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moe. Money, moe. Problems

September 22, 1997 12:00 AM ET

For Moe's 1996 Halloween celebration in New Jersey, the guys in the band, just through signing a deal with Sony/550 music, donned enormous, ridiculously grotesque paper mache likenesses of their own heads.

The band's perpetually laconic bassist, Rob Derhak, blandly intoned, "This is what happens when someone dumps a huge gob of cash in your lap...your heads get huge." And like that, they proceeded to play for almost an hour.

The guys in Moe are anybody's guys. They work, they do their taxes, they crap around, they live, they love, and suffer from lower back pains. Despite what they consistently manage to pull off in their riveting live shows, I'm here to encourage people, those new to the band and old hands alike, to keep on believing that they are, in fact, really quite ordinary.

Now embarking on the cross-country, Space Dog '97 Fall Tour, moe. are just back from a Summer spent on the also country-wide Furthur Festival Tour. From June to August, they shared stages, and great, big enthusiastic audiences, with the likes of ex-Grateful Dead icons, Bob Weir and his band, Ratdog, Mickey Hart (and Planet Drum), and Bruce Hornsby and his band. They rubbed elbows with folk legend, Arlo Guthrie. Also, they got a few lessons in "really big rock" from Southern wailers, The Black Crowes. Big company, most would say...and have. Since their inception in 1991, Moe have continued to win big praises among the "big listeners." But have they gotten big heads?

"We've got a 'young kid' attitude!" guitarist Chuck Garvey exhorted goofily in the midst of the extremely disorganized, impromptu interview conducted the night of the fifth show of this new tour. All in their late 20s, the men from moe. are nowhere close to being over the proverbial hill. I suppose I feel a little in common with the shrug-shouldered, Utica, NY-extracted band, who look right into the face of kick-ass notoriety, and just grin crookedly, muttering some self-deprecating comment. To them, it's generally less a matter of wanting to run themselves into the ground, than, "How're we gonna staydrunk?," as Rob stated.

The boys have built up an iron stamina for touring over the years, playing hundreds upon hundreds of shows. This particular leg of the seemingly neverending moe. tour takes the band to the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco at the end of the month.

"Touring is a necessity," Chuck said with a serious look in the trailing wake of eruptive giggling caused by Rob's alkie joke. To step into a moe. show, the inebriation that Rob mentioned may seem to be not too far from the truth...yet in a wholly different sense.

Shows that run for nearly four hours, sets that rarely come up under an hour and a half, speakers bursting into flames, fire alarms being set off, ticketless scroungers hanging around outside venues...what's it all about? Over-enthusiastic and under-creative folks in the press have drawn immediate correlations between "other bands" whose music shares a primarily improvised, jammed-out construct.

In insisting on placing the band within an easily-comprehensible genre set, the press has failed to reference moe.'s similarities to a whole lexicon of well-played and adventuresome music. From free jazz and the most blistering, rock-ready, Hendrixian guitar assaults, to more structured, but equally adventurous composed music in the vein of anything from James Brown and The Police, to They Might be Giants, or King Crimson, Moe have crafted their music with a healthy element of surprise, and what can best be described as a very well-meaning and genial "fuck-off" style. And that doesn't mean they don't care about you, the audience. It's just that they don't want to be pigeonholed.

I asked what sorts of things they think about when they're cooped up, staring out the windows of their tiny, decidedly non-rock star, 15-foot mobile home, whilst careening across the plains of our great nation. "He's touchin' my STUFF!" Chuck growled, in a simulation of mid-tour territorial fury. And when I inquired as to what, if anything, they'd been reading in their spare time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Lord of the Flies," Chuck grinned. "When we had the crew and everybody in the RV, it was like Lord of the Flies," said Rob.

Al was reading the New York Times for a while on a daily basis. Now all he reads is books about "guitars, guitar companies, amps, history of guitars...if there's anything you wanna know about the Gibson or Fender company, come to me, I'm your man," he piped up with a glazed, yet happy, look in his eye.

Rob deadpanned, "Trashy magazines, Rolling Stone...crap like that." He pauses. "I learned how [to read], but I just have my own language."

The ever-bouyant Vinnie Amico, whose comments, both as the band's drummer and newest member, had been humorously and derisively squelched by his evil cohorts up until that point, finally stated, "There's no Dr. Seuss in the RV."

I was then treated to the full command performance of "The BabyPictures," a pile of which Vinnie leafed through with me, pointing,gesturing and explaining. He became a father for the first time in lateJune of this year, and what seemed like mere seconds later, he waspounding the skins onstage in the big Furthur end-jams, with Bruce andBobby, and the Brothers Robinson (of the Crowes). And from behind the kit,he was still beaming, as if he were thinking of that new life with everydownbeat. She's got his hair.

You get to thinking, okay, here's these guys. Many of their longtime fans know them like brothers or neighborhood pals, from nights playing frequent gigs in small Upstate New York watering holes, back when it all wasn't really that big a deal. They'd be at the bar, pre-show, having a beer. You could talk to them like it was seeing them on campus, up at the University of Buffalo, or just have a leisurely chat in Ithaca, Albany, Syracuse or Rochester. But it's all changing, and you, as well as they, have to wonder why.

"People are getting weirder at shows," Rob said, perplexed. "It's not like it used to be. People yell shit at us..."

Chuck sighed. "Yeah. It's getting weird. People are getting to...and I'm not trying to sound like I'm pompous or an asshole, but people are getting starstruck by us..."

Venues are getting bigger. Ticket prices, too, are going up. But amidst all this, moe.'s aims have remained the same. Feeling half-lucky, but half-justified in what they've received via hard, no-nonsense (well, a little nonsense) work, these regular guys just want to do what they enjoy doing, keep doing it well, and have that work remain integral and interesting.

When asked what life is like with Sony/550, the room went quiet. Al said, "It's a lot like life without Sony." There is laughter all around. The band's dealings with the company have been notoriously non-problematic, and Sony/550 have essentially served to subsidize all the trappings which are looking like the icing on the cake of Moe's already booming business, such as new stage lights, organization implements to assist their mostly entirely self-sufficient business backbone, Fatboy Productions, and maybe slightly better wages for their tiny four-man road crew.

"[Sony is] bankrolling our operation at this point, which is a good thing, as long as you accept it as that," said Al. A certain innocence, blended with cautious pragmatism pervades the band's professional sensibility.

There was brief patter about the stereotypically bacchanalian exploits that usually come to mind when thinking of the "Rock Star Lifestyle." As Al rattled off some examples, "Cadillacs, videos, mountains of cocaine, Grammys..." Chuck replied in a high-pitched whisper,"Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!" and then muttered, "Basic human kindness and caring..."

moe. don't want to be seen as Rock Stars. They certainly don't think like them (in the stereotypical sense). But they sure tend to play like they 'em. Before the interview at Toad's, I looked around at the black and white publicity stills lining the walls of the sizeable club, and saw that past Toad's acts included big hitters from Tin Machine to Pantera. Catching the three-day Northeast run, having not seen a full moe. show for about three months, I was surprised. The more refined, clockwork operations of the moe. crew are clear as day. The sound is crisp, the lights are impressive, and the overall coordination has improved, without compromising the always humorous Moe unpredictability. But I was also a little freaked out by the totally hectic hugeness of the audiences, mostly wild-eyed virgins who'd never seen or heard the band, or perhaps caught an ill-representative 35-minute Furthur set. When the music took flight, though, I couldn't help but hear the optimism.

In addition to the band's impressive catalog of something like 50-70 multifarious tunes, four new songs are out of the gate. They range in style from the combined art-rock bombast and calypso rhythms of "Plane Crash," to the jangly, wistful, homesick balladeering in "Letter Home." They take a crack at drifting and lilting, yet crunchy, classic rock-influenced guitar weaving with "Water," and slip comfortably into slight self-mockery, in the guise of wry songwriting, out-of-controlwailing, and endless reprises in "Waiting for the Punchline." "We...got the business off the ground, and now I think our musicianship is gonna take a different turn. Our songwriting is getting better," said Chuck.

After about twenty minutes, though, I could sense the guys' anxious electricity flying in every direction. So, I made a call for some final statements.

"Don't make us look bad," Rob said. I told him I'd try not to. "Actually," he said, after a pause, "Can you make us look good?" I assured him I'd make them look like them. "That's what I'm getting at," he said, laughing. "Don't make us look like us." I said I'd do just that, because it's clearly moe.'s charm.

Then Al, with characteristic measure, leaned in, and posited what he claims to be the moe. Mission Statement: "To be the first band in popular music history to do any and everything, and get away with, it without being put into a box on a shelf, between the pencils and the cupie dolls."

Chuck, however, whispered, "Impossible." I was a little puzzled, so I asked him what he meant, why he doesn't think that moe. can be the nutty wackballs they are, and still remain true to their good-guy, potty-mouthed, random and individualistic natures.

"Until you get to be of a certain age, you're gonna be like, 'this is what I'm down with, these are the cool guys that I'm hangin' with, I'm gonna listen to this, we're gonna have a name for it, and we're gonna have the clothes that go with it.' That's how the media is set up, that's how people are trained to deal with things..." he said.

All are valid concerns in our advertising-saturated age. But it's clear that in the long run, Moe are going to try, no matter what the cost, to stay true to what they really are. What that is, however, no one can ever be too sure. Not even they themselves, especially when they're dog tired, brain-dead bored, simply rarin' to go, or most especially...hungry.

"Do you guys wanna eat?" asked Rob.

Vinnie always seems psyched beyond control simply to be involved. A friend and admirer for years, he watched the band go through four drummers, too occupied by either by his own life, or other bands he was in, to join up when the need arose. Finally, in November 1996, the time was right. "I love playing music, I love these guys, and I love you," he said directly into my tape recorder, in a dreamy lounge-lizard manner. "I love my family, I love my kids..." I gently reminded him he's only got one so far. Everyone laughed. "I just want it all to work out."

Chuck stared into the distance for a while, then said with abandon, "I just wanna have a long career doing cool stuff, no matter what it is."

"What about making war models?" Rob asked.

"I would love to make war models for a career," Chuck replied.

"If we could get a moe. Pinball Machine one day..." Al began.

"A what?," Rob asked.

"A moe. Pinball Machine," Al continued. "That would be pretty freakin' cool."

There were deep moans of hope from all present.

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