Reviews

What the Toll Tells

06/09/2006 | i-see-sound.com | www.i-see-sound.com | Feature
Earlier this year, the San Francisco based band, Two Gallants, released their stark, stunning and emotionally raw CD What the Toll Tells (review). ISS scribe Darin Strachan caught up with Adam Stephens (vocalist/guitarist) and Tyson Vogel (drums) of Two Gallants in Austin, TX recently to talk about touring Europe, potentially controversial lyrics in their songs, life on their label, Saddle Creek, and the joys of being a duo.

ISS: You guys recently did a European tour and you played on Steve Lamacq's show on BBC. A lot of your sound is Americana, with jazz, country and blues influences. How well were you received in Europe?

Tyson Vogel: It seemed to both of us that we were received very well. It's very humbling in many ways because it's strange. We've toured this country eight times. And this was our first headlining tour over in greater Europe and 200 people came out to every show. Being (that Europeans are) not from America, there's an outside, different objective perspective upon the art and music that comes through places like that. In some ways it has to do with something that is not there. People are somewhat receptive to it.

Adam Stephens: Yeah. And maybe we are a little more American-influenced, all British music has been ripped off by Americans.

ISS: And it goes back and forth.

AS: Initially, The Beatles stole everything - Elvis and the blues.

ISS: And then it just came right back with the British Invasion.

AS: So it's just been going back and forth for fifty years now. And I think everyone knows that Americans created the most significant genres of music of the 20th century.

ISS: You guys are touring America right now, correct?

TV: We're kind of heading back to San Francisco for the next week with the Pink Mountaintops and then five days after that we leave for another tour.

ISS: Is this your first headlining tour?

TV: Since the album's come out.

ISS: On I See Sound we do "Blind Taste Tests" - we take individual songs and send them to our writers with no tags or information about the songs to get unbiased reviews of songs. We did that with one of your songs and people guessed your influences to include Credence Clearwater Revival (link to Blind Taste Test). Especially after seeing your show, you guys obviously have diverse influences, like we were talking about before. There's blues guitar with folk lyrics with punk singing. And your (Vogel's) drumming has got to be somewhere in between Buddy Rich and Dave Grohl. What are the influences you each brought to Two Gallants?

TV: We should speak individually I guess. Well, it's kind of cool that you bring up the Buddy Rich and Dave Grohl thing, because I think, musically, I've always taken a lot of reference or inspiration from music that has sensitivity to it. Both those drummers are very diverse drummers essentially, but heavy at the same time.

ISS: Pretty intense.

TV: Yeah. So is Elvin Jones, who's one of my favorites, and Max Roach. Intensely focused, and emotional, but still have a good basis. And similarly, we both listen to a lot of old country and country blues and that's pretty similar. Like John Fahey is quite a big influence on me, if you can believe it, on the drums as well.

ISS: It seems like you had your kit set up in a jazz style - playing a jazz-type style, but with a lot more intensity and harder than any jazz drummer I've ever seen. And there's obviously many influences. In one song you can hear about five different influences. It's very diverse. Then there's the country blues influence - the lyrics are very narrative and poignant, but smack you in the face. There are great stories, but told in a way that puts me on the edge of my seat. Adam, what are your bringing into Two Gallants?

AS: I suppose in the guitar playing there's John Fahey as well. Also, Skip James is a big influence on the way I play. I suppose lyrically, Arthur Rimbaud, William Faulkner, and I could say Bob Dylan, but that's kind of obvious.

ISS: Like pretty much anybody that wrote music after 1963.

AS: Yeah. I don't know.

Tyson Vogel
Tyson Vogel

ISS: How did you end up hooking up with Saddle Creek?

TV: It kind of came out of left field a little bit for us. It was actually here at SXSW last year that we met Rob who runs the label. It was right around the time we wanted to put out a new record. We had enough songs prepared for a new one. There was some attention being brought forward to us from different labels. Rob came up and kind of hung out with for the whole weekend. We really dug his down-to-earth style. There wasn't any flashy "Look what we can do for you" like some other labels were doing, like dinners and stuff. He come out, we'd share a drink, and talk. And eventually, a couple of weeks afterwards, he called up and said, "We're interested. We want to do your next record. Do you want to do it with us as well?" It's a very equal relationship. And that's what I think we really respect about Saddle Creek. It's very proactive. The artist is just as important as the label and vice versa. It's not like the labels dictating.

ISS: It's just as much a community as it is a label?

TV: Yeah.

Two Gallants
Photo by Damon Green

ISS: That community seems to be Omaha-centered. You're one of the few bands that they have on the label that isn't in Omaha. Was it weird to get into that whole vibe or what it accepting from the very beginning?

AS: I don't really think we're in any community (laughter). We never have been. To us it's just a label.

ISS: : It's just a way to get the music out then?

AS: Yeah. The people we've met, the other bands, they've all been very nice, but we don't really know any of them very well. We don't really have much of a connection. And to be honest, we really didn't know any of their music before (laughter). We checked a little bit of it because we didn't want to be signing on with a bunch of wankers, but (we) liked most of what we heard. It's funny, because since we signed with Saddle Creek, it's been like all these Bright Eyes things that people say now (in regard to us). No one ever, ever mentioned Bright Eyes before. And now, since we've signed with them, we're like the protégés, like I'm stealing Conor's (Oberst) "wavering, mellow" in his voice. It's kind of a joke.

ISS: Obviously, that's not where it comes from, your vocal style.

AS: Yeah. I'd never listened to Bright Eyes before we signed to Saddle Creek.

ISS: You seem like one of the few folk-influenced artists that is popular on Saddle Creek. There's Cursive and The Faint and a lot of heavier type bands…
TV: And Criteria.

ISS: There are Bright Eyes and Conor's connections, and then there's everything else on Saddle Creek. And now you guys are on there and you have that folk influence. And people have to associate it with something, I suppose.

AS: Yeah.

ISS: "Long Summer Day" (from What the Toll Tells) is one of my favorite songs. It's a very well written song and one of the best songs I've heard in quite a while. What was the inspiration for writing that tale?

AS: Well, it wasn't an inspiration. I don't really believe in that word personally (Editor's note: "Long Summer Day" is written from the perspective of an African-American man and details his encounters with racism - "When I was a boy about the age of five/I watched my daddy burned alive/they cut him low and they hung him high, swaying in the breeze, and, "Well I went down to the polling place/but the white man there just laughed in my face/Said, "Boy this ain't no nigger's race. You best be on your way" ). It's sort of just something that needed to be said. It's not like a contemporary story. It's like a lot of the music I listen to is written by folks that lived through a lot of oppression. In a way, it's kind of like a tip of the hat to all these musicians that I've been listening to for so long, like old black blues men who made such amazing music. Very rarely was the music ever about the situation they were in. They just couldn't write so much about the racial intensity in the South. The music they played was supposed to be a form of entertainment and that's not a very entertaining subject matter. But also, it wasn't very peaceful. You'd get lynched if you mention it with any reality. Only later Leadbelly, when he got actually famous to the white audience, was able to do that a little bit, but, if it wasn't for that, he couldn't have had bourgeois gains and shit like that. So, I guess in a way it was a little bit of saying something that maybe wasn't ever able to be said before in a lot of ways. But there's nothing very personal about the song besides that. I never want people to think that it's something that I can relate to.

ISS: Do people ever hear the song and only hear the word "nigger" and get pissed off - "Why are these two white boys using that word?" without knowing the whole story? Is there an oppression or reaction that turns on you for telling the story as it should be told?

AS: I can totally understand it. I didn't have to put that word in there. But, why not?

ISS: It just makes you go, "Fuck yeah," though. When I listen to the song and get to that chorus, it makes me go, "Yeah, fuck yeah." It gets the point you are trying to make, the period of the piece, and the feeling you're trying to convey more powerfully.

AS: I can understand the confusion. There was someone who saw us playing. She was an African-American woman and she wrote (us) saying she heard that song and she didn't understand where we were coming from. Obviously she didn't catch the words; she only caught that one word. I totally understand. I just hope that anyone who is offended by it would take the chance to let us explain it a little bit. I just heard about someone who's probably coming today who works for Pitchfork and is upset about it and took a lot of offense by it. I'm just like, talk to me. I think anyone who is offended by it isn't paying enough attention. And if they are offended on a personal level, they could just give us a chance to explain ourselves.

ISS: I've read other interviews with you in which you say you are not going to add another person to the band. You've thought about adding a bass player in the past, but the band is as much a friendship as it is a musical collaboration between the two of you. How did you start as a two-piece then? From the beginning, why wasn't anyone else added? Did you try to add a bass player or did you intentionally set out to be a two-piece band?

AS: We thought about it, but I think it was more in the traditional framework of a band. We thought it was something we had to do - "Got to get a bassist now." We didn't really try very hard. After a while it was like, do we really need one? And we kind of realized that maybe we don't. We just kept on going. It was never a conscious decision. Like, hey we're starting a band; it's going to be a two-piece. You know?

ISS: "Yeah. We're not going to add anyone else. It's just us. Fuck the world."

AS: Yeah. It never happened like that. It just sort of ended up that way.
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