Schniers al.gorithm: Two moe. Releases, Two Side Projects, One Jammy
moe.'s fall tour culminated with a pair of performances on Jammys night. Following an epic “Don’t Fear The Reaper” with the original members of Blue Oyster Cult, the band headlined the Jammy after-show. The group also took top honors at the awards show, garnering the “TDK Live Performance of the Year” Jammy for its late night gig at Bonnaroo.
Guitarist Al Schnier was a blur of activity on Jammys night, performing with his band, enlisting other musicians to sign his guitar and later joining the climactic final jam. As a result, he was a bit late for the group’s post-Jammys gig at B.B. King’s, where the band welcomed a number of guests including Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes (and also saw an audience member take lead vocals on one of Schnier’s songs while he was still on stage back at Roseland).
The following conversation touches on all these topics. In addition, Schnier offers some commentary on the four new releases that he has in queue: the latest moe. studio effort, the quintet’s Holiday release, the Al and the Transamericans album and the follow-up to al.one.
DB- moe. just performed with Blue Oyster Cult at the Jammys. What has your relationship been with that band’s music over the years?
AS- I first started listening to them in fifth or sixth grade. I know it was the summer of 1978 because it was the year that Van Halen came out. You can sort of benchmark certain things by cultural happenings- “I remember that because it was the year Star Wars came out or Jaws came out.” Well I remember that was the year Van Halen came out.
I had a copy of Some Enchanted Evening, Blue Oyster Cult’s live album. I had this little tape recorder/mini boombox thing I carried around all summer long and that tape was in constant rotation. So that was the beginning of my love affair with Blue Oyster Cult. It probably dwindled like many people some time after “Burning For You,” and I moved on to other things but we’ve been covering “Reaper” and “Godzilla” for years. I’ve never really stopped liking the music. I picked up their greatest hits anthology box set collection a few years and rediscovered them.
DB- Were you the one who brought those songs to moe.?
AS- Not really, I think we all did it mutually. I think “Reaper” might have started with a Halloween show really and then it was just like, “Well we should do Godzilla.’” And we’ve often talked about covering “Burning For You” too, it’s the triumvirate.
DB- You hadn’t met the Blue Oyster Cult guys until the soundcheck prior to the Jammys. Describe that experience.
AS- The sound check was kind of rough. It was delayed by about 2 hours at that point. We were waiting for Particle and the B-52’s to finish. Then we got up there, and nothing was the way that it was normally- our monitor guy was sort of the go-between because there was a house monitor guy. It was kind of like a festival thing where you just get up on the stage and kind of go. And it was pretty bad. The performances was pretty bad and the sound was pretty bad and then we were done and it was time to get off the stage.
DB- Well you needed to make some adjustments, right? moe. performs “Reaper” in a different key than BOC?
AS- We play it in A which is the original key and they’ve moved it, they modulated it. It wasn’t that big a deal but everything was different. We played it a little bit slower than we normally do and we had four guitar players on stage and it was just cacophony. The future looked bleak for us. But when we played the song that night it was just worlds better. It all came together and from our perspective at least it seemed like it was great. Everything sounded really good, the vocals were really good and the guitar solo went on forever. All the pieces were there.
DB- I’d like to hear your perspective on the event itself. What did you think when you showed up that night?
AS- The air was definitely charged. You could tell there was a lot of anticipation, just coming in and seeing a lot of famous people being whisked around very busily [laughs]. All the sort of hyper backstage action before a show compounded tenfold because there were so many acts and so much to manage and all these famous people walking around. It was fairly intense.
DB- I saw you walking around collecting signatures on a pick guard. Was that yours?
AS- Yes that was my pick guard. I got everybody except Gregg Allman, whose bodyguard threw an elbow to my neck [laughs]. I was walking up to him and he cross-armed me across the throat. I was like, “Uh, cough, cough, can I get Gregg to sign this?” And he said, “Gregg’s going on in a few minutes, we need to stand over here and wait.” At the moment I was on the fence as to whether I should say, “Well you know I’m Al Schnier and I play guitar with the band moe,” thinking that this is either going to work for me or against me. Either “Remember that name, Al Schnier from moe. and at all costs avoid this individual,” or maybe “Okay, it’s not just some random fan and at least I’ll sign the pick guard for him.” I got pretty much everybody’s signature. Even Al Franken and John Scher.
DB- Franken’s a nug because he left before he delivered his speech to Weir and the Dead. So what are you going to do with the pick guard?
AS- Right now it’s sitting around but I’m actually going to frame it and hang it up.
DB- Before you guys played you won the “TDK Live Performance of the Year” Jammy for your Bonnaroo late night performance. What are your memories of your Bonnaroo show?
As- My first memory is of going over to the stage around nine o’clock. I had to check my gear for something and I knew that all of our stuff was on stage. I got there at nine o’clock and the tent was already packed. This is three hours before we’re going on and people were waiting. I was really surprised about that. The other thing was I only gotten about three hours of sleep the night before. I knew we were going on at midnight, and that Karl Denson had played for about four and a half or five hours the night before and people were talking about that. We knew it was going to be Jazz Fest-like event where there would be no curfew and we could go on as long as we wanted. I had sworn off caffeine about five years ago but I remember drinking several Red Bulls that night and being completed wired from it. What else do I remember? I remember Peter Shapiro coming up on stage with a video camera and crashing into my keyboards.
DB- You invited a number of musicians to perform with you that night. Did you talk to them beforehand or did you just see them on the side of the stage and invite them up?
AS- Both. I spent the whole day walking around backstage seeing different bands. So throughout the course of the day I asked a few people to come and play with us. At these festivals you always have to be very wary of not asking too many people because it’s very easy to ask everyone you see and then it just becomes this variety show. You never really get any of your own momentum if you have a guest up for every song. But I’m probably the most guilty party in our band. I always enjoy the sit-in. I ran into a bunch of people there and invited them and then Kang and Travis just showed up.
Brendan Bayliss from Umphrey’s McGee just happened to be standing at the side of the stage. Those guys when they first started out covered “Rebubula.” This was like six years ago or something and they gave us a tape of it. So I called him over and asked him if he knew the song and wanted to play. He was standing with the other guitar player in his band but the reason I chose him was he had given me his guitar to play at Jazz Fest and he sort of sat out a song. So I decided to return the favor. But then the other guitar player walks out on stage and I had to say, No, no, I meant Brendan.” It was this weird awkward moment but Brendan ended up taking my guitar and playing.
DB- Did he remember the song?
AS- For the most part. He held his own until a certain part and I said, “Do you remember how the rest of it goes? And he was like, “You know, you better take the guitar.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.”
DB-And then at the end of the evening you were on stage for the “Jam of the Titans,” as the New York Times called it. How did that go for you?
AS- For me personally it was awesome to be standing there shoulder-to-shoulder with Trey, Warren, John Popper, Bob Weir, all in a line. It was surreal to be up there playing with those guys. For every guitar player who’s a fan of this scene, it would be a dream to be up there doing that. So it was a wonderful moment for me, I was completely beside myself. I have to say at that point of the night I had spent a while talking with Tina Weymouth and then hanging out with the Blue Oyster Cult guys and then talking with Bobby and with Trey for a while so by that time 2:30 I thought I was going to have an ulcer with the intensity of the night. For me there were just a lot of luminaries, people who I had held in high regard so it was really intense. By the time I got out on stage I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown I guess [laughs].
DB- To be honest, I did think you seemed a little tentative out there.
AS- Well everyone was so close to each other and it’s so easy to just start adding to the chaos. Trey and I were right next to other and I was careful not to step on his toes. I was just trying to play along with him and answer the stuff that he was playing. With that many players on stage it’s easy just to stop playing and let the music kind of happen and then say something when you need to rather than just blah blah the whole time.
DB- For a little while Warren just had his guitar hanging there.
AS- Yeah, I did the same thing for a while. I was just checking out the whole thing [laughs].
DB- Could you hear through your monitors what was happening on the other stage?
AS- No, that was the thing. I could hear through the room but not through the monitors. At one point Robert Randolph was taking a great solo on the other stage and someone on our corner of the stage was soloing too somewhat oblivious to what was happening on the other stage. But that stuff sorted itself out. Bobby was trying to conduct the whole thing as best as possible.
DB- I thought that when he brought it to a close he did it quite well given there were so many people out there.
AS- I was ready to go into “Lovelight” and start it right back up.
DB- I wasn’t sure what was going to happen because RatDog had started out with “Sugar Magnolia.” We had asked Bobby if he could start with that and then encore with “Lovelight” into “Sunshine Daydream.”
AS- That would have been great.
DB- I meant to ask him about this but either he figured not enough people knew it or he figured that people had said what they were going to say. There was a lot of interesting stuff happening on both stages but it was “Gloria” that really got me. Especially with the audience members pumping their fists. I’ve listened to the tape a few times and I’m still not sure who brought that jam there.
AS- Well, it wasn’t me [laughs].
DB- Meanwhile at B.B. King’s your band had gone on. Were you in the room when they started “Mexico?”
AS- No, no I wasn’t there yet. They knew I was still missing at that point. I had told them to start without me, to go ahead if that’s what it came down to. But rather than ignore the fact that I was gone and try to get around it, they decided to exploit it and do one of my songs [laughs]. So they asked if anyone knew all of the words and they got a fan to come up and sing the song. I guess he did okay until halfway through the song and then he just completely shut down. I came in at the end, I didn’t even know that someone from the audience had been singing it. Rob just finished those last few lines. I had my pedal board and guitar with me and just walked straight up to the stage, plugged everything in and started playing on the next song.
DB- So I take it you didn’t linger at the Jammys but just hauled ass down to B.B.’s?
AS- I had to. Everybody in our camp was totally freaking out about the fact that I was still at the Jammys. To me it didn’t seem to be that big an issue because we were doing a post-Jammys show. So by logic it made sense that I could stay at the Jammys until it was over and then play the post-Jammys show. We weren’t doing the during-the-Jammys-show but everyone was getting nervous about the fact that the other show was sold out and there were kids who didn’t go to the Jammys and were sitting around a long time. Although Particle was playing.
DB- And then you guys had some guests play with you at B.B.’s? Did you know they were going to show?
AS- Warren said he was going to come and when he says he’s going to stop by he usually means it. But I didn’t expect anyone else to come. It was one of those things. Bobby said he was going to come and from what I understood he was backstage. We got word on the stage that he was there and was going to play but there were questions about having his guitar and his amp. They were trying to get that together and next thing you knew it was five in the morning and he went home, so they never quite got it together.
DB- I didn’t get there until midway through your set. I walked in during “Rech Chem” and there was Trey on stage. Somehow it just seemed so natural, “Oh hey, there’s Trey with moe.”
AS- It seemed like that to me too. If it was a different show or under different circumstances it might have felt otherwise. But this was just, “Oh cool Trey’s playing.” It all just carried over from the Jammys.
DB- Warren came out next and I thought that “Bodhisattva” was just insane.
AS- It was crazy and the thing is he actually didn’t know the song. Afterwards we asked him if he’d come out for one more and he said, “Wait a minute, can you show me the chord changes to that last song. I want to know how it goes next time.”
DB- Since we’re talking a bit about other musicians, I heard that you guys were hanging out quite a bit with Robert Plant when you opened those dates on his tour. How did you think that went?
AS- For us personally it went much better than we could have expected in the interaction between us and him. He was really, really cool. We didn’t know what to expect. None of us had ever met him, we didn’t know if we were going to be locked in our dressing room and not allowed to make eye contact with the legend or what. It was great. He was really casual. He’d come into our dressing room every day, hang out for a little while and crack jokes. And he had a great story about every place we went to. He’s like the ultimate rock and roll guy, really funny, sharp-witted and he just carries himself well. There’s no mistaking the fact he’s a rock legend but at the same time he’s not a dick about it which is really cool.
He was actually very curious about the whole jam band scene. One day we started talking about Phil and he asked me if I knew Phil. I mentioned the times we’d played together and he wanted me to share any insights that I had regarding Phil Lesh’s career and how he had carved out a niche for himself. He was very impressed that Phil can go out with a touring band and work old and new material but not be dependent on a record release, just go out on tour and be a live band. And the other side of it was when we got to Berkeley, Phil came down. I was talking to him before the show and I told him about some of things he had mentioned. Phil’s response was, “I didn’t do anything, it all just kind of happened to me.” And then the two of them got to meet at end of the night and talk for a while. That was the first time they had ever met. Or at least the first time either of them recalls meeting.
DB- Were you tempted to ask Plant to sit in with you guys?
AS- Before the tour that’s all I was thinking. I thought we should learn an obscure tune that he might not be doing with his band in case the opportunity came up. That way we could say, “Hey do you want to do a song with us tonight?” and then bust it out. Something like “Hey Hey What Can I Do” or “The Ocean” or “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” But it turned out was he was already playing “Hey Hey What Can I Do” in his set, and it didn’t seem appropriate. He would sing a song with us backstage, he had no problem interacting with us musically. But there was something about his show where he definitely was the star and it’s not the same sort of casual atmosphere in his scene where say Dave Matthews or Phil or Warren can come out and do a tune with the opener. In his case he needs to wait until nine o’clock and the house lights are down and a certain kind of music is playing and then he makes an appearance on stage. It’s not contrived, it’s just who he is at this point in his career. The fans expect that and then he just comes out and commands the stage. So it just never came up, it was never addressed and who knows, maybe we’ll get to play together in the future.
DB- How long were your sets?
AS- They started at forty-five and after a few days he asked us to play longer. By the end we were playing for an hour every night.
DB- Did you focus on any particular material for his audience? Did you find that certain songs worked better then others?
AS- In the beginning we started playing a lot of our heavier, more rocking songs that we perceived would appeal to Zeppelin fans. We have a few songs that have sections that are derivative of Led Zeppelin like the chorus in “Plane Crash,” parts of “Understand.” There are a few more that are Zeppelin-influenced. They’re not direct rip offs because they never played those exact chords in that exact way but the nod is fairly obvious. But I don’t think they really cared. We found it was more effective if we just went out there and did what we did- if it rocked out not, if it was spacey or not, if we played some of poppier songs or not. The important thing was for us to go out there and be comfortable and do what we do. I think it had a much better effect on the audience. Plus Zeppelin fans are guitar-rock fans so that works for us on a lot of levels I guess.
DB- Let’s talk a bit about your next studio album, which will be out in January. First off do you have a name for it yet?
AS- Yes it’s called Wormwood. Wormwood is the secret ingredient in absinthe, I believe it’s a root that has mild toxic qualitiesIt fucks you up, dude [laughs].
DB- You mean old school absinthe.
AS- It depends on where you get it because the stuff that comes from the Czech Republic still has the wormwood in it. In Canada you can get the stuff imported from the Czech republic.
DB- And your approach on this one was different from Dither.
AS- It’s very different from anything we’ve done in the past. I’m not sure if anyone’s tried this approach with an album. Somebody suggested Zappa tried in this before. I know with the Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar album he tried something a little bit similar but different.
We’ve invested in recording equipment which we’ve been taking on the road with us, a forty-eight track digital recording set-up. We had about fifteen potential songs slated for the new album and we did all the pre-production and then decided we were going to start recording them during our shows. If we got a really good version of one then that would be the foundation for the studio track.
Then the idea morphed along the way. Rob came up with the idea of writing out full sets of six or seven of those songs that all segued from one into the next. That way we’d have maybe four or five of those that included all of the songs with different combinations, different segues. Then we could grab bigger chunks if any particular set worked really well or if the first half of a set worked really well, then you get the transitions and everything. So we did this in the spring and summer tour and in the end we ended up with a lot of material to sift through [laughs]. We were trying to keep notes and be diligent about it but it was pretty rough.
So we had those frameworks in place for how the songs flow into each other and even if we grabbed the equivalent of “China Cat” from one night and “I Know You Rider” from the other night it would still go together on tape if we edited it. And we ended up putting together a whole hour-long album of this, where the moment the needle drops the music is continuous until the very end.
It took quite a while to edit this all together. I believe the first five or six days in the studio I worked on the computer eighteen hours a day just putting together basic tracks that we could use and then start doing our overdubs. So the album is comprised of live tracks and then a bunch of overdubs. The drums are always live and everything else comes and goes. We used some live stuff and some studio stuff but in the end it sounds like a studio album, a crystal clear studio album. But in a real quiet moment in a song you can hear people cheering and you’re like, “Wait a minute” It has a really good feel to it to because it has that live energy.
It seems like jam bands are chasing after that in the studio, how do we capture what do we do live? That’s always the biggest criticism of jam band albums, these guys are great on stage but the studio album is watered down radio-friendly versions that lack the joie de vivre of their live shows or whatever [laughs]. We wanted to overcome that and put out an album that would not only do that but at the same time be a great headphones album that you’ll listen to from beginning to end as a whole work. We ended up with a really great album in the end and I’m really, really excited about it.
DB- Well, let’s leave that Wormwood teaser for now. I’m sure we’ll talk with you guys closer to the release date and walk through it in more detail. Let’s touch on some of your other projects though. You’ve completed an Al and the Transamericans album?
AS- We recorded it at David Lowrey’s studio down in Virginia and Brian Paulson was the engineer. He was the guy who did Son Volt, Wilco, Jayhawks, all the great Americana bands. It was awesome to work with him. He was a really nice guy and a killer engineer. The band on the album is the current line-up, which is myself and Vinnie, Kirk Juhas from freebeerandchicken, Eric Glockler from Strangefolk and Gordon Stone. I’m really happy with it. That album was the complete opposite of the moe. album, all old school analog. We went in and did our pre-production for a couple of days and made an album in seven days.
DB- Do you have a release date?
AS- We don’t know yet. Right now we’re speaking with some other labels to see if it might be better to put it out on a label other than Fatboy. There are labels more suited to do it and we don’t want to exhaust all of Fatboy’s resources with this and a holiday album and partnering on the new moe. album. It’s just too much for us to handle. There aren’t a & r guys and there isn’t even an office.
DB- You have some Transamericans dates coming up at the end of November, will Glock be out with you on those?
AS- He can’t play the first weekend, we’re not sure about the second. We’ll have Mitch [Getz, who toured with Schnier in al.one electronica project] doing it with us.
DB- Speaking of which, is there any more al.one stuff on the way?
AS- The plan right now is to start work on another album. I intended to be working on it as we speak but I received a copy of the holiday album today. That album literally came out of nowhere, we just decided to do it.
DB- How long did it take you to record Seasons Greetings from moe.?
AS- We did it with the recording gear that we used for Wormwood. It was Rob’s idea. After we finished the Robert Plant tour we had about ten days on the road and he proposed this challenge to us, to make a holiday album that we could finish before we came home. So we started talking about this and prior to our sound checks we’d be back stage with a boom box and all the Christmas CDs trying to figure how to play these songs and what we were going to do. Then when it was time for soundcheck we’d jump on stage, rehearse a song and then start rolling tape or start pressing digital buttons I guess. By the time we were done with the tour we had ten songs ready for overdubs and mixing. That was the time between our Saturday night show in Cincinnati and the Wednesday night show at the Jammys.
DB- That will be out at the end of October?
AS- By the time we go out for Halloween we expect to have copies in hand. We’ve been listening to it non-stop. Some of the stuff is not without a certain sense of humor and some of it really came out cool. There are two originals on there, two brand new songs. There’s one that I wrote called “Home” and one that Rob wrote called “Together at Christmas.”
DB-Vinnie came on our radio show [“Jam Nation”] and mentioned there’s a ripping surf version of “O Chanukah.”
AS- There is. That was just one of the songs that really worked. It makes a great surf tune. We did a punk rock version of “We’re a Couple of Misfits” from the Rudolph special. Then there’s “Jingle Bells” and “Linus and Lucy.” We did a Moog Christmas version of “Silent Night” somewhere between Pink Floyd and Manheim Steamroller. There’s a lot of interesting songs, honky tonk, bluegrass, country. It’s the whole variety of stuff we may touch on in a moe. show. It’s all there.