Interview with Aloha

Ask someone how they’d describe the band Aloha, and they’re probably going to say, “that band with the vibraphone.” Because for the course of seven years and two albums (plus assorted EPs and 7″s) on the well-known Polyvinyl Records, Aloha’s sound has no-doubt been defined by the emphasis on vibraphone, perhaps one of the most unique instruments to ever grace an indie-rock song.

It’s not common a band can be defined so readily based on a single instrument, but then singer/songwriter Tony Cavallario says vibraphone player Eric Koltnow’s work was like “Jimmy Hendrix on vibraphone,” an omnipresent sound that still vibed perfectly with the band’s light and jazzy style of pop music.

So fans of the band’s previous work might be surprised to know that Koltnow has left the band. More surprising, though, is how the band survived the change in members – nearing a breakup in the winter of 2003 – and emerged with a new album that showcases a style that’s simultaneously true to the band’s signature sound yet also moves in a new direction.

“I can tell that people who were fans of the old records, the wish – and to some extent, I wish – that there was a weird-sounding part that went on longer, like before, or something,” says Cavallario. “But I’m really happy with the record. I think we have the lighter tones we had before, but there’s enough change. Even if the next one is a rock album, this would make a good transition.”

The transition wasn’t an easy one, though. After a disastrous tour in 2002 – the band couldn’t tour on the release of its second album, Sugar, and then during the tour Koltnow had to leave to be with his girlfriend during the birth of their child – Koltnow left the band. Cavallario described the move as “Just a decision we made. It wasn’t handled well or anything.”

Cavallario said the band’s show at CMJ that year ended with a personal meltdown. “I ended up quitting, saying I wanted the band to be over.” But during that time, he continued to make music with longtime friend T.J. Lipple, a partner in Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios, and Lipple ended up joining Aloha when Cavallario and fellow Aloha members Matt Gengler (bass) and Cale Parks (drum kit, keys) decided not to form a new band. A long – and often painful, Cavallario points out – recording process later resulted in the band’s third full-length, Here Comes Everyone.

It just so happens that Lipple, besides being a producer, is also drummer and percussionist, and both he and Parks can contribute vibraphone parts to the new album. Lipple’s biggest contributions, though, might be the mix of marimba and mellotron, the latter a homemade instrument that he uses to reproduce the sounds of a full string quartet.

“It’s kind of like having a strong section on tape,” Cavallario says. “It’s a little more hazy and natural sounding than synth-string, real obvious sounding.”

The new album also has another rarity in indie rock these days: some prominent, albeit short, guitar solos. Perhaps because of the lack of vibraphone, which previously played a prominent role in every song, Cavallario found room for a few fuzzed-out guitar moments, such as on the rocking “Summer Away.”

“Guitar solos can really take a song to the next level. In Aloha, the band we talk about and listen to more than anything is Led Zeppelin. With Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was actually emotionally detracting from what was going on musically. All the emotion comes from music, mainly Jimmy Page, and that’s a testament to what you can say with a guitar that can’t be said any way else. If we could be more like that, we would be.”

The guitar solos are only one example of how the remaining Aloha members found it freeing to develop and change their sound. The result is an album that puts more of a focus on pure pop songwriting, filled with hooks and even a long piano ballad (“Perry Como Gold”). Cavallario says the ability to try new things was freeing.

“It’s great. It is in the sense that we can write a little ditty, and that’s all there is to it. If we’re making a little pop song and we like it, it’s good enough,” he says. And of the jazz feel the vibraphone provided: “We don’t listen to that much jazz anymore. We listen to a lot of old, 60s pop music, stuff that is more song-based, so I think the change is inevitable.”

Still, the band’s trademark sound – a light, airy, and often jazzy approach to pop – is present on Here Comes Everyone. Ironically, Cavallario says it was Lipple, the new member, who kept the band on track that way.

“T.J. is a person with a lot of respect for Eric and the band’s back catalogue. I think the rest of us wanted to sound as differently as we could, but T.J. was the one who had perspective. He understood what was good about the band and what people liked about the band. It was his outside perspective that helped provide continuity.”

Even with both Lipple and Parks being able to play the vibraphone and the other unique percussive instruments the band included on its new album, selecting songs from the Aloha back catalogue to play on tour is a difficult process. The whole band feels that Koltnow’s incredible instrumentation couldn’t easily be replaced.

“There are some songs I would never try to approximate. They’d have to be totally rewritten,” he says. “But then, I go back and forth whether people have actually heard the old records sometimes.”

Despite residing in different cities and different states – Cavallario recently relocated to DOA’s home of Rochester, NY – the band still gets together regularly to practice and tour. The first tour for Here Comes Everyone starts this week in Rochester, and Cavallario says he’s eager to get out on the road. Oddly enough, he says it’s no harder to tour with a vibraphone, marimba, and mellotron as it would be for a more conventional rock band.

“We’ll always bring as much stuff as we possibly can, but it’s not that difficult. You see a band on stage with two Marshall half-stacks and a drum kit with four toms and other gear, and they have more stuff than we do. T.J. just brings his marimba, sampler, organ, and electric piano, and with all those things we’ve been able to play every song on the new album and a few selected older cuts.”

That will give the band the ability to continue to please the old fans – the ones who came to love Aloha’s vibraphone-led jazzy structures – and the new ones who will likely find the catchy and unique indie pop a big draw. Cavallario hints that a solo album may be in the works as well.

“The unfortunate thing about a solo album is, I want to do it, and I want to benefit from the idea that people might be interested in it because of Aloha, but I also want to make sure it doesn’t sound anything like Aloha. I just want to sit in a room with a recorder and play guitar and sing. I want to defy expectations.”

Always a band to defy expectations, with or without the vibraphone, Aloha is definitely worth seeing on tour. And the new album shows a mature band taking a new direction while still staying true to what got them there.