moe: Down with Casual
The following chat with moe. vocalist-guitarist Al Schnier covers much ground. Among
other topics, it touches on Dither, the band’s seventh and best album to date; their
co-producer/engineer, John Siket; moe.down, their Labor Day Weekend music
festival in their home turf of Upstate New York with The Radiators, Cracker,
Soulive, Lo Faber Band, The New Deal, Project/Object, Donna the Buffalo,
The Wailers and many others; a look at the crowded summer concert scene;
moe.‘s club act, Monkeys On Ecstasy; the band’s Fatboy Records and its
burgeoning, post-major label (Sony 550) independent operation, including a
recent tour of Japan; and several tasty upcoming plans, both solo and with
moe. All in all, quite an exhausting menu, bot not surprising given Al’s energy and that of the band. After reading this interview, visit moe.org for more details
about moe.down and other band news.
‘Dither’ is your best album. How did that come to be?This is the closest we’ve come to self-producing an album. We didn’t have a producer. John Siket … co-produced this album with us, but it was more like he was one of the team in the decision-making and creative process. In the past, we worked under somebody’s guidance. This time, we did it as a team. That’s why we gave John co-production credit. It really was a fun process, and I think it worked out fairly well. When we set out to record the album, we did not intend to record an album. We just booked studio time. When we had some free time, we’d lay down a few songs and continue to tour. If we had a day off in San Francisco, we’d lay down a few tracks. After a few times, we had a dozen songs and it was well on the way to being an album. Then last summer we went into the studio to start chiseling away at those songs. That process was different than any before. Usually we go into the studio intending to make an album. We record the songs from the ground up and have an album. This time, we composed material, deconstructed it and cut and paste it back together. It was an interesting process. We basically all sat around the control room brainstorming each song and section as they came up. It’s not as cost-effective as the traditional way to do an album, but it was a lot more fun and yielded much better results.
How much did John Siket have to do with that?He’s a great engineer. He really knows his stuff in the studio. Everything from the oldest, most traditional analog gear to cutting-edge stuff. He knows the tools. He’s also worked with such a wide variety of bands that get really creative in the studio, like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. He’s done everything from working at Mutiny Zoo in Hoboken to working with Steve Lillywhite with a nearly limitless budget for a major studio album. He really does know everything in between. We sit there and describe a sound to him or effect we’re going for. We could say, "I want this to sound like underwater but the ocean and not a pond." and he lives for that kind of stuff. That’s a lot of fun for him. That’s his element. He’s at home there, and it’s a pleasure to work with him. Not only that, but the guy is a true rock fan who knows every song by every band. He knows band’s entire catalogs, what year the album came out, who produced them, great stuff like that.
What do you like most about Dither?It felt that it was sonically our best album to date. I liked what we did with the songs. We can stand by this album and still stand by it 10 years from now. It was a step in the right direction in the studio. Not to say we wouldn’t enjoy going into the studio to cut a serious roots album. But it’s a step in the right direction for us and really only the tip of the iceberg of what moe. can do in the studio. We’re all for putting out a very involved album, like Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer or Sgt. Pepper. But there’s talk about possibly going into the studio to do a raw, rootsy record too. That might be next. Then something with strings might be down the road somewhere. In the Fall, we plan to release the first in a series of bootleg, soundboard-type recordings. We’re going to start releasing entire shows. They’ll be low-budget triple-disc sets, an easy way for people to get live shows, prepackaged and ready to go. The taper community has access for people who are in touch with that whole scene, but there’s a lot of people not involved in it. It’s easier for them to go to a record store. So we’re making the series available to them. We want to do a release every year aside from our real albums. We’re shooting for the end of October. Then we have several possibilities for the next real album. There’s even the possibility of multi-tracking shows for the release of a live album of new material, like Eat a Peach or Europe ’72 and other classic albums from the ’70s that had new material rather than a parade of hits. The newer songs may be better suited to the stage rather than the studio. We just need to find the time and the money. Now if we could just stop being a touring band and be The Beatles, we’d be all set.
What most excites you about this year’s moe.down?We’re just doing what we did last year but improving upon it. A lot of it is just details that people wouldn’t be concerned with. We really get involved with every aspect of organizing the festival, from the potties to security. It really doesn’t concern the average person so much. One thing we’re psyched about having is the kids tent. Our crowd’s getting a bit older. We wanted to offer some outlet for kids. People may not come based on the fact that they have kids. At least now there’s an option. It’s not that we’re encouraging an influx of kids to a rock festival, but when they do, we’ll have a place for them. We brainstormed a bunch of activities for the kid’s tent. We have clowns and … we’re getting guys from the mainstage acts to do a small, short set for the kids only. We don’t want the kids tent overrun with tapers. We’re also having a golf tournament. It’s the Friday afternoon. It’s a big golf outing with members of various bands that will benefit a charity. We nearly got a mountain bike race off the ground, but we’ll wait till next year. The golf tournament will be before the start of the festival.
Who are you most looking forward to jamming with at moe.down and why?I’d have to say David Lowery from Cracker because he’s one of my favorite songwriters. I’ve been a fan of his since the mid-‘80s with Camper Van Beethoven. That’s one of the most influential bands for me, one of my favorites. Even the stuff he went on do with Cracker was amazing. I love his sardonic wit. He just writes some great songs. I look forward to seeing their set, and I hope we get to play together. I know some of the guys from Camper Van Beethoven will be with him that weekend, and the show will include older material.
Besides the fact that you like them, what do most of the moe.down acts have in common?I would say most are in pursuit of some sort of higher quality of music. Most have escaped the mainstream radar. They don’t fall prey to the commercial trappings that some other bands do … for better or worse. Most of them receive great critical acclaim. It’s important to us that the music be the first priority. I think that’s the case with all the bands there. So we share that. After that, the music varies greatly. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone would find too offensive. None of it is too harsh. Some of it demands an attentive or critical audience. It’s not just a fist-pumping good time. Not to say that all the acts don’t have easily likeable songs. We share common traits, yet Cracker doesn’t sound like The Radiators and The Wailers sound nothing like Project/Object, but it would all fit nicely on a radio station or at a festival. It should make for a good day of music outside. That’s the plan. We just want the stuff to go over well and keep people interested. I think there’s enough variety. It’s not all metal bands or jam bands for that matter.
It seems like everybody’s a jam band these days.There’s been a huge rise in the popularity of these weekend festivals in the last three to five years. It seems like everybody has one. There’s usually one every weekend, no matter where you live, within an eight-hour drive. It makes it difficult to host one and have it be unique. Also, trying to organize a summer tour has become increasingly difficult not only because of all these festivals but also all the touring festivals. There’s just so much competition in the summer for people’s money essentially. So much music is offered, it makes it difficult to book a viable tour. We came very close to throwing in the towel. There was no state or region where we wouldn’t be in direct competition. In the end, we wanted to be out there for our fans. And we had a great summer. It was one of our best tours. It turned out great and we played great. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as we imagined it would be. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s tons of competition. It’s crazy. Everyone from the little guys still doing club tours to larger acts playing sheds and stadiums, ticket sales are suffering this summer more than ever and there’s been a steady decline in the last few years. I don’t know if it correlates with all the festivals bands are doing or touring festivals but the summer concert industry has changed a great deal in the last five years. We’ve talked of the notion of next summer just playing six weekend festivals in six different regions of the country rather than trying to go out four or five week straight to do a real tour. It seems a more viable way of playing shows. We’d hit all the markets and be dealing with the competition. That’s one of a half dozen options we discussed on how to approach next summer. One was a vacation.
*Other than an increased amount of alcohol involved, what’s the difference
between a moe. show and a Monkeys on Ecstasy show?*
The Dead were like that a lot of time.
For the better part of their career, they would take chances and
that’s what made it exciting. But it seems to me that the latter part, they
became a lot more complacent and started approaching things in the same way.
The segues weren’t even segues anymore. That was one of their shortcomings in
the end; although it didn’t hurt ticket sales in the least. They would still
sell out stadiums. But frankly, the music didn’t have the same quality it did
years before. It was a cyclical thing. It was not the result of success or
demise. A lot of it had to do with running a corporation and the politics
in becoming a stadium band when they were this experimental theater
band 15 years before that. There was a lot of change for them over the course
of 10 years from 1980 to 1990. The surge in popularity increased so
dramatically that it was a lot for even them to deal with. But they were one
of the most casual bands around.
How are the Transamericans doing?Transamericans are an on-again, off-again roots rock thing that I do on the side. I had every intention of doing a Transamericans studio album this past spring, but I got so busy with moe. that I didn’t even entertain the notion. Transamericans fills a void not only as an outlet for that music, but it also keeps my idle hands busy. I’m the sort of person who has to have 25 things going on at once whether it’s getting certified for SCUBA, building a studio or writing my own textbook on vintage effects pedals. The list grows and grows. I don’t why I feel so compelled to have so much on my plate, but the Transamericans is one of those things for me. I haven’t gotten to do that album, but I want to. It’s just a matter of time. I actually started work on a solo instrumental electronic album. I’m about one-third through it. I’ve got five songs done. I just keep running with it to see what will happen. I hope to get it out in the next three to five months. I’ll probably do a short tour. It’s electronic somewhere between Air and maybe Sector 9 or Portishead or Tortoise. It’s not aggressive techno dance music. It’s a lot more heady. It’s just me, at this point, on the computer, all the drums, keyboards, horns and bass. Eventually, I’ll overdub some analog recordings and put some guitar on the album. I’ve been talking to DJ Logic about a collaboration on one song if not more of the album. That’s a possibility. Otherwise, it’s just me. I’m going to do some dates, but I’m not sure how I’m going to approach that.
Describe your experience touring in Japan?Japan was awesome. It’s an amazing country. It’s sort of staggering to be with so many people so densely packed into these cities. Tokyo is a city as widespread as L.A. with the density of Times Square. It’s an interesting culture. They tend to be more formal. They’re more considerate and well-mannered, more polite. Respect and consideration are big priorities that are instilled in them. It’s the vibe you get. It’s really interesting. You get these kids coming to your show, and they will cheer like crazy and singalong to all the songs just like a regular rock show, but after the song, the audience stands in silence waiting for the next tune. It’s amazing how they go from raucous, enthusiastic, yelling and clapping, then everybody waits patiently for the next song. We could tap into a few things from them. We could do well to take some of their advice. At the same time, it’s an interesting thing that they’re so hungry for American pop culture. That’s really amusing. What’s American and popular is OK with them whether it be a brand of soda or a type of music or fashion, whatever. They’re really, really fashion-conscious, very trendy people. We saw all this latest and greatest fashion. A lot of the young guys were hanging out decked out in suits and the latest and coolest hair styles, talking on cell phones, and the women were in mini skirts, very stylish. We were wondering before we our first show if these were the people who were going to see us because most of our fans don’t dress like this. Then out of nowhere, we pull up to the show and there’s this throng of Japanese hippie kids. Some even were in a VW microbus playing the Dead and kicking around a hackysack. They started coming out of the woodwork. Actually, a wide group of people came to see the shows in Japan. They were really well-received. We’re going back again in December for a third time. We’re working on licensing our records in Japan. We hope to do the Fuji Rock Festival at the base of Mount Fuji, which has, like, 100,000 people. Last year, it had Beck, Ani DiFranco and Neil Young.
The band constantly reinvests its money to sustain its independent operation. While the business grows what is the one thing that makes living more hand-to-mouth than you otherwise would need to, most worthwhile?The first is being your own boss, being independent, autonomous. It comes at a price, several prices. That’s one of them, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay at this point. We’re young and we can adjust and forego some of the comforts of life to have it our way. It’s sort of a self-imposed carrot that we hang in front of ourselves. This could be a huge, successful operation for us one day. Ultimately, we could find ourselves in the same position that The Beatles, the Dead, Phish and any number of bands have been in and be independent throughout, which would be wonderful. I always think of somebody like Ani DiFranco. I have to remind myself if she can do it, anybody can do it. That’s not to say she isn’t an incredibly gifted and talented singer-songwriter, but the notion of being able to do things independently, she’s proven that it can be done. Look at a band like Radiohead. They really have had little or no radio success at all in the last six or seven years, and they are one of the most popular bands based solely on critical acclaim and doing what they want to do. I think that’s awesome. I hope that someday we find ourselves in the same position. We’re doing OK at the rate we’re going. We could have a nice, longterm, steady career at this and all retire very happily at a normal age without losing so many hairs along the way. The thing is, this is probably a lot more rewarding than trying to hold down some civil service position. ###
Bob Makin has been writing about moe. since 1993 and jam bands since 1988.
Jam bands and venues can send him info at firstname.lastname@example.org and material to
PO Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.