Moonlight Moonlight Shines Bright in Big Sky Country
by Stephen Pitalo
If you need true inspiration, the mountains of Bozeman, Montana, just can’t be beaten. With the clear air of Big Sky Country and a rolling sea of stars at night, musicians who root their music in earthly connection can experience paradise. Moonlight Moonlight knows just how lucky they are to create music of the land in this perfect place.
“Bozeman’s an incredible place to play music,” said the band (opting to answer questions for this interview as a full band). “Oftentimes, when we’re in a musical rut or need some inspiration, we go for a hike in the Hyalites or bring a mandolin up to some lookout point and just kind of drink it all in. Bluegrass at its heart is very much rooted in the land, and most of our best music draws inspiration from experiences and places we’ve seen around Montana.”
Identifying with that lonely satellite that makes some swoon as lovers and others mutate into monsters, the Moonlight Moonlight name arrived when members contemplated the night as an entity after so many late-night gigs around their hometown.
“The starry skies outside of town were inspiring us,” they said of their drives back from those early bar gigs. “We felt like the night embodied our group in some way. We were repeating night-themed words, trying to find a combination that worked. Isaac kept repeating ‘moonlight… moonlight… moonlight…’ and I guess we just stuck with it. We think all good band names should make no sense — or rather, their meaning should be subject to the listener — so to us, this was the perfect solution.”
Moonlight Moonlight’s compositions tend to bounce between ripping bluegrass in double time and jam-band melodic rambles, which can give you a bit of whiplash if you subscribe to a more traditional bill of fare in your playlist. Despite that schizophrenia of style, bassist Isaac Winemiller on bass, guitarist Zander Chovanes, and fiddler Hans Swenson all show up to play and sing it all at peak performance levels.
“We have this vision of melding the classic style of bluegrass with a more contemporary and spontaneous vibe that I think is pretty evident in our live shows,” the band said of their Montana-fed sound. “We’re not at all afraid to get intimate or creative during a set, and we try never to play the same exact show twice. I think the most common way I’ve heard of describing our music is “they’ve got that sort of f***ed energy” — can I say that here? (laughs) — and we’re trying to live up to that every time we pick up an instrument.”
Right from the get-go, Moonlight Moonlight would not abide by the rules of traditional bluegrass. That’s not to say they were not inspired by the conventional pickers from back in the day, as Tony Rice, John Hartford, and David Grisman make their all-time favorite artists list. For other influences, Hans has taken a few master classes from gypsy jazz musicians such as Tim Kliphuis and Jason Anick, which have inspired his improv. His classical background shows itself in his fiddle solos. Isaac is also a member of the bedroom pop band Vansire, and you’ll hear that washed-out atmospheric influence in a lot of MM’s more creative and experimental pieces, while Zander’s roots lie in blues and classic rock.
“We actually all met to form a gypsy Jazz trio as part of an ensemble class Isaac was taking at Montana State University,” MM said. “We were pretty decent at a few jazz tunes, but one night we discovered we all knew the fiddle tune Salt Creek and played it over and over. I think that night was our last night of Gypsy Jazz. A year and a half of bluegrass later, we still haven’t finished that ensemble credit for Isaac, and at this point, I think Ryan Matzinger has just given up on us entirely.”
Being around for a year or so, the band hopes to release studio and live recordingsoon. Their favorite tune to play live started with a feeling of indifference that created speed and challenge.
“We wrote one called ‘All the Same’ in the winter of 2020 during a late-night recording session at the studio. We were trying to capture this general feeling of apathy and absurdity that seemed to saturate the world at that time, and ‘All the Same’ is what emerged from that. We like the philosophical musings in the lyrics, contrasted with the breakneck tempo we try to hold it to. Our inspiration for the speed was Trampled by Turtles’ ‘Wait So Long,’ which is at 190 bpm. We thought that those were rookie numbers, took it as a challenge, and stayed up till close to 5:00 am that night working out our arrangement. ‘All the Same’ will hopefully be released early next year — at 191 bpm.”
What makes the music different in Montana? Paradise can be solitary if you want it that way, so the beauty feels as secretive and memorable as it does free.
“To us, this feels like a pretty secluded music community. It tends to have smaller, more like-minded bluegrass scenes, and we are all inspired and influenced by each other as musicians. The audience also plays a big factor – mountain people love to dance.”