Interview with moe.'s Al Schnier before their show at City Hall Nashville
I never thought I would be given the opportunity to interview moe. I quite frankly had an amazing forty minute phone conversation with one of our heroes last Wednesday morning before the band’s gig at City Hall – lead guitarist of moe., Al Schnier. The anticipated chat was fluid, friendly, and positively fantastic. Just to put it in perspective for those people out there who are not familiar with moe.’s work or Al Schnier as a guitarist, Schnier (along with fellow band mate and guitarist Chuck Garvey) was recently named one of the “new guitar gods” by Rolling Stone magazine this past summer alongside guitar heroes Jack White (White Stripes) and Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) among others. As a band that been in existence for nearly two decades, and one of the last remaining groups to consistently draw fans with them for extended tours, it was somewhat of both a lofty privilege and also an occasion to celebrate their wonderful music and the scene that they have helped sustain. After their headlining and self-created late August festival aptly named “moe.down”, the band will begin a hiatus for a period of time that most fans believe will last somewhere over a year. One thing has been self-proclaimed regarding the upcoming hiatus, moe. will be back. And if this interview doesn’t make it clear that they have the potential to take things further upon their return, I guess you don’t know moe.
DigMusicCity; Its been since Halloween 04 since you’ve all been in Nashville, excited to be back in town?
Al; Oh yea. Of course. Always fun to be in Nashville too, we’ve actually passed through town in past tours but haven’t been able to do any shows so were real excited about tonight.
DigMusicCity: Yea I just wanted to ask first about the last time you guys came to town, you actually debuted 14 songs that night and I was curious what the preparation was like for that show? Also, what did you as a musician take from that night?
Al: Well you know it was definitely a pretty significant night. I grew up listening to a lot of country music because my dad always did. And he had a lot of the music we ended up playing that night. So I remember hearing a lot of that stuff when I was a kid, and I listened to Hank [Williams] as a kid with me dad and he was always a big Loretta Lynn fan, Johnny Cash, so I used to hear all of that stuff. And then I used to watch the shows too. Definitely so cool for me to be in that venue and perform on that stage [Ryman Auditorium], then working up arrangements with the band it was sort of like an exercise in history almost. It was a really cool process.
DigMusicCity: I remember a lot of you had sheet music in front of you for some of the songs and stuff so you must have definitely laid it all out on the line that night. You just talked about your dad and I know you have kids so I wanted to ask how you incorporate music into their daily lives? A Rock star dad must have some influence…
Al: Well they’ve been talking piano lessons since they were four and now there going to be 8 and 10 so its been quite a while. My son just started playing drums a year ago so yea they are taking formal lessons but the rest of it is organic. There is music in the house always. I have an old Silvertone, short scale electric guitar and amp downstairs that just there’s and they can play whenever. It’s actually starting to get to the point now that there friends come over and like jam.
DigMusicCity: That sounds great.
Al: Yea you know I think a lot of that comes from the culture that we grew up in and what my friends and I do, etc. and also Guitar Hero, watching Youtube videos, and other stuff that inspires young kids to play rock music.
DigMusicCity; What kind of Guitar Hero player are you?
Al: I’m OK. Whatever new version comes up my son is in mode within 2 days and I’m on medium all the time, [laughs]
DigMusicCity: Here’s a tough one; Who is your favorite country musician of all time?
Al: Wow tough one. I guess I’d have to say Hank Williams. Yea that probably comes from growing up with it, but then there are always the bluegrass guys too.
DigMusicCityLive: The guys that made u pick up the mandolin?
Al; Well yea I’m a big bluegrass fan, passing hobby mostly though. I wish I had a whole other life time to devote to mandolin so I could shred like [Ricky] Skaggs, but I’m not sure I’m going to have the time or dedication to ever do that. Unfortunately.
DigMusicCityLive; You said u have guitars lying all over the house? Any stand outs? I’ve seen so many of your axes on stage? Speak for a moment on your collection.
Al: Sure, you know its funny my wife and I were standing out-front of these ply wood racks I have at home, we’re standing there looking and there were like 30 cases in this particular row and she asked if there were guitars in all of them and I said yea. Then it was; Do you really need all these guitars?
DigMusicCityLive: Of course you do! [laughs]
Al: You know its never going to end, I have a recording studio if nothing else I could justify for it but as guitar player I want to have a [Tele]caster in every color, a Les Paul from every year, I’m not prejudiced towards any in particular, although I do really kind of favor the classics…big telecaster fan for sure.
DigMusicCity: But how have different covers found their way into the setlists over the years? Who is responsible for that? I know you guys just did “Baba “O’Reilly” That seemed pretty cool!
Al: Yea well somebody in the band gets really excited about a song but that’s not enough. There has to be some sort or level of quorum or majority momentum or it doesn’t go anywhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested songs and it hasn’t happened. You know if there’s a Zappa tune or a Radiohead song I want to play next thing you know Rob [Derhak, bassist] comes back and wants to play a Tori Amos song and no one wants to do that either. Everybody has to be really excited about a song; I mean it’s an organic conversation. We know we never get to play the cover songs that any one of us wants to play; we play the ones that we all want to play. And that’s sort of the way everything goes in the band, I mean were very much a democracy and everything gets diluted to a common denominator. And I think that’s a strength. I mean if that weren’t the case it mine as well be the Al Schnier band or something. For example we were playing “Born to Run” for a while and I had suggested it 5 years ago and no one was that excited and then like 2 years ago Rob was like lets do “born to run” and I was like hell yea lets do it because then we had some momentum and we got it up and running but it didn’t really stick. That’s important too. It has to be fitting. Like “Cant You Hear Me Knocking” really fits our band.
DigMusicCityLive: Was that Tori Amos song you were talking about was that “Cornflake Girl?”
DigMusicCityLive: That caught me off guard actually but y’all seemed to do just fine with it, I liked hearing Rob croon on that one.
DigMusicCityLive: I had a business question for you not to bore but you all are very business minded and if you were starting a band similar to moe , what approach would you take to be successful in the industry?
Al: Well I’m not really sure, Its weird because I’ve actually talked and thought about with people about this recently and the landscape has sort of changed. when we started 18 years ago the internet didn’t really exist, which is bizarre, and it didn’t so the only way to get out there was to physically do it and maybe if you were lucky you would gather some momentum and some presence so we encouraged live taping from the start and that’s how we started building a fan base. And you have to do gigs every day we could driving all over the country and a lot of it was dumb luck and hard work. It seems old fashioned that u could kind of do it from your home. I mean if u made a great video and circulated it on Youtube or had a good thing going on facebook you may not always have to be out touring but it seems like u benefit more from that than taking the time to tour. Just a sign of the times, still though nothing is substitute for the live music experience so at end of the day you need to be a good live band and need the experience and have the ability to blow a crowd away and win them over and in the process make them lifelong fans. I also think the players are a lot better than they were when we started. A lot of killer players who have really done their homework and just did a lot of shredding when they were young grew up listening to Trey [Anastasio]. There’s a lot of great material these days too, So the next few years could be a great thing for the scene.
DigMusicCityLive: I want to ask you about the new album [Sticks and Stones] It kind of has a more emotionally reflective feel to it I’d say as opposed to other albums. And also to stem off that, you had for example “Tailspin” on The Conch and which was charged politically as well. So was there any motivation to put in “George” on Sticks and Stones or something that was targeted from that political perspective too?
Al: Well regarding the lyrics on this album, I mean I can’t speak for Rob [Derhak] or Chuck [Garvey] but for me personally its one of the things where I feel more a little attention to writing about the status quo, of all of my efforts it’s the area I feel like I could use the most work. So yea I’m making a concerted effort to write better songs, but at the same time your not trying to compromise your own voice so its sort of a weird thing its just has to come out naturally and right, so you know hopefully are songs are growing.. regarding the political side of things, I mean “George” was a contender for the last album and I wish it had been on The Conch and I campaigned for it pretty hard for. But I don’t think it would have fit on this one I mean in terms of the lyrics I’m more and more inclined to speak out politically. We’ve always sort of taken a stance in the past that moe. was not a place to speak out politically, that it would be and leave the serious things aside or to another venue. It’s more about personal things/fun because people are coming to the shows to have a good time, on the other hand, I need to express myself. I mean “tailspin” was not necessarily directed at our government as much as it was at the media, I just get tired of not being handed the truth. I just want the facts, I’m even tired of CNN. I can’t even tell u a good source for news anymore. It’s aggravating after time. The song “George” even though it comes across as negative it actually more about the Man
DigMusicCityLive: Yea you should actually plug it to Oliver Stone’s new movie W, sounds like it might fit.
Al: Yea well yea I want to learn more about the Guy and reach out to him and say its OK and give him a big hug, I really think he’s got a chip on his shoulder or something, and its at our extent.
DigMusicCityLive: So do you think “Conviction Song” would work out well as a twanged out country song here in Nashville? It’s my favorite one on the record
Al: Thanks, yea I’d love to hear that twanged out [laughs]. I have a whole book of songs like that.
DigMusicCityLive: There’s always room for a second job…
DigMusicCity: When you’re amidst a huge tour and fired up about big markets or festival dates, and in a town that doesn’t necessarily draw as many fans, how do you guys get jacked up to make sure to give it you’re all each night?
Al: Well it has to do with just being on the road all the time. We don’t really think that far in advance so each night is taken pretty seriously. So to be honest even if there is a big show coming up or a major city big gig like in Atlanta at the end of the week or something, it doesn’t matter if were in Knoxville on Tuesday. We think about what soundcheck’s going to be, what’s for dinner, what the setlist is going to be like, etc. Everyone lives in the moment, each show gets the attention it deserves. I can’t really think about tomorrows show because we have so much to focus on today, because the nature of what we do playing something unique each night, the really interesting thing is that by the following day I have no recollection of what we played the night before. And I’m totally sober I don’t really party, no drugs or anything like that, it has to do with just all the information and then a matter of making enough space in my brain to deal with the next show. And I just go on and start working again and ill meet someone and he says what’s that thing u did in the second set? And I’m like what?
DigMusicCity: Cool man, I have an overarching question; can you speak briefly about your opinions about the trance based jams that the scene has come to embrace? The whole jam/electronica movement?
Al: Sure, it makes sense, I mean a lot of those sounds, that whole style, makes sense because your providing dance music for a live crowd. I mean you have that element, house/trace, and it makes even more sense with that modern sound when you parade it with a live improvisational band, that has an audience that wants to dance all night. So its a win win situation for the bands. To be honest a lot of these electronic bands are not unlike the early 80s shit, I mean it’s the same sort of vibe that there all dancing. Same kind of thing we’re seeing these days. There are some great bands of this nature, I mean, Sound Tribe Sector 9 has made a culture out of it, you have the Disco Biscuits, etc.
DigMusicCity: Also I’m really excited about this “Raise a Glass” concept. It’s so unique, I love it. Was it a management thing or band created?
Al: Actually it was our managers wife’s idea, she is a huge Iron Maiden fan and they were doing something like this and she goes out and sees Maiden several times a year, and we talking about the idea and it would be a great thing to do with the fans, and it’s a little awkward at first and some nights are weird, sweet, whatever, it all depends on whose up there on stage with us.
DigMusicCity: I hope our Nashville voice impresses you guys. I think that’s about it man, thanks so much for your time Al.
Al Schnier: No problem guys, see you tonight.
Last Wednesday’s show at City Hall was great as always and the band invited about fifteen lucky moe. fans on-stage (including myself) during the encore to sing-along with the band for their Irish drinking song “Raise A Glass”, it was a sight to be seen and capped off a memorable day. As always, moe. brought the house down with their brand of hard driving adventurous progressive rock music that left the always attentive and fanatical moe. fans only wanting more. Here’s hoping it won’t be another four years for another moe. concert here in Music City, U.S.A.