CRYSTAL BAY, Nev. - Al Schnier, guitarist and singer of moe., recognizes the irony of his band signing a deal with Sugar Hill Records.These days, it's become common for groups, especially in the rock genre, to start their own record labels and handle their own distribution and promotion. And here is moe., having released all but two of its previous 10 studio CDs on its own label, teaming up with a record company for its current CD, "What Happened to the La Las.""We've built a really great cottage industry out of this somehow," Schnier said, noting that the band is not by any means dissatisfied with the career it has built with its do-it-yourself approach. "After doing it for so many years, though, the one thing that's always sort of eluded us, I guess, was being able to tap into a broader audience or a wider audience or getting some kind of additional exposure. We've always flown under the radar."We can sell 2,000 tickets to a theater show on a regular basis, but nobody knows who we are," he said. "So it's always just been this weird sort of anomaly. And we thought, well you know, after all this time, why not get together with an artists' label, somebody like Sugar Hill? Maybe there's a way we can work together and just try something a little bit different from what we normally do."The last time moe. had a record deal, the situation was quite different. Formed in 1991 in Buffalo, N.Y., the band started out taking the do-it-yourself route, self-releasing its first two CDs, "Fatboy" in 1992 and "Headseed" a year later, before signing with Sony 550 Records.The band, which also includes guitarist Chuck Garvey, singer-bassist Rob Derhak, drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin, released two CDs on that label - "No Doy" in 1996 and "Tin Cans & Car Tires" in 1998 - but didn't get the kind of boost in its popularity that it hoped would come with the resources of a major label.So moe. returned to releasing its own CDs and had stuck with that approach in releasing its four subsequent studio albums - "Wormwood," Okayalright," "The Conch" and "Sticks and Stones" (not to mention the band's six-album series of live performances, "Warts & All" and its two three-CD live albums, "Dr. Stan's Prescription Vols. 1 & 2").Being on Sugar Hill, Schnier said, is nothing like being on Sony, and the band has no illusions this time that being signed will lead to stardom."We were so much younger and this was our first experience with the record industry when we started working with Sony," Schnier said, reflecting on that experience. "We were wide-eyed and ... the whole thing was very overwhelming - and really exciting, too. We loved going to the Sony building. We loved visiting our A&R rep's office. It was great every time we went. We'd go out to dinner and we'd get to run around the Sony building and we got to rehearse in the Sony studios and we were in the city. So much of it was great."But the experience with Sugar Hill has been totally different," he said. "We're exchanging e-mails with these guys the same way we do like with our own staff. And when we're in town, we go out and grab tacos and just have like a normal meal, and they're dressed the same way we are and they're just about our age. So it feels like we're just working with more people on our team. We just have different resources. I don't get the sense that we're working with a big record label."The Sugar Hill deal isn't the only way in which moe. has gone outside of its camp to try to improve on what it does.For "What Happened To The La Las," the group, for one of the rare times in its career, brought in a producer, John Travis.Schnier said the band had started to think its democratic approach to songwriting and arranging might not have been resulting in the best musical decisions."The thing about that is because we're very much like brothers and democratic almost to a fault, you end up compromising all of the time," he said. "And sometimes, you end up kind of going down these rabbit holes, chasing ideas and not really knowing who's in charge or whether or not the idea is a good one to pursue or not. And nobody is really steering the ship. We kind of all are, and nobody really wants to ruffle any feathers."To be sure, sometimes the collaborative approach results in better music than what any single band member might create on his own, Schnier said."But sometimes that compromise just means that everybody's ideas got distilled, and none of them are really great and nobody's really happy at the end of the day," Schnier said. " But the truth is, we don't really know because no one of us can actually say I was right and I know. So we just felt like let's do this and let's bring in an objective third party, and everybody relinquishes control and we'll have somebody steer the ship."From what Schnier said of Travis, the producer wasn't shy about directing the band. Many of the songs the band recorded for "What Happened to the La Las" had been played live and developed over a period of time.But in the studio, Travis steered the band in new directions on some of the songs. For example, "Suck A Lemon," a tune that helps set the rocking tone for the new CD, lost an instrumental section the band had been playing. The CD's multi-faceted opener, "The Bones Of Lazarus," another song that had been played on tour, also changed considerably. Then there was the dreamy rocker "Puebla," which clocks in at just over four minutes on the CD."He (Travis) had a 15-minute version of it that we had sent to him as our demo that we were listening to," Schnier said. "That's how we'd been playing it."The songs from "What Happened To The La Las" figure to evolve as moe. tours behind the CD. The shows will vary from night to night, Schnier noted, considering that the group has five shows worth of material ready to play
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