In the lit that accompanies the new moetar release, entropy of the Century [Magna Carta], there is this sure-to-be-repeated description
of the band: “MoeTar sounds like the Beatles + Frank Zappa + XTC on acid.”
If it takes a while to digest that meaning, don’t worry. It also takes a second to
absorb everything that the band puts into a song—or even just a measure of a
song. Bold harmonic structures, intricate instrumental breaks, intense dynamics,
super-complex metric shifts, and gorgeous vocal melodies all somehow
peacefully coexist in songs that effortlessly span many genres at once. Tying
it all together is the compositional prowess of bassist and chief songwriter
Tarik Ragab and the powerful vocals of Moorea Dickinson. They are joined on
Entropy by Bass Player magazine alum Jonathan Herrera (on keys!), keyboardist
Matt Lebovsky, David Flores on drums, and Matthew Charles Heulitt on guitar.
Heulitt represents a scarce breed of guitarist these days: He can play complicated
fusion and straight-ahead rock. He can navigate incredibly difficult singlenote
lines—both by ear and reading them off a chart—and still possess soulful,
bluesy bends and killer vibrato. He can get a big rock tone without coming off
like a big rock dude. Savvy 6-string fans will recognize Heulitt—a.k.a. MCH—
from his work with Zigaboo Modeliste and Narada Michael Walden (who has
been known to play with good guitarists from time to time), but they will surely
hear a different side of his musical personality if they catch a MoeTar gig. Think
there’s nothing new under the sun? Spin this record and then think again.
You guys are too pop to be prog, you’re too prog to be pop, too rock to be fusion,
too melodic to be weird, but too weird to be truly melodic or accessible. So
what the hell are you MoeTar people doing?
It’s really all about Tarik and his vision for being original. He pretty much writes everything. Matt Lebofsky contributes
a little bit, but we’re there to support whatever
it is that he’s doing in his brain. Tarik’s
awareness of everyone’s abilities gives him
these wide-ranging parameters for what is
possible. He really starts from a pop place.
He writes pop tunes that you could easily
write a lead sheet for, but then he thinks
about how we can orchestrate these songs
with a band full of virtuosic musicians.
Let’s get specific. Start with the intro to
“Regression to the Mean.” That’s a really
deep, complex line. Can you describe what’s
going on from a harmonic and rhythmic
Actually, that intro wasn’t there originally.
We had been starting the song on the
first chord with Moorea singing right away.
The keyboard player and I were practicing
that part, because that line is so tricky and
angular and almost 12-tone-y. And then
Tarik played a pedal note underneath it and
we said, “Hey, that’s really kind of cool and
spooky. That would serve the song as an
intro.” It’s a strange melody that sits over
chord changes that have a bunch of skips in
the beats—some of the measures are missing
a sixteenth-note here or there. Vinnie
Colaiuta did a song probably 20 years ago
where he was playing this halftime backbeat feel, and then every so many bars he would
drop a sixteenth-note off, so it almost sounds
like the record’s skipping. Tarik wanted to
figure out a way to do that in the context
of a pop tune.
Was this line charted out?
Tarik writes everything on the computer
and he gives us charts and MIDI files. Often
what I’ll do is import the MIDI into something
so I can slow down the tempo and loop
sections. Then I’ll read the chart along with
that. This section that we’re talking about
was very difficult, and it took me a long
time to figure out fingerings. There are a lot
of really big intervallic jumps, and it wasn’t easy to figure out a way where it sits on the
guitar and flows.
What was your rig for that song?
That was my Don Grosh Retro Classic
Strat running through a Menatone King of
the Britains. It’s like a Marshall-y, Britishsounding
distortion pedal. That’s going
into a Roger Mayer Octavia pedal and then
probably my Electro-Harmonix Memory
Boy, and finally into a ’67 Bassman head.
So is that part a unison line between
guitar and keyboard or is that just guitar
with Octavia on it?
It’s guitar and keys, but the interesting
thing is, the keyboard also has Octavia on
it. We actually used that pedal for a lot of
things on this record, this song in particular.
In the chorus of “Welcome to the Solar
Flares” there’s a huge amount of counterpoint
going on. There are a ton of vocals
and background vocals, and then all of
your parts. You’re playing power chords,
single-note lines, arpeggiated figures, and
more. How did you come up with those
parts and how do you find your space in
an arrangement like that?
Again, Tarik came with a complete
score of that song, so we’re just playing
the parts that were written for us. That
is a particularly tricky one because it is
so busy and the melody is so sweet and
soaring over the top of it all. We don’t
want to obscure what Moorea is singing.
It was a challenging one to mix to
keep all that stuff in there. But the idea
behind it all is orchestrating for a rock
band, as if Tarik is thinking about a chamber
orchestra when he’s coming up with
these parts. It required a lot of work for
us all to figure out dynamically how we
would play together and also the kind of
tones that we needed to complement each
other so that everything could stand out.
For really dense tunes like this, I used single-
coil pickups so I could cut a little bit
more through the mix. So it’s a single-coil
with the Bassman cranked up. And then
a lot of it is mix magic by Jim Reitzel. We
spent a lot of time on that song so that
everything would really have its own place.
In “Friday Night Dreams,” you play a
break that occurs about 1:40 into the tune
where it almost sounds like the rhythm or
the tempo is doubling every bar or so, like if
you were to bounce a rubber ball and with each successive bounce it would get closer
to the floor and bounce a little bit faster.
That’s the soli between the guitar and
keyboard and it’s really simple actually.
The tune is kind of medium tempo with
a little bit of a swing to it. That section starts out with eighth-notes and grows
from there. It cycles from eighth-notes to
a double-time lick, and then it goes back
to eighth-notes. Then it goes into a measure
of triplets, which goes into a measure
of double-time. And then the triplets and
the double-time kind of cycle in and out
quickly as it gets closer to the end.
Really simple! You take another nice
solo in that song, with beautiful vibrato
and bends. Who influenced that part of
I was a David Gilmour fanatic when
I was a teenager. I didn’t realize it at the
time, but now that I’m older I think that
really had a big effect. His ability to make
the guitar sing and sound like a voice was
really important to me. I’ve spent a lot of
time not listening to guitar players and
listening to saxophone players and vocalists.
The goal really being, how can I make
the guitar sing like a voice, not necessarily
approaching it like a guitar player. I’m
pretty sure the “Friday Night Dreams” solo
was a one-take solo. The tone was happening,
I was warmed up, and I was definitely
immersed in the music.
What are the main challenges to gigging
I think the biggest challenge is to connect
emotionally to the music because it
is so demanding technically. Remembering
all the sections and also executing all
the guitar tone changes is tough. There’s
a tremendous amount of stuff to think
about and yet I don’t want that to be the
focus at all. I want to be connected with
the other players and I want what I’m playing
to connect with the audience. That’s
our goal as a band.
How does it go over? How do audiences
react when they hear these tunes?
We’re always well received and it’s kind
of surprising because we know we’re asking
a lot of our audiences. It’s a lot to take in.
We realize it’s not necessarily music for
everyone. We’re asking people to listen to
something that they don’t necessarily have
a frame of reference for, so we do our best
to enrapture them with the originality and
the chemistry of the band, and as a result
we do reel a lot of people in. We worked
really hard to make this album something
special and all the positive feedback we’re
getting from it is very rewarding.
MOETAR’S “REGRESSION TO THE MEAN”
This mind-boggling break happens at 1:12 into the third cut off Entropy of the Century, “Regression to the Mean.” Unless you have
Tommy Tedesco-level reading chops, do what Heulitt does and load the passage into some program that will let you slow it way down
and loop it. Better still, loop one- or two-bar morsels and slowly get the moves under your fingers.
“This section wasn’t easy to get down, even at half speed,” explains Heulitt. “Trying to figure out a way where it sits on the guitar
so I can actually make it flow was tricky. But I’m of the opinion that you can play anything at all if you slow it down enough from the
beginning. So even with a line of sixteenth-notes like this, I’ll play them as quarter-notes at 60 bpm, one note at a time and really
ingrain the fingerings. The only way to get a part like this up to speed is not having to think about it.”
Take the time to get this down and you’ll have accomplished several things: First, you’ll have a super-cool piece of music that’s
a blast to play. You’ll also have an incredible exercise that can incorporate cross picking, hybrid picking, and sweep picking depending
on how you want to navigate it. And it would seem downright impossible to nail this line without drastically improving your odd-meter
chops. It’s a win-win-win!