30 years in, moe. endures

“For me, it was kind of like, shit man, life is short. I am feeling good now and I’m feeling like I got through to the other side of this and I want to do stuff that I love doing, and the thing I love doing most is writing new music and getting it made."

Some 30 years ago, moe. came together as somewhat of a lark. Al Schnier (guitars, vocals), Chuck Garvey (guitars, vocals), and Rob Derhak (bass, vocals) were at the University of Buffalo and thought, “We liked music, we liked to party, and we wanted to put those two things together.”

Now, three decades and dozens of studio and live albums later, plus several festivals, concert cruises, side projects and more, moe. is American jam band royalty. Wild that they didn’t have designs on setting out into the jam world to begin with.

“We adapted,” Derhak says. “Initially we didn’t have quite as much of the same ideal at first. We didn’t jam or have long extended solos. But as we went from being an opening act to being a headliner, we didn’t have enough material to do two long sets. We needed more material so our songs started to stretch themselves out. We became a jam band.”

And a unique one at that. Throughout their catalog, or at any one given show (or, perhaps, in one song), you’ll hear country, alt-country, calypso, jazz, rock, prog rock, classic rock, funk, new wave, pop and more. With humble, humorous asides and musical sets that fucking rip, moe. is a good time live—and they come to The Wellmont Theater in Montclair on Jan. 21.

But three decades after the bands first release, Fatboy (which still holds up upon a recent listen and includes much-evolved live staples like “Dr. Graffenberg,” “Yodelittle,” and “Spine of a Dog”), Derhak isn’t quite sure how to package the experience of going from a couple dudes messing around on instruments to one of jam’s seminal acts.

“It’s hard, like, I don’t think about it unil someone like you puts it out there,” Derhak says. “It’s like friends in other bands like Ominous Seapods and Yolk [who came up in the scene with moe.], are like, ‘Do you guys even realize how difficult it is just to get from that dipshit dream of living with your friends and going cruising around in a van and playing in shitty bars to where you guys are at right now?’ It’s hard to get the grasp or to really understand how many people we’ve actually played to in the history of our music. And how many people… it’s fucked up. I don’t know, I have no real good way to deal with it except I don’t process the stuff and I just keep on going through my daily life. I’m just still into playing shows and it’s all about that time then.”

The jam fan base is an interesting one. We tend to be a little… obsessive, diligently uploading setlists to message boards, opining about the deeper meaning of songs, arguing about which version of “Timmy Tucker” was the best, holding little blips in the band’s history on pedestals as if they were moments like Dylan going electric. It’s a little silly, but fun. Putting it that way is “diplomatic,” Derhak says with a laugh. He remembers when he first noticed the peculiarities of the band’s fans, the “moe.rons.”

“I think back when there was a moe. message group, which was before there was Facebook or even before there was Myspace and it was just a group of fans and we’re like, ‘What is this?’ And then we started reading this stuff people were saying and we’re like people are wicked obsessed with this and they’re reading way too much into what we’re doing. That was in the ’90s. That sort of devotion has carried on. Some of the people that were part of that are still coming out to a good amount of our shows. And they’re as old as we are.” 

Derhak and moe. have reason to cherish the journey those fans have been on with them, and where they’re at in the jam landscape, ahead of this upcoming winter-spring tour. Founding member Chuck Garvey suffered a stroke in November 2021; the band took a hiatus and returned last year with Suke Cerulo on guitar and Nate Wilson on keys and vocals. Garvey will return to the band for this tour, starting in Philly at The Fillmore on New Year’s Eve. The plan is that Garvey will stick around for the tour, but Derhak cautions it’s too soon to commit to that because “god knows what a stroke does to a person.”

With Cerulo and Wilson filling in over the last few shows, moe.—which has played as a five-piece for quite some time now—had to adjust to their new bandmates’ musical sensibilities, and get them up to speed. In improvisational music like jam, comfort, familiarity and feel enable the band to speak musically and feel, more than explicitly communicate, how to take songs on stage.

“Definitely there’s a process involved,” Derhak says. “We’ll never be as cohesive with [Cerulo] as we are with Chuck because we had 30-plus years of playing with Chuck. We found ourselves, just weird parts of songs that we just play by feel and it’s hard to explain to somebody new coming in that’s only been playing with us for a month how to play by feel. So having it being completely cohesive is an impossible task.”

Derhak says the next month will include plenty of rehearsals to get Garvey back up to speed—Derhak says the guitar-playing is coming back pretty well; the vocals might take some time. Wilson, with whom Derhak has collaborated before, will take Garvey’s vocal parts in the meantime while playing keys.

The experience with Garvey is reminiscent of Derhak’s own medical issues—in summer 2017, he was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, prompting the band to take a hiatus until he recovered toward the end of the year. That experience allowed Derhak to recalibrate his focus and, like Garvey is now, he was eager to get back into music.

“[Garvey’s] said a lot of the same stuff that I did when I came out the other side of having cancer, and it’s just, all the superfluous shit that just sort of surrounds what you do just kind of melts away, and it’s really your friendships and playing music and doing what you love [that remains],” Derhak says. “And you forget about all the stuff that doesn’t matter and that’s how it was for me. I got this creative burst and I wanted to write a bunch of stuff and do a bunch of things and get back to what I love. It was obvious that Chuck needed to play when we got back and that’s what really matters.”

And what drove the creative output wasn’t so much about wanting to return to normal, but just to embrace passion. 

“For me, it was kind of like, shit man, life is short. I am feeling good now and I’m feeling like I got through to the other side of this and I want to do stuff that I love doing, and the thing I love doing most is writing new music and getting it made. Second most is playing it on stage, but for me writing and producing a song is my favorite part,” Derhak says.

And moe.’s still putting out great tunes. Though Derhak and fans might point to a period in the late ’90s, early ’00s as when the band first hit its stride, with albums like tin cans & car tires and Dither, a trip through the band’s more recent albums shows a band willing to explore and musicians in tune not only with their craft but with each other. The evolution is fun to see. And seeing them live—which you should do—proves the band, despite the recent ups and downs, can still light a stage on fire. 

moe. plays the Wellmont Theater in Montclair on Jan. 21. Tickets start at $20.