25 years of moe.

Bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak talks about his life in moe., the band’s 25th anniversary, and how he and his bandmates learned early on that if they wanted something done, they had to do it themselves.

More than just a festival favorite known for its intriguing improvisations, moe. has become the benchmark that today’s fledgling jam bands are measured against.  But moe. does more than play gigs and record albums.  The band has an excellent track record of creating events, including , moe.cruise and the Jamaica-based .

While on his way to pick up his son from football practice, Derhak spoke to Pollstar about the band’s democratic principles, how records drive ticket sales and the kinds of rooms he loves to play.  He’d also like to tour more in 2016, but that decision isn’t totally his to make.

After several studio albums plus live recordings, can the band play anything at the spur of the moment or do memories need a little prodding at times?

We’re not quite like NRBQ, where those guys can do whatever they want.  You can say something and they can play it.  Anything that’s in our catalog we can pretty much pull out.  It helps us if we get a little notice. 

Instead of going out on full tours we’ve been doing these weekend things where we do two shows in one place and then a small intimate show in another place.  So, we’re trying to come up with stuff we haven’t played in a long time, whether it be covers or bust-outs of original material.  And we’re trying to refresh ourselves on that, so we can’t actually just “pull it out” without [planning].  I don’t know if we have the memory capabilities anymore.  We are a jam band, after all.  We’ve been through it all so our brains are a little toast at this point, I think.

So you plan the setlist but there’s still room for spontaneity?

We know some of what is going to happen.  We have an idea and a song list and then … we do start pulling things out of our butt.  The fun thing is when we can do that and not even talk to the band about it [and] one of us starts playing something during another song.

“Sweet Home Alabama” – I don’t think we had ever played it before.  We were in the middle of a gig in Alabama and one of the songs we have has a similar chord structure and it just spun into that.  I [was] able to remember about 90 percent of the lyrics correctly … and we pulled it off.  When we can do stuff like that, it’s really fun. I enjoy that.

What are the indications among you and your fellow moe. members that you’re having a great performance?

Crowd response is No. 1.  When the crowd is into it and they’re giving you good feedback – like cheering, not yelling stupid shit at you. Like really into it.  People are smiling and dancing.  The next thing is, I’ve had shows where the crowd hasn’t really dug it as much but everyone in the band is really enjoying it and we’re really feeding off of each other when we’re doing improvisational stuff.

Are signs communicated between you and your bandmates when everything is working?

When your bandmates are smiling. It seems really stupid and simple, but that’s when you know everyone is having a good time. … If they’re smiling that means they’re not having problems with their gear.  They’re liking what you’re playing; they’re liking what they’re playing.  Everything sounds good to them and they’re enjoying themselves.  If you look around and everybody is doing that … that’s how you know.  Everybody is firing on all cylinders.

Is moe. a democracy, a benign dictatorship or a collective?

We are a true democracy. That’s why our progress for everything is really slow. Everything is voted on, everybody has a say. … We have this policy, if everybody in the band wants to do something [except one] person [and] that person can make a case strong enough that he’s like, “This is why I don’t want to do it and I wouldn’t feel comfortable …” everybody is fine with not doing it.

Aside from releasing albums and touring to support them, moe. has created its own live events, such as moe.down, moe.cruise and Tropical Throe.Down.  Was there an early point in the band’s career when you and your comrades realized you needed to do things yourselves?

Yeah.  It happened pretty early.  You do your first show at a bar, nobody comes and the bar owner is pissed at you, you realize that the bar owner didn’t do anything to promote it and that you are entirely responsible for what you do.  That’s when you flier like crazy.  We learned very early on, like in 1990 or so.  Ever since then it’s like this is our life, our hour, our responsibility and things won’t end up the way you want them if you leave it up to someone else.

When did the band begin creating its own events?

I think the first thing we did was moe.down, our festival in upstate New York.  That was 16 years ago, I believe.  Those things we don’t do completely on our own.  It’s something that we initiate, we want to get done, and we find people who can make those things happen.  They’re like-minded and we can get along with them well.  It was pretty early on that we wanted to try something like that and it took us about five years of trying. 

And that includes everyone voting the same way?

Usually that only comes up when it’s something that makes someone uncomfortable and they’re like, “I feel bad about doing this. This is going to make me miserable.” If anyone says that, we’re like, “Fine.  Whatever.”  I definitely have been that person, before. I’m not the only one, but I can’t think of what it was.  It’s never usually anything huge.  It’s just a matter of … playing a song.  Or doing an interview with Pollstar. (laughs)

The old rules still applied when moe. made its first record in that people bought albums and that led to ticket sales.  Did things like file sharing heavily impact moe.?

It did in a positive way, actually.  Unfortunately, we’ve never been a huge album-seller, but it’s always been a great bit of advertising for our live shows.  I think it’s promotion for people to come and enjoy the moe. experience, which is not just about listening to a song or a CD that you buy.  It’s more about seeing the show.  Whether they hear about the band through file sharing, or free tapes – we allowed tapers – it’s just another form of that whole mentality.  It’s been a great source of building this family.  It’s less moe. fans and more of a group, a big family of people who really get each other and get us.

About those tapes.  Do you have your own collection of moe. rarities?

I don’t have a huge collection because all I have to do is go to the archive to listen to anything.  But I do have some stuff that no one has ever heard, that I keep and am saving.  Stuff that was only recorded to a cassette in a bar in Buffalo when we were first starting.  Stuff with just me and Chuck [Garvey] before there were other guys in the band, or different members in the band.  Stuff like that.  I was actually going through all these tapes and finding that stuff not too long ago.

Can you still recall the nights of those performances such as how the show was received or how the room looked?

No. (laughs)  A couple specific performances I just remember visually, what was going on.  I couldn’t tell you the exact show. I can tell you the room but we might have played that room 5, 10 times and I don’t remember which night it was.  Plus, I was maybe 21, 22.

moe. recently announced new 2016 shows for Denver and Boulder, Colo.  Does the band plan to work a lot next year?

That’s a meeting we have to have. (laughs) … In 2014 we played more than we had in 10 years.  We played like crazy, we did tons of touring and it really kind of knocked us down, kind of beat us up.  So we decided for our 25th anniversary we’re going to take it easy, do it the way we want to and enjoy it.  I, personally, feel ready to go back out and do some real touring.

So you like the city-after-city routine?

I like it.  I’m a dad and a husband and it’s tough to be away from home.  Being home as much as I have makes me miss [touring].

For the band’s early days I’m imagining a group of young musicians piling into something like a station wagon for road trips.  What moves moe. from city to city today?

It wasn’t a station wagon.  It was a Honda Accord with a rooftop carrier and a Nissan Altima with the same.  We piled all of our gear into the two cars and followed each other.  Now, when we’re not on tour and we’re doing what we’re doing, we just fly to where we have to go. We have a semi that takes all of our gear from our storage space to the show.  When we are on tour doing like a 2 or 3 week run, we’re in a tour bus.  Just one, though, because we’re not big enough for a multiple tour bus situation.  We have a semi and tour bus.  That’s how we get along.

Is there a lot of moe. memorabilia in that storage area?

There used to be and then Hurricane Sandy hit and killed a lot of it.  My wife used to be the merch manager so we have a lot of archived stuff she has held on to, like posters, old fliers, stuff like that.

The band has had a few personnel changes over the years.  When filling a position, what do you look for that makes for a great moe. musician?

Good ears.  Somebody who is willing to listen to what other guys in the band are doing, find his niche, and not only just be a good player but be able to listen and play the right thing at the right time, and encourage everybody around them to do the same thing.  And you gotta have a good sense of humor.  Everybody in the band has a sense of humor about stuff and we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  We try to enjoy each other’s company.

Who’s the funniest guy in the band?


Would everybody else agree or would they have to vote on it?

I think we would have to have a vote on that one.  I think Jim [Loughlin] might actually win.  He might be funnier than me; I’m not sure.  We’re really good together.  We’ve always talked about writing our own sit-com or something, or doing a short show.  We’re good at feeding off of each other.

Is moe. the kind of band where members hang out with each other even when there isn’t a recording session or tour?

 Not these days because none of us live near each other.  I live in Maine, Al lives in central New York, Vinnie [Amico]lives in Saratoga, Chuck lives in Ohio, Jim lives Massachusetts.  None of us lives close enough to hang out.  We always go out for lunch and stuff together when we have days off on the road.

Does everyone keep in touch when the band isn’t working?

Not to the extent where I’m calling everyone to see what they’re doing that day. … Going along with the whole democracy thing, we all take turns putting our setlists [together].  I know my setlist is coming up on Friday so I contacted everyone this week to make sure they’re cool with playing some material we haven’t played in a while … that kind of thing. … It’s pretty easy to do nowadays. All we have to do is message someone on Facebook [and] say, “Hey, check this thing out.”… That’s the kind of thing as to how we keep in touch off the road.

What markets work best for moe.?

New York City, Colorado, upstate New York, Boston, Maine, the Northeast [region] is strong for us.  Places like Atlanta are really strong. San Francisco, Denver.  Basically the blue states are good for us. (laughs)

What kind of venues do you like?

I personally like places that have character, places that aren’t seated venues.  If it’s a theatre where the seats are removed in the front. … If the place is too small, it’s not really fun to play because you’re constricted on stage, how you play and your stage volume.  I personally like a room that’s between 1,000 and 2,000 people.  Maybe 1,500 people that has good sightlines and good sound and people don’t have to sit.

What about the large festivals, such as Bonnaroo?  Are there any ways to make those larger venues seem as intimate as those 1,500-seat rooms?

That’s a hard thing to do.  Especially when you’re not the headlining band and you’re still trying to make people appreciate you that just happen to be there.  They’re camping with their friend or something and they’re there to see Bruce Springsteen later on.  One thing that we try to do is play things that are more accessible to everyone but don’t necessarily speak to our hardcore fans.  They end up getting a little upset with our festival sets.

But one thing I’ve always noticed is if we set up on a giant festival stage and we proportionately set our  gear up so we are spreading across the stage like we normally do, it makes for a really cool performance. So I like to keep everything tight-knit on stage so it feels more comfortable for us [and] is like our regular stage setup.  I think that transfers to the crowd … and I think people get the impression that they’re at an intimate show.

Did you ever think moe. would see its 25th anniversary?

No.  I can’t even believe this is my life and career half of the time.  I’m happy.  We got lucky.  It’s a lot of hard work but most bands don’t get this far.  Most bands don’t get a record deal.  We’ve hit a lot of milestones that a lot of people haven’t.  We definitely appreciate it.  We think about it and talk about it and we’re amazed that we made it this far.

If you could send a message back to Rob in 1990, what advice would you give him?

In 1990 I was desperate to make this band work.  I would say, “Keep at it because it will happen. Do what you’re doing.  You’re doing the right stuff.”  Part of doing the right thing and not getting any input back [is] you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing. I would reassure myself that I’m making the right choices.  Don’t question yourself as much.  Be more confident about everything.

“… this is our life, our hour, our responsibility and things won’t end up the way you want them if you leave it up to someone else.”

Upcoming moe. shows:

Oct. 25 – Lafayette, Ind., Lafayette Theater
Oct. 30 – Philadelphia, Pa., The Fillmore Philadelphia
Oct. 31 – Philadelphia, Pa., The Fillmore Philadelphia
Nov. 13 – Port Chester, N.Y., The Capitol Theatre
Nov. 14 – Port Chester, N.Y., The Capitol Theatre
Dec. 31 – Albany, N.Y.,   Palace Theatre
Jan. 1 – Albany, N.Y., Palace Theatre
Jan. 10-14 – Runaway Bay, Jamaica, Jewel Paradise Cove Resort (Tropical Throe.down)
Jan. 22 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater
Jan. 23 – Denver, Colo.,  Ogden Theatre
Jan. 28 – Atlanta, Ga., Terminal West
Jan. 29 – Atlanta, Ga., The Tabernacle
Jan. 30 – Atlanta, Ga., The Tabernacle

For more information please visit moe.’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, home on Instagram, and YouTube channel.