(this interview originally appeared as the cover feature of issue #54 of Modern Fix Magazine in 2007).
The Irish writer James Joyce published The Dubliners, a collection of satirical stories portraying the Irish middle classes in Dublin in the early 1900s. In “Two Gallants,” one of the stories within, we meet two con men, Lenehan and Corley. The story addresses a theme common in Joyce’s work: cultural and social paralysis. The two con men end their journey right where they it began; they are trapped in a vicious cycle of repetition.
Many years later, two con men of another sort, singer/guitarist Adam Stephens and drummer Tyson Vogel, became Two Gallants, playing on and embodying much of what Joyce intimated at.
Two Gallants is the joining of two childhood San Francisco friends. “We have known each other since we were five or so. We’ve always been good friends growing up,” says Tyson, “and had similar interest in music early on.” Stephen echoes, “We’ve known each other for years, we always played music together since we were around 10.”
The duo began as a result of the close proximity of the two friends. “We were both living back in San Francisco after trying our hands at a little bit of college,” they say about Two Gallants formative days, “we came back and did what was natural: get together and just start playing music.” Adam continues, “The band just came out of that.” They both agree, “Two Gallants came around out of coincidence.”
Forming Two Gallants was never a hard choice for either of them. “It never was a conscious decision,” Adam points out. “We were just playing music late one night in my basement and having a good time,” Tyson continues, “it was just a natural inclination to be creative and stay healthy and sane and the only way to do it was by playing music together. It felt so good and honest and then we realized that this is what we want to do with our lives,” Tyson recalls, not without a hint of sureness. “It was an organic process. We had no expectations. We were thinking, ‘Yeah, this feels right.”’ Thus, with a fade in instead of a bang, Two Gallants were born.
They were both deeply influenced by some heavy-rockers. “A lot of the heavy stuff, Guns N Roses, Poison, Nirvana was really important too.” Tyson continues, “I grew up with the heavier stuff, apart from things like Neil Diamond and Harry Chapin when my parents were around. Then, with Nirvana, it was more punk and experimental.” But they both agree that all their early influences are “a bit heavier than what we are listening to now.” Regarding the experimental music they discovered, “In many ways there are many similarities between those types of music and blues and country. It’s a similar emotion. It’s just put forward in this very unique way.”
“We listen to a lot of jazz and blues,” hints Adam. Tyson continues, “I’ve always been interested in experimental music, not with synthesizers, but with strings and traditional rock and roll instruments. It has always been some weird mix between jazz and punk music.” For both the Gallants, they agree that their hearts are “always in the old recordings of country blues and field hollers.”
In the early days, Two Gallants had their first shows plugged in to a BART station in San Francisco. The BART is Bay Area Rapid Transit, the public mass transit system that travels between the different bay area cities. The stations are not particularly clean, comfortable, or friendly, and are often an evening hangout for vagrants and seedy types. Needless to say, those shows were always ended prematurely: “The police in San Francisco are not very embracing of public displays of noise,” the Two Gallants joke. “After a while they would always come and break them up.” For nearly five years before Two Gallants put on these train station shows, kids all over the city in similar situations had been putting them on. “There was such a lack of music here, places to play and venues. There are a lot of talented and creative bands and people that needed someplace that they could play music and have a community. So how can we beat the system? We’re not a cookie-cutter pop band, we’re some dirty 18-year-old kids who play instrumental punk music.” Adam continues, “There were kids sitting in the street who figured a way to steal power from the bus stop and it turned into those shows.”
San Francisco has a rich tradition of music. The city counts Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead as alumni. Other bands that call San Francisco home are Deerhoof, The Coachwhips (R.I.P.), Fever Tree, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Two Gallants’ pals The Trainwreck Riders. Other bands have found San Francisco such an embracing place that they have relocated there, like Kid606 and American Music Club.
“When Adam and myself played together,” Tyson explains, “no one gave us a chance, so we decided that it was more real. Music belongs on the street, it belongs on the ground level and it seemed like the perfect place for us to start. There is already a community of kids that supported it and a lot of them were our friends and peers.” For both Adam and Tyson, there was an authenticity to the pirate shows. “It was just so unpretentious and honest; the person next to you could be from a whole different world and you’d smile and enjoy music together. It was some of my favorite times, doing those shows and house parties,” Tyson says. Adam seconds him, “Those early street shows will always be my favorite, my most memorable experiences.”
Those shows are representative of a strong tradition of live shows from Two Gallants. “Playing live keeps us alive and sane. It’s cathartic for us individually and as a whole.”
“It’s our natural environment,” Adam adds, “We’re much happier in that atmosphere. I think the only reason we record is because…(laughs) we should. When you have to hear your songs five times over, you just want to blow your head off.”
Nevertheless, in early 2004, the duo released their debut album, “The Throes” on Alive Records, the Bomp! Records spin-off that is home to SSM, The Soledad Brothers and also released The Black Keys “The Big Come Up.” “The Throes” album made it to the top on many “best of” lists and garnered Two Gallants critical praise from UK’s Rough Trade, the venerable West London music store that spawned the Rough Trade label, home to bands like The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian (in the UK). The praise was justly deserved as the debut from a twosome barely twenty-one at the time. The album seemed to be informed by a lifetime of experience far beyond Adam or Tyson’s own. Its blues-soaked and riotous pathos resonated deeply with both fans and critics. The album was borne out of their lifestyle, which was, according to Tyson, “fast to change.” He elaborates, “During “The Throes”, we were home four months out of the year; always in transition.” Being away from home had a profound effect on the duo. For Tyson, among the worst part of being away for so long was due to “not being able to really practice.” He continues, “It can get quite heavy after a while. I’ve never spoken it out loud, but being in constant transiency, if you don’t have a good steadiness or a good grounding it can be really hard on the brain.” On its surface, “The Throes” paid obvious homage to both early American blues and English folk, but the duo transcended their influences on the record. By the time the smoke cleared, the two had earned loads of recognition. Alive Records just released a remastered version of “The Throes” with engineer/producer Alex Newport (The Mars Volta). They recorded the digital masters onto 2-inch tape to get a warmer sound, “we think it sounds a bit more natural, more to the way we were sounding at the time.”
Not content to rest on their laurels, Two Gallants kept up their frenetic schedule, searching for the next step. “With “The Throes” on Alive, we had been touring on it and doing a lot of traveling and writing new material. It was a time when we were looking to move on.” In 2004, they had the chance to play at the SXSW music festival, and it was there that they got the chance. SXSW (or South By Southwest) is an annual music festival/conference series hosted by the city of Austin. SXSW has been repeatedly characterized as both a who’s who of alternative and indie music as well as a who’s next (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie all were showcased before they ‘broke’.) Among the alumni of SXSW are Spoon, The Flaming Lips, John Cale, Crystal Skulls, Headphones, Tristeza, Devendra Banhart, Broken Social Scene, and Modest Mouse to name a few.
Tyson recalls, “I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly we were surrounded by a bunch of different record labels that were very, very interested. Some were totally inappropriate and some that were somewhat interesting. We met Robb (Nansel, co-founder of Saddle Creek), he just came and hung out with us all three days that we were there. It was refreshing, because honestly, we hadn’t ever listened to much of the Saddle Creek bands beforehand, so I had no idea of who he was or who the label was. What was nice about it was that he hung out, we talked and he would hang out at the show and hang out afterward and have some beers, instead of the sushi dinners and that whole act to make us feel guilty, like we are playing into some game.” He continues, “It depresses me to think how much mainstream music is controlled by these masterminds that have a lot of money.” They both agree that, “It made us feel nice when Robb showed some interest, we knew he was with a label but he was just down to earth.”
A few weeks after SXSW, the boys received a call from Robb simply saying, “Hey, we’re interested. We want to put out your next record if you’re open to working with us.” For the two, they felt as if they had found a label that may be a good fit. They admired the close-knit, grassroots community atmosphere of Saddle Creek. To be one of the few acts from outside Omaha, the labels HQ, was “humbling.” Saddle Creek was founded in 1993 by Robb along with Justin and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis who would become the oft-credited producer/engineer for many of the Saddle Creek releases. Initially started as a class experiment on entrepreneurship, the label has released all the albums for Conor Oberst’s alias Bright Eyes as well as the releases from The Faint, Cursive, and the dearly departed Lullaby for the Working Class.
Life at Saddle Creek has been great for the two. “They’ve been supportive. There are things that aren’t perfect but that comes with the honesty of it. They started the label to promote friends, you know? It’s not some big corporation. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything else.”
The difference was noticeable during the recording of their second album, “What The Toll Tells.” They both characterize the change as “vastly different.” They worked with Scott Solter, who Tyson says is “a great, amazing engineer. He has a brilliant and creative ear and was able to work with us.” As opposed to “The Throes” producer Jeff Salzman, who “is not the most kind person in the world.” They wouldn’t elaborate.
Saddle Creek proved to be a more hospitable home. “We had a lot more time and some more leg to stand on for this album.” Both Tyson and Adam had decided, “Since we were so dissatisfied with “The Throes,” we wanted to make a record that we could feel good about and took a lot of time and made sure everything was right.” They characterize the studio environment as “a nice atmosphere. It was a much more natural experience. We were used to making little demo tapes off of a little tape recorder put in the middle of the room before we ever had a record. It was a lot like that, but a little more… professional (laughs).” Adam agrees, “Recording is not our natural environment, we had our moments though. Overall, it was a much better experience.”
The result of that favorable and enjoyable experience was “What The Toll Tells.” Their second album is as fervent and incendiary as “The Throes.” The album, still highly informed by the early blues, carries with it many stories of murder, death, oppression, depression, and squalor. The album opener, “Las Cruces Jail,” plays like a modern telling of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” a traditionally inspired murder-ballad full of woeful portents, grim resignation, and a criminals’ regret. Two Gallants tell the story of a much older man, reflecting with cool resignation upon his criminal misgivings. The song itself is an upbeat country punk song, full of loose but catchy hooks, opening up the album perfectly. It presents the downtrodden, everyman forever locked in his inevitable fate. “Long Summer Day” is an interpretation of an old traditional by Moses “Clear Water” Platt, following a gentle (for Two Gallants) loping simple melody coupled with Stephens almost bitterly spat lyrics. The original was a work song, sung by hardscrabble folks. However, when co-opted by Tyson and Adam, the song gains a new life and meaning. It tells the story, using Platt as a foundation, of inequality in the post-Civil War South.
“There were many motivations for “Long Summer Day””. says Tyson. “In some ways, it’s a tip of the hat to musicians and people who changed our lives who couldn’t speak or couldn’t sing a song in their lives. It’s about American history from a different perspective from what most people know of. It’s an example of the human process and the throes of trying to exist. It’s a dilemma how to work in that situation, no matter who you are, no matter where you are.”
Most striking on the album is the closer, “Waves of Grain,” a nine-minute epic that bleeds with pathos and disgust. It also is exemplary of how honest and raw the Two Gallants music can be; the stripped-down guitar strumming and haunting singing highlight the universal, humanistic experience:
This playground is yours / spoke God when you met behind closed doors / gesture your hands / and the pawns will subside / and though you play alone / you never get lonely, never get bored.
At the four-minute mark, Tyson’s drums have begun to make a presence as they both holler:
But, oh no no, the sky is falling / let’s all pray for rain / and you pour out your prayers / and weep ‘cause you care / but what when all your fields are rotten / your waves of grain / amber waves of grain.
By the time the song ends, the drums, guitar and harmonica have become a cacophony and are played with a loose vitality, as both the Two Gallants shout as much as sing, a guarantee that anyone listening will be shouting right along with them. On the surface, the song decries the current war. However, underneath, it is about much more. “This song particularly deals with a subject that is very specific, but is still very large in the sense that it is a very human subject, a very human dilemma, a very human experience and it has to do with us as a collective.” Adam says, “Calling it a ‘protest song’ isn’t really accurate. It’s much more than that. It has to do with life as Americans, but also as humans in many ways. We hope that someday this song travels a thin line so that, even though it’s obvious that our experience is somewhat an American one, it can be interpreted in any context given that it is somewhat the same.” The vitality of “Waves of Grain” is that it straddles that line; it is immediately subjective but resonates objectively.
The album as a whole plays with the idea of: “The battle between resiliency and structure and the middle ground of where you can find yourself between those two dilemmas.” Tyson comments, “At times, it’s a place of questions.” Again present is the sense of transience on “The Throes.” And again, they were affected by it. “On tour, you’re constantly surrounded by people you don’t know and in places where you’re always the stranger. And that place is strange to you as well. It’s exhilarating, but having a typewriter to sit down at after a whole days’ worth of living, by yourself, alone with a cigarette is not that easy to come by when you’re gone.” For both of them, the danger of touring is about “not being able to find the center of yourself.” Tyson laughs nervously and says, “You just get worn really thin and it can get a little dangerous.”
Two Gallants songs are about more than themselves. “Writing a song by yourself, about yourself, all the time, is definitely very cliché and overdone.” Adam concludes, “We’re telling stories in a collection of perspectives. I’d like not to think that the whole album is from one point of view.” They address a wide scope of experience. Tyson adds, “When you hear a subject from different perspectives it gives a breadth and some meatiness and truth to it.” He then resorts to metaphor: “If you’re sick with something very serious, you’re not supposed to go and only see one doctor. You’re supposed to go and see two or three doctors and get different perspectives. That’s the experience of living that one thing.”
In addition to a broad scope of experience, they also address experience objectively. “We are both interested in the objective moments,” says Tyson, “in the objective perspective of something you may be feeling; it’s this heavy thing. For example, poetry that really hits you, is something that should be subjective but brings forward some truth to a more general perspective.” When I ask about the shifting from objective to subjective, he adds, “It’s right there, you know? They’re physical experiences and you try to feel that moment and allow yourself to react and feel things in a way that you would naturally.”
They also find redeeming qualities in pop music. Tyson says, “There is something you can admire about the music these days, in particular pop music. R. Kelly is a filthy individual but he makes amazing music that is very controlled and there is a formula and an art to that.” Note to guys who enjoy peeing on young girls: there is still hope for your music career. For the pair, there is beauty in modern music. The variety and eclecticism of it forces musicians to break the mold. Tyson continues, “We can’t stand house music, but the ideas and rhythms I can understand and appreciate and that adds to my experience.” So, I ask, there’s something about it that appeals to you? “Not appeals. I think it’s just about being open. I wouldn’t listen to a lot of things these days but you can’t close yourself off because there’s plenty you’re going to be missing. It’s good to take them in and know if they’re bullshit. It’s good to try for that objective standpoint.”
They make music as an only option: “It’s a natural inclination, to keep ourselves somewhat sane and healthy,” Tyson says with finality, “it’s more something that comes out instead of something I have control over.” For Two Gallants, the creative process is dynamic and stratified. Adam agrees, “That’s what’s so interesting about the creative process, there are so many variations of it.” “Variations off of people’s motivations for why they do what they do,” Tyson adds, “I get that human and heavy feeling in my chest and it drives me to do this certain thing that has no brain.” Adam sums it up nicely, “We try not to put too much control over it.”
At the core of Two Gallants is a pair of ideas: honesty and openness. “Without that, this band wouldn’t exist,” Adam says without hesitation. “It is so much of what he and I came together over. It’s the driving thing, that’s the only way we can keep honest with ourselves, keep healthy: to play music. If the music is dishonest, then we’ll be (laughs) poor individuals,” says Tyson. What about a message? “As hard as we try, it’s a struggle, all the downfalls and the rules that come with living the authentic life,” says Tyson. Adam offers something different, “Be aware. I want kids, and my kids when I have some one day to realize that cell phones, MySpace, the internet, they didn’t always exist. Just develop an appreciation of, I guess, a more natural existence. I want people to be aware of what’s going on around them.”
I’m Her Man (2004 – Alive)
The Throes (2004 – Alive)
Las Cruces Jail 7” (2005 – Saddle Creek)
Nothing To You 7” (2006 – Alive)
What The Toll Tells (2006 – Saddle Creek)