The Campfire Vibe: Zach Gill and the ALO / Jack Jackson Tour
After half a lifetime of dedication, the fruits of Zach Gill’s labor are finally ripe for the picking. The keyboardist/vocalist/ukulele player is seeing the popularity of his band, Animal Liberation Orchestra [ALO], continue to skyrocket. The soulful, funky rock quartet have had quite a summer on the festival circuit blazing a trail through Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, High Sierra and 10,000 Lakes. On August 1st they officially entered the big leagues launching a 35-date U.S. Summer Tour opening for superstar Jack Johnson. ALO have gracefully leaped from small clubs to places like Red Rocks, The Gorge and Central Park virtually overnight. As if all that weren’t exciting enough, Gill has been welcomed as a new member of Jack Johnson’s band. Reports from the tour indicate his presence has made a tremendously positive impression on the music and overall energy.
As I arrive for the interview, any thoughts I may have had of formality were erased immediately upon walking into his Santa Barbara home to find Zach sprawled on the living room floor with his five year old daughter Jaden. He especially savors this quiet time at home as it gets more few and far between.
TB- Your connection with Jack Johnson seems to be a catalyst for a lot of the good things happening for you and ALO. How did this friendship develop?
ZG- It began in college when we started playing music together around the dorms. Once we moved into Isla Vista the small college town where UCSB is located we used to jam together a lot. In the beginning we had rival bands. ALO was Django and he was in a band called Soil. Then his band broke up and we just jammed together all the time.He used to sit in with ALO in the early days if he was in town and we would do a “tweener” set where he would come and play his songs. Then we moved up to the Bay Area which was around the time he was doing a lot of surf filming. He started to put his band together and get pretty popular on his own and before anyone knew it he was huge.
Jack has always been a fan of ALO and a friend. We used to talk all of the time on the phone when things were kind of blowing up for him. Then he started inviting me out to play accordion with them on “Girl I want to Lay You Down,” which was always one of his favorites. We did that once at the Fillmore. It was really fun and totally rocked the Fillmore. Shortly after he had me come out and do it at the Greek Theater which was also really fun. Then he was like, “Well, if you’re going to be down in Santa Barbara then why don’t you do the Santa Barbara Bowl.” Then that was really fun and after that he was like, “Why don’t you come out to New York and Boston?” So that’s kind of how it began.
Then he was in the studio working on his next album and he’s only got the bass, drums and guitar so he thought, “Maybe it’d be fun to add some acoustic piano.” So he just called me up and I played a little bit on the album. When the album was done we started rehearsing. Originally I was just going to play in Australia and the US but then it was so much fun I ended up going to Europe. So now I think I’m kind of in the band. It’s pretty optimal right now because he’s taking ALO out and he knows he doesn’t want to take me away from ALO because he’s super supportive of that too. So that’s kind of the story.
TB- You have already played quite a few shows this year as a member of Jack’s band. You looked really confident performing on Saturday Night Live. What was that like?
ZG- It was very fun. It was a little nervewracking though. Jack was sick so he was worried about even being able to sing, so that was a little worrisome. But it was a blast. It was so fun. I almost couldn’t even believe it was happening. I finally saw it on TV in Minnesota at the hotel room just flipping through the channels and it came on. I was totally surprised. I didn’t get to see the second song, I only got to see the first song. So I haven’t seen that yet.
TB- You hadn’t watched it!
ZG- I hadn’t watched it but I had an idea. I watched the dress rehearsal so I had an idea of how it would look. And also it’s weird to see yourself or just different things you know?
TB- Your first major tour with Jack went through Australia and New Zealand. How different is it playing over there?
ZG- Those were my first experiences playing to such large audiences so that was pretty amazing at first. Sydney was like 20, 000 people and it was really neat to see how differently they respond. The Australians really get pumped up and they have their hands in the air really enthusiastic, you know. It was very cool. It was definitely a neat experience just finding my way in the band.
As a member of the band it’s been really nice not to have a lot of pressure and not be the frontman and not be the main singer and just kind of experiment a lot and feel the crowd’s energy. So I’m really just grateful for the opportunity to have done that and go into this summer with ALO where there will be a little more focus on me. It’s easy because Jack’s so popular and he’s so confident and people are just so excited to see him and hear him. It’s been nice to just be the guy supporting him in the background and not have anything to worry about. [Chuckles]
TB- What kind of role have you carved out for yourself in Jack’s band?
ZG- In the beginning it was all about learning their repertoire and figuring out the best way to add piano to it. Jack’s universe is very defined in that he likes rootsy acoustic tones. He doesn’t want fancy keyboard sounds. He likes things to be mellow.
There’s also the element that he’s been touring around as a trio for all these years and there’s a lot of fans who are really into the fact that he’s so stripped down. It would like the White Stripes if they suddenly added a bass player. I think a lot of their fans would be like, “Huh, that’s kind of weird.” Unless of course the bass player was really respectful of that fact. I think if it turns out to be really good musically then everybody’s happy. So I’ve just tried to be real respectful. I’m not trying to add too much to any of the old songs so people who are in love with those songs aren’t going to be like, “Ah man, they put piano all over it.”
It’s been really fun singing with Jack too. He’s a great singer and he’s got such a different voice than mine. He can sing really high and really softly. My voice is loud. It’s been really cool to learn to blend and harmonize with somebody and I feel like its made me a better musician overall.
TB- Jack’s music is known for being very simple and straightforward. Do you find yourself asserting any sort of improvisational influence on the band?
ZG- Well, hmm. For me I almost get to improvise constantly because there aren’t a lot of set parts. A lot of my whole trip with it involves making up piano parts. Every night I suppose my parts change a little bit depending on how I’m feeling which has been a pretty neat thing.I think the fact that they’re going to have a jamband as their opener has opened up a whole realm of possibilities. Now they have somebody who can take a few solos, and I do take a few solos a night, so I’ve already asserted that space. His music isn’t jammy but I’ve been trying to figure what makes it jamband friendly. He’s on the cover of Relix and he plays Bonnaroo and Jazz Fest, a lot of these things that tend to be reserved for more jam-related bands. Yet I wouldn’t say he really jams himself. I think it’s cause he has this Hendrix-like quality to the way he plays guitar and he’s open to it. He was kind of into Phish in college and he’s going to always have that a little bit. I guess I’m maybe bringing that element and putting a little more emphasis on it.
I think a lot of influence comes from Merlo, his bass player. He’s like a hip-hop guy so he’s got that aesthetic and I think that’s really where his heart lies. Although he’s well-versed in classic rock and has played in all sorts of outfits like that, his instincts go toward hip hop. So maybe that’s had some sort of indirect effect on the non-jaminess of Jack’s band. Now maybe it’s opening a little more to that. Just a little bit though.
TB- A lot of it is that campfire vibe. That’s a whole improvisational realm in itself.
ZG- Huge campfire vibe. Jack’s a great improviser in a whole different way. We used to sit around and be jamming on the blues and playing a simple progression and we would just make up lyrics to it. He would always come up with rad lyrics on the spot. I think maybe that’s where his improv skills excel. And when he sits in with ALO he goes there.
TB- As for ALO, one thing that makes you guys very unique is the high level of involvement your fans take in transforming your shows into extra special events complete with themes, decorations and costumes. What’s your perspective on this phenomenon?
ZG- I’m so into it. I can’t believe it really but I think it’s such a neat thing. I’ve been realizing more and more what an important part it is to the ALO experience, so trying to find ways of fostering it and trying to find ways for the fans to know how much we care and respect them and also trying to come up with ways of rewarding fans. If people are coming to lots of shows and they’re helping out in all these ways I want to somehow find ways to reward them.
TB- Although they would probably say that ALO’s already contributing its share from the stage.
ZG- Yeah, but I’m really excited about that aspect of the band and I want to find more ways..The whole reason you’re in a band is to connect with people and I love how people want us to play at their weddings and we foster that kind of feeling. I want to be a conduit for community. I want people to come to our shows and meet other like-minded people. I want to foster great nurturing relationships. That’s my biggest hope. The scariest thing is to think of it growing too fast or in ways we can’t control and having it not always feel like that for the people who have been there with us since the beginning. It’s always just trying to analyze the sociological impacts of the band and the community and trying to nurture that.
It also can get scary too seeing what happened with the whole Phish thing. Like how hurt people can feel when a band takes a hiatus. Creating open lines of communication is so important and just trying to be up front about everything and trying to foster a healthy relationship. I love that aspect of it. I think it’s so cool. That’s why High Sierra brought me to tears. I feel like our band’s success is everybody’s success. Obviously we’re the ones onstage but that’s the way it feels to me. When I think about it there’s all these people who have been behind us with their input and the fact that they show up again and again gives us incentive to think, “Wow, we could actually do this for a living. This could actually be our job.” I intend not to disrespect that in any way.