On Performing Abroad, Recording as a Two-Piece, and Exercising Demons Through Song
Two Gallants are a San Francisco folk/rock duo made up of Adam Stephens on guitar, harmonica and vocals and Tyson Vogel on drums and vocals. After a hiatus lasting five years, the two are back with a brand new album, The Bloom and the Blight, which brilliantly captures the raw energy and ferocity of a Two Gallants live show. We recently sat down with Vogel to talk about the recording process for the new album, how the duo approaches songwriting and why they continue to release deluxe physical packages of their work.
Can you give a little bit of background on the band – maybe a glimpse of what you guys are about and where you started out?
Well, we’re from San Francisco. We, Adam [Stephens] and I, grew up together here in the city. We just starting playing music together when we were like 11 or 12 years old. For whatever reason, there was a certain chemistry or certain sort of inclination that we both shared. I guess we were [formed] in 2001 after trying our hands at colleges. I went to a liberal arts college on the East Coast for a little bit and we both kind of dropped out of school and started playing music in my parents’ basement. Two Gallants just grew organically from there.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard new music from you guys. Can you explain a bit about the time off between records and why you made the decision to come back to the band?
Well, when we started making music around 2001, we didn’t really intend to ever get past the coffee shops we were playing. We put out four records in five years and in that time we were touring – like, a lot. Which, you know, I don’t want it to sound like I didn’t appreciate it. It was such an amazing opportunity and we got to see so much of the world. But I think our passions [were] kind of pushing us pretty hard in one direction.
You know, it’s weird sometimes. Like, the thing that saved you was the thing that was about to slit your throat. And so I think that we were both psychologically and physically worn out and things just seemed to be on this dangerous edge.
I can totally relate to that.
So we sort of decided to take a break for a while. We hadn’t had time to really nurture anything in our personal lives and, you know, musically have any chance to expand creatively. So we tried to take some time off. We didn’t really expect to take this much time. [laughs]
It’s been about five years. That’s a good, long break.
Yeah, that’s sort of what happened. Coming back together just seemed to be [right]. We kept in touch during our time off and everything, but we stopped playing music. [Then] all of a sudden all these new songs started coming out of us, so…
That’s a good segue into how you approach the songwriting process. Is that more of a collaborative effort or does one person handle the majority of writing duties?
It’s pretty collaborative. [pause] I mean, absolutely collaborative, and we have our different strengths in the band. Adam, he mostly focuses on the lyrics and the songwriting. But we write the songs together at the same time, if that makes sense. So he’s the songwriter in the sense of the lyrics. The songs themselves, though, and the music is where we build it together.
Given that you’re just two people, do you make the effort to sound bigger than two people when you’re writing, or does that occur more naturally?
To be honest, and I know it sounds weird, but we don’t really try to do anything. We try to represent these things that we hear in our head as appropriately and as fully realized as possible. Regarding the two person thing – we didn’t even really intend for there to be only two people in this band. I mean, at the beginning we would flyer for bass players all around the city. But I don’t know, it just seemed like the songs sounded better on their own between the two of us. And I think if we were to add another member it would change the dynamic and the feel of the music.
Especially with this new material, which I think is a bit of a departure from our previous stuff. Even though it’s just two people, I don’t feel like it’s lacking anything.
No, definitely not.
If that were the case, if we felt the song lacked something, I don’t think we’re married to one sort of equation at all. It’s more about the song dictating what it needs.
Do you get a lot of annoying White Stripes comparisons?
[laughter] Yeah, yeah, it’s a lot of White Stripes and Black Keys and stuff like that. I mean, I would much prefer Hella or Lighting Bolt comparisons, but there’s no comparison.
At least to my ears, the new record is a little less bluesy and a little grungier and grittier in places. Was that a stylistic effort on your part, or was it more organic?
It was definitely very organic. It’s kind of funny to think, but maybe as you get older you get more receptive of your youth, and the things that you have pushed out of your experience naturally come out of you, you know? We took a break for a reason. The few years that we were off, I put out a solo record and in between all of that [Adam] and I separately went through some pretty dark times. And I think this record, in its loud and kind of aggressive nature, represents a catharsis to a certain extent. Trying to express these things that we went through that we couldn’t have any control over.
Now, the new record probably features, I don’t know if I would call them the biggest riffs, but definitely the heaviest stuff you’ve done. Especially in parts of “Ride Away” and “My Love Won’t Wait.” With that in mind, how do you guys approach the studio as a two-piece? And is that different from how you approach the stage?
Not particularly. I think one has to approach recording as a whole other experience. I mean, I think on our previous records – and Adam brought this up the other day, which I hadn’t really thought of – we tried to be as pure of possible about things, you know? I mean, to try to record, or represent the experience or at least the feel that one would get if you came to one of our shows. You would see a sort of parallel in the feel and experience. With this record, we definitely approached it in that same way. That sort of purist way, but we’ve learned a little bit too.
Especially over the time [we spent apart], we learned a lot by recording our own records. I think that we were able to actually capture this feeling a little bit, even more realistically than we have before. But on top of that, still take advantage of the studio, where you’re like a painter. Everything that you see in the painting when it’s on the wall is not what you see in all the layers that the painter used in the months and months that he or she spent in the studio. So what I’m trying to say is that we took advantage of the knowledge that we gained [over the years], tried to make this experience as pure as possible, [while] taking advantage of the studio.
What sorts of things did you guys learn on hiatus that you were able to bring to the recording process?
I guess for me it was the drum production that was different this time. Working with [producer] John Congleton was really great because he’s very similar to me. He’s sort of this old school recording master where he wants to get the raw sound – to represent the band and their sound as if they were in this room and you were standing right there listening to them.
I think that by having recorded [solo] in a legitimate studio but having full control, that I learned different ways of approaching how to get the sound that I wanted.
And then working with someone who is in a high echelon like John Congleton, Adam and I were able to actually communicate what we wanted to achieve, where before [we] just didn’t have the language to do so.
I’m assuming that you recorded most of it at Tiny Telephone, is that right?
We did part of it there. We did most of it at Fantasy Studios over in Berkeley.
Gotcha. I know you guys have a pretty packed fall touring schedule, and that you’re heading back over to Europe again. What appeals to you about playing the European market, as musicians?
I think that there’s just an inherent, ingrained, educated approach to culture and music that’s different in Europe than it is in America. Even the idea that governments over there subsidize music venues just to create culture and opportunity is a good example of that.
That’s an interesting point.
Europe has so much more history than America does. And I’m not trying to compare or put down one or the other; it’s just different, you know what I mean? So we both really enjoy going over there not only because of the way that we’re treated on the venue side, but for the instinct that people have and appreciation of music and especially new music.
In America, it just tends to feel like you’re underwater, like you’re battling uphill to get any sort of traction. Like, you show up to a club and they give you two drink tickets, some Tostitos, a pat on the back and a hundred bucks and you’re supposed to survive off of that.
So that takes care of touring. What about the release plans for the new record? I hear you’ve got a pretty expansive deluxe package planned, with bonus vinyl and other goodies.
If I could sort of wax a little bit…
Wax. Go ahead. You have my permission.
We’re at the point where digital is here to stay, you know? It’s not going to go away. It’s a part of how we all exist. It’s a part of the technology we’re surrounded by. But I feel like the honeymoon is over and that people still appreciate and hopefully would want something to hold onto, physically. For example, with the deluxe package, I hope that it gives the sense that you are close to the music and that there is a little bit more to appreciate. And there are those out there who do want that kind of thing, and we support that. We feel that way, too. I just think it gives a little more meaning when you have something physical that you can hold onto.
Like it’s a more personal experience?
Right. I remember getting records when I was younger…and you would open up these records and there’d be a smashed penny in it or something like that, you know? Even something as little as that gives you this real feeling of personal association. I guess that in some ways people are just trying to appeal to that [sense] again. Adam and I are of that ilk, as well. [laughs]
photos by Eric Ryan Anderson