Venture capitalist ventures into rock-and-roll with his band Moonalice

By Liz Clarke
Monday, October 19, 2009

Roger McNamee treasures his cache of memorabilia from more than 180 Grateful Dead shows. Another point of pride: his Silicon Valley venture capital firm, with its $1.9 billion investment fund. So how does he merge his pride with joy?

The answer is on display Monday night at Baltimore's 8x10, a club where the playbills usually announce pierced and inked frontmen who look nothing like McNamee. With his saucerlike glasses, graying mop of shoulder-length hair and Dartmouth MBA, he's hardly the prototypical rocker. And he got to this stage through none of the usual indie-rock hype-mongering methods for finding financiers. Instead, Moonalice is funded by its own unlikely frontman.

At 53, McNamee is leveraging the skills, spoils and entertainment-industry savvy from his day job as a successful venture capitalist to forge the night job he has dreamed of since Hot Tuna's 1970 debut album changed his life. Under the stage persona of Chubby Wombat Moonalice, McNamee fronts the band Moonalice, which features himself on bass; his wife, Ann, on vocals; and an all-star cast of aging rockers who share his passion for American roots music.

The Baltimore stop will prove an unusually intimate setting for such accomplished Moonalice sidemen as former "Saturday Night Live" band leader G.E. Smith; drummer John Molo (formerly with Bruce Hornsby and the Range); guitarist Barry Sless (Phil Lesh); and keyboard player Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship).

In this venture, McNamee isn't seeking the rate of return he would as co-founder and managing director of Elevation Partners, whose principals include Bono. Nor is he targeting a particular level of album sales after Moonalice's self-titled debut, produced by Grammy winner T-Bone Burnett, fizzled upon its April release.

But as a business start-up, Moonalice is not without goals: To produce cheap, quality entertainment for like-minded music fans; to provide full-time employment for veteran rockers now marginalized by the industry's contraction; and to stage the sort of live shows he loved in his 20s, rooted in the blues, folk, rock, extended jam sessions and a sense of community. Or, as distilled on the Facebook site, the band's mission is "spreading good vibes and giving new hope to millions whose culture [has] been laid waste by the prohibition of hemp."

McNamee taught himself to play guitar but balks at any suggestion he's buying a rock fantasy. "What does that mean, 'dilettante?' " McNamee counters. "[It means] somebody who dabbles and puts themselves in a position that they haven't earned. I'm spending 150 nights on the road to play music! Does that sound like a dilettante to you?"

He's speaking by cellphone from the balcony of a New York hotel, just before one of a hundred gigs the band will play this year.

"It used to bother the crap out of me," McNamee adds. "It hurts. You're sitting here trying to do something constructive. People just assumed I must suck. Nobody wanted to believe someone like me could be any good at this."

A native of Albany, N.Y., McNamee counts among his life's pivotal moments first hearing Jorma Kaukonen's guitar work on "Hesitation Blues"; seeing Pink Floyd during its "Dark Side of the Moon" tour in 1973; and attending a music festival in Watkins Glen, N.Y., that included the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers.

As a Yale undergraduate he played in a band he felt sure would make it until one of his mates fell in love and dropped out. Lacking a Plan B, he went to business school and found work as a technology analyst for T. Rowe Price in 1982. In that role and in the venture capital firms he helped start later, McNamee showed a knack for identifying the next big thing, investing in such enterprises as Electronic Arts, Google, Facebook and Palm. He also advised the surviving members of the Dead, as well as Pearl Jam and U2, on how to use technology to reach their fans.

But his yen to play his own music was rekindled when he saw Eric Clapton at London's Royal Albert Hall in the late 1980s. Not long after he formed a band called the Flying Other Brothers and sought lessons from Kaukonen, the Washington-born guitar virtuoso.

"What struck me was how much he loved the music," Kaukonen said. "We picked a real simple version of Blind Arthur Blake's song 'West Coast Blues,' and in the couple of days we spent together, we went over and over that song. Roger absolutely dedicated himself to learning what he needed to do."

McNamee won't disclose how much he spends bankrolling band members' salaries, a tour bus, recording-studio time, travel and gear. "I've got no kids; I don't play golf. What am I going to spend money on?" he asks. "Why not keep a bunch of musicians employed doing great music?"

Molo, a 1971 graduate of Langley High, finds McNamee's generosity and commitment refreshing. "With some singer-songwriters, they look at the drummer and other musicians as if, 'What is the guy going to do to my stuff?' " Molo says. "In Roger's case, he thinks we're all great players. He's learning from us."

McNamee seemingly cares not that critics have largely ignored Moonalice's work. The band's Facebook following tops 86,000, and 20,000 follow on Twitter. He predicts Moonalice will be self-sustaining in two years. Asked what he'll do if not, he says: "I don't pay any attention to whether we have good day or bad days. In all startups, the key thing you're looking at is the rate of progress. We're on track."

Plus, he notes, some things are more meaningful than a bottom line. "Why are business models about getting rich?" he asks. "Why is that the only business model out there? Why isn't it about doing something great?"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company