School band is a common rite of passage for drummers and Vinnie Amico is no exception, picking up the snare drum at age ten. Soon afterward his mom bought him a drum set, but then “sports kind of got in the way” of what he thinks might have been a more rapid development. When not on the diamond or the gridiron, he was at home on the kit until his mom got home from work. “I wasn’t shedding,” he says “I didn’t even play to records. I used to have lot of music in my head so I’d go home and just play.”
Around age 16 or 17, he and several musically inclined friends gathered in each other’s basements, playing mostly beer- and weed-fueled covers of Grateful Dead songs. “You got decent at it because there was a lot of material. There’s improvisation, you know, and it’s kind of psychedelic, and the higher we got and the more we played, the cooler it was and the funner it was, so we did a lot of musical exploration.” As for the herbal use, Amico makes no apologies for being a teenager. “It kind of went hand in hand,” he says, “but you learn a lot that way.”
After enrolling at SUNY Buffalo, he decided to study engineering but then switched to economics and psychology. He joined a band his first semester and by summer was in another. During junior year he was a working musician in Buffalo, picking up gigs all over town. “I was blessed with good time and a good sense of groove,” he explains. “I’d go play a gig, someone would see me and say, ‘Hey, man. Can you play with us?’”
After graduating, he became a manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Even with a family to support, he still played out three or four times a week on top of working 60 hours. Moe., gaining momentum beyond the campus and burning through a series of drummers, was actively courting him. “They used to come see one of the bands I played in because we kind of had a cool little scene thing happening,” he says of the shows with Acoustic Forum. “It was bluegrass-y but we did a lot of cover songs and a lot of people would show up, a lot of partying going on, and so everybody kind of knew me through that.” Each time moe. would make a drummer change, their manager, Jon Topper, who had been Amico’s roommate freshman year, would invite him to go on the road and play with the band, and each time the drummer said no. “I was on my way to living the dream of Middle America.”
The next time Topper called it was in the middle of touring behind No Doy, moe.’s first record with Sony/550 Records. “That was a little more of a serious call,” he remembers. “This was no longer, ‘Hey, you want to come jump in the van for 60 bucks a week and peanut butter sandwiches?’ This was a real offer. It was like, Holy s__t! This is what I have been working toward my whole life.”
With the offer on the table he had to talk it over with the wife. It was an event-filled next few days. “It turned out she was pregnant and I joined the band — all in the same week.” His parents were not as enthusiastic. Mr. and Mrs. Amico divorced when Vinnie was still a kid. Amico’s father, Sal, a bebop trumpeter and sometime drummer, was a major factor behind his son’s early exposure to music. But Amico Sr. knew firsthand how difficult it was to make a living as a musician. Vinnie vividly remembers the phone call to his mother. “I was like, ‘The good news is you’re going be a grandmother. The bad news is I’m quitting my job and going on the road with a rock band.’ She was ready to freak: ‘Oh, my god! He’s going to be addicted to heroin and have no money,’” he recalls with a laugh. “But it’s a little different situation than being a jazz drummer. As far as musicians go it’s been a fairly decent career.
“Actually, it’s been more than fairly decent,” he continues. “We’ve had a good career. So I’m pretty psyched about it. It’s tough to stay in a band for 15 years. You have to fit personally and musically, and I come pretty close in both.”
Before there was any such thing as jam bands, improvisational music with any widespread appeal was limited to the Grateful Dead. Even before the band’s demise in 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia, a new generation of bands had picked up on the San Francisco legend’s improvisational spirit. “All the H.O.R.D.E. bands became jam bands,” says Amico with a hint of disdain referencing the ’90s-era music festival started by Blues Traveler’s John Popper that would eventually include acts as disparate as Spin Doctors and Sheryl Crow. Moe. never participated.
Even after Phishheads replaced Deadheads, the Grateful Dead rhythm section of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart continued to insinuate into various musical entities, including moe., though Amico qualifies it. “I guess they were sort of influential in my playing, but not super influential,” he says. “John Bonham was probably my biggest hero, and he’s probably everybody’s hero. [laughs] Growing up and really starting to become a drummer it was Neil Peart and John Bonham. I was listening to Yes so I was into Bill Bruford. Genesis, too, so I was into Phil Collins and Chester Thompson. Because of my dad, I was hearing jazz all the time. Philly Joe Jones is probably one of my favorite drummers of all time. It’s just that the openness of the Dead’s music is what really drew me in. Garcia’s playing was super jazzy even though they were playing rock and country songs.”
After joining moe., one of Amico’s first major outings was Further Fest in 1997 supporting the Dead, or what was left of it. He has probably played 20 times with guitarist Bob Weir, who often sits in with the band, usually at moe.down, an annual summer festival which has included everyone from punk bands to hip-hop acts. (There’s also a winter version called snoe.down but it’s on hiatus for 2012 due to moe.’s headling tour.) He has also played with Dead bassist Phil Lesh on occasion.
Amico’s taste isn’t shaped by the protocols of a scene, however, but by talent alone. Like the kind he saw on display last weekend at a Lyle Lovett show. “Russ Kunkel was playing — oh, my God,” he gushes. “Lyle’s stuff is really mellow, slow to mid tempos at most, and everything’s super quiet, and I mean every single drum part was perfect. That was enlightening.”
Primus’ Jay Lane, who drums in Weir’s post-Dead project Rat Dog, is another name that gets dropped. Two of moe.’s early drummers were total clones of then-Primus drummer Herb Alexander. (“They probably weren’t the best fit,” Amico recalls.) When prompted, he speaks admiringly of a certain jam-band drummer hero: ‘I love Fishman’s playing,” he says of Phish’s stickman. “Very interesting player. He’s definitely an influence of mine because he was doing such interesting stuff and he still does. His ideas are different than everyone else’s.”