Jam-band vets Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier of moe. discuss the art of twin guitars, their lust-inducing gear collections, and how switching up their MOs led to the tonal extravaganza on their new LP, What Happened to the La Las.
Photo by James Paddock
Whether the term “jam band” makes you think fondly of your dresser full of tie-dyed shirts, wool socks, and hacky sacks, or it conjures painful images of endless/aimless improvs at gigs swarming with hordes of tripping hippies, 2012 has brought you a ripping, stereotype-busting new album that’s a master class in the art of dual guitars. Formed in Buffalo, New York, in 1989, veteran jammers moe. just released What Happened to the La Las—a catchy set of 10 rocking tunes that finds guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey trading foot-stomping riffs, crystalline harmonic arpeggiations, wailing wah- and rotary-speaker-powered leads, bristling slide duels, and warm echo excursions.
We recently spoke to Garvey and Schnier—both of whom raved about being longtime PG fans—about the dos and don’ts of jamming, live vs. studio strategies, and their enviable collections of fine vintage and boutique gear.
Fair or not, jam bands are kind of stereotyped as having very
long, rambling songs. But What Happened to the La Las keeps
the jam-band vibe but also has concise, catchy tunes. Is that
a stereotype you guys consciously try to avoid, or do you just
think it’s unfair overall?
Garvey: That can definitely be a fair assessment. The whole jamband thing is a little weird, because there are so many different styles of bands within the supposed genre. There are a lot of live-music fans, and for certain parts of the show people want a dance party, so some bands have very long, danceable tunes. I don’t think we necessarily do that, but we definitely have some sprawling, epic-length tunes. But we’ve always been very interested in making the core of the songs very solid: We always want to have a memorable hook and a memorable lyric, and the core of the song has to really make sense and be memorable. If we have that, then we find that, live, we can expand different sections or make segues between songs. And that makes it more interesting for the band and the audience. But we’re always very conscious about making songs that work.
Schnier: We do stretch out our stuff live, and that’s why people keep coming back again and again to see these shows—because it’s something new and different every time. It’s not going to be the same show, night after night. I think you can be a jam band and make a rock album. We’re not necessarily going to play a threeminute version of these songs live, and they’re going to be different when we play them live. We might stretch things out, or goof around onstage, or Chuck and I might trade the solos back and forth—because we’re not afraid to take chances. We’re a live band, and we didn’t just rehearse the songs like what you hear on the album and we have to play them that way or else we train wreck. I think that’s what sets the genre apart and keeps the fans excited. But an album isn’t really the place for a 20-minute guitar solo.
You guys get an amazing array of sounds on the new album.
Do you have pretty different tonal proclivities that happen to
complement each other, or are your tastes and tendencies pretty
similar and you have to work to make sure you’re both covering
different sonic territory?
Schnier: It’s a little bit of both. It’s funny, because we dance around each other a little bit in that regard, but we’ve both been sort of carving out our own thing, and it tends to work … for the most part. We both lean toward different things in our choices of what we’re going to play and what we’re going to do, sonically. But in a lot of songs we end up in the same territory, too. It’s, like, “Ohhh … you were going to use humbuckers and a fuzz pedal and EL84s on this thing? Because that’s what I was going to do, too.” And it’s, like, “Well, we can’t both do that, so maybe I’ll use P-90s and not use a fuzz pedal, or use P-90s and a tweed Deluxe kind of thing.”
Chuck and I are very conscious of that, and if one of us is really onto something—really chasing something—the other one will be respectful of that and say, “I was going to do something like that, but clearly you’ve got this nailed down, so I’m going to try to come up with something different.” Or, “Hey, I’m already doing something like that, and it sounds like we’re clashing, maybe … ” y’know what I mean? It’s instinctive at this point. I mean, I’ll show up at the studio with one of every sort of guitar that I would want to have, and several crates full of pedals, and one of every amp that I would want to have. So that way, when we start playing the stuff, I’m like, “How do I really want to approach this song?”
But that’s speaking more about when we’re recording something. What we’re doing live just sort of happens—it’s been sort of a constant evolution, and we just tend to stay out of each other’s way. I mean, how many bands have there been with two Les Pauls and Marshalls in the band, and it’s not really an issue anyway? When we’re on tour, I have basically two different amps to choose from, but I’m mostly using Vox AC30s—although I’ve started using an old ’68 Marshall plexi when we’re playing in larger venues. But I don’t necessarily want to record every song with an AC30. It’s the same thing with guitars. I only have three or four guitars on the road, but in the studio I can bring a Rick or a [Gibson] ES-335 with me to take things a little bit further toward the tones I’m hearing in my head, instead of just approximating those things with my main stage guitars.
Al Schnier gets jangly onstage with his ’74 Gibson EDS-1275.
Garvey: I have a very specific theory about this: I think when you play in a band with someone for a long time, you influence each other a little bit. It might be unconsciously, but I think that when you hear something the other one does that you like, it sinks in and you pick it up and start doing it maybe six months or a year later. So, tonally, I think we kind of go in waves, but I know that being in a two-guitar band makes me very conscious of the frequency range that gets represented. So if Al is playing something that’s really bass-y or very clean, I might pick more of a notched frequency in the other direction, just to contrast. And in that way, it’s a fuller sound, and also you get a little more clarity from both things. And if he’s playing lead, I’ll strip back and play something that’s, like, really light and jangly—almost like an acoustic sound. You’re constantly adapting to what’s going on in order to make more clarity out of what’s going on. We do most of our playing onstage, but in the studio it’s easier to figure things out.
As far as specific gear choices, when we first started, I think we both played single-coil guitars. I played a Strat for a really long time, and Al had a P-90 guitar. He started with humbuckers a lot earlier than I did, and then about eight years ago I started using humbuckers more. Then he eventually went to Telecasters for a while. So I think it’s that thing where both of us want something new, and then you learn after layering the guitars what might sound better in that context. In the studio this time, I did something weird—I got into the studio and I totally changed my operating procedure. I was making it up on the spot, and I had some things that I’m not psyched about, but on the other hand I had some happy accidents. We worked so quickly that I really didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. It was pretty much just throw and go. We were working so quickly that the guitars sounded like one thing in the room with the amp, but in the actual recording it sounded like something different when we went in to listen to it. Like, there were parts where I would have a really treble-shy tone— something that was more fuzzy and murky—and when Al switched to a Marshall that had more headroom than his usual AC30, it ended up being very complementary.
Chuck, what do you mean when you say you changed your
Garvey: Well, I have this guitar made by Dan Becker in Boston, and it has humbuckers, but I use the coil-tap quite a bit. The single-coil sound is pretty cool—I like it better than a lot of Strat bridge pickups or even, like, a Telecaster’s sometimes. But I use that with a treble booster into an EL84 amp, and I’ve used that for the past couple of years. That’s really how I get my sound live. I have a lot of control—I can do everything with the volume and the tone on the guitar. But when I got into the studio, I felt like that was a little bit thin and lacked some of this woody midrange I wanted to get. So I blew out all of the pedals and just started plugging into the amp, and it was just a totally different way to go about things. If I’d had a couple more weeks, I probably would’ve gotten it under control [laughs]. I should’ve just done what I’m used to, but I ended up convincing myself to do something different. I don’t know if it ended up being good or not, but …
It sounds great! The guitar parts really pop out of the mix, and
a lot of that seems to be because the effects—such as the rotaryspeaker
parts—are really strategically applied. Do you guys hear
those effects in your head as you write the parts, or do you come
up with parts and then figure out stealthy ways to make them
pop when you’re recording?
Schnier: It’s a little bit of both. I think most guitar players have probably had the same experience: Sometimes you sit down with a certain effects pedal—or even just the tremolo on your amp or a ton of reverb or delay—and you come up with a cool part because of that soundscape you’ve created. And other times the band will be playing something and you hear a part in your head, and you’re, like, “Okay, I’ve got to have something that goes [mimics robot-like sound],” and it’s, like, “How do I make that happen.” And then you spend a couple of minutes working on trying to come up with these psychedelic, weird things that bounce around the room. Chuck and I have always had a great time doing stuff like that, but we start with that stuff when we’re composing the songs and kind of go from there. The funny thing is, a lot of times when we’re doing these writing sessions, he and I won’t have much more than maybe a delay pedal or an overdrive pedal. And a lot of times it’s just a cable into an amp, just so we can get the structure of the songs together.
Chuck Garvey feels the vibe onstage with his P-90-outfitted Dan Becker Retro-Grad solidbody.
Garvey: A lot of that we figured out beforehand. We were doing preproduction basically in the studio. We would talk about a song and how we wanted to change the arrangement and feel, and then after we had a new arrangement, we’d shake out all the details really quickly and try to get three or five good takes, and then go back and listen to them. I think this works best for us as a band—if we don’t fuss over it too much, it sounds better. Everything really was kind of either just trying to solve the problem of what tone to use or what effect to use on the fly as a complementary or interesting addition to your basic guitar tone. On most of the tracks, we did live takes of the whole band, but for logistical reasons, I overdubbed the Leslie parts.
Was it an actual Leslie cabinet?
Garvey: It’s actually a Fender Vibratone, and I had this road case with these side-hatch doors built for it. You can open it up and use it like an isolation cabinet with a pair of condenser mics.
Which amps did you use to drive the Vibratone?
Garvey: I used two amps for the whole recording, and I might’ve borrowed a third from the studio. I have a Tony Bruno Underground 30 and a 3x10 cabinet for my main sound, and I also have a tweed [Fender] Twin clone that Tony made. I’ve had that since about ’97, and it sounds really great with humbuckers. At the time, I was playing a Strat, and it sounded amazing with that and a couple of Tube Screamers. I use one or the other to power the Vibratone—basically whichever one I’m not using for my main guitar sound.
Is the tweed Twin clone one of Bruno’s standard Tweedy Pie models?
Garvey: No, it’s like a ’59, 80-watt, four-6L6 tweed Twin clone. The faceplate says it’s a Pony 50, which I guess is his 50-watt Marshalltype design, but he used the chassis to build this tweed clone. It has a floating baffle, just like the original, but it’s not wide—the speakers are staggered in the cab. I found it at 30th Street Guitars in New York City. We got some money from Sony when we were doing our first album, and I said, “I’m going to get myself something good that’s not going to fall apart.” And when I played that, it seemed like it was game over. I played that for a really long time. It sounds great, but it can get really loud [laughs]. So, in an effort to bring down stage volume, I got the Underground 30.
Al, let’s go back to your AC30s for a second. Are they vintage or
Schnier: Well, it’s funny, because I had two vintage AC30s on the road for a while—one of which I’ve had for years. It’s been my baby, my go-to amp. And then I got a second one, and I was very hesitant to bring them out on the road for a long time. Finally, I was just like, “Y’know what, these amps have been around for almost 50 years at this point”—they’re early-’60s AC30s, and they’re still rocking hard—so I was, like, “I’m taking these out on the road. They’re going to be fine. The worst that could happen is we’ll have to replace some tubes or some speakers or whatever.” And that was the case. I never even blew a speaker in either of them. I had a few tubes go down occasionally, but that’ll happen with new-old-stock [NOS] tubes.
But then, on a whim, I decided to try one of the new Hand- Wired AC30s. After they put out the most recent version, I read a review and I saw a picture of the turret board, and it just seemed like they’d finally gotten it right. So they shipped one to me, and I brought it to soundcheck one day. It was still in the cardboard box, and we popped the staples on the box, put it up onstage, and I played it during soundcheck. We tried to match it very closely to my main amp, sonically, and it sounded great during soundcheck. I was, like, “Let’s just go with it tonight and see how it goes.” All night long, I kept looking back at it, because I couldn’t believe how good this brand-new amp with brand-new tubes and brand-new Celestion speakers sounded, and how close it sounded to the vintage amp. I was floored. Shortly after that, I contacted Vox and I was, like, “Can I get another one of these?” I sent both my vintage amps home, and I’ve been playing those new Hand- Wired amps ever since.
Photo by James Paddock
Are you still using the stock new tubes they came with, or have
you switched to new-old-stock (NOS)?
Schnier: You know, it’s funny—I immediately brought out some vintage speakers and some new-old-stock tubes, and I was going to retool one of those amps to get it closer to vintage specs and make it even better than it was. But the amp was so good that I didn’t want to mess with it. I mess around with my gear quite a bit, and I had a few hours before soundcheck one day, and I was, like, “Okay, today’s the day I’m going to take this amp apart and do all this work to it.” But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because it sounded good as is. I was afraid that it would actually sound worse somehow. I played the amp for over a year, as is, with all the stock parts until one of my preamp tubes died. So I was, like, “All right, now’s the time.” So now that amp has one vintage speaker and a bunch of new-old-stock tubes. The other one I left totally stock. I figured, this way, I’ll have one that’s sort of old reliable, and the other one with vintage stuff in it. We mic the vintage speaker onstage now, but whether it makes a difference or not, I can’t really tell because the other speakers are broken in and sound great.
So you didn’t notice much difference in tone with the NOS tubes?
Schnier: As soon as I changed out the tubes, there was definitely a difference. But I’d been playing those new production tubes for over a year on the road. Those tubes got hammered. So it got a breath of fresh life, even though they were vintage tubes. It was really hard to compare, because I’d been listening to it in the studio before, and then I was listening to it onstage, so it was sort of apples to oranges. So I couldn’t really say one was better than the other, but I know it makes me feel a lot better to have new-oldstock tubes [laughs].
Is there a specific brand of NOS tubes you prefer, like
Mullards or RCAs?
Schnier: I have a wide variety of stuff. I keep my eye open for stuff, and I buy a lot of it on eBay. I’ve got a whole bunch of these GE tubes that were made by Mullard, and I’ve got some old Siemens tubes. I literally have two huge tubs full of them at home, and they’re made by all these different companies. But it seems like there were only a few companies that were actually doing the work. Like, Telefunken, as far as I know, wasn’t actually making the tubes—they were just branding them. But Mullard did a lot of the work, and some American companies were doing some of the work. Siemens and some companies in West Germany were doing some production, as well. Some of that stuff is fantastic, but you really just kind of have to listen to them.
Al, you mentioned you’re using a plexi Marshall in some venues
Schnier: It’s a 50-watt head and a vintage 8x10 cabinet with old Celestions that are maybe 10 or 15 watts each. They’re the same ones they used in the old Vox amps and the old Bluesbreakers.
Do you use that in the larger venues for more volume and
headroom or … ?
Schnier: I use them because I can [laughs]. It’s funny, I bought a full stack while we were recording the album, and I fell in love with it. That one’s 100 watts with two 4x12 cabs, and I recorded a bunch of the tracks with that. And then when we were on tour I came across the 50-watt head and 8x10 cab. That’s just something that I really like. It’d be one thing if we were playing in arenas and stadiums, but a lot of times we’re playing in theaters and clubs— and I just don’t want to rip off everybody’s heads in the first 10 rows, so a lot of times something like an AC30 makes a lot more sense. But there’s something about a plexi … you get them up to around 4 or 5, and they just sound great—especially with a Les Paul. And those old plexis really clean up nicely, too. I understand why guys like Hendrix and Jimmy Page only had a couple of pedals on the floor—it’s really all you need.
Photo by James Paddock
Let’s talk about some of the other new songs. The main riff to
“Puebla” has this warm slapback that creates a fantastic vibe,
despite being pretty understated. What did you use for that?
Schnier: That was a Diamond Pedals Memory Lane delay—which has been my main stage delay pedal for years. The thing I like about those is that, of all of the tap-tempo analog delay pedals out there, it’s the one that sounds the best to me and has the features I need readily available. I actually own a few of them, and I’m using the second version. I’m a big fan of tape echoes, first and foremost, and I used to use a real Echoplex on the road, and then I switched to the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, and the biggest problem I had was managing all of the settings on the fly during a song. Otherwise, I’d be using one regularly, because I like the tone of a tape echo more than anything else. The thing is, so many of the parts I write depend on the delay being in sync with the song, but I’ve never really been a big fan of using a digital delay or some kind of MIDI-based delay. The stuff that The Edge has done with the Korg SDD-3000 is amazing, and it sounds great in the mix with his whole rig, but it’s not something I’ve ever come to terms with. I really need something that has a more organic quality to it. I use so much of it in the mix that I get hung up on the actual tone of the delayed signal. The tone of the part that’s trailing off needs to be good to me, too, because if it starts to sound too glitchy or too digital, it starts to bum me out.
Garvey: I’ve used Echoplexes for years. I have an EP-3 and a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. I still use that occasionally, but for a long time I’ve been using a couple of digital and analog days. I use a bunch of Analog Man stuff, including the Dual Analog Delay—which is really cool because you can set up two different delays and toggle between them. It also has this little sidecar pedal called the AMAZEO that you can use to add tap tempo and modulation. The Dual Analog Delay is similar to the Memory Lane, but it sounds different—they just have a different voice, especially if you crank up the feedback. I used that, set for Stun, for the crazy oscillating stuff on “Suck a Lemon.”
Is that an electric 12-string driving the rhythms on “Haze”?
Schnier: It is. That’s my Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck.
“Downward Facing Dog” has some really nice slide parts. Who
Schnier: Both of us play slide on that song, which is sort of a rare thing. I’m playing a ’59 Les Paul Junior through my AC30. I also used a wah, the Memory Lane delay, and an Analog Man Sun Face as my fuzz pedal.
Do you set the Junior’s action higher for slide playing?
Schnier: Most of my guitars are a little bit on the high side, just because I really like to dig in and bend notes a lot. I don’t like my action too low, and I like to have some meat on my frets, too. With strings, I use a light top and a heavy bottom, and I like to have enough there to grab onto and get under the strings and really work the neck. I’ve never been comfortable with light strings and low action. I’ve never been able to put a set of .009s on a guitar and play delicately [laughs].
Which other guitars are you guys using?
Garvey: I used two Dan Becker guitars. One is a Retro-Grad with humbuckers and coil taps, and it’s kind of an in-between [Strat and Les Paul] scale. I used that a little bit, and I used another one with P-90s. I used that quite a bit on this album. I also used a pink-sparkle ’96 Custom Shop Strat with a Seymour Duncan Twang Banger bridge pickup a little, and I used Al’s Les Paul Junior for one song. That guitar has a great pickup, and it’s really nice and resonant. I also have a Terry McInturff Sportster that I used for a couple of the heavier parts. That one started out with a 5-way switch, but now it has a 3-way switch, because some guitars get weird with germanium effects—you can get these weird ghost notes when you turn your volume down. I use the Analog Man Beano Boost, which is germanium, so I changed the pickups and the guts quite a bit [to avoid that].
Schnier: I have a few different Gibsons on the road with me: I have a Les Paul Junior, I have the EDS-1275, I have a Les Paul with humbuckers, and another one with P-90s.
Okay, you’ve given us some pretty good insights on gear usage.
Do you have any other, more general, advice on big mistakes or
oversights to avoid when you’re playing in a band with two or
Schnier: I guess the biggest oversight or mistake you could make would be to not use all of the players to their full potential. Y’know, relegating one of the guitarists to merely strumming chords when there could be so much cool interplay. Even in a band like Radiohead, for example, Thom Yorke isn’t necessarily a lead guitar player, but there’s so much cool guitar interplay going on between him and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. The same thing happens in the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir isn’t a lead guitarist, but there’s so much great interplay.
Garvey: I think the biggest one is having three guitar players—there’s just too much ego and baggage for anyone’s good [laughs]. I’m just kidding. The main thing—and this goes for any kind of musician—is that you really have to be a team player and look at the song, not just what you, personally, are trying to accomplish as a guitar player. So, if you want to sound like Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend on Live at Leeds, you have to be conscious of what the rest of the band is doing. You should not constantly be trying to get tones that power-trio guitarists use, for example. It really comes down to doing what’s right for the song, and complementing whoever is singing and the rest of the band. If you do that, the whole thing will work a lot better and, hopefully, everyone will be happy with it—including the audience.
Garvey and Schnier strap on a McInturff Sportster and a thinline Tele, respectively, to launch into a 14-minute, trop-rock song complemented by mood-enhancing lasers, fog, and lights.
Powered by an opening bass groove reminiscent of Rush’s “Cygnus X-1,” moe. rocks the Gelston Castle Estate in Mohawk, New York, at this September 2010 gig.
In honor of Apple’s visionary late cofounder, chairman, and CEO, the members of moe. play a surprisingly great version of one of their tunes entirely on iPad apps.