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We recently caught up with Bill Mallonee, the steadfast leader of the American rock band, the Vigilantes of Love. Via email and telephone, we got to talk to Bill about the band's past, present and future plans, and were able to glean some insight into some of what it takes to make a living creating and playing original songs.
MO: First, let me say that it's great seeing a live band with a realistic view of the world pull off a concert that talks about so much pain and struggle as well as joy, yet leaves the listener with a sense of hope. I think that is the greater part of what's missing from the modern rock/grunge/punk movement.
How do you pull off songs like that? Are there certain feelings or messages in your mind that you intentionally try to portray when you write a song? I mean, look at "Welcome to Struggleville" - the song itself portrays some dark feelings, but the overall song comes off with a sense of irony in that (without saying so) Struggleville is not the last stop on the journey. Life is worth the struggle. Do you have a person (or people) in mind when you write a song like "Struggleville"?
Bill: I have staked all I've ever written (generally) on the principle that you can only write with believability that which you've experienced. That doesn't mean I can't write a song about Eleanor Roosevelt or a Civil War hero. We all enter into vicariously the pain or joy in other humans lives to a degree, but for me, I think, I just try to write about what grace looks like in my life - the good days when it all seems real - and the "bad" days when it all seems far away. Struggleville: a very intentional surreal piece - some social commentary - Salome is always at the next table. Libido is a lot of rock and roll, ain't no gettin' around it. But what does it point to? Struggleville: more than a bad day at the office and the kids are exasperating. More like a core condition we need some serious surgery for. The sinister taunt from the garden -- satan round 1 -- but not the final round - hope - a slender thread, you know.
MO: Do you come up with a lyrical idea first, then the music, or does it happen the other way around?
Bill: I keep a journal. I write 50 -75 songs a year. I forget a lot of them. They come back as orphans, sort of show up at the table and claim I was their father. "Oh... well, yes! (sputter)...whu of course... I remember you ... uh ...why sit right here -- are you hungry?" As for music and lyrics, I try to make them reinforce at every turn. Sometimes I fail. I fail less when I trust my gut - like a "Love Cocoon."
Record companies never trust their gut. It's mostly about money, and very little ministry. They paint an illusion. Especially CCM labels I think. Major labels are an un-necessary evil. We'll talk more on that later... eh?
MO:You are known for your way with words, clever twists and turns, blissfully free of cliche. Some songwriters say they never edit a song's lyrics after they've written them, and some say they work the lyrics over and over until they are as good as they can possibly get them. How do you do it?
Bill: I usually only edit six to eight verses down to four. I know three minute pop songs say three verses is enough. I hate that constriction. Again, if you have something to say let it flow! Of course, I've heard a lot of pop songs that sould have stopped at the end of the first verse, and written a few myself. Generally this is a trust your gut intuition thing. I think we inform our "guts"....by being around some cool or lasting (as in a shadow of something eternal) music and books. Of course there's nothing like a good roll-in-the-hay with your beloved wife followed by a strong cup of coffee for inspiration.
MO: Do you keep a mental checklist to avoid cliche's? I read that when Brian Eno was producing U2, he kept a list of "forbidden" words and phrases that were not to be permitted into a song because they were to cliche. Have any special techniques yourself to keep a sense of objectivity?
Bill: Good question. I think there are cliche phrases I try to avoid. I sometimes like quoting myself from album to album, but sometimes cliches in their own tongue and cheek way serve a purpose. They de-mythologize rock and roll, which needs to be taken down a notch occasionally. Someone asked me what the most profound words in a love song I ever heard were, and here's my answer: "be-bop-a-lua...she's my baby... be-bop-a-lua... don't mean maybe!" There. It is the essence of love, exuberence, affection and sassy confidence - a beautiful thang!
MO: Both Peter Buck and Mark Heard share production credits on The Killing Floor. What impression did Mark Heard leave on you, that you'd like to mention, in that short time?
Bill: Mark, I think was still grieving for the loss of his Dad, who I think had died in the last few months. He just kept working - with a bit of a guard up. I was not really into or familiar with Mark's music, but when I heard Satellite Sky I was blown away. The passion just rolls off the disc! - as it does on Dry Bones Dance and Second Hand.
So he came to Athens in 1992 to produce this little rag-tag folk rock band. He'd only heard a demo. We really hit it off. I miss him. It was a great loss to all of us. My over-all impression: Mark was depressed about the loss of his Dad, about some failing health of his own, and had a bad taste in his mouth about the whole CCM [Christian Contemporary Music] thing: they continually ignored him.
MO: How was Peter Buck to work with? At the time he had just seen some real international success with REM and he seemed to be spending a lot of time producing. How much input did he have into the sound of Killing Floor?
Bill: Peter and I were friends through my wife Brenda. He was involved in the project the last days. He did it as a favor to us. He was a great help as was John Keane, the engineer. The produced the tracks that Travis McNabb (currently Better Than Ezra drummer) played on. (I played drums on the other tracks.) Peter had just come off the Out of Time success - "Losing My Religion" and all that - a great song, even if I don't get it all. But the sound of Killing Floor was really Mark Heard and myself. Lo-fi-big heart is what I call it. It was really Mark's and my record.
By the way, I love REM. They wrote the book on the whole alternative thing through hard work and endurance.
MO:Your 1997 release, Slow Dark Train seems almost to have been a Stealth release. Can you tell us anything about that album?
Bill: Ah yes, my FAVORITE disc we've done (except for the one due out in April... seriously!). Slow dark Train is a record of thick rock and roll, heart on the sleeve, goin' for broken and God is the safety net when all else reveals itself to be illusion, lies and apathy. Some of that is within our very selves, you know. ("Only a Scratch", "Judas Skin").
It's probably the most confessional record to date. Really that's what I am; a confessional writer. In the old historic sense "confessional" meant a. baring ones soul, telling the dark secrets, and b. holding to the historic creeds of the Church. I think that defines me pretty well.
The record has a pretty dark and dense cast. Each song sort of flows into the next. That's deliberate. There's an element of despair, of wrestlin' with something unseen, but which can steal your joy. Fight the good fight, even when all the superstructures around you are collapsing.
The sad thing about all of it was that we knew, given our label's (Capricorn) general health, that the record was DOA... dead on arrival. In a word the label did absolutely ZERO to promote "Slow Dark Train". They were too busy doing damage control for 311 - another of their bands who sells a ga-zillion records - but this year in 97 they had a disc, a new release that went south. It cost the label a good bit, so I'm told.
Anyway, Capricorn never bought into the essentials that anyone would use to spring a band - no video, no print media, next to zero tour support. We had great things written about us on the first two records, two top ten triple A records (Struggleville and Blister Soul) and a CCM disc (VOL) that spawned a number 1 single ("Double Cure") and another top ten modern rock track ("When I'm Broken"). With all the buzz you'd have thought we could have expected something. Not so. It was a repeat performance. The record was DOA - dead on arrival - and that's OK because in my experience God's leading has been more through shut doors and people revealing what their real intentions are.
Bottom line, to put the "nice" spin on SDT, was that the label had no vision for what we did or who we are. Most labels, in my humble opinion, don't have vision. They go to see a band, but not listen to music. Except for a few, I just don't see most folks who are called "A&R" to be into what (in my opinion, now) good music is all about. But of course I was caught in the cross-fire - an abuse victim talks the same way I do - but Slow Dark Train is still my favorite album.
MO: You played harmonica on Blue Pony, Julie Miller's latest album. How did that come about?
Bill: Julie and Buddy Miller are two of the finest singer-songwriters in this country today. They can do it all: rock hard, a rock & roll "joie de vire!" and then turn around and slay you with a tender ballad... beautiful... a national treasure.
My wife and I are good friends with the Millers. We met through a friend at Cornerstone in 93, I think, and had association through Dan Russell our manager at the time. Since then we've become huge fans and supporters. If I could pick a team to write a song with, something I've never really done, it would be them. It's my dream to do a record with Buddy producing VOL one day. I love them both exceedingly.
Anyway, about "Blue Pony", the harmonic was mixed down to accomadate the killer guitar, but Julie used some of about two pages of lyrics I sent her in the album's closing track - a sweet little prayer and off-to-bed you go kind of song.
MO: In 1996 the Kevn Kinney produced Five Ring Circus came out. "Real Downtown" is on it. I haven't heard the album - is this the VOL recording, or was it re-recorded? What is Five Ring Circus about?
Bill: Nah, same old recording. Five Ring Circus was about exposing some Athens bands to the Olympic world, and "Real Downtown" was a song about the Athens scene: sort of a navel-gazing town at the time - and clique-ish! Probably a good idea, but I don't think anybody held a lot of hope that it was gonna do a lot for their careeer. Still, we were glad to be involved for a good cause. Athens has been a great home base for us.
MO: You've got a new line-up in the band now. Can you tell us about them? Can you tell how that will effect your songwriting and recording in the immediate future? Will we be hearing more lap steel and mandolin now that you've got another multi-instrumentalist in the group (Kenny Hutson) ? Do you write the parts for the special instruments or do you let whoever's playing come up with it?
Bill: Ah yes - the present. A great place to be. We are a very organic band right now - really have been for the last three years: Scott Klopfenstein (drums), Jakob Bradley (bass), and Kenny Hutson (guitar, 12-string, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro). It's a really charming group of fellows. We all get along quite well. I just wrote the songs and they pretty much "have at them" always as before.
I can't say enough how this line-up is the best yet. We, if I may go to the Word, love each other. We pray, wrestle with tough questions, root for each other. These guys were heros all last year when the lame record label was bailing out on us and we rocked like our desperate little lives depended on it. It pushed our music to a place where all of a sudden we realized we needed each other and this music. And God was gracious enough to allow us to tap a whole new group of fans who encouraged us way more than any superficial market report - even if we were picked up for the opening slot for the Wallflowers tour or Wilco or Son Volt, or given the slot on Letterman. I would not trade it for some of the love and good wishes sent to us by people who listened to our music. It was a very humbling and cleansing, freeing place to be.
MO: Kenny's the newest member of the band. Is he on the new album ?
Bill: Kenny is all over the new ones, as they say, but so are all of us. It's great having such an accomplished player in the band again. The 3-piece was going for it for a year and a half, and I learned how to handle a lot of guitar chores at once. But this thing with Kenny... well we all just stand back and smile at each other a lot during the evening.
MO: I understand you personally financed your new album with your own credit cards. That's quite a risk to take, but it really says a lot about your belief in yourself. How hard a plunge was that to take? Did you do anything to prepare for such an outlay? Had you lined up any tentative distribution before going through with it?
Bill: Yes, we financed it all by our lonesome with a credit card - but don't tell Larry Burkett ;). We do have some distribution in the works, and are talking to several labels too. But at the moment we are without a label...it's a bit discouraging.
MO: What's the name of the new album?
Bill: To The Roof of the Sky
MO:Can you tell us about it? Who's on it, where it was recorded, who produced it and when we can expect to be able to hear it?
Bill: This is hands down my favorite record we've made. I think there is the perfect blend of lyric re-inforcing ragged raw country-alternative rock music. We're livin' our songs and finding a saftey net in the grace of God that has nothing to do with any kind of measuring stick we've been subjected to in the industry. I produced it with the band nearby and our good friends Mark Smith (who did SDT with us) and Tom Lewis (who has worked with John Hiatt). The record is a composite of noisy Neil Young-like garage rockers with songs of new beauty and innocence, and some 3 am stuff that is more like a prayer of Thomas... or maybe even Judas.
MO:Are you shopping around for another major label contract? I'd imagine there's a lot of pressure in some quarters for you to go full-blown "Christian Rock" (i.e. join the Nashville CCM scene, sign with Forefront, or Word or someone like that and have Christian bookstores as your primary distribution channel). Is that something you've considered? Why would you or would you not take such a course?
We can't play the Nash-Vegas game. Too much cheese. I really have come to believe, in spite of the artists who do that with all sincerity, that to commercialize your faith is the same thing as cheapening and trivializing it. The Gospel of Christ is precious to me. I stake my life on the truth that Jesus defeated death on that first Easter morning and that however He did it I can now hope that the heretofore irreversible tide of death and despair that had reigned over humanity before Him has now in fact, been stopped and reversed. And we have been mercifully included in that - not due to anything we could do or bring to the table, the offer is for all.
Nashville CCM seems to be heavily into marketing their faith. A sort of what I call "shiny-happy Christianity" that seems to have more in common with MTV image and sound - with "Christianese" thrown on top of it for the youth pastors. I know that sounds harsh, and I certainly could be accused of sour grapes or bitterness, but I think I have a good point. I tend to write about what undeserved grace looks like in a rather unextraordinary life... namely my own. The good days and the bad. It's just my approach.
That said, we are talking to a couple of labels, secular and Christian. I can't mention any names right now. But even if we do go with the Christian label, we won't be changing into a CCM act. Mainstream distribution is pretty much a requirement for us.
MO: You mentioned you went with Capricorn Records back in 1994 because they offered you the opportunity to work with producer Jim Scott, who had been working with the likes of Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and Danzig on their Rick Rubin productions at the time. Was signing with Capricorn worth it? Would you do it the same way if you had it to do over again?
Bill: My take on our relationship with Capricorn for four albums is this: nothing ventured, nothing gained. They never once put any money into print media, a video, marketing - any of the things that make a band a viable competitor in today's marketplace. They did almost nothing for the last disc.
The ironic thing is that we've always gotten great reviews in the "secular" and CCM press, but with no label support our records have never sold very well except among a small but growing number of rabid fans who when they "get it" seem to be willing to go out and buy the whole catalogue. Quite a feat in a "here-today-gone-tomorrow" world of pop culture.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bitter about the whole thing. I'd say one of my biggest spiritual battles is accepting the "critic's darling status but not selling records stigma." I mean it's nice to be loved and it's nice to be cited by bands like Jars of Clay and Third Day and even D.C. Talk privately as a songwriter they admire, and I am glad for any hard-working band's success. But why the huge chasm in sales? It's not like our stuff isn't radio friendly. We were top ten in the triple-A market (adult alternative album) for 2 straight records. I think it really is a matter of not having the "machine" side of the biz working on our behalf.
MO: Any advice for the musicians out there who are considering signing a record deal?
Bill: Before signing any deal, get a good entertainment lawyer. Not just a lawyer, but a good, experienced entertainment lawyer who knows the ins and outs of the record industry. It really is worth the cost. The other thing I would say is make sure that you have a good amount of support from the label up front. You need more than one person on the inside supporting you. If you don't have a good group of people who believe in you at the label, you're not going to get anywhere. You won't get the promotion you need, and if the person who signed you leaves the label you're basically dead in the water. Also make sure the label guarantees you a minimum number of album sales. You can ask for sales of 40-50,000 units for an album as part of their end of your contract, and it will force them to do the things required to get those sales: print promotion, music videos, etc. And make sure the label you sign with has good distribution, and that it is guaranteed for you. One of the main reasons we decided to sign with Capricorn was because they had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, less than thirty days after we signed, Warner dropped Capricorn.
MO: Ok, you've recorded an album, you expect it to be out in the spring, I understand. What's in the future for the Vigilantes of Love? Is there a full-scale tour in the works?
Bill: Right now we are looking at some small-scale touring through Street Level Tours. The new album should be coming out in April.
To tell you the truth, we're thinking of renaming the band. VOL started out a completely different bunch of guys in the beginning of the Athens music scene, and now except for myself, VOL is a whole new lineup of musicians. The name has seven albums behind it, and we have a kind re-invented sound. It might be a good idea to start fresh.
And finally, some random impressions from Bill (not his exact words), that otherwise did not fit into this interview:
"I love Grant Lee Buffalo, especially their first [major label] record, Mighty Joe Moon. I played that record constantly for about a year."
"I'd love to work with one of the big producers like Brendan O'Brien or Daniel Lanois, but those kind of names cost a lot of money."
"I think there's a real strong lasting market for Americana-rock, like ours. The kind of music that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen make, seems to always have a place. [The record industry] just doesn't seem to be able to see that."