The core of the Animal Liberation Orchestra (more commonly known as ALO) began performing together at the age of 12, while still attending junior high in Saratoga, CA. After tasting early success, Zach Gill (keyboards/vocals), Steve Adams (Bass guitar/vocals), and Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz (guitar/percussion/vocals) knew they wanted more.
“We had our first gig at a local talent show,” Lebowitz recalls. “We won and it ended up being pretty awesome, so we thought, ’we should does that some more.’”
After several name changes and multiple attempts to find the right drummer, the band eventually evolved into the Animal Liberation Orchestra, a nine-piece ensemble, complete with a brass section. ALO earned a reputation as a band known for its enthusiastic live performance, and soon started drawing a great deal of attention in the Santa Barbara area. Later, when Gill, Adams and Lebowitz decided to return home to Saratoga, they dropped the brass section, and reemerged as a stripped down quartet, again featuring a rotating cast of drummers. Finally, in 2002, the core trio reunited with college friend David Brogan, and the current version of ALO was solidified.
Lebowitz speaks with the utmost of respect for the man that rounded out his band’s roster. “Dave’s a guy that operates in the same way we do, so he really fit and settled in right away. One of the things about band is everyone is expected to write and contribute to our material. We spend a lot of our rehearsal time writing, and some drummers just sit there and wait to play their parts. Dave also plays keyboards and guitar, and is constantly bringing new ideas to our songs. We love him.”
Gill attended college with the popular singer-songwriter, Jack Johnson at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has spent time recently playing keyboards with Johnson’s touring band. In addition to signing ALO to his Brushfire label and taking the band on tour as his opening act in 2005, Johnson often turns up unannounced at ALO shows to play his music with ALO as his backup band, using his celebrity to help promote ALO to a much wider audience.
“Back in the day,” Lebowitz recalls, “when we were in college and trying to build a fan base in our town, one of the things we would do is have Jack sit in with us. After his band had broken up, he still wanted to play his songs, so he would come and sit in with our band and we’d play a couple of his songs during a set. It was always really fun because we always liked working with him, but we were our own band and we wanted to do our own material too. We always talked doing something sometime in the future.”
In 2009, Johnson invited the band to his studio in Hawaii, where ALO spent three weeks recording with Johnson at the controls as producer. The result, Man of the World, is an album that many will consider the best work of ALO’s career.
Lebowitz says, “When we started talking about what everybody wanted to do (on the next album), Jack called and asked us out to his studio in Hawaii. That was great because it was his home turf. We really enjoyed writing there. We just spent three weeks recording all day. That gave us time to get things in tune and to spend time writing new music as well. It’s great to see something that’s been on the back burner for years (recording with Johnson) finally come out.”
While the songs on Man of the World still feature the laid-back California vibes for which ALO is known, the album also shows the growth of a band that continues its quest to redefine itself with each new project. As Lebowitz puts it, “It’s the next phase for ALO. Each time we do an album, we are redefining our approach, at least from the fan’s perspective. This new collection of music shows were we are right now, sort of a marker of this point in time. I feel like all albums are that way.
“One of the things that I really liked about our albums in the past is that have been a collection of several different ways of recording. We all write to some extent, some more than others, and in the past our albums each of us usually brought songs to the sessions that were mostly completed. Other times we go into a room and just start playing and then the music really comes out as a collaborative effort. This album by far has the most collaboration that we have ever had. That feels really good because it really captures the unique way the band sounds as a collective.”
Pushed to name his favorite track on Man of the World, Lebowitz is at first hesitant. Later, he concedes a special fondness for the album’s opening track, “Suspended.”
“I knew the moment we recorded that tune that the way that one came was very interesting. Within the collaborative writing process, there’s a million ways to things. ‘Suspended’ came about in a way that we had never really done before. Prior to recording, we were doing preproduction and just jamming. We stumbled across this groove and had the tape running and catching everything that came out.
"Afterwards, when we pulled out the tapes, we all really liked this one. It was literally just a shell of a piece of music, then late one night in the studio, about half way through recording process when we were starting to get a feel for what the album was going to be like, we thought of an arrangement really quick, hit record on the machine, and played the song through. A couple of days later, some melody and lyrics got written.
"In some ways, this is the most pure piece of music we’ve ever done – just a band playing and some vocals, No editing, no overdubs. It’s pure in the sense that it was just as new a piece of music to us at the time we were playing it as it is going to be to the people hearing it for the first time. As a band, you usually work out the kinks first, but sometimes it is cool to have a pure piece of music and to just play it.
“From my perspective, because it’s something we’ve never done before, the way it came out was just very organic and real. When it was done, we thought, ‘Let’s start the album off with this,’ because this is ALO, no bells and whistles or anything like that.”
Knowing what ALO is now, the next logical question seems to be, “What exactly is an Animal Liberation Orchestra?”
As Lebowitz tells it, “We were in college and were shuffling through names like all the young bands do, and everyone was throwing ideas out. We thought it was funny; we were at a college and there were all these organizations going on. So we thought, ’What is our band about?’ Our band is really about people getting out and having a good time, letting yourself be free, liberating your inner animal. So we called it the Animal Liberation Orchestra and in a sense, there is a lot of truth to that. That is what we’re about, but we also thought it was funny just kind of a like parody. At a college, there’s all sorts of programs out there, and we figured this will be ours – the Animal Liberation Orchestra: come out and let your inner animal out.”
When asked what the future holds in store for his band, Lebowitz speaks with much excitement.
“I see us doing a lot more of what we’ve been doing all along – writing songs together, making albums, and playing shows. I’m really excited about touring to see what these songs turn in to. I would love to see a live album happen one day, not just a live show, but an actual album of choice cuts from the tour. I feel like with the last album we did it in a similar way where most the tunes hadn’t been road tested before.
“Now we’ve got like a couple of albums worth of that with this stuff and it would be fun to do a live album because a lot of those tunes on the last album really grew in different ways as they were tested on the road. I know the new songs will too, it’s inevitable with folks like us to tinker with their songs. They will only grow from here, so I can see a really cool live album that would be like the next generation of all these songs.
“Besides that, we are just going to keep writing more songs, playing more gigs, and doing what we do.”