THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: ALO

The multitasking
drummer for Animal Liberation Orchestra turns firestarter. Trust us, he’s onto
something.

 

BY DAVE BROGAN

 

I needed time to reflect, to search
inside myself and try to discover something new. I had read that reflection was
best done in austere surroundings. That answers would come if I separated
myself from the distraction of everyday convenience and communication.

 

I wanted a shelter with no other
luxury than what seemed to be the ultimate luxury: to be located in a natural,
rural setting far from the ruckus of the man-made world. It could be a cabin, a
teepee, a yurt, or a tree house- I just knew it had to be primitive. After a
few months of searching I discovered a16′ x 20′ canvas tent set on a platform
deck in the middle of a friend’s hillside avocado grove located in the
mountains just outside Santa Cruz, Ca. Just the kind of thing I was looking
for.

 

January was the month I had
available. A sliver of downtime wedged in between the holidays and a busy year
of touring to support ALO’s new album: Man
Of The World
. A wood-burning stove would be my only source of heat. I would
read by oil lamps and candles. No electricity. No gas. No Internet. No hookups.
Running water was the only modern utility supplied to the site. Cold water
only.

 

I packed my truck with what I
thought I needed. The very barest of essentials- an ax and hatchet, clothes,
sleeping bags, food, cooking utensils, an ice chest, a guitar and a bottle of
Maker’s Mark. Then, some additional accoutrements to aid in my inner search.
About a dozen books, including:

 

 

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (about the hidden stories behind successful people)

Old
Masters and Young Geniuses
by David Galenson (about the two life cycles of
creativity)

Two books by Paul Arden (the
Saatchi & Saatchi advertising guru and ultimate out-of-the-box thinker)

The
Freedom Manifesto
by Tom Hodgkinson (how and why to rebel against the
Protestant work ethic that our current society is based on)

The
Long Way
by Bernard Moitessier (the epic memoir of his time in a solo
manned sailboat race around the world)

The
Way Of The Superior Man
by David Deida (a guide for men to work, women and
spirituality)

Animal
Speak
by Ted Andrews (a guide to the shamanic meanings of animals in our
lives and world)

Various books of poetry by Dylan
Thomas, e.e. cummings, Rumi and Stephen Mitchell

 

 

I also threw in a blank Moleskin
notebook and a few older ones filled with journal entries, song sketches,
poems, dreams and ideas. For furniture I had a few rugs, a chair, and a fold up
table. All told, enough stuff to fill the back of my Tacoma. Nothing more and
it was more than enough.

 

As a drummer, I am accustomed to
lugging heavy stuff around. My drum set probably weighs a total of 400 pounds
and I estimate to have done over 500 shows and recording sessions combined over
the last 10 years. That’s a lot schlepping. But I got an extra lesson in the
true weight of material wealth as I moved in. The site was only accessible by a
trail that starts at the bottom of the avocado grove and ends at the top, about
200 yards along a muddy trail up a very steep grade. Everything would have to
be carried in and I intended to carry up everything that I came with. Every
piece of stuff had a very specific purpose. But if I insisted on bringing these
few “essentials” of the modern world with me, the hillside was going to make me
pay for it.

 

The load-in was exhausting. After
the fifth or sixth trip I started feeling like Robert De Niro’s character in
the film The Mission, the murderous
slave trader turned Benedictine acolyte who was forced by his fellow monks to
carry all of his weapons up miles of sheer Amazonian cliff. I had my own
reasons to want to perform a penance and, as hard as it was, I carried up
everything I had brought until my lungs burned and my vision blurred.

 

Night fell quickly and the cold
settled in. I needed to build a fire immediately and, being January, I would
need to keep it going almost around the clock for my entire stay. Without a
fire, water would come down the stove chimney and flood the fire chamber. The
tent, which would shed water amazingly well, needed to stay warm and dry to
ward off mildew and mold from the coming rains. (I ended up weathering a storm
of winds up to 60 MPH and two weeks of constant rainfall.)

 

I grabbed the ax and a headlamp and
went out into the orchard to gather avocado wood of every imaginable size. I
had been in my new surroundings for only a few hours but had already received
the simple lesson that became central to my stay: heat is primary and
essential. All activity in life is based around heat energy. Without heat in
all its many forms, we stop. It’s not just about fire. Food, clothing and shelter
are all sources or keepers of heat. It’s heat that we use to thrive and
survive. Suddenly, reading and writing and musing about the condition of my
soul became very unimportant. I felt very connected to this first fire I had
just built. As I stared into the glistening light of the “caveman TV” I got a
glimpse of the reality of what wood and fire and heat mean to us, and how that
meaning has changed over the course of human history.

 

At this point I should admit that I
am not a trained anthropologist, paleontologist, expert on ancient culture or
historian, just a musician living in a tent trying to stay warm. These musing
on man and fire are based on some limited reading on the subject of ancient
life and, mostly, my imagination. So, don’t fact check me on what follows. I
won’t be writing, or reading, any wikipedia entries on Paleolithic human
populations of northern Europe any time soon. Enjoy the story.

 

***

 

Long, long ago, to be a cave
dwelling troglodyte was a pretty good deal. You were sheltered form weather and
you could eat your fresh kill in a closed space with only one opening to guard
against whatever other living creature might either want to eat your food, or
eat you AND your food. We were living pretty close to the way most other
mammals live. Fight or flight, an instinct that is still strong within us, was
the main mechanism for making decisions. We hunted, and we were hunted. We had
few tools. We scavenged and foraged during the day and when our only source of
heated air, the sun, disappeared behind the horizon we retreated to whatever
place we could find as well hidden from predators as possible. We needed the
safety of caves. We were cavemen and cavewomen.

 

We were probably aware of fire even
in this very primitive state. Lightning strikes, forest fires and fires caused
by lava were part of the natural world around us. It’s possible that we figured
out how to use these natural occurring fires before we even knew how to control
them. For example: Caveman to Cavewoman: “Grog hold boar meat up to burning
tree! Meat taste gooood!”

 

Eventually, about 1.5 million years
ago, we discovered that you could take a little piece of a lightning strike
back to your cave, set it on the ground and, if you kept adding tree parts to
it, maintain a fire right in your own caveman home. The ultimate timesaving
home invention. And the caveperson who discovered how to start a fire without
any previous flame at all, well, that was one genius homo erectus.

 

As controlled fire became a part of
human existence it solved many problems. It provided artificial light so we
could be more active into the evenings. We could cook both meat and plants,
which accelerated brain development through increased nutrition. It also warded
off bugs, animals and evil spirits. But, it also created problems. Not every
cave is well suited to fires. Breathing the smoke from burning carbon does not,
I’m pretty sure, increase brain development. So, with fire, we were both more
confident and more desperate to come out of our caves. Thus, the ancient
impetus of man-made shelter.

 

If we could design our own caves,
out in the open, that would pass the smoke of our fires while trapping in heat,
we’d be doing all right. Plus, they could still protect us from, at least,
predators if not pests. That’s what we did. Our ancient heat huts provided for
us. If you had one, you had an advantage. And humans are always looking for an
advantage.

 

So here we were, right out in the
middle of the world, in nature but surrounded by walls of our own design. We
were conscious of this. We felt, as we stepped into our protective structures,
disconnected from the natural world that I think we still feel today. That is
why we decorate the interiors of our structures with either things from nature
or arts and crafts that strive to mimic the beauty of nature even if there is
only a millimeter of canvas separating us from the stars. Of course, the most
beautiful object of interior design that can grace any space is a controlled
fire. At this point we had plenty of that. Caveman TV.

 

As our civilization progressed we
didn’t forget about our connections to caves. We returned to these stone wombs
of the earth to meet, worship and make art. Our first canvases were stone. The
caves represented the mysteries of our origins, which, even 50,000 years ago,
we had forgotten the truth of. We painted animals- our most important partners
in nature. Living sources of heat energy and magical sources of wisdom. By
firelight we painted animals on cave walls in which we no longer lived.

 

Once upon a time all humans were
generalists. In the beginning we were all directly involved in the procurement
of our own heat energy. We gathered our own fire fuel. We collected or killed
our own food. We made our own clothing and shelters. Slowly, over the millennia,
our activities became more and more specialized. Some people focused on growing
and providing food to the others of our civilization so that others could focus
solely on occupations necessary to human survival. The farmer traded goods with
the woodsman who traded with the carpenter and they were all protected from
predators (human or otherwise) by soldiers who swore their allegiance to the
king. He specialized in telling people what to do. Not sure why we ever needed
him. Probably for reasons that are also very ancient.

 

In modern times specialization has
reached almost absurd levels. Some individuals spend all of their time studying
one artist from the 1600’s. Or, one very specific application of calculus. Or,
the style and technique of drumming for an American northern California jam pop
rock band. The downside is that the more you specialize, the more dependent you
are on other specialists to provide the necessities of life which, by the way,
all now come in very specialized forms. You can’t fix the roof on your house
not only because you don’t know how, but also because it’s a very complex and
knowledge dense component for a very structured and refined shelter. You need a
specialist to do it. So, you hope to get paid as much as possible for your form
of specialization so you can hire others to help you live. All of the
specialists you rely on want to get paid as much as possible, too. Hello
economy, cash, corporations, hedge-fund managers, the World Bank and the IMF.
No matter how big the network gets, the basics of life NEVER change. Food.
Shelter. Clothing. Heat energy. The only thing that changes is our perception
of good and bad versions of these life-giving forms of heat.

 

Every time I would build a fire in
the wood-burning stove of my tent, the fire that was going to keep me warm and
dry for the night and cook my plants and protein, I was always amazed by that
first catch of flame. I was usually working with coals from the night before or
earlier in the day. So, like the cavemen, I wasn’t really starting from
scratch, just keeping the fire going. To build any fire, either from coals or a
match, you have to start with very small twigs. One little twig can catch
easily, but doesn’t really put out that much heat energy for very long. The key
is to have a bunch of twigs, which will collectively put out enough heat to
catch another layer of bigger twigs on fire. Those put out more heat and ignite
ever-larger pieces of wood. There was always a moment in the fire building when
the little twigs, deep at the bottom of a pile of branches and logs, would just
smoke over the smoldering coals. Then, in a single moment, with a little extra
breath on the embers, they would all ignite at once. The larger pieces of wood
would quickly follow, and in a matter of minutes a fire would be raging, the
tent would heat up and my world would be warm again. It’s like the spark of an
idea that catches. It’s small at first but with a little help it’s enough to
ignite a whole world. It could be a product, a book, a screenplay or a song.
But every time we strive to make our ideas reality, to heat up our surrounding
world with our thoughts and actions, we’re linking back up with the primal
energy giver-of-life. Fire.

 

One of the icons for ALO’s new
album, Man Of The World, is the
match, either ignited or dormant in a book, unused but with potential. Matches
are like ideas waiting to be lit. Waiting to bring fire. That’s what making an
album is like. Bringing the light of ideas into the world. One of the songs
“Time and Heat” talks about the mixed blessing of fire heat. “Time and heat is
all it takes / to build this castle up until it breaks.” Our control of energy
brought us out of the darkened world of animals, but it has also formed the
foundation of what our civilization has become. The potential of humans is
inextricably fused with the potential of fire to either sustain or destroy and
has produced a full spectrum of out comes for human life, from miraculous to
terrible.

 

What I want to do now is
despecialize. To take back some control of my own heat, not trade for it with
other specialists. I like the idea of this because I think I’ll feel more
empowered and maybe I can even work less and have more time to enjoy life and
nature. I want to find a piece of land that speaks to me. On that land I want
to find a place to build a fire. Once I have my fire spot picked out and a fire
built, I want to start living in that spot immediately, in whatever structure
presents itself for dwelling in. It could be a cabin, a teepee, a yurt, a tree
house, or a hunter’s tent. Slowly, I’ll build a more permanent shelter. One
that I can take care of myself and easily sustain. One that makes sense for my
family and me. At the center of the shelter will be my original fire that I
built my first night on the land. The fire will never stop burning.

 

 

 

The spankingly fine,
Jack Johnson-produced new ALO album
Man Of the World is released this week by Brushfire. The band also kicks off a lengthy tour
this week that includes a string of dates with Galactic – see below, and go to
their official website for more details.

 

 

ALO Tour d’Amour IV itinerary:
2/10/2010 Long Beach, CA – Fingerprints Record Store
2/11/2010 Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up Tavern
2/12/2010 Hermosa Beach, CA – Saint Rocke
2/13/2010 West Hollywood, CA – Troubadour
2/14/2010 Santa Barbara, CA – Soho Restaurant & Music Club
2/18/2010 Santa Cruz, CA – Moe’s Alley
2/19/2010 Crystal Bay, NV – The Crystal Bay Club/Crown Room
2/20/2010 San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
2/21/2010 Arcata, CA – Humboldt Brews

ALO on tour with Galactic itinerary:
2/24/2010 Bellingham, WA – The Nightlight
2/25/2010 Whistler, BC – Whistler Live! (Vancouver 2010 Olympics)
2/26/2010 Seattle, WA – Showbox
2/27/2010 Portland, OR – Roseland Theater

ALO east coast and festival tour itinerary:
5/18/2010 Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club
5/19/2010 Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
5/20/2010 Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl
5/21/2010 Philadelphia, PA – Theater of Living Arts
5/22/2010 Baltimore, MD – The 8×10
5/23/2010 Wilmington, NC – Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
5/24/2010 Charleston, SC – The Pour House
5/25/2010 Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
5/26/2010 Louisville, KY – TBD
5/27/2010 Indianapolis, IN – Rathskeller
5/28/2010 Chicago, IL – Martyr’s
5/29/2010 Chillicothe, IL – Summercamp Music Festival
6/4/2010 Ozark, AR – Wakarusa Music Festival
6/6/2010 Hunter, NY – Mountain Jam Festival
8/7/2010 Petaluma, CA – Petaluma Music Festival

 

 

 

 

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