WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LA LAs
After two decades of writing, recording and touring together, veteran jam band moe. took stock of where they’d been, released a retrospective, then turned the page.
Two years later the Northeast-based five-some has opened a new chapter in the moe. story. What Happened To The LA LAs is the band’s first completely new collection since 2008, and while creative evolution has always been a moe. hallmark, What Happened To The LA LAs shows the band stepping outside their comfort zone in some significant ways.
“For most of our career we’ve done everything on our own in a very cottage industry, home-y kind of way,” explains Chuck Garvey, guitarist and vocalist. “Everything we take on — whether it’s the creation of a T-shirt, a song, an album or a festival or concert — from start to finish, we have our hands in it. And this time we actually made the leap of putting ourselves in someone else’s hands to help us come out with something different.”
Toward that end, moe. signed with Sugar Hill Records, their first label partnership in more than a decade. Next they brought in an outside producer for the first time: John Travis, whose work with Kid Rock had earned him fans within the moe. camp.
For moe. — which in addition to Garvey includes Vinnie Amico (drums), Rob Derhak (bass, vocals), Jim Loughlin (percussion, Malletkat) and Al Schnier (guitar, vocals, keyboards, mandolin) — it was a major philosophical change. After all, this is the same band which famously built a recording studio inside a 150-year-old decommissioned church for 2008’s Sticks And Stones.
“I, for one, was unsure about the process,” admits Al Schnier. “I’m always wanting to see my songs through from start to finish. So deferring to somebody else, even on something as mundane as the mic placement on an instrument during recording, was a lot to let go of.”
But Rob Derhak found letting go a huge relief. “The amount of responsibility that comes with the control is a little daunting,” he notes. “Especially when you’re dealing with for the most part three creative forces in the band. It’s kind of nice to have somebody else make decisions. It’s good to have a tie breaker, at the very least.”
Which doesn’t mean What Happened To The LA LAs is a sharp departure from moe.’s signature roots-rock and exploratory jams. Travis’s most pronounced contribution was to challenge the band creatively enabling the album’s 10 tracks to retain their dynamic essence, even in a studio setting.
Says Garvey, “He made it less about looking at it under a microscope and more about making creative decisions. He forced us to be creative and look at everything and not be attached to anything. That was the biggest thing.”
Laughs Derhak, “Well, because we had somebody there to say,You know what? As great as you might think this is? It sucks! You’re wrong. You can do better.”
moe. fans will be pleased to find several never-recorded concert favorites on What Happened To The LA LAs, what Garvey dubbed “the cream of the crop.” In some cases, such as the song “Lazarus,” the material has been wholly transformed from its live iterations. Now refashioned as “The Bones Of Lazarus,” the song features an entirely new bridge section and third verse.
Similarly, the Al Schnier-penned “Haze” went through several metamorphoses in the studio, not the least of which was having Rob Derhak handle lead vocals. Schnier recalls wrestling with the song’s chord progressions and verses over an arduous day in the studio, a process he says “just beats you up psychologically. And the thing that worked in the end was having Rob sing the song instead of me.
“I was so unsure about it at first,” he adds. “You talk about relinquishing control! Just giving up something like that, singing a song: it was one of my favorite songs that I had written for the album, and I wasn’t even going to get to sing it! And then I heard Rob sing it and it was awesome. I’m really really psyched about the way that it turned out.”
“Downward Facing Dog” is another of moe.’s newer compositions. Clocking in at just over 8 minutes, it’s also the album’s longest. Lyrically, the song was born out of Al Schnier’s musings on aging and the passing of time. “My dad was in really poor health at the time, so I had a lot of big issues on my mind,” he says. “Being a dad, and being in this situation with my own dad, just makes you look at the big picture.”
“Rainshine” is a musically intricate piece which “kind of took a turn for the better at our producer’s prodding,” Schnier recalls. “Initially I was writing the song about one thing and ultimately the song ended up wanting to be about something else.”
Schnier had tinkered with the song “Smoke” for several years, first experimenting with it as a piano waltz, then playing it on acoustic and later electric guitar. Hints of the song’s waltz origins are still evident in its underlying form, though Schnier notes lyrics eluded him until the song took on its harder edge. “Then all of a sudden I was able to write lyrics in a half hour one day. I just needed to break through.”
“Paper Dragon” is one of Rob Derhak’s compositions. “I was thinking, what does it feel like to have this ability but if you used it, it would be the end of you? I think of this dragon that can breathe fire but it’s made of paper, so it can’t do what it was born to do. I thought it was an interesting idea for a song.”
Percussionist Jim Loughlin wrote “Chromatic Nightmare,” which came out of a fan-inspired psychedelic Halloween concert, as evidenced by the song’s calliope-like strains. Similarly, Chuck Garvey’s “Suck A Lemon” was written for the same Halloween show. Al Schnier’s “Puebla” is an older piece that evolved in the studio into its present cascade of shimmering guitars.
Rounding out the What Happened To The LA LAs tracks is “One Way Traffic,” which Rob Derhak wrote with Nashville-based songwriter Steven Dale Jones. Though it didn’t start out as moe. song, with the addition of hard drums and rollicking guitar solos the band has made it their own.
The result of all this in-studio transformation is not so much a polished sound as a professional one, says Derhak. “I felt John Travis did a great job of having everything sit in its own spot in the mixes. Everything is real dirty and gritty, but at the same time it’s all there and it all makes complete sense.”
Partnering with Sugar Hill is another change for moe. The hope is that What Happened To The LA LAs will reach a wider audience as a result.
“Doing it on our own, our resources are limited by our size,” Derhak says. “We were looking for somebody who can kind of expand who we can reach.”
“It’s a good way for us to reach a new audience and break some new ground,” adds Garvey.