You may have missed the day this came up in history class, but it turns out that in centuries past the world was inhabited by a large and happy tribe known as Moonalice. There were two factions in the tribe, the hippies (farmers who were very ingenious in cultivating hemp and finding uses for the abundant plant) and the bands (roving musicians with a predilection for playing bass). When the hippies and bands came together at joyous gatherings known as gigs, much revelry ensued.
Regrettably for the happy tribe, people of a far more dour and Calvinistic frame of mind took over the continent, driving the surviving Moonalices underground, where they and their culture lay dormant for many years. Then in 2007, six musicians revived the tribal ceremonies and culture. Ever since, long-lost Moonalices have been coming from all over to celebrate.
That’s one version. Another version, told to us by Chubby Wombat Moonalice, AKA bassist/guitarist/vocalist (and Rex Foundation board member) Roger McNamee, has to do with a band formed in May 2007 and involving several members of his former band, the Flying Other Brothers. “T Bone Burnett offered to produce an album for us if we abandoned the Flying Other Brothers and started all over,” he says. “We had come together over a period of eight years, so starting over was a big deal. We decided to rethink every aspect of the band.”
Rethink they did, coming up with the band name, the tribal legend, the musical style (which included a lot of bass players), and a lineup that currently includes G.E. Smith, Pete Sears, Barry Sless, Ann McNamee, John Molo and, on days when the planets align, Jack Casady. They built a convoluted culture involving Howling Monkey (both a mythical town where the tribe resides and an energy drink it brought back from the dead) and giving stuff away: cupcakes, posters (a different one at each show, produced by a local artist and printed with fanatical attention to quality), and lots and lots of free downloads.
(If some of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s no coincidence. Says McNamee, “We all started out as fans in the ’60s, when rock shows were an inexpensive adventure. The philosophies of Chet Helms and Bill Graham figure prominently in what we are doing.”)
You can buy the album Burnett produced, but the band recommends you check out their free music first. You can also immerse yourself in the mythology and a collection of poster art in the book The Moonalice Legend, which costs $25, or on the tour archives section of the band’s Web site, which is free. And you can do the full tribal experience at one of their many shows in clubs and at festivals around the country.
“Moonalice is an experiment,” says McNamee. “We live totally outside the record industry. Unlike most new bands, Moonalice has no anger, attitude or body piercing. We are a full-time band pursuing the dream of making new music—and new fans—every night. The sad thing is that most musicians our age are either playing in the same band they were in 30 years ago or they are in six or seven bands at once, trying to make ends meet.”
Rex Foundation: How would you describe Moonalice’s music, and what inspires it?
Roger McNamee/Chubby Wombat Moonalice: We call Moonalice music “carnival rock,” which means we’re trying to put on shows like the ones we enjoyed so much in our youth.
You never know what’s going to happen at a Moonalice show, except that it will be fun and you’ll go home with a cool poster. Big Steve Parish is the medicine man; his job is to make sure everyone has a great time. We record everything and make it available over Twitter and Facebook so that music fans everywhere can experience Moonalice for free.
Our roots are in folk music, with some blues and country thrown in the mix. Even though we are known to jam in some interesting ways, we are a song-based band. In that sense, we have more in common with the Dead than Phish.
Rex: With the tribal orientation, the band has a certain sense of community built in. How does that community extend beyond the concerts?
Moonalice: The Moonalice tribe is a matriarchy with kind values. Everyone in the tribe is chief, which is good for self-esteem. Moonalice nomads (bands like us) all like to play bass, while the hippies focus on tribal agriculture. Our philosophy is Confusionism, which says that since you can’t predict the future, you should be certain to enjoy the present.
Moonalice has chosen not to work with record labels, music publishers, and other traditional players. Instead, we have used the tour and social networks to build an audience organically. Since it costs us nearly nothing to produce and distribute live show recordings and videos, we make them free to fans.
Our theory is that it costs far less to build an audience with free music than it does with high-priced music and lawsuits. We also believe that if enough fans join the tribe, they will figure out ways to keep us in business. It’s an idealistic approach, but it works.
We are the only band that broadcasts shows on Twitter and Facebook. We do these Twittercasts and Facecasts two or three times a week and have done a total of 47 since the beginning of April. We also broadcast backstage videos, photos, and poster images. I send a song to every person who replies to or re-tweets one of our messages on Twitter. We have a really active forum on our Web page. We even have fans who write pieces of the Moonalice legend. The tribe is flourishing!
Rex: What’s your interest in the Rex Foundation, and why do you feel it’s important to support Rex’s work?
Moonalice: Bobby Weir asked me to join the Rex board when it was revived about a decade ago. Rex’s approach to philanthropy fills an important need and I love being associated with it.
Rex: What do you see as the role of music and the arts in supporting the community, and what areas are of special interest to you?
Moonalice: Moonalice is trying to bring back the value system of San Francisco’s music scene in the ’60s. We keep our ticket prices low and distribute as much free stuff as possible. Why? It’s more fun that way!
Our priorities are to support kids, education, medicine, and veterans. In its brief history, the band has played benefits for causes like Rex, Rock Med, the Marin History Museum, a group dedicated to finding a cure for brain cancer, The Big House (in Macon, GA), and Glide Memorial Church. Our first gig was a festival in support of medical marijuana. We spent the Fourth of July at the Veterans Home of California, playing for patients in the wards.
If good causes want our help, all they have to do is ask!