ASPEN - After two-plus decades of playing guitar in moe., a hard-touring and reasonably hard-hitting rock quintet, Al Schnier's ears probably aren't what they once were. But there was a time when Schnier's ears were remarkably keen, capable of Superman-like feats of perception.
In the late '80s, a friend sent Schnier a cassette tape to listen to. The tape was the simplest of projects: Recorded in an attic in Buffalo, N.Y., it contained just four songs. The tracks weren't even intended for general consumption; the musicians who had created it, including guitarist Chuck Garvey and bassist Rob Derhak, both University at Buffalo students at the time, thought of them as demos, for anyone who might be interested in a rough version of their songs. But Schnier's ears were sharp enough to pick up the sound of his own future.
"I fell in love with the band. I remember commenting, 'This is the kind of band I want to be in,'" the 44-year-old Schnier said from his home near Utica in upstate New York. "There was something about it, a modern edge to it. It spoke 'college rock' to me, whatever that meant in 1990. And at the same time, it had the sense of humor and that sense of changing styles, different elements, even changing the style within the song. I heard that right away."
Twenty-two years of moe. have proven Schnier's hearing to be spot-on. All those things he picked up from that four-song demo - the multitude of styles, the sharp edges, the ability to change direction mid-tune, the comic sensibility - are signatures of the band. On the band's latest album, "What Happened to the La Las," released early this year, moe. - an enduring quintet of Schnier, Garvey, Derhak and the two-man percussion section of Vinnie Amico and Jim Loughlin - works through Latin-derived rhythms; melodic, radio-friendly pop-rock; metallish power chords; goofiness reminiscent of Frank Zappa; alt-country; and passages of intersecting guitars. And after 10 proper studio albums and many hundreds of live performances, including five appearances at the Bonnaroo Festival and two New Year's Eve dates at Manhattan's elite Radio City Music Hall, there remains what Schnier detected early on - the sense that you never quite know what's up ahead.
It was a short jump from listening to that demo tape to becoming a member of the band. Schnier, who had been a graphic artist at the Daily Star in Oneonta, moved to Buffalo to be with his girlfriend. In Buffalo, Schnier, who had started playing guitar in his early teens and had spent much of his time following the Grateful Dead around the East Coast, became acquainted with Derhak and Garvey. The two had been playing for the young people of Buffalo, and things were loose enough that one of the original guitarists informed the rest of the group that he couldn't make it for a house party gig one night. Asked to sit in for the evening, Schnier learned about 10 songs.
"Which would have been great for a house party," Schnier (it rhymes with 'ear') said. "We only got through three or four of them before the cops came and broke it up. So it was the perfect house party. But what really worked out in the end was hooking up with Rob and Chuck and playing with moe."
With drummer Jim Loughlin joining up soon after, moe. became a serious part-time gig, with the band establishing itself in upstate clubs and releasing a proper debut album, "Fatboy," in 1992. In 1994, with the jam-band movement in its start-up stage, moe. made the decision to go full-time. The fairly slow progression from dorm rooms to cross-country tours had worked in the band's favor - they never rushed to define themselves.
"That was the great thing about moe. - we never sat down and decided what direction moe. would go, what its mission was," Schnier said, noting that moe. mixed with punk acts and alt-country bands around Buffalo. "Forging ahead has been the thing that's worked best for us. Everyone was allowed to bring anything to the table. The only rule was that everyone was allowed to tweak it, add to it. There are reggae passages, bluegrass passages, even stuff that borders on heavy metal. Prog-rock, long improvisations. That's all a part of what we do. It feels like we can keep writing songs that are moe. songs but that keep moving forward. It doesn't seem dated. It doesn't seem like we're painted into a corner."
Like any band that lives more on live shows than recordings, playing a different setlist each night and featuring improvised jams, moe. has forged a close tie with its fans. Calling himself extremely fortunate, Schnier said the fans "are so supportive of us putting ourselves on the line every night. I'm not sure established pop artists can get away with that. But our fans have allowed us this petri dish where we're given the freedom to do that."
Schnier says moe.'s following is an interesting one - not one that rabidly tours alongside the band but one that happily shows up when the band comes to town.
"We never had this surge of popularity of people showing up at a moe. show just because it was the thing to do," he said. "We have a lot of down-to-earth fans. The fan base is very family-oriented - normal people with normal lives. It's not what you'd expect. It's just a lot of people who love to have a few beers and see moe. play. I've seen more moe. tattoos than I ever expected. And no one in the band has got one."
The group's plan for growth is to invade Europe. Last March, they had their first tour of Europe, a 21⁄2-week stretch that went well enough that they expect to return next summer.
"But not just that thing where a band shows up and a bunch of Americans go," Schnier said. "But really bringing moe. to Europe."