Interview: ALO’s Zach Gill

Dean Budnick on October 5, 2017

It’s been nine years since the release of Zach Gill’s previous full-length solo record, Zach Gill’s Stuff, but the lag between albums was not for want of original material. The keyboard player—who balances his touring and recording life with ALO and his commitments to Jack Johnson’s band—explains, “I’m always writing. And, as soon as I made that first solo album, I said to myself: ‘This is a whole different thing than working on band records, and I want to keep doing this’ but life kind of gets in the way or has other plans for you, and it always seemed like it wasn’t the right time. Every once in a while, people would ask me, ‘Hey, when are you going to do another one?’ and I wouldn’t have a good answer. Last year, I suddenly got that feeling that if I didn’t start it, it wasn’t going to happen. But just when I thought I didn’t have any time, I realized that there was some right there on my calendar.

“I had all these songs that were of a personal nature. A lot of them had been around for a while. When ALO makes a record, sometimes the first step is to send each other our songs and talk about which ones feel good. Sometimes the more personal ones end up not being selected because they’re not as indicative of the group mindset, so I had a few of these that had been sitting around and it was like, ‘What happened to that song?’”

On Life in the Multiverse, Gill is joined by two of his steady collaborators: ALO bassist Steve Adams and Jack Johnson drummer Adam Topol, along with a few guests, including Johnson, Nicki Bluhm, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ Stewart Cole and Gill’s daughter Jaden.

Did you select the album title to reflect some of its changing moods?

I’ve come to realize that the first half of the album is pretty extroverted. The tempos are relatively up—there are drum machines, electric guitars, special guests and it’s very much in the world. It’s about people, places and things. Then the second half of the album is more about cerebral feelings that appear in your life and you’re not sure what to do with them, and you just sort of carry on. There are times when I’m writing a song and I know what prompted it—and it’s got lyrics—but I’m not necessarily sure what they mean or where it’s going. For me, a lot of times, the process of writing the song, recording it and listening back to it helped me to transfer a lot of the energy that inspired the song in the first place.

There are songs that come to me conceptually and there are songs that just write themselves, like in a dream. With “Up From Down Below,” my wife came back from this retreat—for a friend’s 40th birthday party, she went to this retreat center near Big Sur on the coast and there was no cellphone reception so we couldn’t contact her. I had both my daughters for the week, and it was the first time I had them for a full week without my wife. She was going to dance this thing called the five rhythms, and she didn’t know anything about it. She doesn’t do stuff like this normally, but she was a tap dancer when she was a little girl, so she knows dance. Anyway, for eight hours a day, they danced the five rhythms of life, and she came back so full of excitement and joy that she wrote each one of us a letter that was really sweet and meaningful. It was a transformative experience. So as she was telling me about this retreat, I wrote that song, but I don’t know if anyone would otherwise understand what [the song] was talking about.

Can you point to a song on the album that’s more conceptual in its origins?

“Joy” definitely began with a concept. I kept hearing the term “guilty pleasures” and I began working backward from that concept. People will sometimes ask me, “What are your guilty pleasures?” in the way that Dave Grohl talks about how he loves ABBA or something and then, other people will realize, “Well, I love ABBA too.” It’s funny, the way we dress—the way we present ourselves—sends out all these signals and then, all of the sudden, people can’t believe Dave Grohl would like ABBA but everybody likes ABBA.

I think we’re in a different era. Back before music was so readily available, people had their share of guilty pleasures. But now, we’re actually in an era of “guilty displeasures,” where we’re ashamed to admit we don’t like the cool or quirky music that everyone else likes. Now the thing that can really embarrass us is not what we like; it’s what we don’t like or don’t appreciate.

You’re totally right. Unless you’re from that era—I was always tripped out by the Deadheads who hated Shakedown Street. That’s the age we’re at, where we’re supposed to be culturally openminded, and then something doesn’t work for you musically, but you know it’s supposed to, and you’re like, “Why am I not hearing it?” South Park captured it best when they did that whole thing where the adults complained that everything’s sounding like shit because, literally, when the adults put on the headphones, they only hear shit sounds, and the kids hear something different. And then one kid gets old enough and everything starts to sound like shit, and they’re like, “You’ve become a cynical bastard!”

Going back to your original point in the song, as you look back, what are some of those guilty pleasures you experienced?

The first thing that I was into when I was like a little kid was Kenny Rogers. And then I remember I had a babysitter who was really into Duran Duran, and she made some sort of “Kenny Rogers?” remark and then I was like, “OK, Kenny Rogers—not cool. Duran Duran—cool.” Then I got into Duran Duran for a second, but I was still pretty young. The thing I remember really getting into was Huey Lewis and the News and thinking they were great. I went to their concert in fourth grade, and then, somewhere in junior high, it was Pink Floyd and things got a little darker. Looking back, I think part of it was trying to be edgy when you’re discovering stuff and, all of the sudden, either someone says something to you or you see other kids somewhere that look different, and you sort of adopt a new thing.

The thing that brought it up to me is when I saw my daughter doing the same thing, with stuff she liked a year ago. That’s the rate at which we change. I don’t know how this fits in, but I just learned that when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it goes into its cocoon and it liquefies. [Laughs.] How crazy is that? There’s a whole transition point in its life where it’s just liquid again. And it made me think of all the ways we transition and that when we’re in the transition, we’re liquid. We’re wafting back and forth, or maybe we haven’t quite melted down.

When you were talking about Dave Grohl, you mentioned issues of style and presentation, which also can complicate public reception of music.

I was reading one of those Bob Lefsetz letters that said something to the effect that there has been a battle going on in the musician camps between virtuosity in one camp and style and feel in the other. And the winners were obvious—look at how much sooner the punk rockers got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than the prog-rockers, and it hit me that the musicians who figured out the style thing early on are huge rock stars. And the progrockers took a totally different approach and I feel like—for whatever reason—early on, I was wowed by prog-rock. I went down the jazz river, like, “Jazz is cool,” whereas it wasn’t until my adulthood that I came to appreciate punk rock and all that it brings. I somehow didn’t hear it until I started playing in Jack’s band because Jack’s really into Fugazi.

Since you mentioned Jack— beyond introducing you to Fugazi—how do you think you’ve influenced each other’s songwriting over the years?

Our connection as friends was always through songwriting. Besides me, Jack was the first guy I knew who was writing songs. We both were in college and we were like, “Oh, yeah, we write songs.” Especially in ALO, everyone’s become songwriters over time but, at the time, Steve was studying bass and Dan [Lebowitz] was studying guitar. I wasn’t really that great on my instrument, but I could write songs. Jack and I always connected on that, and in some ways, it’s hard to say where it stops. I help him with songs; he helps me with songs. We have pretty different styles, but we’re into the same things, so they definitely inform each other.

It’s been crazy, though, being around his success and seeing what works. It’s hard not to take note of that. I try to keep my own artistic identity but, as the saying goes, “I am a part of all I have met.” As a musician and a writer, everything you hear and see gets in there and, sometimes, it goes up to the surface and you can filter it out or not.

In the late-‘90s at Santa Barbara, the way we were all playing acoustic guitars in the dorms was that Jack style. I had a little more of that Bay Area jam thing in me I suppose. And there’s this little mix of Southern California reggae— Sublime probably became the biggest version of that—but I see a lot of bands from Slightly Stoopid to Rebelution to Iration taking this kind of reggae, mixed with a little hiphop, mixed with a little SoCal sensibility, and it seems like it’s been alive for a while now. It’s a sound that I knew from the dorms.

Speaking of California, what prompted your song “San Francisco?”

I grew up in San Jose, just about an hour south, and San Francisco was always the exotic city. And then, when we were down in Santa Barbara going to school, we would go up to San Francisco and see Charlie Hunter Trio play at the Elbo Room, and started to be like, “Wow, there’s a real scene in San Francisco.” We’d go to Fillmore shows. We never really went to Los Angeles but we were always drawn to the north, especially because the acid-jazz thing was happening in the late-‘90s, and it seemed like a real thing to be a part of at the time.

We had an acid-jazz band called the Magnum Family—a little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of funk and a little bit of jam. There was this reverence toward San Francisco and then, after college, I moved up to the Bay Area. I went to this party in the East Bay and I thought, “I’m going to move into an artist loft, and just have this whole experience in San Francisco,” but then my girlfriend [now wife] got pregnant, and we ended up moving to Marin, out into the country, and we later moved to Santa Barbara, so I never really lived in San Francisco. Yet, I’d come back and the rest of the band was all there, and I’d have these San Francisco experiences.

And when ALO’s Sounds Like This came out, I was walking through The Mission, which was an area I hung out in a fair amount and I thought, “I love this city,” so I started writing this song. First it was a song about San Francisco, and then it kind of shifted to become a song about homes in general, and how you can have multiple homes. I lived in Augusta, Ga., for a couple of months one summer and, when I go back there, it’s like, “This feels like home.” Then there’s my folks house in Saratoga [Calif.] It just seems like the more you travel and the more you spend time in places and fall in love with them, then a part of you is always there.