An Early Morning Spent with the Frontman for the Animal Liberation Orchestra
It’s 9:15 a.m., and I am knocking on the door of a tract home adjacent to the Ellwood mesa. It’s an early morning for what was a late night of watching magicgravy perform on SOhO’s stage at the Santa Barbara Music Phreaks holiday party. I know the feeling is shared when Zach Gill, who sat in with the band on keys, opens his door dressed in what must be his pajamas: velvety blue sweatpants (the same ones, incidentally, he wore when trying out to be Beck’s keyboardist) and a pale blue shirt that says “Jamaican Sunset” backwards because it’s inside out .
“Oh man,” says Gill, wiping the sleep out of his eyes. “I forgot about you.”
As the frontman for the Animal Liberation Orchestra, or ALO as they’re internationally known, Gill runs a busy life: he’s a husband, father, constant songwriter, and go-to keyman for friend Jack Johnson. His band, which also includes Seattle-based drummer Dave Brogan and his childhood buddies Steve Adams on bass and Dan Lebowitz on guitar, tours constantly to sold-out crowds. And in the middle of November at a studio in the Santa Barbara foothills, they cut the songs that will be on their forthcoming album. It will be ALO’s first big-time, fully produced CD and is slated for an April release on Johnson’s Brushfire Records.
He poured me some coffee and we went to his back patio beneath the morning sun, where the sounds of sea lions battled planes taking off overhead. We spoke for nearly three hours about the new songs, ALO’s December 29 show at SOhO and New Year’s Eve show at Sea of Dreams in San Francisco, and what happens when life catches up with a band. What follows is the bulk of that conversation.
I hear you’ve been recording in the mountains.
Yea, the band was down here for a long time. In my little lounge of a studio [he motions to the garage], we practiced for a week or two and then recorded album in Jennifer Terran’s barn.
How do you know Jennifer?
She used to be in I.V. a long time ago, before we were there. But she was a friend of [ALO drummer] Dave Brogan and our engineer Dave Simon Baker. They actually did an album with her. She’s been really cool.
I’ve been invited to her home concerts at The Barn, but I’ve never been up there.
It’s awesome. I’m building my studio here, and we went up there, and I was like “oh shit.” They did such a good job, it’s amazing the wood and the design of the cabinets. They were very meticulous. It’s a beautiful spot, totally cool and funky. It’s literally a tin barn, and they did a great job of converting it.
How was it recording there?
Actually, we’ve always been thinking as a band, “Let’s get out of the studio and into an alternative space,” but we’ve never done it. It was our first time, and it really felt different in so many ways.
Totally. It’ll be hard to go back. The typical studio is good for being in a cave and locking your self away. But this was cool, with natural sunlight. You record such long hours when making an album, you’re in the same spot from 10 a.m. till 2 a.m. or whatever. It’s so neat to see the sequence of sunlight coming through the window and then see the stars at night. That alone makes it worth it.
Did you finish the album?
More or less. There’ve been a few little parts that have lingered, stuff we’re finishing in the Bay Area. And we’re mixing down in L.A., with Robert Carranza. This album is the first time we’ve had a mixer….He’ll come in throughout the process, and say it sounds cool, that he might want to put something on this song. It’s nice to have someone with fresh ears.
How’d you find him?
He’s part of the Brushfire connection. He’s done lots of amazing albums, worked on everything from Beck to Los Lobos.
It sounds like you’ve had a lot of professional production support on this album, more so than on the prior album Fly Between Falls.
Yea, the last one we did more or less on our own. That was the first time that this lineup had gone into the studio. And we knew Jack [Johnson] was gonna be on one track, and that kinda messed with our minds a little bit, wondering what the ramifications of that would be.
With this new album, we’re trying to make it as killer as possible. That’s what we’re doing. Hopefully the album does real well, because the main focus of everybody is to make the best album.
Last time, there seemed to be more of a push to put an album out—you guys hadn’t release one in awhile, but your fan base was exploding, etc. This time, you appear to have more time. It’s less imperative.
What’s cool about the last album was that we put it out for a year, and then Brushfire put it out for another year. It was kind of like, not an explosion, more like something that kept moving and building slowing. [Hand motioning higher and higher.]
With this album, we can feel the excitement building. There are new songs on the album that our fans haven’t heard, songs we haven’t played live. And for Brushfire, it’s the first time they’ve had a band like us. It’s exciting to see everyone is fired up on it, to see what happens when you put something new out.
How about the new songs—were they developed over the last year or so?
Yea, pretty much. A handful of them are older ALO songs that we’ve been playing in the last two years on our live set.
Do you want to tell me which ones?
No, I’ll keep it a secret. And we have more material than we’ll probably use, so we may be releasing some of the songs as singles or on iTunes.
And the new ones?
Well, everyone basically recorded demos that we’d post to the web, and everyone got to pick which songs they like. Of course, other people also had input, but it was mostly the band. Other songs, we took jams we’d created and then use them as skeletons for a song. As a band, we have a tendency to overthink things. Some of our rawest things end up being real cool, so we tried to capture those moments on tape. Normally, they’re so sifted through.
What do you mean about overthinking?
If you got a song sitting around for 10 years, you’ve had the liberty to play it a bunch live. You’ve mulled over whether the chorus should happen two times or three times. You’ve massaged the hell out of it. At some point, it can become a little sterile.
Our hope was to avoid that at all costs on this album. We’re keeping things a little more spontaneous. It’s a bit of a gamble, because you don’t quite know what you’re going to get.
And with our band especially, you’ve got four strong individuals. ALO is very unique in that workshop aspect. It’s really not one person’s trip. It’s definitely four peoples’ trip. It’s happening simultaneously. There’s lots of push and pull, which is indicative of all bands, and why bands don’t last. It’s music, so there are no right or wrong answers, but when creating something within a deadline, you’re forced to make a decision at some point. Everybody is sort of leading and following simultaneously, jumping in and out of roles and performing different tasks all the time.
Do you know the name of the album?
When does it come out?
In April, and I can say that there are definitely themes on it. It’s a relationship album, I’d say. There’s lots of references to mythological sorts of things, or archetypal, feminine, and masculine concepts.
How many songs?
We went in and did 13 or so. We’re planning on having 10 on the album, but maybe we’ll add more. There’s a lot of ambitious talk going around, and we’re getting pretty good at creating things over the Internet, so we’re thinking that once this album dies down, we may want to record an additional record, like a supplement.
And nowadays the focus seems to be singles once again.
Yea, we’re heading back to that paradigm. It’s becoming more about a song than an album. The internet is a new reality. But simultaneously, in our heads, we’re thinking, “Let’s make the greatest rock album of all time.”
Our fans are such live music people, things are shifting. It’s like songs are becoming reasons to get people to come to a show [rather than live shows to sell albums]. We have to ride that line between studio CDs and live shows. In the studio, we have a different identity than as a live band.
Do you think that people who have heard your CDs, which have tighter, concise songs, are ever disappointed in your live shows, which feature long jams?
I suppose that margin of possibility exists. We’re trying, again, to walk that line. I really have an earnest desire to please everyone. I want people to come to our shows and I want the feeling of community to be fostered. I remember going to shows of my favorite artist and what unites people of certain songs that everyone is feeling good about. In this kind of scene we’re in, there is this element of the improvisation and jam that unites a certain number of people who don’t want you to play the song as it is on the album. They want us to turn it on its head. Inevitably, some people may be disappointed, thinking that it’s not jammy enough or not songy enough.
What else ca you say about the album?
It’s a super “band” album. It’s been a really great year for ALO, an emotional year, an intense year, a huge growing year. Going into the studio, there were some open-ended questions, a lot of talk about “What’s our plan? We’ve come this far, so what’s the next step?”
And there’s no book telling you what to do.
Yea, there’s no book. But I think everyone wanted to make the album to fill in that leg of the story, and everybody wanted to tour in support of the album. But with individuals, there’s inevitably different things that they want to do. So we have to ask, “What does everybody want to do? Where’s the area that everyone is agreeing on?” So we had lots of discussion before we went into the studio. And then once when we got in there, it’s like we’re in our own little playhouse.
Are you ever scared that you’ll make a studio album that you can’t reproduce live?
Yes, especially on this one. A lot of the songs were realized in the studio, and I’ve definitely been thinking about how to bring the vibe to the stage. I’m not too worried, but it’s gonna take some practice. Normally, I’m used to playing and singing the songs for a long time before recording them. In this case, I’ve got to practice them. I tried to play some the other day, and I was like, “How do I do that? I don’t even have that sound on this keyboard.” But we also take the approach of “it will be what it will be.” We’re pretty open minded.
Might your fans be surprised by the new album?
There’s gonna be some surprises. I think people are going to like it a lot. I’m hoping to please both live music fans and studio fans. I think it’s also a very different album than the last ones, it feels like a new vibe.
What did you mean by an “emotional year”?
We had a lot of dreams recognized, we’ve been touring a lot, which means we’re away from our families. And this business is emotional, it’s very passionate. Music comes largely from our emotions. And just life is pretty emotional. We had a year full of experience, and there was lots of ”whoa” last year too and the year before that. They’ve all been emotional.
What advice do you have for bands trying to stay together?
Watch the egos. I see the reason bands break up, it’s like the Beatles mythology: they hit a certain point in their lives with all their wives, their drug problems, it’s like life crept into their little bubble and it changed these young men into men.
I’ve been reading a lot about young men becoming men. You start off as your parents’ son. Their political views are yours, etc. Somewhere in junior high or high school, you and your friends start formulating an identity that’s separate from what you formulated with your parents. And then you get into your 20s and 30s, and you are more like, “This is what I actually believe. That’s who I am.” You become more of the person you’ve been in the process of becoming your whole life. You see a lot of bands fall apart around that time. But some bands also come together at that time too. It’s a traditional transitional time.
You read about it all the time. I just saw Trey from Phish saying that when they started, he didn’t know he would have two children and not want to be on the road. Or that you’re not gonna have a limb. Things just happen. Life catches up, and as a band you’re forced to deal with it.
With ALO, we have lots of memories, lots of past. No member of the band can walk in and say, “This is how it’s gonna be from now on out.” We can’t deny that we’ve gone through our adolescence together. I think that’s a good thing.
I was reading about Green Day, and the making of American Idiot. They’re a band that’s been together since junior high. A lot of bands have been together since then, actually, like U2. But they all reach a point where life starts catching up. People are wanting other things out of their lives. How does a band fit in with that?
When you’re younger, it’s about creating noise together in a garage. And it’s more fun to create noise with other people than by yourself, and more people will listen if more people are creating it. You make a bang, you try to get something going on in this world. Rock and roll is such a youthful thing.
I love that line in Spinal Tap when the one of the bandmembers says that on stage, he feels like a preserved moose. It’s like tapping into yesteryear, recreating this special moment.
Really good bands bend with age. I think this album speaks to where everybody is at in their lives. We’re not in the same place.
Nor are a lot of your fans.
Nor are our fans. Hopefully, people have grown with us. There are elements of pop music that are very youth-oriented and there are elements where the demographic is wide. We hope we’re one of those kind of bands that have a huge demographic at concerts, from older people to young children, all feeling the vibe.
Do you ever get sick of playing the same songs over and over?
When you go to England for the first time, and you’ve been playing in America for years, and people over there have bought the album, and they really like it, but you’re burned out on the songs—what do you do? Do you say, “We’ve come here and we’re not going to play your favorite songs ‘cause we’re burned out on it”?
In the end, if people are still feeling real good about it, we’re just so fired up to give that. That song for us ends up being “Girl I Wanna Lay You Down.” We’ve been playing it a long time in different incarnations, but it’s changed a little bit every night, which keeps it interesting.
Sometimes you do get tired of some songs, but it’s a state of mind. I think it’s cool if you can rise above that. What do they say? Approach every moment with a beginner’s mind. When I do that, I find that songs are still growing. Only when I shut off that part of my mind do I get bored. But there’s no reason to be bored with anything ever.
What can fans expect for the December 29 show at SOhO?
It’s a three-set night, which means there’s no opener and there’ll be plenty of rarities and old favorites. It’ll be a pretty rad show, with a heavy spirit of community and gratitude for the New Year.
Santa Barbara is the place where ALO was birthed, so it’s always a place we come back to. The connection we have with people who come to our shows is very deep and long-standing. It’s been a long relationship, so it’s always neat to spend that seasonal time together.
And you’re also playing the Sea of Dreams New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco?
Yea, the people who put it on have exciting, creative ideas. Everyone has told me it will be awesome. We’re super stoked, and we’re psyched to play with the String Cheese Incident. We never played with them, and now they’re breaking up. And Zap Mama just got added to bill. They’re great, people doing things with voices I’ve never heard.
411 Animal Liberation Orchestra plays SOhO on December 29. See sohosb.com or call 962-7776. ALO also plays Sea of Dreams in San Francisco on December 30 31. See seaofdreamsnye.com. For more on ALO, see alomusic.com or myspace.com/alomusic.