"We’re Still The Same Idiots from Buffalo": 20 Years of moe. with Al Schnier (Part I)
Photo by Jay Garner
moe. continues its third decade with a West Coast run, which opens tonight in San Francisco at the Fillmore. The New York jamband has led a long and storied career, helping to pioneer an independent and unique path for other bands that combine improvisation, punk, pop, prog and classic rock themes into their music. Having said that, perhaps, moe. is at the forefront of a genre onto themselves. Indeed, as Jambands.com catches up with guitarist and vocalist, Al Schnier, the answers as to how moe. has endured for two decades of gloriously exciting, innovative, and segue-drenched music are pondered. Schnier is a gifted conversationalist, and more than willing to dig deep and honestly into the methods of a band that has remained as humble and determined as they were when they began. After all, as the guitarist quips in the interview, “(moe.) are still the same idiots from Buffalo…”
RR: The 20th Anniversary tour kicked off on January 22 at the Roseland Ballroom for a WHY Benefit, which also supported the Haiti earthquake relief. moe. had numerous guests, as well. What are your feelings about that particular night?
AS: It’s certainly great to come together for the cause. For us, it’s a treat to get together as musicians. In a lot of ways, it can be like herding cats. There’s a lot of ground to cover. With moe., we don’t necessarily have a band leader or musical director. It’s very much a collective, and now you have a collective running an even larger collaborative group of guys, so there’s potential for catastrophe. (laughs) The thing is that it just worked out great. We each chose a guy that we would be in touch with, and worked with them on material, and then, in the end, we all came together to rehearse. The whole thing came together really well.
One of the key components was that everybody who showed up, first of all, are all phenomenal players, and all guys who could have just walked into the gig without any preparation whatsoever, and it would have been an awesome show. And the fact that we took the time to actually learn some songs together, and take a little time to go over it, made it that much stronger. It’s a real treat for us to really get to play with Marco [Benevento] and get to spend some time with him. He and I have played together on random occasions—a song here or there—but never really dived into anything.
It’s sort of the same thing with Butch [Trucks, Allman Brothers Band drummer]. We shared the stage, and maybe played a song together here or there, but had never really done an event together, or really planned anything. Same thing with Jeff [Austin, Yonder Mountain String Band]. I’ve been a fan of Danny’s [Barnes], literally, for 20 years, since he was in the Bad Livers. It was really cool to get Danny to come out, and be a part of this thing. I foresee working with all of these guys again in the future.
David Sanborn was another one of those guys that I never ever would have expected to somehow be a part of this thing, and as it all came together, we were just blown away by his presence. He was totally humble the entire time. Here’s this legendary musician, and after the whole thing was over, he was ecstatic, and looking forward to playing again.
It just ends up being a really great bonding experience for all the musicians—not only because we’re all just there for the music and for the cause, but, you know, it’s not anybody’s gig. It wasn’t really a moe. show. It wasn’t a show that featured any one of those artists. I guess we could all put the business behind us, and just be there for other reasons. It almost clears your mind in a really good way, and you walk away with the potential for a really great musical experience.
RR: moe. wore suits and ties to celebrate the opening of the 20th anniversary tour. Will the formal attire be retired before the tour kicks into gear on the West Coast?
AS: Ummm…well, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Yeah. It’s something that we’ve talked about for years. It was really sort of inspired by Reservoir Dogs [Quentin Tarantino film], ultimately. Last summer, we spent some time on the road with Del McCoury, and those guys just look so good on stage, and to hear Del talk about it, too, just how important it is from a real old school entertainment value perspective—just really being there to put on a show in a proper way. It makes a difference. These people are paying their money for their ticket to come to see a show, and the least we can do is put on our best clothes, and play our best music, and really give them a show. We don’t have dancers. (laughs) It wouldn’t be right if we just showed up in blue jeans and t-shirts, and did the same thing. It would be disrespectful towards the audience in some way. To hear him say it, all of sudden, it sheds a new light on that. “O.K.—you know what? We should really do the suit thing. (laughs) I think the time has come.” And we just found ourselves in a situation where we, all together, were able to get the suits. We figured the 20th anniversary was a good time to bust it out.
RR: The moe. festival season begins next month, starting off with snoe.down, which takes place March 26-28 at Killington Resort in central Vermont. That particular festival has had an interesting history over the years.
AS: Originally, we did do a snoe.down event in Maine, at Sugarloaf, which was not the same scale event that it is these days, I guess, that it’s grown into. That’s where the moniker comes from. Once it moved to Lake Placid, we had the proper facilities there, and we were able to bring in other bands, make it weekend-length, and incorporate the event on the mountain, in the lodges, and turn it into a weekend, village-wide festival. That is sort of what we were interested in doing, and, unfortunately, the powers that be in Lake Placid were not receptive to it. I happen to love the Adirondacks. It meant a lot to me to get up to Lake Placid. It was especially rewarding to be able to be at Whiteface, for example, playing on a mountain. A very small but vocal minority just didn’t want to see the event back in their town. It’s a very old school traditional town, and I don’t think that they want a rock festival of any kind in their town. So be it.
Unfortunately, the other 95% of Lake Placid was very receptive and very nice. It’s a shame that we won’t be going back there. On the other hand, the folks at Killington have been really receptive. They have some great facilities there. Obviously, the mountain is one of the best in the northeast, and we’re really looking forward to working there. What can I say? We’d be ecstatic if we can continue to do this annually.
RR: And I imagine you’re looking forward to engaging in some winter activities, as well, in that environment.
AS: Yes, I’m looking forward to skiing there, as well. It’s probably been a couple of years since I’ve been back to Killington. Any excuse, anything where I can get in a day of skiing when I’m on tour with moe. works for me. I generally try to whenever we’re in the Rockies. Sometimes, when we’re in Tahoe, out that way, I get to ski, also.
At snoe.down, there was a group of us that were skiing together. I’d actually ditched my family (laughter), and skied with a bunch of fans at one point. We were skiing on the blacks [Author’s Note: a difficult course on a particular mountain, and, generally, very steep, and often ungroomed], and we were skiing pretty aggressively. It was great. We just had a great day of skiing together. It was so much fun that these guys actually went out, and made these Olympic gold medals for the group, and it became known as Team Extreme. It even had a meeting time for the following year, and planned other ski events around moe. shows depending upon where we were. They kept inviting me to them. (laughs) They wanted me to keep skiing with them, but it’s difficult for me to do that and work at the same time.