Photo by Jay Blakesberg
The North Shore of Oahu provided the locale last spring when the members of ALO convened to work on their latest studio album. There the four musicians (bassist Steve Adams, guitarist Dan Lebowitz, keyboard player Zach Gill and drummer Dave Brogan) were joined by their former UCSB college rival/collaborator Jack Johnson to record the follow up to 2007’s Roses & Clover. Johnson, who also enlists Gill in his own four piece touring band, produced the disc and eventually co-authored a few of the songs. The resulting effort, Man of The World blends pop hooks, a sense of the sublime and a feel for the absurd. In the following conversation, Adams outlines ALO’s path to Oahu, with stops along the way for Free Range horns, masks and sarongs as well as a wedding gig at the Santa Barbara Zoo for the Animal Liberation Orchestra.
My initial impressions of ALO were that you guys were some sort of avant collective. I can remember receiving the first Animal Liberation Orchestra disc in a red jewel case with cool artwork and I’d heard that when you guys played live it was much more than a show, it was a performance. Does that sound accurate or was that a misguided take from the East Coast based on limited knowledge?
To say an avant collective, I don’t think we ever were quite that far down that side of the spectrum. We kind of came up together studying music and we studied jazz in college and got into all types of music. When the Animal Liberation Orchestra formed at the end of college it was definitely an experimental outfit but it wasn’t quite an avant collective like a John Zorn thing or Sex Mob. It was more playful, sort of a funk orchestra with humor. We had this horn section called the Free Range Horns and we would play with that. We’d shackle them and then free them during the set and there were lots of theatrics and there was a collective spirit to it because we had this 9 piece group and we all brainstormed different ideas of what to do.
That was the end of college and I think that was our most extreme in that way. We did make a record and we did send it out and it might have been in a red jewel case with beads on the side and we silk-screened the covers ourselves. So there was something to that but to the extent that people thought it was an experimental avant garde jazz collective, I don’t think that’s quite what it was.
After you graduated, where did things go from there?
From that point we moved to San Francisco. We left the horn players in college and we picked up with another drummer and kept going as a four piece. Eventually we shortened the name to ALO because it was mouthful and as the Animal Liberation Orchestra we were getting all these questions about vegetarianism and animal rights. So the name evolved to ALO and maybe along with that the music evolved back to our real roots before the end of college. If you listen to our demo from high school it almost sounds like Rush, Van Halen or maybe Stone Temple Pilots. We’ve always been very song-oriented and I think for a moment we got out there and experimented with a lot of different things. After the first record there’s a soundtrack which is also pretty experimental. Then there’s a dance electro record which was influenced by the acid jazz scene in San Francisco and also jambands like the Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector 9 and some more electronic stuff.
Then we came to Fly Between Falls where we had all these great songs that we’d written and we got Dave Brogan back in the band. He was somebody we were friends with in college and he has incredible songwriting skills. We always felt like we connected on that level. So when he joined back up, we picked all the best songs from the past and put them together for Fly Between Falls and I think Fly Between Falls is the real marker for the return to songs. After that was Roses and Clover and now Man of the World. I think all three records are pretty song-oriented.
I’d also heard you described as a vaudevillian jamband. Is it fair to say that with the transition to named ALO, you curtailed some of those impulses?
I think so. I think we tamed the beast a little bit. For a while, we would do these guerilla tours where we’d book whatever show we could and head out for the middle of the country and Zach he’s always been a real theatrical person. He was in musicals in high school and college and he’s written pieces of rock operas and he has been the musical director for musicals before ALO and the Jack Johnson stuff really kicked in.
So in that period where we were all having side jobs trying to figure out how to be musicians, Zach would make these masks out of paper mache and he was the one that really pushed us to get into this whole vaudevillian theatrical thing. So for a while when we were touring the country as Animal Liberation Orchestra, we’d do our concert and then after, we’d go hit the streets with our acoustic instruments and our masks and sarongs around our naked bodies and put on theatrical performances. So now that I think about it, I understand why people would make that connection.
You describe having non-musical jobs. When was the point where the four of you finally were able to put those aside?
There was a moment in 2002. Animal Liberation Orchestra started in ‘98, our last year in college. Then we took it took to San Francisco in ‘99 and played with this other drummer until 2001. And then 2001 was a year off a bit because Zach had a baby and our drummer really wanted to play bass so everything was breaking off from itself.
Dan and I were real excited about being musicians and being full time on the road so we joined Global Funk Council with Anthony Smith and assorted others. We basically just jumped in their bus and toured for the next four months. And then we would come through San Francisco and we’d have dinner with Zach and he’d say, “Man, I really want to get the band back together and do some touring like you guys are doing.”
In 2002 Zach came to us and said, “Let’s just do it.” That summer Dan and I left Global Funk Council, we picked up a new drummer and Zach bought an RV. Then we hit the road and that was a big moment for us in terms of just going for it. For a couple years we still had to do freelance work and extra gigs. I do a lot of design work and I was doing design work from the road.
So 2002 was the real marker for us and we picked up Dave Brogan that fall. We got a call from Jack to come open for him at the Fillmore in Denver. We hadn’t talked to him for a while and we didn’t have a drummer because our drummer had quit. So we called up Brogan who we played with in college and he was in Seattle and he had just gotten laid off at Microsoft and was sort of looking for a gig. He said, “Yeah, come pick me up.” So we drove to Portland and his girlfriend drove down to Portland to drop him off with us. We rehearsed in a hotel bathroom on the way to the Fillmore. We did that opening slot and that was the first gig back with Brogan and it was opening for Jack too so it was kind of a neat moment. And it just kind of happened from there.
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