As followers of Santa Barbara music lore know, Jack Johnson and Zach Gill go way back. Both famously attended UCSB and made extensive rounds in the Isla Vista party scene of the mid-1990s — Jack with his honey-warmed voice and band Soil, Gill with his funky psychedelic pop act Django. Nowadays, it’s easy to look back and call that era something of an artistic renaissance for S.B. — today Jack is one of the world’s best-selling musical artists, and Gill’s Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO) is eight albums in and still going strong. Perhaps more importantly, though, Gill and Johnson are still in the business of making music together. This month, in addition to holding down the keys in Jack’s band, Zach is bringing ALO out of hiding to open a handful of dates on Johnson’s current West Coast tour, which comes to the Santa Barbara Bowl this Sunday, August 31, and Monday, September 1. In anticipation, we recruited Gill to ask some questions of his music-making partner and longtime friend. We caught up with them backstage in Bend, Oregon, earlier this week.
Zach Gill: Jack, you and I both recently saw that movie Jodorowsky’s Dune. In it Alejandro Jodorowsky says that when he makes a movie, he’s carving out his soul, and listening to you sing earlier, you have this line that goes, “I stole my soul from myself / Now I wonder.” Thinking about that idea and this progression of albums, I’m just curious what you think soul carving is.
Jack Johnson: That’s a good one. It’s like this Neil Young quote you told me about how writing songs is like plucking things from your dreams before they’re able to ripen. But writing songs, every time I go through one, I think of the Dewey Decimal System [laughs] — in a way, I get to file things away. It clears space and it helps me have a clear mind. When I finish a song, something that’s been lingering in that part gets cleared out, and I get to think about other things, so in that way I think it shapes my soul.
ZG: I’ve been feeling like — and correct me if I’m wrong — but I feel like on this tour there’s been this lack of drama. Not that there’s been a lot of drama on the other tours, but I felt like there’s been an ease and a comfort with you onstage. And part of that could just be getting older, but I’m wondering what you think it is — whether it’s getting more comfortable or just learning how to dial in.
JJ: That’s for sure. I feel like I’m finally comfortable onstage, which is probably a bad thing. The first tour I ever did was opening for Ben Harper, and I thought I was going to pass out every time I walked onstage. [Laughs.] People think I’m exaggerating, but I was that nervous. Every time before I’ve played things like Letterman or Jay Leno, I literally almost passed out. When they do that, “4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …” and you’re supposed to start, I see stars and stuff. But I also felt like, man, I’m being given this opportunity — I have to step up and get over my fear.
ZG: That sounds like soul carving to me.
JJ: That is soul carving. It took years. At first we were playing small venues, and I kind of grew comfortable with those, and then we were lucky enough to step up and do theaters. Then right when I was almost comfortable with that, we started doing more outdoor amphitheaters, places like the Bowl. That was kind of the nice, natural-sized venue for us, and we’ve stuck with it for a long time, and I guess you can’t help getting used to the feeling of being up onstage after that much time. And then you actually start enjoying it. It’s nice.
ZG: I always get the butterflies right before it happens.
JJ: You don’t seem nervous.
ZG: I’m very nervous! I’ll have my hot toddy, try to relax …
JJ: Zach’s my secret weapon to not being nervous.
ZG: But being a frontman is very different. I’d been in ALO since I was a kid, but as soon as I got into your band, it felt like a relief. I just come in when it feels right. It’s like when birds fly in a flock or something.
JJ: We used to try and constrain you. We used to tell you your parts. Then cut to you standing on your piano last night taking a melodica solo. [Laughs.] “I am Zach Gill; hear me roar!”
ZG: There’s a song on the new album [called “Never Fade”] where you say, “I went home that night / I wrote my first love song.” What song was that?
JJ: That was “Bubble Toes,” man.
ZG: Oh, really?
JJ: I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. [Laughs.]
ZG: That was the first one?
JJ: To me, it’s like, I couldn’t have written a love song before I met my love, so I may have tried, connected the dots and made words rhyme, but you can’t write a love song without love.
ZG: But did you actually go home and write it that night?
JJ: You’re ruining the mystique for people. That’s the song that makes all the ladies go wild. [Laughs.]
ZG: Sorry, man. [Laughs.]
JJ: But yeah, I wrote that song shortly after I met her. I don’t know if it was that night.
ZG: But that’s the one, “Bubble Toes”?
JJ: Yeah, yeah. It tells the story of this girl walking up to me and being blown away when she sat down. It was me and Eric Cardenas that were sitting next to each other at the table. We both thought we had a chance. [Laughs.] But I won.
Jack Johnson plays the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday, August 31, with special guest Bahamas and on Monday, September 1, with special guest Animal Liberation Orchestra. For info, call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.