JamBase's Dennis Cook ran through 20 questions with moe.'s lead guitarist, Al Schnier, to discuss the creation process for their latest studio release, Wormwood. moe. is currently on a nationwide tour. See all upcoming tour dates...

Part One: Recording Process and Wormwood

Photo by Adam Gulledge
1. What made you decide to record Wormwood predominantly live? What did the live feel bring to the recordings that you couldn’t get in the studio?

The songs we had on deck were really meant to be performed live first and foremost. We even discussed doing a straight live album to release these songs. There's something about the band energy interacting with an audience that cannot be manufactured in a studio.

2. Have you ever heard Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty album? Like Wormwood it was recorded on the road but contains previously unreleased songs. It immediately came to mind when I heard about the new album. Not only did some of the material come from live shows but also from recordings on the bus and in the dressing room. Did your album sessions spill over into the whole tour process like this?

Running On Empty, Rust Never Sleeps, Tonight's the Night, Eat a Peach - even Anthem of the Sun & Zappa's Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar are all slightly related. Wormwood differs in that our album uses live tracks as basic tracks and then studio manipulation, editing, overdubs, bedazzlery to create a studio album. The "live" sound or feel is not really present. This album sounds like a studio album from start to finish as opposed to a live road album, but every now and then you can hear the crowd like a distant echo in the drum overhead mics.

3. How does moe. prepare for a recording session? What rituals do you have? Are an old priest and a young priest required?

In this case, we went on tour for four-and-a-half weeks, went straight into the studio after a 12 hour drive, had many computer malfunctions and setbacks, had a week's worth of editing to do in one day, and made sure that our engineer developed a fervent dose of walking pneumonia. Usually it's not this easy.

Photo by Adam Gulledge
4. Dither is thickly produced with an engineered feel that’s very different from the live sound of the band. Was there a conscious choice to do something different this time around? Was it based on feedback for Dither or just something organic that happened? I guess what I’m really asking is how does the previous studio record affect the next one?

Actually Dither worked in two ways. It did elicit a certain need to do a more stripped down album; however, at the same time it made me want to do an even more elaborate studio album. I think Wormwood offers both. It is very organic in that we really captured the sound and attitude of moe. as a live band, but were able to do some hi-fi tweaking in the studio. I still want to make an album to rival Dark Side [of the Moon] or Sgt. Pepper's [Lonely Hearts Club Band].

5. I grew up in an era where albums were special things, they meant something as a whole. My first piece of vinyl was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So often these days when a new LP comes out it’s just a random string of songs that don’t especially fit that well. I get the sense moe. tries to build a record that belongs together and makes sense in some way. Is that true?

Thank you thank you thank you. I'm glad someone noticed. Honestly, this is the closest we've ever come. The CD screws up everything IMHO. I think an album ought to fit on one side of a 90-minute tape. After that, you start getting into attention deficit issues and throwaway songs.

6. Pick up any cool new tricks recording Wormwood? Or even things you know to never do again when trying to make an album?

We definitely broke a lot of new ground with this album. We used a process that has never been used before. A lot of it was made up as we went along. We definitely got a lot better at it as we moved on. In fact, our Season's Greetings album used a lot of the same methods and went much more smoothly. There is a technical account coming up in Mix magazine.

Photo by Jason Schwartz
7. How does recording a song for posterity like this effect or change it? Once an official recording is out there do you feel any pressure to adhere to it when you perform?

No pressure. Recordings are like yearbook photos. If I still had that same haircut and glasses from sixth grade...

8. Ever considered recording the Timmy Rock Opera? Why hasn’t it happened already? Any other rock operas lurking in the shadows?

I'd like to do a concept album, but not a rock opera.

9. For many, moe. is a purely live band and the studio recordings are icing on the cake. What do you say to those folks that think along these lines?

Fuck off. No, seriously. For some people, especially in this scene it is all about the live music experience. There is a lot to be said for the energy exchange, the rollercoaster ride, etc. However, there is also something to be said for a more intimate, less communal experience of the music. One of things we've always been after is trying to capture moe. the artists in the studio. The studio album is a completely different beast. One shouldn't go into it simply to compare it to the live show. It's not a live show. The real challenge is to serve the song and be ourselves in that medium, while making a quality recording. We're not there to jam. We're there to exploit the studio for what it's worth. It's a different medium. It's like comparing watercolors to clay - two completely different mediums.

10. What would you like to see happen for the band in the future with studio work?

I'd really like to create an elaborate, lush, studio album entirely in the studio. We have always been faced with the challenge of taking our live show into the studio and doing justice to the material. I'd like to try it the other way around. I'd love to make a classic headphones album that we'd then be challenged to perform live.

Part Two: Songwriting and Song Selection

11. Which usually comes first, the lyrics or the music?

Usually music, although lately I've written a bunch of lyrics without a home.

12. How much collaboration goes on within the band in the songwriting department? Do you ever work on lyrics together?

We usually get together on arranging and writing our own parts to each other's songs. We rarely collaborate on lyrics.

13. You contributed one original tune to Season's Greetings From moe. [Al penned “Home.”] Did this song come about just because of the project or was it something that had been kicking around in your songbook for a while? This genre of music is such a minefield of schmaltzy crap interspersed with real gems like Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Were you nervous about writing a holiday song?

My song had been kicking around for several months, before there was ever an album. I'd written the whole piano part last winter and started on the lyrics in the spring. I think I actually finished most of them in the studio during Wormwood.

Photo by Marcy Molitor
14. What was your favorite band when you were a teenager? I find the obsessions of that age linger in interesting ways long into adulthood. An angst-ridden focus on The Who and The Clash in high school provides a good deal of the roots in my own tastes along with Skynyrd and other southern rock.

Here's a brief rundown of favorite bands beginning at age 10: Kiss > Cheap Trick > Rush > Neil Young > Van Halen > Genesis / Gabriel / Who > Dead > Talking Heads / Elvis Costello / Clash. At age 16, I pretty much stayed with the Dead as the forerunner while absorbing tons of Beatles/Hendrix/Stones/Dylan/Floyd until I was about 20. Then I really immersed myself in Zappa. I still love all of those bands. I was one of those kids who liked all kinds of music. I was always into all of the classic rock stuff, loved the Dead, but always dug the punk rock stuff as well. The Clash are still one of my all-time favorites. I was really bummed out about Joe Strummer's passing.

15. What’s your favorite of your own songs? What’s your least favorite?

Favorite: "Gone." I think it's my best written song. The band added a lot and I love playing it.

Least favorite: "Recreational Chemistry." I think it's one of my worst songs, but I LOVE playing it (read: wanking).

16. What song by another member of moe. stands out as a continual pleasure to play?

"St. Augustine.” I never get sick of that song. I almost always cover it with the Transamericans. [One of Al’s solo projects that has a delightful twang in its thang.]

17. When putting a setlist together what goes through your head?

What have we played the last few nights? Am I soloing too much? Are we splitting up the vocals enough? Is there enough balance between Rob and Al songs? What keys are they all in? Is this song too much of a sleeper to put next to this song? We need a strong closer. Haven’t we done this too much? What can we do to fuck with the statisticians? What works? What won't suck? Fans get concerned about too much repetition. At the same time there's a reason certain songs go together and others do not. "Scarlet > Fire" works. "Recreational Chemistry > Queen of the Rodeo" does not. The key is to balance the repetition with a sense of adventure and not suck.

18. moe. does a couple Frank Zappa tunes and a few Blue Oyster Cult numbers. Ever considered expanding into other things from their catalogs? I think BOC’s “Buck’s Boogie” is tailor-made for moe’s style of dynamic improvisation. And Zappa’s “Trouble Every Day,” “Cosmik Debris” or even “Village of the Sun” all seem ripe for the moe. treatment. What is it that attracts you guys to these particular artists in the first place?

"Buck's Boogie" is awesome - and it's Buck's boogie, not Al's. I loved BOC in junior high. They rocked. Buck Dharma is a great guy and a totally underrated guitarist. Zappa has always held a place in my heart. What an amazing individual. I really wish we could have met. I really wish he could have made another 30 albums. His music is universal and subversive all at once. He's brilliant.

19. You have several solo projects. What does that different environment bring out in you as a songwriter? What about that material makes it less suited to being done by moe.?

The Transamericans is geared more towards songs and less towards jams. We rock out a bit and do solo, but do not improvise like moe. The emphasis is on good three-chord songs and a bit (not too much) twang. The al.one project was all electronic instrumentals with breakbeats, samples, laptops, etc. I love that stuff and would love to incorporate that into moe.'s sound, but moe. has always been about playing music that we can all deal with and not everyone is a fan of electronic music. That's basically why the side projects exist. They offer an outlet for me to realize the kinds of music I need to do, without subjecting the members of moe. to another three-chord song in G or a drum & bass mash-up. The great thing about it is that it has not only given me an outlet to blow off that steam, but also given me other opportunities as a producer, musician, and bandleader. When I come back in to the fold I have something new to offer.

20. Finally, completely off topic, how much wood would Chuck chuck if Chuck could chuck wood?

Who's Chuck?

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Bay Area
Go See Live Music!


[Published on: 2/19/03]

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