Exploring Zach Gill’s Manic and Musical Multiverse
Pre- and Post-Pandemic Ponderings with Goleta-Based, UCSB-Educated Rock Star
By Roger Durling | Published September 3, 2020
“It’s a time of renewal,” says Zach Gill, full of his trademark optimism. “I’m using this time to understand what really matters. What do you let go of? How will all things look?”
I’ve written this story about Zach a couple of times. Each time I finished a draft, there was another interruption. My first deadline was March, and then the world stopped.
By the time I wrote this version, the punctuated process felt appropriate, reflecting this music-maker’s many layers and constant evolution, from UCSB student to devoted family man, from performing in Isla Vista driveways to jamming on the world’s largest stages. The disruptions meant we had to meet again and regroup, providing repeat chances to uncover more about this multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter, who lives in the Goleta suburbs but typically can be found touring the globe as the integral fourth member of Jack Johnson’s band, or leading his longtime band ALO, or performing solo.
This is Zach Gill’s multiverse, and his wheels did not stop spinning for the coronavirus pandemic. His latest album, Cocktail Yoga, comes out on September 18, and its first track, “King Dancer’s Delight,” dropped last Friday.
Looking back to our pre-pandemic talks, something he said in mid-January resonates today. Gill was about to embark on ALO’s annual Tour d’Amour while I was days away from the opening day of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where I am the executive director. As we sat in his backyard on a chilly afternoon overlooking a eucalyptus grove on the Ellwood Mesa, there was anticipation in the air, but also a looming sense of dread.
“On New Year’s Eve, we were pulling archetype cards, and this was supposed to be your meditation for the year,” Gill told me. “I pulled the apocalypse card. It’s when the forces of chaos lash out. These are apocalyptic times. I’m writing a song about it. I’m going into the underworld. It’s something scary, but it’s something you have to face. There are revelations there. The underworld is our psyche.”
He smiled while explaining this, which was reassuring. Introspective and affecting, Gill speaks without much filter, and, even in dark times, he exudes a bright optimism. That combination is what makes his music and lyrics so persuasive.
More recently, we chatted over Zoom, and I reminded him of those foreboding comments. Was it a premonition? Or just a keen observation?
“When COVID first hit, I felt well-equipped,” he explained. “I was thankful to have some perspective. It helped me to have been reading all these myths about the world ending. Humanity has gone through it many times.”
Jam Session #1: December 3, 2019
I first reached out to Gill last November to profile him for the Santa Barbara Questionnaire, a column on Independent.com that I’d done every week for almost seven years until the lockdown put it on hold. He agreed to a 50-minute lunch interview at Louie’s in the Upham Hotel, but after he whisked in and started talking, 90 minutes had evaporated.
Our conversation began around his 2017 solo album Life in the Multiverse, which he put out amid touring/recording with Jack Johnson and ALO while parenting. “Nobody pressures me to do this — it all falls on me,” admitted Gill. For years, he’d put off solo work to complete two albums with ALO and one with Jack Johnson, right around the time he had his second daughter. “The band work is collaborative,” he explained. “You always try and find a collective spirit. But sometimes you get to the end with collaborating, and you want to follow your own vision.”
Gill’s shaggy, relaxed, and yet self-assured manner is disarming. He casually explains that he’s preparing for a solo show that week at The Red Piano on State Street — specifically an accordion medley of Madonna music. So endearing, yet I pretend not to be amused and ask about playing so many instruments.
“I really like how music works,” he replied. “I find an instrument, and I love learning how to use it. I feel like I’m a hack as a musician. For me, I’ve always had to work at it.”
Gill was born in the Bay Area town of Saratoga as the surrounding Silicon Valley came into being. His grandma was a trained classical musician who taught piano lessons and played in church for 50 years. His dad, Chuck Gill, played guitar in ’50s rock bands in high school and at Ohio State, which is where he met future wife, and Zach’s mom, Karen.
When Chuck was drafted for the Vietnam War, he and Karen quickly got married and then settled in San Jose when he was discharged. Chuck worked for title companies and then started his own, while Karen worked as a waitress, a hospital administrator, and for her husband’s company.
Zach’s musical link came at birth: His middle name is Dylan, as in Bob Dylan. “Since I was 12, I knew I wanted to be a musician,” he said. “Dad taught me to play the guitar. Everyone told me it’d be hard, but everyone encouraged me.”
While at Saratoga Junior High, Gill started a band called 1% Away with his childhood friends Dan Lebowitz and Steve Adams. The trio has been playing together ever since in various bands, including ALO. Their first gig was at Redwood Junior High, where they played the Rolling Stones’ covers during the intermission of a school production of The Saga of Dead Dog Gulch.
They soon began writing their own songs and produced a demo called Contact, which was based on studying songs that they liked. “In the beginning, we were copying things,” said Gill. “I remember thinking that was wrong. They didn’t feel authentic, and then at some point, it all shifted.”
A critical experience was playing Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof while at Saratoga High. “He was a dad and spoke to God directly, and he was struggling between tradition and love and having daughters,” said Gill, who has two daughters today, aged 20 and almost 10. “It stuck in my head. When I play the accordion, it comes back a lot of times. Maybe that’s why I like wearing hats. Different hats do different things. They help me get into the vibe of a song.”
In 1993, the whole band came to UCSB to major in music, though Gill dropped his degree to a minor, instead playing piano and singing with the jazz ensemble, singing in the gospel choir, and mastering the accordion with the Middle East ensemble. “Isla Vista was so fecund,” recalled Gill, who formed a number of bands that played in I.V. as well and occasionally released albums.
We have a common obsession with The Beatles, which Gill says he’s used as a “blueprint” to keep bands together. “After George Harrison died, he came to me in a dream — I don’t ever remember my dreams,” Gill explained. “He came to me at a holiday cocktail party. I was apologizing for not appreciating him, and he walks right through me. I felt his energy and then I woke up.”
Suddenly, we’re out of time. As I get up to leave, Gill randomly offers, “I’m loving key lime pie now.” I don’t understand why he mentions that, but I don’t forget it either.
Jam Session #2: December 18, 2019
This time, we meet at Gill’s house in the afternoon, after he’s picked up his youngest daughter, Ellie, from elementary school? school. Also at home for the holidays is his older daughter, Jaden, who’s a journalism student at the University of Oregon.
We sit on the couch of his garage, which serves as a studio and man cave of sorts. Gill appears so content balancing domestic life with a rock-star career, I wonder how he does it.
“Rock ’n’ roll is a tough thing,” he explained. “You have to throw yourself in wholeheartedly. It’s a weird game of piecing these puzzles together. It was very much grassroots. The fact that Jack Johnson was happening helped. His trajectory seemed solid, and it was inspiring. He was very supportive.”
Johnson and Gill attended UCSB at the same time. “We’re kind of like brothers,” said Gill. “There was never a rivalry between us.” As freshmen, Johnson was part of the band Soil, while Gill, Lebowitz, and Adams had formed Django. They did compete over booking parties in Isla Vista, which was not an easy task.
“Jack was the first songwriter who was my own age,” said Gill of his friend, who rapidly rose to become a world famous singer/songwriter soon after UCSB. “It was a struggle, but we both wanted to write music. We grew up together and were close.”
By 1994, Gill and his band were living at 6606 Del Playa with a garage and an empty lot next door. The de facto concert venue was a dream for young musicians.
“We were the last generation before the party crackdown,” said Gill of how the County of Santa Barbara has tightened Isla Vista’s rules over the years. “When we first got there, bands would play all night.” By his sophomore year, $500 fines were issued for playing music, even recorded music, past midnight on the weekends and past 10 p.m. on weekdays. “It was really strict. You had to stop right on the dot,” said Gill. “They were there with flashlights at 12:01.”
But bands still played, exposing Gill to a wide array of music. “There was an amalgamation of all these different styles,” said Gill, who started taking piano lessons from professional musician Paul Moore. “They were short-lived, but they were an inspiration to me. I’d never hung out with a rock musician. His compositional work was amazing. Paul was the first person who taught me that music could be art.” Gill started taking music more seriously and eventually worked for the UCSB dance department, improvising music for modern dance and playing piano six hours a day.
He met his wife, Jessica Scheeter, at UCSB in 1998 while hackie-sacking during a friend’s party. When they met again after an Earth Day concert, they talked about past lives and then kissed, but he didn’t call her right away. Then one day, he was walking from Campus Point toward Sands Beach, and ran into her at Devereux. “Destiny is a fickle friend when you start playing that game,” said Gill. “Jessica and I are soulmates. We’re meant to be together.”
Upon graduation, they moved back to the Bay Area, where Gill played for dance studios and musical theaters while focusing on his band, which had become known as the Animal Liberation Orchestra, later shortened to ALO.
They had Jaden in 2000, and decided to return to Santa Barbara, where Scheeter became executive director of the alternative transportation organization COAST. Gill went back to playing for the UCSB dance department and became a substitute teacher while playing around the jam band scene with ALO, which also included drummer Dave Brogan, on brief tours.
“I was busy with family life,” admitted Gill. “I was losing the dream. I was starting to get scared.”
Then, in November 2002, Jack Johnson asked him to play accordion at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. Johnson also became an honorary ALO member, cutting some tracks with his old college buddies, including the beloved Isla Vista groove “Girl I Wanna Lay You Down.” The future started to look brighter.
“We went crazy, bought an RV, booked a tour for six weeks,” exclaimed Gill. The drives were so long, cold, and treacherous, and the shows were so meagerly attended, they started to call it the “The Spiritual Death Tour” as a joke. They hit ice and rolled a van in Wyoming on the way to Salt Lake City.
Two weeks later, they released the album Fly Between Falls on Johnson’s Brushfire Records. In 2004, Johnson invited Gill to play with him on Saturday Night Live, and then ALO was asked to be an opening band in Johnson’s In Between Dreams tour. After that, everything changed.
“Once you define yourself as a musician, you rivet yourself into delivering something that you think of musical worth,” explained Gill. “I’m a lot of different things, but if I met you on a plane, I’d tell you I’m a musician. Once you consider pop music as art, it’s a deep rabbit hole. You can become self-conscious. There’s so much stuff to hear, to discover. I’m a rabbit-hole kind of guy.”
Jam Session #3: January 13, 2020
Despite the cold winter air, we sit in Zach’s yard again as Jessica picks up Ellie from school. Our conversation picks up where it left off.
“Family life really helped me,” explained Gill. “It helped to be a dad. It grounded me. It kept me from going down the music business clichés. On the road, there are two types of musicians: Some are pirates, some are soldiers,” he said with a laugh. “I thought when I became a dad that the music thing would go away. I was in a forest, and I didn’t know where I was going. I held on to my daughter Jaden’s hand. It made my music much richer.”
Our conversation turns to ALO, and I ask how they deal with his solo albums. “They’ve been nothing but supportive,” said Gill, whose bandmates frequently pursue their own projects. “We’ve grown into allowing people to lead. If there’s enough love, that’s where you arrive.”
Their 14th annual Tour D’Amour was set to roll from the West Coast, from Seattle to San Diego, then on to Colorado and the East Coast. The first show was at SOhO in Santa Barbara on February 14 — the tour is Valentine’s Day–themed — followed by a show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles the next day.
But then, Gill later tells me, he got sick with respiratory issues and lost his voice for a while. They had a big gig at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on March 7, which would be the first time they played the historic venue. Gill pushed on, happy to hear that Woodstock legend Wavy Gravy would be in the crowd. “It felt like a blessing,” said Gill. “They were all great shows,” he said of the start of the 2020 tour, “the best the band has ever felt or sounded.” Soon they learned that all of the remaining dates would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gill is in a great mood as our January conversation ends. “I just want to do more of it,” he said. “I’d like to keep creating forever.”
Zoom Session: July 25, 2020
More than four months into the pandemic lockdown, I ask Zach how he’s doing.
“There’s a difference between a hole and a portal,” he said. “When COVID first started, I noticed people sinking into a hole. I tried to turn it into a portal of wisdom and knowledge. This situation we’re in is capable of making you feel purposeless. My family and I have had some moments of instability, and some wonderful moments, like cooking together. If you don’t find light from within yourself, you find it in others.”
He sees that in his two daughters. “They’re sometimes falling into the hole, and I pull them out,” he said. “And vice versa. They pull me out.”
He reveals that he’s been finishing an album called Cocktail Yoga, which will come out in September on Brushfire Records. “It’s different than anything I’ve released before,” he confided. “It’s mostly instrumental — music for unwinding.”
The tracks are long, about six minutes each, and feature nature sounds that add texture. To me, it sounds like that “space-age bachelor-pad music” made famous by Mexican legend Esquivel!
“I thought it was important to get away from the land of opinion; there are so many words, so much opinion being given,” he explained. “It’s not meditation music. Each song is a portal. You don’t have to think about it. You just have to feel it.”
What effect will the pandemic have on songwriters and musicians like him? “We are going to see this boom from musicians now,” he proclaimed with confidence. “Creative people get creative.”
Suddenly, Gill remembers another detail from that New Year’s Eve party when he drew the apocalypse card. His daughter Ellie drew an egg card, which corresponded to her initials: Ellie Grace Gill.
“This is the year of the egg,” said Gill, putting a positive spin on 2020. “As a collective species, we’re birthing something great. We’re now tending to it. At some point, we will emerge from this egg we’re in, and it’s going to be beautiful.”