Tripping the light fantastic

Al Schnier’s young son is on the phone. Sort of. Every few moments, the little boy lifts his head off his father’s shoulder and gurgles baby talk into the receiver pressed to his old man’s ear. It’s as if he’s trying to help his pop answer a question. Suddenly, the kid shrieks with excitement: Elmo’s on television! It’s somewhere around 8 a.m., and moe.’s vocalist/guitarist has never been happier to see the Sesame Street muppet. Parenting and interviews just don’t mix. Schnier frees the toddler and readjusts the phone. “OK, now, where were we?” Our conversation continues.

The topic is life on the road, a dual-edged sword that’s only sharpened by family responsibilities. “We’ll be home for a month straight, and it’s really nice,” says Schnier about his upstate-New York-based band, which has criss-crossed the country relentlessly during the past few years. “You get to spend a lot of bonding time together, you know? But then you go on the road for five or six weeks at a time, and it’s hard to be gone.” Schnier is not alone — three of the guys in the band have kids. Sure, it’s tough on them, but it’s not exactly a picnic for the moms, either. “It’s even more challenging for [our] wives,” the musician concedes. “During the time we’re on tour, in effect, they become single parents.”

Such is the life of a rock ‘n’ roll family. Playing is a blast, but you pay a price for racking up the miles. Every band wants to hit the big time, but most burn out or fade away while chasing that ultimate pot-of-gold pipe dream: getting signed by a major record label. Not moe. They made it. After releasing three records independently — Fatboy (1992), Headseed (1993) and Loaf (1995) — moe. was signed by Sony 550 Music. The relationship produced two CDs —No Doy in ’96 and Tin Cans and Car Tires in ’98. “Between both albums, we sold about 100,000 records,” Schnier reveals. “That’s not stellar by major-label standards, but at the same time, to be a band that has no radio airplay, no videos and relies solely on touring and our own grassroots network, it is.”

But the corporate ogre’s indifference to grassroots victories became painfully evident after No Doy, however. “Basically, the A&R guy lost interest in the band,” the musician explains. “To be with a major label that is not interested in the band is about the worst position that a band like us could be in.” That’s when moe.’s management forced the issue. Even though the contract wasn’t over, the label was given an ultimatum: “Either you commit to us, or let us go.” And thus, both parties were liberated from their obligations.

“The recording industry is … very elusive, and there’s sort of an insincere quality about it,” Schnier continues carefully. “Even when we were with Sony, it … felt like we were still an independent band, going along [with] business as usual.”

Just as moe. members weren’t exactly sure what would change when they signed the deal, nobody knew quite what to expect when it ended, either: “In the beginning, it was kind of weird. … There was a little bit of trepidation about suddenly being dropped from a major label … but the fact of the matter is, we’re in a much better position now than we were six months ago.”

Schnier’s not just spouting the company line, either. CD sales and show attendance are stronger than ever. In fact, moe. is now conducting business through its own, newly established company, Fat Boy Records, and has “lined up the same distribution company that Sony uses,” he reports. Another plus: The band never sold the rights to its back catalog or merchandise. “The only difference is we don’t have [Sony] to bankroll the next project — but that’s OK, we’ve done that before, too.”

In fact, there aren’t too many things moe. hasn’t done. Musically, they’ll try anything — well, almost anything. Schnier describes a recent turning point:

“Rather than approach the music in sort of a linear fashion, where we all play the songs with pretty much the same instrumentation each and every time … and the music gets stretched out … meandering through different styles and all that stuff, I thought it would be interesting if we try to improvise in a ‘vertical’ way, adding different instruments and varying the sounds … maybe not lengthening the songs, but making them more intricate.”

Although the other moe.s — drummer Vinnie Amico, guitarist/vocalist Chuck Garvey and bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak — didn’t fully share Schnier’s vision (the fundamental problem being that each musician has only two hands), all recognized the benefits of the vertical improvisation concept.

“And in typical moe. fashion, a compromise was reached,” Schnier relates with a laugh. The assuaging force was Jim Loughlin, a versatile multi-instrumentalist and ex-moe. drummer who rejoined the band at the beginning of the year, to help provide some of that vertical experimentation.

These days, moe. is not only bigger than before — its lights are shining brighter than ever. Literally. In addition to the band’s legendary three-and-a-half-hour, high-energy concerts, moe. members are beefing up their portable high-tech light show. The results are spectacular. But as impressive as all this multimedia stuff may be, for moe., the focus remains on musicianship. Trying to capture the vibe in words, Schnier offers: “[It’s] a cross between a Grateful Dead show, maybe a Frank Zappa concert and maybe Led Zeppelin as well,” adding, “our music is pretty varied. There’s no mistaking the fact that we are a jam band — but we’re probably one of the most aggressive jam bands.”

And despite all the weirdness that attends a career in the music biz, everyone’s still having fun. “We all get along really well. It’s a good thing: We still enjoy each other’s company,” insists Schnier. “None of us had ever intended this to be a full-time career. That really wasn’t our goal or aspiration, in the beginning. It was just to play and really focus on the music. But it got to the point, a few years later, where all our jobs were in jeopardy because we were playing so much, and the band was really starting to work. We all had to make a choice between our jobs and playing in the band — and we all liked playing in the band a whole lot more.”

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