Today we’d like to introduce you to Aaron Leibowitz.
Aaron, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in suburban Orange County where musicians were either extremely nerdy band geeks or played in insanely cool ska or punk bands. The first time I heard a saxophone in a jazz band it appealed to me like a human voice with a sweetness that gave me goosebumps.
Around 2nd grade, I asked my dad if I could play saxophone and one thrilling afternoon he brought one home that he purchased, not rented. Early on I took private lessons with Jason Freese, who is now the keyboardist for Green Day. He was a big reason I pursued music the way I did. Jason showed me the cooler side of working hard at your craft. That it wasn’t just about getting the 1st chair, but there was a lifestyle and scene that came with music.
To me, this was a driving factor for getting better at the academic aspects of the instrument. Even though I studied jazz and learned theory, I was always attracted to singer-songwriters and popular music artists. While other sax players talked about which standards they knew and enjoyed competing for top dog at festivals, I was more interested in trying to jam with artists who had an audience, even if the music didn’t align with what I was studying in school.
My brother turned me on to singer Jason Mraz when he was attending USCD in San Diego. Jason was playing at local coffee shops at the time and my brother Danny may have been among some of his earliest fans. I would go with him to LA and San Diego to watch Jason play small rooms and he encouraged me to try to play with him. I decided to take his advice and approached Jason’s friend Bushwalla after his show at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. That interaction led to me driving to LA to participate in open mics at coffee shops hosted by Bushwalla and one day Jason joined in.
I soon found myself on stage with the guy I was just watching a couple of weeks before at Hotel Cafe. They continued to invite me to do these open mic jams at Lulu’s Beehive in the valley and Gotham Hall in Santa Monica and one night Jason asked me to play with him at Hotel Cafe where I had just seen him perform a few weeks prior. As a 16 yr old jamming with an up and coming pop star, I found myself getting pulled into a world full of new experiences and people that were much more interesting than anything I experienced in high school. Jason asked me to play a handful of shows at this time that led to an invite to perform at the Gorge in Washington state where we played a side stage for Dave Matthews.
Like out of a dream, Dave pulls out in a golf cart with DVD cameras while I’m on stage and Jason invites him up to take his guitar. Just a couple months after I decide to talk to Jason’s friend about how to connect since I play saxophone, I’m on stage performing with Dave Matthews at the Gorge in Washington with a bunch of DVD cameras shoved in my face at age 17. Dave ended up releasing a DVD including parts of this performance and the story was written up in Rolling Stone. This experience was beautiful and special because I got to share it with my brother and his friend and it literally felt like the rest of my life would unfold perfectly that day. However, Jason eventually stopped calling me to play with him and I was just another kid playing saxophone trying to get into college.
I found a new chapter at UCLA where I studied Ethnomusicology and jazz and found that I wasn’t as good at music as I thought I was. The music scene at UCLA wasn’t a great fit for me, but I probably learned more there because of that. I met some great people and started a funk band called The Goop and afrobeat band, Pangea Collective, with good friend Will Magid who remains a colleague and incredible trumpeter/producer. Will introduced me to afrobeat and Fela Kuti which drove my passion for music in a new direction. I found that afrobeat connected my love for funk, groove, and jazz in a perfect way and that I had a natural tendency for the rhythms and melodies.
Leaving college, I was a freelancer who was down for just about any gig but wasn’t getting called for the usual saxophone work like cocktail jazz, lounge gigs, weddings etc. I decided it was time to start my own project and this way I would be in control of my fate.
The Vibrometers was initially an extension of the Pangea Collective afrobeat/funk sound with an all-star lineup of my favorite musicians I had access to. The band was birthed initially by myself and good friend Christian Wunderlich who was also a part of Pangea Collective and later on became Mayer Hawthorne’s touring guitarist. We ended up having to deconstruct the band and rebuild it because the original players were so busy with other projects and had that pro musician mentality of not accepting work unless the bread was right.
My vision was different because I knew that investing in something you own for less money is different than offering your skills to someone else who asks you to invest gratis. The Vibrometers played as a bar band at spots in LA like Sassafras, The One-Eyed Gypsy, Villain’s Tavern, and Seven Grand regularly for about 8 years. I never pushed marketing too heavily and we only recorded 2 demos the entire time we were together, so not much came of the band other than some incredible nights where we blew people’s minds as a local bar band that sounded like a well oiled touring machine.
On a significant side note, I attended USC to get a masters degree as a back up to music around this time and landed a corporate job working at Warner Bros as a digital analyst for the next 5 1/2 years. The entire time I’m working this full-time job I continued to commit time and energy into my own music project and frequently show up to work on time in the morning with 3 hours of sleep and the music from the nightclub I just performed at still in my ears. I worked steady jobs at big companies like P Diddy’s Revolt, Fuse TV, and Edelman PR as a digital analyst while I tried to make the financial side of music work for me. This was exhausting and soul-sucking, but necessary to make my life work.
The next part of my story really deviates into my experience attending festivals like Lightning in a Bottle starting when I was 25 and then eventually experiencing Burning Man twice. As someone who had absolutely no experience with drugs or music festivals, my first LIB felt like a culture shock yet strangely divine, like finding the birthplace I knew my soul was from but didn’t think existed on this planet. My friend Christian Wunderlich who I mentioned earlier, took me on this journey and we continued to attend the festival with a group of friends in the next few years.
I snuck into LIB my 2nd year because the festival was sold out and I somehow ended up on their famous Woogie stage with Jeremey Soul (KCRW DJ). My life as a musician has been a story of self-doubt and insecurity as a “legit” musician who then finds confidence and love in the right places which in return bring me into insanely special opportunities that could only happen by taking risks other musicians would likely dismiss. Eventually, I began to come back to LIB and was invited to perform at the Grand Artique stage for a few years and the culture of this festival became part of my musical identity to some degree.
By the time I got the email that Zhu, an electronic artist initially famous for the hit single Faded, was looking for a sax player, I was readily immersed in the culture of EDM festivals. Mutual friend Wes Switzer was running sound and helping with personnel recs for Zhu and made the introduction on good faith. Initially, I wasn’t sure if Zhu was going to be a one show opportunity or the next phase of my life, but as I began working with him and guitarist Mitch Bell, I found that we were on a journey together. My first show with Zhu was at Crssd festival in San Diego playing right before The Flaming Lips for a crowd of about 20K people. I continued to play a few more festivals that year with Zhu and then got asked to do a nationwide bus tour.
For this entire period, I kept my day job at Fuse TV who allowed me a leave of absence to tour the country and Canada. It was surreal to be in a position where I was juggling a full-time day job at a TV network and also touring the country with an up and coming electronic music star. I felt so close to finally landing on my feet as a musician in a project that fit my musical taste and meshed with my personality.
Today I no longer have a day job, I tour with Zhu full time and we have toured Asia, Australia, Europe, and the states. We frequently rent Airbnb homes in cities we tour to and write and record together while enjoying life. The next few months we have two tours in Europe and then a 2-month nationwide bus tour that ends at the famous Red Rocks. This year we headlined Lightning in a Bottle. I feel blessed beyond words.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The primary struggle has been juggling a day career as a digital analyst while pursuing a career in music. I think my success as a digital analyst has actually made it harder in some ways. I have found myself in a full-time career type of positions at Warner Bros and Fuse TV. After some time, the passion and excitement for staying out late at a music club or practicing your craft after a 10 hour work day fades. It is easy to just submit to the paycheck and stability of a work life with benefits and paid vacation.
Aside from balancing work with music, I found that my skill set as a sax player interested in most other styles of music other than jazz made it difficult to get along in certain circles in LA. The music trends among musicians can be very pretentious and snooty. I found it difficult to pursue music outside of what a saxophone was conventionally supposed to be for and still get called for work. Eventually, I found my niche.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Aaron Leibowitz – what should we know?
I am primarily known as a saxophonist. I’m also a bandleader and have developed my own projects over the years, most notably The Vibrometers and currently my newest project Cannibal Catering Company.
I am also the saxophonist for Zhu, which puts me in a unique situation as a horn player in electronic music. I’ve learned to adapt using fx pedals and now a multi-fx processor with a pick-up drilled into my mouthpiece which allows me to create a more wide range of textures and sounds.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Jason Freese – my early teacher who taught me how to play the horn and inspired me to be a musician. He is currently the touring keyboard player in Green Day and showed me that music can be your personality and voice.
Christian Wunderlich – my good friend and guitarist. Christian has been my mentor and guide through my music and life journey. He is one of the baddest guitarists in LA and plays for Mayer Hawthorne. I played my first real gig with him at La Cave in Costa Mesa and attended my first music festival with Christian. Pretty much everything cool and interesting I learned about music came from Christian.
Will Magid – As a saxophone player, it is important to know other good horn players.
Will was my first real horn connection in college. He showed me music from Africa and inspired me to be more than a sax player. Without Will, I would not have started my own bands and had so many amazing experiences playing out.
Mitch Bell – Mitch is currently my biggest influence. He works with me in Zhu as the guitarist, songwriter, and co-producer. He is one of those guys that can do everything perfectly and it sort of doesn’t make any sense. The cool thing about Mitch is he is also one of the nicest and funniest people on top of how damn talented he is. We have a great time together.
Yero Brown, Ariel Hart