As the next chapter unfolds in the two-decade saga of a band named moe. — its first studio album in more than three years — a familiar paradox comes into play.
For much of its career, the ensemble, based in Buffalo, N.Y., has thrived creatively on the road, with a sound expansive enough to satisfy the groove-centric demands of fervent jam-band audiences but complex and compositionally demanding enough to win over more finicky prog-rock followings. Through it all, though, the band's keen sense of onstage improvisation has always fertilized the music.
But when recording began in August for moe.'s still untitled album, the band had to find a way to make such performance experimentation work in its favor in a more controlled studio environment.
"There are definitely pitfalls going into that kind of situation," co-founding moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey said last week by phone from his home in Cincinnati. "The live thing is definitely what we're used to. So the good part of that is we're used to playing together as a band and trying to really listen to each other and figure out our parts on the fly. But when you get into the studio, there is this desire to make everything perfect. The music is put under a microscope. You can hear everything flow.
"Everything comes out in the wash when you're playing live. You can adapt. The music doesn't have to be perfect. It's more about the power and energy of the moment. We've done it before where we've tried to polish everything in the studio, and that doesn't necessarily make for the best music."
So in approaching its new recording, moe. — Garvey, co-guitarist Al Schnier, bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak, percussionist/vibraphonist Jim Loughlin and drummer Vinnie Amico — sought to rattle its sound and its recording process a bit. To help with that, the band hired a producer from outside its ranks, a major move given moe.'s stature as a do-it- yourself enterprise. Their choice was John Travis, who has overseen recording sessions for Kid Rock and Social Distortion. His suggestion: Don't sweat the odd musical imperfections that happen in a recording session. In some instances, in fact, use them.
"John mentioned to us how some of our favorite albums are full of mistakes: flat singing, happy accidents, bad accidents, etc. So there was that aspect of imperfect, in-the-moment recording. But we made sure we approached that with the right amount of energy. A lot of the things we did for the record were full-band takes. We would augment and fix anything if there were glaring imperfections. But what we really tried to do, in some cases, was to embrace some of those mistakes."
Imperfect was a word Garvey used several times in describing not only the new music but the overall design of moe. as a band. One would be hard-pressed to use such a tag in describing his musicianship, though. A versed guitarist often mentioned in the company of instrumental and compositional giants Frank Zappa, he also is an extremely lyrical player, responsible for the band's more specific prog-rock accents.
Still, in Garvey's view, imperfect is as imperfect does.
"We have a kind of lovable dysfunction," the guitarist said in describing moe.'s overall band spirit. "We work as a gang. We work as a team. That kind of arrangement doesn't always work perfectly, but it is our unique thing, and it's something that we've cultivated in different directions for the past 20 years."
And what of those 20 years? Could Garvey ever have imagined that a band such as moe., which has long maintained an audience of Grateful Dead-like devotion (known affectionately as "moerons"), would still be so creatively restless, ambitious and industrious in 2011?
"No, only because in the beginning, what we were doing seemed like such a pie-in-the-sky career choice. Even after we began pursuing music as a band full-time, we didn't necessarily see this as a viable option down the road. It's hard being friends and creative partners making art while you're embroiled in business. And at the end of the day, this is a business. It's difficult. The decisions become difficult, and keeping things fun becomes difficult.
"Luckily, we've been able to find a certain combination of these things that keeps us interested. We're still able to make everything fun and creative. That's the big payoff of the whole thing."