Following February’s Tour d’Amour, ALO are back on the road this month. The California-based group is crossing the continent for a series of dates with the Ryan Montbleau Band (and a few solo gigs as well). In the following conversation, ALO guitarist Dan Lebowitz look back on the group’s 2012 studio album Sounds Like This, projects into the a future a bit and shares insight into the Northern California music scene.
Let’s start out with your last album Sounds Like This, which came out last year. It really appeals to my aesthetic and it I continue to play it quite a bit but it was something of a departure from your previous Brushfire releases, which presented much more concise versions of your songs. Looking back on it now, can you talk about the decisions that went into making it.
We’re kind of chameleons in our interests. We love crafting short songs and getting into that world. But we also just love to play music too. Both those interests for us have been happening in parallel. I think part of the thing about putting out albums, at least for us, is the art side where you want to have something new that you’re going for. I don’t ever want to feel static. I think with each album there’s been some theme in part, and with this album the theme was that while the songs weren’t any different, the approach to the way we record them and the way we arrange them for the recording was different. We thought, “Let’s just let them open up.”
I imagine that most of your fans appreciated that. I wonder if there were some folks out there who know you only through your albums and may not have ever seen ALO perform live who might have been thrown off a bit. Was that any consideration?
It’s funny to talk about that because I haven’t even thought about it much. For us, we have our fans that know us as a band, and know our live show and know our records, and dig deep, and they know the whole gamut. Then we have the fans that see us at festivals and come out to a show now and again, and they pretty much get it too. Then there’s this other group of fans that know us for the song, “Girl I Wanna Lay You Down,” that heard the song through Jack Johnson and came to like the band through that, and I can imagine that this would be surprising for some of those people. But I feel like we try not to think about those people too much when we’re making art, because they’re sort of casual and those people are probably going to come and go anyhow. If they’ve got a song or two they like by us, well that’s cool, they have that already. But for us—I guess it’s kind of like with any band—you’re serving yourself first. When we think about our audience we’re more concerned with the people that get that exploratory side of us.
You mention Jack Johnson. Some of his initial success came through radio play. To my mind ALO is a band that writes songs with the potential for radio exposure. In making Sounds Like This was there any discussion about the fact that longer songs could hurt you there?
In the past I felt like when we were making these records we were definitely spending time getting the songs ready and thinking on those terms—let’s trim every bit of fat that we can. Not make it too banal but let’s get it down to its essence and then live we’ll explore it. With this one, what we realized is that you can just do radio edits anyhow, so the song “Speed of Dreams,” which was the first single for the record, we just made a radio edit where we cut the whole bridge out and it just cuts to the end and that’s what they ended up playing. We started realizing that when we trimmed them down to what we thought was the essence, they were still doing radio edits for those anyhow. At a certain point we were like, “Let’s do whatever we want and not devise the album for the radio.” It’s so easy to do radio edits these days, just throw the track up on Pro Tools and cut out what you need to.
What sort of relationship does the band have with radio these days? To what extent do you feel the medium has helped ALO?
For us the formats have been Triple A and college radio. It’s always been good. We’ve never had big radio hits or anything but we’ve gotten played on radio, which is pretty cool, because especially with the scene we’re in, people avoid the radio sometimes. I think it’s been super helpful for us when we roll into towns where we haven’t played a lot if the radio is on board with it. It takes the place of having been to a town ten or twenty times already. There’s already a little bit of a crowd already. So we’re definitely interested in keeping those relationships.
At the end of the day we’re into having hooks in our tunes, we enjoy it. We’re going to have that and explore it, like we did on the last album, and still have radio edits. For me it feels like the best of both worlds. We can kind of have our cake and eat it too. I feel like with some of the arrangements we did on those earlier albums, just as a band listening back later, we would just miss the openness of some of the tunes.
As a musician or even just a as a listener, do you view radio in the same way that you did a decade ago?
I think it’s way different, because ten years ago, whatever town you were in there were like two radio stations. Now it’s so broad. I feel like now what’s so cool is the power has been handed to the people. Word of mouth counts for so much. For me, the main way I check out music now is just friends, people tell me about something and that’s how I end up checking them out. In the past it was like, “Okay, there are a couple radio stations and between those you’re going to hear what they give you.” Now there’s a million bands and everyday something’s coming out. I also subscribe to Mog and I’ve really been enjoying the new release Tuesdays. Every Tuesday I just listen to the new stuff coming out, and I’ve found some music I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’m on the east coast and you’re in the Bay Area. I’m always interested in learning about bands that are emerging in other local regions that I haven’t discovered yet. For instance I hadn’t heard of the California Honeydrops before they opened that run of shows for you earlier this year.
They’re a great band out of the Bay Area, relatively new and they’ve definitely have this New Orleans influence, even though they’re very much a Bay Area band. There’s definitely a New Orleans thing going on but they have a Bay Area aesthetic with their thing. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area, I feel like as a band it’s a part of who we are as musicians. But I also sort of feel like it used to be more regionally specific, especially when radio wasn’t all corporatized and each region had its sound. Now there’s so many people with access to so much music that there can be a New York band that sounds more Bay Area or a Bay area band that sounds more New York because of all this crazy cross pollination.
I still think there are regional pockets, though. In terms of that all that available music, sometimes I think that there’s so much of it that it almost becomes white noise. In certain respects I feel that as we become as we become more global we’ve also become more regional in a lot of regards.
I feel like the word of mouth from a friend or someone I respect is the main thing that will get me to dig into a band. With the Bay Area bands I do feel like there is a Bay Area aesthetic. I’m not sure I can put it into words but it sort of evolves out of the 60s psychedelic Grateful Dead scene. There’s a certain approach to music from all the bands that I interact with in the Bay Area, a certain kind of openness to the options. The aesthetic I find with bands out here with bands that are more focused on dance music and more people that are into folk music is just trying it out and letting it flow, and trying not to force it.
Sometimes it just comes out of relationships, like it did with the Wetlands scene in New York after that club opened.
For a little while there was this recording studio called Mission Bells, that was owned by Jackie Greene and Tim Bluhm, and that was sort of a neat fit. The studio is no longer there, but I found that was a great meeting place for the scene. A lot of the Bay Area bands were recording in that studio, our last album was recorded there, Sounds Like This. What’s neat with a studio is that everybody is working on stuff all the time and just dropping by. So a lot of cross pollination happened through that studio and the scene that evolved out of that.
I used to live a block from Bo Carper from New Monsoon, and we both like country blues, Mississippi John Hurt type stuff and last night we went out to The Independent and played with Elephant Revival. We were in town and so we went and did a quick set of country blues music. In that way there’s a total regional thing going on where we’re sitting in with each other and having guests. Stuff like that is appreciated by all of us. It’s cool that have that community, it feels like something.
What’s so cool about it is that it’s people that you respect but they’re your friends too. You want to do a good job because you respect those people and you want to impress them and I think they all feel the same way. That’s how that band, Brokedown in Bakersfield came about. That’s with me and Steve and Dave from ALO, and Tim and Nicki [Bluhm] and Scott Law. That’s a great one too because that’s a scene of music where we all know each other and sit in with each other’s bands, but then after hours we all enjoy picking on Merle Haggard tunes and Buck Owens tunes and talking about how we like Bakersfield country. I don’t know how much you’ve dug into that but it was much less glossy. So suddenly we have a little band where we do that. It started as a one off but now it’s a project we enjoy a couple times a year.
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