My college workout regimen was simple — go see moe. at least four times a year and dance hard enough to sweat out several months of fried food and Busch Heavy. When I was 18, the guys in moe. were only 30, and the bulk of the boogie came after midnight.
Al Schnier, half of moe.’s two-guitar onslaught, turned 50 this year, and he’s not complaining that the band has migrated from their long-standing post at the Music Farm over to the comfortable confines of the Music Hall, where they’ll wrap up around the time their shows used to begin. On the phone with City Paper from his home in upstate New York, he mentions the band’s weekly conference call. An offer to play a marquee JazzFest set in New Orleans that began at 2 a.m. was met with grumbles and the serious retort, “Is there anything at 2 p.m.?”
The focus on theater shows and a healthier schedule sprung, in part, from bassist Rob Derhak’s fight with nasopharyngeal cancer last year. moe. announced an indefinite hiatus in summer 2017.
“You do ask yourself those questions — ‘What if we can’t all play together anymore?’ ‘What if we come back but our fans don’t?’ But first and foremost, you wonder, ‘What about my friend?'” recounts Schnier. “As much as I love moe. and my job, in that moment, none of that other shit matters.”
Derhak received immediate treatment and by November of last year, he was declared cancer-free. moe. hit the road again in February. “In six months, we went from getting this really devastating news to getting the most amazing news,” Schnier recalls. “It was this crazy rollercoaster we were on.”
Ultimately, Derhak’s cancer may contribute to moe.’s longevity. The friendships between the band’s five members — Schnier, Derhak, guitarist Chuck Garvey, drummer Vinnie Amico, and percussionist Jim Loughlin — grew even closer as they faced mortality and uncertainty.
“We couldn’t be doing this for so long if we didn’t feel that way about one another,” says Schnier. “You hear about those bands that don’t talk to each other and ride in separate vehicles. I can’t imagine that. Maybe they do it because the money is good or they’re bound by contract, but we’re not in this for the money.”
moe.’s success for nearly 30 years is due, in part, to their “tour first” business model. While other bands struggle to find new revenue streams in a streaming world, moe. — like their peers in Phish and the Grateful Dead — have always relied on concerts rather than album sales. Still, even though a studio album might net a loss in today’s music business, Schnier says that 2014’s No Guts, No Glory won’t be moe.’s last.
“It is a question we ask ourselves from time to time: ‘Does it even matter at this point?’ ‘Can’t we just keep writing songs and playing them on stage?’ But there’s something about the process — the artistic endeavor of it, having a group project that we all work on with a common goal, where we create this body of work with songs and art work that encapsulates a period of time,” explains Schnier. “There’s something about that that’s still relevant in this day and age. Even if the commercial aspect isn’t the same as it was 25 years ago, it doesn’t change the fact that as a band, an album is important for sustaining our growth, so that we evolve and move forward rather than being stagnant and throwing in the towel and just playing the hits.”
Schnier laughs when he says “the hits.” moe.’s following has always been a counter culture. Even their 2010 release Smash Hits: Vol. 1, where they rerecorded many of their classic on-stage favorites like “Yodelittle” and “Buster,” was named with the tongue-in-cheek understanding that “hits” is a relative term. But in the small but nationwide circle of “moe.rons,” the subtleties of a 2010 performance of the band’s song, “Captain America,” versus tonight’s interpretation may be worthy of pages of forum discussion.
Chances are, the Music Hall gig will bring out older fans who have stayed away from late-night weekday gigs in years past, while still attracting a younger generation. “It just means that when the show’s over, people can still go out to the Pour House and hang out,” says Schnier. “It’s a win-win.”
Schnier knows Charleston’s local scene better than most out-of-town musicians. His wife is a South Carolina native, and their family vacations on Folly Beach, including over Labor Day weekend this year.
“We went to Bert’s every day,” he recalls. “That’s the highlight of the trip — going there all hours of the day or night and seeing the locals hanging around. It seems like the center of the universe.”
Schnier is occasionally recognized — his favorite moments come in the most unexpected places, like tailgating with his wife at a Gamecocks game, and seeing a fan’s worlds collide. moe. even references Charleston in a song, “White Lightning Turpentine,” where Derhak sings, “Left standing out in Charleston/ Warm mist at 3 a.m.” Soon, a Music Hall show may even be a homecoming — Schnier says he plans to move here within a few years.
That familiarity — and the Charleston date kicking off a two-week holiday tour — makes a moe. Music Hall show even more special.
“The first shows back on tour are always pretty interesting to me because everybody comes from these various places, and the shows tend to be a bit more adventurous and the music goes in different directions because we haven’t quite settled into a groove,” says Schnier. “I always think they’re a lot of fun. It’s unsettling, but in a good way, so it should be good.”