Suffern, NY is only a little more than an hour’s ride up from Manhattan on the Port Jervis line, but it might as well be a different planet, with the pickup trucks and barely paved streets, the handful of blue-collar townies shuffling between two-story buildings, and the thin blanket of New England dementia covering the area like some off-kilter Stephen King archetype.
It was here that moe. chose to hole up for a month last Spring, laying down tracks for their latest release, Tin Cans and Car Tires, and it was to here that I traveled for an in-studio webcast on behalf of JAMtv and the Rolling Stone Network.
A godawful place for a studio, I thought until I began to get the rhythm of the town and its people. Half urban brash, half country cool, the cab driver, the hotel clerk and rest all regaled me with rich — albeit long-winded — tales of the city and chided me for my impatience. They forced me to slow down and consider my actions, to step outside of my insolated city demeanor.
moe.‘s music is not unlike this town – a meandering, eclectic kludge of styles sitting just far enough outside the mainstream that it forces you to rethink your perspective. Equal parts funk gashes and guitar assaults, Mingus madness and country twang, the quartet is forever testing the boundaries of rock music.
Like all jam bands, moe. are at their best in the live setting, skillfully burning through one dynamic tune after another with an infectious energy that belies any sort of structure. And, like all jam bands, they’ve run into problems trying to reproduce that feeling in the studio, ineffectively trying to boil those expansive sonic explorations down into four-minute, radio-friendly tunes.
While 1994’s independently-released Headseed ran the gamut of genres with a youthful vigor and naivete, the band’s Sony 550 debut Noy Doy (1996) was tempered considerably by studio shellac either due to major label jitters or maturity – the kind that sucks the life out of the song. The question on my mind, as I entered Bear Tracks studio was, would moe. be able to learn from their mistakes? To paraphrase Brian Eno, could they use the studio as another instrument instead of fighting against it to retain what they thought to be “their sound?”
The webcast is a tale in it of itself. Full of personality and mishap, and fueled by adrenaline, goofy ebullience and Canadian Whiskey, it stretched long into the evening. Despite all the cameras and the cracks, it was evident that moe. was approaching this new album with the right combination of unfettered creativity and technical wherewithal — an encouraging sign. Watching guitarist/vocalist Al Schneir duke it out with one song’s vocal tracks (“Big World”) for nearly three hours, listening to (relatively new) drummer Vinnie Amico’s excited monologues about being in the studio with moe. for the first time, and witnessing the beatific look on the all-American face of guitarist Chuck Garvey as he gave me a tour of all the instruments, I developed a personal connection to the record and couldn’t wait to hear the finished product.
Nearly six months later I wasn’t disappointed. Guided gently by mild-mannered producer John Alagia, whose work with the Dave Matthews Band proved that a jam band can effectively transpose their sound onto record, moe. has produced their most solid studio work to date. Tin Cans and Car Tires is sixty minutes of energy and elegance, swinging freely from the unabashedly moe.-like grooves of “Nebraska” and “Spaz Medicine” to the beautifully crafted guitar melodies in “High and Low” and “Letter Home.” There’s a certain verve to the record – one which might show up on mainstream radio’s radar. So prepare yourselves, moe.rons; Tin Cans may set many more car tires on the road to moe.
During a recent conversation, the shy-but-talented Chuck Garvey and I deconstructed the new record, pondering both the creative process and the technical decisions that went into each song. Aside from seeming petrified at the prospect of hearing his voice on the radio, Chuck was confident in Tin Cans and the way the band truly utilized the studio to enhance their sound.
The two songs that you wrote on this album are “It” and “High and Low.” In the realm of Chuck Garvey songs, how do they measure up?
I like them very much. Al really likes “High and Low.” I guess it’s an attention-getter because he was like, “I can’t stop humming parts of that song!” It was driving him nuts after a while.
Yeah, that song really came into it’s own in the studio.
Yeah, I was surprised. That song just kept running through everyone’s head. They really liked the melody. It’s weird I love playing really complicated things, but I guess I prefer writing really simple songs that don’t have many moving parts.
Do you like the way your songs evolved in the studio?
“High and Low” changed a little bit. At first I played it over and over again on the acoustic guitar. Then, I worked out all these other parts in my head. If you hear a melody, you can put a million different things with it in your head. When our band gets ahold of it, it’s a completely different thing. That happens with every song in our band. Songs turn out for the better when you bounce them off a couple other people because you get something out of it that you didn’t realize was there. And that kind of happened with “High and Low.”
And what about “It?”
“It” was like pulling teeth the entire time.
Was it hard trying to reel in that song? ‘Cause it gets way out there in the live rendition
It used to yeah, and I want to make another version that will be different from the recorded version. But yeah, the bridge changed. It works logically, but it’s not something that I want to keep for the rest of my life. In the context of recording for this album, it works.
How are your songs on this record different from Al’s and Rob’s?
Well, generally speaking, Al is into more country music. I’m definitely into playing steel stuff on the guitar, so with some of Al’s songs I’m really trying to do that. “Queen of the Rodeo” and “Letter Home” are twangers. In the past year, he’s kind of had a thing for that. Rob likes the more groovy, “shake it” kind of thing, which is good. He also gets into a lot of elements of Steely Dan and Little Feat and things like that. As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t really tell you specifically about my songs. [The other guys in the band] have said I write kind of hooky things.
You mentioned “Queen of the Rodeo.” Why did you guys decide to close the album with that?
It’s one of those songs we play at the end of the night. “Bar’s closing, get the hell out” kind of song, you know?
So it’s the encore of the album?
Yeah, it is kind of like that. It’s also the happy ending, though we didn’t really consciously think about that.
Now, this is the first time you’ve had a horn section on an album. You brought in the guys from Yolk. How do you feel that turned out?
I’m psyched! It fattens everything immensely and those guys are really good at what they do.