new york based ragers of improvisational rock and epitomic owners of the segue... \mm/
In 2001, the solid, catchy song writing skill behind moe.'s crisp musical attack was rewarded with a four-star review in Rolling Stone for their album DITHER. The band responded with their next album not by resting on any laurels it may have earned, but by taking a new chance, pushing the limits of not just song writing, but song crafting. A desire to bridge the seemingly incompatible worlds of chaos and control led to 2003's WORMWOOD, an experiment in combining live tracks with studio manipulation. The risk paid off, earning four stars in Blender Magazine. Now, with the new release THE CONCH, moe. takes it yet further with the next logical step in exploring this unorthodox, albeit successful, approach.
"The idea was to take the elements of WORMWOOD that worked, both musically and technically, and exploit those ideas a little bit further and see if we couldn't do it under less chaotic, more controlled circumstances this time," says guitarist Al Schnier.
That quest for control within chaos permeates all aspects of creating THE CONCH – from the band's musical and interpersonal democratic process to the album's very name. "The Conch comes from Lord of the Flies," says bassist Rob Derhak. "The Conch is a symbol of keeping things civil. We sort of took all these elements of us playing as if one of us has a conch and then it's taken away and it turns to chaos. That is very similar to our lives. That song is a microcosm of the album and our lives."
Without moe.'s conscious effort to maintain control, the last fifteen months could easily have found a lesser band devolving into discord. The original recording sessions for THE CONCH took place during the spring of 2005; however, due to the band's rigorous touring schedule, the project continued at several different locations across the country.
"Some people do albums in a really short amount of time and it winds up sounding kind of homogeneous," says guitarist Chuck Garvey. "This album was done over such a long period of time that there's evolution. The drums were all done at the same time, but a lot of the other work on the album was spread out so we kind of had different ears and a different attitude each time we worked on it."
It is this spirit that manifests on THE CONCH and gives the album a versatile cohesiveness.
"There's such a variety of music on it that I don't think one song will define the album," says Schnier. "You take a song like 'Blue Jeans Pizza' and as great as it is and as great as the recording is, it doesn't define the rest of the album. It's the only song where these guys sing in falsetto for the entire song. One might be misled to think that all of the songs have Bee Gees-like vocals on them. Then you take a song like 'Tailspin' or 'Lost Along the Way' and it doesn't define something like 'Wind It Up'."
The ebb and flow of THE CONCH also includes highlights such as the gentle "Where Does the Time Go?", "The Pit" and "Brittle End."
Each song will, of course, continue to evolve onstage, to be joyfully dissected by fans in person or through live recordings. Those include releases on moe.'s popular "Warts and All" series, which, like studio albums, are available on the band's own Fatboy label.
"That's the greatest thing about owning the record label that you're on, that we're certainly the big fish in the pond now, and it's nice being in control," says Schnier, recalling the group's two major-label albums in the mid-'90s.
"This is the first time that we weren't constrained by time or money or any external circumstances. We finished each song to completion to our satisfaction and that's really the first time that we've done that," Schnier says.
"In hindsight, I feel like we were making a documentary of where we were in terms of our artistic output at that point. But it's not just a straight documentary. It's not just a news report, but it's like we really had the time to shoot the whole thing in black and white and really have it look beautiful," he says. "It's like a really well-made documentary that you could watch again and again. The story is there, but it looks beautiful too. It's really well-shot and well edited and I kind of feel like that's what we've done with the songs here."
The first two weeks of recording took place at the State Theatre in Portland, ME, where the goal was to capture rhythm tracks in the natural reverb of the historic venue. Then a live audience was brought in for two sold-out shows, which included some mass crowd participation. If you listen closely, you can hear the results of these painstaking efforts on THE CONCH.
"We had a few things in mind where we actually wanted to engage the audience," Schnier says of the group's collective role in producing the album. "There's one piece that really combines audience participation with the band's recordings and all the pieces just happened to fit together rather nicely. We were able to have the audience be a part of the album and that was something that was important to us."
That's a poignant observation, when you think about it. The audience has always been a major part of the live moe. experience. It was the fans' votes that determined the four Jammy Awards the band has won -- Best Live Album (L), Live Performance of the Year (Bonnaroo 2002), Best Studio Album (WORMWOOD) and Live Performance of the Year (Tsunami Relief Concert 2005). So it seems only fitting that it would be moe. who would pioneer ways to make the fans feel like an active part of the band, not just part of a scene.
"We have a very dedicated fanbase that's in it for the long haul, that's in it for the music. We've never had much of a traveling circus. Somehow our tours have a much different feel." That's lucky for moe., because the band certainly has the kind of musical and conceptual imagination -– and deep catalog of songs –- that lets fans bask in the glow of multiple shows, including a share of special events.
The quintet has drawn upwards of 6,000 fans to two-night stands at such storied venues as New York's Beacon Theatre, Chicago's Aragon Ballroom and Denver's Fillmore. The group has headlined Colorado's legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Atlanta's Fox Theatre and at the 2006 Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, moe. performed on the main-stage before a crowd of nearly 80,000. This year will culminate in grand fashion with an evening of moe. at New York's prestigious Radio City Music Hall.
Yet moe. also transcends the four-walled experience of even the most historic of sites. The first week in January, the group and its fans will head to the Caribbean for a week of shows aboard the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship. And each Labor Day weekend for the past five years the group has also presented its own moe.down festival, inviting such kindred spirits as Flaming Lips, Medeski Martin & Wood, Matisyahu, Ani DiFranco, David Grisman, Violent Femmes and They Might be Giants to supplement heaping helpings of moe. In contrast to Bonnaroo, Schnier says, "The idea is kind of like a moe. family picnic."
That family vibe begins with the five men that make up moe. "We're brothers," Derhak says. "We love each other dearly and hate each other fiercely, and we can't live without each other."
The music as it now exists couldn't live without any one of them either. While originally a dueling guitar-driven quartet, moe.'s sound has become significantly more textured over the years, with several shifts in influences and personnel. Original drummer Jim Loughlin returned in 1999 as a multi-instrumentalist and percussionist alongside fifth and current drummer Vinnie Amico, a subtly strong beat-keeper with minimalist flair. Loughlin provides breadth as well as drive, especially when playing electronic vibes to a Zappa-esque effect. "A lot of the percussion stuff becomes this immense steamroller," Garvey says. "They mix a lot of different styles in a very easy way."
Garvey, meanwhile, provides a range of even-keeled riffing to blistering solos, matched by Schnier's range of twang to, well, blistering solos. In recent years, Schnier has added an array of keyboards to his set-up, as well.
And finally, at center stage, bassist Rob Derhak weaves fluid, funky lines that provide the bottom-end glue, sealing the chemistry between the longtime bandmates.
The group's signature extends to vocals as well as instrumentation. Derhak, Schnier and Garvey trade lead vocals with contrasting styles -- and a balanced quality. "Certainly singing in key is a good place to start," says Schnier, "but it's also being creative with your harmonies and vocal parts."
It's no wonder that the quintet constructs broad, cohesive studio CDs that stack up song by song. "The songwriting has been a focus for us for years and years now," he says. "Early on, we fell into the trap of writing a song that was merely a platform for a jam, and there's no longevity in that." Derhak, Garvey and Schnier split the writing, but the group contributes to the finished product. "Even if I write a song from beginning to end at home and bring it in," Schnier says, "there's still a collaborative effort involved in getting that song up and running."
“A true definition of a band,” Derhak says, "is everyone contributing all they can — no matter what it is — to every song."