For Al Schnier and the other members of moe., touring the country while raising a family on the home front requires an intricate balance of linear and vertical improvisation
by Lee Abraham
Al Schnier’s young son is on the phone. Sort of. Every few moments, the little boy lifts his head off his father’s shoulder and gurgles baby talk into the telephone pressed to his old man’s ear. It’s as if he’s trying to help his pop answer a question. Suddenly the kid shrieks with excitement. Elmo’s on TV! It’s somewhere around 8am and Schnier has never been happier to see the Sesame Street muppet. Baby-sitting and giving interviews just don’t mix. Carefully placing his son on the floor, the toddler hurriedly crawls to a spot in front of the television set. Schnier readjusts the phone he’s been cradling between his shoulder and ear. "OK, now where were we?" His tone is calm and focused. Our telephone interview continues.
The topic is life on the road, a dual edged sword that sharpens with parenthood. "We’ll be home for a month straight and it’s really nice," says Schnier, guitar player and vocalist for ‘moe.,’ an upstate New York jamband that’s been relentlessly criss crossing the country for the past several years. "You get to spend a lot of bonding time together, you know? But then you go on the road for five or six weeks at a time and it’s hard to be gone."
Schnier’s not alone. Three of the guys in the band have kids. Sure, it’s tough on them, but it’s no picnic for the moms either. "It’s even more challenging for the wives," says Schnier. "During the time we’re on tour, in effect, they become single parents."
Such is the life of a rock and roll family. Playing on stage is a blast, but the road miles come at a cost. Every band wants to hit the big time, but most burn out or fade away chasing the pot-of-gold pipe dream at the other end of the musical rainbow - getting ‘signed’ by a major record label. Not moe. They made it.
After releasing three records independently - ‘Fatboy’ (‘92), ‘Headseed’ (‘93), and ‘Loaf’ (‘95), moe. was signed by Sony 550 Music. The relationship produced two CD’s. ‘No Doy,’ came out in ‘96 and ‘Tin Cans and Car Tires,’ was moe.’s ’98 release.
"Between both albums, we sold about 100,000 records," says Schnier. "That’s not stellar by major label standards, but at the same time to be a band that has no radio airplay, no videos and relies solely on touring and our own grassroots network, it -is- stellar." The difference in perceptions became painfully evident after ‘No Doy.’
"Basically, the A&R guy lost interest in the band," says Schnier. "To be with a major label that is not interested in the band is about the worst position that a band like us could be in." That’s when moe.’s management forced the issue. Even though the contract wasn’t over, the label was given an ultimatum - "Either you commit to us, or let us go." They were let go.
That was this past Spring. "The recording industry is such a, I don’t want to sound negative... it’s very elusive and there’s sort of an insincere quality about it," says Schnier. ‘Even when we were with Sony it still felt like we were still an independent band, going along business as usual.’
Just as the members of moe. weren’t exactly sure about what would change when they signed the deal, nobody knew what to expect when they got -out- of it either. "In the beginning it was kind of weird," says Schnier. "There was a little bit of trepidation about suddenly being -dropped- from a major label... but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a much better position now than we were six months ago."
Schnier’s not just spouting the company line. CD sales and attendance at shows are as strong as ever. In fact, moe. is now conducting business through its -own- record company, -Fat Boy Records-, and has "lined up the same distribution company that Sony uses," says Schnier. Another plus - they never sold the rights to the band’s back catalog or merchandise. "The only difference is we don’t have them to bankroll the next project. But that’s OK, we’ve done that before too.’
Come to think of it, there aren’t too many things moe. -hasn’t- done. Musically they’ll try anything. Well, -almost- anything. "I wanted to try approaching the music differently," says Schnier of a recent turning point in the band’s musical direction. "Rather than approach the music in sort of a linear fashion, where we all play the songs with pretty much the same instrumentation each and every time, and the experimentation always ends up being ‘linear’ - where the music gets stretched out and somehow always lengthens the songs... meandering through different styles and all that stuff, I thought it would be interesting if we try to improvise in a ‘vertical’ way, adding different instruments and varying the sounds... maybe not lengthening the songs, but making them more intricate."
Although the other moe.s, Vinnie Amico on drums, and founding members Chuck Garvey (guitar/vocals) and Rob Derhak (bass/vocals), didn’t share Schnier’s -entire- vision, ("Each and every one of us being able to pick up another instrument at the drop of a hat - the music would change a lot through the course of a song that way"), everyone saw the benefits of the vertical improvisation concept. "And in typical moe. fashion, a compromise was reached," laughs Schnier.
The solution - Jim Loughlin, a versatile multi-instrumentalist, who was actually moe.’s second drummer, rejoined the band at the beginning of the year to provide some of that vertical experimentation.
These days, moe. is not only bigger than ever, their lights are shining brighter than ever. Literally. In addition to still playing their legendary three and a half hour, high energy concerts, the band is continually beefing up its traveling, high-tech light show. The results are spectacular. But as impressive as all the multimedia stuff may be, for moe., the focus onstage remains on the music.
"A cross between a Grateful Dead show, maybe a Frank Zappa concert and maybe Led Zeppelin as well," says Schnier describing the vibe at a moe. show. "Our music is pretty varied. There’s no mistaking the fact that we are a -jamband-, but we’re probably one of the most aggressive jambands."
And in spite of all the weirdness that goes along with a career in the music biz, they’re still having fun. "We all get along really well. It’s a good thing. We still enjoy each others company," says Schnier. "None of us had ever intended this to be full time career. That really wasn’t our goal or aspiration in the beginning. It was just to play and really focus on the music. But it got to the point a few years later where all our jobs were in jeopardy because we were playing so much and the band was really starting to work. We all had to make a choice between our jobs and playing in the band, and we all liked playing in the band a whole lot more." ###