Smash Hits, Baby Pictures and Archeology: 20 Years of moe. with Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier (Part II)
AL SCHNIER – Part II
Jambands.com concludes its two-part series focused on 20 years of moe. with guitarist/keyboardist/singer/songwriter Al Schnier. In this part, Schnier discusses the key mental and physical attributes of a veteran live performer, the importance of outside solo projects upon the continuing work of moe., and that indefinable thing that only he can do when a man is confronted with an axe on stage—stand still, or rock the hell out.
RR: Let’s talk about the concept, prevalent in the music scene, especially amongst improvisational musicians, of not thinking too much on stage.
AS: It’s something that I learned about when I studied philosophy, and that I’ve read over time. I know that having that beginner’s mind, or having an open mind, and just being receptive to those things, being a blank slate, will allow me to be more receptive to those musical ideas. But, also, at the same time, I need to be an accomplished musician to be able to express myself any way I want to. It’s this weird dichotomy. It’s almost paradoxical. In this one camp, you have to be really accomplished and know all of the rules, but, at the same time, be willing to completely abandon that and forget everything, and be able to do both.
There are guys like Derek Trucks who just do that. Maybe, it’s innate. Maybe, it’s learned. I don’t know. It’s ridiculous how some people can do that. And, then, there are people like me who might be able to fake it from time to time. (laughs) Sometimes, I feel like I can get there. You have moments like that when everything is working. The band is on, you’re on, and the crowd is on, and you just have those moments. I think the fans know that, too. That’s why we all keep coming back. That’s why we love this scene so much because you know everything is in sync, and just works.
You may not necessarily feel that at a…even at a Who concert, necessarily, you know what I mean? Not to take anything away from that—I love the band—but for a show that’s got a pretty choreographed performance laid out, or Tom Petty, or Clapton, or any classic who clearly have earned their legendary status. Those shows are a different thing. It’s going to be a different kind of performance, or a different thing, that you get from it than you would from those moments of improvisation where everything is in sync.
RR: Moving from the mental to the physical aspects of playing a musical instrument, the last time we spoke for a feature was three years ago as The Conch was being released, and you were also battling tendonitis. How are you doing now?
AS: Oh, well, it’s under control. I guess the tendency to flair up is still there. The cool thing is that I’m aware of it now. The good thing was that I handled the whole thing through very organic and natural means. There were no cortisone shots, no surgery, and nothing invasive. I had a really great massage therapist who walked me through the whole thing, and, so, through a lot of muscle-release techniques and stretching, he was able to get me back on track. Now, I’m really aware of it.
The funny thing is that while I was going through this, I remember seeing a live broadcast of David Gilmour playing at Radio City [Music Hall in New York] when he did his recent On An Island tour. I was watching him play, and he almost has that Derek Trucks-like approach when he plays. It’s a very sort of Zen-like stance on stage. He’s peaceful, he’s relaxed, but he’s playing the most vicious and most beautiful notes (laughs). It’s a commanding performance, but he’s very relaxed. I was watching this, and, all of a sudden, I had this epiphany: I need to embrace this inner Gilmour. (laughter) Just really be aware of my posture, and relax a little bit more as I play.
But, then, a few weeks later, my wife and I went to see Neil Young play. (laughter) He was jumping around on stage.
RR: Hunched over.
AS: Hunched over like a caveman, just playing the life out of his guitar, and I said, “That’s me. That’s how I play the guitar.” And I love that. I love that visceral attack. I love that physical approach (laughs) to the instrument. I like both, but when I’m in those Neil Young moments, and I feel my arm tensing up, and I feel the pain setting in, I have to remember my inner Gilmour, relax a little bit, and take it down a notch. I think the thing is for the first fifteen years or more of playing in moe., I never did. I would keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. I did not care about the tension, or the pain, or whatever. That’s how I finally destroyed the tendons in my arm the first time. Now, I’m aware of it. It won’t happen again.
I’ll do yoga from time to time. I’ve been a pretty avid runner for years, and never really stretched properly. Sort of around the same time as I was dealing with my tendonitis, I couldn’t even sit cross-legged on the floor anymore. (laughs) I was just so tight that I couldn’t do it, and I had already sort of chalked it up to some old injury, or something, and that’s just the way things were. It turns out that through some stretching over the course of several months, now, I am limber enough that I can do that. Some things are just a matter of time. If I didn’t…who knows? Maybe, I would have needed hip replacement surgery, ultimately, or something else. I think so many things can be avoided if we are in tune with our bodies.
RR: I wanted to talk about an album that made my Top 5 for 2008—Al & the Transamericans’ This Day & Age. I was wondering about the importance of side projects to you because they carry weight for me as a listener. How important are those projects, and what do they bring back to moe., or to yourself as a musician?
AS: Well, you’re absolutely right. It’s essential to what I do. There’s no way that we can possibly fulfill all of our creative needs with moe., collectively. With the Transamericans, for example, I get to pursue my love of that kind of music—that rootsy, organic, American music. That stuff is sort of informed by the Band, Dylan, and the Dead—music that I just love so much. Those sounds, too. Even more importantly, I get to make those albums. That album This Day & Age, particularly, we made at my house, and I engineered and produced the whole thing. That, in itself, is a huge passion of mine, and just getting to do that is so fulfilling for me.
Working on all of Diane’s albums [Author’s Note: Diane Schnier is Al’s wife, and an accomplished singer/songwriter in her own right, whose latest release is The Fool (2009)], and getting to be her partner, and the engineer and producer for all of her stuff, it’s such a great outlet for me because her music is totally different from mine, and she does things that I could only hope to do musically. (laughs) I’ve always said it to her, and I’ll say it again: she’s a way better songwriter than I am. She always makes these choices that I would never make, and they are always better (laughs) than the ones that I would make—musically, in terms of her chords, the lyrics, and everything. I love it. I really love working with her.
When she gives me this free rein to do whatever I want, in terms of the production, to her songs like this great outlet for me—“We’re going to put Mellotron and sitar on this song because it will really bring out the better qualities in this thing,” or “We’re going to put a backwards guitar here.” She’s totally open to it, and she’s been so great in that regard.
Then, I can go back to moe., and say, “You know what would sound really good here? A sitar and a Mellotron. I had a lot of good experience using this microphone on a banjo.” Some of it’s because you have more experience with those sonic textures in your head. You spin through those musical ideas. Some of it is because those things have been fulfilled (laughs), I don’t have to torture moe. with making them add a sitar to a song.
So, you know, it goes both ways. I only wish there was more time in the day. There are so many more things that I want to do. I wish I had more time to just write songs all day long, and to pursue other musical outlets. Having come off this thing I want to make an album with Marco Benevento. [Author’s Note: January 22, at the WHY Benefit at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, the keyboardist, along with numerous guests sat in with moe.] It’s just things that I want to do. But will I ever have some time to do it? I don’t know. I don’t know if I have the time to make another Transamericans’ album at this point, but I think I have enough songs to do it. We haven’t played a show since our tour to support the album, so who knows? I still have half the songs done for the follow-up for the al.one album, but I haven’t had the time to make the album.
Right now, Diane and I are working on an album for her that is almost done. We just have to mix it at this point. The album will be finished, and we just finished up moe.’s Smash Hits album. Gotta finish that, gotta finish Diane’s album; then, maybe, I can focus on extracurricular recordings, again.
RR: We’ll come full circle. A chance for another decade or two for moe.?
AS: I don’t see why not. But…I mean…you never know. This wasn’t ever supposed to be a 20-year thing. This was a hobby, so who knows? I guess anything is possible. Things in the moe. camp couldn’t be better at this point. In this day and age, it’s remarkable to have a job for 20 years. When you think about having a band for 20 years, it’s unthinkable. And have families, too. When we’re on tour together, we still all go out to dinner together. On our days off, we’ll go catch a movie. We hang out together. We like each other, we spend time with each other, and everything is totally cool within the band, and kind of always has been. We’ve never had any substance abuse issues, or major catastrophes. There are no strong rivalries among band members. There’s nothing like that. Maybe, that’s why we’re still together after 20 years. But, then, maybe that’s why we’ve never been on the front of the National Enquirer, either.