Al Schnier, guitarist/singer of moe., recognizes the irony of his band signing a deal with Sugar Hill Records.
These days, it’s become common for groups, especially in the rock genre, to start their own record labels and handle their own distribution and promotion. And here is moe., having released all but two of its previous 10 studio CDs on its own label, teaming up with a record company for a new CD, Whatever Happened to the La Las.
“We’ve built a really great cottage industry out of this somehow,” Schnier says, noting that the band is not by any means dissatisfied with the career it has built with its do-it-yourself approach. “After doing it for so many years, though, the one thing that’s always sort of eluded us, I guess, was being able to tap into a broader audience or a wider audience or getting some kind of additional exposure. We’ve always flown under the radar.”
And that’s where the band hopes Sugar Hill can help. The last time moe. had a record deal, it was on a larger scale. Formed in 1991 in Buffalo, N.Y., the band started out taking the do-it-yourself route, self-releasing its first two CDs, Fatboy in 1992 and Headseed a year later, before signing with Sony 550 Records.
The band, which also includes guitarist Chuck Garvey, singer/bassist Rob Derhak, drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin, released two CDs on that label —No Doy in 1996 and Tin Cans & Car Tires in 1998 — but didn’t get the kind of boost in its popularity that it hoped would come with the resources of a major label.
So moe. returned to releasing its own CDs and had stuck with that approach in releasing its four subsequent studio albums — Wormwood, Okayalright, The Conch and Sticks and Stones (not to mention the band’s six-album series of live performances, Warts & All, and its two-volume, three-CD live album, Dr. Stan’s Prescription).
The Sugar Hill deal isn’t the only way in which moe. has gone outside of its camp to try to improve on what it does.
For Whatever Happened To The La Las, the group, for one of the rare times in its career, brought in a producer, John Travis. Schnier says the band had started to think its democratic approach to songwriting and arranging might not have been resulting in the best musical decisions.
“The thing about that is because we’re very much like brothers and democratic almost to a fault, you end up compromising all of the time,” he says. “Nobody is really steering the ship. We kind of all are, and nobody really wants to ruffle any feathers.”
To be sure, sometimes the collaborative approach results in better music than what any single band member might create on his own, Schnier says.
“But sometimes that compromise just means that everybody’s ideas got distilled, and none of them are really great and nobody’s really happy at the end of the day,” Schnier says.
From what Schnier says of Travis, the producer wasn’t shy about directing the band. Many of the songs the band recorded for Whatever Happened To The La Las had been played live and developed over a period of time.
But in the studio, Travis steered the band in new directions on some of the songs. For example, “Suck A Lemon,” a tune that helps set the rocking tone for the new CD, lost an instrumental section the band had been playing. The CD’s multi-faceted opener, “The Bones Of Lazarus,” another song that had been played on tour, also changed considerably. Then there was the dreamy rocker “Puebla,” which clocks in at just over four minutes on the CD.
The songs from Whatever Happened To The La Las figure to evolve as moe. tours behind the CD. Set lists will vary, but the feel of the show has evolved a bit from recent tours, where the group tried to create more of a structured presentation, to the point that the band was writing and rehearsing instrumental segments of its show.
“The idea was to tighten up the show, to really see if we could actually make the show more exciting somehow,” Schnier says. “But I think in the end, we all sort of found that it actually took something away from the show for all of us because there was less freedom in the show, first of all, and it somehow was less fun because you were working so hard and because of the structure. And I don’t know if the fans enjoyed it any more.”