Throwing Stones with moe.’s Rob Derhak

DSC09561_resize_exposure.jpg

moe. bassist Rob Derhak makes one simple assessment of their new album, Sticks & Stones.

Without the hint of worry expected from someone who has just released an album that goes against everything the band has established over the past few years, he states, “I think it is actually going to throw some people off.”

Instead, there is almost a sense of satisfaction or relief in the way he sums up his band’s newest release.

Long lumped in the limiting category of jamband, or as guitarist Chuck Garvey likes to say, “a rock band that improvises,” moe. has never quite settled on how to approach the recording process.  While they’ve proved themselves to be capable songwriters, they have dabbled with numerous production styles and recording techniques over the years, never completely settling on one.  Historically they’ve taken a batch of songs they’ve been playing in concert for some time and dragged them, kicking and screaming, into the studio and wood-shopped them into shape for their albums, a process with mixed results.  

DSC09670_resize_exposure.jpg

photo: P. Martinez

2001’s Dither was loaded with quality songs from top to bottom, but was criticized for sounding overproduced – there were just too many instruments and sound effects filling the spaces that had grown so gloriously when the songs had previously been played live.  The band tried to combat this overproduction by recording the majority of the next two albums live, to give the albums the concert experience vibe.  While both sounded great, the complaint now was that they contained songs that had been around for years and had been trimmed down from the live beasts they had become, shoe-horned into a small confining four-minute box that tore the heart and soul out of each tune.

Not known for rapidly recording and releasing album after album, the release of Sticks & Stones, a year after The Conch has thrown people, but not nearly as much as the stunning results.

“After The Conch we wanted to put out another record as soon as possible.  We wanted to be able to break that normal cycle we had…we just wanted to get right back to work”, Derhak says.  “We just started with a writing session.  It wasn’t even like we brought in ideas for songs; we just decided to create everything from the ground up.  It was the first time we had ever written as a complete group, the five of us.” 

This group effort immediately showed results, as the usual distinctions between the three main songwriters (Derhak, Garvey, and guitarist Al Schnier) was blurred, giving Sticks & Stones a more complete band sound with all five of them finding a new unique place to exist.  Derhak is quick to give credit to percussionist Jim Loughlin and drummer Vinnie Amico who historically did not have as big a role in the songwriting process.

moe_070718_03.jpg

photo: B. Price

“Jim has such good insight to arranging.  We could always rely on him to come up with ideas on how to go from one part of the song to the other or how many times to repeat a segment,” Derhak states.

“And Vinnie has this vast knowledge of classic rock that is better than anyone I know.  We have always been me, Chuck, and Al as the songwriters, and people like their Al songs or their Chuck songs and I don’t think it is going to be as cut and dry with this record…” 

Derhak’s sentence trails off and you can almost hear him smiling with excitement, no doubt due to the deep personal investment that the band made with this record.  Moving away from their comfort zone forced the band to, as Derhak says, “find a completely new way to be creative, to test ourselves to see if we could do it.”

Recording 

 

moe070305c.jpg

photo: J. Mintz

The band also hoped that the new method would keep moe. from falling into that stale trap that so many bands seem to become complacent in.  To aid in this process, the band rented an old church in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts from people who were very “receptive to having a rock band move in and record an album,” Derhak remembers.

“We had a real cool spot that was private enough that we could do what we wanted.  We got rid of the pressure of having to deal with outside forces, we didn’t want to have to go into a studio – that doesn’t really help creativity.  It’s like going to a hospital and trying to be creative.”

They set up an entire recording studio and started writing and recording every musical thought they had.  After two weeks they took a look at what they had and started focusing on the stuff nearest completion.  They spent another week polishing them into songs and the result was eight brand news songs and two older songs (“Conviction Song” and “All Roads Lead to Home”) that were reworked for the record.

Derhak admits that while he is very pleased with the results and the way the band wrote the album from the ground up as a collective group, he also recognizes the fact that their self-imposed plan to get back to work may have rushed the recording process and left some things less finished than they would have liked.

“I definitely want to attempt this process again, but we need to have more time next time,” he says.  “I don’t want to use the word ‘forced,’ but it was definitely something we were dead set on finishing in X amount of time.  We were just barely able to get these ten songs.  There are hours and hours of us jamming, but nothing that got turned into songs.  There weren’t even lyrics to ‘Queen of Everything’ until the day before it was mixed.”

DSC09795_resize_exposure.jpg

photo: P. Martinez

But those are the words of man who can look back with a critical eye at something he created and find those flaws that he obsessed about while holed up for three weeks with this music in a church in the Berkshire mountains.  It is those same flaws, and the stripped down approach the band took to the sound, that gives Sticks & Stones its personality.

“The initial idea was to do an all-acoustic album.  There isn’t a lot of synths on it, none of the stuff we have been doing.  It has more real instruments,” Derhak recalls. “We had been relying on technology and we just wanted to make old fashioned music, something completely new that at the same time is completely old.”

Something new that sounds completely old is exactly what they released.  Sticks & Stones is quick to recall that classic rock sound from the 1970s that was found on the AM dial of your radio, when the airwaves always seemed to pull your eyes toward heaven, a sound that’s best listened to late at night as you sink back into a beanbag chair, joint in hand, headphones on.

Studio to Stage 

The next step for the band is to take the songs to the stage.  For the first time in a long while they will be taking songs birthed in the studio to the stage, the opposite of what moe. usually does.  For Derhak and the band there is a small degree of worry, but as the songs were being written in jam sessions the band was already licking their chops at the chance to get some of them in front of an audience.

moe_070718_06.jpg

photo: B. Price

“There are little parts of each song in my mind where I think ‘this part can be extrapolated on live, this will be a cool part for us to experiment with,’” Derhak says.  “Now the test for us is not going to be learning to play the songs live, but learning how to make them sound like live songs.  I don’t want them to sound like the album, I want to play them live and have them become tunes that our fans are calling for by name.”

For the adventurous “Cathedral” or the plodding rocker “Darkness,” making the transition from studio to stage should be no problem.  The real concern comes from the number of slower, mellower tunes that grace the album like “September.”

Derhak says, “The slower stuff is always hardest, especially for our fans because everybody just wants to rock out.  The crowd in general is just looking to thrash out a bit.  So trying to make the slow songs work is going to be the hardest.  The emotion that is built into them is what needs to be translated to the stage and that will be where the real task is.”

Despite the slightly different feel of the new record, Sticks & Stones is arguably moe.’s finest studio work and by far their most complete band effort.  For Derhak it was even more that, it was a personal experience, something he and the band had to do, if only for themselves.

“With each album, you get a snapshot of where we at a particular point in time.  All of our other records, all the songs were slowly written over time by playing them live so much, and by doing that they lose their ability to be dated.  I like stuff that can be dated to a specific time, because it says a little more to me than stuff that can be changed over time.”  Derhak pauses before finishing, “twenty years from now when we listen to Sticks & Stones it will be more significant to us than any of the other records we have done.”

Photos by:
Pamela Martinez / DenverMusicPhotos.com
Josh Mintz / photosbyjosh.com
Brian Price / ImageLume.com