photo by Paul Citone
Ask Rob Derhak how he’s doing and the bassist, singer, and founding member of moe. will quickly transition from answering about himself to talking about how well the quintet is playing these days, nearing three decades of making music together. He’s eternally grateful for all the love and support family, friends, and fans extended to him, during what he describes as “medical issues” but in actuality was a serious bout with nasopharyngeal cancer. He’s feeling so well he admits he’s grown tiresome of the question, wanting instead to discuss moe.’s current tour with Blues Traveler and G Love, and the band’s annual moe.down fest. Still, there is the reality of aging, as an individual and as a group, that Derhak’s health scare has framed in a new light. Hours before returning the road, Derhak spoke about getting older, as well as the present state of moe, the band’s faithful fans, and the balance of collaboration and competitive drive.
Tell me about this tour with Blues Traveler and G Love.
When our manager brought it up, I was like, “F—, yeah. That sounds awesome.” We haven’t really done anything with G Love, and I think we really only played with Blues Traveler a couple of times. I think that we’re close enough and different enough in a lot of different ways that we can make the shows really interesting and fun to watch, and people will like to go to them. Blues Traveler came up with the idea—they came to us—and our manager saying we could get a full summer tour doing a lot of outdoor shows. I thought, “My God, that sounds ideal. That’s what we’ve been wanting to do for a while now.” I wanted to jump right at it.
I feel like the jam scene has broadened in recent years so much, particularly in the form of electronic music, that it started to drift away from the guitar-based rock that was at its core. Do see this tour as a renewal of sorts for that style of music?
I don’t know. It’s all subjective. For me? Yeah, sure. But there could be other people not interested whatsoever; who just want to see electronic music. From my perspective, I feel the EDM thing kind of going down a little in popularity. There was a little bit of a lull in jamming, guitar-based music. It seems people are getting more interested in listening to that again. The crowds are getting bigger, I’ve noticed, for us, anyway. I feel in a more comfortable place in that situation than, say, Coachella.
Speaking of festivals, you just finished up another moe.down fest. How did you feel about this year’s installment?
Not only did we play every day a bunch of different sets, we also put as many of our side projects in as we can. It became a real, sort of, family picnic. That’s something we’ve always liked about it. It’s not to say we want to make it very selective and keep it small, but the idea of having it be more moe.-centric, and just a few other bands we’re not associated with, kept it really family-oriented; with the hardcore moe. fans. We’ve made a serious effort to build that over the years. moe.down is a reward for that. And we have these other events that aren’t music related—a lot of them go to charity—like a golf tournament and a lacrosse game I do that goes to American Cancer Society. A lot goes back, also, to the community that hosts moe.down; to the library and the schools.
How’s your golf game?
I have a really big drive, but then my game pretty much falls apart after that.
You mentioned the hardcore fans. When did you first realize you had your own fans, and not just, say, a curious spillover from the jamband community, or from an association with other bands like Phish?
That’s interesting. There have been a couple of tiers to what we’ve done. When we first started out we had no association with jambands. First of all, that wasn’t even a thing. It was when we started playing the Wetlands that they came up with the term jambands. We initially had our own little group of fans up in Buffalo before anyone there had really heard of Phish or Blues Traveler. We also didn’t have as much of an improv edge as we do now. I’m not going to deny the fact that we were influenced by Phish. That was when we went from an alternative band to playing in front of some Deadheads. Then there was a real shift somewhere down the road, and it kind of goes back to the very first moe.down. That was when I realized this is really our own thing.
Do you feel like your audience has been able to age with you?
The same audience has been there. Some have aged out. Then, we go through a wave of younger people who are interested, and then a wave of people younger than that. It’s not like the audience is one person or one group of people. It’s fluctuating and changing, literally, and we’re still doing our same thing.
In order to have that turnover, does that mean you have to keep one eye on what’s contemporary and the other on what’s classic?
What we’ve always been about is exploring the stuff that interests us; making music that doesn’t necessarily sound like another band as best we can and as original as we can possibly make it. It doesn’t necessarily make us comfortable in what we’re doing because we’re constantly trying to do different things. I try to write without any pre-conceived notion. I want to make a moe. song but what does that mean? And a moe. song can mean something different to each member of the band. The best way to work it, I’ve learned, is to take an idea as far as you can, then bring it to the band, and try not to direct them too much. They put on their own feel and it becomes more band-oriented. We just kind of want to do what we want and ram it down people’s throats. (Laughs.)
I can’t think of another year whose 50th anniversary has been celebrated and revisited more than 1969. You’ve been at this for almost three decades. Do you as a band talk about making it to 50 years as a group? And what that means?
We do think about that sort of thing. We’ve had our management and our lawyers saying we really need a band agreement for contingencies. We’ve made it this far—our 30th anniversary is this winter—and we still have not had any band agreements officially made. So, what happens if one of us dies, or quits? We still have nothing to guide us through that, because it’s too difficult a subject for us to talk about or agree on. Vin (Amico, drums) and Jim (Loughlin, percussion) are coming up on 50, and the rest of us are 50, which blows my mind.
In what way?
When we first did Furthur tour in the ‘90s, which seems like yesterday, I remember celebrating Bob Weir’s 50th on the road. How am I now the same [age] as he was then? 50 seemed so old to me. But, it’s not. It just seemed that way in my late 20s.
But now that you are 50, how do you see playing into your senior years?
It’s hard to imagine what we would do. What if (when I’m older) I’m in Vegas playing a show and I need a triple bypass or something? You start thinking about that. What does the future mean to the band? It’s clear the older you get you have to slow down. Unless you’re the Rolling Stones, who can be flown in a Lear jet, and there’s a week-and-a-half between each show, with every convenience. Living on a tour bus with 11 other people for five weeks straight is not the kind of lifestyle a 65-year-old man is going to handle. As far as replacing other guys in the band, I can’t even imagine doing that.
I saw Little Feat a few weeks back—a band you and I are both fond of—and they are celebrating 50 years together. But Lowell George, their founder, has been gone for 40 years, and their founding drummer, Richie Hayward, passed away nearly 10 years ago. Could you ever see moe. as a band with a “new Al” or “another Chuck?”
It wouldn’t feel right for me to do that. I think if I still wanted to play, maybe if one of the other guys was gone, we’d do like a different thing, like the guys in Little Feat. They don’t do Little Feat very often. But, they play together in duos and trios. I would think that would be more of a route I would go. And I would still play the songs I wrote. It’s hard to look into the future and say I wouldn’t ever do this or that because sometimes, honestly, it could come down to money. My perspective now is that I wouldn’t go out as moe. because it really wouldn’t be moe.
I feel like artists that reach a milestone mark of 25, 30, 40 years tend to have a cycle of evolution that follows: they want to prove something to their audience, then they want to say something to their audience, then they want to feel something with their audience. Would you agree with that?
I don’t know if we’re exactly broken down like that, but I feel like we’re at a point where maybe we do want to feel something, but it’s the culmination of trying to say something and prove something to everyone and ourselves. And trying to make the greatest experience we can possible. It’s all of those things tied together.
You see it more as cumulative, rather than individual segments of development?
I definitely agree that when we first started we were really out there to prove something. There’s no doubt about that. But, I feel like we’re always trying to prove something, to tell you the truth. I’ve always been a pretty competitive person, about everything. When I first started I want to be a top bass player. I wanted moe. to be the top money-making band in the world. Now I’m trying to prove, personally and as a band, that I can make music that is relevant. I want that relevance to carry over, to make the shows inspired and emotional. I want to make songs that make people feel.
How does that competitive spirit get channeled when you are sitting-in or collaborating like you will be in a designated collaborative set each night on this tour?
This is my mindset when I go onstage for a collaborative set: Everybody on that stage is a new band. So, I’m competing then with other bands out there, not with the people onstage with me; to prove that this band is an amazing band. A good example of that is when we just played Red Rocks. We had (Phish bassist) Mike Gordon come up to play with us and it got down to a point when the two of us were playing at the same time; we were jamming. And people (online after) were calling it a bass duel. That was the furthest thing from the truth. I was listening to what he was doing, and he was listening to what I was doing, and we were trying to enhance that and play off each other. And make it a great sounding thing.
I feel like moe. got in just under the wire as far as being a band that worked their way up through the clubs, got signed, went into the studio, made albums, hoped to get songs on the radio, and toured relentlessly in support. There was a certain pageantry to it that has been replaced by streaming, and downloads, and viral clips, and Internet stars, and ad placement. Which do you prefer, as you have been living and working through these changes?
I’m still pretty old school about music. More than 50% of the time I’m putting an album on a turntable, listening to one side, flipping it, listening to the whole thing. The stuff that gets me jazzed is the full experience of the band. People like to say just put out a song. I know it’s the way it’s done now but it doesn’t make me happy. I still want to put out an album. I still want to play a set of music that has a beginning, middle, and end. For me there is that pageantry, and there’s still that magic, in a whole piece of music. ent 2;\lsd