With Friends Like These: An Interview with Dave Brogan and Steve Adams from ALO
Self-described by Zach Gill in 2008 as “Bohemian Jam Pop,” ALO (American Liberation Orchestra) is unique among most modern bands. They have known each other since age 7, have played together since they were 12, and have been in bands together since high school. The band congeals on records in somewhat abstract connectivity, only understood once you realize how long they have known each other and played together.
Honest Tune spoke with Dave Brogan (drums/vocals) and Steve Adams (bass/vocals) individually on a cool Monday night about their latest album, Sounds Like This. Dave was in New Orleans between gigs enjoying Jazzfest and Steve was in San Francisco, taking a break from their schedule with some rest and relaxation with family and friends.
Speaking with Steve and Dave individually provided insight on how close they are and how they communicate in the studio. Their answers to the same questions were similar but had unique syntax. Like jazz musicians communicating through the trumpet and the snare, Steve was more talkative, filling any pause in the conversation with thoughts about the album or anecdotes about the band; Dave was straight forward, yet cautious in what he divulged. The dual conversations provided a glimpse into a band’s communication process – how different voices add to the artistic process.
HT: The press release indicates that this recording process was very different from before, in that it was a collective process. Did you all write and arrange in an overlapping process? Why was it different than before?
Steve: Part of it yes…. We have been slowly creeping towards this [new] process. [Before] we may have written part of it at home; we always arranged together and then picked it apart to make it “ALO.” But this album was more free jamming and recording in the moment…so this album, more than any, is a collaboration. We have been trying to get to that more and more each time.
The biggest difference was that we had the live show in mind on this album, but the last few were more introspective and more studio produced. We wanted to capture our live shows well. [For inspiration] we kept picking up pictures of the fans and holding it up, reminding us who we were making the record for.
Another difference on this the record was that we recorded in San Francisco. The last one was in Hawaii, so I was only able to bring my electric bass, but I couldn’t bring the little things from home. There were three check-ins to get to Hawaii, so we couldn’t ship a whole lot and used whatever Jack [Johnson] had in his studio.
This time we were a couple blocks from Dave’s house, so we were in such close range we could fill up the car. I think this made the sound on the album broader.
Dave: We were trying to capture the essence of the live band on the record. In the past, there are people that knew us from the live shows and people that knew us from a record. But we are a very reactive band, and we react in the environment, which affects the set list and the way we play live, [while] in the studio it’s more introspective music. The shows are more of a party, and in the new album there was intent to get the live vibe, ‘now lets picture it with the live sold-out Filmore shows.”
HT: What was it like to record at Mission Bell?
Steve: Lots of records have been made there lately. It was so cool! The studio had cement walls and I think it was an old bank. The studio was upstairs, and [was located] in the Mission [neighborhood in San Francisco].
Dave: It was great! We were around good friends [who own the recording studio], and we actually used the same tape machine that Phil Lesh and The Grateful Dead used on In the Dark. The history of it was kind of inspiring in its own right. We used some modern techniques, so sometimes we would record on tape, but then maybe add something later by computer.
HT: Was there any moment or note that sticks out in your mind, that inspired you or was an “aha” moment?
Steve: For me, there was one jam that we came up with on the spot, and it turned into a song, “Falling Dominoes,” and Zach helped me write the lyrics. I had song writing sessions, which was something I had never done before. Zach is the most prolific writer in the band, and he encouraged me and gave me exercises for writing lyrics. It was kind of uncomfortable but kind of exciting for me.
Another that I remember was when Zach kept pursuing an alternate ending to a song, “Blew out the Walls.” Zach had an alternate way of playing it, and we had to choose one way or the other, so we recorded both. [The alternative version is available on Itunes only] It was a cool, standout track and the alternate version kind of reminded me of Talking Heads. It was a transient jam. Because we had been playing for a half hour, we were playing different [musical] interests, and then Dan showed up. Then we went back to the original and played for a half hour again, and then they reeled it in and made it into a song. It was definitely stand out moment for me.
Dave: The first thing that pops in my mind was “Falling Dominoes.” I loved the way it got created. This was so cool, literally, we were using the tape to record for about a half hour, and then rewind it, then we just started playing few chords and suddenly the song appeared. The tape finished, and the music just came out of thin air. The song was capturing the band. It happened from such a pure space. There are so many cool moments when you record an album.
It was a pretty intense moment and we uncovered a cool piece of music. There is good composition on this album. Nobody brought in their own music, and a lot of the versions that are on the album were recorded before there were lyrics to the song. That discovery is captured on the album. One of the cool things was hearing the songs develop on the tape.
HT: Do you struggle with the internal pull between making money and keeping true to your integrity and authenticity as a musician?
Steve: There is definitely a universal struggle of trying to make money. There is the infrastructure that could sell a song, and then on the other hand we are aware of the opportunity we have.
The first record was written for ourselves, with no label in mind. The two records after that, we felt a little pressure so we had to record something we could sell. This record, the conversation came up a lot, and we thought, let’s just forget about it, make the record we want to make for our fans and not over-edit it. Not over think it.
It’s a conversation we have a lot and it’s difficult. It’s a challenge, it’s a balancing act while we are trying to be proud of the music. This album is more whimsical and we let our own voice be what it is. It actually took the pressure off.
Dave: The one thing with ALO is that it is not in our nature to focus on the business side. On the other albums we spent more time trimming things down, and we purposefully did not do that on this album. Sure, the trimming down bogs you down. It’s always the roughest thing.
We wanted to keep the live spirit. We were not setting out to make longer songs, and we didn’t want to fit the songs in the box. And we have a record label that allows us to create albums we want to. We are not trying to sell records based on the album cover, with a cookie-cutter image.
HT: Full disclosure, I have had “Reviews (From Here to Zed)” on repeat for the past 2 days. Can you tell me about the song?
Steve: That one was a composition groove vibe. Zach had words from another song, and the song gravitated through them and then fell into place in a cool way.
We all feel that there is always change, and with art, and sure, the reason you release it is for a little bit of validation. There are people who love us for what we do, and there are people that want us to do something they want us to do. But we wanted to have humor with it.
We did a lot more takes on the song and then we went back to an earlier one. We were throwing things to the wall and culling through things. We realized that the earlier recording was the best. Which goes back to the point of the album: to record what was part of our live shows.
Dave: We did a bunch of takes, but the first take was the best one, the energy was so good on the first. An inspired recording is way better than precision.
HT: You just played at Tulane University for the Crawfest [on April 21.] How did it feel to be playing in New Orleans, home to such a rich history of music?
Steve: It was awesome! We have never played there before, but we have played Jazz Fest before. Last year was our first trip back to New Orleans in four years.
At one point Zach was talking to the crowd, and I felt like we were these California ambassadors, relating to college students, bridging the gap between USCB and Tulane. I can still relate to them because they were excited about the music, like when we played at Santa Barbara.
Dave: Tulane was great! It was a full day of music. It was fun because we did a shoot for an ALO video for “Sweetest Dreams,” and then the show kicked off the Jazzfest.
HT: That being said, how pumped are you to be playing at First Annual Nolafunk Jazzfest Series? [At the Republic April 27th first weekend of Jazzfest with Anders Osborne, members of the Grateful Dead & Little Feat, plus Marco Benevento]
Steve: Dave stayed in New Orleans for the whole week; good to go home, Zach and Dan flew back for their family. So much of the music that we love comes from there…Dr. John, old Jazz, Cajun music, and you go there, music all day all night for two weeks. Threaded into their cultures, live music.
Dave: I’ve been here the whole week. I am intrigued by regional music. It is interesting these days that the lines are so blurred because everyone has access to so much music. You can see different combinations [online], but I like to find the guys that are doing the sound of the region, a pure form of the region’s music, and every region still has that, and as we travel I seek that out.
HT: Dave, back in a 2008 interview [with HT&E] you said that you’d like to work with Amos Lee. Has that happened?
Dave: It hasn’t happened yet! I had just gotten the new album and I love his music but we have never even met. I would stand by that! I caught him last year at Jazz Fest on my day off, and he was doing a set with the expanded band that he has now, and the band was such a bonus.
Sounds Like This was released May 8, 2012 on Brushfire Records.