Tight Quarters and Loud Rock with moe.‘s Chuck Garvey
RR: Wormwood is one of the best albums to come out in the last ten years, easily in my top 3. What I enjoy about the new album is that the band was able to capture that same fresh and live energy within the studio, but in a different way. I’m curious about the song selection for WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LA LAs. How did you choose the songs to be recorded, and how did John’s influence change the songs, i.e. some of the older cuts that had been played for a while on the road?
CG: We had a list of 23 songs, I believe, and that included everything from songs that were less than a year old, and a couple of songs that had not even been played by the band (they were just demos), and all the way to older songs like “[The Bones of] Lazarus” is a fairly old song. We’ve been playing it for a while. Out of this list of 23 songs, we wanted to hear what he thought was interesting and what he thought had the most promise. We let him go through all of them and say, “These are the ones that I’m really attracted to; these are the ones that I am inspired by.” And, then, we went back and said, “We’ll pick a couple of fan favorites, or pick a couple of songs that we also feel strongly about.” So, we put the two lists together, and what ended up happening was that he chose songs, specifically, for their uniqueness. They didn’t really necessarily sound like they were stylistically taken from a certain genre, or a certain band. He also picked songs that he felt had the most appeal for being memorable songs, or something that you might even be able to hear on the radio. That wasn’t really the utmost concern for us, but in picking the songs, I think his criteria were more about getting songs that he felt would reach a lot of people, and that would be really memorable, and not something that was just so unique or a novelty that it would stick for a little while, and then maybe fade. I think that was kind of what he was doing when he was choosing the songs. We just had to add a couple of things that we just felt strongly about.
RR: What were some of those things that you felt strongly about? I would think “Downward Facing Dog” was high on the list of songs to be on the album.
CG: I think that was one of the ones that John actually picked. I can’t remember, specifically, which ones that we came in afterwards. He liked “Chromatic Nightmare,” and I think, maybe, that we mentioned “Lazarus.”
RR: What about something like “Paper Dragon?” I think that song is a perfect example of a song that doesn’t sound like it came from anywhere else, but it has a lot of different elements, and somehow all makes each piece fit within the structure. I loved the overall colors on the back half of the album—side 2, if you like—and “Paper Dragon” starts off the back half very well.
CG: That’s interesting, actually. We were working with Sugar Hill [Records] for the first time on their label, and Sugar Hill had a couple of people there listen to it, and there are
different ways to look at sequencing an album, and one of the guys that Sugar Hill said, “This is how I think it should. I think we should do it like it’s vinyl, and do the first half of the album in this way with a concentration on these songs, and then, the second half of the album will go in a different direction, in, maybe, a slightly darker direction.” I think “Paper Dragon” is like that, that might be that turning point, halfway through the album, where things get a little weird. (laughs) It worked out. Everybody really liked that running order, so we went with that.
RR: I love that “Suck A Lemon,” which you wrote, ends the album. I know you wrote it for the psychedelic Halloween show, but what was the genesis of that song?
CG: That song was specifically for the Halloween show, as was Jim’s “Chromatic Nightmare.” [moe.’s 2010 Halloween show was themed the Electric Lemoe.nade Acid Test, which was rescheduled to December 2010 due to an illness in the moe. family.] “Suck a Lemon” was the basis of the song like ‘suck it up’, basically, and, also, it’s a reference to taking acid. (laughs) It just worked out well. I ended up writing that song on a plane ride somewhere. I think I wrote 80% of the lyrics in two hours. I just did it. And then I worked on it a little bit afterwards just before the show. It was weird because I was thinking of a Syd Barrett-type, slightly classical influenced, but also a definitely English flavor to it, psychedelic rock flavor. It was kind of hard to get away from that after the initial playing of it. I think everybody in the band liked the song. It was hard to get away from a little bit of that forced flavor, or that novelty, or whatever it was that made it more appropriate for the Halloween show.
Sometimes, especially for me, if I start doing something one way, I stick with it. It’s hard to let that go, and completely shake it up. We started and we had problems with the instrumentation of it—with the band and how to do the rhythm and get the melody across and not have it be too cluttered. When we got to the studio, it was actually difficult—played it on the acoustic guitar for a while, try and change it around and the feel of it. I think we were working on it in the PM of one day, and the next morning, we started working on it again, and after a couple hours, we just decided to take it in a really heavy direction. I think we, literally, did it two or three times once we came up with the approach, and that’s the take that you hear. I don’t think we added very much to it in overdubbing. That’s pretty much a live band version. I don’t know. Just that approach seemed to work right away, and the recording caught that, that initial spark that we had in approaching it from a different direction. It was new to all of us, so it had a different kind of energy to it. I think, for some songs, that really benefits the treatment of it, when it’s really fresh and not too labored-over. You get the rough edges and you get that texture from it, and that recording definitely benefited from that approach.
RR: There were not a lot of overdubs on the album, but I know that may not be the case with that song. What special guitar treatments were laid down for it? Were you and Al using standard guitars and amp setups, or did you do things differently?
CG: The one thing is that Al had a slap back delay on his guitar, and this weird tremolo. I don’t know if he was using…he has one that I think it’s a Schaller, a German tremolo pedal, or tremolo effect, and it’s kind of square sounding. It chops off a little bit. He started using that, and probably like a fuzz or something, some kind of heavy distortion. I turned my delay all the way up, and I would turn it on and off for all that ‘ray gun’ effect, kind of like a really fast [Garvey scats a really fast ‘ray gun’ guitar effect] sound, and we ended up just playing it like that, and I think we only did three takes of it, and the third was the one that we kept. That’s pretty much the band playing live. During the verses, I don’t even think I’m playing guitar on the recording. It’s just Al’s fuzz guitar, which is really huge, and on the choruses, I don’t think I was playing, all I played were the verses when I did that effect, and I played that effect in between the verses.
RR: Are you and Al both playing slide guitar on “Downward Facing Dog,” or is that double-tracked slides?
CG: We’re both playing slides on that. Al plays in an opening tuning, an open G, and I play in standard tuning. At one point, in the second half of the song where it gets really intense, I think I added one other guitar overdub, just for that really crazy mechanical-sounding riff. (laughs) But, yeah, again, that is all tracked live and we all played together.
RR: “Rainshine” has a really impressive guitar solo near the coda. Was that recorded live, or did you measure it in later after you laid down the basic tracks?
CG: Oh, the one that sounds like it has an octave, or weird effect on it? O.K., yeah, that was played live. I played that with an octave pedal. Oh, no, actually, I think I went back and re-did that. I think what we did was that we did the song, and I immediately went back and re-did the solo. I think at the end of that you can hear the last note gets cut off a little bit, but we tracked it and I went back and re-did it. We were working very quickly, so it is actually kind of hard to remember some of the things we recorded.
RR: Some of the material has been out there for a while, some of the material was also previously written and then tweaked in a different way for the album, and some of the songs are brand new. How will you introduce this material in its current form into the new live setlists?
CG: After we completed the album and the mix, we were touring in November, and we ended up recording acoustic versions of all of these songs as bonus stuff.
We did it during soundchecks. It was done really simply and on the fly while we were on tour, and some of those ended up being pretty interesting. We were pretty happy with how all that stuff turned out. It’s not perfect. They’re not studio gems, but it’s just interesting to hear this whole electric album in that acoustic treatment. It was pretty fun to do, but we had to do it very quickly, and now, we actually have two different new versions of a lot of these songs.
We’re going to start right at the beginning of this tour, we’re going to play the album in its entirety, and we’ll also probably start incorporating acoustic songs when we have the time and the ability to do that—we’ll start playing those live. So, yeah, it’s going to be interesting. We’ve been playing some of the songs, and, actually, playing them with almost their new arrangements and the new treatments. But, for the upcoming tour, at least for a while, we are going to play the songs much in the same way that we did on the album. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’ll stay that way; we’ll see what works, and what doesn’t work, and tweak everything accordingly.