Ben Moats has found a balance between his job as an English lecturer at UMKC and his passion for music.
In his recently released acoustic EP album, “Fathers & Sons,” Moats sings about the life experiences of a war veteran living in Weeping Water, Neb.
His father is a retired Vietnam War veteran who has called Nebraska home all of his life, without any signs of musical inclination.
These two could not be more different in their anxieties and ambitions, but Moats took advantage of his father’s endeavors.
“I think he’s absolutely legitimate when he says that he would get more anxiety from playing music in front of people than what he got when he was in Vietnam,” Moats said, referring to his father’s aversion to performing music.
Moats’ father was surprised and somewhat alarmed when he found his son had used photos from his days in the military for a website promoting the album and performance dates. His mom listens to the album a lot, but he doesn’t know how often his dad does, hinting it may be more than he’s leading on.
“He was excited about it,” Moats said. “I keep waiting for him [to] say something, being worried about The Pitch article or something being written in there that he wouldn’t like. I think he likes it, I think he’s okay with it.”
Moats had always been drawn to the idea of a concept album with his father serving as a centralized theme throughout.
“I never thought I would go that route,” Moats said. “I always thought songs should be organically written, that they shouldn’t be forced. But then I thought I know a lot about my father. There isn’t a reason why I couldn’t focus my songs around something that is more personal to me that would still potentially be able to come organically.”
Moats admitted that the current EP reflects his own interpretation of his father’s life, but he feels the anticipated full-length album will shift into introspection about his own life as well.
“Though the concept of this album may not be very clear to anyone but me,” he said.
Growing up in a small town, Moats contrasted Weeping Water to the stigma of close-mindedness and resistance to change that other rural areas sometimes have.
“They sort of embrace things that are unique to their experience, as opposed to recoil from it, which often times seem to be the more human instinct,” he said.
Moats didn’t hail from a musical family, and he didn’t delve heavily into vocal and instrumental musings until his late teens.
The most experience he gained during his high school years was from musicals after the choir teacher approached him to perform. However, Moats believed this was due to his ability to memorize the lines, not his talent.
He received his first guitar when he was 15, picking up the instrument himself and searching for song chords online. The toughest part about his self-taught method was getting his hand to stretch into certain chord positions, but eventually he learned to overcome it.
It wasn’t until he was 17 when he started writing his own songs, and another year before his parents and family heard him sing and play guitar on his own.
He moved to Kansas City for college, hoping to play basketball in an urban setting.
Moats played in a band during his college years at Rockhurst. He described the band as having a Radiohead-like sound.
This was short-lived once the members started moving away.
This past summer, Moats set out on an independent tour. Most of his gigs were open mic nights, and he found himself surprisingly more nervous than he anticipated.
“There’s a big difference between getting up there by yourself and getting up there with people,” he said. “I didn’t think that would matter.”
Moats believed that his music edged towards the country music genre, but learned through his time in Nashville at the start of the tour that his sound was unlike that of other aspiring musicians with guitars in hand.
The copies of the album were ready after his travels in Nashville, allowing him to promote himself at his next stop in San Antonio, Tex.
Many of Moats’ colleagues and students were unaware of his side project.
“I have five classes, and I told one,” he said.
The class first received the news shortly after Moats interviewed with The Pitch for another article. Moats walked into class, excited about the potential of the upcoming article and one student randomly asked, “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?”
Moats let his class in on the news after the daily quiz. He no longer holds as high an inhibition about allowing students to know about his music endeavors.
“I’m just more secure as a teacher now about what it is I am doing,” he said. “There’s not really a way to fit that into daily class analysis ‘Oh by the way, this line of Shakespeare reminds me of a song I wrote.’ I eventually talked to some of the other professors about it and I decided I don’t care. If they’re interested in it, they can check it out. If not, that’s fine.”
Moats has an upcoming show on Nov. 2 at Mike’s Tavern, which will be the first time he’s played in Kansas City since his inclusion in the college band.
“It’s just me. I use a loop pedal, which means nothing is pre-recorded,” he said. “So you’re getting a little bit more than somebody up there with an acoustic guitar, but there are also risks when you use a loop pedal, because if you loop something incorrectly and miss it, or forget to erase what you looped before, there’s all kinds of things that can go wrong.”
His personal favorite is “In the Night,” which contains a loop of harmonic lines and deviant lyrics including “All the days just pass me by with the moon and the cars on the highway where I walk to the dark side.”
He believes the first two tracks, “John Wayne,” and “She’s Right,” may be the most accessible for listeners.
Moats included covers in his sets, along with his original work.
One of his frequented covers is “Tomorrow’s a Long Time,” a less popular track by Bob Dylan. He found that his musical influences for his own work varied from old ’60s country to Merle Haggard to ’90s rap music.
However, Moats’ intentions are to create his own sound, not mimic his favorite artists.
“When I write songs, I try not to consciously sound like anybody else. If I find myself saying ‘Oh this kinda sounds like that part in a Radiohead song,’ usually that’s a bad sign,” he said.
The album was recorded on Moats’ own makeshift home studio equipment and later remastered by Joel Nanos of Element Recording.
His friend Patrick Guinness is credited as the producer of the album, having helped Moats decide which songs would end up on the finished album.