The Core: ALO

Mike Greenhaus on June 5, 2023
The Core: ALO

photo: Jay Blakesberg


The always colorful California quartet celebrates their 25th anniversary with a new studio set, Silver Saturdays

A Positive Team

STEVE ADAMS (BASS): It had been some time since we had made an album. We were going through a transition with Ezra stepping into the drum seat. And then the pandemic happened and we never really had a chance to dive in with him. We did the Creatures EPs, but we kept dreaming about a full-length release. Finally, the time came—we had some songs and a plan in place. We did a lot more dividing of the songs—probably more than on any record. Each of us sang a couple and Zach had a couple of extras, just being the prolific writer that he is.

EZRA LIPP (DRUMS): We were all inspired by watching Get Back. And, especially after making all these remote videos during the pandemic, we were ready to ask, “What does it mean to be four people in a room recording together?” There are some overdubs, but we wanted to focus on the live performance and working out the arrangements together. We worked with David Simon-Baker, who has done all of ALO’s records in the modern era. There aren’t many bands like ALO, who are such a positive team. We all want to support the team in an earnest way—have each others’ backs and leave space for our individual personalities, strengths and contributions. And that’s a testament to why ALO has stuck around for as long as it has.

DAN LEBOWITZ (GUITAR): A big intention was to set up in a room together, where the guitar is bleeding onto the drum mics and the drums are bleeding onto the guitar mics. Another big one was that we wanted everybody’s voice to be on every song. So in typical ALO fashion, the lead vocals are bouncing around and the songwriting duties are bouncing around. But no matter what, on every song, everybody sings. That’s new for us.

Sometimes we’ll think of themes for our shows, especially our Friday and Saturday shows, because our fans like to be expressive and participatory. Somehow the Silver Saturdays thing happened. We embraced it, and our fans did too. And we just kept wearing silver on Saturdays. Then, as we were batting around names for the album, we realized it made sense with our 25th anniversary. It felt like an umbrella for this era we’re in.

ZACH GILL (KEYBOARDS): We all value the band, both as a friendship and a musical relationship. I play with other musicians, but there’s a definite thing that ALO taps into when it’s at its best—being in a garage together and laughing. It feels sacred, and I don’t take it lightly. But it’s also something that requires maintenance, like a marriage. There’s a lot of communication. And there’s a lot of conversations that are sometimes difficult. Even yesterday, the group got together and there were things that started rubbing some of us the wrong way. We all want to do our best not to get snippy because we know that everybody is, ultimately, on the same page. We all want ALO to be the best that it can be. Most bands go through periods of dysfunctionality, and it’s pretty sad. You also see it in society, certainly in politics. I have to remind myself: “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a breath and take a step back.” I think that’s probably a good thing to do in relationships.

Introducing Ezra

SA: About five years ago, [drummer Dave Brogan] told us that he couldn’t make our annual Tour D’Amour. The tour was already booked, and we were like, “Should we cancel it? Should we look for a sub?” Brogan said, “Do what you have to do. I have too many family commitments to take care of right now.” Ezra and I had been playing together in Magic In The Other, a little project that he tapped me for. Lebo’s done some work with him and he opened for ALO when he was with Sean Hayes. So we called him and he was into it and, as that year progressed and Brogan still wasn’t available, we just kept using Ezra. Eventually, it finally snapped into place that we now had Ezra in the drum seat. We’re still in touch with Brogan; we’re friends with him. There’s nothing weird, but it was one of those things that happened without talking about it that much.

EL: I knew Steve a little bit because he played in the band Big Light and then, in 2012, I joined Huckle and got more involved in the jam scene. Before that, I was doing a more indie-rock/folk/soul songwriter thing. I would play with Steve and Dan around San Francisco and at Terrapin Crossroads. I’d even sit in with ALO on percussion—I was just hanging out around that scene. So it was a natural fit from the get-go, but it took some time to find my place in the band. I have my own musical energy and personality, and now I’m also contributing songs and singing lead sometimes, which is newer territory for us. Brogan had a personality—he was a contributing songwriter and lead singer so it was a process of getting to know what it means to be a contributing teammate in this band.

DL: ALO is that proverbial soup. It’s just four people and wherever we go. A lot of bands have a concept, these parameters. But we’re more like experiential artists who create art based around their experiences. That can potentially be confusing to people, but it can also create this deep well. So since I have been playing so much Grateful Dead music recently, I can’t help but bring that back to ALO. It’s cool because I grew up hearing that music through my parents and I listened to it a ton in my younger years. But, for a while, it wasn’t the music I was focused on. And then it’s been reintroduced to us during the last decade. The other side of our world is the Jack Johnson scene, and that’s more focused on the songs. And we love that as well.

We’ve invited Ezra to be himself. We love Brogan. He’s totally still our brother, but it’s been great having Ezra bring that new energy and be that new ingredient.

ZG: We fall into the jamband category, which is appropriate, although there were times when I fought against it. I was like, “You cannot define my essence.” [Laughs.] I feel like the jamband genre is made up of a lot of bands that don’t want to be in one genre. ALO used to be considered more on the edge of the jamband scene and now we are more in the center, in a weird way—there are bands like Neal Francis, Vulfpeck and Khruangbin that are coming from a similar place, but are from a different time. We’re all just born into the time that we’re born into. If you’re a musician, you’re just following your instincts. And if you’ve been around for 25-30 years, there’s a public history. You don’t get to start fresh and just jump off from there.

Top Confidence

SA: Making this record around our 25th anniversary felt more symbolic as it was unfolding. With songs like “Make It Back Home” and “Rewind,” there’s lots of reflecting back on our lives and the life of our band—going from being kids to musicians. ALO started in January 1998, but Dan, Zach and I have been playing together since 1989. We played our first gig together when we were 13, in eighth grade. It was the intermission of a school play. We didn’t realize that our junior high alternated between having a talent show and a play each year so we showed up to our audition thinking it was for a talent show. But the school still said, “We’ll give you the intermission and you can play a little set.” And we kept going—we were on such a rush through high school. We made an original cassette and then we all got into Santa Barbara. We were like, “Let’s go to college together and keep the band together.” We had a leg up from a lot of bands that were just starting, and we were able to play the bars right away. We went through some different drummers and band names until we started this band with five horn players and our jazz band director Jon Nathan on drums.

Your senior year in high school or college, you’re at top confidence. You’re the top dogs. We knew the music community and we were the elder statesmen of that moment. We learned Tower of Power and Parliament tunes and had a bunch of originals that Jon wrote horn charts for. We called it Animal Liberation Orchestra & The Free Range Horns and took Santa Barbara by storm for six months. And then we graduated and were like, “Now what?” [Laughs.] We were inspired by Charlie Hunter and the acid-jazz scene so we left the horns behind and restarted in San Francisco as ALO. Of course, you go from being a senior in college to a freshman in San Francisco. You’re learning about the clubs—the streets—and you’re back to a restaurant job.  

DL: My first memory of improvised music was with Zach, Steve and a couple of other friends. We lived near the Santa Cruz mountains and I remember these rainy days when we would go up these hills and follow the creeks back down, singing and making up harmonies the whole way. We would jump from rock to rock, singing. When I’m in the act of improvising, it’s the exact same thing. You’re flying down. It’s one of those things where, if you tried to calculate jumping between rocks, then you might fall and kill yourself. But if you kept going and were really in the moment, you could stick the landing. It’s about being very present and moving forward. ZG: In general, the setlists are going to broaden over the next few years. We’ve cracked some codes in terms of trusting each other. We all know the roadmap so we can be open and abandon some of the parts that were agreed-upon in the studio and start exploring them slightly more impressionistically. I play in Jack’s band, where the setlist isn’t changing that much. But it still changes more than some of the big stadium shows where the dialogue is always the same and it’s like seeing a musical. With ALO, there’s a lot that can be affected at any given moment and we’re going to lean into that more going forward.

I look at ALO as a lifelong musical relationship. You remember when things were different and you can still hold on to that, but you also want to be alive in the moment. As ALO goes through time, we have realized that there’s not a clear leader. Everybody leads in different and subtle ways at different times. Everybody’s pulling in different ways, and everyone gets to be the star and have everyone else support them.

The ALO Ethos

SA: During the pandemic, I opened Mars Record Shop. I’ve always loved records, and I was also a baseball card collector I’ve just always loved having this physical, tangible thing and I’ve always been curious about the value system of it all. I’m also the band archivist—I have that collector’s mindset, and I am into organizing data and archiving everything. I’ve worked at record stores, and I always thought that my retirement plan would be to be an old musician with a record shop. And then the pandemic happened and I was like, “What am I supposed to do right now?” I was helping this shop and the space opened up. The owner was like, “I’ll give you a good deal on it.” And I was like, “This is a crazy time to do that, but also it is the right time.” And now the record shop has a little fanbase of its own. I can reach out to Eddie Roberts and say, “Let’s have a Color Red section.” Through Nicki Bluhm and Compass Records, I got The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon and Steve Poltz records in there. I’m talking to ALO about doing a little pop-up. So now I’m juggling both worlds and figuring out how to tour while still running this shop. 

EL: We knew we were going to head into the studio last year so we played eight of the 10 songs on Silver Saturdays during last year’s Tour D’Amour. That was different from how we did the last EP, where people would bring in new songs and then we’d have a rehearsal and go into the studio. We wanted to take these songs for a spin and see what worked. It allowed us to reach a certain level of comfort with the material, especially since the live show and the audience are big parts of the ALO ethos. We all have different outlets so it is interesting what becomes an ALO song. Some songs I just wouldn’t consider bringing to ALO. Not because I don’t like them—they just don’t have the ALO vibe. Zach was just saying the same thing: “Some songs that I think are gonna be a shoe-in, you guys don’t seem that interested in. And some songs where I’m like, ‘Hey, there’s this one little thing but I don’t know if you’ll like it,’ you end up loving.” 

ZG: There are these resident bubbles that we all agree upon. For the band to grow and feel alive, you’ve gotta change things, even just a little bit. But for the band to survive in the long run, you can’t change things so much that you lose the thing that people like about you. So there’s this balance between maintaining and growing. It’s like pruning a shrub. So with choosing songs for ALO, we’re looking for something that feels right. Over the years, there’s been certain songs where I’ve loved the recording, but they’ve never found their way into the set. And then there’s songs where the recording feels a little random but the song itself has transcended that over the years. Not to sound pretentious, but the artist doesn’t always know what the fans want. [Laughs.] My dad’s a painter. And he doesn’t share his art with a ton of people, but he’s been constantly doing it for 15 years. He paints, every day, all day long.

I just have this feeling like, “Our songs should be funky and uplifting and jammy, but not too jammy.” ALO is attempting to make art but we are also trying to make a living. [Laughs.] So there’s that dichotomy.

DL: “Rewind” was written after we played WinterWonderGrass. I started messing around on my guitar with an idea and the words just flowed out. It’s a concept people can relate to—the idea that you can’t go back and change anything in life. You can amend things going forward, but you can’t go back. And sometimes it can be hard when you’re like, “I could have done this or that differently.” But, this song focuses on the more beautiful part of that—whatever you’ve done is what you’ve done. And, a lot of times, your intentions aren’t actually what you should do. What you should do is what you actually did. And then we put that song through the ALO group process.

“Sparrow” is one that was not road-tested. It’s an ode to music, which has shaped my whole life. It’s how I met my wife and most of my friends. It’s where my heart is. It’s the reason I have my daughter. I come from a life of music—it’s my community. That’s also one of the reasons I love listening to the radio. I love the communal experience of knowing that someone else is listening to a song at the same time that I am.