Stranger Than Fiction: An Interview with Chuck Garvey of moe.

Brian Ripple, Wesley Easton

moe. is the preeminent progressive rock band on the music scene today—a quintet of world class musicians, whose creative output equals that of their longevity. In a remarkable career that has touched three decades and produced a discography of 24 albums, the Sugar Hill Records recording artist of Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey on guitars and vocals, Rob Derhak on bass and vocals, Jim Loughlin on percussion and vibes, and Vinnie Amico on drums, continue to push the standard for performance art higher and further.

Brian Ripple: Hi Chuck, so where I am I calling you at right now?

Chuck Garvey: I’m at home right now, right next to the Catskills in the Hudson Valley in New York.

BR: Alright, awesome, I’m right outside Bozeman, in Montana and we’re calling mainly to chat with you about the show happening Saturday October 13 in Missoula. We’re all really excited that you’re coming back to Montana.

CG: (chuckles) So are we!

BR: The Wilma is a great theatre. We always love going over there to see anybody, but it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to see you guys, so I’m especially excited.
Since I’m calling from Bozeman, I wanted to ask you about the reference in the song ‘Stranger Than Fiction.’ If you can clue us into how that came about? Other than perhaps it rhymed with another line in the song.

CG: In college Rob and I had a house mate, a friend of ours, who ended up moving out to Bozeman about 20 years ago. When the band started travelling west, we didn’t have a show booked in Bozeman but we just decided to stop there and visit our buddy, and we ended up putting a gig together at the Filling Station. Anytime we were out west and we could swing it, we could stop in Bozeman and visit and play a gig. It was always a part of our cross country travels, and we always made a point of stopping there, and that’s probably the main reason Rob included it in the song because it was one of our stops in our mad dash back and forth across the country.

BR: Without giving away your friends identity, does he still live here?

CG: He does.

BR: It’s a hard place to leave.

CG: He loves it there; a couple of his friends went with him and he’s still there. Loving the lifestyle. I think that was the biggest draw for him.

BR: I think it is for most people. Let me ask you about when you were a child, when you were getting into music, and first starting guitar who would you list as some of your heroes, people who inspired you to pick up the guitar and start playing music for yourself?

CG: When I first started, I played tenor saxophone in grade school. In junior high, I started listening to a lot of British rock, like The Who?, and The Police, and David Bowie and I think that probably between The Who?, David Bowie, King Crimson and a couple of other bands that got me into guitar playing as well. I started noodling around with that probably in junior high school a little more seriously. Those were probably the first ones that really got me interested in it.

BR: Is that about the time that you started playing in a band? With other people?

CG: I was playing sax in a high school jazz ensemble and a couple of friends of mine and I would do trios and stuff and actually try to make some money, gigs like cocktail parties and simple stuff like that. We also had my friend Andy who is a keyboard player; he used to get us gigs doing top 40 music but we would do it instrumentally and I would play the vocal parts on the saxophone. I started trying to weasel the guitar into that and I was not very good on the guitar yet, but they let me know it (laughs). So I was kind of learning in high school and the next couple of years I held onto the guitar and took a guitar and an amp and a couple of pedals with me to college just for fun and I ended up finding Rob, who was interested in guitar, and another guy who lived in the dorms with us had an acoustic and we would strum cowboy chords and play easy songs and from there it just kept going.

BR: It just kept going and morphed into moe.? Or another band or two in between?

CG: Rob and I were connected with moe’s first drummer Ray Schwartz, and we played a Halloween party just as a trio doing all cover songs. We were in costume and playing a bunch of cover tunes just for a keg party at somebody’s house, and that was the beginning. And, we kept playing covers but slowly started writing originals and working that in.

BR: Nowadays when you go to see shows who are some of the guitar players or bands that would make you buy a ticket and show up for a concert and stand and watch, who’s on that list? You know, when you’re at home in New York and you’re like ‘these people are coming through’ and ‘this guitar player is coming around’, who strikes your fancy these days?

CG: I haven’t been able to do this yet, but there’s a couple of people that play somewhat regularly within an hour of me and I’m not too far from New York, so I could go down there but it’s pretty labor intensive to do that. There are a bunch of venues in the area that I’d love to go to, and one of the people that I’ve seen playing around, and hopefully if I’m not on the road when they come around I’ll see is Charlie Hunter. I’m a big fan of his playing, and of his style and I like hearing him play with just a drummer or in a trio, and he is definitely somebody I would like to check out. There’s a guy named Wayne Krantz, I got one of his albums in ‘96 and I still listen to it, called Two Drink Minimum. He came from more of a Jazz scene; his playing is really unique and interesting and he plays at a place called the 55 Bar in New York City. I’ve seen Gov’t Mule a bunch of times, we’ve played with them a bunch of times, and if I had the chance, my wife and I would probably go see them. I don’t know, there’s a ton, Jimmy Herring, one of the nicest guys on the planet, and just a great guitar player. Julian Lage is this guy that I’ve started listening to in the last year or so, maybe two years, and his acoustic album and a couple of electric albums have been regular listens for me, but I still haven’t gotten the chance to see him yet. I would definitely go see him play.

BR: Summer Camp 2019 is a little far off, but has moe. played every one of those so far?

CG: Ya, the first one of those at that location, we were touring, we put a package together, it was us, Galactic, String Cheese, Leftover Salmon and we played there and they had not built the Moonshine Stage yet which is now the main structure on the property. Our manager at the time and all of us just wanted to come back, so the seed was sowed for going back and putting on an actual festival, or doing something there every year. The promoters, Ian Goldberg and us, basically just said we are going to try and do this every year, and the following year we played with a couple of bands and there was more people, and more people every year. Every successive year it was growing, and because of Ian’s hard work it has really grown into a gigantic festival that I think fans really look forward to and the musicians really look forward to.

BR: Ya, definitely, people love it. I was checking through some of your events on your website besides Missoula, and you guys are going back to Jamaica? And there’s a chance for people to win some tickets through the Relay for Life raffle, right?

CG: Yes, the one thing that I know specifically is that there are very few rooms left and we wanted to make an offer for people who are interested; it’s a little hard for people to buy plane tickets and get down there and everything. Having that option was something we wanted to offer people. If fans are still on the fence, we wanted to give people a chance at going down there. The Relay for Life, I believe, is in conjunction with the American Cancer Society and that was coordinated by Al’s wife Melanie who works for the American Cancer Society. Basically, we are just trying to offer something cool for fans and make a donation to the American Cancer Society.

BR: It looks pretty simple: You make a $10 donation and then you get entered in the raffle. You just click on the link on your website and you can do it right there.

CG: We’ve done a couple of things involving cancer recently because of Rob’s recent history with it. It’s been something that’s been on our minds more and more lately, and it seemed like the way to go.

BR: It’s a noble thing to do, and somebody’s gonna get a great surprise, and get a trip.

CG: Donate to a charity and maybe hit it big, and get a Caribbean vacation.

BR: That’s a good deal. For a typical show, like Missoula, how long before the show do you write the set list, and what is your process for that?

CG: Usually someone is writing the set the day of the show, maybe the day before. We won’t write the following day’s show until we know exactly what’s going to get played the current night. So usually it’s day of, and songs are selected maybe because of the location or what’s going on in the world at the time, but it’s usually day of.     

For something like Red Rocks, the set was written a couple of days in advance because we all wanted to try to put together a specific show for a venue like that. Rob, Vinnie, Al and myself write set lists, and we just keep going around the round robin or whatever, and we try not to repeat songs every four or five shows, so you’re not going to hear the same song, possibly once a week. It’s just a process of one of us writing the set and we’ll go through and try and come up with segues or little bits to fine tune the sets and how they flow in the night. Generally, we do that during sound check, just to go through anything that might be out of the ordinary, so that’s just little bits of songs to make them flow into one another. Quite often though there will be one song, and if we’re doing a segues into a completely different song we won’t necessarily have an orchestrated path, so it actually does get completely improvised. If you have to go from a fast song to a slow song, or vice versa, it’s something that you have to do as a band over time interacting with each other, and listening, and a lot of those things we try not to talk about too much and just have that be something that’s natural and everyone has to adapt in the moment. So there are things like that, and sometimes we might write a little bit of music, kind of modify it, so that you can make those segues or changes. It’s usually done day of, the set gets written, and then in sound check we’ll work on some of the parts and how they fit together and then you just have to do it that night. It’s exciting; there’s definitely an element of chance that is terrifying and fun.

BR: And in a way it goes back to your Jazz days in the Jazz band, and that’s kind of the nature of the style of music. Whether you call it a Jazz Band or a Jam Band, in a way when you get to those points in the show, you’re treading similar water.

CG: A lot of Jazz improvisation came from players who would quote from other songs or would try and come up with melodies on the spot. Like extemporaneous speakings. (laughs) And try and make sentences, and make statements, but not have it be something that’s composed before hand. In that way I think that we do that quite a bit, but it sounds a lot different. It sounds like Cream and The Allman Brothers, lengthy jams and solos kind of in that vein, and they would go between songs, or take a song way out and try and bring it back. So it’s in that vein, but it’s a blend of American music styles, like Jazz and Rock and also just about anything else that we’re interested in. Jim has a background in Jazz and playing on the vibraphone and xylophone. Vinnie has a background playing a lot of Jazz. The band always wanted to be as inclusive as possible and blend, or mangle, as many different styles of music as we could. At one point at the beginning, we looked at it as kitchen sink music, everything but the kitchen sink was viable, and as long as we could make it work and everybody was on board, with it was an option. We would try and steal from different genres and different styles and try and make them into something new or just try and put them together in a way that maybe someone had not thought of before.

BR: Are you guys working on new material currently? A new album sometime?

CG: We are. In 2019 we are planning on recording. We have a bunch of new material that we’ve been playing live, and a bunch of us have new songs on deck that have not been addressed yet. So, were going to keep working on new material and working toward that 2019 recording.

BR: You guys have put out, besides all of your live material that’s available, probably 20-30 albums it seems like. Do you have one that has always stood out to you as your favorite, or the one that you feel the most accomplishment from?

CG: I like a couple of different albums for different reasons. Some of them it’s more song writing, and some of them it’s more how they were performed and produced, sometimes it’s a blend, but there are probably two or three that are my favorites. I really like Headseed because from that era I think we were really focused on the song writing and recording and it was a really fresh process for us. I have fond memories of it and I still like the songs. (laughs) Another is 2001’s Dither; I’m proud of that album for reasons that a listener would not necessarily cite as a reason why they would like the album, but I’ve always liked Dither. And, Wormwood is a favorite just because it was a cool blend of live stuff and working in the studio together. It was kind of ambitious for us and the results ended up being something we were all proud of.

BR: All awesome records. We listen to you guys pretty frequently at the office, and we’re super excited to get to see you again in Missoula. I don’t know if you know, but I might as well tell you that Nick Checota from LogJam that runs the Wilma, is in the process of building and opening a similar sized and style venue right here in Bozeman. I think it is going to hold 1,500 people and is being designed from the ground up.

CG: Oh, that’s great. I’m sure it will be amazing because the Wilma, they did a fantastic job on that place and everyone who was working there was amazing. We felt like we were at home, and there’s a lot of great people there. If it’s anything like the Wilma, it’s going to be great. Hopefully, they are going to put together a magical space for music to happen; it feels like that at the Wilma definitely.

BR: I have confidence that they will. Hey great talking to you and we’ll see you in Missoula soon.

CG: We’re looking forward to it. We love Montana and Missoula is a cool town. Hopefully we’ll get to spend a little time there.  

photos: Paul Citone, Wesley Easton, and Jake Wisdom

This was made by