Trevor Ziebarth is a vocalist and rhythm/lead guitarist for Moonlight Desires, a Canadian band based out of Hamilton, Ontario. The band’s name comes directly from the hit single of Canadian singer and songwriter Gowan. Ziebarth spoke with me last week about Moonlight Desires’ most recent album, Just the Hits: 1981-1985, a release from label Infamous Butcher Records.
Who or what inspired you to go into music?
When I was 14, that’s when the whole grunge thing happened. That was at a very critical time. I had a guitar and I was learning tablature. Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana came out at the time. I realized I didn’t have to be a virtuoso to write music and play. There were cool riffs that you could wrap your head around easily. I was able to play it by ear. I was like, “I don’t need lessons. Screw the tablature.” I threw it away and started writing music in the vein of grunge style riffs. That’s pretty much what inspired all the songwriting stuff. Being at that age at such a crazy time as grunge took over and I eventually got into metal.
It says in the album credits that you’re the rhythm/lead guitarist. Could you explain what the difference is between the two roles?
Yes. Rhythm guitar is what I’m the strongest at. That’s basically the main driving riff of the song. All the lead guitar parts are the little colorful dynamic leads that happen on top. It’s usually a different-sounding guitar. You’ve got a single note or octave note and they are giving that little jingle on their own. The rhythm holds it down. I [was] originally a drummer. I find rhythm to be easier live, especially to sing along with.
Given your band name of Moonlight Desires and these first two albums, I’m going to be bold and guess that your next album will also open with a Gowan track.
Yeah. (laughs) That was always a rule, but the next thing I’m going to do is an EP. It’s probably going to be called At the Movies. It’ll be movie themes from the ’80s. That EP might be the only one that doesn’t have a Gowan song first. I can’t really think of an ’80s movie that had a Gowan song that was a huge hit or huge known thing. If there is, let me know and I’ll gladly work it in. I’ll always have to have a Gowan song as the first track of a full album.
I can’t think of any right now. “A Criminal Mind” was used in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Killing Gunther recently, but you already did it on Just the Hits. So let’s go on to your thoughts about cover songs. What’s essential for creating a high caliber cover?
It’s essential to keep whatever was cool about the original intact. A lot of these ’80s hits have something about them that not necessarily you can put your finger on. There’s some amazing black magic thing about it for the reason it’s still around, on the radio, and near and dear to everyone’s hearts. I try not to lose that thing: a groove or a tempo. You can speed up a cover, but if you go too fast, then you lose the groove. The original fans are like, “Ah, they kinda ruined it!”
There’s a certain threshold and I try not to cross it. I stay as true to the original as I can. I take the synth parts and crop it into lead parts. It makes it a hurried pace rather than a super fast punk version. So far so good. I’ve been able to keep that groove intact. I personally love the song as a starting point. If by the end of the process, I still feel like I dig this cover version and it makes me feel like the original, then I’ve done my job.
Some of these folks are still making their mark in music and touring today. [For instance] Gowan had a big concert last month. Is it scary for you to put your own spin on these hits?
A little bit. I know that people really do hold these songs near and dear. When I hear a cover of some song that I love, I’m always critical. I want to hear it and see what they’ve done. It’s awesome to take songs that are known and established hits from a different era and update them for the modern generation. The kids maybe have never heard it. Here’s a new version they might get into. I always make sure that I’m not pissing people off, not that it really matters. (laughs) I would do it anyway. As long as I like it, I’ll still do it.
Ultimately, I do want people to enjoy it and appreciate it. A lot of people say, “Oh, man, I can’t even look to the original now because it’s so slow.” I speed mine up a little bit because I feel the pace of modern society dictates that these songs need to be faster. They’re so catchy and they’re still working. I haven’t had anybody freak out on me yet.
Were there songs you wanted to include on Just the Hits but got cut when you narrowed your list down?
Oh, yeah. There are countless lists of songs I wanted to do or other people want me to do. I try to take a cross section of that and make it work. Just the Hits was more like my real crack at it, because the first album was written and done very quickly. When I did “Oh Sherrie” myself, I thought the song sounded cool and I showed my friends. Years and years went by and finally people said you gotta do more ’80s songs. Those are the best you’ve done of all the stuff you’re working on.
I did that first album in a weekend. This second one, I took the songs I could really spend time with making cool – like Gowan’s “A Criminal Mind” [which] is such a powerful ballad. It made a really heavy rock song and so on. They all have cool parts that could be sped up and get people cranking it while they’re driving. It’s good driving music and party music. Hopefully the ones I didn’t select are all eventually going to come out anyway. It’s just a matter of which album to package them on.
When you’re developing your arrangements, what’s the most challenging part?
Usually I want to do something cool with it, but the arrangement itself is also so rock solid. These are hits songs probably crafted by some amazing producer and his talented artist. If I can add a metal section when the song is really slow, I will, to update it. The arrangements are so good that I usually don’t touch them. I want to keep them the same because they’re so perfect.
For the “Valerie” music video, was it in the initial plan that you would play both roles from the Steve Winwood version?
I was always going to play Steve Winwood and myself. (laughs) The girl was actually supposed to be a girl, of course, like the video. I couldn’t get a girl necessarily on the timeline I was shooting. I was like, “Well, I’m already playing two characters. Why don’t I play the girl as well?” I bought a dress but I didn’t try it on. When the shoot came, I tried it on. Of course, it was too tight and ripped half off. I didn’t have anything else, so I just went for it! As far as the Steve Winwood look, I tried my best to have that nice big hair. But who can really look like that guy? He’s a legend. I end up looking like a fool, but I guess it’s working in some way. That’s the most viewed video that we have so far. That was pretty cool.
The second half of the video is about the concert vibe, I would say. Do the band members usually wear the ’80s singer masks in live shows?
No. Just the Hits came out at a time that I was just starting my record label. I didn’t really have the release strategy quite figured out. We kinda stumbled into that and came out. Then wait, we were like, “We should have done a calculated release where we wear these masks live. It goes along with the video and the album cover.” It was the perfect thing to do but by that time, we already played our handful of shows. Going forward, I’d love to have the masks live. But you can’t do a damn thing with them because there’s no eye holes. I don’t know we’d last past the first song. (laughs) I think it’s a cool tip of the hat to our video and they’re super creepy.
What’s an important lesson you learned with starting your record label?
The biggest lesson [which] is also true of my first and recent signing, is to have all of the videos and content ready to go prior to release date. So when you press that “go” button, it comes out strategically. I keep doing this thing where we get the album out before we have the videos and stuff. If it’s a properly coordinated release, you can build on the momentum and next thing you know, you’ve got quite an impact. I just signed this new band as you know, Iomair, and that was very rushed. The artist, Dylan Gowan, was excited and wanted to get it out. We were, too, but there’s a lot of little things we couldn’t quite get to. I still have to do a music video. It would have been great to get out on release day.
For the next Moonlight Desires EP, I’m going to make sure I’ve got everything just ready to rock. I’d love to play more and do a mini tour this time.
I’ll look out for that. Thank you for the interview, Trevor.