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Published: 2013/04/19
by Dean Budnick

ALO Still Sounds Like This

You mentioned Mark Karan earlier. How did you connect with him?

With Mark it was a good Bay Area moment actually, with SEVA, Wavy Gravy’s foundation. It was an event they were doing a few years ago at the Great American [Music Hall]. It was a bunch of musicians and Mark was on it there. Those things are kind of fun when you’ve got so many musicians hanging out throughout the day, between sound check and different people coming on and off stage and hanging out back stage and stuff, and we just realized that we had a lot of similar interests in music and had a fun time playing together.

So from that, we didn’t see each other a lot because we were just all so busy, but then Greg Anton, the drummer from Zero, got offered to put a band together for the Oregon Country Fair. This was two years ago. So he called Mark who he’s friends with and I knew Greg too a little bit, and they gave me a call and said, “Do you want to come up to Oregon and do this crazy gig in the forest up there?” It sounded fun. So we got together, rehearsed, sort of put a set together and that’s where that band Rock Collection was born out of. And again, everyone’s schedules are busy but we’ve been logging in some gigs. This year we’re probably get in six or eight gigs or so.

We all love it, so if there’s a way to do more we’d be into it for sure. Mark’s a blast to play with. He’s fun and we have a nice zone we can get into. A lot of the jam session things can be like, “You take solo, now you take solo, now you take solo,” and I think Mark and I have a good time interweaving the whole thing where it ends up being really organic. We have a lot of different experiences but we have a lot of common experiences too. The common experiences in terms of influences, those are what make it work because that’s the common dialogue, but our differences are what make it interesting.

What was the music you listened to growing up? The formative stuff?

When I was first becoming aware of music—young junior high, late grade school—I really liked all the British stuff. Like the Who was my favorite for sure, but the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, all that stuff was right up my alley. But the Who definitely, when I first got my first guitar, all I listened to was the Who.

Where I kind of grew up, which is in South Bay, closer to Santa Cruz, there was just a lot of classic rock people that were listening to. Some time around eighth grade somebody played the first Van Halen album and that kind of blew my mind. So I spent a few years being into that kind of stuff. But then I sort of came back around to the other stuff and went deeper, and I got really into a lot of blues and jazz for a long time after that and all through college that was pretty much what I was interested in. If you get into jazz you kind of have to go deep into it. The typical path, I’ve talked to a lot of friends, is where you kind of stop listening to anything else. Going really into that and I definitely enjoyed it for a long time.

When I moved back up the Bay Area I started just really appreciating songs, anywhere from Neil Young to Bill Withers. But there was also a jam aesthetic: take the song for a little walk and explore it for a little while. That’s the jazz influence on it, which is why I feel really at home in the scene which is really supportive of that. People love to listen to the lyrics but they also love to let their minds unwind and see where the music takes them. It all comes around eventually.

In terms of your improvisational ethos, would you say it’s grounded in jazz?

Yeah, for a long time. That and the modern form of the blues where jazz really opens it up more. That for me was the first improvisational stuff I got really into. Ironically, my dad took me to a couple of Grateful Dead shows when I was in junior high. He actually took Zach and me to our first one, so that was kind of a wild experience too. But at the time, as a seventh grader just getting into music, I was more sort of grabbed by the crazy scene at the time then even the music. “Wow, what is this crazy carnival.” So I don’t remember that much music from my first Grateful Dead show. That would have been around 1989 at Shoreline. Brent was definitely playing in the band but that first show was the only time I saw him there. I was so enamored by the scene, I spent my time just wandering around the lawn, starring at the twirling people, smelling all these new smells.

When you’re seeing something in a new way, with child’s eyes, it’s such a powerful thing and I feel like that shapes so much of the way we see everything. I’m always trying to remind myself of that, to keep my child’s eyes on, because it’s so easy to—I feel like we want to organize everything in our minds but then as we get all these experiences down it’s so easy to put them into categories of experience. I like the idea of trying to keep it open but it’s a battle to do that a lot of the time. Even with bands it’s like that sounds like that, or a mixture of this, whereas my child ears or eyes, my ears will just hear this music as just music. And I love that sense. And that’s why for me I try to listen to a bunch of new stuff.

When I first moved back to the Bay Area, when I was listening mostly to jazz, I was listening to a lot of old stuff, kind of stopping in the late 70s. For a number of years I kind of went that way and occasionally would listen to something new, but as I started opening my mind to the new music that was happening it was such a revelation. Especially for someone that was trying to create music, I just find it really inspiring now to listen to as much new music as I can, just to be open and checking out new bands, because there’s so much cool stuff happening. It’s crazy where with Spotify, you could literally stop at 1975 and have more music than you could ever need. I can see why people say, “Who needs the new stuff?” But there’s so much cool new stuff happening, new combinations, it’s great, you know?

I always like to hear musicians who know their jazz make recommendations for our readers who haven’t listened to very much but might want to start dipping in their toes. What would you recommend?

I feel like Bird, Charlie Parker, is such a complete experience. Especially for someone who’s not sure about jazz, I feel like he’s so great because he’s got such character in his playing. It’s so heavy and so light at the same time, whereas Coltrane you have to be more into the commitment of what you’re going to get with his brooding thing. But I feel for someone who’s just checking it out, Charlie Parker is a great place to go, because the depth of what’s going on is so deep but there’s a certain lightness and a certain sing-ability to it that just keeps it floating along. And there are so many good albums. With him it was a short life but just a constant state of recording throughout his whole short life. I feel like he’s a great artist to go to.

I always liked and still do like checking out horn players over just guitar players. I think with anyone it’s important to look just beyond your instrument for inspiration. At least for me it’s important, because on your instrument you start to do idioms and it’s so cool to take influences from another instrument because it takes you out of the idioms and more into the feel. And maybe you get some idioms off of that instrument that actually translate to your own and suddenly, you can’t do it the same way, so it becomes a new idiom or your own interpretation of it.

For me though, I started more with the guitar players, like Wes Montgomery, those things sort of sucked me in initially. Charlie Christian was one who I used to listen to a lot. With Wes there was this album that was the go to for me for many, many years and what I really liked about it—and this is one of the things with jazz albums that’s so cool, is the band is so important, because there’s so much jazz expression going on. So with Wes there’s a live album he did at the Half Note in New York [ Smokin’ at the Half Note with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb] and it’s just perfect, everything that they do. If someone likes guitar and jazz, I would say that one would be the one. It’s just great.

That’s a favorite of mine and one that appears on our forthcoming “Relix 40” list of top improv-fueled live albums. Jumping back to ALO, can you talk a little bit about your Hot Tub Club ?

For us, being a band for so long, we have a ton of material in the vault. Whenever we go into the studio, whenever we work on an album, there’s always a bunch of other tracks. We tend to start our recording process by laying lots of stuff down and there are also times when we have some time off of the road and just pop into the studio for a day. So we end up with all this stuff and we would play it for friends and people seemed to really like it and it resonated with some people more than the albums at times in the sense of what we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation.

So we have all this stuff, and basically our connection with people is to tour and through our albums which at this point come out every two years. So we thought it’d be nice to have an additional way to connect beyond just going to the live music archive and stuff like that. So we got the idea that we should start a fan club type thing where we can get this material out to the people that would really appreciate it, because it’s not for everyone. It’s not the kind of stuff we want to bring to Brushfire Records and put out. It’s for the people who already like our stuff, it’s a way for them to go deeper. It’s been fun and the way we’ve been doing it, people subscribe and they get a package right away, a poster and some specific stuff, but every quarter a different band member curates. So I just curated this last one that came out and it’s fun because it’s an opportunity for each band member to say, “This is what I want to put out there from the vault.”

One of the things I went for with this quarter—I feel like ALO has this quirky side that comes out live not even all the time, but it’s a side of the band that I really like. So I grabbed a few tunes that we’ve never released. Some are tunes we’ve done live, but these are studio versions that haven’t been released of songs that I thought displayed that more quirky side of things. It’s really fun to put these tunes out there. We’ll also release a show that has some sort of meaning to us, and in this case I had a show we did in Chattanooga earlier this year- one of those shows where the setlist was real off the cuff, with funny banter, just the scene that fit with the quirky side of the band.

How often will you work from a setlist?

I’d say most often we make a different setlist each night, it’s part of our centering process. Someone will just take a crack at it and get it going and then we’ll all just hash out the fine points of it. But, we’re also very open, and we made this decision many years ago when the band was starting, not to be married to the setlist. If something starts emerging in the tune we’ll go for it. If someone has an idea in the middle, we’re all very open to that. We know it’s nothing in stone, but it’s a nice guide to have.

I especially find at festival type sets and stuff where you’ve got one sixty or seventy-five minute set, you need to have a road map, but even with those we veer off the set list. We’re happy to do so and it’s usually a good time when that’s happening, it means that we’re in the moment. But we have the full range. We used to never make setlists when the band was first starting and we first moved back to San Francisco: no set lists and a lot of our songs didn’t even have endings. We would just start playing and they would blend into each other. Then we had this thing where we’d just go around in a circle and take turns calling tunes. That was fun for a while, whatever you were feeling in that moment. When that is on it’s killer but when it’s not and you’re saying “Uhhhh…I don’t know,” forget it. So now we’ve got our setlist but we don’t stick to it. But this night, that I put on in Chattanooga was cool, because it was a Sunday or Monday night, a last minute added show and we’d been going strong many nights in a row already, so it was one of those nights where we just set up and were like, “Let’s go play some music, we’ll start with this…” and it all flowed out so nicely.

Last question. You’re touring with Ryan Montbleau this month. How familiar are you with him and what can people expect?

We’re stoked, stoked to play with him. We’ve known him for a few years now. I think I first met him at High Sierra and we crossed paths at a lot of festivals and just hung out, but we’ve never played any shows together. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, for a year, a year and a half probably, just batting it around. We were at Gathering of the Vibes this year; we were both at that festival and we hung out for a while backstage, and we were just like, “We have to find a way to make this happen, we’ve been talking about this for way too long.” So then these dates sort of emerged and our managers got to talking together and they worked the whole thing out.
I love doing stuff like this, where we get to tour with a band. In general, with ALO, it’s going to be fun because it’s a co-bill tour, but even with headlining tours, I really like it when we have a certain band that’s touring with us. We really like to bring openers with us, or in this case a co-bill. When it’s just a different opener each night, that’s fine but you miss out on something. You don’t get to build the camaraderie with a band, and for us, when you get to do a string of dates you create something that’s there forever. This tour we just did with the California Honeydrops, it was about five weeks with some nights off and we ended up with a lot of tunes together. By the end we were sitting in with them, they were sitting in with us and you never know where that’s going to pop out. I love building those kinds of relationships and a lot of times that’s what leads to interesting side projects and new things.

What’s cool with Ryan is people have always been saying you should do shows together and now we have an opportunity to do it, so it’ll be cool to see what comes from it. You never know, it could be a lifelong hang and collaboration.

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