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Bill Mallonee - The Triste Interview
|Bill Mallonee was the lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and guiding light of the Vigilantes Of Love - a band from out of Athens, Texas. A relatively late starter as a full-time musician Mallonnee has been making up for lost time ever since. Triste caught up with him at the Band On The Wall, Manchester in 2000, where he was touring in support of his critically praised current album "Audible Sigh". More recently Mallonee has moved away from the alt-country flavours of his earlier material and has taken to recording and performing as a solo act.
Triste: If you had to define the music created by the Vigilantes of Love to a stranger who had never heard your records, how would you describe it?
Bill Mallonee: Well, I'd say it's a pretty visceral, organic kind of passionate roots-rock, which tends to deal with themes which are not typically country and western, like getting pissed in the bar and going home with somebody else's wife, it tends to be a little bigger in terms of its subject matter. Some of these themes are spiritual, some of which are seeking, some are kind of yearning things, but I hear similar kind of stuff when I listen to people like Steve Earle, Hank Williams and even older kind of artists. What turned me onto music to begin with were those bigger themes and that's kind of where the Vigilantes are at. I know everybody needs a name tag, but I think it's a misnomer to say its country-alt because to me there's nothing really country about it. The stuff I associate with country is people who really did grow up picking cotton, riding the rail or doing time. People like Johnny Cash are authentic, whereas I think the rest of us are just poseurs, and I don't mean it in a bad way, I just think we live vicariously off those experiences. I think that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy out of Uncle Tupelo would say the same thing; they wrote their own experiences within that genre of music and that's very much what the Vigilantes have done. I tell people that it's just a passionate, thinking person's folk-rock band and if you need a niche for it, that's where it goes.
Triste: Winding back to the start. I believe you were 30 years old when you first picked up a guitar. So what made you decide to take up guitar at an age when most people are thinking about settling down?
Bill Mallonee: I was a drummer. I 'd played drums all my life, and drummers don't count. It's like the old joke - drummers are just people who like to hang out with the band. I felt like I had something to say and I'd always written poems, free verse and prose, so I got a guitar one summer, a friend lent me a 4 track recorder and I wrote 15 songs. I had two friends who were really experienced in bass and drums and we basically went off into a woodshed and lived there for four years, while I was teaching at school. We had three or dates a week and would spend three or four hours just playing the songs. And I'd be writing more and I'd get to a point where I was writing 60 songs a year in the late 80's. By the time we really started to make records I had a huge stockpile of songs to choose from and felt like I had "found my voice". I had gone through all that stuff where kids go through at high school where they stay at home and mimic Led Zeppelin riffs or AC/DC riffs or whatever they're into. I had gone through that in a very compressed amount of time to sort out what we were doing. But my biggest influence in music would have to be people like Dylan and Neil Young and then the new school things, obviously coming from Athens REM were a huge influence on us. Even the way they did things: like, get into the van - go.
Triste: So this was your "passionate, thinking person's folk-rock"?
Bill Mallonee: Yes. Definitely geared more towards college students who went really looking for an amalgamation of things. That's why I think REM were brilliant early on in the mid-80's. I think people heard everything from Lou Reed to The Byrds (with that whole Rickenbacker sound) to even some of the post punk bands in their sound. You heard it and thought, "I've heard that before, but than again I haven't heard that before," and that's what it does, it grows and metamorphosises into something else and hopefully if we're doing our job that's what our records should be about. We did three independent records and one with Peter Buck, called Killing Floor, got picked up by Capricorn Records, and we started touring the US and the tours went from three or four months of the year up to five to six months of the year. Capricorn were good for four albums and we were in this market called the Triple A category which stands for Adult Alternative Album - it's very similar to what Bob [Harris] plays on his shows on Radio 2, but it was typically a little more poppy, in the States. We did the college circuit and became critics' darlings, although we weren't selling many records, partially because there was never been any money to market the band. It was basically four guys beating it up and down the coasts of the US playing 180 dates a year. It was just a formula for demoralisation, but I kept at it, because obviously I had more emotional coins in it, so sometimes I'd be out by myself doing the acoustic singer-songwriter thing. Other times I'd gather a band and each year we'd make a record or two and get out and do it.
Triste: How do those very early songs stand up now? Do they lack some kind of maturity in comparison to your current work?
Bill Mallonee: I don't think they all stand up, but somewhere about the time we were signed to Capricorn, I realised that this is the thing that I do well and this is the thing that maybe makes me a little more unique than say the next fellow or the next woman who's doing it and you've got to focus on that. So from Killing Floor onwards it felt pretty focused, I don't think we made a made bad records. The records have a tendency to be somewhat conceptual with a theme running through them. A lot of them are just about this notion of being out up and on the road where the safety net is not there and you're taking this huge risk in leaving friends and loved ones and lives. You're basically saying "We're gonna chase this dream" and hope that in some sense it's worth it. But your kind of making up a lot of it up as you go along and that has fuelled a lot of the songs.
Triste: When did you finally give up your day job and become a full-time musician.
Bill Mallonee: It was pretty early on, maybe '92, no, probably earlier. You know, I really loved the sort of magic that can happen in a small club when you're playing with just a guitar. I played the Briton's Protection solo last year and I played here [The Band On The Wall] with Jolene. I love that magic when there's three or four people on stage and something happens and it's a beautiful thing.
Triste: How do you feel playing with a band compares with playing solo?
Bill Mallonee: Very different. I tend to prefer the band thing. I think playing solo is good for about 45 minutes. I remember when I was on my solo tour that I got a chance to play with Martin Stephenson of the Daintees. He's now refashioned himself as almost a delta blues guitar player and he's got all the technique, all the persona and the charisma on stage. I think I do too, but I'm more of a first position strummer guy with a little bit of filigree work. I could listen to him for hours; I could listen to myself playing solo for about half an hour!
Triste: Unless you're a great instrumentalist or your personality shines out it's very hard to grab hold of an audience's attention and keep it through a solo set. You've got to vary things with different instrumentations, styles and tempo.
Bill Mallonee: I play rack harmonica pretty well. It's like early Dylan - it's ear candy. You're saying, "Here's the guitar, here are the words, here's something to distract you for a while and now back to the song". Going back to the intimacy of venues, I do think a lot of rock and roll is designed to be played in small venues. Clearly there are bands who can play in large arenas. For example, I was a big fan of the Who when I was a kid. Live at Leeds was one of my favourite albums. I don't know how large a place it was recorded in, but it sounds like a huge sound is coming off stage.
Triste: It was recorded, I think, at Leeds University Students' Union and I don't think it was a particularly large room - I think it was a medium-large sized hall.
Bill Mallonee: I know there's a place for putting on rock and roll in bigger venues, but it becomes more about theatre than it does about music.
Triste: Yes, you think straight away of Pink Floyd building their wall across the stage or the Rolling Stones with their inflatable giant Honky Tonk Women.
Bill Mallonee: If I had a chance to hear "Honky Tonk Women" or "Brown Sugar" in a room that could hold 200 people, then I'd be there, but I do think that rock and roll is about getting in peoples faces. It might be more about entertainment in an arena, but it loses that organic magic that happens in a small room full of people. We played Glasgow a couple of nights ago, and numbers-wise it was the lowest of the tour and only about 30 people came. But it's always been my attitude that it doesn't matter if there are two people there or 20, we'd play as if there were 2000 people there. And that way it's good for us and it's good for the 30 people who turned out and next time you play they'll bring a friend along and 60 people will show up. That's the way to build an audience up. I love that kind of challenge.
Triste: But surely you must be discouraged when you come all the way from the States and you're playing to an audience of a few dozen people. Don't you get discouraged?
Bill Mallonee: I'd have this conversation with bands who have done pretty well. I asked them, "Tell me, was there a single point in time when you played a show or did an interview and the next day it was different and after that you didn't look back?" And they said, "No, it was more like waking up and realising that things had been going pretty well for a while and that it was an accumulative effect of things". Some things they'd engineered and other things were just the luck of the draw. Okay, maybe their audiences had grown bigger and their record sales had increased, but there was never one moment in time when they thought they'd got there. I think it's that blue collar work ethic of keeping playing your music and doing what you do best. The sort of thing we have going over here. There's people here Matt [Hill], Clint[West] and Simon [Dennis] who thought the band was really good and worth listening to and decided we were worth putting on [as part of the Cosmic American Music Club]. Good word of mouth goes past all the hype and adverts and radio play.
Triste: I notice the band is down to a three piece since last time you played here.
Bill Mallonee: We had a fourth member of the band until last December. KC (Kenny Hutson) had been in the band for two years but he went back to school. He plays mandolin, pedal steel and very Neil Young style guitar. He's very into that Son Volt/Boquist style of lead work. He's got a serious girlfriend. It's all those things that split a band up a bit. We're still good friends and he had a strong musical influence on Audible Sigh. We're going to work up the material from a different style to play as a three piece.
Triste: In the early days of the band much was made of your strong Christian views. Can you explain a little about this?
Bill Mallonee. Right. I tell people that I'm a Christian and I don't make any bones about it. But usually I'd rather tell people what that isn't rather than what it is. To me it's very simple. It's about having a relationship with Jesus. That's it. It doesn't mean organised religion. It doesn't mean I have an agenda. It doesn't mean when I'm singing a song that I'm trying to convert you to my point of view. It doesn't mean that - ever. It never has been. We have a fairly strong following of people in the US who would describe themselves as evangelical Christians, not fundamentalists, but sort of thinking Christians. They're very involved in things like human rights issues; they're very involved in small city level issues. They're really trying to act and do the things that Jesus would do. I'm glad to be part of that, no matter what. But the bigger thing is that I don't want to use the buzz language - you're not going to hear that on my records. I think life is very precious. The older I get, the more mysterious life is and I'm just trying to make songs that try to get people to realise that. Even though we're in the 21st century, with a philosophy that's says we're barely above animals and we've got technology, which is almost more important than humans, I want to say, "Wait a minute. Wait one minute! There's got to be a little room for romanticism you know - that's not the whole story". Sometimes you've got to pull back from all the madness that's going on out there and listen to something that's going on inside you. That doesn't necessarily mean being a Christian or even being spiritual - it just means allowing yourself to be human. And that's the end of it. That's all there is. There is no agenda. Some people think "He's a Christian, he's going to try and save me". That's not where it's at.
Triste: But don't your lyrics get misinterpreted. Whenever you use a word like "sin", which features in many pop songs, you must realise there's also a different context and meaning behind that which differs from commonplace usage?
Bill Mallonee: I've never used that in a song. That's a buzz word. It doesn't mean anything to me. I mean, I know the theological context, but it doesn't mean that to most people here - it's like putting up a red flag up a pole. I'm not interested in that. My philosophy is very much confessional. As a writer, that's about it. When I was in my late teens I was committed to hospitalisation for depression for years. I wasn't in there all the time, but I struggled with it for years. Nobody's ever "All better now" or "All fixed up", you learn how to deal with your weak links and how to struggle with it. For me that was what I did. And this is me. It might not be your story, but it's mine and if that's not your thing, then there's always Britney Spears out there!
Triste: Did you find writing the songs a cathartic experience?
Bill Mallonee: Incredibly, and it's cathartic performing too.
Triste: But when you were in the depths of depression, surely it's very difficult to do even the basic things, like managing to get up out of bed, never mind start working on songs?
Bill Mallonee: Well that's the difference. When I was a teenager with depression I wasn't able to function. And now I'm older I can step outside a little and say "You're doing that thing again. You don't need to listen to that thing." There's a little bit more of a clinical kind of thing. There's a little bit more of that objectivity about it, so, from that context, I can write a better and more honest song. Some of my songs may sound like prayers, some may sound like confessions, but that's the way I go. It still becomes cathartic and it still a pleasure to sing them every night - because they mean something to me. It's not like some country-alt, where we try and see how close we can sound to the Louvin brothers or Carter Family or Johnny Cash or whoever. It seems like there's a lot of posing going on out there. It's like suburban white kids - none of us worked the rails, we didn't pick cotton, we didn't do time in jail, we had all the embellishments of being well-taken-care-of suburban white kids. So let's not fake it and let's not pose. Let's say that we love this music and here's what we can bring to this genre.
Triste: Some of the acts from a similar area to yourself go well over the top and wallow in gothic Americana. They paint in colours that solely accentuate the darker side and life's not like that - there's light and shade and they don't reflect this in their music.
Bill Mallonee: It's not all dark for me. I think there's a little bit of redemption in there for me. As a Christian I really do believe that Christ is exactly who he said he was. And I know the church in this country in the UK has a bad rap and there's hypocrisy in every corner. Guess what? My attitude is? Christ came to save the beat up, broken, fucked up, all of that. That's what he was about. That's why he was crucified. Jesus was hanging about with the wrong people. He was championing the causes of the wrong people. But these were the very people who knew they were sick. That's the first step in recovery in anything, whether in addiction or depression is recognising that you need help. That's all it's about, that's the end of the day for Christianity. How does that work out in life and affirming the preciousness of life? Well I'm married with two kids. The most important thing in my life is making sure that they are happy and that they're doing well. That's just the most beautiful thing. It's fuelled my music, it's fuelled my happiness as an individual and it's just one story. It might not be everyone's story, but it's mine.
Triste: And what about the mechanics of songwriting?
Bill Mallonee: I've started keeping a journal because on the road I tend to write in lyrics anyway. I tend not to be able to write music in hotel rooms. So when I get home I pull out these journals and start writing music, start pulling things in . And then I probably decide I can't have a song with seven verses in - well Bob Dylan could have ten verses, but I can't. Typically speaking I have to do all of that. That's really the process. I bring it to the band and we practise it down. Then we'll get out live and say we're going to play a new song tonight such as "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline". Its brand. new. We've only played it once, it's got a bit of the feel of Joy Division about it, it's a little darker, but it still sounds like us.
Triste: Don't you ever get a bit of a melody buzzing round your head and then worry that you're going to lose it, before you can get it down?
Bill Mallonee: I lose them all the time. I've been thinking of getting one of them little microcassette recorders, like you've got here. But I've just never done that. What I have got at home is a little $70 boom box which is a piece of junk, but it's got a really great condenser microphone on it. I've got a DAT recorder and a 4 track at home, but I hardly use them. It takes too much time messing about to use them. I like to set the levels, hit record and get it down. My wife asks me what I'm going to do with these 150 cassettes which have got demos on them. "I don't know," I say.
Triste: You seems prolific in your songwriting. Do you ever go back into your catalogue of half-completed old songs.
Bill Mallonee: I do go back and type lyrics to everything. And then it becomes a matter of taking the songs out on the road. I always try and get the band to have a repertoire of maybe 15 to 20 brand new songs and my attitude is that we need to take these songs out on the road and play them in front of people and see what kind of response we get. I mean there are a lot of beats on this record and a lot of Hammond organ and we don't carry that live, we'd like to, but we haven't got the financial furniture with us to do it. We might do but it's important that the songs can stand on their own too.
Triste: What's the input of the other musicians
Bill Mallonee: They have a lot of input. I don't play bass, and I certainly don't play drums as well as I used to do, Kevin is a stellar drummer. They come in with all their parts and to some extent we share to some certain extent the songwriting talent - they do some arranging.
Triste: Do they ever have anything to say about the lyrics? Do they ever say that line doesn't scan properly or that phrase doesn't make sense?
Bill Mallonee: They look at the lyrics over the course of time, but not initially. They're usually more concerned with getting their parts down and what grooves they're going to establish and where the chief drumbeat might change from verse to chorus. Definitely as a three piece band we've had to rethink a lot of things that we do because the focus becomes one of a subtle change between the bass and the kick drum. It's a big change in the listener because there's not another organ or electric guitar covering up and so we try and fine tune that. I tend to leave that totally up to Jacob [Bradley - bass] and Kevin [Hauer - drums]. They're just great at that kind of stuff. But right now we're still looking for that fourth member. We'd like to have the harmonies back, there's great harmonies all over this record. Most of them just Julie Miller. Julie's great to sing with and, of course, so is Emmylou. We want somebody who can play those two instruments pretty well and can sing like a sparrow.
Triste: That fourth member just provides that extra element of variety.
Bill Mallonee: We're having a great time as a three piece. For the level we're at over here it's the way to do it too . We're playing smaller rooms. Let's get in peoples faces with a good solid 60 minute set, lets keep the pace up, and we can do that with three pieces, you don't need that fourth piece. I mean I'd love fiddle or mandolin or pedal steel on every song, and in some way that's what we're looking for. If there's anybody out there with these capabilities then you can email us courtesy of Triste Magazine (laughs). That's what we're looking for, but we can still pull it off. We probably had a little more of the aggression thing when we first started. We were a kind of a punk band, it had that slash and burn thing going on.
Triste: But even on "Audible Sigh" you've still got a few of the more jerky, energetic numbers.
Bill Mallonee: "Extreme North of the Compass" is a great example of that. "Solar System" is the complete opposite. It's like the kind of track that sounds great at 3 o'clock in the morning. It's the kind of track that makes sense late at night, rather than the middle of the day.
Triste: Is that why you put it almost as an afterthought with a gap on the record before it?
Bill Mallonee: Yes. We were happy to make the record the way it came out. It came out really strong. I can't say enough about Bob Harris's good will. He's a great audiophile, he's such a man of immense knowledge. There's nobody like Bob in the US. There's a sprinkling of little stations sort of scattered everywhere, but Bob's knowledge of the whole thing runs real deep.
Triste: "Resplendent", the song you did with Emmylou Harris, is a real historical dustbowl song written in the third person. Why did you decide to do it that way?
Bill Mallonee: It was very historical. It came out of diaries I was reading at the time - I was a history major in college. There was nothing you could do with that except go to Law school or become a folk singer. Or you can teach it. It came out of that, but the bigger question inside that song is the struggle between good and evil. These people in the dust bowl had come from the East Coast and risked literally everything. They had no money and they had staked everything on 40 acres and a mule and they had pinned all their hopes and dreams in the soil. And the winds came and took the soil away. The individual in the song is asking the question how much is this meant to be and how much is it the work of the devil. How much is it a course of retribution and how much is it that there's evil in the world. The song doesn't really come up with any answers. But it does focus the question. Reading the diaries I was amazed at the humility and the insight of the individuals who were suffering this plight to look past the immediate tragedies - losing their son, losing their wife to ask where's God in all this. I she concerned all these things. I was pleased with the song. I think that Emmylou's vocals just leave it so overwhelming haunting. The bit where the three harmonies come in was to me a very nice moment of musical transcendence.
Triste: Did you sing it together?
Bill Mallonee: We were in the studio together but she sang it as a separate track.
Triste: Is "Hard Luck and Heart Attack" in any way autobiographical.
Bill Mallonee: It's actually loosely based on a Jack Kerouac novel "Desolation Angels". He was watching fires up Washington State and then would trip on down to San Francisco and hang with his friends and drink himself silly and try to write some novels. There was this big tension in Jack's life between him trying to practise his spiritual side - with him it was Zen Buddhism - and reconciling this with this completely mad lifestyle he was living with his beat poet friends, and he couldn't reconcile the two and so he had an heart attack.
Triste: He was brought up a Catholic wasn't he, so you have that filtering through the lyrics as well.
Bill Mallonee: Yes. He would go back to Lowell Massachusetts and go to mass with his friend Philip Hart who was Catholic poet, who actually was getting some strong recognition himself, and he would rest up with him for a while then he would head off to Mexico and do Peyote and smoke pot and shoot guns. He'd shoot back and forward between these wild pendulum swings of experience.
Triste: What's the reasoning behind the cover shot of the train sinking in the mud?
Bill Mallonee: Well someone told me that it's a British railroad train in India which has capsized in the mud and there's no getting it out. It's like what do you do. There's these two individuals scratching their heads thinking what do we do next and it seemed that it would go really well with the title of the record. When we saw it we knew we wanted to use the photo and we got it for a small amount of money. It's a great picture. I haven't always been to happy with our cover art work in the past - when you're working with record labels well we'd like to get this here and cut a little bit of money there and it's got to be a jewel box instead of a digipack and yadda yadda yadda and it's like "Okay, whatever," and it tends to end up pretty generic. But that's a nice photo.
Triste: If you look at some of the lyrics used in your songs you get recurring themes of questioning, yearning, longing etc. Is that a reflection on yourself personally?
Bill Mallonee: I can fake it. I'm pretty good with words. I can give you "happy" and all that kind of stuff. But I tend to assume, because I have a really private world that tends to lean at times to the disturbing side, that everybody has one. I constantly become amused at the whole notion of advertising and how it's supposed to make you jump into an identity that is really an illusion: like you're a svelte, well-to-do, grab your life with both hands, young Londoner. I mean, take London, what a chic city. I've been there and been overwhelmed at the beauty of the young people and what they're involved in, but sometimes it seems shallow to me. It seems like a very materialistic view of things, and I know it sounds judgmental, that's not to say I am, I would judge myself guilty of the same things. I think we involve ourselves with things that don't ever bring us very much happiness and that happens way before we ever come to the conclusion that we might be involved in a business with something much bigger than us and I see that in adverts and in television. It's all dumbed down. You think, "What the fuck was that? We're way smarter than that!" That's my little soap box. I'll get off my soap box now.
Triste: So you're quite optimistic about our future?
Bill Mallonee: Optimistic in the long run, struggle harder in the day to day.
Triste: I was asking more about humankind in general.
Bill Mallonee: I used to be pretty bleak about that sort of stuff. I tend to think you can put too much trust in our abilities to solve things or reason through things, whether it's science or technology or whatever it is we're trusting, and I have a tendency to think there are good things that we have benefited from - I have certainly benefited from the medical advances over the years and so has my wife - but I feel we put too much trust in that.
Triste: You seem to really put a lot of passion into live shows. I take it that you find "performance" a major part of your creative remit.
Bill Mallonee: I think there's something pretty affirming about grabbing this precious thing called life with both hands and really examining what it is. To do this thing for a living as a writer and musician is great. It doesn't matter how big the soap box is, it's just that there's a soap box to stand on at all. For me that's the beautiful thing about it; when you get your mind off the record sales by making a group of people happy by playing and singing. I'm just the most fortunate man in the world. I really, really believe that. That's not bullshit. I mean how many people are so displeased with their jobs and so unfulfilled in what they do. Good gracious! How many people wouldn't want to trade places with me? I feel really humble. I was talking about this to Pete Buck from REM when he was still living in Athens. I said "What's it like now?" He said "You know I used to work in a record store for years and now I'm making money. It's good work if you can get it." It was delivered in such a humble tone of voice I could really appreciate what he was saying. And that's how I feel about it too.