"We’re Still The Same Idiots from Buffalo": 20 Years of moe. with Al Schnier (Part I)
RR: Yet, moe. had a rare opportunity in the mid-90s of having major record label support, and then, the band evolved out of that, and continued their independence.
AS: Yeah, you know, the thing with Sony was that when the opportunity presented itself, we were thrilled about the prospects. It’s just one of those things that come along in a career, especially in a career like this—it’s so tentative, even to this day. People may not know it, but it still feels tentative a lot of the time. You’d be surprised. Obviously, twenty years in, it feels secure enough, and we feel lucky enough, and we’re established enough, and we can count on a certain sort of…I don’t even know how to put this…it’s sort of difficult to describe. Let me put it to you this way—if I worked for somebody else, and I had a job where I showed up and worked from 9 to 5, and I had a paycheck, and I worked within the system of some other corporation, there are certain expectations, or certain comforts, which come with that, that you can rely upon.
But when you’re a) a musician, and b) running your own small business, there’s so many variables that are just unsure that you feel like it could all just go away tomorrow. And that’s always been the case with this because we’re just musicians in a rock band, and we’re running our own business, and there’s like little or no stability in what we do. (laughs) So, there’s that.
When things come along like being in Rolling Stone magazine, or getting a record deal with Sony, every now and then, it’s like “Hey, we’re a real band! Hey, that’s kind of cool. We’re not just the same idiots from Buffalo, doing this on our own,” even though, that’s what it still feels like years from now because we still are. We’re still the same idiots from Buffalo that are doing this on our own. Even though, some things have come and gone in the mix throughout all of this, it’s still the same people working on this really hard, and it’s still us.
Every now and then, we have these real moments like getting to open for The Who. “We’re a real band. We’re opening for The Who. I saw The Clash open for The Who. This is ridiculous. Now, moe. is opening for The Who. I can’t believe it.” (laughter) Granted, we’ll never be on the same level as The Clash, but it’s kind of cool. We played Radio City for New Year’s Eve. When my father-in-law is bragging about it to his friends, they have no idea who moe. is, or what kind of music we play, but it doesn’t make a difference because it’s important to them because we played Radio City, and I realized that we’re a real band. They care about us. It’s nice to know because it’s more than just us making this up as we go along, I guess. (laughs)
RR: moe. has a legacy all its own, as well. Veering off from the more obvious live triumphs over the last 20 years, let’s look at the evolution of the studio output, specifically the timeframe of the last decade from Wormwood to Sticks and Stones.
AS: Sticks and Stones seemed like the next obvious step in that evolutionary chain from Wormwood to The Conch to Sticks and Stones. In each of those things, we were trying something new in terms of our studio albums. We were trying something creatively in terms of the methods by which we were making the albums. We found right away with Wormwood that by setting out these variables by which we would make the album in a large way informed the material, and the creative process that fed and drove the album.
The technological variables that we laid out in the beginning were “we’re going to do it this way; we have these 15 songs, and we’re going to record them live, on stage, during the summer, but this is what we’re going to do: we’re going to write out potential album sequences for Wormwood, and then, play them live as a first set, every day on our summer tour. Then, we’ll see if any of those can work as the framework for the album.”
It grew from there. We had four or five different albums that we were playing. When we got into the studio, we realized that none of them really stood on their own, so we made another one. We copied and pasted sort of the best bits of the best versions of different songs together, and we had a whole new framework for the album. That directed and guided the whole process for how we would finish the album in the studio. Now we had this scaffolding that we had made (laughs) based on what we had performed live over the summer. We had built the album from there. But there were so many things wrong with it technically because we played on a different stage every day, sounds were different, and I spent a week working on a computer in the studio. My eyes were bloodshot. I spent 18 hours per day, on a computer, never ever going into the other part of the studio where we were supposed to be recording because I was just busy editing, and trying to fix things, and work on things.
When we did The Conch, we said, “Let’s do this again, but let’s avoid that whole week of crap that we had to go through; let’s do this right.” So we did the same thing, but this time it was in this theatre in Maine [Portland’s State Theatre] in a controlled environment—empty theatre, great-sounding room. Then, “let’s bring in an audience; with and without an audience; maybe, use the room, use the audience.”
The next time when we got to Sticks and Stones, we said, “O.K., well—we’ve done that. We’ve done the live thing where we tried to do. Why don’t we do the same thing, or something similar, where we try to record the whole album live, but instead of in a theatre, or at a live venue, what if we tried some place else? What about some place more organic, or some place more comfortable? What about one other variable? What about— instead of that, instead of material culled over the years, of just sort of playing live—writing the whole thing in that place and time together? And then, that will lend some cohesion to the album, too.” That’s how we ended up at that church in Massachusetts writing this whole thing. Again, we were all together, live, in the same room, and we would literally write a song. The first week, we roughed out all the songs we had demoed. By the second week, we would practice the song in the morning—we had to re-learn it from the week before because we had only played it one day (laughs)—and then, by the nighttime, we were recording a version of it. The cool thing about all those songs is that they’re so new. We, literally, had only played them a half dozen times, or something like that, by the time the basics got recorded for the album. They’re really really virgin recordings, and have a very Neil Young quality to it, I guess, in that at least the energy there is very new. We wanted to capture more of the songwriting creation, rather than what happens to a song after it’s lived on the road for two years. What happens to a song right after it comes out? Capture it in that state.