The Legend of Moonalice Rises

By: Alan Rhody

The personnel in Moonalice should make you curious enough to give this band and their new self-titled CD a listen. There’s some serious firepower in the group: Barry Sless, Pete Sears, GE Smith, Jimmy Sanchez, Jack Casady – all notable musicians with professional pedigrees that span more than several decades. The Moonalice roster also includes the band’s founding members, Roger and Ann McNamee.

A list of the various ensembles these guys have played in would be extensive and sometimes overlapping, including some widely recognized groups such as Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Kingfish, Zero, David Nelson Band, Phil Lesh & Friends and the Flying Other Brothers.

Knowing about how this band and their CD came to exist makes for an interesting tale in itself. The story begins with aspiring musician, Deadhead and Hot Tuna fan Roger McNamee. After graduating from Yale and further earning an MBA, McNamee went on to head the technology arm at a growing financial firm. Being at the right place in the right times (the ’80s) and demonstrating a knack for making very astute investments, he became one of the young movers and shakers in his field. Hailed as one of Silicon Valley’s important business visionaries, he still managed to squeeze in a good amount of Grateful Dead shows for his personal pleasure.

Fast forward two decades and McNamee is a world renown private equity investor specializing in emerging technologies and media (Bono is currently one of his business partners), a digital-age celebrity, a part-owner of Forbes magazine, an advisor to the Grateful Dead when they were considering digitizing their assets, and a Rex Foundation board member (as well as a ski instructor and stroke survivor). His business ventures have been successful enough to enable he and his wife Ann (a former music professor) to spend a considerable amount of time and resources over the past dozen or so years pursuing their musical passions. Moonalice, their latest foray into the music business, is intended to be an artistic and commercial success.

In April, the band released its debut CD, Moonalice. Fans of the band’s live sound will appreciate the high quality production values set by Grammy-winning producer/composer T-Bone Burnett, which showcase the band’s strengths and skillfully emphasizes the vocal tracks. Collectively the eleven songs on this CD evoke a time in rock history when many a baby-boomer was assembling his or her original record collection, a time when the sixties spirit still infused a seventies sound (i.e. when raw exploratory musical endeavors were replaced by more polished, more carefully crafted studio recordings). Perhaps that is due to the conscious intent by Burnett and the McNamees to make the recording sound like a vinyl album of old. Though the result is warmly familiar on a CD that never sounds dated.

How and why did these guys come together? Weren’t they all in some other band? Who is this Chubby Wombat guy that relates the Moonalice “legend” at every show? Why is infamous Grateful Dead road crew member Steve Parrish touring with this outfit? JamBase speaks to some of the Moonalice members to find out.

JamBase: How did Moonalice come about?

Smith & McNamee by Weiand
Roger McNamee: I have been playing guitar and bass since late in high school. During my early day job years, I played acoustic happy hour music – solo or as a duo – at bars and resorts. I got serious about playing again in the mid-90s and started a band called the Flying Other Brothers in 1997. That same year I persuaded Hot Tuna to play a private party, and that’s when I first got to know them all. The next year I called Jorma Kaukonen to see if he would do a “band camp” for the Flying Other Brothers, since he had just started Fur Peace Ranch. He agreed. I had never met GE and Pete before that.

Pete Sears: I was hired along with Jorma, Jack Casady and GE Smith to be a tutor at a “band camp” for Roger’s band. I started playing some shows with them when my ten year run with Hot Tuna began to wind down around 2002 and eventually became a full time member. We had a lot of fun with that band.

Roger: Pete introduced us to Barry Sless in the fall of 2002. Barry introduced us to Jim in early 2003. [Pete, Barry, and Jim had all been playing with David Nelson, who was ramping down a bit]. In 2004, Barry gets picked up by Phil Lesh & Friends and GE Smith sits in the Flying Other Brothers while Barry is out with Phil.

The next year T-Bone Burnett says he is open to producing a Flying Other Brothers album under certain conditions. We have a recording session, after which T-Bone gives each person in the band some things to work on. After a year we assemble again and T-Bone notes that three of the Flying Other Brothers had not done their assignments. He recommends that we start over as a new band – GE, Pete, Barry, Jim, Ann, me. We agree and put the Flying Other Brothers on track to end at the end of the year.

Jimmy Sanchez: T-Bone gave Roger some solid advice and Roger wisely acted on it. In short, Moonalice evolved out of its predecessor, the Flying Other Brothers.

Roger: In 2007 the new band goes into rehearsal and works on the new concept [band name, legend, posters, etc.]. We played 43 shows that year. Last year [2008] we did 102 shows in 28 states plus one Canadian province.

JamBase: When did Jack Casady join?

Roger: In 2007 Ann, GE, Jack Casady, and Jim Keltner record an album of Ann’s music, after which Jack lets us know that he would love to play with the new band part time.

Continue reading for more on Moonalice…

Every musician, regardless of how old he is or how much experience he has had, still dreams about playing good music, traveling and living well. Roger had the ability to harness that and implement a plan for following through with it.

Jimmy Sanchez

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

When Moonalice started, what was your impression of the situation, as it’s not the typical “four teenage friends sitting around in the garage plotting their rock & roll destiny” sort of endeavor?

Jimmy Sanchez by Weiand
Jimmy: In some ways, Moonalice was still very much just that. Every musician, regardless of how old he is or how much experience he has had, still dreams about playing good music, traveling and living well. Roger had the ability to harness that and implement a plan for following through with it.

Pete: We’ve all been around the block a bit, and it immediately became apparent that the combined musical experience in Moonalice was going to give the band the freedom to create a refreshing, anything goes approach to our music and shows.

Roger: Phase one for the band was to create a great sound and find an audience. On those metrics, I think we’re doing really, really well. To make that happen, we had to play every gig we could get, as fast as we could get them. It wasn’t very efficient in terms of tour routing, but it got us playing at a very high level.

Did the band ever seem too formulaic or contrived? Or did the opportunity for artistic freedom and musical rewards among some friendly faces supersede any other considerations?

Jimmy: I believe that the artistic freedom and musical rewards differ from member to member.

What’s your impression of the band now?

Pete Sears by Weiand
Jimmy: I believe that it’s a strong band with some good material, a strong CD, a performance that continues to develop and that it has come a long way in a short amount of time. The balance of a lot of touring, rehearsing and recording has undoubtedly played a big part in this, too.

Pete: After playing so many shows together, I feel Moonalice has found its sea legs and, like most bands, is continuously evolving its sound and approach to performing. I have no idea what it will sound like in a year’s time, which is how it should be.

I enjoy the musical interaction we have going. We have two wonderful lead guitarists, both with completely different approaches to their playing, and Moonalice tries to give them both the freedom to stretch out, which gives me a chance to have some fun on the piano, keyboards, and accordion. But, when my old Hot Tuna bandmate Jack Casady is unable to do a tour with us, we all cover on bass, so I get to play a little on that instrument as well, which is nice. Barry also plays the pedal steel as well as guitar, which adds another wonderful element to the music.

Roger also has a wonderful rapport with audiences. He researches the local history of each town before we play, and weaves it into his unique take on the Moonalice legend. The in-between song banter is never the same two shows in a row. Jerry Garcia’s personal road manager, Steve Parish, an old friend of mine, has joined us as tour manager.

Roger: When he [Steve] worked with the Dead, his job was to keep the Deadheads away from the band. Thousands of people have stories about getting thrown out of the backstage area by Big Steve. In Moonalice, Big Steve’s job is exactly the opposite. He is there to get fans as close to the band as possible. That’s why he introduces every set. That’s why he presides over “the hang” with fans.

Roger, what’s it like to be the team owner, general manager, coach, and player?

Roger: The band is very democratic, but GE and I take the lead on music and business, respectively. For me, the business role is new. We tried having managers, but it was too expensive, so now I do it. It’s fun! We just try new stuff all the time. The stuff that works we do more of!

Who brings the material to the Moonalice table?

Ann McNamee: All four of us do – Roger, GE, Pete and myself.

Ann McNamee & Sears by Weiand
Roger: Our repertoire is about 100 songs, and we have about 25 originals that we have not yet had time to rehearse and perform. Most of the songs are written by Ann, mostly supported by GE. GE and Ann also bring in most of the covers.

Pete: The writing is spread around pretty evenly. I wrote one of the songs on the new CD, “Kick It Open,” with my wife, lyricist Jeannette Sears. GE also brings some wonderful material to the table, and sings anything from old civil war songs to Chuck Berry tunes. Jimmy and Barry don’t write, but they, of course, help with the arrangements.

Ann: For the CD, T-Bone asked me to write for others to sing, so that’s how a song like “Unspoken Words” came about. Isn’t Pete’s voice perfect for that Beatles-like song?

Ann, what are your musical influences?

Ann: Stravinsky, Carole King, Bon Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Szymanowski and Bach. My background is in classical music and teaching music theory.

How/why were the tunes on the CD chosen?

Roger: T-Bone recorded 23 songs and finished 20 of them. He chose the eleven on the album, as well as the sequence. As producer, that was his job.

Why did you go for a vinyl sounding recording? How was this effect achieved?

Roger: Is this a trick question? The short answer is that we didn’t want the album to sound like shit on an iPod. When we were kids, music sounded much better than it does today, largely because the technology was simpler. Labels only had to worry about mastering for home stereo and cars. Now there are mp3 players, subwoofers, ear buds, computer speakers, and lots of other output modes. The result is that the lowest common denominator sounds terrible on almost any playback system.

T-Bone pointed out that musicians could do much better without spending more money. All that was required was mastering for the main playback systems: home stereo, DVD audio, mp3, AAC, and FLAC. As a result, our album has both a CD and a DVD. The DVD has the DVD audio, mp3, AAC, and FLAC, as well as two music videos.

Continue reading for more on Moonalice…

When he [Steve] worked with the Dead, his job was to keep the Deadheads away from the band. Thousands of people have stories about getting thrown out of the backstage area by Big Steve. In Moonalice, Big Steve’s job is exactly the opposite. He is there to get fans as close to the band as possible.

Roger McNamee

Photo by Susan J. Weiand

Does that make the finished release more expensive for a fan to purchase?

Roger: The CD and DVD are priced like a single CD. In a world where artists are their own label the math works pretty well.

Do you encourage taping or sharing music?

Barry Sless by Weiand
Roger: Our view is that once people buy our music, they own it. That’s why we give everyone an optimized FLAC file. We want people to share our music, and we let them share something that sounds really good.

Describe your involvement with the new CD.

Pete: We recorded the basic tracks as a band, so I ended up playing on all the songs that T-Bone selected for the album. Sometimes I’d play keyboards, sometimes bass. If you listen really carefully you can occasionally hear the plaintiff strains of an accordion off in the distance. There are minimal overdubs on the album.

Jimmy: I played drums and tried to be as supportive and musical as I could, always trying to serve the song, the songwriters and the vocalists.

Was there anything unique or notable about how your sessions were recorded?

Pete: T-Bone arranged for nothing but vintage amps and instruments to be used in the studio, which was nice. I had a Mellotron, a Wurly, as well as the usual B3, etc. And the basses were mostly short scale; we often used a Hofner Beatle bass. T-Bone likes to track to two-inch tape for warmth, and then transfer over to the digital realm to overdub and mix in. The whole experience was wonderful.

Jimmy: Absolutely! T-Bone created an organic, relaxed, and creative environment. His approach to recording drums was like nothing that I had ever experienced, but truly appreciated. I recorded all of the basic tracks on a 1930s Leedy drum set with a 26-inch bass drum, goat and calf skin heads – wide open, ringing for days with deep, low, resonant tones. It allowed me to play simply and creatively. I brought “Otis” – my 14″ x 14″ snare drum that I, essentially, try to get to sound like a bass drum with snares. It fit in perfect with the Leedy set.

Roger, do you really have a mathematical formula that you’ve used to calculate when the band will become profitable? How does commercial success relate to artistic satisfaction?

Roger McNamee by Weiand
Roger: The commercial side is less complicated than you might think. We don’t need the band to be profitable. What we need is a tribe of fans who value the band enough to cover our costs. We’re making fantastic progress on that. How? By giving stuff away. It’s cheaper to give away music and video over the Internet than to do advertising or make an album, so that’s what we do. Now we have a real tribe – people who spread the word – and lots of fans who come to shows.

Do you think the whole Moonalice legend/Chubby Wombat shtick amuses or alienates your audiences? Is it a necessary form of branding or just a decorative narrative?

Roger: Man, you are cynical. Call it what you like, but the legend has evolved organically as part of the Moonalice scene. As GE likes to say, we were all fans before we became musicians. In those days, you paid a buck or two to go to a show. The shows themselves were totally unlike shows today – low production values, low prices, low expectations, huge fun. Moonalice liked that vibe and is trying to recreate it. One of the tools available to us is humor. The notion of a “native” tribe that has only two aims – to play bass and grow hemp – is pretty funny. It allows for a legend that is equal parts Merry Pranksters and Mr. Magoo.

Chubby Wombat is a character, just as GE’s Greyhound bus driver is a character. Big Steve is a character. The tribe likes these characters, so we work hard to make them better every show. There may be some people who don’t care for it, but if there are, they have never said so to us.

How are setlists created for live performances?

Roger: I do the first draft of the setlist. GE approves it. Then we play whatever we feel like during the show.

Pete: But we will even stray from that on the spur of the moment if the mood takes us.

Roger: Sometimes we play the setlist [though] often we change it on the fly. The best changes are when GE says, “This one’s in A,” and then plays something we have never done before. That happens very often.

Are you aware of the high quality of the sound your production/sound crew achieves at concerts and festivals?

Roger: Are you kidding? None of this happens by accident! We all work really hard together – we focus on details to make the shows great. Our crew is amazing. Tim Stiegler does a fantastic front of house mix, as well as the recordings. Glenn Evans is our drum tech, but he also makes the videos and slide shows. Alan Sesak has done an amazing job on lights. Crystal Polley makes sure the shows go off smoothly. And then we have two great drivers who get the bus and truck to every show without a hitch.

How does the Moonalice on-the-road experience compare to other times [i.e. touring with other bands]?

Jimmy: I love and cherish every moment of touring that I’ve done in the past. In this experience, due to Roger’s intent and ability to make this as professional as possible, it’s much more comfortable. Attention is paid to getting everything right.

Pete: And we have Internet on the bus, which helps on the long journeys.

What’s the best part of being in this band?

Pete: I’ve somehow kept working in music either as a band member or a hired hand since 1964. It’s sometimes been a rocky, winding road, with some amazing highs and lows along the way. I feel fortunate to be playing in a band full of wonderful musicians and people.

Jimmy: Just like in any group with which I played in the past 44 years, there are good days and there are slightly less good days, but never bad days. The best part of being in this band is being part of a large family. We look out for each other, care about each other and have little disputes, too. But, ultimately, when we go onstage, we have a purpose to play good music and entertain as best we can.

Are you having fun?

Roger: Are you kidding? I’m living a dream!

Ann: Absolutely! I describe it as a dream that I never even knew I had came true.

Moonalice tour dates available here.

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