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Jam With Bite

JANUARY 31, 2001

Most rock bands perform their new songs on stage only after they've been released on an album.

That's not true of the jam band moe. (which spells its name with a lower-case ``m'' and a period at the end). The Buffalo, N.Y. quintet -- which performs Sunday in Santa Cruz and Feb. 10 in San Francisco -- develops its new material on the road in front of fans and then releases it on CD. By the time a moe. album comes out, die-hard followers are familiar with the tunes through the live shows -- and fans' homemade recordings, which are traded via the Internet with the band's endorsement. Still, moe. says, most fans are eager to purchase their CDs.

``Our fans want to hear the studio versions of the songs because it gives them a new perspective,'' says guitarist-vocalist Al Schnier from his home outside Utica, N.Y. ``These are fans that want a copy of everything we do.''

Schnier adds that allowing fans to tape songs at shows and trade them ``hasn't harmed our record sales one bit. It's probably helped, more than anything else.'' Though permissive about concert tapes, he adds, ``we expect fans to buy our studio albums, rather than take them for free off of the Internet.''

Moe. treats the stage and studio in very different ways. In concert, the decade-old group is known for its extended improvisational journeys. Moe. never plays a song the same way twice on stage; the music takes unexpected turns and lasts longer than a standard three- to five-minute tune.

In the studio, moe. pares its material to essentials. Its next album, ``Dither,'' set for release Tuesday, uses state-of-the-art recording techniques and spacey sound effects. The band's deliberate, carefully orchestrated approach contrasts sharply with the way the same material is played in concert.

``Our sound is a little different than some jam bands,'' says Schnier. ``We're always exploring new sounds and definitely ones that are not organic. The more outer-space sounds we can find, the better.'' Since the band is guitar-driven and both he and guitarist-vocalist Chuck Garvey use their distortion pedals freely, ``we tend to be a little more aggressive than some of the other jam bands,'' he adds.

Though Schnier is a big fan of the ultimate jam band, the Grateful Dead, moe. is a product of many musical influences, including the studio wizardry on classic Pink Floyd and Beatles albums, the hard-rock drive of Led Zeppelin, the jazz-pop of Steely Dan and the feedback-laden alt-rock sound of Sonic Youth.

Unlike Phish and other jam groups criticized for not paying enough attention to the craft of songwriting, moe. gives that a high priority.

``We pay a lot of attention to songwriting,'' says Schnier. ``That's something conscious on our part. Some of the best jam bands . . . end up more as platforms for really great jams. In our case, we wanted to have really great songs first and foremost, that were also really great platforms for'' improvisation. ``The quality of music should be top-notch all the way around, including the songs and vocals.''

Inventive solutions

The group's penchant for jamming was, in part, an outgrowth of its limited song catalog in its early days of performing in upstate New York. Improvisation was a way of stretching out material.

Schnier says the band also used interactive devices to involve the audience in those days. It once hosted a game show in the middle of a concert. At another performance, the group distributed kazoos to audience members, who were asked to play along on selected songs.

Moe. does theme concerts every Halloween. Two years ago, it staged a show built around the 1971 children's film ``Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.'' Last Halloween, ``The Wizard of Oz'' was the focal point, with band members dressing as ``Oz'' characters.

Feedback from audience

Schnier says fans also play a role in determining the length and direction of the band's jams.

``We largely feed off of how the audience is reacting to stuff like that,'' he says. ``We don't want to make it too self-serving and uninteresting for the audience. It's hard to explain. . . . They aren't conscious choices based on how excited this one particular person is getting in the audience. But there's a definite exchange of energy that occurs between the band and the audience. It's as if we're both equally responsible for what's happening with the music that particular night.''

After the commercial success of the Dave Matthews Band, Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler and other jam groups, moe. released albums for Sony's 550 Music in 1996 and 1998. But Schnier says the band is doing better financially now that it's distributing its CDs on its own label, Fatboy Records. He says moe. is selling more albums, concert tickets and merchandise than ever before. That explains why it spent more time and money recording ``Dither'' than it did on any of its previous albums.

``When the average band signs to an average major label, it will get a big advance to make a studio album,'' Schnier explains. ``They expect them to use all that money to make a studio album, and whatever change is left over they can keep. They don't see any more money 'til that album sells somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 to 500,000 copies, which happens to maybe one out of 100 releases on a major label. There aren't a lot of limos, swimming pools and stuff like that up front for most bands on major labels.''



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