Wormwood, Refined, with Al Schnier
conflict of interest
1 : a conflict between the private interests and the official or professional responsibilities of a person in a position of trust
I remember my Ethics of Journalism professor telling us that we should never accept food or even coffee if it were offered at a press conference, like somehow by accepting anything from the people that you are covering could be misconstrued as a bribe. After all, how can you possibly be unbiased if you've just received a soy latte and bagel from the organization that you're supposed to be critiquing?
That being said, I'm quite aware that my beloved former professors in Emerson College's journalism department would likely revoke my degree if they happened to learn that I interviewed a member of moe. For the past year, I've been working for that very band, serving as their lighting designer. (At first there was some suspicion that it was all a front for undercover investigative reports from deep within the tour bus. After all, who needs a flimsy press pass when you can have access to Rob Derhak's laundry bag?). While the lighting gig is great, I have missed contributing to Jambands.com. So, when Mr. Budnick asked me to interview a member of moe. I was thrilled, yet a bit apprehensive. We figured there would be a unique angle, but that I should probably stray away from questions such as "So, how about your light show?" or "Remember that time you guys drank beer?" Furthermore, I won't be prefacing the Q & A with any grand statements about how moe. is clearly the best band ever and is destined to take over the world any day now.
I will say this. I was never a diehard moe. fan and I sort of figured I'd be tired of the music after I started working for them, but the opposite has happened. I have grown to really enjoy the live show and have been impressed with the abundance of new material that has been unveiled in the last year (more than twenty songs and counting).
On June 10th and 11th the band will perform many of these new tunes at the State Theatre in Portland, ME. The shows will be recorded for a new studio album, due out next year. But wait, a studio album recorded at a live show? What gives? I sat down with guitarist Al Schnier at the recent Summer Camp festival in Chillicothe, IL to discuss the similarities and differences between moe.'s Wormwood a "live" album with studio overdubs and editing and the upcoming project. Al also mentions a few other predictable artists a long the way: The Dead were good, The Beatles this, Pink Floyd that, Phish was cool, that Britney Spears song "Toxic" is "amazing." You know, your standard jamband stuff.
JW: There has certainly been a lot of shuffling of the deck in the jamband touring scene as of late. Phish aren’t touring. The Dead aren’t touring.
AS: Trey's not touring.
JW: Right. The Zooma Tour has just been canceled. So what do you think of the current state of the industry and where do you see it going?
AS: It's hard to say. It's always been hard to say. People are always sort of hedging their bets on who's going to be the next keeper of the flame. I have such a vested interest in what we do. It's hard not to get sucked into it. You know? But, at the same time, I find it's best not to get sucked into it and get too focused on jockeying for position or something. We just need to focus on what we do and do the best job we can. Regardless of that, some of the things I've seen that are really interesting are bands like Yonder [Mountain String Band], Umphrey's [McGee] or Perpetual Groove all sort of coming into their own and showing some staying power and longevity. They're really developing scenes of their own and these are all bands that I have great respect for: great work ethic, really nice guys and they seem to be doing the right thing. It looks like they're going to stick around for a while. It's good to see.
We've been through so much as a band. I like to see it when the other bands are doing okay too. You even see bands like New Monsoon, Hot Buttered Rum String Band and RAQ also working very hard and you can see that one day they're also going to be moving up through the ranks. It's not so much a competitive thing as it is just building your own thing and having it flourish. I think there are enough bands to go around. The problem is when we all start getting into Circle of Gold Seating and $450 tickets. You know, a lot of fans just don't have that kind of money, which again, is why we try to keep our ticket prices down and hope for the best.
JW: Do you think realistically there will be another band that will move up to playing and selling out amphitheatres regularly or do you think it will be more evenly spread with several bands moving into slightly larger venues?
AS: Honestly, I don't see any of the bands within the current jamband scene having the same sort of rush of success that Phish saw in the wake of the Dead. I don't see that happening in the wake of Phish laughs. Metaphors are kind of…
JW: Sounds like a cheesy headline.
AS: I know. But still, I don't see it happening. I don't think moe., [Gov't] Mule, [Widespread] Panic, [String] Cheese [Incident] any of the bands that are sort of poised to become the next big thing will really do that. With Phish, I think it was really a matter of timing and it wasn't just the timing. It was the music and the charisma of the group. They had something really magical at the right place and time, and it was fantastic. A lot of people were just getting turned on to Phish at that time and you look at all of the bands that would sort of be poised to move ahead and we've all been around for a long time. So it's not like Oh wow, this is something fresh and new.' We've been doing this for fourteen years, in our case for example or even with Cheese and Mule and Panic. Panic's been around as long as anybody, as long as Phish. However, that doesn't mean that none of our bands will get to the point where we're playing amphitheatres or maybe even arenas or stadiums one day. It's hard to say what will happen, but I see it as more of a slow burn, almost like what happened with the Dead or what's happened with Panic. They're kind of at that level. They're not going to be doing the crushing stadium tour just yet, but it's certainly in the cards. It will be interesting to see how things play out.
JW: Talk about your summer plans. I assume there were a lot of options. You could have done your own tour. You could have gone out with some of the traveling summer festivals and you chose to go with the Allman Brothers tour. Tell me about that decision.
AS: It's interesting. At one point, there was some discussion about us possibly joining up with the Madison House [Big Summer Classic] tour and it was a really interesting prospect for us to join forces with their whole team and try to do something that benefited everybody, sort of a colliding of worlds. While we've always sort of had parallel universes with String Cheese, there isn't a ton of crossover between our fan bases and we thought it would really be an interesting thing. However, early on it seemed like it would really be beneficial if we just did our own thing. We've talked with the Allmans every summer for like the last five years it seems and this year it's the first time it really made sense for both of us. I'm honored. They're heroes of mine and really forged the way for a band like moe., not only in terms of their career path, but what they've done musically. So much of what we do is informed by what they've done before us. It's true for many musicians. It's fantastic that we get to go out and tour with these guys. You know, we've known Oteil [Burbridge] and Warren [Haynes] for years and Derek [Trucks] somewhat also, so it's cool that we already have a nice, longstanding relationship with half of the band and we're looking forward to hanging out with the rest of the guys.
JW: Let’s talk about moe.‘s new album. You’ve described it as an evolution of the Wormwood sessions. What are some of things that you’re looking to improve upon since the making of that record?
AS: It's kind like if we could go back and do it again, what would we do differently? I guess one of the prime directives is that we didn't want to go out and do Wormwood again, you know? We wanted to do something different. However, a lot of what we did do in the process seemed to really work. It's the first time that we've made a jamband album that sounded like a jamband, yet was a good studio album in my opinion. It's something that's always been really elusive to jam bands at large; moe. as much as the rest of us. It's not to say that there haven't been great jam band albums. For example, I love Phish's studio work. I think their studio albums are fantastic. The fact is though, I'm not on tour with them seeing them play those songs live and I'm kind of a nut for studio recordings. I think the production on their albums is fantastic.
JW: Any in particular?
AS: I really like Billy Breathes. I like Hoist a lot. I like Picture of Nectar. I even like Lawn Boy. I mean Lawn Boy wasn’t very sonically adventurous, but the band sounded very good and played really well in the studio. However, once they started moving into Picture of Nectar and Rift you could see them starting to produce their stuff more, and by the time they got to Hoist, those songs are great. Those are some of their most well-crafted songs; pop songs, maybe, but they’re fantastic. I really like the way that those turned out, like the drum sounds especially. It’s the same thing with Panic. I’m a big fan of their studio albums, Medeski, Martin and Wood as well. I think there have been some great jam band studio albums, but obviously this whole scene thrives on live improvisation. That’s why we’re all here. So, we’re trying to capture that and bring that into the studio because as great of an album as Hoist is, I don’t think it necessarily captured the live improvisational Phish that everybody went completely nuts for, you know? The same was true for [moe.‘s] Tin Cans and Car Tires, for example. It’s comparable to Hoist in that regard. I think there was a lot of really good songwriting and well-produced versions of those songs in the studio. However it didn’t really capture the essence of moe. somehow. It was like one side of us, but not the other side. I think with Wormwood we had worlds collide. We brought both things together.
With this album the intent is to take the live improvisation, but record it under a much more controlled environment. With Wormwood, we did it on tour all summer long with random gear from night to night. This time we're going to use all of the same gear the whole time. We've upgraded a lot of the gear. We've got a whole new recording rig that we're gonna use. We've got much better mics and preamps, to get into the technical aspects. Artistically, the approach is going to be a bit different. With Wormwood, we wrote four different sequences that were potential album sequences and we just performed them live every night. When we got into the studio, we edited them together somehow and made a fifth sequence out of it. This time we’re just going to record songs maybe chunks of songs together. There might be two or three songs that segue together, but then we’ll assemble and arrange the running order later. For now we’re focusing on the songs. We’re going to be in one venue the whole time recording. We’re going to do it without an audience and then we’re going to do it with an audience. Who knows what we’ll end up using in the end? That will create the framework for this album whereas with Wormwood it was much more guerilla-like in its approach. This one is going to be a lot more refined.
JW: You’re going to go in a week before the live shows [at the State Theatre in Portland, ME] and record in sort of a studio environment before bringing in the live audience. Will there be a lot of overdubbing and isolation or will you try to keep it more of a live ensemble setting throughout the process?
AS: In any studio situation with moe., the ideal thing is to get everything live, to have it go down live and really nail your solo. That's not to say that we won't go in and overdub things later. Really what we're going for here is tracks will good energy and a good performance from the rhythm section and then we'll go from there. You can always fix the guitars later, but it's difficult to fix the drums later. We don't want to get into Pro Tools and start cutting and pasting stuff together. It needs to maintain the energy of a live moe. show. It has to be flexible. It's not gonna be rigid. We're not going to be lining up our kick drum to a click track. That's not what we do.
There's something about the sound and quality of a [Neil Young and] Crazy Horse album that I love. There's something about the [Rolling] Stones in the studio where it's just loose enough, but has enough of a swagger where it retains a sort of organic quality. That's not to say that I don't love Moby and Radiohead because they make fantastic albums too. But I think there's a nice area in between there for moe.
JW: I assume you’ll record vocals separately to avoid bleed, or so you can get the perfect take.
AS: Yeah, most likely. That's always been our operative. It's always something that's eluded me because I'm not a good singer by anyone means. I love guys like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, these guys are so emotive and have less than perfect voices and less than perfect recordings. Even Steven Malkmus from Pavement is a fucking genius at this. His vocals are all over the place and it sounds great. You wouldn't want it any other way. I know after Neil's second or third album, he ran down all of his vocals live so the take they used [instrumentally], those were the vocals they used also. It's genius. I wish I could do it. I wish I had the courage to do that, to know that my shitty vocals actually sounded good in those ways. My vocals just sound like good vocals that are shitty. They don't sound like shitty vocals that are good, you know? So it's always just been this weird sort of anomaly. I don't know. Maybe it's a personal thing or maybe it's just the fact that I'm not a good singer laughs. So most likely, yes, we'll be overdubbing vocals. And you know, that gives us an opportunity to put nice Beach Boys-like harmonies on things. We'll bring in Ashlee Simpson to sing stuff for us.
JW: I didn’t know that she actually sings…So, you said you wanted to do something different from Wormwood. Was there any talk of doing a traditional studio album, to go in and be able to create a sonic masterpiece with string sections, horns and that glossy Steely Dan sound? Is that desire there or is it a financial consideration?
AS: Absolutely. I think we can make an album like that with this process. We certainly want to make something that's sonically superior. I want to make a great sounding studio album and we have no problem using strings and horns. I mean, we used both on Wormwood and plenty of additional keyboards, backing vocals and rhythm tracks and stuff. So, we'll do the same thing here, but I think the foundation of the album needs to have that gritty quality to it.
JW: A lot of recording studios are built very meticulously with special acoustic paneling and floors with springs underneath. Going into a cavernous environment like the State Theatre, is that going to have a noticeable effect on the recording?
AS: It's something that we can use to our advantage. The best drum sounds are going to come from a big live room. That's where studios either make it or break it: on the size of their live room. The live room at Abbey Road is like a gym and it's just acoustically tuned and it hasn't changed at all [note: Al and other members of moe. visited London's Abbey Road Studios last July]. They have these things that look like big grey mattresses hanging on the wall, very carefully placed. And they haven't changed it because the room sounds great. The cool thing about the State Theatre is that it is a big, cavernous theatre, but it was designed for plays and musical performances before there were really large P.A. systems. So we can use that to our advantage and use the natural reverb from the room and get some good room sounds from it.
The My Morning Jacket album, It Still Moves, they recorded it in the barn of one of their grandmothers and they used an empty grain silo as their reverb chamber. There's so much reverb on the album and it sounds fantastic. I love it. They use those natural spaces rather than plugging it into a digital box or some plug-in in Pro Tools and trying to recreate that.
JW: So tell me about when the audience shows up to the State Theater. Let’s say that you’ve already recorded perfect versions of the songs that you plan to have on the album. The audience comes in. What’s going to happen then and why?
AS: We're going to play all of those songs again. We actually had to go so far as to notify our fans that we're doing two shows, but they might hear some songs repeated in the second show. It's completely taboo in our world. If we don't go four or five nights without repeating a song people think we're getting lazy or whatever. Our fans have high standards. laughs Well, they can't be that high. They're our fans after all.
The nature of live improvisational music holds a certain energy that can't be recreated in the studio without an audience there to be part of that constant flux; that constant recycling of the energy. There's a give and take there. There are those moments where everybody gets the chills and that's kind of what we're going for. There can be moments when the band is playing together in our own space and we might have a moment like that, and with an audience it's just multiplied – amplified – and there are a lot more possibilities, but the intensity of that increases a thousand fold and that's why we all do this. That's why the fans are on tour and that's why the bands are on tour. That's why we're all here, for that excitement; for those moments that couldn't have happened if it were scripted.
JW: On a technical level, let’s say you have a "finished" song from the studio sessions and then you go out and perform an amazing live version of the same song with the audience going crazy. How will you integrate the two recordings?
AS: I would think, ideally, we would take the best version and use that as the framework for the song. If, however, the front half of the song was good with an audience and the back half was better without an audience, with today's technology you have the means of putting them together and creating a seamless thing. We did that with Wormwood. There are many different performances that were cut and pasted together to create a whole song and you'd never know. So we'll make our best effort to play each song at the same tempo nightly and make sure that everybody's relatively in tune. Then you go from there and hope for the best.
JW: So if you spent hours and hours working on a song and got it just right during the studio session and then went out and played the best version ever in front of the audience, the studio version would just go in the archive?
AS: Yeah. I mean, ideally, whether it's in front of an audience or not, we want to get two or three good versions of a song. Then we'll sit down and listen to them and decide what the merits are of each one. We'll pick the one that we all feel strongly about. So these live recordings will just be in the running for one of those songs that we'd vote on.
JW: Is there going to be any sort of crowd participation on the album?
AS: One of the things that we may try to do is, not so much incorporate the crowd formally throughout the performance, but there are some sonic experiments that I'm interested in trying. So I want to almost have like a mini-recording session with the audience. Here's an opportunity where we're going to have some fantastic gear and a large room with two thousand people and I want to take advantage of that situation and try to create some sonic landscape using voices and body parts and things that you can only do in that setting. We'll see if we can get some sounds that can be usable on the album. I would love it if we were able to include our fans on the album. I think it would be fantastic. I mean, how cool would it be if you got to be there when the [Grateful] Dead recorded Blues for Allah or something?
JW: You’re not worried about people yelling out "Zeppelin rules!" in the background?
AS: Well, they did it during Wormwood. It's funny. At times you can hear the crowd through the drum overhead mics. Even though it sounds like a studio album, every now and then the crowd seeps in and it's kind of cool. You have no idea what it is. So it's just ambient noise or a wash at the end of a guitar solo. Sometimes it's just blatant though, like at the beginning of "Not Coming Down." Every other bar, we cranked up [the audience sounds] back and forth to a great effect. It was our engineer Bil Emmons' idea.
JW: Is it safe to assume that everything on the album will be new material debuted after the release of Wormwood?
AS: Yes, and in fact, as of right now we are planning to have a second session after these Portland sessions, to go in and record some material that's never been performed live and will not be performed live until the album comes out. So when the album comes out there'll be brand new material that no one's ever heard.
JW: When and where will these sessions take place?
AS: There's gonna be a second session in August. Right now we've booked some time in a studio, however recently we've been talking about maybe choosing a different theatre and doing the same sort of thing. We may choose a church. There are a few different locations we've been talking about. In September, right after moe.down, that's when we go into the formal studio and do all the overdubs and start mixing the album.
JW: Would you like to reveal any of the previously performed songs that you’re psyched about recording or is it under wraps?
AS: I don't think it's any secret what the songs are. All of the fans know which songs have been debuted since Wormwood.
JW: But you have twice as many…
AS: Yeah, and there are more still. So at this point we are totally receptive to the notion of making this a double album. However it's not our goal to make a double album. The other option might be companion albums. We could release one in February and then six months later we'd release the other.
JW: Are there any specific albums that have been particularly influential over the years, strictly from a production standpoint of blending different sonic textures and recording locations.
AS: There are so many. Sonically, Dark Side of Moon, it goes without saying. Also, [The Flaming Lips’] Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, [Radiohead’s] OK Computer, [Bjork’s] Vespertine. I mean, there have been so many fantastic albums sonically that have really made an impact like [The Beatles’] The White Album. I love the sounds on some of those recordings.
It's funny. I frequent a lot of like audio recording geek user groups. There are these threads that are like three pages long about Ringo's snare drum sound on "Back in the USSR". Everybody talks about the pictures they've seen from the era and tries to triangulate the information and figure out how to get that sound. Everybody's offering tips on what gear to use and how to get that exact sound. I love stuff like that. It's cool to sit at home and try to recreate that stuff.
In terms of the energy, honestly, I love Workingman’s Dead. I think there’s such a great vibe to that album. It’s a pretty introspective album for the Dead yet it has that loose, organic quality that I love so much about that band. The same is true of many Zeppelin albums. Like Zeppelin III I think is sort of the best of all worlds of Zeppelin on one album. It's got the acoustic stuff, the electric stuff. It's sort of in between the blues and the really psychedelic stuff they were doing. There are just so many. We could talk about this for days.
JW: Well, looking forward…
AS: Oh, you know what? You were actually with me at this point, when we were in Tahoe. We were in the car driving home from dinner that night and someone put in the Britney Spears album.
JW: The one with "Toxic".
AS: Oh my god, I was floored. I've never listened to Britney Spears seriously and it was kind of a joke when somebody put it on and they were gonna turn it off and I was like No no no, don't touch this!' It was amazing. I couldn't believe it. Sonically, it was just disgusting how good it was. I mean, I have no idea what she was singing about, probably about being innocent and shy. But I was completely blown away and I'm not ashamed to admit it. They must have this crack team of scientists and engineers to determine what exactly you need to do to tweak the mind of fourteen-year-old girls and sixteen-year-old boys…and thirty-seven-year-old men. I was just blown away.
JW: I have to admit I do love that song in a guilty pleasure sort of way.
AS: I was really just blown away. And, there wasn't a note out of place, obviously. I doubt that any of it was performed by anything short of Hal 2000.
JW: Well speaking of Mainstream America, since the band’s days with Sony 550, it seems that you’ve really come into your own as far as your business plan and marketing moe.‘s music. Is the goal to eventually be signed to another major label or at this point are you just happy doing things on your own?
AS: Yeah, at this point, I think we've finally come to terms with the fact that we are on our own. Once you do come to terms with that and are comfortable with that, it makes things that much easier. You don't feel like you're beating your head against the wall, like trying to make something fit that won't. I feel great about our organization. I really do. We have such a good team on the road and at home. Everybody's hearts and minds are in the right place and we're poised to become a great, long-lasting family institution. And I hope it doesn't get plagued by that dysfunctional, machine-like atmosphere that plagued the Dead at some point and even started to creep into the Phish organization from what I understand. There's this thing that occurs where the musicians no longer feel like musicians, but they feel like they're sort of like the mice running the big wheel and they can't jump off because of this beast they've created and all of the lives that are dependent on them. At this point, we're still so homegrown about it. Everybody who works for us does eighteen jobs. Everybody really means to be doing this. I don't think anybody's here by accident. I think we're all committed to seeing this whole thing grow, which is really nice for us at this point. Everybody has a vested interest in it. And, the unique thing about this is something that I've just realized recently, nobody in this organization, from the band to our crew to our volunteers, ever had any experience doing their jobs. Everybody came to this out of a love for wanting to do this and it's really worked out great because we've all learned together along the way and made it up as we've gone along. The constant reinvention and support has been wonderful.
JW: Realistically, based on your experience with this industry, what is the best case scenario for moe.‘s future?
AS: In a perfect world, honestly, I would like to get to a point where everybody in the organization is I don't mean to sound materialistic when I say this I want everybody to be content in all facets of their lives. It's really ideal. I sound like a hippie when I say this, but I really want everybody to be in a good place where they're still really happy with their jobs and to be working for this organization. So, whatever that entails. For the musicians, I want us to excited and interested and stoked creatively constantly. I don't want this ever to become boring for any of us. We all need to play an integral role in this. At the same time, all of the external stuff that provides that great foundation for us doing it, like paying bills and making sure our families are happy, are important. That goes across the board for everybody who works for us: our road crew, our home crew, and our volunteers…even our fans. Really, that's probably the most important thing in the end, is that everybody who's doing this means to be doing it. It's kind of the cool thing about moe. No one comes to see us by accident. Most people don't come to see us unless they've been before or someone is dragging them because they know they'll want to be there. I never get the sense that anybody's there for the scene because there really is no scene. But ironically, even though there's no scene, there this vast network of fans who all know each other and have become such great, long-lasting friends because of coming together at our shows.
The network of moe.rons completely fascinates me. I'm completely humbled and honored by the fact that it's our music that brought all these people together. The funny thing is, is that the more I've gotten to know everybody or as many people as I can in this thing they used to be so excited about the music and that was the focus. That's not to say that they're not still exited about the music, but now that they've all gotten to know one another, everybody comes from all over the country and they're coming to see each other now and the music is like a bonus. I love that. That's what's great about SummerCamp or moe.down, and these destination shows like the moe.volution thing that we did in Atlanta. I love it when people come from all over and have these family reunions or these summits and everybody gets together and we're like the house band for it.