moe.: Playing hooky for twenty years

P1010814-copy.jpg“Why does anyone start a band,” asks moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey.

I am sitting backstage at the Rams Head Live in Baltimore with Garvey and two of his band mates, guitarist Al Schnier and bassist Rob Derhak, during some downtime before the band’s show later that night.  While drums are being sound-checked on stage, providing a steady rhythm to our conversation, we have been discussing the band’s 20-year run. From their simple beginnings as a college band in Buffalo, New York through their rise and eventually signing with major label Sony only to be dropped shortly there after, to re-establishing themselves on their own terms, releasing albums on their own label and hosting multiple festivals throughout the year.

P1010899-copy.jpgBut at this moment Garvey continues talking about their earliest days as a band, stating “They don’t start bands because they necessarily think it is going to be a job. For us it was our way of playing hooky basically. It started off as just being a fun thing to do rather than serious work.”

“It was no different than mountain biking with your friends or shooting pool,” adds Schnier.

But clearly there was a time for the band, when it became more than just playing hooky, when it did become something closer to a job or else we would not be sitting backstage reflecting on the past 20 years of a band who is seen as leaders and innovators in the jamband community.

“There was a turning point when we decided to go full-time. In the fall of 1994 we had just put out Headseed and we all had quit our jobs and said we were going to move to New York City,” remembers Garvey. With a laugh he continues, “We only made it as far as Albany for some reason.”

Again Schnier picks up his bandmate’s thought, “We were looking for loft space in Williamsburg, before it had become the cool place to live. But it was still the only place affordable for bands to live at that point.  What we could afford was about 1000 square feet for all of us and gear.  And it just didn’t seem likely we would all live in the rehearsal space.”

Their lack of money was a fortuitous turn for the band.  Ending up in the more economical Albany, they found not only an affordable house, but a group of like minded bands. Freebeerandchicken, Ominous Seapods, God Street Wine, and brothers Alan and Neil Evans (who would go onto form Soulive, but at the time were the rhythm section for Moonboot Lover) were all based in the area and served to create a community of musicians in central New York who would all work together, support each other, and go onto achieve varying levels of success.  All of the band’s hardworking attitudes seemed to rub off on each other, giving them all a blueprint on how to survive in the music business.  For moe. it seemed to inspire their D-I-Y approach that would go on to form the basis for most of what they do.

After a couple of years in Albany, moe. realized their fun thing to do was becoming something special, something that Garvey says they realized would have been “stupid to walk away from.” 

DSC_0060-01.jpgFor Schnier he realized he had accomplished something when he was able to, “call up dad and say ‘I made it, I am not as big a screw up as you thought.’” Making it meant they had, “graduated from living on $40 a week and eating PB&J to living on a $140.”

Throughout our conversation the interaction between the three is what one would expect of men who have spent the better part of two decades together for extended periods of time.They finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, take time to joke and pick on each, and continually diverge from the topic at hand to have side discussions, such as when Derhak is explaining how the band used to pick the covers they would play in their sets ironically. 

Garvey, who did not feel Derhak was clear enough, asks for a clarification.  After a short debate all three agree, “Havah Nagilah” is a great example of an ironically chosen cover, though Derhak prefers Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl” as an example.

Why?

“I am not a cornflake girl, I have never been a cornflake girl, I never will be a cornflake girl, but I am saying I am cornflake girl,” the bassist explains matter-of-factly.

P1010836-copy.jpgWith that important bit of side business resolved, the three long-time friends return to reflecting back on their time on the road together, recalling events that seemed to be signposts along the way: their first trip to San Francisco (1997) and selling out the Great American Music Hall in advance; Atlanta’s Music Midtown Festival; their infamous late night set at the first Bonnaroo where they played until the sun rose.

In keeping with the idea of reflection, moe. has recently released a compilation (Smash Hits) of what they feel are the songs that made them known.Schnier jokes they don’t have any greatest hits, which is why they are called “Smash Hits.” 

Derhak clarifies, “These songs are our base. If you don’t know anything about the band and you want to find out, this is what you listen to. You don’t start with the top floor of the building.”

Much of the conversation centers on how after 20 years together they are able to keep the excitement going for themselves from night to night.  After jokingly referring to a technique with hot coffee and genitalia to keep the excitement level up, Derhak becomes brutally honest.

“It is impossible to do that, to be excited because it is the 10,000th time we have played a certain song.  I can’t imagine any band that is excited to play their staple songs for the 10,000th time.  The thing we do now to make it exciting is writing new material.

“For me that translates into playing the older material. I feel better if I don’t have to play it as much. It brings a new energy to what I am doing in almost every aspect of my life.”

And that becomes the tricky area for bands that spend much of their time on the road playing live:how do you maintain that balance between keeping things exciting and fresh for the guys in the band, while at the same time satisfying a wide range of fans who have varying degrees of knowledge and familiarity with the band each night?

moe_070718_05.jpgFor moe. this seems to be a topic they have debated before.  Schnier admits that he knows that certain songs can carry baggage with them and that this can impact fans’ enjoyment and feelings towards a particular show.

He explains, “If a certain song is played, it can mean you didn’t get the bust out, new song, rarity you had hoped for, and instead you got the song you have already heard a dozen times. It may be the best goddamn version of “Mexico” that we have ever played, but it doesn’t make a difference because it is already knocked down three pegs because of all those other factors.”

Derhak’s solution to this is to look past all those factors and instead focus on the show itself. “In reality our job is to put on the best show possible for the entire crowd there. Not for the archive, not for the web people who aren’t at the show.It is really about the moment and the people who are there and want to hear the best possible show they can and have the biggest party they can.”

During our conversation it is easy to see that despite the rigors and hardships that can hound a band that has been on the road playing live for the past two decades years, they generally love what they do.Derhak jokes that he is till waiting for moe. to feel like a job, while for Garvey still seems to be having as much fun as did 20 years ago. 

For Schnier the reason for this is simple, “We are still making it up as we go along.”

The guitarist continues, with a laugh. “It is a very homespun thing.”