Matthew Charles Heulitt and Moetar Make the Complex Simple

January 15, 2015

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 standpoint?

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 your playing?

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 these tunes?

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.

LESSON
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!

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