moe. has been an acclaimed staple of the jam rock scene since the early ‘90s. While churning out an eclectic catalog of improvisation-fueled music, hosting festivals for their devout “moe.ron” fan base, and participating in several successful fundraisers, guitarist Al Schnier and the guys have accomplished a lot. When asked how to describe the moe. sound in an old Relix magazine article, Al explained, “It’s an amalgamation of a wide variety of the history of rock, all regurgitated and recycled through the eyes, ears, hands, whatever of the guys in our band and all of that with a sense of adventure, a sense of humor, also a constant desire to push the envelope. All in this arena of taking chances, improvising live, and making things up on the spot.” With the release of What Happened to the La Las early this year, moe. shows that they’re continuing to push the envelope with no slowing down.
We spoke with Al about how he got into music, life on the road, and how VOX plays a role in his sound.
VOX: Let’s start at the top…how did you start playing music?
Al Schnier: I began playing piano at the age of five. I also listened to the radio constantly - Top 40 AM radio in the early ’70s. In fourth grade, I discovered Kiss. I was nuts. I was in the Kiss Army. I had the cards, a bunch of records, tons of Circus and Creem magazines, etc. Around this age, I also discovered our local FM station, WOUR. It remains, to this day, one of the biggest influences. This was the kind of free format FM station that played deep cuts from early Genesis, The Who, live Dead, and more. After perfecting all of my moves on a tennis racket, I finally picked up the guitar at age thirteen. I pretty much stopped doing homework after that. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence…
VOX: Oh, sure. How has the road been? Are there any memorable stories you can share?
AS: When I graduated from SUNY Oneonta, one of the things I always wanted to do was take that cross country trip with a few of my buddies. I’ve been doing it for 21 years with the guys in moe. The stories are way too many to get into here. Suffice it to say, that we have the best job ever. I love my family and I really like being home…a lot. At the same time, I love being on the road and getting to ski in Tahoe with friends, a week later, run with some other friends in Boulder along the creek path, and then wind up at a great vintage guitar shop in “Cincy” a week later. Life is good.
VOX: The new record is out and it’s a great double album with the second half being an acoustic version of the first. How did that come together? Were all of the songs electric and you then created acoustic versions?
AS: We initially set out to make one album – the electric version. Our label, Sugar Hill, suggested the acoustic disc as a bonus for preorders. Rather than simply unplugging and performing the songs as is, we began the process of rearranging and deconstructing each of the songs to fit the new instrumentation. Some were very natural…many did begin as solo acoustic pieces, so they transitioned nicely. Others took on a whole new life, as they were originally conceived as electric songs that were pretty riff-heavy. We recorded everything live, during our sound checks, while on tour. We never realized it would have so much potential, but fans have really responded to it. The acoustic disc is now being distributed in the Deluxe Edition.
VOX: Very cool. Ok, let’s talk gear- You’ve been using Hand-Wired AC30s lately…what drew you to them?
AS: I’d been using some vintage AC30s on the road when the new Hand-Wireds came out. I’m a total gearhead and spend a lot of time online obsessing over gear on various forums. When I first saw the reviews and specs on this one, I thought ‘here’s a VOX for me.’ You had me at the gut shots!
I then demo’d one at Soundcheck. I literally showed up with the amp still in the original shipping box, unopened. We popped the staples and set it up next to my blue ‘63 AC30. I quickly dialed in the controls to match the relative gain and tone and off we went. We were pressed for time, so I didn’t get too much time to A/B them. The thing was - it was so good, so right on the money, I decided to use it for the show that night. I remember looking back at the amp, incredulously, several times during the show, because I could not believe how awesome it was. I never went back to my ‘63. That vintage ‘63, along with the ‘65 I used as a backup, are now both in my home studio. I currently have two AC30HW2X combos on the road. I recently swapped out one of the Alnico Blue speakers with a vintage silver “Bulldog”, but I have to say the stock Celestions were great right out of the box and even more so after a short break-in period.
VOX: Do you have any other vintage beauties? You’re also using a new VOX Wah-Wah, right?
AS: Yes. I love vintage guitars and amps. Someday, I’ll have one in every color! I have the two AC30s I’ve mentioned, as well as a ‘63 AC10 twin (which I used on the album a bit), and a ‘64 AC15 twin. I also have one of the old VOX Escort portable amps, similar to what Brian May used. I have an assortment of vintage Tone Benders, as well as vintage Wah pedals and the V847A. I was really pleased when I checked out the new VOX Wah-Wahs. I travel a lot. We have a lot of festival gigs where we don’t have the luxury of a sound check and I know my gear needs to be rock solid. Knowing I could take a brand new VOX Wah, that has that classic range and tone, power it from a universal source, and mount to a pedal board so that I can just drop it in and go is a huge plus. Some of our changeovers look like NASCAR pit stops and my gear needs to work when it’s go time.
VOX: Can you share your recording techniques? Like your favorite settings, mic placement, etc.?
AS: Recording is a tricky prospect. A smart (and funny) engineer once told me, “the recorded sound is basically ****. It’s our job to work with the tools we have.” There are several things I’ve learned along the way, when recording electric guitar…first and foremost - find your place in the mix. The electric guitar has a very specific frequency range in rock music. Fortunately, it’s right where EL84s and Blues speakers live. This is one of the reasons AC30s make for such great recording amps! Those rich mids are right where you need to be to be heard and really fit in with the punchy low end of the bass, the top end that comes from cymbals, acoustics, piano, etc. Once you find your sound, the next trick is to capture it. I tend to love ribbon mics. The Royer R121 is probably my all-time favorite mic for tracking electric guitars. They tend to reproduce exactly what you’re hearing in the room. Sometimes, you want a mic to have a sound. I have a whole collection of mics specifically because of their tonal qualities. When it comes to tracking my guitars, I usually do all of the work up front, as a guitar player, versus being the engineer. When we tracked guitars for the new album, we actually used a three mic setup, with a vintage U87 and a Coles ribbon on the speaker, and an RCA ribbon about three feet back for ambience. All three were summed to one track and really did a great job of preserving the original tone.
VOX: Anything else you’d like us to mention (or promote)?
AS: There’s a new Everyone Orchestra album coming out, which I recorded with John Fishman, Steve Kimock, and several others. www.everyoneorchestra.com
Also, I have a new progressive string band called Floodwood that is currently writing and touring, in between moe. tours. Look for our debut album in 2012. www.facebook.com/Floodwood
VOX: Can you leave us with a quote about VOX?
AS: VOX is the sound. There’s a reason so many guitar players wind up with a VOX at the end of this tone quest. There’s something logical about the right combination of tubes and speakers that makes VOX amps just right for guitars. VOX amps live in the sweet spot where guitars live…but there’s also something intangible about VOX amps. Plus, the diamond grills are just plain awesome!
VOX: Thanks, Al!
For more info about Al and moe., visit www.moe.org