"We’re Still The Same Idiots from Buffalo": 20 Years of moe. with Al Schnier (Part I)
RR: Let’s go back to the beginning. Obviously, the band began its original incarnation in 1990, but you didn’t join until late 1991.
AS: Yep, fall of 1991. I moved to Buffalo at the end of the summer in 1991. I was playing with these guys a few weeks after I had moved to Buffalo. (laughs) It was just completely random. It wasn’t a permanent move, at that point. It was just a temporary thing. I was just filling in.
RR: What were your goals back in the 1980s? Did you have goals back then as a young musician? [Al laughs] I know. I know. Who has goals at that age?
AS: That’s the thing, you know? I had just graduated from college. I should preface this by saying that I started playing guitar at around 12 or 13, and have played in bands almost the entire time since then. Since I could form a power chord, I’ve been playing in bands. Until moe. decided to do this full time, it was never serious; it was just something I did. I just always played in a band. I don’t think there was ever a time when I wasn’t in a band. It was something I always did as a hobby.
And that was the case with moe., too. By the time I had moved to Buffalo, I had graduated from college. I had a degree in philosophy and a degree in graphic arts. I was working for a newspaper in Buffalo as a graphic artist. It only fit that I would end up playing in a band, ultimately. Prior to moving to Buffalo, I had been playing in a lot of psychedelic rock bands. I was a huge Deadhead in college, and I played in a lot of those kinds of bands. I also really liked punk rock and a lot of alternative rock, and things like that, so the music moe. was making wasn’t a huge stretch for me. We had a lot of common interests in the music of Frank Zappa and Primus and Fishbone and things like that which was just sort of left of center. That’s the stuff that we all liked.
At that time, this was before the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers were a Top 40 band, before they had become mainstream. That was the kind of stuff that we liked, and before grunge even had a name. (laughs) This was back in the olden days, before Nirvana was a popular band. I think Nevermind was becoming popular at that time, and the whole face of music was changing so meeting those guys, and playing with them, and being in a band at that time was just what we did. All of our friends were in bands. We often referenced them in our songs. We referenced the bands Monkey Wrench, Scary Chicken, and other bands that we were friends with. Monkey Wrench was a punk rock band; Scary Chicken was an alternative college rock band, and very much in an R.E.M.-kind of vein. We would play shows together all the time with these guys, and it totally worked.
RR: Monkeys have been a consistent theme in moe. lore with monkeys on ecstasy, of course, formed from the moe. acronym.
AS: Yeah, that’s been a code name for when we play a stealth show some place, and we’ve used that name in the past. Although, (laughs) it’s not much of a secret these days. Yeah, that is what was going on in the early days in Buffalo. Everybody was playing in bands, and some of it was pretty serious. Like the guys in Monkey Wrench and Scary Chicken were really good. They were much better than we were. They were doing really well. They were way ahead of moe. at that point. They had already made several really great recordings, and they were actively pursuing record deals, and got them. It was great to be friends with those guys, and to see them actually pursuing that dream, and doing well with it.
I was done with school. I had a job—it wasn’t a great job, but I had one. The other guys in the band were still in school in various states of…uhhh…(laughs)…I don’t know what the best word to use…well, they were doing O.K. in school. I think at one point, Jim [Loughlin, percussion] got kicked out of UB [University at Buffalo] because of his grades. He got demoted to Buff State until his grades improved. I think Rob never actually graduated. He’s two credits shy of graduating. So much of this was because we were getting very busy with the band. It was becoming a priority. By the end of that four years in Buffalo, it became very obvious that we either needed to really really do this, or NOT at all. So we did. We all loved playing in the band. It was a lot of fun, and it seemed to be working. We decided if we’d just devote all of energy to it, it could be a lot more successful than it was at that time. We’re still trying. (laughs)
RR: You brought up several interesting points that I’d like to elaborate upon. The role of serendipity, especially in the jamband world, was critical in developing independence in the music and the business. moe. was also at the very cusp of the era where bands really had that do-it-yourself mentality. Nirvana, of course, elevated that philosophy to a different level, but it is interesting that in the early 90s, moe. began to work within a framework that has become an almost anti-establishment standard. In the past, I’ve spoken with you and other moe. band members about your tightly-run, family-oriented business. You’ve succeeded through years of trial and error, and other bands may not know how to do that now.
AS: Right. Right. That’s true. You’re absolutely right. It’s kind of like having to learn how to cook your own meals as a kid, and then moving out on your own. It’s like oh, yeah, you know how to make your meals, so you don’t sit around starving, I guess. Or, you don’t just order out all the time, and eat lame food. It just made sense to us at the time.
We did it because nobody else was doing it for us, but it’s also what made sense. We recognized, early on, that recording a demo, and sending out a bunch of demos to a record label, and then, sitting around and waiting was dumb. (laughs) That wasn’t going to work. Nobody’s going to listen to those demos. We would be crazy to think that somebody would actually listen to our demo, and then, some cigar-smoking record executive is going to call us up and say, “Hey, I want to give you guys a record deal. I want to make you millionaires.” No. We need to be out there playing our butts off, and building a fan base. This is the only thing that’s going to work. It very much was kind of that DIY-punk ethic that made sense to us—building that kind of a fan base, and working within those parameters because we had nothing else, and that’s what you did. We existed outside the mainstream for a long time, and, eventually, some booking agents came to us because we were a commodity that they recognized. (laughs) “Holy crap! Who the hell are these guys? You’re booking your own shows? Let me help you.” And we were in a position where we could actually negotiate: “Well, maybe; we’ll think about it.”
It was the same thing when we signed our deal with Sony. They came to us. We weren’t looking for a record deal at the time. Our A&R guy was blown away by the following that we had. He had found us on a message board on-line. It was the early days of the Internet, and he couldn’t believe all of the chatter about our band, and how fervent a following the band had, I guess, at the time, because it was unprecedented in that day and age. Now, everybody has a message board, and there is chatter about people’s bands on. There are whole web sites like MySpace, which are built for that kind of thing.