Roses, Clover and Chakras: A Conversation with ALOs Steve Adams
With a new studio album, Roses & Clover, hitting stores May 1, Animal Liberation Orchestra finds itself inspired, fresh and ready to hit the road. Bassist Steve Adams gives a unique insight into the origins of the band, the process behind the new album, and delves into his unique interpretation of musical chakras. Hailing from the Bay Area, ALO is a quartet consisting of Zach Gill (keys), Dan Lebowitz (guitar), Dave Brogan (drums) and Steve Adams (bass), with a laid back fun West Coast vibe. Playing with various musicians ranging form Jack Johnson to Brett Dennen, ALO has garnered a loyal following of fun loving freaks from coast to coast and a loyal companion, Travoltordo.
JH: For the sake of historical accuracy, can you talk about how, when, and where ALO came to fruition?
SA: For historical purposes the band formed in Santa Barbara in 1998. That’s when we took the name of the band. Three of us, myself, Zach, and Dan had been playing music ever since junior high together. We went to the same high school as Trevor Garrod from Tea Leaf Green. Zach and Dan and I played in a band and we had all these different names.
During our last year of college (UCSB) our jazz band director approached us and was like, “Hey! I noticed you guys are in bands right now would you want to do a band with me?” We were totally stoked by the idea. We had always been really impressed by his playing and it was really cool to try out a project with him. We said yes and he offered to bring in five horn players and do all of the horn arranging. We worked out a whole bunch of music with him and the nine piece band and that was the beginning. We called it the Animal Liberation Orchestra and the Free Range Horns and it was kind of like a reaction to all of the university ensembles we had been in. We had been the jazz band and the middle east ensemble and I was in the symphony for a minute and the gospel choir.
JH: Where did you come up with the name Animal Liberation Orchestra?
SA: We had wanted to have our own orchestra that could be turned upside down and limitless. I guess that’s where the Animal Liberation theme came in. We wanted no boundaries, we wanted people to come and let the audience have no boundaries also. We would go in-between country and jazz and reggae and funk. The music was boundary-less and the general spirit was boundary-less. We’d free the horns players on stage. We’d shackle them and then free them. We had all kinds of crazy props on stage. It was crazy and cool and kind of end of college confidence.
Once we graduated and moved back up to the Bay Area we left our jazz band director and all the horns players and started looking for a replacement drummer. Once we started the band back up in San Francisco we realized we wanted to pound that down a little bit and focus on the writing and jamming. We had our second drummer in ALO by the beginning of 99. It turns out the drummer that is now in the band [Dave Brogan] was also in Santa Barbara at the same time. He had a band and we looked up to him a lot. We actually played with him before ALO even started.
We picked up Dave for about a year and then he left and moved to Seattle. Eventually we came back to Dave after several drummers so it was kind of like full circle. He settled into the band in 2002. We had a tour booked and we didn’t have a drummer. We called up Dave who was in Seattle and we picked him up in Portland, Oregon.
We had an opening slot for Jack Johnson at the Fillmore in Denver which was also like our reconnection to Jack because we went to college with him in Santa Barbara. We played his wedding and we’d been good friends with him for all of college. Once his album Brushfire Fairytales started doing well we didn’t really talk to him for about a whole year (laughs). Then he called us and was like “Our opener cancelled on us at the Fillmore in Denver. Do you want to open one of the nights?” We said yes and we didn’t even know if we were gonna have a drummer or not. So we called up Dave and ended up booking a tour from Denver back to Colorado.
JH: When did you learn how to play bass?
SA: I learned how to play bass, well I’m still learning, but I got my first bass when I was thirteen. I got it because I saw Zach come in with a drummer and a keyboard player at our seventh grade talent show. I was like, “Man, that’s rad!” I noticed they didn’t have a bass player and I was starting to realize what a band consisted of and a bass player was one of those things. I was like, “I should get a bass and join the band.” When you’re thirteen you don’t think about it too much you just do what you’re thinking. So I didn’t think about the fact that there may be an audition or whatever. I just went and got the bass and I told Zach, “Hey you need a bass player and I just bought a bass!”
JH: Who are your musical influences? Favorite bassist?
SA: I have a lot of favorite bass players. I always say Chris Wood is one of my favorite bass players because I love the fact that he doubles on the upright and electric. A lot of players do that but he does it really well. I love his upright playing I also play upright bass. I picked it up in college. I love his electric playing, sometimes he plays and old Beatles bass, sometimes he plays a P-bass [Fender Precision Bass]. I’m pretty married to my P-Bass it’s pretty much the only thing I play and I always like watching P-bass players. I also like Reed Mathis a lot. I would think Reed would say Chris was an influence on him too. I think he’s (Reed) is awesome. He’s a great expression player and sounds like Jimmy Hendrix sometimes. Of course, I also like Charles Mingus and James Jamerson and Donald “Duck” Dunn.
JH: Since most of ALO’s songs are highly composed and lyrical, what do you think about onstage when you are playing? What do you try to accomplish through your sound and playing?
SA: When I’m playing my bass.It’s interesting, I had a massage yesterday. It was an alright massage, it wasn’t great, like I was thinking about the massage and I was like, “Dan and Zach can do the same thing they just did.”
He did this thing at the very end where he was pressing on my chakra pointsand I wouldn’t say I know that much about chakra points or what the chakras areI know that there are chakra points and he was pushing on different points and I’m trying to guess what he was pushing on. And I came up with my own idea of what the different points were. I thought the head was the mind, all your thoughts, the throat was your voice and the method of communication. Then it went down to the chest and it was maybe pride or how you think of yourself. Below that was the heart – compassion and thinking. Below that was the stomach I don’t know how many chakra points there are, by the way, I was just kind of guessing when he was pushing on my stomach I was feeling that that was maybe your soul and where you draw your soulful energy. Then it went a little above my groin and maybe that’s your balancing point where your legs meet up, your root. I was giving the points and what I thought they were. When they touched my stomach, my soulful place, I was thinking about when I’m playing and how I really try and reach down into my stomach with my mind and feel and try to make the bass come from that place. Something soulful and pure and full and as meaningful as possible. When I’m playing bass that’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about the process and drawing the energy up from my stomach.
JH: Who writes most of the material?
SA: I’d guess and say Zach writes 40%. Dave writes 25%. And then there’s about 10% that me and Dan contribute at this point and 25% that’s collaborative.
JH: ALO’s first studio album was produced in 1998. Since then, over the past several years you have emerged as a notable artist on the national jamband and festival circuit. How do you feel you fit in with other jambands? Would you consider ALO to be a jamband?
SA: Yeah, totally. I feel we are part of the jamband community. There are points that serve the community, like your website jambands.com or jambase.com. The festival scene has strong roots in the jamband community. The music festivals that we think of like High Sierra, Wakarusa, 10KLF, Jam Cruise all of those have roots in the jam scene. Recently all these festivals are opening their doors and widening the spectrum of the music. That’s the coolest thing about the jamband scene is that there is no defined genre. You take the word jam and attach it to any genre. I feel like the jamband scene in general has moved beyond and opened up to any type of music. And any type of music in a literal context comes from sitting down and jamming. I’m sure that’s where Britney Spears songs come from, someone has to sit down and write a cool riff.
You see the jamband scene as a very open entity. Even Relix has Lucinda Williams on the cover. I wouldn’t consider her to be a jamband artist but I’m sure her music comes from that and she’s connected in some way. There really is no defining genre. I think that people need to realize that it really is a very open scene. I’m stoked to be part of it and other communities as well. I think that the more communities you can be involved in the better.
JH: On Fly Between Falls, you recorded “Girl I Wanna Lay You Down” with Jack Johnson. How is it being on Brushfire Records and working with Jack? Musically, the styles are very similar in your laid back West Coast vibe, however lyrically, ALO seems to be a bit more frivolous and comedic. How did you mesh together?
SA: We mesh pretty well I think. Jack’s got a good sense of humor and he’s actually a really funny guy. I think since his lyrics are a little more serious and more love song lyrics and he also gets into political topics too. ALO does the same thing but just approaches it with a little more humor. Jack likes being around us because it’s fun and lighthearted. I think he appreciates our humor and the fact that it’s not too hidden. Zach’s lyrics are really funny from the first time you hear them. For instance he has a song called “Do You Like My Pecs?” I think he was inspired to write the song when Arnold Schwarzenegger was taking off in California and George Bush was in office and controlling the country and sending people to war and there was all of this machismo. But “Do you like my pecs/I can wiggle the right/I can wiggle the left,” that’s just pretty funny.
JH: How has San Francisco and the Bay Area contributed to your sound? It also still carries that Grateful Dead vibe. Does that ever infiltrate your music?
SA: Yeah, totally. There’s all the things that the Grateful Dead were experiencing when they were making their music just the area in general. They were hanging out down in the peninsula a lot. I think the big picture of the Bay Area influenced their music. I think in a similar way ALO is part of that environment too. Now it’s even more diverse and swimming with different styles. I think the diversity of the Bay Area contributed a lot to the Grateful Dead sound and probably to ours too.
Also, the acid jazz scene influenced us. The acid jazz scene in Southern California is really taking hold. The Greyboy Allstars, Charlie Hunter and all these different Bay Area bands are doing this huge acid jazz thing. That’s a really big influence on us, this kind of danceable, funky, jazzy music. I remember my brother turned me on to the Grateful Dead at one point, and our parents listened to the Dead a bit. I remember seeing some Grateful Dead in high school. Then I realized they’re from the Bay Area and the huge place in history they have here. One of the things that pulled me into the Grateful Dead was knowing that they are from here and were the main part of this thing that I am now a part of.
JH: Let’s talk about the new studio album. What should fans expect? Is it going to be similar to Fly Between Falls? When will it be released? What’s it called?
SA: It comes out May 1 in stores and coming out on iTunes with a free bonus track. “Do You Like My Pecs” might even be an iTunes bonus. It’s going to be released globally through Brushfire Records and Universal. The album is called Roses & Clover. On Fly Between Falls we used our engineer Simon Baker who also engineered this record. We also added Robert Carranza into the mix who has worked with Beck, Ozomatli, Los Lobos, and Jack Johnson. He’s been producing music for a long time and came in and checked on us and made sure everything was going properly. He’s also the guy that did the final mixing and mastering. That was the team, ALO, Simon Baker, and Robert Coranza.
Then we rented this barn in the hills of Santa Barbara and drove up there every day early in the morning and spend the whole day up there tracking. I think the big difference between Roses & Clover and Fly Between Falls is maybe the process in which we recorded it. FBF we did all the basics in like ten days then spent the year nitpicking it and overdubbing and editing and working on the songs and recording them. R&C we recorded almost everything in two and half weeks in the barn.
We didn’t go in totally prepared. We went in with a whole list of songs on the table and just decided what we wanted to do. It kept it really fresh. On this album we have eight new songs and only two songs that we have been playing live. People don’t really know the other songs on this album, and we didn’t even really know the other songs. It was really cool getting to know the material and cutting up the parts in this window of time. We weren’t really thinking about how it’s going to work live, just focusing on making it a good studio production and using the resources we had to make the songs as good as we could. Everything is really inspired and personally exciting. After it was all done we sat back and said, “Wow, man. That’s rad!” We did it in two months and it all sounds good and inspired and fresh. I’m hoping the fans pick up on that and realize that it’s just an inspired experience.
JH: You recently did several tour dates with Brett Dennen. How did you guys hook up? How did the shows go?
SA: Brett and I met at High Sierra in California. ALO heard Brett play a troubadour session and thought he was amazing and was going to be great. Soon enough he was on the same circuit and getting radio play. When he was getting started we knew he was going to be great. We kept the connection with him and I kept in touch with him and he came to Dan (Lebowitz) to play some gigs in California. Dan suggested I play too so I came out and learned both his records in the car on the way to the gig. I didn’t want to make a bad impression on Brett and not know the material and I felt bad, like I was cramming for a high school test.
I got there and we hadn’t really met officially. He was so nice and welcoming. He told me to set up and play and not worry if I didn’t know the songs and to just make something up and play what I was feeling. I was like, “This is going to be sweet!” We just had a good personality connection. He called me up and we did some more dates and an East Coast run. It was the coldest tour we had ever done. But it was an awesome time to be a part of his world and watch him blow up on the tour. On tour we were thinking about doing an ALO/Brett Dennen tour. Now we have this East Coast tour in May with him for a week. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m sure we will do lots of collaborating there too.
JH: Finally, in the realm of your supporters, can you talk a bit about Travoltodo? [Editor’s note: as cribbed from a March 16 Jambands.com news story “During Sunrise, FL’s Langerado Music Festival this past weekend, Travoltordo, “a #2 pencil drawing, affectionately named Travoltordo for its striking resemblance to both John Travolta and Mike Gordon, was stolen from its owner, Jam Cruise 5 President Craig “Lot Dawg” Chaine. The San Francisco-resident first found the drawing in a Joshua Tree, CA diner over two years ago and, has since, collected signatures from such esteemed artists as Marc Brownstein, members of ALO, Lorin Bassnectar, Bill Nershi and Mike Gordon himself”]
SA: Travoltordo has a nice mustache. It’s best to keep a lot of the little things about Travoltordo a secret and keep him mysterious. I don’t know if I’m able to talk about thisTravoltordo is an illustrated character on a page. People are most familiar with him at music festivals. The way he manifests is that he shows up in this framed illustration. There are some freaks who take him around and introduce him to new freaks. He’s got signatures all of over his page and different people and bands sign him. He’s a combination of John Travolta and Mike Gordon he’s the hybrid of the two. He has Mike Gordon’s autograph but doesn’t have John Travolta’s which is a travesty but a challenge. The next step is to get his signature. I wonder what Gordon thought of it
If you know LotDawg (2007 Jam Cruise President) you will probably run into Travoltordo. Both of them have been to many ALO shows. It’s an amazing thing how such a small illustrated thing can carry so much weight and magic. It’s an awesome thing. We’re hoping he will show up to our Cinco de Mayo show at the Fillmore in San Francisco
Author’s Note: If you have any insight regarding the whereabouts of this loyal traveling companion, please do your best to make sure he arrives in San Francisco by May 5, 2007.