moe. : Still Buzzing the Tower (Relix Revisited)
Next weekend moe. returns to the stage at Summer Camp. Today we look back to August 2010 and this cover story on the group.
Sometimes you can’t win for trying.
During the fall of 2009, nearly 20 years into its career as a band, moe. decided to alter the nature of its live performances. Rather than relying on purely improvisational segues, the group expanded each soundcheck into a full rehearsal to develop and refine interstitial ideas that could bridge songs during the evening’s show.
“What we wanted to do was take our songwriting and arranging skills—the craft that we’ve been honing for years—and bring that to what we were doing with our improvisational skills,” guitarist Al Schnier explains. “We wanted to meld these things together to create this strange brew of musical interludes, these little vignettes with thematic elements that we would revisit over the course of a show, almost like the movements of a song that would occur in a classical piece.”
As the tour wore on, this endeavor became increasingly labor intensive—with two hours soon leaking into three, which ran into dinner and saw the band effectively performing six or seven hours of music each night.
And the result?
“We got hosed for it,” Schnier’s fellow guitarist Chuck Garvey laughs with a sense of resignation, recalling the feedback that the quintet received from a fan base that preferred a higher quotient of balls-to-the-wall improvisation. “It was kind of disheartening. We were busting our asses to come up with little bits of material every night, working really hard to do something different and a number of people said, ‘That’s bullshit.’”
“We thought we were refining the show,” Schnier adds. “That we would rein in some of those lost moments and have fewer train wrecks. We were rehearsing for two hours a day before we went onstage, yet the perception was we were coasting because we weren’t jamming anymore. Frankly, it’s much easier for us to coast and jam and the perception is that moe. is playing much harder and trying harder.”
This dichotomy, the drive for refinement counterbalanced by a penchant to let it all hang out in the moment, has defined the group from the start. That and songwriting, which Garvey describes in reference to bassist Rob Derhak’s compositions, and is applicable to the band music as whole: “You can sing along, they’re totally memorable without feeling like advertising jingles and then you can dress them up however you want.”
The blending of these worlds was enough to yield a record contract with Sony in the mid-‘90s but not sufficient enough to generate the million of dollars in sales that would have garnered a more aggressive push from the label. Similarly, moe. has developed a loyal base of fans hooked by the material that appears on the group’s current Smash Hits, Volume One career retrospective album—some of whom bemoan the fact that the band still plays these songs with regularity (every four to five shows or so, as the typical rotation plays out). All of this is additionally complicated as the band members are now in their early 40s, often feeling the pressure of spending time away from their wives and children, while maintaining an organization that supports the band on the road and functions as an in-house record label.
During the past two decades, the core lineup of Derhak, Garvey and Schnier has been able to navigate mildly treacherous terrain without seeming to break much of a sweat (let alone a limb, a marriage vow or a hotel mini-bar). Yet, as with the soundchecked segues, nothing has been as easy as it seems. Take for instance, the group’s new and somewhat ironically named release, Smash Hits. In conjunction with its 20 year anniversary, the group decided to issue a compilation disc that drew together many of the fan favorites from over the years. The project hit an initial snag because Sony wouldn’t allow the band to license any of the songs from its two releases, No Doy (1996) and Tin Cans & Car Tires (1998). However, moe. did retain the legal right to issue new versions of these songs, so the band prepared to enter the studio and do just that. However, upon listening to its first two albums, Fatboy (1992) and Headseed (1994), recorded in a Buffalo apartment, the band decided that any of those tracks wouldn’t hold their own from a sonic perspective when juxtaposed with the later recordings. The end result was that seven of the ten songs for Smash Hits had to be re-recorded and mixed for what—in other groups’ hands—could have been a simple collection of previously released material.
Sometimes it seems as if there’s the highway or the moe.way, and the latter is a toll road requiring additional time, effort and expense. Back in 2002, the group decided to release a studio album—what became the following year’s Wormwood —that would capture the energy of its live shows by utilizing basic tracks recorded at its shows as the foundations for recordings. The group massively underestimated the complexities of such an endeavor, spending weeks in the studio synching things up and getting them to the point where it could begin recording new music over them. Believing it had learned its lesson from Wormwood, the group began work the following year on a second album that used the same process—one that was ultimately delayed by additional refinements as well as two complete mixing sessions after moe. decided to scrap its initial pass at what became 2007’s The Conch.
The Howlin’ Brothers take to the Relix rooftop and share a song they wrote with Warren Haynes.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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