Al Goes Transamerican
D- Well obviously the band members have pretty diverse taste as well. I’m curious, what was your first live show as a concertgoer?
A- I guess the first show I ever saw was the Captain and Tennille at the state fair when I was in third grade.
D- You knew them from the TV show…
A- Oh yeah and when they were coming to the state fair my sister and I were all amped about it. My father got tickets and we went as a family. Then when I was in sixth grade my father took me to the Charlie Daniels band at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. This was in the Charley Daniel heyday, when “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” was all over the radio. It was a general admission show in a five thousand seat hockey rink. My memories of that concert, and all concerts from that time, the late 70’s/early 80’s is different than what it is today. People smuggled anything and everything they could inside the show, so there were bottles of whiskey, fireworks, it was crazy. It seemed like everyone around me was partying so much, it was this full-on throwdown affair and everybody had a great time. Then when the lights came on the place was just littered with trash and broken bottles. It seemed like a lot of the subsequent shows I saw there were like that. The next few shows I saw were Santana, ZZ Top, Ozzy Osbourne. The radio station I listened to at the time was a classic rock station and I had no problem going to see ZZ Top and Ozzy Osbourne the same summer, I liked them both.
D- Was Randy Rhoads playing with them?
A- I was so psyched I was able to see him. It was before Blizzard of Oz really hit. My friends and I had the album but “Crazy Train” was not yet a huge song. The show was Def Leppard/Ozzy Osbourne. This was before Def Leppard became a huge radio band. I wasn’t that familiar with them but I was so psyched to see Randy Rhoads play. He was the heir to Eddie Van Halen’s throne. If anyone was going to take the crown from Eddie it was going to be Randy Rhoads. My friends and I probably showed up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, camped out, ran to the front of the stage and stood there the whole time. We held our ground until he came out. I must have been thirteen at the time. To see him play like that as a thirteen year old boy, it was going to a strip show or something.
D- How would you compare that experience to your first Dead show?
A- Before I saw the Dead I had seen a variety of different shows, primarily rock shows. With the Dead, I couldn’t believe the scene and how laid-back the whole thing was. At the same time the music got really heavy but still it was clean, it wasn’t about Marshall stacks or anything like that. There weren’t any runway ramps or explosions, it was far different that anything I had seen. Maybe the closest was the Santana show but I remembered that more as a great rock show with a Latin feel to it. But the Dead, I was really blown away by the intensity of the band and the involvement of the crowd, the way the crowd was so psyched about the band’s music. There weren’t people lighting off fireworks and there wasn’t any call and response or “are you ready to rock” going on. It seemed much more serious and yet much more casual at the same time. It seemed so much more real to me. After I saw the Dead that first time I realized that this was something I wanted to see a lot more of and find out more about.
D- In recent years you have established relationships with members of the Dead. What did you take away from performing and interacting with Bob Weir?
A- Wow. There’s a lot. He’s an extremely thoughtful, considerate, intelligent person, and he’s also a great guitar player. The stuff he does, a lot of it come from filling the role between Jerry’s guitar, Phil’s bass and the keyboards; he’s come up with chords that nobody else plays. It’s funny every time we play together I feel like this excited kid who’s eaten way too much sugar while he’s calm, much more grounded. So when we play together I want to turn everything up to ten and play it really fast and he’s more inclined to take it easy and leave some space between the notes. I think there’s such a contrast between our playing that he brings out more of that in me where I am able to sit back and let the music be. I think with moe., I have this tendency, we all have this tendency to overplay. We get so excited about the songs that it can become sort of messy at times, it’s sensory overload where we all try to fit as many notes as possible into these really tiny gaps. He referred to us being like the Dead on crank.
D- In this context how do you think that you own guitar technique or approach has evolved over the years?
A- Well, lately I’ve decided that I need to expand the palette that I use when I’m improvising. This is sort of what you run into when you’re playing and improvising three hours every day on stage. There’s only so much you can do before you’ve exhausted everything you know. In moe. we have a certain responsibility on stage not to completely explore new territory and have it suck. People are paying good money to see us these days and there are definitely section of songs where I try to do that but I can’t do it constantly. I can’t make that my forum for learning how to play the guitar, so I need to work on it now for instance, during my down time.
D- Was there a particular moment when you decided to do this or did it emerge from the ongoing, organic process of playing guitar?
A- It started about three years ago for me. One part of it was we had come from being a bar band to having some moderate success as this college bar band throughout the northeast. But being in that atmosphere there were a few instances where I might have been be too buzzed to play at my peak. I guess I realized that we had this responsibility to those people who came to see us. I just wanted to make sure that I was playing the music to the best of my ability. By this time people were so psyched about the band that they were driving distances to come see us and I felt that I needed to give it my best effort if they were giving it their best effort to come and see us.
Another part of it is I came to a point where I didn’t want to solo in the band. I found myself disappointed with the solos that I was taking and I was really convinced that since Chuck was a significantly better guitarist than I am or was, it didn’t make sense to us to be trading off and sharing equally this role as lead guitarist. It made more sense to me for Chuck to be the primary solo guitarist, he is such a colorful player, and I would play rhythm guitar and sing and fulfill that role. I was fine with it and the whole thing seemed so logical to me at the time but everyone else in the band they wouldn’t have it, they didn’t want me to stop soloing. Eventually it turned around. I think a lot of it was me just concentrating, focusing a bit more, taking time when we weren’t playing to learn things. I think picking up other instruments has helped as well. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Lately I’ve been pretty happy with my guitar playing. At the end of this tour I think I was doing some of the best guitar stuff that I have ever been doing, which is great. I’m glad I got to this point. But still I feel the need to take it further.
D- I would imagine that some of that will appear in the more straightforward songs that you will perform with the Transamericans. I was wondering if you would introduce the players in that band?
A- The Bass player is Jim Loughlin, who is moe.’s former drummer. He was with us for about two and a half years and then he went off and played for Yolk for three years. Lately he’s been playing with his wife Chris. Jim, aside from being one of the best drummers in the scene is a phenomenal bass player. He played a lot of jazz bass I college. I really wasn’t looking for a jazz/funk player of Jim’s caliber, I was looking for a simple pocket player but Jim is such a great musician and a friend so I decided to bring him along.
The drummer is Ted Marotta from the Seapods. In my opinion Ted is one of three best drummers in the scene. It’s funny, with the history moe. has had with drummers, before Loughlin even left we told Ted that if anything should ever happen we’d want to steal him from the Seapods. I love his playing and I thought that maybe someday somehow it would work out that he would be the drummer in moe. Every time we ever needed a drummer we would ask him bold-faced right I front of the other guys ‘hey do you want to be in our band?’ So now I finally will have an opportunity to play with him.
D Speaking of the ‘Pods, what are your thoughts on Max Verna’s departure from that band?
A- I was really concerned for them but Ted reassured me that things are going to work out. I’ve seen Todd their new guitarist play twice and I thought he was great. I guess that lately he’s been playing with them while Max is still on the stage. They’re doing this gradual transition and then on New Years they’re going to do an official passing of the torch. Todd’s guitar-playing is there, he’s a great vocalist and they’ve already started writing songs together. Ted says they’re coming out great.
D- Back to the Transamericans…
A- Rolf Witt is a classically trained violinist who loves bluegrass. He’s a perfect Swiss army knife player. He’ll be playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. moe.’s drummer Vinnie used to play with him in two bands. One of these was Sonic Garden which is one of the best Dead cover bands I’ve ever seen. They started in the late eighties and it’s almost become an institution. There are no original members left in the band. Every year somebody graduates college and gets replaced by somebody else. It was treat to see them play. The other band was this group called Acoustic Forum which had some of the most smoking players in western New York. There were two mandolins, three guitarist, banjo, bass, two drummers, keyboards. They would mix it up al over the place.
Then we have Kirk Juhas from freebeerandchicken. He will be playing keyboards, harmonica, banjo and singing as well. We’ve got a good group of players to do this kind of music.
D- What is the origin of the band’s name?
A- I was actually suggesting Transamerican as the title of Tin Cans and Car Tires at one point, just because of the nature of what we do and the subject matter of all the songs on there. And once I had that in my head it was easy to transpose it and use it for this because it’s very related. We will be doing what I consider to be the foundation of contemporary American music, plus everyone in the band has traveled all over the place