath-esque CCB song, it’s all blues. The difference between MH and CCB is that MH plays in major keys and CCB plays in minor keys. To a degree, both bands influence one another.
DS: True, plus neither band is held strictly to one genre of music. With MH, we may play some Bob Wills, a chicken-picker, or a Stonesy rock-n-roller, aside from the obvious Waylon beat. We love playing country swing and Waylon beats and couldn’t live without the Sabbath side. While it’s not as obvious with the MH, both bands are dark.
SU: Is there a connection between Chili Cold Blood and the Moonhangers besides the personnel?
DS: Well, it’s Shaw and I doing the writing, singing, and playing – so that’s nothing different. Personally, Billy F. Gibbons influences my approach to both bands. And while I’m not for certain on this, I’ve always thought that James Burton played quite an influence on Tony Iommi – at least in my mind. Both these dudes find their way into my picking in both bands.
SU: I heard it in New York Sessions’ “Steppin’ Out” and “Take Your Time,” but how about otherwise?
DS: Well, these two tunes don’t really come from CCB.
ES: No, they’re more based in the stylings of Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings, whereas the funkiness in CCB comes from the Beastie boys, other hip hop artists, and black Seventies funk.
SU: Are you ever writing a song for Chili Cold Blood that makes more sense as the Moonhangers or vice versa?
DS: Absolutely. Usually when one of us writes a song, it will find its home in one or the other band. Rarely will we write something completely outside the realm of either band unless we’re experimenting.
ES: "Love Is the Hardest Thing" started out as a Chili Cold Blood tune, but as the Moonhangers evolved, it became apparent that it was more cohesive with MH.
SU: Are you able to switch gears, or is it impossible to devote equal amounts of time to both bands?
DS: We’re going to be playing in Lafayette at the Blue Moon, where the Moonhangers will be opening for Chili Cold Blood. As for time, we like to think that we’re devoting equal time to both. It comes in waves when it comes to writing, but in the end, it always works out where we put out a record for each band roughly once a year.
ES: Moonhangers will have to play first, because after a CCB gig, our voices are blown for a few days.
DS: Yep, vocal cords shredded.
SU: You jump around in the new album a lot – from Western swing to zydeco to country rock. Were you attempting to represent many subgenres, or did it all come naturally?
ES: People like to know how to classify you. This is difficult when you throw an array of styles at them. [First LP] Home Grown established us as outlaw.
DS: Since then, outlaw has become more of a reference point. We now can delve into the different grooves that we dig. Really, this record is a pretty honest portrayal of where we’re at and what we’re into at this time.
ES: When you pigeonhole yourself into one genre, you risk stunting the band’s evolution. We don’t think of ourselves as any genre with either band.
SU: I know y’all have some experience recording in living rooms and kitchens. Can you compare this recording session to your past experiences?
ES: This go-round there was only one dog running around the studio.
DS: Still playing in the kitchen and the living room. I can’t count the times I’ve spent staring at Sachem’s dirty dishes while thinking about a song or a solo.
ES: This session, we didn’t drink until after each day of recording, really.
DS: A few beers can make you too loose. Studio time you gotta be tight, focused, and in the pocket. We drank during vocal takes.
SU: Can you talk a bit about your influences? Moonhangers or CCB? Both?
ES & DS: MH: Waylon, Hank Jr. & Sr., Willie, Jerry Reed, Rolling Stones, Bob Wills, Stanley Brothers, James Burton, Ralph Mooney, Gary Stewart. Those are the obvious ones.
DS: We take in influences from all kinds of music, and we don’t hesitate to let ’em rip in either band.
SU: What are your thoughts on contemporary country?
ES: I’m a little bit encouraged about where mainstreamed country is going. This is the first time in a long time that pedal steel has returned as a commonplace instrument. There’s a lot of country on Top 40 radio that sounds more like Hank Jr. or the Rolling Stones. They seem to be getting away from just a saccharine version of George Strait. That being said, most of it sucks, but most Top 40 music in general sucks.
DS: While country music is not in one of its golden eras, it’s never too long after such eras when something fresh and real comes along and kind of turns the industry on its ear. It has always been cyclical. Usually the low points are when the big-wigs take too much control of the music. Artists can’t function in that setting and eventually bust out from under their screws. I hope.
SU: Should we expect another personality from y’all to emerge? When is the first gig for your hip-hop act?
DS: As for hip-hop, Shaw has been working on some fly beat box. He’s got some killer moves. Who knows, maybe we’ll just skip hip-hop and start our own reality show on VH1 … "And at the end of the day, who will Chili Cold Blood love?”
SU: Anything else you’d like to add?
ES: Mitt Romney asked us awhile back to play at his inauguration. We’re seriously bummed that he’s no longer contending.
DS: Yeah man, and that whack-job, err I mean, Mike Huckabee actually wanted CCB. I guess he heard that song 'bout Jesus.
The Moonhangers play tonight, Feb. 22, at Cypress Creek Cafe in Wimberley and tomorrow, Feb. 23, at Lamberts in Austin. Wear boots, and take a date.