“Letter Home”: moe. Revisits ‘Tin Cans and Car Tires’ 25 Years Later
At a quarter century’s remove, the abiding legacy of moe.’s Tin Cans and Car Tires feels almost inevitable.
In early 1998, while enjoying one of its initial creative peaks, the band teamed with an equally adroit ascending production duo on an album that remains an archetype. They collectively translated and transformed the group’s road-tested material and dynamic live energy in the studio environment.
The record was a testament to what a jamband could accomplish in this setting with proper focus, resolve and support. Here’s the thing though, when the four members of moe. were making the record alongside producer John Alagia and engineer John Siket, they didn’t think of themselves in that light [Bonus fun fact: Jambands.com didn’t launch until a few months later, 25 years ago today].
Still, almost from the get-go, whether they realized it or not, moe. was the quintessential jamband. One aspect was certainly the group’s penchant for live musical exploration.
As guitarist Al Schnier explained on a video conference call with all four band members who played on the record [guitarist Chuck Garvey, bassist Rob Derhak and drummer Vinnie Amico], “We knew we had to navigate that space between being a touring band that played 20 minute songs and 30 minute improvisational segues, with creating a kick-ass rock song that could live on the radio to something by Dave Matthews Band or Blues Traveler. We first experienced that with No Doy [moe.’s 1996 Sony debut and the group’s third album] and we continued to explore it, doing things that we didn’t necessarily do on those first two records, which were very much like a garage band, making a home demo.”
Beyond moe.’s live facility, the group was a true organic jamband in that it didn’t adhere to any traditional genre or feel the need to circumscribe its creative expressions.
Schnier wrote “Head” at Sony’s studio during the No Doy mixing sessions and remembers, “I was in this giant soundproof room by myself, so I didn’t have to be polite. It was great to lay into that opening riff—it just sounded so good on the guitar. This was at a time we had been listening to Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and a lot of loud, heavy rock. It was not necessarily what one might think of as jamband stuff but we found a way to play loud rock music and also have it somehow fit into this improvisational jamband format.”
To the extent there is such a format, moe. helped create it, which is why the band had full agency to craft whatever music felt honest and true.
Most of these songs remain moe. live staples, still beloved by fans over 25 years later.
As for recording them, Derhak notes, “We’d try them out live and take notes as we played. Then we’d alter things, so they’d develop and grow. It was almost a form of pre-production.”
Given this process, Garvey recalls that moe.’s A&R executive at Sony, Michael Caplan, recommended John Alagia to produce Tin Cans. “He had worked on Dave Matthews Band’s live record [Remember Two Things] and Michael thought he’d be the right fit. He turned out to be a good match who listened closely to what we were saying and what we were doing.”
Tin Cans was the first-ever studio recording for Amico, who joined the group fresh off a stint in the Grateful Dead cover band, Sonic Garden. “That was the beginning of my career with moe.,” Amico says, “so it was getting my feet wet, but what a way to get my feet wet.”
After re-listening to Tin Cans and Car Tires 25 years later, Garvey remarks, “I think that as a band, we were really hard-working. You can hear we were getting it right or at least we were getting it as right as we could. We were completely immersed in being a band and doing the work. I think it shows.”
To mark the 25th anniversary of Tin Cans and Car Tires Sony has released a special 2-LP Sky Blue vinyl reissue of the album, which includes three bonus live tracks. Amico, Derhak, Garvey and Schnier share their thoughts on each song below, preceded by the song descriptions that appear on the original release.
Stranger Than Fiction
This song came about from the early days of some routing frustrations that the band was feeling. There’s also a reference to Chairman Mao, which kind of covers two thoughts I was having; lyrically it is a reference to an early touring plan that our management had, in which we’d spend a summer touring the country of China. And spiritually it’s a reference to Little Feat’s “A Apolitical Blues.” I’m a big fan of Lowell George’s song writing, and was inspired by him to write this song.—Rob
Rob: That’s exactly how it was. There was a program where China was starting to open up its borders and they were going to bring in artists—this was before Tiananmen Square or any of that stuff. Topper [the band’s former manager] made contact and we went as far as getting all of our backgrounds checked and did all the paperwork but then the program lost funding. So the whole thing just shit the bed. But it was kind of a joke in our camp was where we were going to play at Oneonta, then the next gig would be in China and then we would play in Palm Beach or something ridiculous based on our tour routing.
As for Lowell George, he was one of those underrated players and writers. He had his hand in so much—he was even an integral part of the Laurel Canyon scene. He died young though, so he didn’t make it long enough to get the recognition and success he deserved.
With Little Feat, it’s almost like a Big Star kind of thing where they somehow got overlooked a little bit. You don’t have to be a Little Feat fan to know the classics but they’re still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They’re one of the first bands I was exposed to as a little kid by my brother and sister, along with Steely Dan. Sometimes my brother would even play guitar and my sister would sing—they’d do “Willin’” and stuff like that.
“Spaz Medicine” was written during the mixing of our last album, No Doy. Since we were holed up @ the Death Star mixing the tracks, we decided to take advantage of what little time we had & work on some new material. The addition of the Yolk Horns was not a new concept by any means. In fact, when I had originally written the part 2 years ago, I had always heard it as a horn part, & we always called it ‘the horn part’—deep. Naturally, the guys in Yolk were the first choice for such a convoluted song. As far as the lyrics/vocals are concerned, you might call it a study of the irrational mind. I came up with the words by way of sound first & content fell into place. I like the flow of consonants & syllables & the way they run on much like the content of the song—a ‘stream of consonants.’—Al
Al: I will add one other component, which is that the song was inspired by a Camper Van Beethoven song called “Still Wishing to Course.” I think it was on their third album. It would jump back and forth between multiple time signatures, but it was still a very catchy song.
There are certain bands I admire—Soundgarden is a perfect example—that can play things in odd time signatures or create multi-rhythm songs without having it sound like you’re listening to math rock. You’re not instantly forced into King Crimson territory. Not that this necessarily was my goal because it still sounds like a pretty odd song at the end of the day. I wanted something catchy though, and I think I was inspired by this Camper Van Beethoven song.
Vinnie: Coming from a Grateful Dead sort of background, where they played a lot of odd meters, my ears got pretty attuned to finding the one. So I was able to figure out a way to make “Spaz Medicine” groove without sounding odd metered.
Al: That’s the thing, the band really fell into it. It sounds like a moe. song. Everybody just leaned into their parts and it has a really nice pocket to it. There’s a nice groove to it. Even though it’s a quirky song, it doesn’t feel that way because the band is comfortable playing it rhythmically the way that we do.
I wrote the words for the verses on the Nebraska page of our road atlas, which was the only available paper at the time. I believe we were somewhere in Wyoming, driving to Colorado, in the old yellow van. I actually wrote the melody in my head, and it stayed there for about a year before I played it on my acoustic. I thought, if I can remember a song, for that long, that doesn’t even exist yet, it’s gotta be a catchy tune—Rob
Rob: That was a method I used for a while—it wasn’t just that tune, it was other songs—when I’d be working my job as a landscaper or whatever I was doing at the time. I would make up songs in my head and I didn’t have an option of sitting down and playing them. So I would keep playing something over and over in my head, and then if I still remembered it by the next time I was able to get to a bass, I figured it was probably a pretty good tune. If it was gone, then I figured it wasn’t worth remembering. I’m not sure that’s really the best method. [Laughs.]
It did help out in the early days, though. I wish I still had that atlas, but I think it got chewed up on the floor of the van somewhere and got torn apart.
I remember recording it, and I don’t know if they were pushing for a single or not, but I do know that we butted heads with A&R on that one. There’s a version where we had a three piece horn section doing a New Orleans style breakdown in the middle and they wouldn’t let us use it. That version still exists, though.
Chuck: One thing that the band always did was we would work on an A part, a B part and a C part—a bridge or something. Then we would put it all together, so that it would lock in. With “Spaz Medicine” we did the same thing. We would take one part and get it really tight and then go to the next one. Then we would string them together.
On a song like this, Rob had the words and the feel and we would dress it with the guitars and the drums. That’s the way that we usually worked on songs like this. With “Nebraska” Rob had the vision and we just had to get it right.
“Head” is another tune that was written during the mixing of No Doy. I actually came up with the main riff one night after everyone had gone home. I was playing my guitar very loudly with all sorts of abandon, as boys will often do. I wasn’t sure if everyone would like it, or if it would even be appropriate as a moe. tune. We all did in fact like it & spent some time coming up with the meat of the song. The idea for the subject matter was to write a song that could be about any & all things pertaining to the title. Sort of a random ‘head study #9’ or ‘Still life with head’ so to speak.—Al
Al: I remember specifically playing the riff over and over again. I was in this giant soundproof room by myself, so I didn’t have to be polite. It was great to lay into that opening riff—it just sounded so good on the guitar.
This was at a time we had been listening to Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and a lot of loud, heavy rock. It was not necessarily what one might think of as jamband stuff but we found a way to play loud rock music and also have it somehow fit into this improvisational jamband format.
That’s how we kind of fell into the rest of the song. There’s this whole middle section and it’s become a staple of our live show, where we can go into this exploratory improv for 20 minutes. It’s a very collaborative process. There’s no solo in this song per se. It’s very much this group mind jam kind of thing. It’s one of my favorite songs to play live because of that section of the song.
On moe.’s musical diversity and early place in their local Buffalo scene:
Rob: We could have gone in a lot of different directions based on our crowd response. We ended up in the improv music scene but we could have gone in any direction. If we had closed up our songs a little bit, we might have been in more of the grunge rock scene. It’s interesting. I think the album shows that too, because nothing really sounds like the next thing.
Vinnie: I have my own perspective on the early moe. stuff because I wasn’t in the band, I was in a Dead band. There was a jam scene, but it was all Grateful Dead or acoustic music. It was mostly covers and moe. was in a completely different scene—they were in the punk rock alternative scene. So they would be on a bill with three other bands that were playing different kinds of music.
Rob: The people I hung out with weren’t Deadheads at first. We’d go to parties with the art guys, the punkers and whatever that was. The closest thing to we were listening to is maybe Fishbone and that’s not jam music at all. I didn’t hang out with Vinnie or those guys. I didn’t even know them, really.
Vinnie: The other thing is that if you were playing jam music, it was all covers. Those other bands I’m talking about weren’t playing covers, they were playing original music. It was a big difference.
Al: I also remember there was a little more distinction between those camps. There were the Deadheads and all the hippie kids, and then this other scene with kids who were listening to punk rock and grunge and alternative.
moe. was decidedly in this other camp, but we were getting little bits of exposure to the Deadheads because we were starting to stretch things out.
For us though, it didn’t come from that same lineage of being in a Dead band or playing songs in that tradition, so much as being inspired by the music of Frank Zappa. In his live shows he could play metal and jazz and funk and all of these things, then stretch things out with long solos and do really weird and funny stuff.
That became part of what we were doing, which again, fit more with the music of Fishbone and Primus and some of the other things that we really enjoy, like the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. They were all playing some pretty wild psychedelic improvisational shows and jamming, but it was coming from a different place, a different perspective.
But ultimately, little by little, we made inroads with the other group that blossomed into the thing that Phish and Panic and Blues Traveler and everybody was born out of. We were very much a part of that.
Hi & Lo
I suppose this song can be summed up pretty simply: nothing is ever perfect or completely wrong, everything is made up of small wrongs and rights that have a sum. Kinda like the ‘every silver lining has a cloud’ principle, only with a little more math and Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” mixed in. I give it 2 stars on the pompous scale. The song was originally written and played ad nauseam on acoustic with some ‘om’-like syllables hummed over the top.—Chuck
Chuck: That sounds right. I can’t remember where I was living, but I remember working on things acoustically and that I was get getting into blues fingerstyle stuff. I started not using a pick, but just my hand.
Then I began putting songs together with three parts. I would play guitar and bass, and I would hum as well. That helped me figure out what was going on while it was coming together. I think that’s what I did for “Hi & Lo.”
I remember when we all started working on both “Hi & Lo” and “Big World,” Rob was playing five-string. Those songs had a different sound once he added those low bass notes. I loved that reach. It was fun when we were fleshing out those songs at the pre-production house.
I’m not much of a fan of flying, and sedation is the best way to make a long trip in the R.V. ‘fly’ by.—Rob
Rob: Writing it originally was therapeutic for me, just to help me deal with flying. I remember going over all the parts together, pre-producing it ad nauseum.
This might have been another one that was close to the time of No Doy because I remember working on the lines at Sony Studios. We did a lot of work on it there, and I feel like it was a band effort trying to get the solo section down with all the hits and stuff like that. I had the basic bones of the verse and chorus down before we got to it as a band, but we put a bit of work into that tune at Sony, where we used to rehearse.
Al: We had talked about having strings on it but I think that was more in the “Kashmir” kind of sense where we were going to double up what we were already doing in the song, like in the chorus. Our thought was, “Okay, we’re in the studio, let’s add horns, add strings, add backing vocals—all the things that we can’t pull off as a rock band on stage.”
Originally it was going to be something a little bit more simplified, at least in my mind. We did not know that we were going to get this orchestral arrangement and complete rethinking of the intro to the song. At first it was just there to accompany the guitar intro that we already had. But it was so epic, we kept playing it back in the studio to hear it on its own. Then we ultimately separated it from the rest of the song because it was so freaking cool.
Letter Home is just that—a letter home from our recent year on the road, 1997. Each verse is a page from each tour, each season. The song had given us some trouble for a while, as evidenced by the various incarnations you may have heard since its inception. It went from being a simple country song to include an extended bridge with an odd-metered world beat extravaganza, & even became a reggae song at one point, before coming full circle & becoming the it always was—a simple country song. And it wasn’t until the end of our fall ‘97 tour, as we were returning home, that the song also ‘returned home.’ Life vs. art? Let’s call it a draw.—Al
Al: I remember taking the song through all of those paces. It’s funny to hear it recounted. The song is so simple, like a country song, and in our typical fashion, we threw all these ideas at it, short of it being a fast punk song or something heavier. But we tried all these different fits for it. We even tried to make it an extended improvisational song at one point, but it just didn’t need any of those things.
I think part of it was us just being comfortable with playing a short ballad. We were young and it was hard for us to be comfortable with that. Even now, I sometimes wonder if it’s a stretch at times. We’re not really known as a ballad band and to bring the show down so much at any given moment, we have to be pretty selective about where we decide to place that song. As it turns out, our fans love it, I think that’s because it’s become very nostalgic for them as well.
Chuck: I remember when Al wanted to do a reggae version or was it ska?
Al: The verses were all reggae, and then there’s that whole other section in the middle that almost sounds like it would fit more appropriately in “Seat of My Pants,” where there are those power chords. Then there’s an odd tempo world beat section.
I wrote this whole extended bridge for it that sounds like it could be in the middle of a different moe. song, which is why I don’t think it stuck in this song. There were a couple of times we played the retro version as a bust-out. I had to go back and learn the whole thing, which sounds like an exercise in jamband stupidity. [Laughs.]
Chuck: I always liked the country version because it had the right feel.
Al: Your guitar sounds so good on it. That’s the thing that elevates the song.
We started working out the music to “Big World” before the ‘97 fall tour, so you may have heard bits & pieces of it come up in other songs or solos. The lyrics came on their own much later. I simply kept singing the song over & over & the lyrics came into their own. In 1997, I had the good fortune of locating my biological parents for the first time. The experience deserves more time & space than liner notes can allow for, but suffice it to say that it was surreal, unfathomable, & above all a positive experience for everyone involved. This song is simply a snapshot of that moment of realization—somewhere between the switch & the light bulb.—Al
Al: The subject matter certainly made for great introspection and it was clearly on my mind at the time. There are certain things that we all ago through in life—like the passing of a family member who’s close to you or the birth of your children—where everybody says, “You won’t know until you know.” Then when it happens, it’s a bit like having your first psychedelic experience almost, where it gives you this perspective that you could not have had until you experience it personally. This was one of those moments as well. Being connected with your birth parents just changes your viewpoint, your place in the world a little bit.
I’ve always known that I was adopted. I have a very loving relationship with my parents and with my family. They are my family and that was not a concern or an issue. They were very open in discussing it.
In fact, there’s an interesting sidebar in that as a young kid, because it was just so unassuming in the context of our family, I thought half the kids in the world were adopted and half the kids weren’t. I just thought that’s the way the world was made up. “Do you play baseball? Where are you from? Are you adopted?”—these are the questions that I would ask a kid when I was meeting them for the first time. [Laughs.]
But as far as the music goes, it was again a little bit of a departure for us. There’s something that has sort of an organic jammy element to it, but there’s something a little bit proggy about it too that I really like. It’s a space that we can get into from time to time. There’s some heavy, odd-metered stuff that comes up at the end. Like Chuck mentioned, Rob’s playing the five-string, so it’s got this really deep bass groove in it.
There are all these different elements to it that allows our band to occupy a different space than a song like “Letter Home,” for example. It has this funky proggy sort of deeper space to it. I love it that we get to do that too.
I’ll also say that 90% of it is the band doing all that. If I were to play that song on my own, it wouldn’t quite hold up the same way.
Again & Again
This song was a tune that I’d been playing over & over again at home. Invariably, every time I picked up the guitar, I’d end up playing this song. The lyrics came much later, after the band had worked up the song & tried it on, so to speak. The one line, ‘time gets around in my head—I don’t want to feel it’ was the only thing I had to work with for quite a while. In fact, this was one of those songs where the lyrics were completed just minutes before the recording. Since I recently turned the corner at 30, I decided to make this an updated version of “Time Again,” a song I had written about growing old at the age of 25. It’s not an obsession with age, but more of a fascination with time & perspective—& getting bald & fatter.—Al
Al: It’s something that still fascinates me to this day. It’s funny to think that both of those songs sound like they’re written very much from the perspective of a young person, which I don’t mind. I’m not ashamed of that, it’s nice to have it as a snapshot in time.
I really don’t have much to add, although I will say that we started playing it again recently and it’s been fun. We did some work on this song and tweaked the rhythm section and the arc of the whole thing. I think it currently feels the best that it has ever felt live, just by the little tweaks that we’ve made to it.
Rob: I remember around the time we recorded this record, trying to come to terms with turning 30 soon. I kept thinking that I needed to party more to make it so I wasn’t old. [Laughs.]
There were some new bands that were popping up and I felt like the seasoned old guy on the road. Now some of those bands are still together and they’re old. [Laughs.] So it’s weird. It’s funny to think about.
Vinnie: I don’t think that when you’re 28 or 30 you’re even thinking about what you’re going to be doing at 53 or 54. I definitely wasn’t thinking about doing this at 53. Now we can look back and think about what we were thinking about then back then, but in no way were we anticipating where we’re at now.
“It” was a thorn in our collective side ever since “It” was born. From writing to performing, to pre-producing, tracking and even mixing, “It” was a constant source of aggravation. I hope that “It” was worth it all, just to get across the idea that junk or everyday stuff can get a ‘soul’ from being trashed, used, loved on, obsessed over and recycled towards a different state. 6.5 for pomposity. I can’t help it. I love the singing in the choruses, however—sometimes you CAN polish a turd. Thanks a lot to John Alagia for being so patient.—Chuck
Chuck: I don’t think it was a thorn in our sides. I was probably trying different things or I felt that putting a heavy guitar riff next to the chorus was weird. Maybe it didn’t work well enough at first but we got it right on the recording. I still like the song, though. It’s still fun.
Rob: That was an older tune, and we came in with a preconceived notion of what we wanted it to be. So part of that thorn in our side thing might have been that Alagia wanted to alter it and we were trying to accept what he wanted out of the tune versus what we had already given to the song. It was that sort of headbutting.
I think that initially the chorus had a different feel to it. The words were the same, but we worked on the chorus quite a bit.
He also came up with the turnaround bridge. That wasn’t part of his song. Up until near the end, he had been saying, “This song’s missing something.” Then finally he was like, “This is what it needs—a bridge here.”
When I say that there was some headbutting with Alagia, it was a normal amount of creative differences where you figure it out. We loved working with him.
Happy Hour Hero
The lyrics for this song have changed so many times, I don’t even know if I’m happy with them yet. If you live in bars long enough you don’t have much else to write about.—Rob
Rob: I don’t recall any of that. I don’t remember struggling with the lyrics as much as it says. [Laughs.] I do remember writing the song at a bar in Greenville, North Carolina. Literally, I was writing about the actual bar I was sitting at and drinking. We were heading to Charlotte the next night, going to the place that we had built our Southern tour around.
I remember writing those lines about the bar because I really liked Saranac beer. Then we’d go somewhere and I’d have to get shitty beer, so I’d be thinking, “Oh, I’d love to have Saranac right now.”
I also remember asking Al to make his guitar line sound like a saxophone line. I wanted it to sound like a horn part or a sax part, and Al wrote the line with that idea in mind.
Al: This is a great example of a song that does stand on its own, unlike “Big World.” Not that I couldn’t sit and play “Big World” on an acoustic guitar and provide some semblance of the song, but “Happy Hour Hero” is done with three chords and Rob singing it. Everything about the essence of the song is there.
Then, like Chuck said before, moe. gets to dress it up or find our parts that work. Rob will often give us direction—“I want this kind of a thing here. This is what I’m hearing, can you do this?” It’s almost like theatrical direction. I mean it obviously comes from music production, but a lot of times we’ll get some kind of reference or a sense of feeling and then we’ll add flavor to it in that way.
Queen of the Rodeo
“Queen” is sort of a made-for-TV movie version of a real life ‘based on actual events,’ starring the guy who was best friends with the guy who was once a stand-in for someone kinda famous. The anti-hero of the story was freaking out one night, because he had a really important show at The Wetlands, & had discovered that his father had just been admitted to the hospital. His father had undergone a major organ transplant a few years before & although greatly improved, his health was never entirely stable. So on top of the normal pressures of a make-it-or-break-it show in the big city, this completely rocked his world. Enter the dame (she really is the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world). She ends up talking with our anti-hero & taking his mind off life for a few hours. Everyone lives happily ever after. And I’m weird.—Al
Al: Clearly I was having an off night because of the situation with my father. That might’ve been the night that I met Diane and we first started talking to each other, so I wrote a country love song.
I’d forgotten about the full autobiographical context or the sub-context to the song. Every time we played at The Wetlands, I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown because we would not go on until midnight and the place was empty until 11 o’clock at night.
We’d show up at five or six to sound check but until we started having amazing advanced sales there, we really didn’t know how well we were going to do. We were playing at the place where we wanted to be playing but didn’t know if anybody was going to be there.
It was very nerve-wracking for us as a young band but we ended up with a very good following there and it became a huge part of our history.