Moonalice’s Roger McNamee Finds Positivity In Expansion, Psychedelic Soul, And Streaming (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Bob Minkin

The Bay Area band Moonalice has been operating for about fifteen years, but in 2019, it got an infusion of new members, expanding them to a ten piece and making them more of a musical collective. The experience of Covid cut into their plans for extensive touring but did bring them closer as a community and helped them to clearly define their chosen sound as Psychedelic Soul. Despite Covid conditions, they managed to record at least 26 songs together, including both original songs and new arrangements of classic songs taking them in interesting new directions. Moonalice currently includes Roger McNamee (Co-Founder of Elevation Partners, former advisor to The Grateful Dead and U2), Pete Sears (co-founder of Jefferson Starship), Barry Sless (Phil Lesh & Friends,David Nelson Band), Lester Chambers (co-founder The Chambers Brothers) Dylan Chambers, John Molo (Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Phil Lesh & Friends), Jason Crosby (Robert Randolph, Susan Tedeschi), and Erika, Rachel, and Chloe Tietjen (The T Sisters). 

Moonalice have also signed with their first record label, Nettwerk Records, having previously made waves as the first band without a label to achieve one million downloads of a song from its own servers, direct-from-artist. That move has been particularly significant because with it they have adopted a release model that involves bringing new singles to the public every five weeks which will be then be gathered in a series of EPs. The first of these, Full Moonalice Vol. 1, arrives on April 20th. I recently spoke with Roger McNamee about this formative expansion period for Moonalice, their experience of recording music together in their new configuration, and his thoughts on the new release model they’ve embraced. 

HMS: You all have substantial touring plans coming up, I understand, if everything goes according to plan.

Roger McNamee: We do, starting soon! There are things that Covid has done that have absolutely turned touring upside down that you may not think about until you get to scheduling, though. For example, our band has been around for 14 years, so we have a relatively established pattern of going to the same locations every year. The venues are expecting us and all the bands on our circuit do the same thing. When you shut everyone down for two years, the venues are all terrified. The most important thing for them is to have a show every night, so they’ve got ten holds for every single night. Normally you’d have two or three at most. We thought we’d be coming to the East Coast in May, and we could not put together a schedule. Key positions were too blocked. So we’ve had to push the schedule to September when we could actually book things.

HMS: Is this the equivalent of an airline booking everyone on stand-by?

RMcN: Yes, that’s a really great analogy. It’ll settle down eventually, but it’s a mess right now. You can’t blame the venue operators. If the venues are still alive, that’s a beautiful thing. In the Bay Area, we lost Terrapin Crossroads and Slim’s. There are three or four others that are maybe opening, maybe not. There’s a lot of tradition there. It’s too bad but we’re going to get through it, and the music is going to help us do that.

HMS: I’ve been able to listen to the whole EP coming up and I do get a sense that positivity has been important to you all in putting these songs together.

RMcN: A few of us have been down the road a bit. We have seen, not just the good days, but some of the bad days, so positivity is actually really important to us. In 2013, Lester Chambers was attacked during a show on stage and was almost killed. He barely survived. I’ve had a couple of medical crises that almost killed me. Two guys in our crew have had cancer treatments in the last two years. We have a really positive attitude because the world’s a hard place right now, and it’s a lot easier to deal with if you find the good. We’re not blind to it, but there are plenty of other bands who want to focus on the band.

HMS: All of these songs are really high-energy, with a lot of layers to the instruments and the vocals. I know part of that is because Moonalice is a big outfit and you can do that.

RMcN: Originally, we were a small outfit, a four or five piece, depending on whether Jason [Crosby] was out with other people. Then we got the chance to bring in five killer vocalists, so it’s not like a symphony orchestra, or like The Stones or Roger Watters, where you’ve got 12 people in the band. The band itself is rather small, but we have five across the front, which changed everything.

HMS: This is the first collection of music including everyone, right?

RMcN: Yes. This is such a Covid story, too. In summer of 2019, we were playing in Golden Gate Park at an annual Solstice show. It’s a classic San Francisco thing. We’ve been part of it since the beginning, so Moonalice is the house band and it’s a pretty big event. Each year is a 50th anniversary of San Francisco music from that year, so in 2019, we celebrated 1969. So Lester and Dylan Chambers were there to sing some of their songs. The T Sisters were there to sing some a cappella versions of songs from that year. All of them were good friends of ours. 

When we were all sitting around, I asked, “What are you guys up to? Why don’t we all get together and do a show and see if it works?” So we played a show at Union Square in downtown San Francisco, a twilight free show. We had a tour coming up and invited the guys to come with us. It was humongous. We went from being a five piece to being a ten piece. It was awesome and the crowds were huge. Our booking guy was suddenly putting together a tour for 2020 with 70 shows. 

We started to record the album, but we didn’t even get to play the first show [due to Covid]. Jason [Crosby] decided to quarantine at my house and we started doing a daily livestream. We did 420 consecutive days! About 300 were just Jason and me, and the others had various members of the band up to the full Moonalice.

HMS: How did you keep enough material going for that many livestreams? 

RMcN: We learned so much. We had multiple configurations with various singers, so that really helped. Jason and I must have played 50 different Beatles songs, 50 different Grateful Dead songs, 50 Bob Dylan songs, and then a million one-hit wonders. Some were better rehearsed than others. But the point is that Moonalice learned a ton of material and we figured out who we were. We figured out that Moonalice really wanted to be a Psychedelic Soul band and that no one was doing anymore what The Chambers Brothers used to do.

 Also, we thought about the demographics of the band. There are a lot of bands with white lead singers and Black backup singers. How many bands do you know who have Black lead singers and white backup singers? And how many have both leads? Not many, and certainly not many with a Psychedelic Soul vibe. So when you look at this EP, you’ll see that half the songs were ones that we started recording before the pandemic, and the rest were recording during the pandemic. In fact, we have 26 songs that are done, and we are putting them out every five weeks. It’s going to take us over two years to put them all out.

HMS: Was working on these songs related to developing the material for the livestreams?

RMcN: Sort of, but a lot of it was suggested by band members. Jason suggested, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, which is by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and “Too High” by Stevie Wonder. Next thing you know, we’re taking on songs that are iconic, and people don’t often cover them. Not only are they lofty, but the people who did them have serious pipes. We discovered we could do them. 

Barry [Sless] would come up with these amazing arrangements. On the EP, he took “Turn On Your Love Lights” and turned it into a Gospel song. I’d love to say that we had a grand master plan, but our master plan was taken away by Covid, so we had to improvise. But the style of band that we are, we were totally comfortable improvising. We improvised to a place that we’re all much more excited about. 

HMS: Did you have a hard time picking what songs to put on which EPs and what order to release them?

RMcN: We’ve actually never had a label before, so we let the label pick that. We’ve become really good friends and they really get us. The Chambers Brothers’ biggest audience was always other musicians. When they went to England, the Beatles greeted them. They were pals with Jimi Hendrix. Pete Sears played with Jimi Hendrix. Pete was there when Rod Stewart wrote “Maggie May” and was one of the founders of Jefferson Starship. Our people have played with some really cool acts. 

HMS: I find it really interesting when bands identify as a “collective”. Everyone in this band really can and has stood on their own, but you’ve created this situation where everyone can work together. Do you have any thoughts on how a collective can work or why this works for you all?

RMcN: This is the correct question. The first time we played together, the thing that we noticed was that it was really different than anything any of us had done for a very long time. Lots of bands have diverse membership, but this one is diverse in really interesting ways, because it also includes old and young members. Everybody gave something up relative to what we were doing before in order to do something that is bigger than what what we were doing before, and certainly a ton more fun. If you watch any of our live videos, you’ll see the look on peoples’ faces in the band. We’re not good at acting, you’ll see how much everyone is smiling. That happened right away, and we decided to feed that. 

For example, in the current configuration Pete and I do less singing now. If someone asks, “Don’t you feel bad giving that up?” I say, “Are you kidding me? It’s the coolest single thing that’s happened to me in music in twenty years!” There is a collective thing going on here, and Covid really drove that home. Two of the T Sisters had babies during this time, and we had to be incredibly careful, so everything we did during Covid was done outdoors with masks on. 

That notion that we are all a family looking out for each other is there. We got through Covid together. Because Covid took away so much for musicians, we needed the support. This collective came along at exactly the right time, as it says in one of our songs, “in the nick of time”. We’re still figuring out what the collective thing means, but we’re really excited about it. This is so energizing for all of us. 

HMS: What has your recording approach been like? Were you trying to capture things live?

RMcN: Yes. We have an engineer from LA by the name of Dave Way. He’s done everything from Ringo Starr, to PINK, to Michael Jackson. He’s recorded all our stuff. We go into a little studio with him and we do a live track, then we overdub the vocals. It sounds that way and that’s how it’s done. The studio has good gear in it so we can make a very high-quality recording of that. The last three songs we recorded in January, and they are bumping other songs to get onto the EP because they represent who we are. 

HMS: Do you want to comment on the plan of rollout that you’re using with Nettwerk?

RMcN: The basic premise of this is that streaming has changed music in a way that really helps artists at our level. With the old label model, if you’re PINK or you’re Adele, the model really works but below that first tier, it breaks down pretty badly. Streaming has made it possible for people who can build an audience to become sustainable. Nettwerk is building a model to work within communities who have overlapping fanbases. The notion is that, when you putting out a song, if there’s a community, you can coordinate releases within a community to bring songs onto playlists. It’s off to a great start. So far, from a small base, that’s working nicely. What I really like also is that we can decide which songs go on the EPs closer to the time of release. 

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One Response

  1. Great interview! I love Moonalice and have been a fan throughout the band’s history! Thanks Roger for all you do!!!

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