Using the Power of Community for Good
By Casey Lowdermilk
“If I didn’t play in a band and I wanted to raise the money personally, it would have been a fraction of what we’re able to do, because we have moe. It goes way beyond what you would be able to do as an individual; it’s all about working together as a community to do this stuff.” – Al Schnier
As moe. traverses the country several times a year, it’s not uncommon for Al Schnier’s guitar to emit uncanny echoes of Jerry Garcia during an extended “Timmy Tucker,” or for band and fans to meet friendly faces along for a nationwide tour. With a style embracing such timeless artists as Steely Dan, the Talking Heads and The Clash, moe.’s improvisational music features humor, dueling guitar riffs, and strong songwriting. Balancing the art of refining its unique sound with relevant songwriting and innovative studio recording techniques, the band has brought a passionate fan community along on its journey of over 17 years. moe. has become an institution in the festival and jam scene; in the first half of 2008, they’ve released two albums (Sticks & Stones in January and Warts & All, Vol. VI in May) and toured the country.
moe. garners the power of community to work toward positive solutions for greater social issues. Charitable giving plays a significant role in the moe. community as the band partners with fans, other musicians, promoters, and foundations to host benefits. Perhaps the most celebrated was the Tsunami Benefit Concert in 2005, which received the Live Performance of the Year Award at the 6th Annual Jammys and contributed over $150,000 to tsunami relief.
More recently, they performed an intimate, acoustic set to register voters and benefit HeadCount, a recent Rex Foundation grantee. Schnier also serves on HeadCount’s Board of Directors. Personal dedication to the causes and a vested interest in community as a way to solve problems speak to the character of this road-tested band and lend a deeper meaning to their music.
moe. performed at a post-Jammys Rex benefit in 2002 with special guests Warren Haynes, Trey Anastasio and Steve Molitz. We recently had a chance to talk with Schnier and bass-slapping frontman Rob Derhak about Trey’s guitar mastery, the evolution of their latest album, and worthy causes.
Rex Foundation: What do you remember from your post-Jammys Rex benefit in 2002?
Al Schnier, moe.: Two things stand out in my mind most from that night — one, coming from the Jammys and having all this adrenaline with all these great people there, and then going to our gig at BB King’s that night. To see our backstage room with Trey and Warren; Weir was there at one point, but he never ended up coming out and playing. They were all there at our show, just kind of hanging out; it was pretty cool. Usually, we’re the guys at somebody else’s show in that situation — it was just surreal.
The other thing that still stands out in my mind to this day is the fact that when Trey came out on stage with us, he was playing somebody else’s guitar, somebody else’s amp, and somebody else’s pedal board. It was pretty stock, off-the-shelf gear; I remember him kind of fiddling with it. He wasn’t really that sure about the overdrive pedal, and they were showing him how it worked.
This was all in the beginning of a song and the band was playing. Within two or three minutes he totally sounded like Trey. Somehow, he took all this other gear and dialed in his tone. I thought it was really remarkable. It occurred to me that so many of these guitar players have a sound or ideal tone in their head that they always go for, and the equipment is almost a distraction. Those are just tools, but ultimately you’re trying to get the same sound out of it. I just thought that was really cool.
Rex: How have your Sticks & Stones songs developed in the live setting since your album came out in January?
Schnier: Our playing on the new songs has improved a great deal. We opened the tour at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and that was the first time we debuted a lot of those songs live. The songs are evolving and we’re getting a lot more comfortable playing them. They’ve become a regular part of the show. We’re getting to the point where we don’t have to think about the songs anymore, which is good.
Rob Derhak: The new songs have become live-er. You fill in the gaps that the studio creates in the live setting. We’ve been doing “Raise a Glass” as the encore every night, and in SF, the first night, no one had even heard the song before. It was like pulling teeth trying to make it happen, and now it’s become this fixture of the show; it’s changed quite a bit.
Rex: Rex benefit concerts allow the foundation to invest in charities and communities that are making a difference. What are some causes or communities that you think are making a positive impact today?
Derhak: The stuff that I pay attention to is more local for me. I live in Portland, Maine, and the thing that I try to give money to and help out is the local homeless shelter. It’s called Pebble Street. Actually moe.’s doing a show this summer and we’re donating a certain amount of money to them.
I think HeadCount, as far as nationally, is the thing that I focus in on the most. We really want to get people out there and vote. The last couple of elections have been so poorly attended that it’s hard to hear people complain about the way the country’s going when they haven’t even tried to change it themselves. That’s the most important thing right now.
Schnier: Headcount certainly is; I’m an active board member on HeadCount. That’s a group that I obviously believe strongly in. I also connected with Mark from Rock the Earth [another Rex grantee] a long time ago at High Sierra; those guys are doing a really good thing too.
We also have a group of fans — I’m not sure that they have a formal name as of yet. This weekend these fans are going to go volunteer at a soup kitchen, just helping to pass out meals and stuff. I’m going to go with them on Friday and help work in the afternoon. I think it’s kind of a cool thing. Their whole take on it is that we’re coming as guests into these cities, we’re all coming to have a good time and enjoy these shows, but we could also do something nice for the people in the community while we’re there, just take an hour or two out of our day and not party, not listen to music and just give back for a few hours. I think it’s a really great gesture.
Rex: Why do you feel it’s important for moe. to support charities such as the Rex Foundation?
Derhak: Because we can. We’re in a position where we can make a difference. Just going around and playing music and having fun and partying is not what we’re really about. If we can actually use what we’ve built to make other people aware of people who are less fortunate or suffering and get the ball rolling that direction — why not do it? There’s no reason not to be doing something.
The biggest thing we’ve ever done is we did a concert for Tsunami Relief a while ago. We got a lot of money sent down right after that. It was great to see how people got together to make that happen with us. That got us really motivated to see that we could make a difference on a scale like that.
Schnier: We’re in a unique position where we have the opportunity to do that. We’re in a unique position where we’re sort of a focal point for this small community that is moe. and our fans. It’s better to use our powers for good rather than evil (chuckles).
There are so many causes to support and it’s hard not to put all of our money into these things. At the same time, this is a business and these are our jobs, after all. You know, there’s a children’s museum that I want to do a benefit for, and there’s a small zoo that I want to see survive; there’s just so many causes. Not to mention HeadCount and the Rex Foundation, and the list goes on and on. And that’s just the stuff that’s in our country and my world — the things that touch me — that’s not even dealing with Tibet or Darfur.
For example, I’m the parent of an autistic child. We’ve raised a lot of money for an autism developmental center in upstate New York (Kelberman Center). The thing is, if I didn’t play in a band and I wanted to raise the money personally, it would have been a fraction of what we’re able to do, because we have moe. and we have our fans and we have access to this community, and the people are so giving. We did a benefit concert and we donated all the proceeds of the show to this developmental center. But beyond that the promoter gave in all their money, and everybody volunteered their time, so before you know it what was $30,000 turned into $50,000 because all our expenses were covered. It goes way beyond what you would be able to do as an individual; it’s all about working together as a community to do this stuff.
“Nationally, HeadCount is the thing that I focus in on the most. We really want to get people out there and vote. The last couple of elections have been so poorly attended that it’s hard to hear people complain about the way the country’s going when they haven’t even tried to change it themselves.”
– Rob Derhak