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At The Crossroads of American Roots & Punk Energy
Over past few years, there has been something of a revival of so-called “Americana” music. Bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers have inserted themselves into the pop-music consciousness thanks to their folksy, sing-along anthems. But while these groups are undoubtedly terrific musicians adept at crafting catchy, radio-ready songs, they fail to grasp that the true soul of American music is weird.
Folk music’s forefathers were drifters, vagabonds, convicts and swindlers, and the songs they sang reflected it. Leadbelly, for example, learned his haunting rendition of “The Midnight Special” while serving time for murder at the Imperial State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas, while Jimmie Rodgers fashioned his famous blue yodel after the field hollers and work chants of the hobos and rail workers he met as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific. And we all know what went down with Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
Two Gallants have a deep understanding of this history. The drum-and-guitar duo of Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel combines folk music’s rougher edges with all of the energy and intensity of punk rock. Lyrical, their songs find inspiration in the rich tradition of murder ballads, train songs and prison laments; while musically, look to the melodies and guitar styles of Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as the distorted sonic palette of bands like the Meat Puppets and early Nirvana.
The group formed San Francisco in 2002, and after a few years touring the country playing house shows and street corners, broke into the indie music circuit with their 2006 release, What The Toll Tells. After a five-year hiatus, the band reunited in 2012, releasing their fourth album and getting back on the road. In February of this year, they released We Are Undone, an album that is at once nostalgic yet firmly grounded in the present, attempting to make sense of a culture increasingly consumed with material success.
I caught up with the band to discuss their love of old-timey music, the changing music scene in their home city and their process for recording We Are Undone.
People always talk about the limitations imposed by as playing a duo, but it can also be a really intimate experience. How does playing as a duo affect your sound?
Adam: I’ve always considered the limitation of being a two-piece to be the most innovative force of our band. The bass is a melodic instrument that is traditionally confined to the rhythm section, so it kind of bridges the gap between drums and guitar. Without that bridge, we are kind of forced to alter the way we play to meet one another in the middle.
Adam, you’re really proficient with that country-blues finger-style playing; and Tyson, you bring this frantic punk rock energy to your drumming. Who are some of the players that influenced the way you approach your instruments?
Adam: John Fahey, Reverend Gary Davis, and Skip James have probably influenced my way of playing more than anyone else.
Tyson: I find drums to be a very flexible medium… sounds, emotions move, are created, extinguished, stoked, thrown, broken depending on intention, touch, and feel. I have been honored to find percussive sonic mentors in Elvin Jones, Zakir Hussain, Moondog, and Dave Grohl.
Your music seems to tap into the early American folk tradition of musicians like Leadbelly or even The Carter Family. Did you guys grow up listening to that stuff?
Adam: I started listening to old-timey music when I was 15 and Leadbelly was definitely was one of the first. I was really into Bob Dylan, and that Leadbelly record with the iconic portrait on the cover, as well as a handful of records scattered around on the cover photo of Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home. A few very influential adults in my life at the time noticed where my interests were heading and urged me on by turning me on to folks like Sleepy John Estes and Texas Alexander.
You guys have mentioned the changing social dynamics of San Francisco as an inspiration for some of the songs on the album. A lot of local musicians like John Dwyer and Ty Segall have left for LA recently. Have you noticed a shift in the music scene in The Bay Area?
Adam: Absolutely. When we started playing there was a really strong scene that mostly revolved around the Mission and Panhandle. A lot of house shows with USF kids who were in bands and a lot of street and house shows in the more or less inveterate mission punk scene. That’s pretty much all gone now. The city has become inaccessible for people who choose a less conventional lifestyle in more ways than one. Not only is it prohibitively expensive, a lot of the recent arrivals like the idea of living in a city in theory more than in practice and don’t have any patience for house shows. In some ways it’s hard to blame them; when you’re paying San Francisco rents you probably wouldn’t think your neighbors would have bands playing in their living rooms.
The producer of the new album, Karl Defler, has worked with a lot of great Northern Californian musicians. What did he bring to recording this album?
Adam: It’s hard to really pin it down. He brought so much that made this recording experience different from all the rest. I think of him as somewhat of a vintage individual. Not because of his age at all, he’s just simply an old soul from another era and that seeped into everything, from the sound of the record to the way Tyson and I interacted to the quality of the food we ate.
Your live shows have a ton of energy. Are you looking to translate that energy to your studio albums or is that not really the goal?
Adam: That’s definitely not a conscious goal. Actually, we don’t really have any goals other than playing music for the rest of our lives. We try to make albums that sound as true to our live show as possible, but energy is based so much on visuals that it’s kind of a fool’s errand to put too much emphasis on replicating it in a recording.
You guys are in the middle of a huge tour across Europe. Do you think audiences react to your music any differently over there?
Adam: Yeah. That was pretty evident the first time we came here. There is with out a doubt far more respect for music and musicians in Europe than there is in America. I suppose America being the creative grounds of practically every relevant genre of music of the 20th Century might produce a bit of a jaded attitude in the general populace. All I know is that we are treated rather well in Europe – from nice stinky cheese to amazing venue-cooked meals – and we are always extremely grateful to touch down over there. The States are just more rugged, for better or for worse.
Follow on Twitter @twogallants
photography by Misha Vladimirskiy