And then there’s moe.
Since 1989 moe. has been playing their own kind of music, based on a solid foundation of rock (and roll) and laced with elements of everything from prog jazz to Vee-Eff-Dubya-hall-on-a-Saturday-night twang to rattle-the-dashboard-speaker roar – in other words, the very definition of the word jamband. And perhaps the best thing about the quintet is that the meaning of the phrase “their own kind of music” continues to evolve – without ever losing the vibe of what makes a moe. song a moe. song.
The latest offering from bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak, Jim Loughlin on percussion and vibes, drummer Vinnie Amico and the guitar/vocal tag team of Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey is the new Sugar Hill release No Guts No Glory. On a day when he was actually sitting still, Chuck Garvey was kind enough to share some time to discuss the making of the new album, including some thoughts on improvising (in both music and life itself), melding acoustic elements into an electric setting, and a wonderful bedtime story.
The band hosts its fifteenth annual moe.down this weekend.
BR: Chuck, if I have the backstory of No Guts No Glory correct, you guys originally intended to record a really rootsy, acoustic-based album. Somehow you ended up working with a producer – Dave Aron – who’s done stuff with Tupac and Snoop Dog, laying down this fully plugged-in collection of songs that’s as moe. as moe. gets. I guess my question is, how did that happen?
CG: Yeah, well … (laughs) I think a lot of people were surprised by that combination of events. But Dave has also recorded U2; he worked with Prince for awhile; he’s had a lot of experience with a lot of different styles. But really, he started out as a Deadhead from New Jersey, you know?
And a longtime friend of the band, right?
Yeah, we’ve known Dave for at least ten years. He comes to shows; he knows what it’s like to see us play live; he knows our fan base. To a certain extent, it was good to have someone who was so familiar with us to start with, you know what I mean?
Rather than having to get up to speed with who you were before he could begin thinking about the music itself.
Right. So, it was a case of applying what he already knew to what he thought would be best for us – and help us get the most out of what we were doing.
So what did flip the switch for you guys? What happened with the original intent of a bunch of rootsy tunes?
Well, alright … (laughs) This is how it happened. We did our last album, What Happened To The La Las with a producer named John Travis. Once we did the electric album, we thought we’d make a really stripped-down, acoustic version as a cool bonus disc – just for fun and to see the songs in a different light.
A lot of people responded really positively to the acoustic disc. We try to play acoustic live sets when we can – it’s a fun thing to do for us. So, we thought, “Why don’t we write and record some music with the intent of having that acoustic flavor on everything?”
Our original plan was to record with Larry Campbell at Levon Helm’s Barn – we’d played a Midnight Ramble there; it’s a great place. We had this idea of just recording to tape; just set a bunch of limitations by saying you’re going to record an acoustic album … and hopefully, with those limitations, you create something that’s different and unique to you, you know?
We were all set to go – and then it started coming apart time-wise with everybody’s schedules and the studio time. It got to the point where it just wasn’t doable – we had to scrap the idea.
In the meantime, we’d all been working on demos for songs that we wanted to pursue for that acoustic album. We had these demos … and decided we’d go in a different direction – “Let’s call Dave and see if he’s up for it.”
We took the songs that we had written with the acoustic album in mind and decided to go for it – make an electric album. At the same time, I think every song has touches of acoustic guitar and other instruments that we don’t necessarily play live all the time. We included that flavor with our normal electric sound. We came at it from a different direction because of what the situation dictated.
Sometimes those things get handed to you, reminding you that you’re not in charge … and you have to be ready to go with the flow.
That’s exactly what happens: you have to improvise in music; you have to improvise in life.
You mentioned applying the acoustic touches to the electric sound. I always go back to what Keith Richards said a long time ago – something like, “Dig into any good rock ‘n’ roll record and somewhere in there you’ll probably find an acoustic guitar driving the thing.”
It’s very true. And I think a lot of musicians write with an acoustic guitar or a piano because they want to make sure the song has depth when it’s performed simply, rather than a lot of decorations, you know?
It does the raise the question of performing these songs live: the band’s sound has great depth, but there are only so many sets of hands. These songs have some wonderful sonic textures – those layers of electric and acoustic sound you mentioned. How will you approach them live?
One of us will play acoustic and the other will play electric in order to get that blend. We used to have songs where that was an element – especially with Al. Even before this recording, he would play the acoustic guitar and mandolin onstage every once in awhile. But since recording this, we’ve gotten back to including those elements more.
In the past, moe. might release a studio album and fans would be singing along on the first spin because you’d been playing the songs live for awhile. How about the tunes on No Guts No Glory?
About half-and-half; on the deluxe version, I think there are 14 songs total – 7 are brand-new and 7 are songs we played on the road. Some more than others, certainly … like … “White Lightning Turpentine” we’d only played 10 or 15 times. But then there are songs like “Billy Goat” that’ve been in the rotation now for a couple of years.
I grew up with vinyl and I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m saying when I refer to thinking about an album as a record – in terms of sequencing and song-to-song flow. No Guts No Glory feels like a record to me. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a good album on shuffle (laughter) but it feels like these songs are meant to be the way they are.We definitely feel that sequencing is a kind of art. I think the sequencing of every studio album we’ve released has been done thinking of it as an album. We’d think in terms of time constraints and have a “side A” and a “side B,” even though it’s going to be on a CD or digital files – we’d make sure there was a certain flow to it. Or think of it as a setlist, where it has to have a certain momentum at the beginning; a certain momentum in the middle – and then a conclusion, you know? So if you to listen to it all the way through, it makes sense.
It seems now that very few people do that, because there’s so much music out there. At the same time, for all of us, we’re of that mindset where we’d consume this thing as a whole, rather than taking out one track and throwing out the rest.
Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on our part to think that people will listen to the whole album. (laughs)
Man, I hope that never ends – at least in my lifetime. How about we talk some specifics on a few songs?
You mentioned “White Lightning Turpentine” – it tickled me how it announces itself with that rolling, burbling acoustic riff – but it really becomes a moe. tune the moment you first hear Jim’s mallets.
Do You think it’s fair and/or correct to refer to Jim as one of the band’s secret weapons? His work is amazing … like a sous chef who’s in the background throwing all these weird and cool spices over everyone’s shoulders into the pot.
Yeah! (laughs) It’s a very signature thing to hear Jim on the vibraphone or a xylophone … there are very few people who have that as an element of what they do. He’s definitely a secret weapon in that regard.
His percussion work, as well – combined with Rob on bass and Vinnie’s drums … that’s some kind of serious rhythm machine, right there.
There are a number of shapeshifts in that song, even though it’s only something like four-and-a-half minutes long. That’s one of the many things you guys do so well: morphing from this vibe/this rhythm/this melody to something else to something else to something else in four-and-a-half minutes without it sounding busy. Where does that come from within the band?
I think a lot of that comes from both improvising live and writing the songs; composing the songs in a way where you feel that as you progress, it’s going somewhere – it’s a journey. Incorporating shifts in time, feel and even style is something that announces different moods or different meanings throughout the song. It’s also a way to get a little more depth out of what could be a very bare bones song on its own lyrically; you can write a lot more drama, a lot more scope into it with music.
I think people who listen to music – and have the patience and love for it – want it to unfold like that. It’s like reading a book or watching a movie. So, hopefully, those kind of changes or that kind of approach inspires creativity in other people … and maybe they make up their own story. (laughs) Those are the kind of fun elements that we appreciate as musicians or fans of music.
There’s plenty more conversation with Chuck Garvey – click right here to read the rest our interview over at Jambands.com!