Smash Hits, Baby Pictures and Archeology: 20 Years of moe. with Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier (Part II)
Jambands.com sat down with moe. guitarist/vocalist Chuck Garvey for further insight and reflections on the evolution of a band celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2010. In Part I, Al Schnier spoke about moe.’s history from his vantage point—which concludes here after our conversation with his bandmate. In Part II, Garvey continues the historical discussion with a fascinating further study of a band willing to take the time to determine what it presents, both on stage, and in the studio, and how it keeps that creativity fresh. Indeed, moe. forges onwards in their third decade together with that very attitude on the heels of a celebratory 20th anniversary tour, and the upcoming release of Smash Hits, Volume One. The album is a ten-track retooling of some of moe.’s classic studio tracks, and all, with the exception of a cut or two, have been completely re-recorded to bring fresh perspective to an always invigorating upstate New York’s historic improv journey.CHUCK GARVEY
RR: What are your recollections of 20 years ago when moe. was formed?
CG: Rob [Derhak, bassist/vocalist] and I met at SUNY [University at] Buffalo. We were just hanging out all the time. A friend of ours—his roommate—had an acoustic guitar, and I had brought an acoustic and my electric guitar to school. We would just hang out, and play simple stuff—three chord songs, and just kind of goofin’ around. I had been playing for a while, and Rob just started. We started playing around with whatever was fun, and anything to kill time, and keep out of class. (laughs) It was a fun thing to do, just hanging out and jamming.
The first summer after Rob and I met, we started playing a little bit, and it was all just garage-style. We went back to Utica [New York]. I remember playing a little bit, and when we got back to school in the fall, we got hooked up with Ray [Schwartz], who was a drummer. We immediately hit it off with him, his sense of humor, and everything. The first party that we played it was “O.K.—we’ve got a gig, so we’ve got to scramble and get some cover tunes together.” We really didn’t think about it in a “we’re starting a band” kind of way. It was more about having fun, and doing something that was creative and totally different. It was great. It didn’t seem like hard work at all. (laughs) I guess that’s it. When you really love something, you just do it, and don’t really think about it.
RR: How did Al Schnier’s entrance into the band change the dynamics?
CG: Ray Schwartz was playing with another guitar player, Dave Kessler. We actually did a couple of gigs where Al played a little guitar, and he played percussion. So, at first, there were three guitars at times. We actually traveled and played Oswego, and a couple of places. It was a little weird having three guitar players. There was just a lot going on, but it was interesting because we all played very differently. Dave had all these metal chops. He was kind of a shredder. (laughs) Al was more like a Deadhead, and played a lot of punk and other stuff, so there was definitely a mix of all this weird stuff going on.
We were doing cover tunes and some of our early original songs, so it was kind of weird making everything fit together, but I guess that was part of it. We had all these different styles that we were individually interested in that we were trying to make fit together. It was the beginning of that—figuring out what the collective personality of the band was going to be, and what would work.
When Al first started playing, Dave Kessler faded out, started not showing up to rehearse, or anything, so it was just Al and I playing guitars in the band, and the dynamics of that were great. We started feeding off each other, and that’s when we started playing longer and longer shows, and traveling around to places like Erie, Pennsylvania. We were figuring everything out for the first six months to a year.
RR: The opening track from moe.’s new best of release, Smash Hits, Volume 1 is “Spine of a Dog,” which you wrote, and the phrase came from Ray Schwartz. Using that song as an example of the period you just referenced, how did it get written?
CG: We were just talking about that. We wrote the liner notes for Smash Hits, and my memory is kind of fuzzy. I usually defer to Rob because he remembers how things went down more accurately than I sometimes do (laughter). Rob and I were actually jamming with another friend of ours in the basement of the house where some other musician friends of ours lived—another drummer. We were goofing around with the first part, and maybe the odd time section came later, but it was something that we looped over and over again because it was this pleasing groove, and Rob built on the bass line more and more. Actually, the guitar is very simple, and it is more about what the drums and bass are doing. By the end of it, we were thinking, “Wow, that’s really cool.” So we did that part, and the whole band started working on it. Rob had some lyrics, the intro lyrics, “I am a pinball machine…,” and Ray had that phrase [“reality is twisted like the spine of a dog”], and I took those bits, and added the other verse parts, and tried to tie them together as best as I could. The only thing that I had, as far as the lyrics went, was not being able to communicate, and being really kind of …(pauses)…I don’t know how you explain it…
RR: Sort of like right there? Not being able to communicate?
CG: (laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Maybe, you’re stunted in some way, or maybe you’re under some kind of influence, or something, but basically, not able to communicate in a social situation where people think you’re nuts. (laughs) That was a thing I was playing around with, but it was really like we did the jam, and there were all these little bits that people kicked in to get it going. I can’t believe that it was that long ago that we wrote that.
RR: A musician has to have the ability to train the mind and body to play an instrument, and then turn the brain off so one can play with an enhanced form of muscle memory. I discussed this topic with Al, as well. Once moe. began playing longer passages, jamming sequences, within their songs in the early-to-mid 1990s, how did the band hone and perfect their ability to improvise in the moment?
CG: We were playing a lot of shows, and we were rehearsing a lot. It was all we did all day long. (laughs) To a certain extent, that was everything that we were doing. When you first start a band, you have to do that, you have to put in a lot of time to get it so that it’s second nature. Over a couple of years of non-stop work, you get to a point where you get that fluency and you get that ease, and you don’t have to think about anything. Even if some guy in a bar is yelling at you, and throwing stuff at you, you’re still going to be able to play the song. (laughs) Which happened, occasionally.
I don’t know. It gets easier, and you get to a point where the four hours or so that you get on stage, are the easiest part of the day, and the rest of it is the struggle. The rest of it is dealing with people, traveling, and everything else that we have to do, so the music becomes the easy part where you can communicate freely. It is—it’s a lot of hard work, and, all of a sudden, it starts to become a lot easier.
RR: moe. evolved through years of touring into a tight-knit, family-run business, and we’ve talked a lot about that in the past. But, how have you stayed fresh as a musician, and how have all of the changes over the years had an impact on you?
CG: We spend less time on the road, which is good so everyone has as much family time as possible. What changes are you referring to?
RR: Like you said, as you mature as a band, you don’t have to play as much. When moe. does go out these days, what are the goals? Are there certain things that have changed over time? How are you functioning as a band?
CG: Especially through the 90s, after having done so much work, so many days out of the year, we benefit more from the freshness that comes from taking time off, and then, going back to it. It’s actually like rediscovering it. When you tour a lot…(laughs) it’s probably like working in a cubicle—you do it so much, you become kind of dead to it. You don’t want to be doing it anymore. As long as you keep it fresh, and you focus on the things that are really important, then you get the best out of what you’re trying to do. And that’s what I think we’ve done. We’ve tried not to burn ourselves out touring, and, really, everyone’s trying to have as much as a balance between home life and work life. When you come back to it, either way—home life, or the work life, the musician life, or the tour life—you’re looking forward to it each time. It’s fresh and inviting every time you do it, and you try not to let it get stale. It’s easy to get into ruts when you’re doing this job. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to see when you’re in a rut. All of a sudden, you realize, “I’m doing the same thing over and over again. It’s not changing. It’s not evolving at all.” When you realize that, you try and step back from that a little bit, and it helps out a lot. When we took time off in the fall of 2008, I think it was only five months, but it was the first time that we took a solid five or six months off in 14 years of touring. That may gives a little bit of perspective on getting a sabbatical from your job, just so you can go out and experience something else, and then go back and bring some kind of freshness back. We’ve been trying to balance that for a while now.