When I interviewed guitarist Al Schnier in 2006, he described moe.'s career up until that point as a safe investment: "We grow roughly five to 10 percent a year," he said. That's how the band rolls -- slow and steady, reliable and consistent. Year in and year out, moe. is out there making a lot of music. They're one of the hardest working bands around.
Just to drive that point home: During the 2000s moe. played over 900 concerts, which includes hosting or headlining several annual festivals (moe.down, snoe.down, Summer Camp) where they invite diverse bands to celebrate with them (for instance, this year's moe.down has Tortoise, Built to Spill and The Black Keys on the bill, to name a few), and they've released four timeless studio albums [Dither (2000), Wormwood (2003), The Conch (2007), and Sticks and Stones (2008)] in addition to several entire concert live releases.
Now celebrating their 20th anniversary since forming in Buffalo, NY in 1990, it's interesting to look back and see that the way they've grown as an organization is also how their music grows -- they take their time and they do it their own way. Every couple of years you hear how they've slowly added new dimensions to their sound, either in the way they groove, improvise or layer the different textures of their music. You'll also see over a couple of years time that they'll write batches of new tunes that slowly become classics -- a second set epic, a rocking opener, a ridiculous prog-rock composition, the show-stopping ballad, and one that becomes an undisputed, everyone-on-board fist-pumping anthem.
In retrospect, I've realized this train isn't making any sudden moves; it's just forging ahead with tactful deliberation, the power of longevity and a "never take yourself too seriously" approach. And they share it with a loyal fan-base, who, without hesitation, will also be the first to tell them when they've played a bad show.
They have such a remarkable bond with their audience that it's hard not to feel like family at one of their shows. It doesn't stop there though -- they have a brotherhood with so many bands that they've shared the stage and road with over the years, and just like they were tossed a bone in their early days by a few of the bigger guys, they've been incredibly gracious in giving so many young, hungry up-and-comers a good gig or some stage time. And all at the same time, they don't take shit from anyone, still embracing the DIY punk rock ethos they've upheld since day one.
But there's nothing quite like the brotherhood they share when they're onstage together. You hear an American band that loves to stretch out and rock, and you hear all the influences: Coltrane and Grateful Dead inspired improvisational segments, Zappa's compositional intellect, bluegrass and country twang, obscure 90s punk, ska and indie rock sounds, all morphed into their own unique blend. But what I hear most purely is middle class, upstate New Yorkers who grew up listening to classic rock and who have an unfathomable thirst for a great song and an unbridled enthusiasm for the adventure of sharing it with an audience. That heart and soul has a depth that you can't easily put your finger on or simply label "jamband" -- it's a bigger experience than that.
As odd as this sounds, it makes sense that they're celebrating their 20th anniversary by wearing suits at their shows. They've spent their entire adult lives working their asses off to not have to wear a suit at a job, but they respect that their fans come out over and over, spending their hard-earned money to see them play. And for this monumental year, they're showing that they never take that for granted. The suits are symbolic of the one-of-a-kind respect and admiration that moe. has for its fans and its fans for them.
I interviewed guitarist Al Schnier for about an hour and a half to dive in and try to talk about it all. As it naturally progressed, we covered everything from his feelings on the Lefsetz Letter, Pitchfork and the perception of the band to the outside world, to self-awareness and his approach to improvising, as well as a lot of other interesting ground looking back on the first 20 years of moe., like all the things the band still needs to do.
Congratulations, 20 years.
Oh, thanks.
I get the Lefsetz Letter emails and I'm sure you do too. As I read these things about how much change is happening in the music industry, it's kind of interesting how the moe. organization has become the new music industry business model.
The thing is, I used to actually get his letter and probably about a year ago, or maybe a little less, I don't know, I had to unsubscribe from the letter. [Laughter]
It was starting to annoy me, you know? I think a lot of what he has to say is pretty insightful, but then sometimes he gets carried away where it seems like he's more important somehow than the information in the letter, and then he contradicts himself too often. I don't know… it was starting to bug me after a while. Because he has this sort of great take on something, and to hold somebody accountable for their actions, but then he'll put somebody else on a pedestal and doesn't hold them accountable for those same actions. It's just like, he doesn't have the same set of standards across the board for everybody, and I was getting frustrated with it after a while. And it's sort of weird being in the music industry and reading this thing. So you know, he would say something really great about… say, I don't know, about the Grateful Dead one day, but then rip on Bruce Springsteen the next day, but it might be about the same thing. It was sort of odd.
But the interesting thing is that, naturally, here you are celebrating your 20 year anniversary and with the evolution of the music industry, moe. has built a model that is sustainable. And now it seems like everyone is scrambling trying to figure out how to do that.