photo by adam gulledge
The first time I caught a headlining moe. concert was February of 2001 at the Warfield. I’d caught a couple of their sets on the ’97 Further tour and in the months leading up to the show I’d been gearing up by listening to their albums and live shows. None of that prepared me for the hugely good energy flowing from the moment they walked out on that San Fran stage. Nothing in live rock had affected me like seeing moe. with the exception of the Black Crowes, a group I followed to hell and back for over a decade. Standing at the left side of the stage that night was Chuck Garvey. While many screamed harder for what fellow guitarist Al Schnier was laying down, it was Chuck’s graceful, thoughtful playing and angular, intelligent songs that captured my attention. I found myself tuning into what he played again and again. And it’s been the same every show since that first. For me, Chuck is the secret ingredient that kicks up the already rich bouillabaisse of the moe. sound.

As I began to speak to Chuck, I tell him I’ve rarely fallen for a band so quickly. By the end of that Warfield show I was sure I would end up spending stupid money to see them out of state, on multiple nights, the whole shebang. Clearly, I say, I love this band. Chuck says, “That sounds more like lust to me. Which is fine!” That embrace of goofy irrational passion may be the heart of what makes me dig Chuck so deeply.

Dennis Cook: Tell me a bit about the concept behind Wormwood [the new moe. studio release coming out in February 2003]. How did it come about, was it an organic thing that just happened or was there a concept right from the beginning?

Chuck Garvey: Nothing is ever rock solid with us. The last album, Dither, actually started out as demos and after the first studio bit we ended up with like five sessions. So, what started out as demos ended up as this yearlong studio album. With this one, after Dither, we wanted to go a step farther in that direction because we’d gotten more comfortable in the studio. But the material we had was a little more conducive to a live treatment than a hi-fi studio, rearranging treatment.

Rob [Derhak] came with the idea of playing live and actually making the setlists and having this live feel and then doing quality control overdubs in the studio afterwards. In that way we did come up with a big concept but every step of the way was damage control because we’d never done anything like this before. All the drum tracks are live and some of the guitar parts were saved from live shows. It was all recorded multi-track from two weeks of our Summer [2002] tour and then we did two weeks of intense overdubbing and vocals. It was set up beforehand but it was all up in the air as to how it would work or if it would work. It was a little bit of a gamble and it ended up with a kind of cool result.

photo by sean hintz
Dennis Cook: My understanding is the entire record segues between every track, it flows from one thing right into another.

Chuck Garvey: When we did the things live we’d have some segues that were just these moody little bridges or loops, and others that were full on band improvisations. The segues happen in a number of different ways. Every track except for maybe the last two are actually musical pieces that we at least laid the framework for live. It was hard to think of everything because it wasn’t performed in its entirety. It was done piecemeal with the idea of being able to make it one contiguous piece later on. So, it was kind of mapped out but we’d never done the entire thing. We worked on it a song at a time or a song and a segue as a chunk and then had to wait until the mastering process to see how well everything worked. It was a little scary. [Chuck laughs.]

Dennis Cook: How did it affect the setlists during the time you were doing this? There was a bit of grousing from some fans about say the number of times they heard “Kids” or “Kyle” this Summer. I find this sort of petty given how much of the time you guys really do mix it up.

Chuck Garvey: And that’s why people get upset because we’re not usually going to play the same song for three shows. We’ll play it once and then it’ll be a few shows before it shows up again.

Does that ever get to be a drag for you, having to play to that expectation?

No, that’s what keeps it interesting for us. The same song doesn’t come around every night.

photo by adam gulledge
Okay, so did that make it hard to have to play the same tunes night after night?

Yeah but it wasn’t uncomfortable. There are two things that happen. Whenever you’re recording something you always feel a little uptight about it. The fact that we were doing this stuff live meant we were concerned with getting a good take but we’re also playing for our audience so you can’t think about it too much or get too precious about anything. That’s the good part. The bad part is maybe some songs come up more often than others. Instead of playing a song every other four shows we were playing it every other show. We were just concentrating on this music then but now we’ll do our normal thing. “Crab Eyes” will come up every four shows and people can go about their business. [This sets the interviewer off laughing.]

You recently started playing a new guitar. What kind of guitar is it and why did you switch from the Strat?

The Strat has been my home base almost since I began playing guitar. I got one in high school. My first one was a Japanese Strat. The controls are really familiar but towards the end I started having trouble getting anything really useful out of it. I was just locked into it. I hate Les Pauls, I just can’t stand them. They’re muddy and unexpressive. They’re great rock and roll tools but I’ve never been down with them.

I agree with you. It’s been around long enough for the sound to become derivative most of the time.

But so has the Strat. Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour. The Strat sound is even Buddy Holly. I think the single coils are expressive sounding pickups. The design is just something I grew up with. This new guitar is made by Terry C. McInturff. It’s construction and a lot of other things about it really intrigued more than anything else I’ve seen in a long time. He’s this really sweet guy, first of all, and he’s done a number of innovative things without getting sci-fi about it, which is not something I really need at this point in my life. You can get a lot of different tones out of it.

I’m going through all these old emails where Strat fans are upset but basically I can strangle a couple of new tones out of this that I can’t out of a Strat. It was just something I needed to do. It can do some of the Tele bridge pickup sounds, it can do some single coil sounds like a Strat but it also has a good mix of very good Humbucker tones. Not very Les Paul because the scale of the guitar is different so it just sounds different. It’s just a really beautifully made, hand-carved instrument.

I told Terry as soon as I got it that it was forcing me to be a better guitar player. Everything I did spoke really well out of it, there was no room for error. It’s forcing me to be a more disciplined guitar player, which is fine by me. I need to constantly get better or I’ll be depressed. Like being stuck in your cubicle for years without a promotion. [We both laugh.] I really need it. I don’t know if it’s simply that I switched instruments but with Terry’s guitar, it’s called a Taurus Sportster, I can get a lot of different sounds out of it and I really enjoy playing it. It’s hard to get me out of my box. We did a tour opening for Robert Plant and instead of going with what I knew I said, "Screw it I’m just gonna use this new guitar and start exploring it right away."

I saw you guys open for Plant in Berkeley. I see what you’re saying. You seemed to be going to some different places on that tour. What was it like opening for Plant? I got the feeling most of the audience didn’t have a clue who you guys were, no offense intended. I got the sense they were Robert Plant devotees and that music that had happened in the last 10 years had very little relevance to most of them.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true but those people were coming to see their guy, a rock legend come out and do those tunes that were the soundtrack of their lives when they were younger people. They were going in with that mindset, so it’s hard to know if the opening act was something that they were prepared to open up to. At the beginning of those sets I saw a lot of crossed-arms but by the end they’d relaxed. It’s hard because 45 minutes for us barreling through our songs is just the point we’re starting to open up. I guess that’s the same for any opening band. You have adapt what you do normally.

Were you tempted to bring in more familiar cover tunes to try and win the crowd over?

photo by forrest reda
No. If we were going to win somebody over hopefully it’s gonna be with our own stuff. I would never think of doing a cover unless it was really appropriate or well placed. Basically, we cover a lot of styles in a night of playing and we wanted to get across a good sampler of what we do condensed into that 45 minutes or hour that we had. We brought as much of ourselves as we could.

I’ve always liked the choice of covers for moe. and wondered if you had any favorites?

One song that’s really fun to play is [B.O.C.’s] “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” [We both chuckle.] We play some bluegrass covers, we kind of did that for a while and it was okay. I’m not a bluegrass musician and don’t pretend to be. It’s a different mindset. I love doing it, I love the feel of it but it’s not necessarily us. People love it and we love it so why not?

Is there anything you don’t play now that you’d like the band to cover?

[Pregnant pause] The William Tell Overture. I think that would be awesome!

Oh yeah! I always wonder why rock bands don’t dip into Classical more since there’s so much good musical meat to it.

I love that stuff. To tell you the truth, I grew up listening to a lot of it and traditional jazz, too. The jazz stuff is kind of getting worked by a lot of bands now with the copping of the Blue Note sound and style. There’s some classical elements, without being a prog rock band, that we like to get into. We’re not super academic musicians by any stretch of the imagination. Some of that stuff is fun but it’s tough to do. We did the Simpsons theme, which isn’t classical music, but it’s involved, highly orchestrated music and we tried to adapt it.

You did a number of Simpsons tunes at your Halloween show this year.

The main title theme is the real knuckle buster though. We did it two or three times and then forgot it because it’s so involved. We got it to the point where it was worthy to be aired in public. If we had to do it now it would be really hard.

Given how much you guys play out do you rehearse much anymore?

I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rob lives in Portland, Maine. Al and Vinnie [Amico] live in upstate New York. When we get together it’s for pre-production for albums and sometimes for tours. Usually for special events shows we’ll get together for two or three days like for Halloween. We can work out a bunch of stuff, new songs. Every now and again we’ll have very intensive writing sessions of like a week or two weeks. It’s good because everybody brings in a lot of raw material and it gets hammered into shape. Sometimes we’ve done six new songs in six days. Then in soundcheck we actually work out some of the bugs. It doesn’t always work in that high-speed fashion though.

photo by sean hintz
I wanted to ask a little heavier question. Has the current political climate in the United States affected the music at all? I’ve noticed that “Captain America” is bit more pointed these days.

Maybe in our song choices and where we play them. Most of those songs have taken on a new meaning. I can tell, specifically Rob’s song “New York City” which has nothing to do with anything that’s happened in the past couple of years, is more poignant now. “Captain America” is more poignant now. In some weird way he’s really tuned into that stuff like he can see things like this way in advance. I think the kid has E.S.P.

I get the same sense because the themes in some of his songs have turned out to be a bit too prophetic for my own tastes.

I realize that the two songs I have on Wormwood are “Bullet” and “Shoot First” and I’m not a big fan of guns. Both of them are told from a sort of third person standpoint but I definitely think their aggressive nature may have been influenced.

We live in a violent country. It’s in the atmosphere around us.

The subject matter came from a different place for those two songs but they’ve taken on a kind of second life.

Moe is playing Las Vegas in February at the same time as Phish. Was this just a coincidence or did you coordinate things with them?

Oh man, they are just following us everywhere. Shadowing us just to mess with our minds. [Interviewer laughs hard.] We had actually done our West Coast dates and some of them were starting to coincide with some of the Phish dates and it was getting weird. What our manager said was it was fine for Vegas just because it’s Vegas. We are never for after-parties or being that guy that works on capitalizing on somebody else. Really early in our career somebody mentioned we should try it and it never really worked out. It’s never really a fun time for us because it’s not about [our] event. You end up being like the wallpaper on some other event. Hopefully we’ve had Trey sit in with us before so maybe there’s something we can do with two days in the same city.

What are the plans for future releases in the Warts and All [live concert] series?

Last time we were hoping that people were going to go further back into our Jurassic period but they kind of stuck with the last year’s worth of tours. That’s okay. Personally, I think we might try to get something older especially something that nobody taped. Second of all, something that shows a different stage in our evolution.

There’s some great stuff from 1997.

Uh huh, with the Further [Festival] tour. Though that was another opening act situation.

But the shows you headlined around Further were always really strong material, too.

Our "Space Dog" tour based on Rob’s dog who had to wear one of those humiliating cones.

How many releases do you want to do a year in the series?

It would be nice to have two of those a year and have a side project release of some sort. We did a holiday album [this year]. And then every 18 months to 2 years have a full-blown studio release. It’s hard because we’re starting to try and diversify our releases but the live albums are really popular, obviously, with our fans. They’ve been a big hit. I think the studio album [Wormwood] is going to be a big hit, too. We have enough material now to do two live releases a year. It would be pretty cool to release something new every 3-4 months.

It keeps people full as fans when you do that. [Chuck laughs] I was at Bonnaroo and have been gushing to folks every since about your performance. What was it like to be there?

A lot of people have been asking us about that.

rob derhak (bassist)
photo by adam gulledge
I kind of figured that and almost didn’t want to ask the question but I sense people are interested.

At the time it was all just energy. Bonnaroo was all about focused energy, whether it was spazzy energy or like a divine intervention. You’ll have to agree that Bonnaroo was a freak magnet.

Hell yeah.

But that’s why everybody was there. That’s why we were there. We enjoy the freak and I guess we were the freak. I have to say at the time I wouldn’t have said... [pauses for a second] My opinion doesn’t mean shit since it’s all in the ear of the beholder. We’re definitely connected but we’re navigating a different path than the other people that were present. I can walk off the stage say, "That sucked!" But Al and Rob will think it’s the greatest night ever. As will everybody at whatever venue we’re playing. I had a really great time. I was super sleep deprived and was in that ozone layer while we were performing. Which is maybe what makes great performances, when your brain gets disconnected and you just do it. It’s kind of funny that so many people have focused on this particular show. I’ve listened to some of the recordings and hear the negative aspects but also hear the energy was really great. I heard a couple of things that were really really slamming.

One of things that was fun being in the crowd that night was closing my eyes and hearing a different sound come in. You folks seamlessly introduced a lot of guest musicians into the mix. I’d open my eyes and someone like Robert Randolph would be on stage…

…and you’re going, “Where the hell did he come from?”

There was no fanfare about. The music was the priority not the guest.

We’d done things like before like at The Fillmore (SF) where did our variety night. A bunch of people sat in and we sort of lost our personality. But at the Bonnaroo set, the greatest thing was it was out of all of our hands and everybody was a participant. We weren’t trying to force anything to happen and that’s probably what people connect to the most.

photo by adam gulledge
I wanted to ask you about the West Coast because you guys don’t get here much. I wondered why that is. And from a purely selfish perspective, is there any chance you’ll ever move moe.down [moe.’s annual 3-day fan oriented festival] to the Western States?

We’ve talked about doing mini-moe.downs across the country or maybe have one on just the West Coast. But that would take away from that one focusing event a year and since that’s our birthplace I think it makes more sense to keep it sacred. As far as being out on the West Coast we’ve been slacking on that for a while. We’re going to make a really concerted effort to make it out more often.

What are the challenges of playing with Al? What’s hard about playing with another guitarist and what’s cool?

al schnier (guitarist)
photo by adam gulledge
There are so many things that are involved with playing with another guitarist, first, and second, playing with Al. For a long time we had similar tones and were stealing each other’s tricks. To make the overall band sound fuller and richer you have to, tonally, start to find the frequency range that is uninhabited by anyone else in the band. It’s a really good thing to do and it makes the whole band sound better. If Al is playing something big and washy with huge notes, I’ll play very tiny, pointy notes. It’s all in the contrast in the strata you can live in. That’s a really general way of describing it but I think we both try to do that. At the same time we both have to be playing with the same feel, same style and idiom. Then to try and do harmony lines and things you really have to keep your ears open.

It’s the same with every single member of our band. Every single member steps out and steps back. Maybe Al and I get more top time but the thing I enjoy the most is when the whole band is doing some kind of involved ensemble improvisation as opposed to just one person going crazy. Musically we grew up together so we learned to play our instruments together so that works in our favor.

What are your influences on the guitar?

Hmm, I listened to The Police, Talking Heads, David Bowie and The Who. They were the very first bands that made me interested in this type of music. Mick Ronson was the guitarist with Bowie during his Spiders From Mars phase. I really love that stuff. By osmosis I absorbed Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin which were over-saturated on the radio in upstate New York.

I can hear some of Ronson’s playing in what you do. Have you ever heard any of the work he did with Dylan during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975? He was Bob’s lead guitar player on much of that tour.

The great thing about him is how he adopted a lot of flavors of the time just like Bowie did. You can hear that Black Sabbath with a singer sound. You had a unique style and he did a lot of crazy things. I can’t even imagine what he’d sound like with Dylan. It’s either a horrible mismatch or a really great idea.

“Four” is one of my favorite moe. tunes and I like the way it seems to be joined at the hip in live shows to "Rebubula” because it’s quite a pairing. How did you end up putting those two songs together?

photo by adam gulledge
[Pause] Well, they’re both in "D." [laughter] The arrangement of “Four” is non-traditional and the whole thing is really loose and that song is an amoeba like blob. It’s all about the contrast when you put these things together. “Rebubula” is this slamming, constructed epic. I think contrasting things like that works really well.

Rob and Al pretty much write all the setlists. I used to do it and everyone would say, “No, we can’t do this. No, we can’t do that,” so I just gave up doing it. Just remembering how things worked in the past you bring back certain pairings that move the set or evening along. It just so happens that when we play these two it works really well. I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and said we have to come up with things that work. We’ve just stumbled across them through trial and error. I never really thought about that specific pairing before but it does make sense with some of the calmer parts of “Four” flowing into the more rambunctious “Rebubula.”

Do you ever spend time on the moe. message boards?

I used to spend time on the moe-L in its infancy but then some opinions started getting thrown around that made me uncomfortable. I really didn’t need to know some things. I love hearing feedback and constructive criticism but sometimes the message boards get a little out there and it can damage your own personal flow if you put too much credence in it. It got a little weird and I took myself out of it. Often it’s just people blowing off steam. Every once in awhile, I’ll post something just to be a wiseass. It’s a great tool like that. In that way, I am that guy blowing off steam on the Net.

From the first time I saw you at the Warfield last year, I was struck by the strange camaraderie you share with your fans. The way you shoot the shit with them from the stage is not the norm for bands playing the size of halls you do. How do you maintain that warm relationship and what does it bring to the music?

Some nights you just walk out and do your thing and other nights people have something to say and that means they’re just excited to be there. That energy helps us do what we have to do, it propels us towards something we probably couldn’t do if we were just staring at each other in a practice room somewhere. Which is why we like doing this in the first place. If we can’t be open to that then what’s the point of doing it?

Words: Dennis Cook
Photos: Adam Gulledge and Sean Hintz
JamBase | San Francisco Bay Area
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[Published on: 12/23/02]

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