Saratoga Springs, a sleepy berg in upstate New York, doesn’t sound like the most exciting place for a professional musician. But for Vinnie Amico, on this bitter-cold morning, it’s a slice of heaven. The moe. drummer (the lowercase-with-period construction of the band’s name has become too much of an identifier to ignore) is at home in the middle of the living room waist-deep in cardboard boxes and paper, piecing together a new kit for the band’s upcoming tour.
For a split second, though, the 41-year-old is at an impasse. His setup, something he hasn’t messed with in over a decade, may need a tweak. “I’m actually reducing my cymbals by two,” Amico says. “I think I run ten or eleven cymbals and it’s just way too much. I can get away with having less. Trying to simplify in my old age, you know?”
Blame it on new album What Happened To The LA LAs, a sweet and sinister slab of inspired party music, for causing Amico to rethink the kit arrangement. With chunky guitar tones and dog-eared songs that get to the point, there’s no time for percussive filigree.
Dirtier and more Southern-tinged compared to the last few records, LA LAs is the first time moe. brought an outsider into the studio for guidance since Amico joined the band as moe.’s fifth consecutive drummer (!) back in 1997. If anything you would think the new album would be more sanitized. “John Travis, our producer, has worked with Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, and other people,” Amico explains. “So that’s what gave it more of that kind of rock feeling.” Though he never says so, having a producer at the helm freed up Amico to be as loose and gritty as he wanted without obsessing over the perfect take. Most of LA LAs’ songs were one or two takes anyway, but the presence of Travis, and his confidence in the drummer, was a powerful psychological buffer. “I was warming up, just trying to get different sounds, and within five minutes [Travis] said, ‘I’m not going to need to use the click,’ so that made me feel pretty good about what I was doing.”
If click tracks fly in the face of the jam-band spirit, it’s refreshing to hear Amico admit to their value. “I don’t mind them,” he says. “But I would prefer not to use them because stuff can tend to be square. Our songs — the ones that aren’t as long — need to move a little because if you keep them too straight or if it doesn’t move up or down a couple of beats per minute here and there, it tends to feel like it’s dragging.”
It helped that Amico got to record with his own kit, a condition seldom granted with commercial producers who tend to have a specific drum sound in mind. “I have this 14" x 7" steam-bent Noble & Cooley I’ve been using for years,” he says. “It’s the biggest, hugest snare drum ever.”
It’s obvious that the Vinnie Amico who first recorded drums with moe. on Tin Cans And Car Tires in 1998 is not the same drummer on What Happened To The LA LAs. “I think I put a lot more thought into the parts,” he says. “Not that they’re any better, it’s just that it’s more professional. I just don’t go out like, ‘Hey, here it is!’ It’s like there’s a little more thought into everything.”
Moe.’s one-time drum set player, Jim Loughlin, left the band in the mid-1990s. He returned five years later as a percussionist, and ever since then Amico’s style has become increasingly sensitive and tasteful. “It’s probably a little less busy and it’s probably a little more pocket, partially because I’ve been playing with Jim for 12 or 13 years now, so it’s not like I’m going to put this part together that’s going to stomp all over his percussion part.”
The pair not only complement each other, they have a telepathy that lets them shine individually at the appropriate time, like on the joyous “The Bones Of Lazarus,” a fan favorite the band has honed over the years. The recorded version on LA LAs sees Amico’s taut snare dance around Loughlin’s bell work with pinpoint precision. “We’ll write a song with a simple part, and if it evolves into a more complicated, complex drum line or something, then that kind of comes through playing and not through starting off with a complicated part and then taking parts away. So it goes in a reverse direction almost.”
Needless to say, it’s taken the pressure off Amico to be the proverbial chops-heavy jam-band player. “When I first came into the band I would be filling every four or every eight bars, and now I don’t have to do that. In some of the beats I still might be playing a few more notes — more ghost on the snare or washier cymbal — but now I can just play a little straighter rather than some funky cascara,” he says. “Jim might be doing a bell part over a clave part or something. [The busyness of] what I was doing before might confuse things or might work against each other rather than with each other.”