by BOB DORAN
WHEN I CAUGHT UP WITH ANIMAL LIBERATION Orchestra keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist Zach Gill, he was moonlighting -- just about to do a sound check for a SoCal show he was playing with Donovan Frankenreiter.
"He's a singer/songwriter/surfer who has a new album coming out on Jack Johnson's label, produced by Jack Johnson. It's a similar vibe, but different," Gill explained. (Coincidentally Frankenreiter is also in Drive Thru Australia, a surf movie playing Saturday night at the Minor. And in case the name is unfamiliar, Johnson is also a noted surfer/singer/songwriter/filmmaker.)
Gill is a founding member in ALO, a band with a long history. "It started in 1988; we were all in junior high," he recalled. Gill played keys, Dan Lebowitz guitar and Steve Adams played bass -- and they're still playing together. Of course, the band had a different name back then. "I thinkbthe first was One Percent Away," said Gill. Before he could make clear, away from what? -- he was called away by the singing surfer.
When we resumed our talk Gill explained that the band started out, like many do, playing covers. "The first songs we learned were `Get Off My Cloud' by the Rolling Stones, `Centerfold' by the J. Geils Band, `R.O.C.K. in the USA' by John Cougar Mellencamp and `Walk Don't Run' bybthe Ventures."
Obviously the band's sound has matured considerably since then, but the classic rock and surf feel can still be heard. How has it evolved? "I guess the way all things evolve," said Gill, "gradually we started writing our own music and switched to playing predominantly originals. We all went to college together at UC Santa Barbara. We all got involved in the music department there and learned about different styles: jazz, gospel, Middle-Eastern, Cuban music, all sorts of things. That same spirit is constant, we're always adding new things to the mix."
In the mid-'90s Gill, Lebowitz and Adams, the core trio, spent some time in Georgia learning funk from members of the James Brown Band. Returning to Santa Barbara, they were dubbed the Animal Liberation Orchestra.
Gill says the band's name is not supposed to imply some sort of activism. "It came when we were in college. We had a new drummer and were adding a five-piece horn section. This nomadic character who used to come see us play suggested we were the Animal Liberation Orchestra and the Free Range Horns. It seemed like a good name at the time. Ironically we were all meat-eaters at the time. At this point I figure it came to us for better or worse."
As the band was developing, so was the jamband scene. Eventually ALO fit right in. "There was a time when we were in high school when we weren't writing things that were jammy where we left room to improvise. At some point we made a conscious decision to leave more spaces. And we didn't write ends to the songs; we'd just see what happened.
"I was reading my horoscope; you know how movie plots are all about conflict with a tidy resolution at the end. My horoscope said to avoid that and realize there are no tidy endings. And I'd say there doesn't have to be conflict either."
After they all finished college the various members set out to make a living with music. "We were all working, but not just with the band. Then for the last two years we've been on the road consistently. Last year the band became an official business, an LLC."
There are good reasons they have to think about the band as a business. Gill for example now has a 3-year-old daughter at home in Santa Barbara. He says he might not want to hit the road to tour, but that's a musician's life.
"We have a new album about to come out," he informed me. "It's definitely different; I'd say the tempos are slower, it has more of a roots influence with tones that are more classic sounding. It has this sort of country-electro feel. It has this cameo by Jack Johnson. That's kind of cool."
When Johnson's name comes up again, we return to his side gig with Donovan the surfer. It's looking like Gill may play Bonnaroo with Frankenreiter. "It's kind of a crazy thing for me; he's a pretty famous surfer and he has all this money behind him right now. He's really talented, plays this '70s style folk-soul-rock." Which I point out, could also describe Johnson. Turns out Gill also plays behind Johnson and ALO used to back him up when they were all attending UCSB. "He and I are still good pals so we still play together off and on," said Gill, while emphasizing that ALO is still his main thing.
Listening to ALO's last album, Time Expander, it's clear -- one thing the band has never lost is that garage band energy they had in junior high, where friends get together for the sheer joy of making music. "We all got into music because we thought it was a fun thing to do, and it still is; when we're at our best we're all having a great time. That's why we're still doing it," Gill concluded.
Animal Liberation Orchestra plays a free show at the Blue Lake Casino Wednesday, March 24, starting around 9 p.m. Once again, the Magic Bus will pick people up at selected bus stops in Arcata and Eureka, including a pick-up just after the Keller Williams show ends at HSU. For more on ALO, go to www.alomusic.com.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.