The Art Of The Sit In | moe. Guitarist Al Schnier

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Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: The Art Of The Sit-In -Al Schnier::

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. Be sure to check out our recent discussions with Roosevelt Collier, Luther Dickinson, Matt Butler and Nikki Glaspie – you’ll be glad you did!

Al Schnier wears “jamming” well, whether with moe. or another of his projects, from Floodwood to regular appearances with the Everyone Orchestra. He’s been at it a long time – one of the jam world’s more protean players, and not always recognized as such in a scene with so many top-gun guitarists.

[Photo by Jay Blakesberg]

Al’s spent time focused on musical pursuits outside of moe., and given moe.’s long, remarkable arc, you can’t blame him or any of his bandmates for poking around elsewhere. And yet, moe. itself hasn’t much slowed, enduring through periods both fruitful and stagnant, and now in 2013 charging to the end of one of its most consistently hard-hitting tour years in ages.

Let’s hear from Al on what’s getting him going these days.

JAMBASE: You’ve played with a lot of people over the past three months, in a lot of configurations. What stands out?

AL SCHNIER: I have to think about that – it’s hard because when you play music as much as we do, it’s hard to remember back three days let alone three months. The thing that’s freshest in my mind – one of the most recent things I got to do – was an Everyone Orchestra gig. I’ve done a few, but this one was at Harvest Festival in Arkansas. It was a pretty unique one.

I’ve been doing EO for like five years now and this one brought together a lot of people who have done it with some people that haven’t. It was really cool. Mike Dillon was there and Carly [Meyers] from Mike’s band, and Jeff Austin. Jeff, it’s really funny, I brought up at some point that he and I have known each other for like 14 years now – you forget how much history you have sometimes when you see people like Jeff all over the place and you all just keep moving.

But this EO gig was really cool because I also met a few different players from Elephant Revival. I’d played with Bridget [Law] earlier this summer and I got to meet the rest of the group and what a pleasure to play with them. Super-talented and they bring a really unique voice to what they do.

I think they were nervous – you could see it on their faces – but you could also see how excited they were and that’s part of what makes something like EO work.

JAMBASE: What is it about EO that’s particularly appealing to you? I spoke with Matt Butler recently and he called out you specifically as a collaborator he knows he’ll keep inviting back and that obviously has to go both ways to work.

AS: You walk into it with kind of no expectations and no pressure, and it’s always so much fun. It’s a great creative outlet without the trappings of having to do any homework – you don’t show up with anything arranged or pre-configured. It’s interesting, it’s almost like the sum-total of all the work you do in your other creative outlets, and you just get to show up and bring that and play.

Plus, it’s always with new people. I remember we did an EO at Summer Camp and Mike and Carly were there. I didn’t know Carly then and had never met her before. I remember meeting before the show and I recognized everyone there and then I’m scanning the faces and it’s, you know, who’s the nerdy librarian girl? [laughs]

Before I know it she’s out there wailing on trombone and doing her thing. By the time she got to moe.down, we’d already played together a bunch over the course of the summer. So that’s why EO is so cool because you make those connections.

JAMBASE: Let’s talk about moe. You guys have hit so many milestones as a band and it’s always worth noting that you’ve stayed together – your core is intact – and that it’s a short list of your jam-scene peers who made it and an even shorter list of those who didn’t have to go through major disruptions to make it. What’s motivating you guys to keep doing this?

AS: Survival! [laughs] No, you know, all those things you said are true. And we’re grateful. I heard some data on the current job market and the economy the other day about how much has changed since our parents’ generation about holding a job. The average job tenure at this point they were saying is like 5.3 years now, versus before when people might change jobs every 10 to 15 years. I don’t know how much of that is accurate but, you know, look around, I’ve had the same job for 24 years.

We are so ridiculously lucky in moe. This is like winning the lottery when you think about the odds of us being able to pull that off. So when you ask what our goal is or what we’re hoping to achieve, it’s really just that I’m happy we get to do this and that we just get to continue to do this.

Artistically or creatively, we’ve been so lucky to play with so many of our heroes. We are working on a new record right now, and it’s one of the easiest records we’ve ever made. It’s interesting to me that that would happen at this point in our careers, because sometimes we’re all showing up at different times to record and we can’t always see each other like we used to.

JAMBASE: What do you think is making it so easy?

AS: Well, we’ve figured out how to work together, that’s true. We know what the group dynamic is, and that goes a long way in this organization. We’re old friends – brothers – but we also know how to get along with each other. We’ve been together so long that you have to be connected that way or else you wouldn’t be doing this.

JAMBASE: How would you compare the music on this upcoming album to past moe. songs?

AS: You know it’s kind of difficult to do that because we’re right in the middle of it. We had set out six months ago to make an entirely different record than the one we’re making right now. But I’m really excited about the way it’s turning out. We’re still tracking songs and we’ve put down, I think, 10 or 11 at this point? We have more to do.

We originally thought it was going to be something a little bit more laid-back sounding, and it’s not like that at all. In typical moe. fashion, it rocks hard and there are long songs – our natural inclinations tend to inform what we’re going to do. So rather than force the music into a box we’ll decide what the box is later.


[Photo By: Suzy Perler]

JAMBASE: Have you played any of this material on the road yet?

AS: Some of it, yes, but the big list of songs was probably like fifty-fifty in terms of stuff we have tried out live and stuff we had on demos and in other forms. I think in the end, the album will be primarily new material that people haven’t heard. We may wind up with a couple more songs, I still don’t know, but we’re going to make the best album we possibly can at the end of the day. But there will be a lot of new material, yes.

JAMBASE: One thing I hear a lot from moe. fans – still – is the excitement that came from the I Wanna Be In moe. contest, just the way you guys were able to break down that wall between band and fans and actually pull fans up on stage to play with you – and not on safe, easy-does-it songs, either. Do you think you’d do something like that again?

AS: That’s a really good question. I loved the idea of it – watching all those videos and seeing the talent in our fan base was great, and just the excitement felt from these people who showed up and got up to play with us.

JAMBASE: And you’ve stayed in touch with them, too. Joe Bellanti was one of the contest winners and he sat in with you guys again recently.

AS: Yup, Joe played with us and then he came and did these shows with us in Buffalo. Floodwood was also there and he sat in both with Floodwood and with moe. It was really good to reconnect with him.

And you know, we’ll go to Denver in December – we’re playing at the Ogden – and Taylor Frederick, who was another winner, he’s going to open for us out there with a band he’s in called Technicolor Tone Factory.

JAMBASE: It’s a lot of videos to watch, I imagine – and not all of them good. But you’re finding a collaborator who’s also a fan.

AS: Yeah, we’re in that fortunate position – and it’s just one more thing about how grateful and fortunate we are. We’ve got these fans who have seen us 75 times, 100 times, 150 times, and I can’t describe to you how much love they have for our band. We wouldn’t be here today if not for them so if someone like Joe or Taylor comes to sit in with us that’s a special connection.

It’s been interesting – Joe, you know, I think it sparked something for him. He’s been playing out a lot again and he hadn’t for a long time, he told us, before sitting in with moe. [last year]. I don’t want to say we’re giving back to the fans so much but it’s amazing for everyone on both sides to be part of a continuous process like this.

To answer your question, I don’t know if we’ll ever do it again – I hope we will. Maybe we’ll change the format, I don’t know. There’s very little planning that ever goes into anything having to do with moe. [laughs]

JAMBASE: Should we expect a typically busy year for moe. in 2014?

AS: Yes, it’ll be a busy year. We’ve got this winter run coming up, we’re going out to Denver, and we’ll be in Albany for New Year’s. Then it’s a lot coming up. We’re doing two weeks in Europe I know and then there’s a bunch of stuff on deck. The record comes out next summer and then more from there.

JAMBASE: Should we assume that includes the usual festival mix, too, especially ones you guys brand and headline? It’s been interesting: festivals kind of spiked, and then had lean years and some went away and now there are new ones but gigs like moe.down have been steady.

AS: Yeah, that’s true. We’re always trying to improve the design. Summer Camp, for example, has been a great success and we’re happy to be part of that – the people who put it on to an amazing job and we look forward to it every year. For any of our events we rely so heavily on the teams and the great people doing the work.

JAMBASE: I did want to ask you about Floodwood. Is it safe to say you’ll continue to nurture this band?

AS: Absolutely, yeah. We’re just getting started with Floodwood. Our record came out recently and we’re getting good play on satellite radio and getting picked up by a bunch of Americana stations, which is very cool. We’re busy – we’re playing more shows every year. I don’t know how I’m going to fit it all in – I just need to make enough time for it. I kind of wish I had a second self to just do that full time, also, you know? I love that band. I love that band. We have such fun playing that music.

[Photo By: Suzy Perler]

JAMBASE: Tell me a favorite sit-in story from the past year – moe., you with someone else, what comes to mind?

AS: Well we’re blessed because there are so many, and I’m going through my mind and it’s like, what have I done this year? [laughs] Well, for one, we had Marco come and play with us for two nights in Burlington, which was ridiculous.

I love Marco. I don’t care if Marco doesn’t play with us, I just want him to come hang out with us during the shows. He brings so much new energy to the group and it makes the show that much different. Marco plays with an edge. We already have an edge to what we do, but he brings a different edge. Marco plays with humor. We already have humor in what we do but he brings in different humor and that gets soaked up even more, somehow.

He’s the kind of guy who fits very well into our group. We can do no rehearsal, or we can rehearse for an hour and suddenly have like three hours of material we’re going to try to play with each other. It’s those kinds of things where you never know what’s going to happen during the show – that makes for special moments.

The other thing about Marco is that it is that easy fit. [A guest] like that you’re not spending a ton of time sweating and preparing for it, whereas the first time Bob Weir is going to play with the band, you’re spending some time on what you’re going to play and making sure you’re prepared so that you’re ready when Mr. Weir shows up. Not that Bob is like that at all – he’s completely down to earth and also an easy fit-in – it’s just an example of a different situation where it’s a bit more high pressure.

JAMBASE: Have you had many of those high pressure situations?

AS: There have been some, but we’ve never, like, backed Van Morrison or anything. No one’s threatened to shoot us from the bandstand!

JAMBASE: Would moe. back Van Morrison?

AS: Oh, totally. In a heartbeat!

JAMBASE: As you’ve said, Al, you’ve played with so many heroes but I have to ask which ones would top the list of who you haven’t but would like to play with?

AS: Uh, wow. That’s a good question. As far as moe. goes, I would say that Robert Plant is near the top of that list. As far as me personally, Neil Young would be at the top of that list. No, Neil Young goes for both lists. We want to play with Neil. Let’s jam with Neil Young.

THE DOSSIER:

Here are six Al Schnier appearances from the past 10 months that are well worth your listening hours.

Floodwood, Snowshed Lodge (snoe.down), Killington, VT, 3/22/2013: It’s been exciting to see how quickly Floodwood has grown from pleasant-enough Americana side project to concert force. Shows like this one – featuring plenty of action and a set-closing “Waiting for the Punchline” –make you realize why the busy musicians involved are making this band a priority, instead of just a once-in-a-while lark.

moe. Ives Concert Park, Danbury, CT, 6/1/2013: moe.’s had one of their strongest touring years in recent memory, so you’re not really going to go wrong picking and choosing. But an unmistakable summer highlight was this one. A Wood Brothers sit-in arrives mid-way through the first set, which comes to life with “Water > Puebla > Mexico.” Then comes an aces second set with a run from “Time Ed” into a furious “George” into “Farmer Ben” and into a left-field “Tom Sawyer” (LTP 5/13/95) bustout to close it.

moe., Newport Yachting Center, Newport, RI, 6/23/2013: Perhaps there were stronger jams on other nights on this same tour, but for wire-to-wire consistency, Newport goes up against any of the June shows. If you like your moe. both heavy and dance-able, check out “The Pit > Bearsong” and the jam out of “Awesome Gary” that lands in “Moth.”

moe., Snow Ridge Ski Area (moe.down), Turin, NY, 8/11/2013: The third moe. show at moe.down didn’t lack for variety, whether it was Carly Meyers from the Mike Dillon Band jumping in for “Bearsong,” or the mid-second-set plunge from “Moth” into “Hi and Lo” and then a dynamic downshift with “Opium,” or Stanley Jordan raining his Stanley Jordan cool over “Yodelittle” and later, “Rebubula.”

Everyone Orchestra, Sculpture Park, Denver, CO, 8/29/2013: Al Schnier is one of those players who just clicks with Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra concept, elevating whatever mixed ensemble he’s part of. We already cited some hot EO dates from the past year in another column, but it’s worth mentioning this Al-dappled gem from late August, in a beautiful mess of players that includes Jennifer Hartswick, Kyle Hollingsworth, Michael Kang, Kai Eckhardt, Bridget Law, Dave Watts, Jans Ingber, Jason Hann and Ted Tilton.

moe., Higher Ground, Burlington, VT, 10/2/2013: moe. tearing it up in Burlington with Marco Benevento in the band for half the show. Awesomeness should have ensued, and awesomeness did. The following night, also with Marco, is nearly as invigorating, but to our ears the first night offers a little extra something.

Leave a comment below and let us know who you’d like to see in a future installment of Art of the Sit-In!