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Published: 1998/12/15
by Dean Budnick

Al Goes Transamerican

This is a rather busy time for moe. guitarist Al Schnier. Along with the band’s new album (which has been ubiquitous in our charts), Al is a first-time father (listen for his new composition “Blue-Eyed Son”) and is about to head out on a four city tour with his new project, Al and the Transamericans. Be sure to check them out:

January 6 Pontiac Grill, Philadelphia, PA
January 7 Wetlands, NYC
January 8 Middle East, Cambridge, MA
January 9, Joyous Lake, Woodstock, NY (note: This is a change from Valentines)

The following conversation began with some quality Transamerican talk but moved on through a series of topics including songwriting, the Captain & Tennille, Randy Rhoads, Bob Weir and of course the music of moe.

D- What can audience members expect when they come and see you play with the Transamericans?

A- It will be slightly different than moe. The music will be less chops-oriented and a bit more song-oriented. It will have more of a down-home feel to it.

D- What inspired you to put together this project?

A- Mostly the music I’ve been listening to lately. I could say it started twenty years ago when I started listening to Neil Young, Bob Dylan, people like that. But more recently in the last three or four years I’ve been listening to Son Volt, Wilco, Golden Smog…also a lot of bluegrass and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I really have newfound appreciation for a simple song. Many of the songs we’ll play are timeless classics, just wonderful, with poignant lyrics over simple chord progressions. There’s a wealth of them out there and I wanted to have a chance to pay some of them.

D- Had you ever considered bringing any of these to play in moe.?

A- I have but we don’t really have time for cover songs, which is too bad because we have so many songs that we’d love to do, love to cover. But the way our schedule is, we aren’t really afforded the luxury of working on cover songs because we have so many unfinished moe. songs to get to. Cover songs take a backseat to the originals. The other problem is that in moe. when we try to play any song that is too specific to any one genre a lot of times it comes off sounding hokey. It sounds like four suburban white guys who shouldn’t be playing country songs or blues songs or shouldn’t be attempting jazz tunes. That’s why everything we do is a hybrid, amalgamation, completed morphed version of various styles of music. I think that’s how we developed our sound, by emulating styles and mining them and pairing them up in weird combinations.

D- Speaking of songwriting. I’m curious, on moe.’s Sony releases, all songs credit the lyricist and then the music is credited to the band collectively. How and why did you make the decision to do that?

A- Well that seems to be our m.o. these days. It makes life a lot easier. I think on Headseed we tried to determine who was responsible for writing certain songs. In a lot of cases it’s a no brainier. “St. Augustine” is Rob’s song, there’s no question about it. He came up with the chord progression and he wrote all of the words to it. A song like “Rebubula” on the other hand is a group effort, even though it started with a seed that Rob had come up with. In “Rebubula,” Chuck and I came up with so many of the guitar parts which are really central to that song. And the arrangement we all came up with together. So much of that one we all worked on, so it really would not be accurate to say that it was Rob’s song. Now “Akimbo,” for instance, that’s a case where Rob and I had two different things that just happened to work together. Most of the guitar parts are from a song I was working on and it happened to have the same key and the same groove as a song that Rob was working on, so we combined the two and came up with that. And Chuck was just goofing around with lyrics at the time and singing while we were doing it. Normally what happens is the person who comes up with a chord progression or the foundation for a song, has the right of first refusal in coming up with the lyrics and being the lead vocalist as well. With that song, either Rob or I would have had dibs on it but Chuck was coming up with something during rehearsal and I just said run with it because your voice sounds great on this, so he came up with the lyrics. There are other songs where I might come up with the verse, chorus, all of the parts and then somebody might come up with a signature part. So we figured it was best to acknowledge that we are all largely responsible for the music that we are coming up with and we left it at that. The person who usually did come up with the song does get to write the lyrics so I guess you do get your credit there.

D- Do you think there’s a quintessential moe. song?

A- I think you might be able to come up with ten songs that really embody all that moe. is about but to pick one would miss the mark because there isn’t any one song that covers all that we do. Maybe something like “Seat Of My Pants,” which goes through many styles of music and is a pretty involved song. There are so many songs…“Rebubula” is a good representation of what we do but fails to include the shorter poppier aspects or the country or bluegrass stuff we do. I mean with Hootie and the Blowfish you could pick one song and say “this is Hootie, this is what these guys sounds like.” There are some bands where you could get away with that but for us it’s a little bit more difficult, which is good.

D- Do you think that the music in moe. is bound by genre, albeit some type of hybrid moe. genre? By band expectations? Fan expectations?

A- moe. is not entirely bound by those things. Well we certainly define those boundaries for ourselves. It’s ironic because we never intended to have any boundaries whatsoever and that has sort of become almost limiting because we’re not expected to have any boundaries. People expect even within one song for us to be all over the map. Not just within the course of one album or the course of one show but each and every song needs to be a little bit crazy somehow. It needs something to be a little bit left of center for it to be entirely moe. There has to be something sarcastic about it and there has to be some crazy guitar part that we’ve written but we can’t really play yet. So in a lot of ways it’s hard to go back to writing a simple or genre-specific song.

That’s part of what led me to put together the Transamericans; I want to take the time to come up with a whole band with different instrumentation. The other thing is that in moe. we really operate as a democracy, almost to a fault, where we sometimes belabor things to the point where nobody wants to vote on anything anymore because we’ve considered every option on the planet, touched on every possibility and then nobody really cares about the issue anymore. In this case its my band, I get to be the boss. I mean I enjoy playing with the guys in moe. a lot and we have a pretty good group dynamic that seems to work for us. We’re friends; we like to spend time with each other; we call each other up even when we don’t have to. But then again it can be frustrating when you think that your idea is right for a song and it shoots off ninety degrees from that based on what somebody else in the band wants to do. But in this situation with Al and Transamericans, this is my band and I told everyone that when I put the group together. Actually everyone is psyched to do it because they all play in these other bands that have these democracies of sorts and they were psyched just to show up and play.

I’ve been doing everything myself for this and I plan on following through. I booked all of the shows. I’m acting as manager. I’m acting as tour manager. I’m going to be driving the van. I’m trying to take care of every little bit of this myself. I really want it to be my project. I didn’t want to take anything away from moe.- so this really is me, doing my own side project. Plus, I like the whole notion of doing I myself. I look at Mike Watt doing his tours and there’s something really cool about the fact that he still sells T-shirts from the stage at the end of the night out of a big garbage bag. They load in and load out every night, he drives the van, they do fifty shows in fifty days and that’s the tour. There’s something very cool about that which I really respect.

D- Speaking of Mike Watt, have you listened to a lot of Minutemen or firehose?

A- Yes, firehose in particular made a huge impression on me when I first discovered them. I would say at least myself, Rob and Chuck we are all profoundly inspired by them in a lot of different ways. We used to write a lot of short instrumental tunes that sounded like firehose tunes. I think those guys are incredible, they were a top-notch band. It’s funny, in college I turned on so many different people to firehouse: people who listened to the Dead and guys who listened to Metallica and Rush. firehouse really seemed to have this universal appeal to anyone who was really fond of good music. I love them. I guess I discovered firehose before the Minutemen. I had always picked up their albums in stores but never really got into them. Then one day I found an album where they covered Meat Puppets songs, so I picked it up. It’s a totally different sound than firehose, the songs that D Boon would write were more progressive than what firehose were doing but I liked them all the same.

D- Speaking of firehose and SST bands, you told me the other day that moe. was thinking of doing a show at CBGB?

A- Yeah we were going to play two or three minute punk versions of moe. songs. I think it would have been cool. I would still like to do it, even if we can’t do it at CBGB’s. I think there’s good handful of fans who would love it. That’s one thing I love about our fan base, there’s definitely people who can appreciate that side of the band. And if we were to go out and play a whole evening of Dead cover tunes there’s definitely a lot of people who would like that. If we wanted to go out and be a Rush tribute band I think there are people who would like that as well. I like the fact that we can move around that way.

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