Q&A: Al Schnier of moe. talks Floodwood
Straight out of the Adirondack foothills of New York -- "The Leatherstocking Region" -- comes Floodwood, the Northeast's newest progressive string band.
Celebrating their one-year anniversary on Labor Day, the group incorporates the talents of five veteran musicians who have performed on stages around the world over the last two decades.
Members of the high energy jam band moe.-- guitarist Al Schnier and drummer Vinnie Amico -- are excited to be performing these intimate shows during a late summer break from their "day jobs."
According to Schnier, who spoke with SoundSpike ahead of a run of small club shows in early September, the band is working on a batch of its own original material as well as breathing fresh life into timeless acoustic music from the Grateful Dead and Dave Grisman, to a variety of bluegrass newcomers and pioneers.
Floodwood rounds out its unique talent pool with Jason Barady, Nick Piccininni, and Zachary Fleitz along with Schnier and Amico, who also spent more than 10 years recording and touring with their own Americana group Al & The Transamericans.
During that same period, Barady was recording and touring with the bluegrass group Wooden Spoon from Taos, N.M. But last year, he apparently started getting the itch to return to his hometown in central New York state.
Piccininni is a largely self taught violinist who sharpened his bluegrass chops the old fashioned way: in picking circles and bluegrass festivals around the country. As a result, he has become an award winning and highly sought after banjo player and fiddler on the bluegrass circuit, and also has spent two years on the road with The Abrams.
Bass player Zachary Fleitz is a Berklee graduate and alumnus of the band Hypnotic Clambake. He also more recently joined with Barady in Wooden Spoon, and on his off hours Fleitz has been patenting his own invention, a midi instrument he calls "the midi wing chun dummy."
Schnier recently sat down to chat about Floodwood, and how this enjoyable side project is taking up more of his time, while helping him develop improved chops that translate into even better playing when he heads out on the road with moe.
SoundSpike: So was Floodwood the product of a few guys on separate trajectories who always wanted to play together, or did it spring from a few core players that rounded out the lineup with recruits?
Al Schnier: A little of both. The funny thing is, everybody in the band has played together at one time or another. But this is the first time we've all played together in a unique ensemble. Regarding the direction, Jay and I talked about this a couple of years ago when I was kind of done with the Transamericans. After our last album and tour, I realized it was an awful lot of work, and justified me being away for two weeks at a stretch and maybe breaking even when I got home. That's sort of hard with two kids and a wife at home. And I already have a job with moe. So if I'm going to be away, I thought wouldn't it be great to play American roots music with a bunch of guys who could ride around in one vehicle? And I really just wanted to play acoustic music -- and to be in an atmosphere where it could fly, I guess.
Have you guys had a chance to develop a set of originals yet, or are you just covering existing material?
We have about 25 originals at this point and we are trying to schedule recording an album this fall. We're just trying to get our calendars together for a few three to four day stretches. It's just tough with our calendar.
SoundSpike: How much acoustic bluegrass and folk did you and Vinnie play together before forming the Transamericans and Floodwood?
We always touched on that stuff with the Transamericans, but it was really just Americana. So when we played acoustic music in our set, it was more folk-rock than anything else. With Floodwood there are no amps on stage. We weren't even going to use a drummer. But Vinnie has the right spirit for this.
From the videos I'm seeing on YouTube, he's so easy and laid back, a perfect rhythmic compliment to Floodwood's front line of string players.
Exactly. So when he was at school, he was playing a weekly gig at our bar, Broadway Joe's. And they would play these three-hour shows with a cast of musicians playing David Grisman, Grateful Dead, Dylan and The Band, but with this acoustic bluegrass tradition. And it was like boot camp for Vinnie. He did so much time hanging back playing brushes and being such a great roll player. So when Floodwood came to be, he was the natural selection to bring on with us.
In all the moe. shows I've seen going back to the beginning with you guys, I don't recall any acoustic or unplugged playing. Is there a moe. unplugged performance floating around out there in your history?
At one point, Rob and Chuck and I went out on the road billed as Disgrace, and with our last moe. album we put out a bonus disc that was an acoustic version of the album. But that was an afterthought that we assembled during sound checks while we were out on the road. It wasn't our "American Beauty," that's for sure. Nothing formally acoustic from the moe. camp.
Your situation with both acts reminds me of Tim Reynolds, who says after his band tours, he has to sit down and play acoustic for a couple of days before he goes out with Dave Matthews, because he has to re-learn his way around the acoustic instrument. How about you? Can you flip the switch, or do you need to ease into the acoustic guitar after some gigs with moe.?
I have to do the same thing. I have to sit down with an acoustic for a few days to get used to the acoustic guitar. But this project has also forced me to learn a whole new style of playing that I don't do on electric guitar.
There's a whole new style to flat picking that I don't do when I'm out with moe. Sometimes I'll practice with a metronome three or four hours a day just to get my chops together well enough so I can hang and play with Dave and Nick. I'm the new guy when it comes to this stuff, while these other guys are shredders.
That said, what kind of juice do you get performing on acoustic versus an electric guitar?
The thing I always loved about side projects, you come back to moe. and you have this fresh ear, some new dexterity and skills because I have been practicing. And when you're performing live without effects — I don't even have a volume knob on my guitar — the dynamic approach I use with guitar I approach completely differently. I don't just go to a pedal when it's time to do a lead. Again, things are different with an electric guitar and amp because they respond differently. But it's nice to know I have a lot more flexibility on guitar than I did even a year ago.
You also seem to change your vocal style for Floodwood. Do you consciously adopt that little bit of twang, or am I completely off base here?
That's not intentional. It may be inspired by the music. I was actually going to wear cowboy boots at our last gig, but my wife made fun of me so I changed to running sneakers.
Can you or the other guys call a song you haven't practiced yet, or maybe an occasional request from the audience?
We're getting there. In Nick's case, he knows all the bluegrass standards in the book. And it's funny because he doesn't have much background in rock, so if we call out a Dylan or Beatles song, he might not know it. But he's got a great ear, so he's usually ok after the first few bars. He's got a good attitude and a good looseness, so when we make a left turn we have fun with it.
What is the most unconventional covers that Floodwood has made their own?
We do a Death Cab for Cutie song called "I'll Follow You Into the Dark," not something you'll hear most bluegrass groups doing. And it's become a staple of our set now. We're also playing some obvious covers, some Dead stuff, and our bass player is pushing us to learn a King Crimson song from one of the double trio albums. I just don't know the title.
Since you guys enjoy Floodwood so much, do you see this act taking more of your time, or dividing equal time between both bands?
Absolutely. If we had our druthers, we would book a lot more Floodwood dates. But moe. is certainly our priority. We have to make time for our families, we want to make this album, and we want to start playing more bluegrass dates like Merlefest and Telluride and all the big bluegrass shows – we really want to take this to the next level.