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Published: 2004/01/29
by Mike Greenhaus

Phantasy.Al: moe.‘s Guitarist Spends Time with his Fans and the Flaming Lips

Don't roll your eyes if someone claiming to be Al Schnier posts a message on Phantasy Tour. Recently, moe.'s guitarist has been among the popular website's most dedicated denizens.

In many ways, it makes sense that Phantasy Tour would intrigue Schnier. Since forming thirteen years ago, the members of moe. have constantly sought out new ways to interact with their fans. Recently, the quintet announced the first moe.vie contest, a month -long experiment that will allow fans to create their own live moe. DVDs. Likewise, moe. also factors in their fans input heavily when deciding which of their songs are delegated into A, B, and C list categories.

An avid music fan himself, whose favorite bands range from the Flaming Lips and Bjork to The Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson, Schnier isn’t ashamed to utter the phrase "we’re not worthy." In fact, the guitarist landed a dream gig last summer when moe. opened for The Dead and Willie Nelson on the Summer Getaway Tour. An old soul, Schnier is also a fan of the recording studio, a music venue moe. is eager to spend more time exploring in the near future. caught up with Schnier shortly after moe.‘s well-received New Years shows and discussed what’s in store for the quintet in 2004.

You often talk about A list, B list, and C list moe. songs. How do you reach such designations?

There are few basic elements to it: first and foremost is how does it feel to us. It’s kind of like finding the right pair of pants. Some of your pants fit great. Then some of them don’t quite fit right, but you try to make them work anyway. Then some of them don’t fit at all. As with all things moe., the number one priority is that we are all really enjoying ourselves. We have five different guys in the band, coming from five completely different places. Finding a song that everyone is really happy about is important. The other element is the crowd response. If we’ve been playing a song for a few months and we haven’t gotten a warm response, it’s going to stop making the set list. The less the song gets played, the more likely it gets put on the back burner or moved to being a second or third string song.

What are your "sweat pants" songs?

I think everyone in the band would agree songs like "Rebubula," "Buster," "Plane Crash," "Mexico," "Moth"—the real hits. They are the ones that are instant crowd pleasers and the ones we enjoy playing a lot. Those are the songs that really stand out.

Although those five are older compositions, as your songwriting focus becomes more refined, do you find that your older songs are regulated to the B or C list?

Sometimes they are. At least in our estimation they may be. Sometimes, specifically due to stuff like the lyrics, the chord-melody structure, or the actual music, songs get written off the list entirely. We’re not so proud of the work we’ve done [laughs]. Fans are like, "Oh you got to bring back such and such a song," and we’re like, "That song sucks." Sometimes you have to say, "Thanks for liking it and really caring about the band, but some of these songs are just bad songs." There is a reason we stopped playing them. It’s usually the same criteria: we weren’t enjoying playing it and the fans didn’t care about it. But just the fact that we didn’t play it, people are like, "Oh we used to love that song." No you didn’t [laughs]. You never even clapped. That was your "Let’s go get a beer song."

During your recent NYE run, moe. debuted some new material. Yet, with everyone living so far away, how can you write and rehearse your new material before a tour?

We do things in a variety of ways these days. We actually started working on those new songs right after Thanksgiving. We played a show up in Albany and stayed for a couple days to rehearse. Then we went to the Palladium in Worchester and rehearsed for a few days again. When we got together for New Years, we spent [December 30th] rehearsing some more. The 31st was also supposed to be a rehearsal day, but tried-and-true guitarist Chuck Garvey came down with an ailment and was bedridden up until an hour before showtime.

Has this distance changed moe’s approach to songwriting?

It’s a big difference. There was a time when we all used to live in the same house. We were doing 300 days on the road at that time. Then we would come home from a tour, take all the gear out of the van, rehearse for two days, break it all down, and go back on tour. We played almost every day, whether it was at a show or in our basement. Now things are decidedly different. We all have homes and families and live far apart from each other. There was much more of a collaborative effort in the past. Even if I went down to the basement to work on a riff or chord, eventually, one by one, people would start filtering down into the basement. You couldn’t write a song on your own then. We didn’t have anytime away from each other. There was no down time. We were all sharing one hotel room, one living room, one TV – you couldn’t escape each other. Not that it was a bad thing. We were so much apart of each other’s waking hours, it was natural that all our songs were much more collaborative then. Since we all moved out of the house, we’ve gravitated much more towards really developing an idea first and then showing it to the band.

In the Feb//March issue of Relix, you cite moe’s Wormwood as one of 2003’s best albums. What made this disc, in your mind, so exceptional?

The recording process had a lot to do with it. At the time, I didn’t realize how good it was going to be. We were kind of making it up as we went along and we ran into a lot of snags. But I think we ended up with a really, really good album. The other element in there is the songwriting. It goes back to the collaboration. I think full-band collaborations often lead to a stronger finished piece in the end. When it comes to a band like moe., where we have a lot of extroverted control-freaks, we are all involved. It’s definitely a democratic band. Even though some of us have stronger personalities, it’s still a democracy. During the recording process, and this happens all the time with us, we have five guys and five ideas, so everyone ends up compromising their idea of how something should turn out. In the end, no one is really that happy with the final result because they didn’t get their way. Then you listen back to it and it sort of sinks inlike, "Wow this is realty good. There are ideas here I wouldn’t have thought of." You can be a fan of your own music because you are part of a process that is more of a team effort. It’s not so much about being conceded because you take pride in what the team has sort of done together.

Is Wormwood the definitive moe. album?

It’s captured the spirit of moe. more than anything we’ve made—even some of the live albums, like L and the Warts and All series. Obviously the spirit of moe. comes through at our live shows, but that’s not everything. The songwriting is very important to us and the recording process is very important to us. So here is an album in which we really nailed everything: the performance, the songwriting, and the recording. It’s by no means the best album we can make, and I don’t think history will show that it will stand up to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt Pepper’s, but I think it’s out best effort to date and it’s a step in the right direction. I think we have a Sgt. Pepper’s in us. If the stars can just line up, I really think we have the potential to make a great studio album.

Does moe. plan to return to the studio sometime in 2004?

We’ve been writing songs and looking as studios, so that seems to be the natural progression. But the music industry has changed so dramatically in the last two years, since Wormwood came out, that we are willing to look into other options at this point. So, yes, we will be recording in the studio this year. What we are going to do with it, we don’t know. We could literally e-mail new material to all our fans. The way we did Dither was when we had free time we went into a studio, whether it was San Francisco or the Northeast, and recorded a bunch of songs and then got back on tour. After eight or nine months, we realized we had about a dozen songs and were like "Hey, we got an album." So we may end up doing that again.

What is the normal lifecycle of a moe. song?

We write songs, we get together and play the songs, our fans hear the songs, we work them out on stage, and after six-months to a year, they are ready to be recorded. One of the things we’d still like to do is sit down and write an album—a cohesive body of work where the songs are all interconnected in some way. It might not be a concept album, but there would be some similar musical and lyrical themes. We’d like to focus on the songs and then worry about how they’d work out on stage.

With the Jammys quickly approaching, who would be your ideal on-stage collaborator?

Paul McCartney. He’s one of rock’s greatest songwriters and a living legend. A lot of the great rock legends have passed on, but he is still around and doing better than ever. The tour he just had [in 2002] was phenomenal and he’s one of my favorite songwriters. I’d also love to collaborate with Willie Nelson and Neil Young and David Byrne and Elvis Costello. But Paul is the least obtainable, and most fantastical, on the list.

This summer, moe. shared the stage with Willie Nelson as an opening act for The Dead. That seems like a dream come true for you…

I met Willie for the first time in Vernon Downs, NY this summer. He is the nicest, most down to earth guy. After his set, he took the time to talk to everyone around him. He dropped everything and dedicated two minutes of his undivided attention to each person he talked to and listened to whatever they had to say. It was nice to see that, rather than some bodyguard escorting him back to his trailer.

If you could create an "Al and Friends" touring group, who would be among your "Friends."

It would depend on the nature of the music. The Transamericans are kind of like "Al and Friends," but that’s more of an Americana thing. But in a straight-ahead rock band, or an indie-rock band, [the Flaming Lip’s] Wayne Coyne is someone I’d want by my side. I’d also want Ringo Starr to play drums. I’d almost want to use Dave Schools on bass, but he is already everyone else’s "friend," so I would have to come up with my own friend. What about Phil [Lesh]? Do you think Phil could be someone else’s’ friend? I’d also use John McEntire from Tortoise because he could play the drums, keyboard, computer, and guitar. It would also be nice to have Allison Krauss in the band; someone who could sing harmonies and play a great fiddle. I’d also want Bjork in my band. I’ll just book the hotel rooms and just let them all play.

Many people credit moe. for introducing the Flaming Lips to the jamband community. How did you first come in contact with the Lips?

We both did New Years shows in Chicago last year. I had just seen them play a show with Beck and was completely blown away. Our shows were at the same time and I wasn’t going to be able to see them. But I had arranged to go over there during sound check. I just wanted to watch them play a little bit. That was sort of the beginning of human contact with the Flaming Lips. When I got there they weren’t sound checking yet, so I got to meet the guys in the band. Wayne and I ended up talking for a while. He’s a very rooted person. It was just fun meeting him—his heart is in the right place and his sense of values are just OK.

Were the Lips familiar with the jamband scene before last year?

We talked about that quite a bit. It’s actually come up again since then. He was really not that familiar with it, but I told him all about our music scene and our fans. There were already tons of Flaming Lips fans within the jamband scene. One of the things I love about the jamband scene is that people go out and see diverse music. That was one of the things I touched on. I said, "There are a lot of people who love your band and a lot more who would love you, especially with the psychedelic stage presence you guys have." It was really only a matter of time. People have given me credit, somehow, for connecting the Flaming Lips to the jamband scene, but it was inevitable. One thing we talked about was his concept of the show: putting on a show that was larger than life, uplifting, and a celebration of life. I told him how that would resonate so well within this communityI think people would really, really gravitate towards that. There is a lot of that already, but, in moe.‘s case, it’s not such a visual spectacle. It’s more about the music.

Where did the concept of the moe.vie come from?

We’ve been wrestling with the concept of a DVD for a long time. We’ve talked about everything from shooting a multi-night stand someplace and releasing a traditional concert DVD to actually making more of a concept film. Instead of showing just my fingers on the guitar neck, we’d show some ants moving some food along; some really cool elements. We’d get these lofty art flick ideas and we’d talk about investing a quarter of a million dollars in something that may not pay off in the end. Then we were like, "what if we only do one night and the night sucks?" We’d end up with The Song Remains the Same, which was not Led Zeppelin’s finest performance. So we were like, "What if we just started to allow videotaping again?" Instead of making a DVD to sell commercially to our fans, for a whole winter tour we’d put it back in the hands of our fans and let them do it. We’d let them do something really interesting with it. So for the whole winter tour we are allowing videotaping and encouraging fans to edit them down to 30-minute shorts and we are going to judge all those. There will be several winners and we’ll show those at moe.down this year. We’ll have our own little home movie festival.

Recently, you’ve also been connecting with you fans through Phantasy Tour. What was that experience like?

I spent a very long weekend on Phantasy Tour a week or two ago. It’s something I’d always stayed away from. I thought if I ever allowed myself to go on it, I’d go crazy and wonder "Why is Chuck a better guitarist than me? [laughs] It’s the own adage of not reading your own critics and reviews. But, there seemed to be a lot of activity and people started sending me messages saying, "You got to check this out on Phantasy Tour." So I thought I’d make myself available for the fans. I didn’t know if I was going to get my head handed to me, but it ended up being a great, great experience for everyone. I spent five days doing it, answering every single question that I could. I really got to the bottom of some of the issues people had debated back and forth. It’s not real news-breaking stuff, but it’s a great experience—something I can see doing again. But I don’t want to make a habit of it and I can see it becoming very habit forming.

Does Topper really suck?

Well, yes [laughs]. But he doesn’t suck anymore than the rest of us. I think
Topper is awesome. He does a great job at what he does and I can’t image anyone else being our manager. Topper is one of us, and he is as good a manager as I am a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Does he suck? Yea. He misspells things and puts the wrong dates on things occasionally. He may forget to rent something that we needed—like power for a show. However, there are so many strong points, that stuff is irrelevant. But there are "Topper Sucks t-shirts." Does Topper suck? Yea. But, so do I.

Did you always consider moe. a jamband?

When moe. first started, we weren’t a jamband. moe was inspired by bands like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and fIREHOSE. Also, a lot of the humor came from Frank Zappa. We weren’t a jamband when we started, but the jamming involved out of a need to performer longer in front of an audience and a desire to incorporate an element of the stuff I had learned from the Grateful Dead. I spent so many formative years watching them play—to me concerts were supposed to be two sets and the second set was supposed to be longer and spacer. While Rob and Chuck liked the Dead, they weren’t obsessed with them like I was. So they didn’t have any notions going into this. That’s why our music never ended up sounding like the Dead’s.

How has the essence of a moe. song changed over time?

Early on, the songs were a bit more whimsical. I think there was more humor involved lyrically and musically. I think the songwriting has matured—for the better. Early on there was a lot of energy. There was a lot of testosterone, a good sense of humor and a lot of mindless thrashing about. I think we have come a along way. We’ve refined our songwriting a great deal. Several years ago, it became a priority for us—the song structure, the stuff we were learning in the studio, working with producers and whatnot. We still have the jams, but instead of just being one chord, we are really doing something with it. I think we have a lot of potential. I am thankful that thirteen years into this we all still enjoy what we do and I hope we do realize our potential at some point.

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