One thing about doing a magazine like this that I really like, is the fact that we can bring you artists that over time that have struck a chord in our lives. One such band for me has been The Vigilantes of Love. I was able to spend a few minutes on the phone with Bill Mallonee and talk about what’s happened with the band. If you haven’t heard of VOL, you should definitely check them out. If you are familiar with Bill and his work, I hope you find this interesting.
BT: The Vigilantes have been basically you and players. Now that you’re basically doing your own thing where do you go from here?
BM: Well the first thing, the Vigilantes have always been a cheap form of therapy in some ways, for somebody whose been given to cyclical depression most of his life. I think that’s made the songs, whether that’s the Vigilantes, as a full on rock band, or just my with an acoustic guitar with a little bit of embellishment here and there. It’s made it a privatized view of things. You know maybe we were talking about issues of love and loss or faith or whatever it’s always been kind of highly privatized. I think that’s why a lot of my songs never get covered. We’ve got 12 records over the span of 10 years; we’ve always toured our tales off anyway. We’ve been out there I mean probably more so than a lot of other college bands. I always thought that VOL was basically an Athens, Georgia college band that seems to be able to, not necessarily recreate itself, but move from record to record and get the job done, and live to tell about it, and then do it again. Because, most of the other bands that I’ve met up and down the east coast, and in the mid west that were sort of doing close to what we were doing. They’d do maybe five records and they’re gone, that’s the end of it. They’d just go away, they just couldn’t seem to develop a fan base that stays with them; they’re just a host of complex variables. There were other entities that the band was attached to professionally, that didn’t support the band where they said they would, in the manner that we were expecting them to, and that’s why there’s no VOL. We’ve always been able to independently make a record and sell lots of records.
I went through a huge grieving process, the guys that had been in the band, had been there maybe four years for me. Kevin and Jake, and we’ve made probably 100 to 150 songs together, maybe more than that, just as a band that went in and out. We didn’t record all of them, but that’s a lot of music for guys to get in and around in a four year span. But those guys are friends, and your doing 150 shows a years with your friends in a van and all of a sudden that dynamic is no longer at play in your life, there’s a grieving process that’s gone through. Between December and January, that’s what I went through (that grieving process) with the band, I got really angry, then disbelief, like sure we could get back in the van and do this thing again. But, we were so in debt. We were in crushing debt at the end of last year, we had never been that way before in 10 years, that’s what ended up killing us. I was selling guitars, and not paying myself salary on the road.
BT: That’s tough
BM: It sounds like a sob story, like the rhyme of the ancient mariner, like I’ve got to unload my tale of whoa on somebody. We always found a way to land on our feet, but this time it seemed like we were prevented from doing that. Because the label became so adversarial and unwilling to push the record, they wanted to blame it all on 9-11. There is some truth to that, 9-11 killed a lot of records for a lot of bands that were doing it on our level. We came back to them in February and said why don’t you re-release the record, I mean look at the title, it’s “Summershine” it’s a spring, summer fall in love, really cool record. They weren’t going to do it. They wouldn’t hear of it. In spite of the fact that the record had gotten four and five star reviews here in America, and the UK. So they just took and adversarial stance, so we just said we don’t need you, and you don’t need us, so we’re getting out of here. So that’s kind of where it went. But, it’s been a creative time for me; probably creatively it’s been best time since the time before I wrote “audible sigh” I’ve probably written 30, 35 songs since December. Some of it was therapeutic, some of it was just like, ok I have to get my brain around these incongruous feelings that are swinging all across the spectrum. I just put them in the tunes. I knew kind of by the second week of January. We had a meeting in my kitchen, VOL there’s no way to do it, we can’t get back in that truck. It’s easier for me to go out and sneak down the debt a little bit at a time, as a solo artist. I’m inspired to do it, I really like it, obviously it started that way to begin with. In some ways, it always starts that way with every song. Me with an acoustic, or electric guitar, a sketch, some lyrics and I bring the band into it. The only thing missing now is I don’t have a band to really test that on. I’d like to expand that with another group of players, that are willing to go out and let the stuff grow up. I think right now, I’m going to release indy, solo records, probably three of four a year. Probably nuance them with local players, and stuff like that; some of them may be ex-Vigilantes guys, and just other things. I’ve been listening a lot to stuff that involves string quartets, keyboards, and ambient noisy kind of things that are kind of cool. Not necessarily straight Americana, but something that sort of bends it, twist it, and fractures it a little bit. A lot of the songs are dark, and a lot of them are swinging on the other side, they’re very affirming, but we’ll see what happens. I think at the pace that I write songs anyway; it’s not uncommon for me to crank out four to seven songs in a week sometimes. I kind of needed an outlet. So I think we’ll end up doing limited runs, internet available only, and you can buy them from us on the road obviously. Doing those kinds of records pressing up 1500 at a time, things that basically pay for themselves with pre-orders.
BT: you’ve always been sort of heart on your sleeve songwriter. You’ve mentioned that it’s therapeutic, but is it hard to be that open?
BM: I think you have to skew it just a little bit. I think some of it’s in code. I think my writing when you look at it, I think your right, it’s confessional, and its therapeutic to do it, but I don’t think it’s word for word, line for line completely auto biographical. It’s sort of like there can be a nuance out of your experience and you can couch it in code or a different term and it’s not like you have to follow it. Storyteller kind of writers, guys that do that very well, like a Cockburn or Pierce Pettis, or somebody like that. I think they write very linear type of songs. Songs that go from point A, to B, to C on down the line. That doesn’t interest me that much, but I think those guys are great writers in their own way. I can write a storyteller type song, but if you take a “Port of Entry” or “Resplendent” there’s a little bit of something about it, that’s going back and forth between like a point in time, something in the future, something happens as an observer watching the person doing the wrestling. So I sort of step out of the first person, which makes them a little strange sometimes. Like I said earlier, they feel privatized to me. Because they’re not linear, because the have collage effect to them. People have told me they like the songs because they don’t know exactly what they’re about but they can find little bits and pieces of their experience in them so they like listening to the songs over and over again. I think that’s a good thing. I like without trying to be commercial, there more inclusive, more people can actually put a little bit of their experience inside the songs. Rather than sort of a paint by number pop song.
BT: You mentioned 9-11, do you think that after that, there’s been a change in the cultural landscape towards your style of writing and music?
BM: That’s a good question, I don’t know. Can I ask you that question back? I loosely call what I do, College Americana, the themes are confessional, a privatized kind of way of looking at things. I write in sort of a confessional stance, the good days, and the black days and all that stuff. Genre wise is College Americana, so I can pick and choose all over the place. Nobody would ever listen to “She is Fading” and confuse that with a country rock song. If you throw the doors open a little bit wider and say Americana is Springsteen and Tom Petty, well then we fit in that pretty handsomely. It’s not just about one thing anymore; this has kind of been my gripe about the no depression movement to a certain extent. None of us that are suburban white middle class kids, none of us grew up with any kind of afflictions or sufferings that bred that sort of music initially. We didn’t ride the rails, like Johnny Cash, or Waylon Jennings, and we didn’t do time in a prison, or pick cotton like Johnny Cash. We didn’t do that sort of thing; we didn’t grow up with that. Most of the bands I know are white college educated, middle class kids that had all the benefits of that sort of trappings, but they heard in country music, or country rock in things like that, or in Dylan or Neil Young. I mean Dylan and Neil Young are the kings right there. They heard something that allowed them to get inside that sound with their soul, that sort of made it a little more urban, it didn’t just lock it away to hayseed guys playing bluegrass music. It made it a little more expansive, so that they can include their experience, so it’s not for nothing that you can draw a line from Dylan to Springsteen to Paul Westerberg from the Replacements. That line actually exists amongst listeners if you clean up their steps, you can see where they’re coming from. It’s pretty cool, I think VOL you can include in that I think there’s a line that goes back through all that stuff. Obviously, Dylan got it from Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family and that kind of thing. It’s a heritage I supposed. The heritage has to expand a little bit every time, or it becomes a paint by numbers rendition of something someone else has already done.
9-11, I don’t know, has it made people realize their mortality? I guess it has, I don’t know why people didn’t know that before. I don’t want to sound self righteous, but I say that as a person that’s committed to a Christian worldview. Obviously one of the tenants of Christian faith is that you have this side of eternity and that side of eternity to live upon. One of those truths is that your mortal, this isn’t all there is too it. It’s one of those things where everybody has to step back from the big picture and say wow, we grieve and we sorrow for things that shouldn’t have happened. It was just a diabolically motivated sort of thing. I think people have always known that they won’t live forever. People have always known that there are other things going on in this world then whether or not they made their six figures and got their commission last year. I think that if anything it seemed to indicate to me anyway that people were starting to reexamine those questions. The things that we’re valuing, the flesh and blood stuff, like family and relationships, realizing you know just because walk off to work in the morning doesn’t mean your coming back in the evening.
BT: Do you like your role in the Christian market; you’re part of it, but not really a part of it?
BM: I like being known as a believer. I think it’s cost us commercially in the big world. I think there are people who think the band has an agenda. My attitude to that is maybe we do and maybe we don’t, but every songwriter has an agenda. It’s just whether that agenda is aggressive or passive or in the form of being an observer. However you observe, however that observation makes you, you have an agenda. There’s a code that you live by. If nothing out there means anything and it’s all random, just a reductionistic, materialistic world view, or if you believe there’s a God behind things making beautiful things out of ugly things. For me I think it’s hurt us commercially, because I’ve been fairly vocal about that, not necessarily in the songs, but in interviews. That sort of stuff makes the rounds, and it’s hurt us in the secular market. In the Christian market, we don’t talk the buzz language and we’ve had a reputation of sort of pushing the envelope a little too much in different ways. So we’re only known by a handful of people over there. I have some kind of axe to grind with the Contemporary Christian Music market. Not in a personal way necessarily. But for the amount of yip yap that goes on over there, particularly in the Nashville version of CCM about faith and art and culture, that whole interface. I think it’s just another marketing tool, I think it’s pretty much just a scam. The bands that they always champion make money in the CCM market and now they’re just rewriting their history. It’s sort of an act of revisionist history that they’re engaged in. I have friends in those bands, and all of a sudden it’s like everybody wants to be relevant in the world, and all that sort of stuff. If that’s the case why did you make your living playing cushy youth group gigs for five years before you got your secular distribution thing, and then you had to go back recreate your past? For us, I regret the fact that VOL has had to play more church gigs than I think we should have. But my attitude as a songwriter is like; I’ll just go wherever the money is. Not to take a mercenary stance. It’s like, if somebody wants to pay the band to come in, if it’s a youth pastor, or somebody like that, who knows about VOL, they generally know what the bands about. They know that they’re probably not going to get an altar call. I do like playing in churches for the simple reason that I can be a little less speaking in code about what my motivations are, and what makes my life a beautiful thing. When I pick up my guitar and sing a song, whether it’s in a church or in a bar, I’m not out to convert the person, that’s not my primary thing. If they want to come up and ask me later on what those things are about, hopefully someone will come up and say I really liked that. I’ll ask them what they liked about it. People are hurting, this is back on the 9-11 thing, basically what 9-11 did was it awakened a whole nation to the fact that we are spiritually hungry. Sometimes it seems the church itself is spiritually starving. The people who hadn’t considered spiritual things or their own mortality, for twenty thirty years, were all of a sudden were realizing that there are things that make life significant. And there are things that make love a real reality; it’s not something illusionary. I think it’s something that’s made people ask some hard questions, I think it’s a golden opportunity for Christians that have the truth to display something of the charity and love of Christ. Because that’s the kind of healing that a nation that basically been immersed in an extremely affluent and materialistic culture, that’s the kind of thing they need.