To support their most recent studio album, What Happened To The La Las? (Sugar Hill), the guys in moe. are embarking on an ambitiously scheduled winter tour, before their Snoe.down festival overtakes Killington, Vermont in March. Affectionately known for their rambling jam band ways, moe. approached What Happened To The La Las? from a different perspective, involving John Travis (Kid Rock, No Doubt, et al.) in the process and, as Al Schnier indicates in the interview below, growing because of it.
What can you tell me about the decision to involve John Travis in the album’s production?
It seems like almost every album we do has a slight change, whether it’s in the recording process or the writing process, or something. There’s some variable that sort of informs the outcome of the record. In this case, these are songs we had decided—before we even came to the decision to work with a producer—that once again we were going to this notion of writing songs and taking them out on the road to play them, which is something we’d done in the past. That way they sort of get their legs because you have to put songs through their paces on stage in a live setting to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Very late in the game we decided to add a producer to the mix and this is the first time in a long, long time that we’d worked with someone outside of our own camp, outside of the band, to have another set of ears, some other ideas. It was interesting. It was challenging at times, but it was also really good for us. So much so that we unanimously agreed that we are absolutely using a producer on the next album (laughs).
The thing is, we’re a pretty democratic group. We all get along with each other really well but we’ve got a lot of creative minds in the group too. Sometimes that makes for a sort of odd dynamic in the studio. It’s not that there’s… Well, sometimes there’s a little bit of tension, but it’s unusual because there’s usually none in the group at all. But sometimes there’s a little bit in the studio because there you’re putting songs under a microscope and it really comes down to the wire. Like, “Okay, whose song is this really? Who ultimately gets to make the call about what we’re going to do? Is this song going to be red or is going to have black velvet on it?” Or whatever. How are we going to present this? There’s a lot of stuff you really have to figure out and we don’t really have a guy in the group, one sort of crazy Roger Waters-like guy who’s just telling people what to do. So for the most part, it’s been a good thing for us because everybody has input and the songs usually end up stronger for it.
A lot of ideas get put on the table that might not have been considered by the original songwriter. Myself included, I’m the biggest proponent for that. My songs have benefited greatly by having the influence of the other guys in moe. put their stamp on it. On the other hand, the music in general, the album, sometimes gets, for lack of a better term, we sort of find a common ground, the lowest common denominator sometimes for the music, and that’s not always the best thing. It’s just the thing that we all agree on. It’s kept us together for 22 years, but I don’t know if it’s always the best thing for the music. Do we put our best art forward? We’ve definitely made our best projects, as a group of guys who can work together. So bringing in a sort of non-partisan third party to just say, “You know, this idea sucks! You guys need to do something better.” We were like, “Wow! We could never say that before.” Not that we wanted to hear that.
Well, no, but it’s really valuable.
Right. So we had somebody say, “You had me at the first chorus but, like, 18 minutes into the song you kind of lost me. (Laughs) So you guys need do something about that. Can you change keys? Can you change directions or make it more exciting? Otherwise I’m gonna start changing channels.”
He would just send us out into the studio, tell us to work on it for a while, and come back to show him what we’d done. We’d throw a bunch of ideas around for an hour, have these crazy brainstorming sessions, then he’d say, “That’s sort of it, but it needs to be more powerful. It needs to be angrier. It needs to be sadder.” Or whatever. Take it up a notch. He would steer us in a new direction and it was so nice to have somebody steering us for a change.
It sounds like that speaks to your capacity as a band and also as individuals to be open to constructive criticism and not immediately fly off the handle.
Oh, no, don’t get me wrong, it made me really upset at times! (Laughs) It’s hard to hear! But, the thing is, it was someone who came into the project and had no idea who we were, what these songs were about, or anything about the history, or how much our fans loved the fact that something went on for eight minutes. None of it mattered because he was coming in with fresh ears. We found a way to work together and developed a really good working method after a few days. But the first couple of days we were sort of scratching our heads going, “What are we supposed to do? How does this work?” Once we fell into that routine, it clicked and it was great.
I have written down here that the whole experience sounds frightening, liberating, and frustrating.
All of those things. It’s a very scary thing. When you put your song out there to be judged by somebody, you’re putting your art out there. Not to be overly dramatic, but you’re putting so much of your soul, yourself, on the line. Hey, I’m trying to express myself in some way. When you’re being creative, there are really so many existential things we can get into with that process (laughs) that for somebody to say, “Eh, your art sucks,” it really kind of cuts to the core.
I may cry. We might have to change the subject.
Right! Right! (Laughs) The thing is, this is a guy who’s made tons of records and is coming at it from that standpoint. He wanted us to make a great record. He wasn’t saying we were not validated as people, but just that we can do better. It takes a while to come to that. You kind of have to go through this sort of rebirth process. Those songs are like our children and if somebody tells you your children are ugly… Oh, okay. Well they can change. They can, I don’t know, maybe play a different sport?
Looking back, it was worth it though?
Oh, totally worth it. Clearly the five of us know how to work together. We practically lived together in a submarine for all intents and purposes half of the year. So we obviously get along very well. Bringing a total stranger into that can be a little dicey. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but you have to figure out how it’s going to go. The studio is just a challenging environment anyway. You can put best friends in that environment and they could not talk for 20 years after (laughs).
You mentioned that your fans really enjoy a song that goes on for eight minutes. Being known as a jam band, does it concern you when you come up with a song that isn’t as lengthy?
We just do it. The thing that’s great about our fans is they’ve been so supportive of us making those kinds of changes, coming up with new arrangements to songs, getting new ideas, that I think if we were still playing the same version of “Timmy Tucker” today that we played from day one, fans would get a little tired of it. So it’s good that it sort of evolves over the course of time.
It’s interesting because some of the songs that went into the studio got rearranged. We wrote new parts for some of them and now they’ve been retooled for the live show. When we first came out, we didn’t know how we were going to even play some of these songs anymore. We were like, “Oh god. What version do we play!?” And we had to practice again and rehearse the album versions again even though the album hadn’t come out yet! We had a sort of hidden personality, this weird skeleton in the closet, and we didn’t even know what we were supposed to be doing.
One song called “Puebla” got changed pretty significantly, at least the instrumental portion of it did. It’s turned into more of an epic song that it was in the first place, which is great. The fans have been so supportive of it. The jam changed entirely from what it was into something entirely new. I never would have anticipated that because the album version is only five minutes long, but the live version is back to being a 15-minute song.
It’s great that your music is able to remain so fluid and can turn into something that maybe it wasn’t intended to be. You mentioned “Puebla” and I wanted to ask about “Downward Facing Dog,” which I read is about your father.
It still makes me sad. Like, I have no problem singing the song, but every time I talk about it, it makes me sad. At the time that I wrote the song, my dad was really pretty critical; he’s since passed away (pauses). Being middle aged and having my dad pass away, then having my son there and old enough to really grasp what was going on, I found myself in the middle of these two really important male figures in my life. It was really kind of… It was just such a life affirming experience to go through in so many ways, not unlike when my son was born. To have your father pass away and have your son there to console you, it’s wonderful and was also a really bittersweet time in my life.
So that’s it. I was just doing a lot of reflecting on where I was. I was just really in the middle and if I reached my arms out wide, I could touch my dad on one side and my son on the other side. I was also doing a lot of yoga at the time and just reflecting a lot on my own life. There was a lot of metaphor and reflection on being at that point in my life. In a lot of ways, I felt I was becoming the old man of the family (laughs). As far as the music was concerned, it was one of those songs that just came out instantly. There were several steps to it but it all came out over the course of seven or eight minutes. It was wonderful! (Laughs) Others are kind of a difficult birth but this one was just very, very easy.
I also wanted to ask about “Haze.” In your bio, it said you were a little unsure about giving vocal control over to Rob Derhak for that one.
That’s a perfect example of one of those studio moments when I had been trying and trying and trying to make a song right, to appease the producer come around and say, in some way, “Yes, we’ve got it.” Instead it was, “No, nah, no, I don’t know. Maybe we won’t put this one on the album.” What? Then we tried Rob singing it and I was reluctant to let it go. I was attached to the song. Lyrically I really like the song and enjoyed singing it. Apparently, other people didn’t. But as soon as Rob sang it, it was so clear that he was meant to sing it. I was okay with it right away because it sounded so good.
In the beginning, it was hard for me to let go but then as soon as I did it was great and awesome. It made me almost want to go back through some of my other songs and say, “Hey, you want to sing this? Do it!” Now I’m at this point where I want to write songs for Rob. He has a great voice and can sing a lot of that stuff much better than I can. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be singing them. As long as he’s comfortable singing my lyrics, then he should totally do that.
Like “Queen Of Everything” I wrote the music for but Rob ended up writing the lyrics and singing it, so it was a different sort of collaboration. “Deep This Time” was sort of like that too. But this was sort of new because I’d written the whole thing. We can do more of that, where I write the lyrics and he sings it. To this day, every now and then if we don’t play a song for a month or something, he has to ask me again what the lyrics are (laughs).
moe. will be at the Best Buy Theater on Feb. 1 and 2. Their latest album, What Happened To The La Las?, is available now. For more information, go to moe.org.