Track By Track: moe. ‘This Is Not, We Are’
This Is Not, We Are is moe.’s first studio album since 2014’s No Guts, No Glory. A follow-up record would have likely emerged much earlier, but the group was forced into an extended period of dormancy necessitated by a medical crisis. In July 2017, bassist Rob Derhak was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, leading the band to suspend operations for seven months.
“Rob’s medical emergency really had us pump the brakes because our best friend and brother was dealing with this very immediate situation,” guitarist Al Schnier explains. “That was our number one concern. The great thing was that the first thing Rob wanted to do—after he rang the bell and was given his all-clear—was get together with us and start writing songs immediately. So we all went to him in Maine for 10 days, where we had this really productive, collaborative songwriting period. And we’ve had several other sessions since.”
Then, in October 2019, the group carved out some time to record their new material at Burlington, Vt.’s Tank Recording Studio, whittling down a list of 20 available tunes. This time around, they decided to produce the record themselves, alongside engineers Ben Collette (Phish, Gogol Bordello, Béla Fleck) and Rob O’Dea (Death, Joe Bonnamassa, Grace Potter).
“I had never met Ben before,” guitarist Chuck Garvey recalls, “but we had heard about the studio. They were changing locations and I was watching them post different pictures while they were building their new studio. It just looked really interesting. Their gear list was great and after talking to Ben, it immediately felt like we would get along very well. Ben is a low-key guy, but his concentration and work ethic were just amazing. The process was easy.”
ROB DERHAK: This is an autobiographical song about the time in my life when I was getting cancer treatment. I was taking the train or getting driven between Boston and Maine, where I live. The LL3 was the “Lower Level 3” of Boston General Hospital where I was getting my treatment. Every single day, I would go in to get radiation and hit that button that says LL3. [“LL3” premiered at Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre on Feb. 2, 2018, when the band returned to the stage after Derhak’s doctors declared him “cancer free.”] Doing a new song was very challenging. When you play bass and sing, you have to write the bassline to fit around your vocals. You have to do that with any instrument if you are also a singer, but as a bass player you’re also trying to keep everything together. A guitarist can move around more easily and, especially if a band has two guitarists, they can also lay back. I was trying to keep a straight and steady groove going on every song, but particularly on that song. It’s not super technical, but it’s got this sliding groove that you want to keep pretty dead-on. When we first started recording this one, I hadn’t memorized any of the words—besides maybe the first couple of lines—so I had my iPad there, which I had for every single song. I didn’t even remember the words for “Rebubula” because my brain was completely fried. So I was just sitting there, trying to sing and play the bass without sounding like I was reading the words.
AL SCHNIER: The demos for most of these songs are decidedly different from the final versions. Rob brought in all these cool GarageBand recordings and then, once we dug into the lyrics, it all became very real. Here’s a guy writing a song about going through cancer treatment. I tried to stay in touch with him throughout that process—my wife works for the American Cancer Society. I’ve never been so connected to cancer; they say that everybody knows somebody who’s been touched by cancer and I hadn’t really until Rob was. It was really interesting and challenging as a friend—and as a father and a husband.
The great thing about this—and I’ve said this many times—is that, of all of us, Rob was the strongest person through this whole thing. He did a better job of dealing with his cancer than I did. He carried me through it, and I couldn’t love him any more for doing that. He came out of this experience with this great artistic expression.
VINNIE AMICO: Al brought this song to the table when we were winding down the writing session and he was like, “I got this tune…” So we ran the song, which doesn’t have a lot of changes. It was so simple and good, but then Al said, “We should make it grow to this or that…” And I’m like, “Why? This song is great like it is. It doesn’t have to build into a huge crescendo, some crazy solo or any of that. It’s just a great, grooving song.” In the end, that’s what ended up happening and I think that the song, at its best, is just this nice groove with some cool, mellow solos.
AS: It’s a song that I wrote several years ago. It’s about infatuation. It’s an unabashed song about being smitten with someone. I wrote it for my wife because I was smitten with her, and I still am.
RD: At one point, Al wanted to bring in a woman to sing it as a duet. But as we were playing it, I listened back to the preproduction version and said, “Al, this is perfect the way it is. It’s a cool groove.” To me, it’s got two different vibes: I hear a J.J. Cale smoothness to it that keeps going along. I also hear a Whirly part that reminds me of a song from Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. So I told him: “I don’t think you want to have anything but your voice on this, besides our background vocals. We can do what you want, but I don’t think we need to embellish it with this whole other thing.” He ended up agreeing with that, or saying that he agreed with it. [Laughs.]
CHUCK GARVEY: Jim wrote this one. It’s the type of wacky, cartoonish music that all of us have an affinity for. It swings and it’s got a lot of elements that are interesting to everyone in the band, so it’s fun to play. I know that Jim had been listening to a lot of Raymond Scott who, starting in the 1930s and ‘40s, wrote very oddball big band songs that were filled with all these sound effects. At that time, it was probably shocking to people but it was also really exciting to listen to. And it still is. It’s like that old Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry music, which is very orchestral, but also kind of slapsticky. When you listen to it, it’s very evocative and visual. You can imagine this insane chase scene and things like that. I feel like Jim’s song is like that as well. It’s got a slightly unhinged vibe that’s fun.
JIM LOUGHLIN: My wife thought that “Jazz Cigarette” was a great name for a song. So I went downstairs to the basement and started writing and recording some tracks with that in mind. Then, when my wife and my son came downstairs and I played it for them, they were both like, “No.” It wasn’t what they were looking for, so I had to go back to the drawing board. I kept the bass and the drums, and I completely changed the vibraphone melody. The original song had a piano line in it so I ditched the piano, redid the vibraphone, added the really quirky de-tuning guitar harmony, rerecorded it and came down to play it for them again. And they were like, “OK, that’s the one.”
So I sent it out to the guys and, to be honest, I didn’t think we would ever really end up playing it because it’s so weird and it was kind of intentionally written to be uncomfortable. But they said, “We’re definitely doing this song.” Every time we play it live, though, someone will say, “That last song was written by Jim Loughlin, our percussion player,” and I’m starting to think that, rather than giving me credit, they’re trying to assign blame. [Laughs.]
CG: I tend to write a bunch of songs and then worry if any of them are good enough. I only want to present something to the band if I really feel like it has promise and it’s going to stick around. I’m definitely too precious—I should just try and crank ‘em out more and let some fail and others be successful. But I guess I just don’t operate that way.
For this one, I had been messing around with a weird chord progression and I ended up writing a song and making a demo of it. We made a couple of rehearsal versions of it and I tinkered with the lyrics. I changed rhythm guitar part a little bit and we kind of just honed in on something that was the right cocktail for that moment.
If we were starting a new song, then we would show up in the morning. When we started playing this one, I realized that it needed something in the arrangement to make the arc of the song move a little bit more. So I wrote a bridge section. Also, Rob ended up playing keyboard bass, instead of regular string bass, which is really cool. It’s got this really low sub bass sound to it, so it’s going to sound a little bit different than the rest of the album.
AS: Chuck is such a great songwriter. He has this way of composing a chord melody structure that’s so different than anything that I would do. Every time I hear it, it’s the exact right thing and I wish that I could do it. “Undertone” is no different. The elements definitely harken back to the mid-‘70s—it’s a very specific deep track on a record that your older brother would have owned that has all these really cool elements to it.
Chuck’s songs don’t come out as often as they should or as often as I would like, but when they do, they’re always so much better than mine. [Laughs.] Some of us tend to force something through when a song isn’t finished or maybe isn’t quite worth pursuing because we want to see it all the way through to the end. Then sometimes you finish a song and you go, “Maybe it’s not very good. They can’t all be great songs.” That’s part of the process, unless you’re David Gilmour.
Who You Calling Scared
RD: I lost my dad in 2009, but he still comes to me in dreams. It could just be a memory in my head but, a lot of times, it’s so incredibly real and I get literal words of advice from him that help me. So I wrote this song based on the stuff that he says to me or the stuff that I feel and hear. The music just flowed out of me pretty easily and I was able to throw the words in there.
It’s also a tribute to some of the funk and fusion guys that I discovered when I was younger, like Rocco Prestia from Tower of Power. I originally presented my GarageBand version to the band. It had some guitars, along with some drums that I believe I stole—sometimes I write my own drum parts and sometimes I just grab a loop or a groove and chop it up. Then, I added my vocal parts over it. But, when I sat down and tried to sing and play the bass parts, I realized, “This is never going to happen. I can’t sing and play those lines at the same time. So I recruited Chuck to sing the song for me. He was a little reluctant at first but then he jumped on board.
CG: I said, “Sure, I’ll take a whack at it.” I had been singing it live for a while and, when we got into the studio, I asked him, “What do you think about that?” He said, “Well, I was hearing it more like this” and sang an example of how a few lines should be phrased—how they should flow into each other so that one word would foreshadow one of the next few lines. Then, I could finally see what he was doing. Sometimes it’s really hard to convey that. With my own songs, I way I come up with the lines sometimes has more to do with rhythm than the actual words. It’s the delivery that helps get the point across. It has a completely different feel if you do it a slightly different way. So it was really cool for him to finally say, “You know, this is what I’m thinking for these couple of parts,” and then everything fell into place for me. That was pretty interesting; that doesn’t always happen in the studio.
AS: This song came from me watching and reading a little bit too much news these days. I don’t want to say that this song is political in nature; it’s more about the personality of a person in power and maybe the cult of personality and those things we all contend with. I don’t want it to come across as some leftist, liberal rant against the current people in power. It’s a song about my personal concerns about anyone who would be in a position of power.
It started out as an acoustic song. Initially, all of those lyrics were separate from the music and the riffs, but it all came together one day. The thing that I really like about it is there’s a tension in the whole front half—it’s in a minor key and all of that. Then the song evolves and, after you get through the bridge, the whole thing has this very uplifting, positive aspect to it and it comes out on the brighter side on the back end. I hope that’s conveyed musically, if nothing else. I’m reaching a point where I need to write more songs with a positive outlook.
JL: We were lucky enough to find four really good horn players to come help us out with the recordings. I wrote and arranged all the horn section stuff and sent the music out to Jake Whitesell, who plays saxophone. He’s local to Burlington and was the horn player I communicated with about all this. We had baritone sax, trombone, trumpet and tenor saxophone.
“Dangerous Game” was the first song that we knew we’d use them. From there, we decided it would be cool to have them on “Who You Calling Scared?” Then, we called a complete audible and added them to “LL3.” I ran downstairs and I wrote a horn arrangement really quickly.
When we started playing “Dangerous Game,” I was playing a horn line on the malletKAT. I followed the guitar line and what I was doing on the KAT with the horn samples and added little kicks that I thought a horn section would do. But when I found out we were getting four actual horn players to come in and do the part as a whole section, I had to start thinking about how to spread it out among the horn players and have moving chords instead of parallel lines. They can’t all play the same exact thing; you need some type of harmony between everything that’s going on. So that’s where I had to sit down, sketch stuff out, hear it and be like, “Nah, that’s really horrible” and redo it. But it was still a great experience for me.
RD: When I was going through my treatment, I had a page in my notebook titled, “Things about Buffalo.” I just wrote all these different things—a list of things that I remembered. It wasn’t poetic or anything, it was just anything I could think of. And then I forgot about the list. Maybe a year later, after we started playing again, I was going through it. I ran into Mike Norris, the singer for a band called Monkey Wrench that we were friends with back in the day. They’re sort of a punk-ish band, like The Replacements.
We were shooting the shit about a time we were drinking and partying in Buffalo. The first time I had heard of “skitching” was when I was hanging out with him. It was an icy, snowy winter night in Buffalo. We were on our way home and he grabbed onto the bumper on the back of a car that had stopped at a stop sign and then just got in a squatting position as the car took off. It’s basically like water skiing off the back of a car, except you’re holding onto the bumper. He held on and kept getting dragged. His belt buckle was completely scratched up and it looked completely shiny. So we were just laughing about that incident. He called it “skitching” and we called it “bumper sliding” where I grew up.
After seeing him again, I was like, “This song can be about our memories of Buffalo.” Basically, I took a bunch of memories about the fun stuff we did when we were in college—and from playing in the band—and I put them into one incident.
The music for the song came from a bass line that I wrote for a Halloween show we did where the fans came up with the theme and we wrote some songs. [moe. held their postponed Electric Lemoe.nade Acid Test Halloween show at the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany, N.Y. on Dec. 4, 2010.] I came up with this song called “No Refrain” and I really liked the bass part, but the song didn’t quite come together. So I took the main riff of that song and played it in a bunch of other things. Finally, we were jamming at a rehearsal space in Nashville, and the band came up with a second part to the song. We were trying to finish writing some of the other material that we had already put a lot of work into, so I was like, “Let’s just get this down and put it on the back burner.”
But, all of a sudden, I had these words and I got our sound engineer to find that original version that we did. Then, I went back into GarageBand and worked it out with a slightly different drum part and made some other changes. I was able to put down the words to it and it basically came out right away. We were going to hold onto it and not play it live, but we were all excited and couldn’t bail on playing it.
CG: We don’t take ourselves too seriously so we’re also making fun of ourselves at the same time. We’re saying, “This is part of my past. I love it. It was amazing, but we were also fools.”
In art, it’s really easy to make a statement and be overbearing, self-indulgent or self-important. In our band, we try to check that self-indulgence a healthy amount. So, if I’m writing a song about my past, then I’m going to do it as heroically or as poignantly and meaningfully as possible. But I’ll also counterbalance that with this brutally honest other element of “I had no idea what I was doing.” So it’s not such a heavyhanded artistic statement. Hopefully, you’re saying something that’s meaningful to your audience but that’s not weighed down with all this baggage of having to be super important or deep. The truth is that 95 percent of the reason why we got into this is because it was fun and we don’t want to lose that element of it.
RD: Al started messing around with the groove for the front part that I wrote for “Skitchin’ Buffalo.” He was like, “I love this but we don’t revisit it.” He wanted to put it in the middle, but it didn’t work. So then he was like, “Wait, there’s a way to do it at the end.” So, it’s an instrumental section like the front of the song, with a different groove to it. Ben did some kooky stuff to it and it ended up sounding really good. It’s a cool instrumental thing and I think, after we release it, we’ll probably start adding it to our live shows.
AS: The idea was to play a variation on the intro, but as an outro, with a totally different feel. Originally, we played it for 10 minutes. The whole idea was to create this lush soundscape and ultimately have it dissipate into the horizon. There’s some outtakes of it and I wasn’t sure how we would use it on the record—where it would show up and what would happen with it. There’s a backward version of it and different variations on that theme. I thought, “Well, I guess it’d be a cool thing to sort of sprinkle into the record here and there—it could be like ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond.’” I don’t think it quite got those legs, but it was a worthwhile experiment and we’re going to keep it as a tag if nothing else.
Along for the Ride
RD: This is a very personal song, and I didn’t think I was ready to share it. When we were choosing what songs to record, I was like, “I don’t know…” We all had a vote on what songs to put on; it was a very democratic way to pick the songs. The ones we came up with that everybody completely agreed on definitely made the recording list. Then, we recorded the ones that four people agreed on next. I didn’t pick this song because I didn’t think it was ready to go based on the way we played it live; I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I had picked other songs that weren’t mine that didn’t make it. This is one of the songs that four people wanted. When we ended up recording it and I heard the final product, I was like, “This might be the best-sounding one out of all of them actually.” I’m very happy with the way that song came out.
VA: When Rob told us, “I don’t think the song is that strong,” I said to him, “Are you kidding? It’s freaking cranking, dude.” Part of it changed before we got into the studio. The whole slow part that gets kind of spacey—coming out of Chuck’s solo—morphed over time, which ended up making the song a little more interesting. All of a sudden, we go into this different part—this different tempo and this different soundscape. In terms of the production, it’s one of the coolest parts of the whole album. It’s one of my favorite songs to play and, for me, that was the one song that definitely had to be there and everybody else agreed. It got four out of the five votes, so it made the album