All Roads Lead to Home A Conversation with Chuck Garvey of moe.
Nickeled and dimed by some other guy’s lies, I’m tried and true, I’ve got news for you – “All Roads Lead to Home,” Chuck Garvey
moe. returns on the heels of the sprawling The Conch with another fine studio release in late January 2008. This time out on Sticks and Stones, the veteran jamband chose another unique method to cut tracks. For the first time, the New York group recorded the material in the studio without having debuted the songs on the road [with two notable exceptions]. The result is an excellent set of ten songs produced by John Siket that offer a mixture of classic rock, jam and stately passages which feature Allie Kral from the bluegrass band Cornmeal on violin and viola and Umphrey’s McGee on the set closing piratesque sing-a-long “Raise A Glass.” Indeed, raise one or three as Jambands.com sits down with moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey on the afternoon of their tour opening, sold out performance at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Garvey is as adept with his soul-searching banter as he is with his speed-defying guitar licks and delivers a unique perspective on the moe. history and our current cultural climate in Election Year 2008.
RR: What can we expect from moe. on this first tour of 2008 other than the fact that we will hear some Sticks and Stones material?
CG: Yeah, you’re going to hear some Sticks and Stones. That’s like a big part of what is going to be going on here (laughs) because of the way that we recorded this album, writing and then recording everything right away then, not playing it for the most part. We haven’t really played these songs, yet. We’re going to be relearning them, doing live preproduction and then, playing them for the first time. The way that we usually do things, we’ve written songs and then we play them live for a while and the arrangements might change or the way we approach them might change. But it’s exciting when you debut a new song. At the very least, we have eight new songs to debut so it’s exciting for usand a little nerve racking, maybe (laughs)there’s like a different kind of energy that comes with doing all of this stuff for the first time. We’ve been waiting for a while to be able to try to do something like this.
RR: What led to the decision to record the majority of the material in the studio for the new album without having played the songs live?
CG: We’ve actually wanted to do it for a while but out of necessity, we just couldn’t do that. It takes a lot of commitment and time and money and a lot of other things to make it happen. Logistically, it just never worked out although, that’s what we wanted to do. We just had to force the issue this time and say that this is what we are going to do. We’ve done it before with a couple of albums where we’ve come up with new songs like, for example, on _Tin Cans and Car Tires_the two songs “Hi and Lo” and “Big World,” we put together as we were doing preproduction for the album. We were working with a bunch of songs that we had done live and then, we added those two. (laughs)
Then, we talked about how we were going to approach it. Are we going to not play these songs until the album comes out? We ended up playing them live before Tin Cans and Car Tires came out. It’s been done before that we wrote and recorded songs without playing them in front of an audience but we’ve never kept the mystery for this long (laughs)to try to spring it all at once on an unsuspecting audience is going to be a much different thing. It’s exciting for us and hopefully, it’s just as exciting if not more so for our fans.
RR: The last time I saw moe. was at Vegoose over Halloween weekend in 2007. I saw the festival gig but I also caught your late night show at the Joint. How far along was the new material at that point?
CG: It was already mixed, I think.
RR: You had already been in the studio and were done with the recording?
CG: Yeah, we built our own studio. (laughs) Initially, in September, we did the writing and the bulk of the basic tracksthe full band tracksand we did vocals and overdubbing, later at the Magic Shop in New York. That was kind of like the beginning or towards the end of October. Everything was getting mixed by the timeoh no, that’s wrong. That’s right. We figured out that we needed more time.
RR: And the decision was also made not to debut the songs at Vegoose at that time?
CG: Oh yeah, definitely. We definitely made the decision that we were not going to play these songs until it was released.
RR: As far as late October and the new albumthe new material needed additional work? Were there mixing issues?
CG: Yeah, you just feel like there is more work to be done some times. With us, I don’t know. We definitely imposed some time restrictions on ourselves. It was just a littlemaybe, it was a little bit unrealistic. Everything came together really quickly. It’s just, you knowevery time we do a recording, it’s a learning process and we kind of figure out how to engineer in the time for mistakes.
You know what happened? We recorded everything digitally and there was one issue during the recording where we lost two days or a day and a half where we couldn’t do anything and it was actually a big step back. We lost some work that we had done on the recording or producing aspect of it. There was some kind of a big crash (laughs) and we lost some of the recorded stuff. I guesseverything had been going really well and we just had one thing like that happen that set us back. The mixing process started off leisurely and then, towards the end of it John Siket [producer] was burning the midnight oil to get it all done.
RR: I love the fact that Sticks and Stones created a challenge for moe. The songs had not been performed live. I also appreciate the fact that the band plays ten songs and then, the album is over in a reasonable amount of time, an album length obviously, after the time-consuming work on your previous album, The Conch. There are major differences in the recording process between the two albums.
CG: It was a little bit of an about face, wasn’t it? (laughs) Talking about the differences between The Conch and Sticks and Stones alonethey are kind of night and day in how we approached it, the amount of time that we took, the (laughs) overall sound of it, the way we played, the way we arranged the songs, everything was a complete reboot (laughs) to our system. That’s good for us because getting in a rutwe all get really bored and thisactually having a fresh outlook and approach to everything made it all the more interesting and easy for us because it was a new challenge. Not like trying to make a good facsimile of what we’ve already done live or taking all of the best bits of what we’ve learned about a certain song live and applying it to the studio. Just having the completely fresh outlook on everything made it really fun for us. Hopefully, you can hear that in the recording. (laughs)
RR: I’ve listened to the new album several times and I hear moe. trying to find a new group identity, a new persona that is different from what moe. has done before. I’m wondering what rut you felt that you were in that led to this revelation?
CG: It’s not a rut but it’s just having our past m.o. being writing a song, playing it in front of an audience and then, we have it down. To a certain extent, the life goes out of it a little bit. When it comes time to record it, it’s like “O.K. we’re going to do a really stiff version of this, now.” Where if the song is so young that we’ve literally just arranged it and say, “O.K. this is going to be the arrangement, let’s play it,” and now, that’s the songthere’s a little more nervous energy to it. It’s more like a teenager than an old codger. (laughter) It has that energy. We’re all listening to it with fresh ears. We’re not listening to it like it’s something that we’re very comfortable with; it’s something that if you don’t pay attention, it might get out of control.
It’s like the beginning of a relationship. (laughs) I don’t know. After approaching the recording this way, that’s the way it appears to me. I definitely see the benefits of doing it that way. The format is also refreshing, too. In the past, the limitations of CDs are that you can cram 72 and a half minutes of whatever on a disc and just because you can do that doesn’t mean that you should. People’s attention span is reallyafter 20 minutes, I can get bored if it is not doing what it should. We tried to make everything be the concise best that it could and make it something that stands as a whole. At 42 minutes or whatever it is, it is a good length, it is the classic length that was imposed by vinylthe restrictions to cutting to vinyl. It just made sense in a lot of different ways to have it be a 42-minute attention span, which is digestible and also, it does harken back to the golden age of recording between 1965 and 1975 where all of those classic albums came from. Maybe it’s a nod to that. It’s kind of both.
RR: I’m glad you said that. Last January, I spoke to Al Schnier about that very issueCD vs. album lengthand I brought up the fact that I’m so tired of bands releasing long CDs (not relating it to The Conch, of course)
CG: (laughs) That’s a damn long album.
RR: We were talking about that issue since we were both from the same churchthere was something about that length whereby the album as a whole stood together. Now, every band thinks they can go beyond that instead of doing some selective editing and trimming to present a proper work. This just leads to a lot of cherry picking where an 18-track CD will have three decent songs. It’s such a chore.
CG: Yeah. I thought about this. Some people might think that they were getting short-changed basically because you were using half of your available space“I’m paying $14.99 for this.” And yeah, “those people are stupid,” Rob [Derhak] says. (laughs)
RR: Creating the right amount of music to fit the idea. How did you select the old church to record in and how did you select old John Siket to produce? (laughter) How much material did you bring with you to that old church? Did you feel the pressure of coming up with a lot of new material on the spot?
CG: Yeah, it was near Great Barrington in the Berkshires [in southwestern Massachusetts in an area the Mahaican Indians called Mahaiwe, which means “the place downstream.”]. We knew we wanted a space where we could live and work in and our manager, Jon Topper, scouted and found this place. He did a really good job in finding it because it worked out perfectly.
The inclination to work with John Siketwe had had some success with him and personally, we got along with him and we like him. We trust him. “Does everybody want to do this? Does it suit what we are doing?” And everything pointed in that direction.
RR: Although you hadn’t worked with him for a few years. [Author’s Note: John Siket engineered and/or produced moe.’s Tin Can and Car Tires, the 2000 Jammy Award-winning L, and Dither.]
CG: No, it has been a while. We had been doing/going it alone. It had worked out. Our monitor engineer at the time, Bill Emmons, engineered Wormwood and The Conch and worked on both of those projects with us. He helped make them sound really good and definitely enabled us to get through the process because being the musician and the producer and the engineer and the guy running the recording equipment is just not something you can do. You have to delegate. You spend too much time doing someone else’s job and not enough time to do the actual recording or the art part. (laughs)
We had John Siket and our current monitor engineer, [Adam] Cass Libbers, who assisted. Another friend of ours, Mark Koch, rented a lot of the equipment to us and he helped out quite a bit. Basically, we set up everything in this church and John Siket enabled us to do what we had to do. We wrote, arranged and played through everything and he recorded our rehearsals. We could go back immediately and listen to what we just played, react to that and change the approach to what we were playing. It was a very fast process.
[Siket] made the recording aspect of the process very transparent. It felt more like we were just hanging out and writing music rather than recording or feeling like we were under pressure to actually do the recording part of it. That was really cool. He took the nervousness out of it. We were just doing our thing and he was documenting it. He did a great job at doing that. Every once in a while if he had an idea about an arrangement, he would definitely pipe up (laughs) and tell us what he thought. That was great because it is hard for us to do things like a true democracy. You need someone to bounce ideas off of who is a little more objective about it. The whole process was pretty cool.
RR: How many songs were near completion before you got to the location?
CG: “Conviction Song”we’ve been playing for years.
RR: And your own composition, “All Roads Lead to Home.”
CG: That we’ve only played a handful of times. We didn’t really change the approach all that much. It definitely had a growth spurt of sorts. (laughter) “Conviction Song”we just edited the length down so it was a lot more concise. Those two songs were the only two things that we had going into it.
RR: What about the instrumental track, “ZOZ?”
CG: I showed the initial riff to Rob and Jim a couple of months earlier when we were doing something else. We were working on a side band but nothing ever came of it for a little while, just the riff. We just made that riff as that’s the head and then we have the nebulous middle part and the head, again. It’s a very simple arrangement.
RR: What about some of the guests that appear on Sticks and Stones such as Allie Kral from Cornmeal who plays violin and viola.
CG: Allie Kral was nepotismpure and simple. Our manager, Topper, is now also managing Cornmeal and he suggested Allie for the job. We had been talking about adding strings and he just knew that she might be a good fit. It ended up working great. She came in for a day and we just thrashed her. She’s reallyit’s weird because they are a bluegrass band and maybe there is a certain limitation to the amount of styles of music that she might be willing to play but she was really adaptable to just about any idea that we had. It was pretty cool.
RR: How about the background vocals contribution on “Raise A Glass” from members of Umphrey’s McGee? Was that part added later post-church recordings?
CG: Yes. While we were in the studio in Massachusetts, we had actually done the whole background chorus thing and then, when we got to New York, [Umphey’s McGee] were playing a show and Al actually took a laptop with some recording software and went down to their soundcheck and they setup a couple of mikes and they did some boozy sing-a-long overdubs. (laughs) It’s pretty coolfield recording style.
RR: Let’s talk about “All Roads Lead to Home.” How far back does that song go?
CG: I guess it was written two or three years agoactually, it may be even longer. It might be four or more years old. We played it a couple of times and it just never felt right or sounded great. (laughs) but it was always something that you could fiddle with and try out but it never grew into something that felt like a keeper. You never know; it might still not. I liked how it turned out. I was surprised that it turned out the way that it did. Sometimes, it takes a little bit of looking at under the microscope or stepping away from it for a while and going back and tinkering with it. I’m never satisfied with the lyrics. I added some different verses. It’s part of the way that I look at some of the songs. I always want to do things a little differentlythat there is always room for improvement. I’m glad that we finally committed to a recorded version of it. It was about time.
RR: The song is also a fine example of good album placement, as well, as it leads into the introspective “September.”
CG: Rob wrote the running order. He said he was interested in taking a stab at it. Basically, Al and I said, “Go for it!” (laughs) Yeah, he did a really good job. Sometime, we fret and stress over stuff like that a little bit too much. This time, he was interested in doing it. He went through a couple of running orders and he came up with that and we said, “Cool.” In retrospect, now, after having listened to the album a couple of times, all of it makes sense. He’s good at it.
RR: Speaking ofRob’s brother John is also good at storytelling. How did you get involved with doing the cover art for his novel, Tales from the moe.Republic?
CG: Yeah, he is. He can spin a yarn. I’ve known John for years. Shortly after I met Rob, I also met John and he comes out and sees us whenever he can. He’s always been a supporter of the band. His “Feeding at the Trough” that we featured when we used to do snail mail [newsletters] were always really cool, funny fiction that was surreal for us that it was based around us or implied that it had something to do with us. We always thought that was pretty amusing. He proved right from the start that he was really talented at either completely bullshiting everyone or just having a great command of the tools. I don’t know how to put it but he’s just really good at what he does and I think he’s a natural at it. He and Rob were talking about releasing [the novel] through Fatboy, our record label, trying to help it out. They suggested that since I do the Warts and All [moe.’s live vault releases] artwork would I be interested and I was definitely interested. It’s very hard though because there are so many characters. Have you read the book?
RR: Yes, pretty thoroughly since I did a feature with John last year for our site.
CG: (laughs) Yeah, there are so many characters and there are so many crazy plotlines going on that it was kind of difficult to capture that in a picture. I was having a hard time.
RR: Well, it worked out really well. You have numerous characters on the cover.
CG: It’s weird because you can’t draw a hotel because that’s not very fun to look at but, I don’t know, when you see an elephant and a guy flipping you the bird, you’re just wondering what the hell is going on in there? (laughs)
RR: You brought up an interesting point, though. John Derhak and I spoke about the moe.Republic Hotel as myth and the fact that he received e-mails from people wanting to stay at this mythical location as if it really existed.
CG: It sounds pretty inviting, doesn’t it? (laughs)
RR: It does.
CG: Especially the moose running through the lobby or the ghost.
RR: Exactly. Does the band sometimes feel it has its own projected persona much like the hotel in the book? If so, how do you separate yourself from that whole “band as myth” sort of situation? How does moe. distance themselves from their own myth and just play?
CG: From the myth as fiendishly devised from John or myth in general?
RR: The myth in general that subconsciously is always present almost like a separate entity because of the band’s history.
CG: There’s a weird cult that goes along withit’s weird; it goes beyond the characters and the plots and the stories that are involved in our songs. It’s partly that which to a certain extent we have put an investment in our songs. People may be interpreting them in a different, more personal way. It’s different for every person. The beholder always has their own interpretation of what’s going on.
There’s that and there’s also the things that we say on stage, occasionally, like busting balls on each other. That stuff takes on this world of its own, a meaning of its own, that we forget about. We have no idea because that’s how we talk to each other all the time. Sometimes these things that are on a recorded live show, for example, if a certain show is traded digitally or however, certain little things that were said in passing or just happened at one show become something that a large group of people start talking about, discussing like a chunk of pop culture. It’s like a whole new storyline comes out of it when people start discussing it as a group and they really invest a lot into it. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I’m just saying that there is a certain amount of myth or surreal aspect to what we do because big things come sometimes from very small gestures.
I don’t think we necessarily cultivate it but we definitely cultivate a certain relationship with our audience where we feel comfortable saying these weird things (laughs) or writing these bizarre songs. Just the fact that people embrace that is great because we get to be ourselves and it’s kind of open to interpretation and open to group discussion to what the hell it all means. It’s kind of fun to see that happen. I think all of us tend to stay away from things like Phantasy Tour or other outlets like that where people discuss things in detail. I think it is best that we ignore that to a certain degree so we can actually be ourselves instead of being influenced by that. Things tend to be a little bit better but, at the same time, cultivating that relationship is very important and we try to do that on a more personal level rather than through a digital outlet like a forum. (laughs) I’m up for cultivating the myth but I think we like it to be done in a more organic way.
RR: Which leads us back full circle to the new material on Sticks and Stones and the fact that these songs will now take on a life of their own on stage. Have these songs been developed in a way in which space is being inserted so they open into a jam? I’m thinking moe. isn’t the type of band that will play the new songs as recorded.
CG: Yeah, to a certain extent, it is going to be like that until we get some strong legs under these songs. At the same time, all of these songs are now building blocks with which we can construct completely different sets where we use the end of one of these new songs as a segue into one of older songs or the other way around. We can definitely insert longer improvised sections. These songs are definitely a creative starting point for many more ideas. Right now, we have yet to actually do anything with them. This is the very starting point. We haven’t even really completely discussed if we are going to play the songs tonight or we are going to start when the album comes out. We might start debuting the songs earlierat least a couple of themand wait until the release date to have all of the songs in rotation. [Author’s Note: moe. broke out new material on the first night of the tour, the evening of this interview, at the Fillmore in San Francisco.]
These songs represent the possibility for thousands of more combinations and jumping-off points in our music. I’m really looking forward to thatwriting new sets where we can creatively, as you said (laughs), insert weird parts or insert these songs, wholesale, into other songs. In doing that, you can get new meanings out of all the material. Just by putting two songs next to each other, you can get a new meaning or a new musical idea out of all of these combinations. I’m definitely looking forward to that. There’s a lot of possibility ahead. That’s always exciting in anything you do. No one wants to be in a dead end job. No one wants to be in a relationship that is going nowhere. This represents possibility and forward movement for us so it’s kind of likenot that people necessarily get stuck in dead end jobs but you also can plateau where you don’t feel like you are completely creatively fulfilled or you are not getting everything out of it that you need. There are times like that for bands where creatively, you get exhausted or you are going through the motions until the next big expansion and it happens that way with everything. Right now, it feels like there is an expansion going on.
I actually just got d vu. I remember saying something like thisnot that I feel that we had necessarily been plateauing for a long time or stagnating but right now, it feels like a period of expansion; a creative burst started as soon as we moved into the church. Now, there is the second stage of that with this material, like a second life. Pretty cool. (laughs)
RR: How do you view this period of expansion in 2008personally, for yourself?
CG: I’ve had this feeling of dark cynicism, mostly because of the state of affairs in our country and the world. There hasn’t been a whole lot of idealism and happy, warm thoughts going on. It’s hard. At the same time, periods like this, in a general sense, can inspire creativity in a different way. Maybe it inspires people to be a little more idealistic and hope for the next phase of their lives. I feel that 2008 is going to offer that. This administration is going to end and hopefully, not beI don’t think there is any way that the next administrationwhatever it may be whether it’s Republican, Independent or French, whateveris going to be the same. Looking forward to the possibility of that next phase of our country’s existence is going to inspire a lot of people, hopefully. I feel like, if not optimism, just the fact that things being the way they are, they are inspiring people to react to it and I feel like a lot of creative people are reacting in a very positive way to motivate other fellow humans to do good and to see the truth and the bullshit in things. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of creativity in the next couple of years. I think there is going to be a big shift in the music industry. It’s been going on but it is going to get even crazier before this is all over. I’m looking positively towards that.
RR: moe. did have their dalliance with a major label but the band is now a very much independent, family-run organization.
CG: Things have gotten better for us after we split with Sony. (laughter) They did absolutely nothing for us other than putting up the cash for the recording and putting us together with a producer, John Porter, for No Doy. That was great. We got studio experience out of that but really it was just another step in our learning process of how to interface with the recording industry, which was almost in its death throes, and they were willing to put money on a jamband or an improvising rock band such as ourselves. Because we weren’t easy to deal with, we weren’t easy to promote. Throwing money at us wasn’t going to make us prettier. (laughs) We just realized that wasn’t the way for us.
That’s really the story of our lives. Every time we make a recording, every time we make a decision, we can’t look at anybody else. We have to say, “What are the conditions? What is going to be best for us?” That’s how we approached recording this project Sticks and Stones. We knew that we had to be in a comfortable spot and not stuck in a sterile studio situation. We needed to be able to wake up, make coffee and start doing something creative every morning. Sit down and play guitar and come up with a song. That’s really what works for us. We can feel a little more human about it or not under the gun to produce a hit or do anything like that. Doing that was very refreshing for us. We set goals and limitations on ourselves. We created this album and now, we are setting new goals for ourselves and reinterpreting all of this material. 2008 just means that we are going to do our best to be creative and do something positive on our own terms and in our own way. That’s the only way that we can really do it. It took us about 15 years. (laughter)
_Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com