The Scenery of Farewell

Author: Jenna Humphrey
06/21/2007 | | | Feature
"Things got pretty heated the last time I saw you," Adam Stephens tells me in the Green Room backstage at the Orange Peel in Asheville. No, we didn't make out. He's actually referring to an argument over the ethical implications of eating animals. Naturally combative and frighteningly eloquent, he knows how to get me worked up over something — in this case, veganism — he doesn't actually seem to care about. "You've changed," he continues, in reference to the job I recently accepted taking customer service calls for an insurance firm.

He and Tyson Vogel, who together form the punk folk duo Two Gallants, have evaded much of modern day drudgery thanks to this nomadic life of theirs, such as sellout jobs, such as the everyday grind of staying put. With two successful albums in three years, extensive touring has kept them mostly on the road and away from their San Francisco home, with 2007 offering little respite.

But it isn't all hot groupies and free wine — a bottle of which Tyson opens with a drumstick. Such ingenuity! This summer, the Gallants are touring with Les Claypool, which they aren't enjoying too much. "It's just nice to have people actually pay attention when you play," Adam says. Luckily, they've found an outlet for the frustrations of road life — in the form of their new EP, The Scenery of Farewell. This effort abandons the signature storytelling we're used to in favor of more personal explorations of loss, lonesomeness, and an unrelenting string of goodbyes.

The first song, "Seems Like Home To Me," describes what it means to be on the road so much that home is everywhere — which is to say, nowhere; he sings: "When a sparrow needs its rest/It takes the nearest tree/If I pass back this way/Can I still light on thee." The intermingling of fiddle and guitar creates a heartrending sound that borders on the maudlin, much apropos considering the Americana influence that permeates their style. This old-world quality has been amped up, even more now stripped from the punk sound that modernized their music before; within these songs, contemporary references seem like anachronisms: cheap boxed wine and hobos under freeways mingle with balustrades and women dressing by candlelight.

The melding of past and present throughout creates a landscape that cannot exist in any specific time and is, therefore, timeless—and rightfully so; how, exactly, does one date the bidding of farewell? The second song, "Lady," draws a clear parallel to Joyce's Dubliners, a short story collection from which the band draws their name. It follows the narrator from childhood to old age, just as the stories within Joyce's book progress. "The sun leaves shine o'er each season/While I learn my one-two-threes … Sunshine plays the puddles through the mornings, evenings, afternoons/Evenings, afternoons/I count my thoughts with coffee spoons … Old men like me just tuck their shirts in/Too busy runnin' out of time."

Stephens' lyrics often drift into abstraction, forming tenuous narratives reminiscent of Rorschach ink blot tests. This perhaps evolves out of his songwriting method, in which, as he describes it, the words act like building blocks, one leading to the next. "I don't question where they come from," he tells me, then continues, "I understand that what I write can be obscure. Sometimes I'll change it — but not if doing so takes from its quality."

He says that "All Your Faithless Loyalties" is a response to constantly leaving people behind — and interestingly enough, from their point of view, not his. The bitterness and poignancy of the lyrics surprises me: "And surely you've seen better, but for you I did my best/You'll go, I'll stay, I'll begin again…/I hope I never see your face again." Damn. Yet however strong the lyrics, the music often reaches its most powerful during the instrumentals, as with the harmonic in "All Your Faithless Loyalties" and the gorgeous fiddle solo in "North Country Bound," a ballad that borrows its sound from old blue mountains and its ethos from a weary traveler who confesses that I'm not sure how long I'll stick around.

The last and most poignant song on the EP, "Linger On" opens with the harmonica and a piano that resonates seemingly through a parlor. It relays a guilty farewell to someone whose heart the narrator has broken. I say "narrator" because even at his most personal, Adam filters his own experiences through characterization; one remembers that he is, ultimately, most comfortable when tucked behind his various fictions. He's an elusive fellow. When I ask who "Las Cruces Jail" is about he admits it's a true story, but only smiles slyly and says, "Can't tell."

"At least while you are performing," I say, "there comes out of that this place where people can escape their everyday lives. You're helping create a community in that sense. Is that intentional?"

"Nothing I write is ever intentional," he counters. "I don't think of songs as a tool. It's more of a personal thing. I'm not doing it for anyone else. I don't believe that one should do art for anyone else's benefit. If anything, maybe the songs help people think more about the absurdity in their own lives."

Tyson adds, "It doesn't put us on a soapbox. Whatever people get out of it, it's still their own thinking."

Around two in the morning I say goodbye, one of many, I am sure, who will pass shiftily through their lives this tour. Vogel is kind and heartfelt as always; he's the softer of the duo, epitomized by his bright red Care Bears messenger bag. Stephens lowers his cautious exterior long enough to give me a good hug, a long stare, and to say, "Take care," in a way that I know he means. On the drive back from Asheville, I pull over to send a text message to their tour manager. "Tell A&T that, partially inspired by them, I've decided to turn down the insurance job & will remain happily broke for some time more." Maybe he doesn't understand how right I am about veganism (obviously), but Stephens and his boy make a damn strong case for staying on one's real true path — no matter how lonesome the road.
The Scenery of Farewell

The Scenery of Farewell

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