Chuck Garvey at moe.’s Big Lebowski Halloween, 2014
When Jambands.com debuted 20 years ago, the site featured an interview with moe.’s Chuck Garvey. At the time, the group had just released Tin Cans and Car Tires, their second record with Sony 550 Music, which includes Garvey originals, “Hi & Lo” and “It” as well as other moe. staples such as: “Plane Crash,” “Nebraska, “Happy Hour Hero” and “Head.” Garvey recently made some time to revisit that album and reflect on the band’s development over the past two decades. He also looked ahead to future events, starting with this Saturday’s special “Night at the Arcade” performance at the Fillmore in Philadelphia, followed by moe.’s January 2019 Jamaican Tropical Throe.down. Also of note: Garvey indicated that the band has started thinking about recording their next studio record over the coming months.
When we interviewed you as part of the Jambands.com launch, moe. had just released Tin Cans and Car Tires. What are your thoughts as you look back on that album 20 years later?
It’s still one of my favorite recordings. The process was kind of crazy and also fun. We worked with John Alagia as our producer and also with John Siket [engineer]. They were both very different people but they both helped make it a great recording. That time in our lives and in the band’s career was very important and it’s great that most of those songs, if not all of them, have stuck around.
I don’t think we’ve ditched any of them, although some of those songs have taken on a different personality. We’ve made a few changes over time but that comes with playing them on the road. Some of these are more conscious choices and others evolve so slowly that you don’t even know the changes are taking place and they become the new standard. There are definitely songs from that era where people love them for a specific reason and we love them for a specific reason so there’s an aspect of trying to keep them true to what the original personality of a song is. But it keeps it a little more interesting for us to change things up. So when someone comes to a show they hear the song but it’s not exactly the same as the studio recording—there are different things that happen throughout the song that are surprising and that’s also kind of exciting. I mean, for live music fans, everybody wants to hear different versions and find their favorite version of songs. So it’s fun for us to make it different and it keeps it interesting but there are also parts of these songs that cannot and should not ever be changed.
Do you ever listen back to the recorded versions of your stuff for a refresher on the original arrangements or the like?
Over the years every once in a while I’d go back and listen to something just to see what it was like. More recently we started doing that—not to the whole catalog but certain songs—just to see what those differences were because we knew that over time we had made alterations and everybody had kind of internalized the changes. So we didn’t necessarily remember what the starting point was and if it was better or not.
It’s kind of fun to go back. It’s a little bit like baby pictures, it’s a little embarrassing sometimes but at the same time, you see where you were at that point and you notice the difference and how things have changed over time, how your approach has changed over time. After playing a song for a little while you start to hear new things that you feel should be a part of the song or ways that you can kind of tinker with it. That’s how we’ve always done things. We’ll get together to play and write songs and then after a couple of live demonstrations of a song you realize, “Oh, this is not working” or “I’ve got an idea for this other part for this song.” That’s kind of fun, tinkering with things. It’s kind of like working with a hot rod.
Nowadays when you’re crafting a setlist, to what extent are you aware of the totality of your catalog? How cognizant are you of selecting songs that reflect the various eras of the band?
We have a master list for all of our songs. Actually, not everything is on there—sometimes we take things off and then reinstall them later. But for every show, we have a master list and whoever’s doing the setlist can pick from anything that they feel would be good for the night or something we haven’t played in a while and we want to try and dust it off. We do have a great big cheat sheet for that and to varying degrees, all of us try to take from different eras and different styles and blend them so we have something that’s newer.
For example, we recently did a writing session where we came up with some new songs, so we’ll try to include at least a couple of those in every setlist. But at the same time we’re also trying to include things from the very beginning of when we started playing and some middle ground and try to blend it all together. People came to the band at different points and they might have different albums or different periods of time that they enjoy, so it’s fun for us to mix it up and play a little bit from every era. But it’s definitely a part of the process where we take elements of our entire catalog and try to blend them together in certain ways. We’ll try to put a certain song that we wrote in 1992 next to a song that we wrote in 2002 or 2012 and try and link them with a segue. That’s a fun aspect of making a setlist and taking those building blocks and putting them together and trying to make them work in some way.
Although I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll write sets where there are tempo changes or style changes that work in my head but they don’t necessarily flow from the whole band if we’re trying to do it live, at least not without a little bit of discussion. Sometimes I can hear something happen but the rest of the band can’t necessarily hear it. So when we do a setlist meeting before the show we’ll talk about it.
Is there veto power?
Yeah, there’s some veto power because in a lot of the things we do we’re very democratic. So if somebody is really not feeling it, we want to make sure that everyone enjoys the process. That way if somebody really feels that it’s going to be a trainwreck or not work out or it’s just ill-conceived then we’ll go back and look at it. If we’re not all completely invested and happy with what’s going on, sometimes it can reflect in the music.
It can be exciting when we’re in kind of a fun grey-zone where we don’t know what’s going to happen, where there are unknown stretches between two different keys and tempos and feels. But if somebody thinks that there’s too much of a leap or it just doesn’t make enough sense then usually whoever is writing the setlist will make some sort of accommodation.
When you post your stage setlists, on any given night some of the songs are identified as NH for “No Huddle.” What is the idea behind that?
In that instance the song pretty much just goes straight into the next song. It’s kind of fun and also a challenge. Sometimes it can be difficult to go from one song to the next because if there’s a tempo or a feel change—it can be jarring to everyone. That’s just one way to do it.
Sometimes it’s “last first,” which is the last note of one song is the first note of the next song, so you have to ignore your muscle memory and power into the next song and not just end the one that you’re playing. There’s a lot of those. We usually have to finesse those things where it’s a quick cut but we have to get into the next song quickly. Sometimes we’ll talk it out, sometimes it’ll just be “It’s coming, don’t turn around, don’t tune, don’t start talking.” [laughs]
For me, I’ll use those occasionally to pace the set where at the beginning of the set I just want to have a couple of songs in a row and then we’ll take a short pause two or three songs in. It’s just to keep the momentum going then you maybe have a slight lull between songs and then a couple of segues.
You mentioned talking with other on stage. Again, looking at different eras of the band, there have been times where you’d talk to each other quite a bit to bust chops and other eras where the banter has been minimal.
I think that’s changed again recently. Some of that is coming back. Some more bullshit between songs, making fun of each other on stage, or just talking about what’s going on at the moment. That’s actually changing a little bit and there’s been a lot more of that kind of banter between songs. That’s always been a discussion about professionalism—not that it’s not a dirty word but it always kind of looms. [laughs].
Personally, some times at festivals or in different situations in the past I have felt that I would rather spend every second trying to play a really great piece of music that hopefully people would love and that was the most important part of it. But the personality of our band is not completely locked up in that. We’re not just sitting there trying to play as many notes as we possibly can. We’re not trying to play as long as we can, that’s not necessarily the measure of success.
Part of measuring success is connecting with people and some of that can be the things that we talk about in between songs. I think that that’s become part of who we are again. I actually just started thinking about this recently. Our presentation has changed a little bit and part of that is just connecting with people, which is important. You can do it through music, 95% of the time. But you can also do it through having a discussion onstage or just talking a little bit. That is actually sometimes equally as powerful as some of the songs, hopefully.