This weekend at the Fillmore, ALO will close out Tour d’Amour XII. The group, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has had a slightly different look in 2018 as drummer Dave Brogan is sitting out these dates and Ezra Lipp has moved behind the kit. ALO co-founder Steve Adams took some time to reflect on this decision, look back at the group’s early years and discuss his new project with Lipp, Magic In The Other, a trio that has drawn comparison to The Slip.
It sounds like all of a sudden you realized that it was the 20th anniversary of ALO’s first gig. What are your memories of that initial era?
It’s funny, all these little anniversaries and milestones, they kind of like creep up on you. Sometimes, they happen and you’re like, “Oh wait a minute, it’s been twenty years.” Although even before that, Zach and Lebo and me, we had already been playing for over ten years. We started in junior high, went all through high school and then went to college together. That’s when we had all these different band names and we started playing with different drummers. We also began experimenting with different lineups adding horn players.
In Santa Barbara (at UCSB) Dan and I were in the music department doing a lot of stuff there, studying music and playing in different groups. Zach was a history major but he was also in the music department all the time, hanging out with us and also doing ensembles. Then at one point halfway through our senior year our jazz band director was like, “It seems like you guys could use a drummer and I’d love to play with you. I could even help arrange some horns.” So we started this band with him on drums and a five piece horn section, and it got launched at this like pizza parlor called Giovanni’s. It started off as Animal Liberation and then maybe Animal Liberation and The Free Range Horns—eventually we like put it all together as the Animal Liberation Orchestra and The Free Range Horns.
We only played with that nine piece lineup with the five horns and Jon [Nathan] on drums, for like the rest of our senior year and a little bit of the summer. Then we all graduated and Zach and Dan and I decided to move back to San Francisco, back to the Bay Area where we grew up. We kind of left all those guys behind because they were there doing different things too. Then that started a whole new phase of working with various drummers and shortening the name to ALO.
Can you recall the moment when it felt like it had really taken on its own momentum and you’d become a national act?
There are different moments that come to mind. When we were in college before we had the name ALO we would tour a little bit up and down the West Coast. We were called Django, like Django Reinhardt. We had some plays up in Oregon at our friends’ fraternity parties and we’d play little bars in Chico and the Bay Area a bit. But for the most part, we didn’t really get out of Santa Barbara. We were on the school schedule more or less and we played a lot of parties.
Back in high school we made a record. It was a seven song EP. We created 300 cassettes and brought it to school. It sold out in a week and that helped to create the excitement that led us to continue being a band and go to college together. While we didn’t really get out of Santa Barbara too much, we did feel a momentum there, so by the time ALO started, there already were people rooting for us, and they were excited to see what our next project was going to be. So out of the gate our first gigs were packed and we were super stoked because our drummer was really good, we had the horn parts all tight. It felt like a local band doing really well.
So when we left Santa Barbara, we left a town that was rooting for us and kind of started over in San Francisco. We found this drummer, Shree Shyam Das, who we ended up making a couple records with, and we all had part time jobs of all sorts while we living on our own for the first time after college. With Shyam on drums, we started touring the western states a little bit because we saw bands were doing that. We knew if we could like be popular in our town and then take it to the next town, then we have two towns, and so we were trying to figure out how to spiral out of the Bay Area.
The western states seemed natural and we’d kind of like inch over to Utah, and up to Montana and then up to Washington and then down to Arizona. So we began doing that and that felt good but we were still barely making any money and it was really hard to figure out how to get the word out. Then we started a mailing list and we’d do actual physical mailers because we saw that bands like Phish and Disco Biscuits and Perpetual Groove were doing things like that and we thought it was a really cool way to connect with our fan base. It still felt like a little bit of a struggle, but also a step in the right direction in terms of like working towards something, while we were gaining a fanbase.
Utah was really kind to us, and it became a hub for us. And then Shyam left the band because he wanted to play bass instead of drums. He was a killer drummer but he wanted to switch paths himself. And Zach’s wife got pregnant and had a baby. This was in 2000 and at one point he was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” He was feeling overwhelmed being a father and so he kind of pulled away for a minute but Dan and I were hungry to tour and like keep the momentum going so we joined Global Funk Council.
Those guys were hungry too and Anthony and Eric—Anthony Smith and Eric Bolivar—Anthony was part of The Giant People, which was a spinoff of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Eric Bolivar also played in Tiny Universe at some point so those two were spearheading this funk, instrumental project with some vocals. Lebo was kind of the first one in, then I sort of followed. They toured nonstop and their goal was to live on the road and build it up. But after three or four months it didn’t feel balanced to me, and I missed ALO a little bit. We’d come back to the Bay Area to play a show and Zach would come out and he’d say, “Man, I wish I could figure out a way to do what you guys are doing.”
Then in 2002 Zach seemed interested again, and feeling better about family life, so the three of us were like, “Let’s try this again. We have some momentum, we have some fans, Lebo and I got like a little more experience touring, so we can maybe bring some of that in.” It took a few more drummers before we got to Dave, and that was within six or nine months. But once we had Dave locked in, it all started feeling like it was on track. That was in the fall of ’02.
Jack Johnson was doing great in ’02, he had, a record or two, maybe the second one was out. He was our old friend from Santa Barbara and he called us up and said, “Hey, I just added a second night in Denver at the Fillmore because the first one sold out and the opener can’t do the second night. Do you guys wanna do it?” And we’re like, “Yeah!” [Laughs.]
So we picked up Brogan in Portland and drove straight to Denver. That was our first gig with Brogan and it was the biggest gig ever we’d ever played. Jack was stoked to have us, we’d stayed friends, and he was like encouraging us to keep it going. So that felt really meaningful, and over the next two years we toured a little more of the western states and we did a Hawaii tour. We were still holding some part time jobs and stuff, but it felt much more meaningful.
Then in ’04, ’05 we were invited to open for Jack on his big summer tour. That was his In Between Dreams tour. We’d just put out our Fly Between Falls record which was still an independent release, but he ended up signing us to his label and re-releasing that record, so that was our first Brushfire release also. That also was the moment where it felt like it was on track—“This could be a thing so let’s walk away from our part time jobs as much as we can and focus.” Since then we’ve been pushing along and it’s grown in the right away. I think when Zach joined Jack’s band, that kind of shuffled things up a little bit but that’s another story.