Here is the full transcript of our interview with guitarist Al Schnier from February 2006, of which excerpts were used for the March cover story article on moe.
Mike McKinley: Snoe.down is coming; it's good to get everyone together. You have a loyal bunch…
Al Schnier: It's nice because we see them all year 'round, but not together at one place usually. You have your big destination events like New Year's, or our Thanksgiving shows in New York, but it's nice…I like the family reunion gigs. And this time around we get to go skiing, too…in one of my favorite towns. Looking forward to it.
MM: Having these kinds of events where you get everyone together…well, let me back up. Over the past two months I've been reading a lot of these "best of" lists and all that kind of stuff. It's always interesting to see what band made a splash during the year. So then I went back and looked back at the 2004 lists and… "Oh yeah, what happened to those guys?" (laughter) So, with moe., it's really interesting, because in 2005 there wasn't any media hype or anything, but people came out to the shows and stuff, and I guess that's the thing with moe.'s music-it has longevity.
Al: I hope so… (laughter)
MM: Well, back when you signed with Sony, there was the question about whether or not you could do the crossover thing. I think initially that's what brought a lot of people in-the songs were there. But, what really keeps people coming back is freaking out to you live. So, what are some of your thoughts on it?
Al: You know, I'm still… as obvious as the whole record company industry machine is to me, I'm still completely perplexed by it. The thing that really baffles me is some of the choices that those people make. It seems pretty apparent to me that if the key players involved decide, "OK, this is going to be our next project and we're putting all of our resources behind it." More often than not, if they're willing to put enough money behind it, they can make anything successful, you know what I mean? Certain projects, or products (laughter), that they're putting out there may not work. It's not a matter of whether it's good or not-that just doesn't seem to be the issue-it just seems to be whether or not the American public wants to buy it, if it's shiny and eye level and…you know? One of the things about the music industry that I find interesting is the momentum. When certain things sort of catch on and everyone is really excited about it, it just gathers this steam, and once the public gets behind something like that there's almost like a mob mentality that takes place (laughs). It's an interesting phenomenon.
How does this all relate to our time at Sony? I think if they decided that we were going to be one of those things, they probably could have done it. And I'm sure our career would have been entirely different. In fact, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation today, either because the band would be long gone, or because we'd be so out of touch at this point (laughter), you know, my personal assistant in L.A. probably never would have gotten the message to me that this interview was going to take place (laughter). Who knows? You know, I have no regrets about the time at Sony: it was a great experience for us. It was a really great life experience. It was like visiting the Death Star and getting to see what the Imperial Forces are all about (laughter).
MM: Well, you guys seemed to be uncompromising about that and decided to stay…
Al: Yeah, but it wasn't never really a thing…like nobody ever insisted on a makeover, and nobody ever insisted on rearranging the songs or redirecting the focus of the band. Our A&R guy truly saw something in the band. He was an old prog-rock guy and I think he got the musicality-he got that aspect of what we were doing. He thought we had the songs, and certainly there was a huge buzz about us at the time, so he thought it was all there. Frankly, like I said, it really came down to whatever board makes those decisions, just deciding that we were not going to be a priority there. Right when we signed with the label, we met with the president, just prior to signing the contracts or just shortly after. She welcomed us aboard and said how great it was, and you know, she let us know that she wasn't a fan of our band. She didn't really care for jam bands or what it was we did, but she respected us and was looking forward to working together with us. And that should have been a red flag for us (laughter). We thought, well it's the music industry, and people who work for the label, or the president of the label, don't have to like everything that's on their roster. They can't possibly like Celine Dion and Pearl Jam, but it's okay to get both of them and release both, and be behind it. I don't really think that's the case. So whatever…like I said it was a good learning experience and I think we're much better because of it. We lost nothing in the process. It was a little frustrating from time to time, but nothing really changed for us. On a day to day level, nothing really changed. We continued to evolve consistently throughout that whole time period. Who knows? Maybe we would have crashed and burned if we didn't go with Sony. But it kept us on that steady growth that we've had ever since our inception. That's been one of the unique things about moe.: we've never had this huge blow-up or a huge surge in our popularity. We're like a very conservative, respectable savings account. (laughter) You know, we grow every year, and everyone seems to be pretty content.
Every now and then it's interesting, I'll hear discussions amongst our fans, "The band is trying to keep it small, because they could make it big if they wanted to" or, "I don't think they wanted to go big because looked what happened to Blues Traveler or Phish, or those scenes. They don't want to go either of those directions." Honestly, we want to be successful. And we're doing everything we can to run our small business in a way where we improve upon the model constantly. Every year, every time we do something again, we try to make it better than the time we did it before. And that's how we end up where we are. The bottom line is, literally, we don't have any major trust fund or investors or corporations sponsoring us. We are a very homegrown organization.
MM: I like that… the conservative savings account.
Al: Or maybe it's more like a CD or something. It's never been huge, but you know, I would say we grow between five and ten percent annually. I've never really looked at the numbers. I'm sure somebody could. If we were still with Sony, they would provide us with a report of those numbers every year.
MM: (laughs) There you go. I think there's something to be said about the music that goes along with that growth. I guess the growth comes in these little waves each year.
Al: Right. And it does seem to be cyclical, too. We seem to be moving forward, we're selling a lot more tickets, everything's going well, and then everything kind of plateaus for a bit. And then we go and do it again. But we've never had a real drop-off in what we're doing. There's been times where-not that the numbers necessarily drop off, but everything kind of starts to average out, and you're like, "Uh oh. Is this is it? Did we peak? Are we done? Is this the beginning of the way down?" Do you quit while you're on top and pull out like The Police did? Or do you wait until it's completely embarrassing and you end up like, I don't know, the roadies for Styx on tour? Or the 20th Century Doors. One of those bands. Creedence Clearwater Revisited. (laughter) So, like I said, it's an interesting world to be in. And in terms of the music, I can't help but feel that the music has improved every year, as well. It's something that I'm personally striving for, in terms of my own playing, but also my songwriting. And I know that collectively that's a goal for us as well. We never want to be complacent with what we're doing and start phoning it in. There may be a time three or four weeks into a tour where people start to get a little tired on the road, and you need to light a fire every now and then just to remember what it is we're doing, I guess. That being said, in general, I'd say that moe. is playing better than we've ever played. And we're writing better songs than we've ever written. Everything is improving; the production value of our shows is improving. Everything. Just baby steps.
MM: The growth over a long period of time and connecting with people-it becomes bigger than, "This is a great rock band." I had that feeling with you guys ever since the beginning when I got turned on to you ten years ago. There was a moment…New Year's 2001 where it hit me like a ton of bricks. 9/11 happened and you're closing out the year, you hear songs like "New York City," "Plane Crash," "Captain America." Everything becomes more relevant in our own little world. And you realize music is a bigger force and it means much more. I think that's a really unique thing about you guys.
Al: You mentioned 9/11, and one of the things about that time period that really struck me initially was…it was just something I had to go through. You have those moments where you start to check what really matters, and obviously, I start to think about what I'm doing with my life-you know, larger, heavy issues. And playing in a band and playing music seemed so irrelevant to the things that really mattered. I just couldn't help going through this process where I was thinking about it. And I was like, "I have the stupidest job in the world. I should be doing something that makes a difference. If nothing else, I should be spending more time with my family and making an impact with the people closest to me." You start second guessing all of this stuff and whatever. We played…I think our first show might have been on the 14th.