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By: Forrest Reda
On the surface, it appears the success of ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) can be attributed to a certain college buddy named Jack Johnson, who invited the band to open some shows, drafted keyboardist Zach Gill to be in his band and eventually signed ALO to his label, Brushfire Records. While this connection is fine and good, the rise of ALO has been a 15-year process, a long and winding road from the band's inception in the sleepy Bay Area suburb of Saratoga to the college town of Isla Vista, CA near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where ALO was born.
The band might never have even formed if the core members of Dan Lebowitz, Steve Adams and Gill had gone their separate ways after high school. Instead, the buddies, friends since junior high, stuck together and went to UCSB because it was the only spot that all of them got into. Actually, it was the ONLY school that accepted Gill. "I think we all had the intention of keeping our band going because it was pretty fun and Santa Barbara seemed like an optimal place to go down and be in a band," Gill says. "I don't know what would have happened if I wouldn't of gotten in."
At UCSB, the guys befriended Jack Johnson, but more importantly, met drummer Dave Brogan of the infamous Evil Farmer. Like many West Coast kids in the early '90s, ALO hadn't been properly exposed to the music Phish was creating, but were fortunate to have confluent influences in the same improvisational vein. Gill credits Evil Farmer as being as much of a musical inspiration as Phish.
Dave Brogan by Susan J. Weiand
"In high school we were limited to what we heard on the radio, and what was available," he says. "I remember someone gave me a Phish tape and not really knowing what to think about it. When I got to college, I saw Evil Farmer play my freshman year and they were sort of the same age as Phish. They were a little bit older than we were and I remember thinking that the music they played that night was unlike anything I'd ever heard. Up until that point I'd just heard high school bands and people kind of sounding like music that was on the radio."
The collegiate scene at Santa Barbara at this time was ripe for music. "When we were in college, Isla Vista had a little bit stronger music scene than it does now. There were keg parties all down the main street along the ocean of Isla Vista," Brogan explains. "People who had a house would just get a keg, and you'd go down Del Playa and there would be like 15 bands playing. It was like 6th Street in Austin or something."
Evil Farmer has been hailed for planting the seeds in Santa Barbara for musical experimentation. Brogan is a little bit more modest in his estimation, "No one used the term 'jam bands' back then. But, we were into a few different things. We were into the Grateful Dead, and the 60s psychedelic rock like The Doors and Pink Floyd. We were also into rock stuff like Mr. Bungle and John Zorn. We were all music majors so we were listening to crazy avant-garde music, too. So, we were just trying to fuse all that stuff together, as well as being exposed to a lot of different styles by our suburban upbringing - world music and all these different things. We were trying to blend that together in a party style, but definitely using extended improvisation."
"We were also really into jazz," says Brogan. "We came up through the jazz band in high school. So, we were doing that on the West Coast in 1990-92. I hadn't even heard Phish until A Picture of Nectar came out. Eventually, I heard that album, and I was kind of like, 'Oh man, there's somebody else totally kind-of-doing the same thing.' I think it came from a similar situation - in college, suburban background, probably played jazz in high school. They were kind of blending some of the same things we were. That was the first time I realized this is something bigger than just my band – other people are doing this, too."
College was a time for musical exploration for Adams, Lebowitz and Gill. Lebowitz describes the casual practices that paved the way for things to come. "We were all just living together, it was like, 'Do you want to jam in a couple hours? Wanna jam tonight?' Someone would roll in with a few beers, we'd talk for a while and start practicing," says Lebowitz.
Adams, Lebowitz, Gill by Jenna Lebowitz
Lebowitz, Adams and Gill played in numerous bands together, including a project with their jazz band director that included a five-piece horn section. Brogan wasn't part of ALO at the time but jammed with them often. After the guys graduated from UCSB, they moved back to the Bay Area and Brogan returned to Seattle. In 2002, ALO had a tour booked and needed a drummer. The band picked up Brogan mid-tour and they've been on the road together ever since.
If Evil Farmer is the band that planted the seeds the gardeners of the scene were and continue to be the SB Music Phreaks. Started by a music fan named James Studarus as a way to improve the turnout at local concerts and bring more music to Santa Barbara, the SB Music Phreaks began as a list of 30 friends exchanging show reviews and news using Yahoo's group email service.
"SB Music Phreaks formed around the same time we were starting out with ALO," Lebowitz says. "We were living in San Francisco at that point but we still had roots in Santa Barbara. They became a core audience. It's fun when they are around. People can see how the elders of the tribe, so to speak, interact with the music."
ALO by Jonathan D. Nimerfroh
Jam band fans utilized email lists to create buzz long before blogs started breaking bands, and perhaps no other list is as intertwined with a specific group as the SB Music Phreaks and ALO.
"We like stuff like that, and embrace it, but it's independent of the band," Lebowitz says. "We like to provide a place for that to happen. We've gotten to be friends with a lot of those people. They'll come to us with a crazy theme for a show, and we'll be like, 'That's great. We'll work on some music for you.'"