Al Schnier, guitarist and singer for moe., recognizes the irony of his iconic jam band signing a deal with Sugar Hill Records. At a time when more and more high-profile acts are transitioning to a do-it-yourself approach, moe. has moved in the opposite direction. After self-releasing all but two of its previous 10 studio albums, the group teamed up with the EMI-distribute label for its newest release, Whatever Happened to the La Las, which came out this past January.
"We've built a really great cottage industry out of this somehow," says Schnier, insisting that the band has never been dissatisfied with the DIY approach. "After doing it for so many years, though, the one thing that's always sort of eluded us, I guess, was being able to tap into a wider audience or getting some kind of additional exposure. We've always flown under the radar."
The Sugar Hill deal isn't the only change. With Whatever Happened to the La La's, the group has, for one of the rare times in its two-decade career, brought in a producer, John Travis. Schnier said the band had started to think that its democratic approach to songwriting and arranging might not have been resulting in its best musical decisions.
"The thing about that is, because we're very much like brothers, and democratic almost to a fault, you end up compromising all of the time," he explains. "Nobody is really steering the ship — we kind of all are — and nobody really wants to ruffle any feathers."
To be sure, Schnier acknowledges, the collaborative approach sometimes results in better music than any single band member might create on his own.
But not always.
"Sometimes that compromise just means that everybody's ideas got distilled, and none of them are really great, and nobody's really happy at the end of the day."
As Schnier tells it, the new producer wasn't shy about directing the musicians, even though many of the songs had been played live and developed over a period of time before he came onboard. Upon taking the production reins, Travis took the band in some new directions.
The rocking "Suck a Lemon," for instance, lost an instrumental section. Eclectic album opener "The Bones of Lazarus" also went through significant changes, as did the dreamy rocker "Puebla."
"We had a 15-minute version of it that we had sent to him as our demo," says Schnier of the track, which now clocks in at just over four minutes.
Schnier expects the songs from Whatever Happened to the La Las will continue to evolve as moe. tours behind the album. The group started out trying to create more of a structured presentation, to the point where the musicians were actually writing and rehearsing instrumental segments that will be less free-form than fans may be expecting.
"The idea was to tighten up the show, to really see if we could make the show more exciting somehow," says Schnier of the group's original impulse. "But since that time, we've kind of gone back to a much looser structure, to the point where we're putting question marks down for where songs should be on our set lists, or just changing things up on the fly. I think in the end, we all found that it actually took something away from the show."