From modest beginnings in a Buffalo basement over two decades ago to today's multifaceted success, the members of moe. have never lost sight of the earnest, elemental goals that they aspired to from their very first show: to deliver honest, heartfelt music and to ensure the audience has a good time. Considerate and conscientious in their actions and decision-making, moe.' s refreshingly unpretentious attitude has won them a devoted legion of dedicated fans (ranging from seasoned concert-goers to eager young newcomers) and has given rise to a thriving cottage industry – a self-contained nation-state in which the band and their audience live as equals, thriving on a reciprocal appreciation rare in today's increasingly fragmented musical landscape.
2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of moe.' s frontline of Rob Derhak (bass, vocals), Chuck Garvey (guitar, vocals), and Al Schnier (guitar, keyboards, vocals), who continue to perform together with the addition of drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Jim Loughlin. Keeping a consistent lineup intact and productive over two decades is no small feat. moe.' s saga is made all the more remarkable because they have consistently done so on their own terms, as independent artists who actively manage their own affairs while staying well ahead of industry and technological developments, including successfully self-releasing their own music and offering instant on-site digital concert recordings at their shows.
"We never really had the rock star attitude," explains founding bassist and vocalist Rob Derhak. "It was always about – to a fault almost –having a personal connection with the fans on stage. No matter where we play, we want them to know that they are part of the show – like we were playing in a living room. We need their participation to inspire us, and, when we first started, we needed their apartments to sleep in…"
There is little inclination towards nostalgic reflection or self-congratulation within the walls of moe. They still describe themselves as a rock'n'roll band, without qualifications, compilations, or asterisks – even though their kaleidoscopic music spans all the way from tight, incisively well-constructed songcraft to fluid, conversational extended improvisation, incorporating everything from straightforward rock and Americana influences to bouyant Jamaican and South African inflections. Much like their music, their career has defied the traditional rock band trajectory, with a brief flirtation with the major label system only reinforcing the fact that they function best when in control of every aspect of their music and how it is documented and presented.
The moe. saga was set into motion in the late eighties, on the campus of the University at Buffalo in western New York. It was there that transfer student Derhak met freshman Chuck Garvey. "I didn't know a lot of people," Rob remembers, "but I was friends with this girl Sam White, and I was eating dinner with her one time, and this guy came in who she knew from high school named Chuck Garvey. She introduced me to him, and we immediately started talking about cartoons – Tom and Jerry. It was like we had known each other forever." "I was at UB to study architecture first, then illustration," Chuck explains, "but I grew up with music. Both my parents are musicians and music teachers: my mother taught stringed instruments and my father taught wind and brass instruments…the best thing about them was that they never tried to teach me anything, they just made music available to me, which actually drew me into it more. Playing music became a natural, fun creative outlet, and – unlike the stuff I was studying in school – no one would be hanging over my shoulder, telling me what to do." "Chuck was a guitar player," Rob continues, "but I didn't play anything. My roommate had a 12- string acoustic guitar. I noticed other people playing instruments, so I decided to teach myself to play. I took that twelve string and proceeded to annoy everyone. I got completely obsessed with it, to the point where I'd barely realize that I had been sitting on my bed for five hours and not going to class."
Chuck and Rob began playing music together, casually and informally, around the dorm. "The best place to play," Chuck explains, "was in the common bathrooms. It sounded great, because of the tiled surfaces." Even in this modest setting, Rob's imagination and ambition were sparked, and he quickly arrived at a grand scheme. "I decided at one point that playing music is what I wanted to do, and that I didn't care about school," he says, smiling over two decades later at his youthful gall. "I had this devious plan…I knew I wasn't good enough to play guitar, but I could probably play bass. So I corralled Chuck into it." It was a prescient choice on Derhak's part, as the understated Garvey entered the picture with an uncannily apt background. "I had been playing guitar since I was 13 or 14," Chuck explains, "but even before that, I played saxophone. That's where I got some exposure to music theory and learned a lot about how a band works. I played in a small jazz quartet, and I learned about band dynamics; about how to put things together and make it sound good. I was also forced to play solos and try to make stuff up, to improvise."
As that first school year wound down, Chuck and Rob continued playing together during the summer recess, returning to school in the fall, where an opportunity presented itself. "I had been playing guitar and bass for maybe eight months," Rob explains, "and this girl I was dating said 'My friend Ray plays drums, and I'm having a Halloween party in our basement. You guys could play our party.' We met Ray, hit it off with him, and learned a bunch of covers." "I remember," Chuck explains, "that for that first party, we played some Jimi Hendrix, REM, Squeeze, Joe Jackson…we made up a Halloween medley out of different weird things like The Munsters theme. We did Steely Dan's 'Green Earrings.'" "We dressed in black leotards, slicked our hair back, and called ourselves Sprockets," Rob admits. "After that, Ray became our drummer. He had a friend named Dave Kessler who played guitar, and he came on board. We had a sax for a while, so we became a quintet and settled on the name Five Guys Named Moe – which eventually became just moe. It took about six months of practicing before we had our first bar gig."
The early repertoire – a convergence of punk and new wave, classic rock and pop, with eccentric notes drawn from Frank Zappa and Steely Dan – provides a crucial clue to moe.' s eventual stock in trade: quizzical, tightly-constructed songs refracted through compelling, extended improvisation. "We were all fans of musicianship and good songwriting," Chuck explains. "The one consistent factor was that we all really liked Frank Zappa," Rob adds. "His ideal sort of modeled what we wanted to do. That's what we were emulating, in our own way." The saxophone player soon departed, and moe. began composing original songs to be performed by the now four-piece lineup. "We started with two originals and then worked our way up," Rob explains. "We didn't think about it," Garvey adds. "We just did it. They were almost like pop songs, but with a little bit of weird edge to them." "Eventually," Rob continues, "we made a tape in an attic with a four-track, which had eight original songs on it." Via Sam White, who first introduced Rob and Chuck, that tape eventually found its way to guitarist Al Schnier, who was living four hours away in Oneonta, New York. "I heard that tape," Al recalls, "and I thought, 'This is the kind of band I want to play in.' I think even I said that out loud. It had an attitude – it had an edge, it had a sense of humor to it. Even though at the time I was playing in a psychedelic rock band, I was listening to a lot of what was not yet being called alternative music. I really liked the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi, and Firehose, and the Meat Puppets. When I was younger I really liked stuff like the Jam, the Ramones, the Clash, Elvis Costello…so there was always this parallel thread, running alongside more organic music like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. The two paths don't have to be mutually exclusive.
"Of course, I never thought I'd be playing with moe.," Al continues. "But six months later I ended up moving to Buffalo, and my next introduction to the band was actually sitting in with them. I never even got to see them live! Their other guitarist, Dave Kessler, couldn't make the gig – and they asked me to fill in." As Kessler gradually phased himself out of moe., Schnier joined up full-time, lending not only his estimable musical chops to the fold, but also a focus and drive that eventually spurred the band on to new heights.
"Over the next three years," Al explains, "we worked really hard in Buffalo, actively writing and rehearsing all the time and booking shows whenever and wherever we could. We built up a really good fanbase in Buffalo and began working outside Buffalo – the college circuit in New York, into Ohio, New York City, New England, Toronto. By the end of those three years, we started playing every Thursday through Sunday. I ended up losing my job, our girlfriends were all frustrated with us. The band was consuming our lives, and we either needed to decide to go for it or not."
By 1991, Ray Schwartz had departed the band and was replaced by Jim Loughlin. "moe. was the first band I ever drummed with," Loughlin recalls. "I was actually a working bass player at the time. They were easy to get along with, and I had a good sense of them musically because I had been listening to recordings of them for a couple of months by the time I finally played with them. The only hard part was trying to add something of myself to their tunes without totally altering the songs. I definitely had a very different approach to the drums then Ray did, so I needed to figure out how to play these tunes in my own way without really changing too much." With the resourceful and dedicated Loughlin on board, the band was one step closer to making a major decision.
"I had to make this my life," Rob explains. "It was this epiphany I had. I didn't know how to go about it, but I had to learn. Looking back, moe. was the first band I had ever been in – it's not supposed to happen this way. By 1994 I had a job delivering flowers – that was the last day job I had. That was when we all sat down to talk about the future. We had started getting more and more gigs. We got to a point where we could play at the Wetlands in New York and draw 500 people, on our own. Everything was pointing upwards and we needed to talk about making it happen for real. It wasn't an easy decision for all of us, but it was an easy decision for me." "We all sat down one day," Al remembers, "and decided that we certainly liked what we were doing, and even though it wasn't ever 'the plan' to do this professionally, it was just the direction we were heading and it was worth giving everything we had. At that fateful meeting, we decided we were going to go for it."
"So then, we moved into a house together in Albany," Chuck picks up. "If we weren't on the road, we'd set up the next day and start rehearsing and writing." "When we all lived in the same house," Al adds. "We spent all our waking hours together. If someone had something they were working on, the whole group knew about it. You had very little privacy. If you had a riff you were working on, it wasn't long before someone joined in on it, and before long you had a full-scale rehearsal working on your song."
When moe. decided to make the transition from being a team of enthusiastic amateurs to fulltime professionals, they never lost their enthusiasm nor their willingness to learn. The rigors of playing live were beginning to have an impact on their sound. "Early on, we realized that we had more time to fill than we had songs," Chuck explains, "so we would blow out parts of songs. We learned quickly that you have to keep your ears open, and try to invent something. We got really good at it, and really good at being able to read each other. That offered a lot of freedom and informed how things would evolve in the future." "There's something to be said for youthful vigor and the willingness to take chances and not really give a damn," Al reflects. "We didn't have anything to lose then. Very quickly, we discovered your personality comes through your playing. It's largely this musical conversation and everybody's musical personalities are there – some people will interject more in a conversation than others, some may lay back, some may be more dominant."
These daring yet graceful improvised moments have remained a part of moe.' s set, as they often employ improvisation as a means of connecting unrelated songs into long, dazzling stretches of non-stop music. "While we were doing this," Rob says, "Phish and some other bands that use a lot of improvisation started to become popular. There was this movement happening." moe.' s first two full-length releases, 1992's Fatboy and 1994's Headseed, were recorded afterhours in a comfortable environment – a 15-track studio (actually 16, with one broken) in an apartment above a Buffalo music store. These formative sessions emphasized how very different recording is, compared to the concert experience. "When we go into the studio," Rob explains, "we try to make it more appealing to the broadest audience – keeping the songwriting as the focus and not the improvisation. When we play live, the songwriting aspect is there, but over the course of the year we'll play a song 50 or 100 times, we keep everything fresh by having improvisational parts makes it more interesting to us." "The main thing is," adds Chuck, "from everything you learn on the road playing songs, you take the best bits that you've discovered. In the studio, you try to distill the song into just those elements that people react to." "After Headseed," Rob explains, "we had quit our jobs and moved to Albany. We had been there for maybe a year before we started getting courted by A&R people from record companies. We ended up going with Sony 550." "We thought, 'We signed with a major label and that's it – we're successful.'" Chuck explains. "But, looking back now, I realize that we would have had to sell half a million or a million records for them to be really happy and put their muscle behind us. That would have been potentially destructive for us. We learned that you can't forsake your core fan base. After two albums with Sony, we learned that doing it on our own would be better: we'd have a stable career, calling the shots on our own and being very honest about everything we were doing. With a major label, that might not have been the case. The one major benefit to the whole thing was that they put us in a real modern studio environment for the first time, and we learned first-hand how to make an album really professionally."
moe.' s major label debut, No Doy (1996) initiated a bold series of albums that found the band constantly redefining the recording process, with the goal of reconciling their two greatest assets: their seemingly-effortless spontaneity and their formidable abilities as songwriters. Its follow-up, Tin Cans and Car Tires (released by Sony in 1998) welcomed drummer Vinne Amico into the fold. Perfectly balancing time-keeping and propulsive duties, Amico quickly melded to the group's sound. "I first became aware of moe. from being a part of the Buffalo music scene," Amico recalls. " I love to play music, so being able to play music for a living and joining the fun and camaraderie made joining moe. an easy decision. Learning a whole catalog of original material, learning moe.' s writing style and being a part of that, and leaving my wife and kids at home while touring was more challenging."
"For the first album with Vinnie, Tin Cans and Car Tires, we rented this giant old mansion in the Catskills," Rob recalls. "We set up in there and did all the pre-production there – arranging the songs, fine-tuning the writing, working out our parts. Then we moved into a separate studio and recorded the stuff. It worked out great. But now I know that we could have just stayed where we were and recorded the songs in the same spot, without moving a single thing. We now have the technology to build a studio anywhere. For our most recent studio album, Sticks and Stones, we wrote, preproduced, and recorded it all in the same place…"
The following album, Dither (2001), saw moe. splitting with Sony and marked their third recording for their Fatboy imprint, which they had already released the Fatboy cassette and compact disc Headseed, and which has released every studio and live moe. project since. Dither also marked the return of Jim Loughlin, in the role of multi-instrumentalist, mainly focused on percussion (including mallet instruments like vibraphone and marimba) but also contributing acoustic guitar and flute. "As we got more used to recording with more sounds and parts," Rob explains, we needed somebody to cover that stuff live, and Jim was the logical choice. He had been drumming for the band Yolk, but had just quit, and we knew he was a multi-instrumentalist. The timing was right."
"At the time, I was working a straight job building running tracks," Jim remembers. "So when they asked me if I wanted to do some rehearsals and a tour with them, I said yes immediately. I hadn't played live in almost two years and the opportunity to not only play again, but to actually do something that allowed me to play a bunch of different instruments, was not something that I could say no to."
"Jim wants to be a color guy," Chuck adds. "It's great, because Jim can fill out the sound in a lot of different ways, to the point where we can all actually play a little less and have more of an ensemble impact. It gives the guitar players a lot of room to explore and steer and navigate it into new directions. It's a powerful base."
"Jim and I have known each other and played together since before the band moe. existed," Vinne Amico explains. "The challenges were – and are still – fitting in with each other without getting in each others way, or stepping on each others toes. What makes it easier is that I have been able to simplify my parts to fill less space. I can come up with easier parts that fit better. I don't have to think about what I am playing, or what Jim is playing, because we have been doing it together for so long that we think a lot alike on stage." While his battery of on-stage percussion is imposing, much of what Loughlin contributes is remarkably subtle – from perfectly-placed conga accent to shimmering washes of vibraphone.
"I really love Dither," Chuck continues, "because of the songwriting, and the fact that the songs are given really well-executed, concise treatments. It's not necessarily a fan favorite, however, because it's not what we sound like on stage."
moe.' s next album, the widely acclaimed Wormwood, was an audacious recording experiment, in which rhythm tracks recorded live were built on in the studio. "It gave us a mix of live energy and studio control," Chuck elaborates. "It has a flow that is like our live shows, the material is really good, and there are unique quirky elements. It has a lot of elements of an interesting, enduring album."
"We got a live vibe," Rob explains, "then used editing software to cut down some of the songs and to combine takes from one night's performance with other nights'. We strung it together and then improvised over it in the studio. A lot of people really like that album and consider it one of our best albums."
"We approach each of our records differently," Al says. "I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. I don't really have a favorite – maybe the next one!" moe. extended the inventiveness with which they conducted every aspect of their career into the concert arena with the first moe. down festival in 2000. "We had actually wanted to do it for years," Chuck recalls, "but we waited until we could find a way to do it right the first year. It took some planning and a lot of brainstorming…but we wanted to put together a package that sounded good and would draw people, with great facilities. We wanted to make sure it felt a little bit like home." The first year, moe. down drew 3,000 attendants to the Snow Ridge Ski Area in Turin, New York. Subsequently, moe. down attendance has topped 10,000, bolstered by savvy booking that combines an eclectic range of rising talents with established artists such as the Flaming Lips, the Violent Femmes, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood, with John Scofield. In addition to moe. down, moe. hosts the ski- and snowboard-themed snoe. down. They also put together two moe. cruises.
Via their transcendent live performances, their well-crafted studio albums, the thriving taper culture, and their unique events, moe. developed a vital relationship with a dedicated, everexpanding fan base. "There was never a moment," Al explains, "when we decided 'Hey, people really like us – we need to capitalize on this!' It's been a very organic relationship that's grown like a friendship. None of it was manufactured because of a contest or someone told us that we needed to capture e-mail addresses…and we're not counting on our next single to maintain it." With the release of Smash Hits Vol. 1 in the spring of 2010, moe. tackle that most predictable of career milestones – the greatest hits package – with typical irreverence and innovation. An informal poll was conducted, with the band members all chiming in with what they thought to be the group's most popular songs – not necessarily their personal favorites, but songs that fans have reacted to strongly over the years. Then they asked the people around them – management, wives, webmasters, guitar techs, etc. – to make similar lists. The lists were then compiled and tallied, with all the votes weighed equally, and a track list emerged.
What initially began as a collection of pre-existing recordings slowly mutated, and the collection now includes eight new recordings. "We tried to license a few of the songs from the Sony albums from them," Al recalls. "They said why don't you license your stuff to us, and we'll put it out?" With the limitations and constrictions of the major label still fresh in their minds, moe. politely declined. "We decided we'd re-record the Sony songs that had made it to the top ten," he continues. "Sony owns those recordings, but not those songs. So we recorded those, along with one other song that we had never made a studio recording of. Then we mastered everything, and we realized that those songs we recorded in the apartment in Buffalo didn't sound as great, so we actually returned to Buffalo to record at GCR Audio. "Saint Augustine", "Mexico", "Yodelittle" and "Spine of a Dog". The idea is not to be revisionist: it's just to put out a contemporary, wellmade version of these songs for posterity."
They approach their career as a something still in progress. "There is not a set moe. way of doing things," Al explains. "We've been constantly improving the design, to make the songs better, the shows better. We're always tweaking every little aspect of the band – in terms of efficiency, of presentation, of the content. It's a hands-on affair run by us, our family, and our friends…just the fact that we're still doing it 20 years later is a testament that it must be ok."
"We have learned," Chuck adds, "that our personality is measured more by what we do live. These songs have a life beyond the recordings and our fans are invested in that. They expect that we're going to perform the songs a little bit different and they are going to evolve over time, which is tremendously liberating for us as musicians and songwriters." "Looking back," Rob reflects, "there wasn't any particular point where we went from doing one thing to doing another thing – it was ongoing. We're still part of an ongoing evolution. Everything comes from learning from past mistakes and past triumphs. We aren't trained: our manager didn't really manage anyone before, our road crew didn't do what they do until they worked for us. That's how the band works." "I'm just surprised," Chuck concludes, "that we haven't killed each other yet!"