Dan Lebowitz and Zach Gill of Animal Liberation Orchestra have a longstanding history with High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California. During their first year at the fest, before they became heroes there, they worked directing traffic.
“That was our first music festival experience,” Lebowitz said during an interview in their tour van parked near the Grandstand Stage at the festival.
“We did this late night jam on the tennis courts. By the next year, we got hired to play. We’ve been here ever since in some form.”
Lebowitz and Gill have been playing music together since they were 12.
“We’ve been in the music scene since we were kids,” Gill said.
The early years were filled with fun runs, bar mitzvahs and high school dances. A common problem they faced as a band was getting shut down at night due to noise.
“The idea of the festival where you could play all night and music would no know boundaries was always enticing,” Gill said. “High Sierra was my first … to me, it’s the one.”
Their lengthy tenure creates an uncanny kinship that’s easily recognized onstage.
They’re both positive and inclusive, wild and free and just a little bit funky and grimy.
“It’s a little bit like music camp,” Gill said. “One big difference between High Sierra and every other festival is High Sierra is really music forward. Even walking in the bathroom, it’s all about music everywhere.”
Lebowitz said the heart of the festival is the playshops. The bands get a chance to have a little fun and the audience gets to hear collaborations and themed jams.
ALO has a new EP coming out on July 19, “Creatures, Vol. 1: Spark.” It’s a new series and approach. They’re picking themes and releasing an album in smaller chunks throughout the year. They’re taking advantage of the industry transition to digital releases and each one will feel a little different.
“Everything’s changed so much, it’s not about trying to get your cardboard cutout in a CD store anymore,” Lebowitz said.
They said they feel super lucky to be on Brushfire Records (Jack Johnson’s label) since 2004. Gill and Lebowitz met Johnson at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were in rival bands and ultimately became friends. Throughout the years they’ve collaborated and played together extensively.
This year, ALO filled the Vaudeville Tent during an evening show. Lebowitz thinks the fans who frequent the fest trust the producers of the event. They show up ready for music and dancing. Many bands are beloved, but foremost, the attendees are fans of High Sierra.
Besides great sets, ALO is also known for keeping busy at the fest with collaborations and guest spots. Lebowitz seems to magically be backstage of every set, ready to pounce on any guitar solo.
I asked him how he does it. How is he able to do his own music and be able to communicate musically with so many other bands from different genres?
“I think it’s like this,” Lebowitz said. “Discipline: You work hard, 10 hours a day. Then, say your set is at 6 p.m., at 5:59, you surrender.”
Surrender to the moment and flow with the experience. His way of thinking makes perfect since after watching hours of Lebowitz play guitar while purely elated. He’s like a kid on his birthday who got his first guitar and can somehow play virtuosically.
“You work hard so you can let go,” Lebowitz said. “Whatever happens is supposed to happen.”
But the fans only see the “flow” portion of his regime, so he’s been Godlike to these festies for decades.
“It’ll be 19 years in a row,” Lebowitz said. “It’s such a community. Aside from ALO, this is the center of my musical life. In a way, I think it’s the most consistent music tradition that I have.”
— Tony Contini