It’s a fine weekend to be a jam band fan in New Haven. Both Strangefolk and Addison Groove Project are performing at Toad’s, while acoustic roots-rockers Guster are playing Yale’s annual Spring Fling.
But perhaps the weekend’s most anticipated show will take place tonight, when moe. bring their high-energy, jam-rock extravaganza to the stage of the Palace Theater. Recently scene’s Andrew Roach had a chance to chat with vocalist/guitarist Al Schnier to discuss everything from Bonnaroo to Madonna to life on the road for one of rock’s hardest-working bands.
scene: Your latest studio album, “Dither,” is more polished and produced than your previous releases. Was this a conscious choice to make this kind of album when you were heading into the studio?
Schnier: That was not the goal. I guess that’s kind of what happens when you become more comfortable in the studio: you end up making better studio albums. But we weren’t shooting for a Steely Dan thing, you know? You just end up being more resourceful in the studio. I mean, I hope it keeps continuing in that direction.
scene: It’s been more than a year since “Dither’s” release, and new songs have slowly been slipping into the set lists of your live shows. Are there any plans to head into the studio in the near future?
Schnier: Actually, what we are planning on doing, rather than heading into the studio, is recording this album anywhere we feel like it. We’ve recently been configuring this whole mobile recording system — So we can record on-stage or backstage or in the hotel room or a warehouse, wherever we end up having a few days. So that’s the plan for this next album. The goal is to make the ultimate, vibey road album, I guess. You know, actually come up with some really cool-sounding recordings of new songs, but in strange environments.
scene: How does the song-writing process work, at least for you? Where does a moe. song come from?
Schnier: It comes from sitting around with a guitar, that’s where it starts. Or a lot of the time it comes from just driving. I find myself driving long distances a lot because of what we do. And when that happens, after the first hour or so once you are really into a drive, you start to get into that weird free-cycling of your mind. And that’s where the phone calls start: I call up our manager or the other band members and say, “Hey, I just got this really great idea.” It’s sort of become this joke where they say, ‘Oh, what, are you driving now?’ So I started keeping a notebook with me.
scene: What about the creation of set lists for live shows? The band tends to write out complete set lists in advance, something not a whole lot of jam bands do. What are the advantages of this, from your perspective?
Schnier: We used to go out without a set list. And a lot of times it worked, but a lot of times it didn’t. And, you know, it was fine when there were 100 drunken kids in a bar. But when there are 3,000 people who paid a lot of money to come and see you, we just feel more of a responsibility to put on a very professional sort of show. And it doesn’t have to be a Madonna show where everything is choreographed with costume change, and everyone is in sync with their computers. It’s not that type of thing. We need to be somewhere in between: somewhere between Captain Beefheart and Madonna. That’s what we’re going for.
scene: The band obviously has a busy schedule this summer. First and foremost is a spot in the high-profile Bonnaroo music festival, featuring a who’s who of the jam band scene. What are your feelings heading into a show of this magnitude?
Schnier: We’re really excited about it. Really sort of intrigued, just as an “industry insider” having had some experience backstage and behind the scenes, I am just curious how they are going to pull it off and handle the masses of people. There have been 75,000 tickets sold, and it’s supposedly sold out — But I don’t think that will deter the other 150,000 kids without tickets from showing up and thinking they are going to get in somehow. And I really think it is going to be that kind of madhouse. I just think they are going to have a lot to contend with, and I am interested to see if they can pull it off. [Laughs] But the other part of it is that we get to play at this monumental gathering, and I am really psyched about that. There are some great bands on the bill, and I am just psyched to go and throw down.
scene: Do you feel any pressure going in? Especially with a lot of people predicting that this could be the next real breakthrough for the band?
Schnier: Not really. No, not at all actually. We are going to go in and do what we do. I mean it’s a great opportunity for us, but I don’t feel any pressure. I am just looking forward to it and seeing all these bands that we’re friends with.
scene: Speaking of friends, is there anyone at Bonnaroo that you would really love to jam with? The festival seems like a breeding ground for collaborations.
Schnier: I would really like it if we were able to get together with [Widespread] Panic. So many of the other bands we’ve already collaborated with, and they are one band that, while we have done shows with them before, there have never been any kind of collaborations. So I’d really like to work something out.
scene: In general, who is making music right now that really excites you?
Schnier: Radiohead. That’s the band that excites me the most these days — Especially the last couple months I have been digging through their catalogue again, getting some live shows. I am just totally envious of the band and the situation they have created for themselves. I mean, I am really, really [pause] proud of them, I guess, and I don’t even know them! [Laughs]
scene: You are doing a summer tour with Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade. How did the two of you hook up?
Schnier: We basically just called him up and said, “Hey, what are you doing this summer? OK, us too. Let’s do this together.” And they were all for it — We’ve been fans of Primus since way, way back in the day. And Les has always been a big influence on a lot of us. It’s funny: even his bass playing has influenced my guitar playing. So he’s somebody that we’ve looked up to, and I think we sort of share the same end of the spectrum as far as jam bands go. We both tend to be a little more aggressive and “out there” then some of your other bands.
scene: The band is doing a lot of its own multi-day, camping festivals this summer. Why this approach rather than the more traditional one-off shows in theaters and the like?
Schnier: I mean, it’s summertime and people want to get outside. We just find that it’s a great experience to find a field out in the middle of nowhere and just go put on a show. It’s kind of like, “Let’s clean out the old barn and play some music!” [Laughs] And it really works out well.
scene: Obviously moe. spends a lot of time on the road. Do you always enjoy the lifestyle, or do you get tired of the grind and the day-to-day realities of the road?
Schnier: I love it. We’re in a place now where the quality of life on the road has improved so much. I miss my family, my kids: that’s the part that sucks about it. But other than that, I have the best job in the world. I am just psyched to be in this environment and work and see all these cities. I mean, it’s awesome.
scene: It has been a great couple of years for the band. What would you like to see happen in the next few years? Are you happy with the niche you have carved for yourselves, or would you like to see moe. go more mainstream?
Schnier: Definitely more commercial popularity. I’m all for it. I mean, I am really happ
y with where we are now; it’s already gone way, way beyond any expectations I ever had for it. But I am all for getting bigger and better too — I just want to grow.