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Chuck Garvey and the Dithering of moe.
More than ten years have passed since college-friends Chuck Garvey and Rob Derhak founded the band that they dubbed Five Guys Named Moe. From the moment of that initial Broadway Joe's gig, the group's core of relatively callow musicians, which soon included Garvey's guitar foil Al Schnier, continually sought to enrich their musical lexicon and collective communication. Garvey acknowledges, "We learned as we went along because we loved it and we wanted to keep doing it." The band has not abandoned that initial spirit and ethos, which it applies to individual songcraft as well as its efforts to explore novel textures in the live setting.
The new year (and moe.llennium) has been good to the quintet. A litany of the band's achievements includes: the release of acclaimed double disc L (Jammy award winner for best live offering), the group's three-day multi-band music festival (the aptly-titl ed moe.down), a Japanese tour and a sold-out Halloweeen show in which the group performed Dark Side of the Moon dressed as Wizard of Oz characters. The unit hopes to continue the moe.mentum (sorry) as it completes its fall tour, performs a New Year's Eve gig and finishes mastering its new album, Dither, which is set for a late January release. Chuck Garvey touched on most of these concerns in the following interview.
For information on all of these developments, and tickets to moe.'s New Year's Eve spectacle, visit http://www.moe.org.
DB- Since you're in the final stages of mastering your new album, let's start off and talk about that. How did the process differ from your last two times in the studio?
CG- The approach has been different with each album. With No Doy we went in with our live set-up, the amps and guitars we usually use. Then we basically put it down how we do it live and added a couple of bells and whistles. The final product was mixed by John Porter, who was a great guy but to a certain extent everything had a production gloss to it.
The next album we were a bit more adventurous with the sounds and the instruments that we used. We tried to switch everything up and get a little more variety. I think it came closer to what we had in our heads as to what the final product would be, although the two are never completely the same.
With this one we went into it completely open-minded. We didn't have to answer to anybody but ourselves and the amount of money and time we wanted to devote to it. It was fun. We got to surprise ourselves. If on the spur of the moment one of us had an idea we'd follow through. We recorded the basic tracks in several different studios over a long space of time and we were able to rearrange things digitally and move things around. It made the process more interesting for us creatively. There is a big difference between how we play things live and how they will come out on this album. We use some different instruments like piano and Wurlitzer and organ. We had a friend of ours, Kirk from freebeerandchicken come in and play some stuff. We had DJ Logic do some stuff. We wanted every weapon in the arsenal to be used and not just have it be a straightforward recording process. I think it's more adventurous than everything we've done before, and we all enjoyed the creativity aspect, getting it down to tape and making it sound good.
DB- The album is called Dither. Did the name arise from the fact that you felt you were dithering around, while you were in the studio?
CG- We actually did spend a lot of time by our standards making this album but I don't think that we were completely anal about it. The way we did it was we recorded basic tracks at three or four different studios- one in San Francisco, the Carriage House in Connecticut and The Theater which is John Siket's studio in New York City. We just kind of spread it out to find more time. Then the final recording process took three to four weeks straight. Taking that time enabled all the details to make more sense .
Dither also has a digital meaning. When you go from one format that's high fidelity, twenty-four bit and you bring it down to four bit you're dithering it down, distilling it to a more basic building block form.
DB- So that was the band's intention with this release, to distill the essence of songs that tend to be much more open-ended and variant in the live setting?
CG- It's weird because what works live doesn't necessarily work in a recording setting. Some of the greatest recordings that people identify with, the parts are very primal beats, basic building blocks. Sometimes when we do these live it's fun to be exces sive in one direction or minimalist in another direction but some of the excesses don't necessary make for a really good, enduring recording. Simpler is not necessarily better either but we did try to distill songs that are very long and involved into a s horter more concise format because it makes for good songs. That's an important facet of what we do, working from very good core material. Then when we play these songs live we can stretch them out and bastardize them in different ways but having a good core song is really important to us.
DB- Did individual band members take on specific roles in terms of production?
CG- Everybody has to happy with what's going on. All of us have to be happy with the final product because all of us are putting ourselves into it. Beyond that, one thing that I noticed was that I became the one who obsessed over vocal performances. I was the one who would sit there and say, "You can do that better." I was the taskmaster because I personally nit-pick as far as that goes. So I took it upon myself to make sure that the vocal performances would be as good as they possibly could be. That's t he niche I fell into.
DB- You said that everybody has to be happy with the results. What happens when you reach an impasse?
CG- There's gunplay, arm wrestling. (laughs) Here's my perspective- if one of us is going to cringe for rest of our lives every time we hear a song then there's something that needs to be addressed. Usually if any of us has a problem like that it's somet hing that deserves attention. We are our best checks and balances as far as that is concerned. I guess we realize we'll do better and the music will go farther if we maintain that kind of quality control.
DB- Does the voice of the person who wrote the song and brought to it the band carry any additional weight?
CG- Sure. To a certain extent that's the person who has the most invested in a song. With let's say a song like "Captain America," the final sign-off on say a wild idea will be up to Rob because he's the originator of the song and has a lot more invested in it personally. In fact as we speak that song is going to undergo another eleventh hour or twenty-third hour change. We were all satisfied with the mix that we had and then there was this one version that we kind of screwed around with that was a littl e more stripped down. Rob listened to a version of that and said, "I really like this, I really like this." He filibustered for making a further change. We were talking about it yesterday and I said, "If there's something you feel really strong about you should just do it. Let's just spend the money, do what you want to do and have it sound great."
DB- In that context, to what extent did you feel additional pressure now that Sony isn't fronting the dough for your studio time?
CG- If you're not the Rolling Stones and have tons of cash, whenever you're in the studio you're going to be a little pressured. We're not rich, so spending a lot of time on a recording is taking a chance because who knows how it is going to be received. But ultimately we have to trust our own opinions, satisfy our own expectations and hope that everyone else will agree.
DB- You mentioned that Logic appears on "Captain America." How aggressive is his presence on that track?
CG- You hear him all the way through. His presence is known from the first second of the sound. Whether you recognize it's him or not, that's another story. He doesn't so much play a lead instrument but he makes really important accents all the way throug h. It's pretty cool, he's such a nice guy. He came down for a few hours and we just blasted around and did some fun stuff. He worked on a couple of songs but this is the one that really fit and we wanted to use it. He did some some stuff on "Rise" as wel l but there are only a couple of small things that we actually kept in there. As far as the song goes, I think it really works for "Captain America."
DB- Let's move away from the studio and talk about your live shows, in particular the dynamic between yourself and Al. I noticed you mentioned recently that some of your guitar leads are not predetermined and occasionally one of you just jumps in and steals them. To what extent does that actually happen?
CG- Where you literally poach somebody else's good time? (laughs) No, it doesn't happen to that extent. We don't steal it but if one of us has a really good idea and is really excited about something, he's going to push for it as much as possible. Al is one of those people, who if he's excited about something he's going to do whatever he can to follow through with it. I'm the same way. You need to have a sense of humor about it. Literally poaching off someone else is a bad way to go about it and everythi ng's going to suffer. Generally we figure out, stylistically if it makes more sense for Al or myself to do it. A song like "Okayalright" the groove is really Zeppelinesque and the solo looks for something like that so he's perfect for it. It depends on t he circumstances and the style of the song and what's going on. Sometimes whoever had the first idea kind of moves in and sets up house.
DB- Having said that how often do either of you come up with something on the spot and just step in?
CG- It happens quite a bit. A lot of it is really spontaneous. In terms of changing the feel of something that's usually a completely spontaneous thing where it depends on everything else that is going on at that moment. Segues are not typically predetermined. Come to think of it, a lot of the time there's poaching (laughs).
It really depends on the dynamic of what's going on. It happens it about thirty different ways, so it's hard to explain but if you're on to something good everybody makes a little way for you. That's true for everybody in the band. If you take the init iative and you have a good idea everybody will usually try to support it as much as possible. That's fun because you have to think on your feet and listen really carefully. That's some of the most exciting stuff for us because you're taking a big chance t hat it might be a train wreck but generally it isn't if everyone is listening really carefully. We're all pushing for the same thing which is a big release- coming up with this concise statement and having five people contribute it without talking. It's p retty wild.
DB- Jumping back to the studio, to what extent do your recording sessions give you ideas or directions that you can implement in the live setting? Or you do find that the studio is a medium onto itself?
GC- When you play the songs live sometimes you have ideas and then by the end of the night you've forgotten a lot of the good ones. We don't have the luxury of being able to pick apart all the best things that we come across every day. In a critical liste ning sense it helps to isolate all of the details and all of the building blocks. When we're in the studio there are a lot of creative ideas that couldn't have been a accomplished so easily just by talking about them before we go out and play. There have been major overhauls of songs and instrument changes that we definitely want to continue with afterwards. For instance in "Rise" and "The Faker" there's a lot that could be going one especially between Al and myself- our rhythm patterns can be more interl ocking. By simplifying them a little bit and making sure that they fit perfectly, we actually get a more powerful piece.
DB- In terms of re-examining your music, how challenging was it to rearrange the songs after Jim returned to the band? [editor's note: last year former drummer Jim Loughlin, who had performed with the group from 1992-995 before leaving to play with Yolk, rejoined moe. on percussion and sundry other instruments]
GC- Even though there was another personality involved, everybody knew Jim because he's #2 [editor's note: Chuck's description of Jim as #2 is not an excrement-themed scurrility but rather moe. parlance for identifying its range of drummers. Vinnie Amico, who joined in November of 1996 is #5]. It's easy because Jim was around when we wrote the songs for Headseed so he's known those songs longer than Vinnie. So Vinnie's dealing with Jim's history and Jim's dealing with the fact that the way we now play t hem with Vinnie, they've become different songs. To a certain degree those songs have changed over time and everybody's reacting to that.
I think Vinnie approaches the instrument differently because he doesn't have to fill the space that he once needed to because Jim is also there. I think the two of them complement each other amazingly well. They make each other play better than they did individually because they challenge each other all of the time. Jim challenges Vinnie to be a better kit drummer and Vinnie challenges Jim to be a more tasteful percussionist. Everybody benefits from it.
DB- How did you make the decision to bring Jim back to the band?
CG- For a while we talked about adding another instrument. It definitely makes everybody approach things differently and look at things from a fresh perspective. We talked about adding a keyboard player and I wasn't amazingly psyched with that at the mom ent. Actually Rob brought it up because Jim had been practicing playing flute and he knew how to play acoustic guitar and he also could play the xylophone-type parts. We thought Jim could kind of be the stunt guy to do these different accents where they w ere necessary and maybe make each song a little more unique and get some extra ideas across. Rob brought it up while we were rehearsing in Maine. So we called up Jim, got him there in a couple of days and we started playing. The whole thing happened quic kly. It pretty much worked out right from the start and it was fun to have him back.
DB- Let's talk a bit about Halloween [the band covered Dark Side of Moon dressed up as members from the Wizard of Oz with the film projected onto screens] How much time did you work on preparing the album?
CG- While we were on the road out west we talked about it, listened to it a bunch of times and watched the movie together. Then we went though it and split up certain parts- "Is this in your vocal range?" Al said, "I kind of want to play a solo here" and I said I'd like to sing the song "Time," and we went through it. What we did then was we went home and absorbed it as much as possible over a week. Then we came back and we probably went through the entire album from start to finish five times and did so me spot fixing on it. We did one day of four or five hours, and the night before we did two hours with Adam the sax player, Nancy the singer and Kirk the keyboard player. We all just came together, blasted it out and tried to get the details down. It was actually a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be. It was also pretty liberating to play someone else's music like that. It was a great learning experience because that's a pretty constructed album- when you see how things are foreshadowed music ally. It was really interesting to get that deeply into it.
DB- How do you think it came off?
CG- A lot of the night I had a good time and that's a pretty good indicator. I think all of us were really relaxed and I think that's 95% of the battle. Of course I'm sure there are some clams in there but it was just fun to do and that was the most impor tant part. I haven't heard it yet, I probably won't listen to it for a while.
DB- Speaking of which to what extent does the band sit down and analyze what took place after each individual set or show?
CG- Personally I used to obsess a lot more and it wasn't positive. I was just like, "Oh man, it sucked." After a first set we'll come off stage and talk about it. Sometimes though, I think we don't have a clue how it all came off. Sometimes we're overcrit ical or obsessed about certain details that don't make up the whole experience. But when there are obvious things we definitely talk about it and try to solve the problem on the spot or try to fix it the next day at soundcheck. Everything is constantly go ing in for body repair. There are dents and scratches in everything. We're constantly working towards the goal of having everything be interesting and good quality.
DB- Incidentally, jumping back to Halloween, how did you decide to be the Tin Man?
CG- I figured as much personally but I didn't tell anyone. Then at least two other people came up with it on their own so it pretty much had to be.
DB- Is there some deep metaphoric significance to the selection?
CG- That I'm a heartless bastard? Yeah. (laughs)
DB- Fair enough (laughs). How was your trip to Japan? How did the audience respond?
CG- It was pretty much a whirlwind. We got there and we had to immediately adjust to the time difference. We arrived in the afternoon, went out and had dinner, then woke up the next day in a fog. We had one full day off to explore so Rob and I ran around Osaka. Then when we did shows the next three days, we had a road crew and someone to do the interpreting for us when it was necessary. All the people were really nice and helpful, so they made it easy.
The audiences were very good. They actually looked like they knew a lot of the songs, all of the words. At least it looked like they knew the words. I thought they would be a reserved, clap at the end of the song kind of crowd, but they were actually rau cous and loud. They were fun. It was a lot like playing a smaller show here. It really wasn't that much different until afterwards when you tried to talk to somebody. It was slightly surreal.
DB- One final question, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the moe.down?
CG- As far as the music and everybody's attitudes, everything came out so great, especially for the first time. If we can do that on a repeat basis I would be psyched out of my mind. It was fun to choose bands that we wanted to have come play with us. It was cool to select this specific location, kind of in the middle of nowhere, and have this event take place. There's some responsibility along with it but I think everybody was really happy in terms of how it came off. We had a lot of great people helping us out and if we can do this again yearly or even twice a year I think we would all be really excited.
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