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A Rising HeadCount Part 2:Conversation With Al Schnier

Al Schnier has worked with HeadCount from its 2004 origins to the present, currently serving on the organization’s Board of Directors. I interviewed him during a break from recording an instrumental album with his wife, Diane and before he returns to the road in support of the latest release from his Al & Transamericans project.

JPG: How did you get involved with HeadCount?

AS: Honestly, I was one of the first people that Marc [Brownstein of Disco Biscuits and HeadCount co-founder] called once he and Andy [Bernstein, HeadCount co-founder] started talking about the idea because he knew that it was something that I would be interested in doing. Maybe could help them get the ball rolling.

I don’t know if I’m so much of a political junkie…I guess people know that I’m aware of everything. I read. I’m vegan and I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I watch the news. I guess I’m informed. I’m aware. Still, I wouldn’t call myself a political junkie. When I think of political junkies, maybe, that’s their only thing. Politics aren’t the only thing that I’m interested in because I’m also interested in the environment and eating well and music and other things, too. It’s one of many things.

But [Marc] could, at least, count on me to be pro-active; somebody that he could tap and be in touch with the issues.

JPG: But being a bit of political junkie and having an interest in what’s going on is one thing. This takes it up a level. Why did you get involved? Did it have to do with the state of the world and/or because you’re a father?

AS: I’m usually the guy in our group that gets tapped for benefits or activist sort of things. I don’t know if it’s because I’m more outspoken about those things or just more inclined to, I don’t know, be involved that way.

I have two kids…There was a sense of frustration and really just, and this was Marc and Andy were kind of together just talking about the situation at that time and thinking, We can’t just sit around and not do anything. We should at least make an effort to be involved and, in good conscience, we can’t just sit here and say, Oh, this situation really sucks. Too bad for us.’ Let’s do something about it. What can we do?’

And I thought a long time about it and it’s like well, I guess maybe an obvious choice would be to speak out against the situation and take an obvious stance against maybe the current administration, to go in that direction. In the end, they decided that really isn’t the answer. Maybe what we need to do is just to get people active, just to create a voter base and get people involved. In the end, that was really the best solution possible because then you’ve got people making up their own minds in the end and people are a part of the process. That’s the way this whole thing was supposed to work anyway.

JPG: I was thinking before you called that it’s sad in a way that HeadCount has to exist, that it’s necessary to have a concentrated effort to get people to register to vote and be involved. Why do you think that people need motivated?

AS: The thing is our lives have been so comfortable up until this point. Even now, for the average 18 year old, their lives are probably still fairly comfortable today. A couple years from now that may all be hanging in the balance; things could be really interesting in a couple years. Until now, their day-to-day lives are largely unaffected by what’s going on in China or Rwanda or in Georgia or…know what I mean? In the global dynamic, their day-to-day lives are largely unaffected. As long as they still have minutes on their cell phone and they have a little bit of money in their pocket, then things are pretty much okay. I think people are just largely unaffected. We have a pretty cushy life here in the United States. Maybe that’s part of the problem. We’ve got this very complacent existence here that we’ve gotten used to.

JPG: But it comes down to the responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen.

AS: And I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s easy to say as the parent of two children and somebody who just turned 40 this year, and now I’m a responsible adult. But as an 18-year-old kid who is, maybe, hanging out in the dorm room or it’s like, Whatever. Just doesn’t make a difference.’ And they’re largely right. It probably doesn’t make a difference to them cause their day-to-day life pretty much isn’t affected. But it will be and they can’t see that.

JPG: Do you think that after four years of existence HeadCount has gained a degree of respect whereas when it first started some people didn’t take it seriously and looked at it as just some hippie thing?

AS: Oh, definitely. Definitely. Because in the beginning there was definitely a bit of that perception of it being the jamband version of Rock the Vote or something along those lines. Rock the Vote was kind of waning at the time. So, there was a little bit of that. We just had something else in mind. It did take a while, but there were so many significant people involved in this thing and it took on a life of its own. It’s grown into a pretty significant organization. It was a matter of people believing in it.

I think it’s a testament to there really being a need for something like this, too. It really says something about the times and about how people are feeling right now. Certainly, all of the polling numbers and all of the primary numbers indicate that people are interested.

JPG: Playing devil’s advocate here in regards to the debate of whether art and politics should mix. Why should musicians be talking about politics? Shouldn’t they just entertain us like some court jester?

AS: We have songs that do that and they can enjoy those songs. Art has always been a means of expression. It’s about baring your soul, about getting out the stuff that’s really important to you. For years I stayed away from that stuff with moe. because I think we had actually talked about it with the guys in moe. and decided that we would stay away from that stuff. And then, after awhile I just felt…the thing is, historically, for years artists, singers, poets have always, always done this, even dating back to, like you mentioned, the court jesters would always rip on the king. They’re political satirists. That’s what they would do, and then you look at guys like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. People like that are easy to point to.

JPG: With the election coming up and HeadCount’s registration campaign completed and get out the vote activities nearly over, where do you hope HeadCount goes in the future?

AS: It’s something that Andy and I have talked about a little bit. moe. actually has two different nonprofit groups that were started by fans. One is called In The moe.ment and another is called the Yoda Ladies. One is like a women’s health group. The other is just a community outreach group. What both of those groups do is when we’re doing a destination show or maybe we’re playing a two or three day event in a particular city, they’ll set up some kind of volunteer effort where they’ll go to a local shelter, soup kitchen or something like that and volunteer their time. Get a bunch of our fans together during the daytime, go and do something productive during the day rather than partying in a hotel room, which I think is just great. Maybe they’ll get as many as 40 or 50 people together to go to one of these soup kitchens. Help serve meals and then clean up afterwards. I went with them one time in Charlotte, North Carolina and we mopped floors and just helped clean up the place, and the people there were so excited just that somebody else came and cared. It just made an impact on the day and on the community because people showed up and we weren’t just using the town. It was nice because people were involved.

It would be good to take the resources, everything the whole network that HeadCount has established at this point…All of these people are connected and now if we can stay connected and think about other efforts that we can do in the same regard like connect people in different areas for different resources like that. It would be great.

JPG: That’s great that your fans were able to put something like that together because, let’s face it, many people could have good intentions but they may not how to go about volunteering, who to contact.

AS: Right. A very simple system setting up a generic volunteer plan and message board system for them. For example, you could lay the groundwork for something like that and then let them manage it on their own. I’d like to see something like that in the future for HeadCount during our slow period.

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