Zach Gill Shares His Stuff
Zach Gill has been playing with ALO since he was a pre-teen, but it is only been recently that the Bay Area keyboardist has truly reached a national audience. After many years as primarily a West Coast club attraction, ALO broke through with 2005’s Fly Between Falls and last year’s infectious follow up Roses & Clover, both of which offered a jam, pop, folk and other breezy California sounds. Since then ALO has performed on each and every inhabited continent, shared the stage with members of the Grateful Dead and Phish and primarily moved from bars to marquee clubs and theaters throughout the country. Gill has also earned a permanent seat in his college pal Jack Johnson’s band and made himself a visible presence at international events like Live Earth. Somewhere in there, he also found time to record his first solo album, which features appearances by Johnson, ALO’s Steve Adams and an assortment of other familiar faces. Below Gill discuss his creative process, a recent jam session with Trey Anastasio and how Zach Gill’s Stuff started with a psychedelic experience.
MG- Let’s start my talking about your solo album Zach Gill’s Stuff. When did you start working on the material featured on the album? Were some of these songs you intended for ALO, but which never really fit with the band?
ZG- I am just kind of constantly working on songs. So some of them date back ten years and some are pretty recent. I’ve had the seeds for a solo album for a while, but now was just the right time. I have to say, now that I have done a solo album it was really fun, but I never realized how much I wanted to do it. It is almost as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
MG- I know you played a few solo shows earlier this year and that you have been playing “Family” with Jack Johnson, but how many of these songs did you play live before working on Stuff?
ZG- A lot of them I actually still haven’t played live. “Beautiful Reason” has been around for a while and ALO played bits of it before. Also, there was another song called “Stereo Crickets” that was kind of in the ALO repertoire for a while, but that song didn’t make it on the album.
MG- For readers who maybe haven’t heard Stuff yet or haven’t given it a full listen, how would you say this album differs sonically from an ALO album?
ZG- Well, certainly it is more of a singer/songwriter album, though there are some instrumental moments. It is also really keyboard heavy while ALO has a big focus on guitar. There is actually very little guitar on the albumthere is only one song with some acoustic guitar on it. So sonically that is the difference. Also, for me, it was such a different process. I suppose at the end of the day I am singing on this and with ALO a lot so they are going to have a lot of the same flavors.
MG- In certain ways it also felt like a continuation of ALO’s latter work which has a similar breezy, California feel beach vibe.
ZG- I suppose that’s true, yeah. I think with ALO there has been a little bit of a conflict over the years over songwriting and how to collaborate in the best ways. I think with that last Roses & Clover album the moments that were sort of the favorites of all four members weren’t the songs that one of us brought in, they were the songs we all kind of did together. But, if that is the direction ALO is going to go in then we all started to think, “What do I do with my songs?” So a solo album is a great outlet for that.
MG- Moving back to your solo album, can you walk us through your recording sessions?
ZG- Yeah, it was all in one big session. I just set aside a couple of weeks to do this and let that shape the songs. It was nice too. In an ALO session we usually start by laying the bass or drums down first or laying down the entire band first, where this started mainly with piano or vocals and we built things around that.
MG- You also brought in a number of familiar faces, including Jack Johnson and ALO’s Steve Adams
ZG- Jack’s been a big fan of ALO and my solo stuff, so he was there in the very beginning with me and the first thing we recorded was “Family.” We kind of did that together. Then he took off and Adam Topol [the drummer] from Jack’s band came in. He lives in L.A. and we have been having a great time playing together, so it seemed natural to bring him in. Steve was also down in Southern California for a bit as well, so we brought him in for a few songs. We just wanted to keep it easy with people I’ve worked with before. Since I knew it was a two week period and didn’t want people waiting around, I took the approach like, “Whoever is around, I’ll make the phone call.” But everyone was supportive of the project. I hoped to get all the ALO guys on the album in different ways, but it didn’t work out with the timing.
MG- In certain ways, it must have been nice to have a few weeks to really dig into these songs and shape your album.
ZG- Yeah, recording an album can kind of go on forever and at some point it almost turns around on itself. You can be a year into it and realize you want to redo the entire thing. So it is nice to have some sort of deadline you’re shooting for. Otherwise you hear about someone like Axl Rose who has been recording his album forever [laughter]. You record a song that is just you and a piano and six months later you are like, “Let’s put all this stuff on it” and then six months after that you are like, “Let’s take this stuff off again.”
So I kind of like just going in for two weeks to record and then going in for another two weeks to change some things and have a little reflection. You are always improvising in any situation, just making up ideas, so it nice to set some sort of time limit.
MG- I feel the same way around writing. You can always tweak and article or wish you could change something at the last minute.
ZG- In an ALO situation you already have a band, so you know the band will kind of dictate how the record sounds. But with this it was nice to record something and then bring in a female singer or something if it sounds right. I kind of felt like by the end of process I was finally getting it and could do whatever I wanted. When I listened to the record it felt very fresh to melike the ice about to melt. I had been putting it off for so long and had his whole back catalogue that I needed to put this out to out before I can move onto other things.
MG- I know you are busy with both ALO and Jack Johnson’s band, but do you plan to tour behind this album?
ZG- I have been doing a few radio interviews where I just play solo piano, accordion and a little ukulele. It is oddI have only done a few solo gigs in my life since I have been in [ALO] since I was 12. So that has been really fun to too to not have to worry about a setlist and just let the stage and the audience guide me. I am going a few dates with Mason Jennings and think I might go for a “completely solo” show with maybe a slideshow too. It will be good thoughthat’s part of the fun.
MG- Obviously the theme for a song like “Family” is pretty apparent, but do you see any other threads tying Stuff together?
ZG- The album begins with a song that is about a psychedelic experience I had in college around maybe ’98. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it sort of set my path for what was to come for the next ten years in that moment. I was just finishing college and had just met the woman who would become my wife, and we just had this amazing trip down to the beach. It is the beach right where I live now, amazing. I had left Santa Barbara [where we went to school], moved to the Bay Area and, soon enough, I had a kid and was teaching and in all these musicals and figured that the idea of touring had sort of fallen apart. But then it didn’t and I bought this old RV and the ALO touring thing and the Jack thing happened. But it all kind of began there in ’98. From there the album sort of explores all these themes about family and growing up and watching other people grow up. I kind of feel like it began therewith that experience.
There is also this instrumental called which is “Lizard’s Bridge.” It is about this bridge that takes you to that same beach, so that is sort of the gateway for me. Part of the album is trying to figure out who I amthere is a part of me who is grown up and a part me who is not grown up, so the album was sort of a process of looking at myself from the outside. That’s also where the title Zach Gill’s Stuff came fromas if I was an anthropologist looking inside my own head.
MG- That’s an interesting concept and one very suited for a solo album.
ZG- I am sort to wonder if the entire singer/songwriter genre is largely about both building up your ego and indulging it, but you end of examining it either way. A band process can be like that too, but bands are so different forces and personalities combined. It is almost like a moving soccer game [laughter].
MG- Right, a band process is almost an opposite process of trying to mesh all these personalities into one idea.
ZG- I suppose it might even be a Buddhism verses Christianity thing. A band is kind of like a wide spectrum coming into a single point, where a solo project is kind of like a single point coming out into all these other directions. The process is still going on for meI read this one review that says, Don’t Touch My Stuff’ is this amazing exploration of a relationship and married life” and I was like “Wow, I never thought about that” [laughter], but maybe it is. I don’t know.
MG- In remember a fiction professor in college once told me that if someone can take an idea from your writing then it is in your work on some level.
ZG- I think that is very true. I have been reading Carl Jung’s autobiography and he is just all about the different voices in ones head and how they come from different placesthe voice of the unconscious versus the voice of the conscious. Certain other people can trigger them within youit is crazy. Sometimes with a song or lyrics you don’t know what exactly it came from, but if came out of you and felt right it is there. So it is up to other people to kind of reveal those ideas to you. It is the same with you for writing I am sure. But you have to realize that sometimes feedback can be a malfunction [laughter].
MG- Looking ahead, what is your plan for the fall? Are you going to tour behind Stuff more extensively?
ZG- My plan is to go out this fall with Mason and do a few ALO gigs out in California. Then the plan is to start working with ALO on a new album maybe this winter. I am excited about that. We already started recording some stuff and it feels like it is moving in a really cool direction and then maybe some solo touring in the spring and some more ALO touring. I wonder if some of the solo material will be absorbed into the larger ALO thing or if we are all getting the solo things off our chests and will the new ALO album reach a new level of collaboration. We just recorded this Christmas song the other day for this benefit CD and it was a really cool process. It felt like some of the head budding that was going on with the last album may be gone. Part of it was just that people needed to exercise other parts of their mind.
MG- Between your work with Jack and ALO, I think you may have played almost every festival and large-scale event possible [laughter]. This year alone Jack headlined Coachella, Bonnaroo, Virgin, All Points West and Outside Lands, among others. Does any festival stick out for you in particular?
ZG- There were lots of good ones. This was definitely the Year of the Festival. I’m not sure there will be as many next year. Trey sitting in with us at All Points West was a highlight for sure. It was a picturesque spot. I was really thrilled, he was so nice. We share a lot of Phish crew, actually. It is kind of weird, but a lot of our crew has worked for Trey so there is a lot of common ground. Jack and I met him at Bonnaroo a couple of years ago and talked about jamming, but never did until now. We have lots of people sit in, but he was so interesting because he went and introduced himself to each member of the band before he sat in. We were all kind of struck by a how much of gentlemen he was.
Bonnaroo was also a highlight, as it always is. Particularly because I think they got in there when they did and sort of set the benchmark.
MG- Though Bonnaroo has carved out its own identity, it is still rooted in the jamband scene and I think that shows in a positive way.
ZG- I agree. I think what we are going to see is that festivals need to have an identity that almost supersedes the lineup. I think Bonnaroo is great because almost anything can be there as long as there is a certain quality and that quality is really open, but everyone sort of has a sense of what it is. I applaud them for taking a chance on a Kanye because it could have been really awesome. But you can’t just have a big football field and have it become much of an event. Plus, camping festivals always take on a different feel. When you commit to living to a space for a time there is a certain energy people are there sort of start to feel like your family.
_Mike Greenhaus over analyzes his life as well at www.greenhauseffect.com