Deep Blues in Wisconsin


Words by Tim Newby 

Speaking with ALO bassist Steve Adams shortly after the band wrapped up a short tour in support of their new album Roses & Clover, one gets the impression that he could talk about his friends, their band and their music all day. 

And why shouldn’t he? 

He is in a band with some of his closet friends some he has known since childhood.  How many people can say they get to go to work with their best friends?  They have just released an album that is their strongest to date and is a mature transition from their last, the exceptional Fly Between Falls.


ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) is born of a lifelong friendship, with Adams, Dan Lebowitz (guitar) and Zach Gill (keyboards) having known each other since childhood.  As Adams says, “Me, Zach, and Dan grew up together.  I meet Zach when I was seven, and there is just a real strong family roots vibe between the three of us.”

The three formed a band while in high school together, and evolved through numerous drummers and line-up changes in high school and college, including adding a nine-piece horn section for a brief time.  It was during their time in college at the University of California at Santa Barbara that their current line-up was solidified.

“Dave (Brogan, drummer) we met in college.  We have always admired Dave so much because he was in all these bands in college.  When we first got to UCSB, we checked into our dorms and then ran out to see what bands were playing and we saw this band that Dave was in and they immediately became our favorite band. 

"We have always looked up to him musically. We eventually developed a great friendship with him.  We have always felt a real strong brother-ship with him because of all we have been through.”

Making Friends 

The band continued to play throughout college and developed another friendship with another musician and classmate at UCSB, Jack Johnson.  Over the following years they toured extensively and built up a strong following, releasing several albums independently the last of which was Fly Between Falls.  The album contained the track “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down” which included a guest appearance from Johnson, who by then had reached superstar status.




Johnson's appearance drew a large amount of attention to ALO, as did a spot on his DVD, Live at the Greek.  Adams was surprised at the attention they received from the DVD.  “We are always amazed at how much people noticed us in Live at the Greek.  People would come up to us because they had recognized us from the DVD.” 

They eventually signed with Johnson’s label, Brushfire Records, and re-released Fly Between Falls.  Their relationship with Johnson remains strong to this day as they continue to play with him and share the stage any chance they get. 

"It felt really good, the whole process.  Just shacking up in the barn and making an album the way we have always wanted do it.”

-Steve Adams

We always try to hang out whenever we cross paths,” Adams says.  They recently met up on stage at the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Byron Bay, Australia.  ALO was booked to play a main stage slot late in the day that took many by surprise, being the band's first time playing the country.  Johnson was to be their unannounced guest for the evening.

He joined them for the second half of their set and they played a mix of ALO and Johnson songs.  The show was a highlight for ALO, with Adams describing it as, “an amazing experience.”  Playing as a backing band is something ALO clearly enjoys as they have talked about doing an album backing singer/songwriters such as Johnson, Matt Costa, and Brett Dennen.

With Fly Between Falls actually being released twice (independently and on Brushfire), the band toured behind the same album for a couple of years and were more than ready to head in the studio to work on a new album. 

Adams says that, “When it came out again on Brushfire we had already toured those songs for over a year, we were ready pretty quickly to get back into the studio.  We had been writing new songs and playing some new stuff, but we decided to hold off playing most of it live and to get into the studio as fast as we can.  Last fall was the first break we had from touring.”

This time around the band wanted to approach the recording and writing process from a completely different angle.  When they were an independent band they never worried about timing the release of a new album with a tour to support it.  They just toured and played whatever was the newly-written song of the week. 

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Stepping out of the box 

This time, though, the band wanted to step out of their comfort zone and try something completely new.

For two weeks, ALO holed up in a make-shift studio in an old barn in the hills surrounding Santa Barbara.  They went in armed with nothing more than their instruments and an arsenal of songs in various states, the majority of which had never been played live and some that were no more than jams recorded at tour rehearsals.  For a band that was used to creating songs on stage, this was a radical approach for them. 

“Since we usually develop our songs with the live show in mind, by the time we get into the studio we are used to playing them a certain way and it is often hard to separate ourselves from that,” says guitarist Lebowitz.

“Listening to a record is a different experience than going to a concert.  This time we got to let the recording dictate how the songs would sound, rather than the live experience.”

The writing process for ALO has always been democratic, with everyone getting an equal say.  Adams states, “we usually start the day just jamming a bit to warm up and a few of the songs on Roses & Clover came out of that process, of recording some of those jams.  Different people would take them and run with them.  Zach wrote lyrics to a few of the songs, and we would sharpen them up and tighten them up in the studio. 

"In some cases people would have a pretty clear idea of what they wanted, arrangement-wise, song-wise.  All of our songs are opened up to everybody, anything anyone wants top throw in the mix is fine.”

Roses & Clover 

They eventually whittled their arsenal of songs down to 14 that they tracked for the new album.  Ten of those made it on to Roses & Clover, with two being held out as bonus tracks.  Out of the other two, one – a slow, waltzy ballad written by Brogan – was played numerous times but they could not seem to get the definitive version.  It was a favorite of the band and Adams in particular, as he says that it just may pop up live at some point.

This new approach was not with without worry though. “There was a little anxiety.  We have a nice core fan base; they are the most loving, yet most critical people of the band,” says Adams.  “To really get their approval was something we were nervous about.”

The resulting Roses & Clover continues ALO’s self-described style of “Feel Good Music”  It is a mature move from their previous release, yet still maintains the “Feel Good” vibe the band has become known for.  The album seems to move with a more somber refined feel than Fly Between Falls, which took some people by surprise,

“At the end of the day we were really happy with the record.  Even if we didn’t meet everyone’s approval, we were happy on a larger perspective,” Adams says.  Like their previous albums it is indicative of where the band is right now.  As the band says, they always write about their current state and feelings.

The new approach to writing the album led to a new experience for the band.  Where before songs would be developed by the time they reached the studio, this time, since the songs from Roses & Clover had not been played live, they had a chance to grow and develop whole new personalities on stage.

In particular, “Try” seemed to open up a lot for the band, with an entirely new jam section developing on stage.  This was appealing to the band.  Adams feels, “It is great to get the songs on stage.  It is like bringing something to life, making it happen in real time with real interaction with people.  It is a great feeling.”

When asked if the band enjoyed this new approach to writing an album, Adams enthusiastically answers, “Yes.  I think doing it this way made it a more organized, focused way for us.  I think we all want to take that to the next album, focusing on the songs, not playing too many live before hand.  It felt really good, the whole process.  Just shacking up in the barn and making an album the way we have always wanted do it.”