An interview with Verge Manyen and Travis Ziegler of improvisational rock duo, MoodTrain
by Mike Huberty
July 2018

Madison's Moodtrain - photo by Sam Antha

Madison's Moodtrain
photo by Sam Antha

Making up songs on the fly is hard, but improvisation is in the soul of live music. It’s what brought GRATEFUL DEAD fans back show after show because they didn’t know what to expect from night to night. If music is emotion made sound, then improvisation is what happens when you explore those emotions intuitively and in depth. That’s what Madison drummer Verge Manyen and guitarist Travis Ziegler do in MOODTRAIN. It’s improvisational instrumental rock where Verge and Travis feed off each other to create something unique every single time. They just released their first album, Great Lakes Airlines volume 1, an entirely off-the-cuff 30-minute jam. They’ll be playing outside at the Cheba Hut in downtown Madison on September 7th for a free show at 4:30pm. I talked with Verge and Travis about the new record and the band.

MI: What inspired you and Travis to start playing together? What artists did you guys gel on?
VM:  I put an ad out on Craigslist years ago, looking for musicians to form a band with, I think I described it as Keith Richards meets Fugazi… and Travis responded. I had found a bass player already in Matt Acker (of MOTHERHIVE). Matt and I both knew as soon as Travis started playing that we wanted him to be in the band, which we eventually named HELIOS RISING. That split up, and everyone kind of went their separate ways for a while, but Travis and I would still jam together at Funk’s Pub’s Sunday night jam session, Funky Sundays. We started getting together and jamming just for fun, and realized that there was some magic in the way we interacted.

MI: What do you love about improv?
TZ: I love so many different aspects of improvised music. First and foremost, there are technically no wrong answers when you’re improvising. It’s the same thing with comedy, or other forms of it. You take what you have and run with it. Sometimes, and I find this happening over and over, I will play a note that sounds flat out wrong to my ear – then I’ll bend it or slide off into something that makes it cool. These are the moments that are very tough to compose if you are thinking analytically about the note choices you’re making. Don’t get me wrong, composition is also a love of mine, but improvisation has a freedom to it that is tough to match via any other form.

Verge has referred to my guitar playing as painterly, that’s one of the best compliments I could ask for. I like to think of notes and intervals as different colors that can be blended to create art.

MI: What’s the process in recording an improvisational album? Surely there’s got to be more than just walking in the room and turning the recorder on? What did and didn’t you have prepared?
TZ: We didn’t have anything prepped, not a single note. We knew that we were going to do what we always do, which is show up and express ourselves. It’s always so interesting, because depending on what kind of day it has been… the music reflects that in an unpredictable way. Especially when, let’s say Verge had a great day and mine was crap, or vice-versa! The funny thing is that we both always come out of a jam session feeling awesome.

So we showed up and Brian Liston and Anton Kapela got us mic’ed up with all kinds of sweet gear out at Clutch Sound and Picture in Fitchburg. I cracked a few beers, and I think Verge had some vegetable juice and we just started playing. In total, we played 3 sets of improv that ended up totaling about 90 minutes of chaos ridden material.

The editing process was the real bear of the project… that was the real trick, trying to narrow it down to 30 minutes of solid material while retaining the flow and unpredictability of our live feel. There was no playing added, only subtracted. The way that we bridged these themes was actually Verge’s idea – to splice the various concepts with sounds from the world around us – a thunderstorm, for instance, the sound of a busy café. We used the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow…

MI: What’s a live MOODTRAIN show like? How do you keep the audience interested when you’re not sure what you’re going to do next?
VM: Well, of course every show is unique, due to the improvisational nature of it.  We try to keep the audience interested by not playing any theme or passage for too long; we want to avoid just repeating a riff over and over, but also avoid extended solos that can come off as self-indulgent noodling.  Our goal is to create melodic, groove-oriented music that takes the listener on a journey.

TZ: Every single show is completely different. We don’t deliberately revisit any riffs or themes. The whole energy is based on the room, the environment we find ourselves in, and again – the way that our days have been going or whatever else might be going on.

VM:  I truly believe that we are offering something unique in music; a form of music that is unconventional and new without being confrontational or difficult to listen to.  It provides catchy grooves and melodies, as well as unique chord changes and tempo shifts.  Playing in MoodTrain has changed the way my mind processes music.  I believe it has increased my attention span and opened me up to possibilities that I didn’t realize existed before now.  Also, I use it as therapy.  It’s really nice to listen to when lying in bed with the lights out; helps me fall asleep in a calm state of mind.

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CD: Great Lakes Airlines volume 1 Record Label: Self Released