According to drummer Dave Brogan, ALO's music is their politics. And that personal-is-political sensibility comes through loud and clear on the group's fourth album, Man of the World. Produced by ALO friend Jack Johnson, Man of the World is an tuneful reckoning with changing lives in a changing world. An uncertain nostalgia wends through "The Country Electro," which suggests balancing the old and the new. Likewise, "Let's put away the past and let the future set us free," sings drummer Dave Brogan in "Put Away the Past." Recorded mostly in loose-limbed first takes after a three-year-break between albums, Man of the World reflects a refreshed band ready to roll into the future.
We spoke with Dave as he took a break from loading the truck for ALO's annual California tour, folowing which they'll head north with Galactic.
HeadCount: Would you say Man of the World has a theme?
Dave Brogan: I would. There’s a lot of questioning going on in the lyrics. The characters are looking at their lives in a different way for the first time. They're wondering what in the past has led up to this point, and how they might move forward. There are a lot of story lyrics. It’s an introspective, soul-searching kind of album, lyrically. We’re all getting a little older, so maybe it’s a midlife-crisis album. I wrote “Put Away the Past,” which is representative of what I was just talking about. The lyrics are usually written by one of us for music we compose collectively. Beginning with our prior album, we've been taking the best parts of our jams and fleshing them out into songs.
What political or social causes does ALO support?
I think most bands are political by definition. Every band has a platform. It might be an artistic or musical platform, but you're usually putting a belief system out there and trying to get like-minded people to join you and create a strength-in-numbers situation. So I think our music alone is kind of a political statement. There’s very much a let's-be-in-the-moment idea. Our old name was Animal Liberation Orchestra, which reflected the idea of freeing your inner animal, embodying a kind of animal consciousness, and becoming more physical than we normally are – whether through dancing or letting the music wash over you. That’s a pretty political agenda, even for a band. We want to create an environment where people feel liberated to express themselves and interact with us on a deeper level than usual. We’ve always been very accessible to people who like our music.
I was very involved in politics during the last administration because I wanted change so much. And it did change, which was a big relief. I'm pretty cynical about the big picture, so I don’t know how much things really changed overall, as illustrated by the health-care debate. Obama's election was such a relief that I suddenly just tuned out. I haven’t watched more than a few hours of television in the last year and a half, and that cuts you off from a lot of the political discourse. Having Bush as president for eight years was a total bummer. I had to question America on a pretty deep level, and whether I belonged here. I like to consider myself an intellectual, or at least someone interested in exploring the truth as scientists and scholars research it. And to see a large portion of society reject all that, and even declare it dangerous, made me feel pretty lost for a good four years. During Bush's second term, I began to wonder if Canada if needed more musicians. I don’t know where the rest of the guys are on that. We’ve got our grassroots thing and our music, so we focus on that. We’re pretty local with our political intentions.
Living in California, do you ever feel like the system is crumbling around you?
Well, no. California has been in a shambles for 25 or 30 years. I grew up in the Central Valley near Fresno, and we’ve all been victims of California's political chaos for most of our lives. We had Proposition 13 in 1978, which froze property taxes at 1%, and it just killed the schools. I was directly affected when programs I was really into were cut. Things just kept getting cut as the deficit got perpetually worse. Propositions like 187, the one that basically said if you couldn’t prove your citizenship, you couldn’t go to school or get medical care. Crappy politics all the way up to Proposition 8 [the California Marriage Protection Act]. I moved to Washington state and lived there for about 10 years, and the politics up there were way more low key, way more informed. You've got fewer people, but everyone’s more or less on the same page. California's a state of contrasts, both politically and geographically. There’s a lot going on. Since I've been back there's been a succession of unqualified governors, so it continues to be totally dysfunctional.
How does ALO feel it fits into the jam band scene these days, if there even is such a scene anymore?
I always felt we were on the fringe. We’re rock musicians into jazz and classical music. We like to improvise and play solos. We came up in a time, during the indie '90s, when solos went out of style. I think all the musicians who liked solos went into the jam-band scene, and that’s why it’s such an umbrella with so many different types of music under it. You’ve got straight jazz, New Orleans jazz, acid jazz, psychedelic rock, improvised jam-band stuff like Phish, and the Allman Brothers. We still play some of those things, but we’ve always wanted to be more pop in the sense that we wanted to work on songwriting and studio craft as well as the craft of improvising on our instruments. We’re still as accepted in the jam-band scene as we’ve ever been. It would be cool to have a jam-band credibility index where you could rate each band and see where they’re at. I think our recent album’s got tons of jamming on it. It was recorded in a first-take kind of way. We’d just hit "record" and start playing. I don’t know if that’s something a lot of jam-band people are going to like.
What did you bring to Man of the World from making Thunderbird Sun Transformation? Your solo album sounds riskier and a lot less mellow to me.
The biggest thing I took was less of a need to push my own agenda in ALO. I got a lot of those artistic ideas out and onto my album, and that helped make Man of the World more relaxing for everybody. That's what was so good about the time off we took. Thunderbird involved way less politics in that I didn't have to convince anyone to take those risks. I could steer the ship. I went from a democracy to a dictatorship, and dictators can take bigger chances. History can back that up.