Upstate New York jam band icons moe. are turning 30.
“It’s kind of crazy now that we’re here you get an opportunity to reflect on it,” guitarist Al Schnier says. “It’s crazy in this day and age to have the same job for 20 years let alone be in the same band for 30 years. So it feels pretty special.”
moe. was formed at the University at Buffalo along the blustery banks of Lake Erie. Originally they were called Five Guys named Moe, but later shortened it to one word stylized as moe. There was a brief and confused period they renamed themselves Haggis.
“I think (bassist Rob) Derhak pushed for that after guitarist Chuck (Garvey) quit,” Schnier laughs. “He’d been waiting for his chance.”
Fortunately, that ended a month later after Chuck returned and never looked back.
“We never had any intent to turn this into something 30 years later,” Schnier says. “It’s just something that we did. Everybody that we knew played in bands. Hell, I’ve played in bands since I was 13 years old. If you’re not playing guitar in a band you’re playing guitar alone in your room. It’s sort of the equivalent of bowling in groups. You don’t bowl by yourself. It’s nice to ski by yourself occasionally, but generally it’s a thing you do with people.”
In college, moe. jammed with other B-Lo scene bands such as Monkey Wrench, Scary Chicken and American Steam Donkeys at venues such as Broadways Joe’s, Essex Street Pub and Nietzsche’s. Around the same time, Ani DiFranco and Goo Goo Dolls had both broken out of The City of No Illusions to critical acclaim on alternative radio and MTV.
A jam band born in Buffalo
“Buffalo had this thriving music scene,” Schnier recalls. “It was great to be a part of it, to be part of a music scene that has music seven nights a week until three or four in the morning with national touring bands coming through. It was a great place to make a band.”
The East Coast jam band darlings are embarking on a rare West Coast tour this winter with a stop at Crystal Bay Casino on Sunday, March 1. Although they’ve built a dedicated national following, making it all the way out to California is purely a matter of logistics.
“The East Cost is so much more densely populated,” Schnier explains. “Starting a band on the East Coast is so easy. You can drive 30 or 45 minutes and be in another college town. It’s an hour or two to be in another major city. It’s really easy to build up a following of vastly different populations. There’s a deeper well to pull from. Out West you have to drive three or four hours to get to the next thing. There’s a lot of space out there.”
Since 1990 moe. has released more than 30 records and performed more than 2,000 live shows. Although he is looking forward to skiing in the sundrenched Tahoe Sierra in March, Schnier thinks that this level of creative output might have something to do with the East Coast’s fickle weather.
“The fact that it’s not sunny all the time makes a difference,” he says. “It forces people inside and keeps them drinking, which is conducive to being in bars all the time and listening to live music. If I’m in Tahoe, I’m probably not going to live music seven nights a week. I’m probably doing stuff outside.”
The family that jams together…
Three decades into a long and winding musical career Schnier reflects on what he’s discovered about music and kinfolk during his time with moe.
“The one thing that we keep coming back to is something about what you learn about working together,” he says. “We all have our own personalities, but it’s about that group dynamic.”
The band has learned to value personality over performance when it comes to their inner circle and road crew.
“The other part seems to be more important,” he says. “As long as we all get along that seems to the part that makes everything work for us. We can tolerate somebody making mistakes on the road with a job. It become difficult to tolerate somebody’s behavior on the road when it comes to their personality and the priorities they have and that type of stuff. Maybe they aren’t the best workers, but we can make that work with someone we like.”
It’s a big part of what’s kept the band together all these years.
“It’s always gelled,” Schnier says. “That stuff will ebb and flow, but we never had a time when we thought the band was going to break up. We’ve had arguments from time to time and 24 hours later it’s over. There’ve been no rifts or longstanding things in the band where the five of us don’t get along. It’s just not like that with us, which is a good thing. It keeps getting better for us. We keep headed in the right direction and tweaking the model as we go.”
Last October, the five guys spent one month living and working together at Tank Recording Studios in Burlington, Vermont. They plan to release a 12th studio album later this year.
More than enough material
“As far as the material goes, some stuff we’ve been playing on the road and there’s some stuff that’s brand new,” Schnier shares. “We went into the studio with enough material to make three records. Before we even started recording we had to limit it. We obviously didn’t have a enough time to record all of that. So we cut out a third of the songs and focused on these 15 or 16 songs. Then we recorded some brand new material in the studio, stuff we created spontaneously on the spot.”
At this point, as they work through the mixes, the band has enough raw material from the October sessions for two full-length albums
“I’m not sure what the plan is going to be at this point,” Schnier says. “We may pick the best and release one, or release two. We have a surplus of stuff and that’s a good place to be in. There are a lot more songs. It’s first time we’ve ever been in that position and it’s great.”
moe. is the classic example of a band that is greater by the sum of its parts.
“Whatever I bring to the table may not be unique on its own, but when we combine those parts that’s makes us moe. and that’s the thing that makes it interesting,” Schnier says. “Having that group mentality is what makes us stronger.”
When asked the secret to keeping listeners fully engaged for a two-set, three-hour psychedelic rock concert, Schnier pulls no punches.
“Mostly the drugs,” he deadpans. “I’m sure that something to do with it.”
What a strange trip it’s been
One of moe.’s most enduringly popular albums is the 2000 double LP live album simply entitled “L”.
The title is shorthand for many moe. fans’ drug of choice: lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD.
“In all seriousness, that’s part of it,” Schnier says. “We provide an outlet for people. Whether people are doing drugs or have a drink or two, the notion that they’re coming to this space to have this outlet is part of it . People want a three-hour dance party. It brings people together. People need that. We want to a space to be physically together, not in a chat room or Facebook group page. People want to be in the same place doing the same thing with each other. It’s a social thing and we’re providing the music for that.”
Admittedly, the band’s intricate improvisational chemistry is the paradigm of a mind-altering melodic journey be it recreationally modified or not. Schnier and Garvey’s guitar interplay is the stuff of psychedelic rock legend.
“Mostly, it’s about how I’m really awesome at supporting him,” jokes the guitarist who grew up on Jerry Garcia, Neil Young and Alex Lifeson of Rush. “He does things I would never choose to do and I do things that are not in Chuck’s wheelhouse. In a lot of ways, we make a complete guitarist and now we have four hands doing that. It’s not a left-brain/right-brain thing, but we definitely approach things a little bit differently. We both like a lot of the same things, too, and there’s enough common ground for us to weave in and out of it.”
Over the years, their fans (who call themselves moe.rons} have created a tight-knit network of community of family and friends who might not ever get together except for at shows and the groups’ semi-annual curated festival known as Moe.down.
“A lot of the time as much as our fans love our band and love our songs, I think they love each other almost more,” Schnier admits. “They love being a part of this magical thing just a little bit more. If you pulled the songs away and took the band away, they would still have all that. I think that’s the greatest thing we actually accomplished: bringing people together and making those connections. So they want us to play three sets. Sometimes we play all night.”
– Sean McAlindin