MM: Right, Boston.
Al: Boston, yeah. I just remember getting out there and everybody was still reeling at that point. We had seen so much footage from that, and it felt so good to do that show. There was this energy in the room that night where everybody just really needed to be there, everybody needed to be with each other. It ended up being such a poignant moment. Not because of the significance or great depth of our music-maybe to some degree, because people relate to it on some level-but just the fact, on a very simple level, the fact that we do this. And the fact that it makes an impact on people and offers them that in their lives, where they can get away. Where they can escape. They can go celebrate, they can be with friends. All of that stuff. It really helped me feel much better about my job. (laughs) Immediately. And I came to terms with it gradually over the course of the next few weeks out on the road. I would agree with you that there's something to be said for that notion of the whole thing being larger than the band, or larger than our body of songs. It becomes a focal point for this wide variety of people-around the world, really, at this point-and everybody comes together because of that. But then they find each other, and now their lives are all intertwined because of us. We're like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. (laughter) It's really cool being that for so many people. And like I said, I don't mean to put any great significance on our songs or whatever, or say that we're a great band. It's not about that. It's just that people care enough about it or are passionate enough about it that they keep coming back and back again, and we've become the seed for this much bigger thing. And I love that about what we do. If nothing else, if we were to retire tomorrow, that's probably the most significant achievement that we've had in this whole thing.
MM: It's an amazing thing. I became friends with all these people through this band. It's not like you're going to see a band and you're hanging out with a bunch of strangers, checking out this music. That's a huge thing.
I was just thinking about what you were saying: that scene from the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, popped into my head, where he's talking to the reporter and he says something like, "You're going to die someday. How can you take what you do seriously?" That's kind of like the thing you were talking about with 9/11-keeping yourself in check and getting over the minutiae of everyday life and keeping everything important…
Al: It's stuff that obviously you know and things that I'm sure have all touched us in some way from time to time. And things that Buddhists monks focus their lives on, but every now and then you need to be reminded of what is essential and what's a distraction. Like I said though, it was a good process for me to go through. Just to realize that people need this. Not that they need moe., but that they need that outlet. And again, if nothing else, that could be a reminder too of what is essential. I feel very strongly about taking some time to get outside as often as possible and just spending time outdoors and getting away from anything. Whether it's running, cross country skiing, hiking or whatever. Those sorts of things keep me grounded and more focused than if I don't do them. You get too caught up in your day to day life that you forget about the important things. And maybe going to a concert and having that recreation, that escape, is a good thing for people. So often, I remember people likening the Grateful Dead experience to going to church. And that was like going to church for a lot of people. It was for me. I've had religious experiences at those shows. It's true. You go and you have-it's a very similar connection I'm sure-where you experience that same sort of rapture and life-affirming moments and all of that. And it's all because of the music and the celebration. I guess it's a nice way to do it.
MM: Which is an extremely difficult thing to explain to some people.
Al: Yeah, like your parents.
MM: Well, you know, "Mom, I left the ground for a minute and had a revelation that changed my life at this concert. I came back to college and got better grades and saw everything more clearly. This is doing something good."
Al: Right. "So, I won't be coming home for the holidays. I'm going to see the Dead. It's a lot like going to temple." (laughter) I have a similar-no, I have probably a more significant experience there, and it's better for my soul. My parents are like "What?!" Trying to explain to my parents why I wasn't coming home for Rosh Hashanah one year because the Dead were performing as the Warlocks at Hampton Coliseum. You can understand the significance of it. "You don't understand; they're probably going to play 'Dark Star'! They haven't in years. I have to go!"
MM: Well, it seems like the sense of humor is there. It seems like you always keep yourself in check. Obviously, the music and what you're doing is serious. But I think of this past moe.down, the banter on stage: "Yeah, we peaked in '98." That kind of stuff. "I think it was '94." And the fans are all in on the joke. I remember thinking, "That's funny…I'm going to go climb up the hill now and lose my shit to 'Rec Chem.'" (laughter)
Al: We've never really felt entirely comfortable as a rock band, I guess. We're still just a bunch of friends and a bunch of guys who play in a band. And we've achieved some degree of success I guess in this, and so now we're the guys onstage, but we're still very much the same. It will be an interesting day when we-although, I don't know, it's kind of happened to me because people-I've even done it myself-where I've become Al, and I'm not Al Schnier anymore. It's just thinking, it's like becoming the Edge or Sting. One of those one-named…and eventually I'm just going to have a symbol. The Artist Formerly Known as Al. I could be Al Diddy and change my name every year.
Al: Yep. There you go.
MM: Well, that's cool. What you were just talking about, going through that Grateful Dead experience, and having that element influencing the music along with a ton of others; I think you guys definitely have followed that path to some degree. If you follow the Grateful Dead's philosophy, you're going to come up with your own sound. But, I remember when you guys were starting out there was a lot of ska music and stuff like that. And, so I always thought that was interesting that you guys had this kind of punk aesthetic going as well. Not hardcore, but the rock "fuck you" attitude, yet it wasn't threatening.
Al: Right. Well, when we got together, we all came from pretty different, varied musical backgrounds, but at that point in time we all kind of agreed on Fishbone, the Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, fIREHOSE…trying to think what else…Primus for sure, and Frank Zappa. And those where the things that we were all really into at the same time. Rob, Chuck and I were all just huge fans of all this stuff right at the same time. So, so much of that influenced what we were doing. That combined with the fact that all the music we were listening to was just indie rock on college radio. All of our friends who were in bands in Buffalo, it was such a wide variety of bands that interacted with one another, and we all did shows together. One was like a pop-punk band, somewhere between Green Day and Foo Fighters maybe. Just great songs and great hooks with an attitude. They were killer. They're actually a band called Monkey Wrench, and there's a line in one of our songs where we sing "I wish I could suck like Monkey Wrench." That's the reference. They used to get this chant going at shows: "Monkey Wrench sucks." We used to play with them all the time. And there was another band that was like sort of a disturbing alt-country band. They were called The Hugh Hefners, and they used to wear smoking jackets and dress like Hugh Hefner but then play alt-country songs that were about aliens and stuff like that. It was a really good time. There was a lot of creativity in Buffalo at the time and everyone we knew played in bands, and so much of our lives revolved around live music. If we weren't playing that night, we were going out to see a band, and chances are we were friends with them anyway. Buffalo was just big enough that national stuff was coming through, too. Plus there was a lot of stuff coming through from Toronto, which was nice. Bands like Moxy Fruvous, The Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies. There was a killer band called Lowest of the Low that I used to love from Toronto. Almost like Buffalo Tom or something like that. I mean, just a really good…I hate to quantify that music. It's hard to put a label on it. A band I really liked all the same. Anyway, so that's the stuff we were surrounded by when we started playing. That's sort of what inspired us early on, despite the fact that we moved more and more into improvisation. And I had a long history with the Grateful Dead, so it's hard not to have it creep into what I'm doing. And that combined with the fact that we all grew up on classic rock. You know, Rob and Chuck and I all grew up listening to the same radio station. It was a classic rock station, so your entire vocabulary starts with the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, the Who, Zeppelin, etc. And you build from there. So here we are today.
MM: Yeah, and you always go back and revisit those guys. It seems like they always seep back in.
Al: Yep. It's no wonder that we're always ready to play a Blue Oyster Cult tune.
MM: Right. Of course. (laughs) So, talking about the improvisational side of things: How do you feel about it these days, or in the course of the last year with touring?
Al: It's weird. Our improvisation is kind of like the band child. We're sort of like collectively raising this child. It's interesting to see it grow up. And it goes through growth spurts and changes-there's times of difficulty and times where it's just doing great. It's really interesting to see it grow up. It's funny. There are fans who may feel that we peaked in '98, say, or in a certain period in '98. We look back on it and think, "God, we were playing so recklessly then," or "Nobody was listening," or everything would just be louder/faster/louder/faster, you know what I mean? There was no finesse or control. But some people like that. I mean, take any of your favorite bands: it's great to go back and listen to them when they were younger and less refined.