Interview with Bill Mallonee
Currently touring the UK with Dolly Varden (interviewed here) and Julie Lee, the prolific Bill Mallonee kindly took some time before his gig (reviewed here) to talk to CDtimes about his music, Athens and his plans for the future...
CDtimes: I understand you originally started out as a drummer before becoming a guitarist?
Bill Mallonee: Well, as a kid I played a lot of drums and I played a lot in that second wave of Athens[, Georgia] bands that came along after REM. I'd done a lot of session work and was playing guitar on the side and wrote my first stash of songs then decided to take it to another level and put a band together. The funny thing was that the Vigilantes of Love project was originally an acoustic offshoot at least at the beginning of its 10 year life span.
CDtimes: How much did the Vigilantes of Love produce over that time-span?
BM: We did a total of 17 albums over eleven years mainly Americana/folk-rock orientated stuff. When we first got rolling in '92, we put out a record called Killing Floor, with Peter Buck [from REM] as one of the producers as well as Mark Heard.
CDtimes: How did you get Peter Buck to produce?
BM: He lives in Athens and I knew him all the way back when they were doing their Chronic Town EP. It was around the time of Out of Time and he was a real supporter and very generous with his time. So we went out to support Killing Floor doing 180 shows a year.
CDtimes: Were you seen as alt.country back then?
BM: That term wasn't really around. That came more with Uncle Tupelo though there were bands like Jason and the Scorchers that were there doing alt.country then though they didn't really have that punk influence that early Uncle Tupelo had. The culmination for us of the alt.country thing was Audible Sigh, an album that was produced by Buddy Miller [Emmylou Harris' guitarist/producer].
CDtimes: Since Audible Sigh, you've left that scene with your more recent solo releases.
BM: Yeah, the solo stuff has been a little more jangly guitar pop. I think there's places where alt.country meets the pop music and I think it's in bands like the Byrds - there was a lot of melody, 12-string, Rickenbackers - so that's where I went with it. We'll be recording a new record when we get back to the US which will be decidedly leaning toward the folk scene.
CDtimes: So were the pop releases more of a deviation or just the way things were evolving?
BM: It was a deviation that I don't know if all our fans got. There was a little bit of grumbling and protestation about that sort of stuff. But the decisive factor was it's too expensive having a four-man band out on the road. I don't know how it is in the UK, but in the States since 9/11, concerning live music, there's been a 25-30% drop-off in attendance at the club level. People are downloading more music, they're watching more movies, they're staying at home more and it takes a lot of money to support a record at this level. We've never been on a label that's had enough money to do it. With Perfumed Letter we got great reviews but I had to send the band home after 4-5 weeks because we just weren't making enough money to continue. If you have enough money to employ a manager who worries about those kind of things, that's great but for me, it's basically trial by fire and I'm learning the business side of art. So now we're doing mostly two-piece stuff - the cool thing about that is that it has generated a lot of new songs
CDtimes: So are you going to go the route of making shoe-string home recordings like Mark Olson and the Creekdippers?
BM: Well for the next record John Keane who did Blister Soul with us and Buddy Miller want to be involved and as much as I can with the money, I'd always like to push the production value of the records to the highest level so we're not going to sacrifice anything there. I'm not yet at the stage of making records in my bedroom! [laughs]
CDtimes: Lyrically, you seem to be quite inspired by the American Gothic writers like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.
BM: Yeah but I think for the most part the inspiration is more internal than external - struggling with my own demons and my tendency toward depression. Ever since I was a kid, I've been prone to it - I think I've been lucky that God has surrounded me with positive thinking people to help me climb out of it but it's a great place to be if you're trying to write. I think most of my stuff is a confessional sort of lyricism - so not necessarily Gothic - you scratch at that wound and see what comes out. The presupposition is, since we're all walking round as the same flesh and blood, it ought to resonate with other people who are bearing similar burdens but who can't necessarily talk about it.
CDtimes: A song like Resplendent [on Audible Sigh] harks back to the 1930s depression era and the loss that many suffered - is that a period of time you identify with particularly?
BM: Well the song is more of a timepiece but the song asks a question beyond that period about where does evil come from and how much do we have to play in it. Maybe the answer to that is another question: What are we dong to alleviate hardship in the corner of the world we live in? I see the world as supercharged with the possibility of open redemption.
CDtimes: You seem to come a lot to the UK - is that because touring is easier here?
BM: I suppose you can get a lot of touring done in a small amount of time but the two main reasons for it is the great support we get from [Radio 2's] Bob Harris who's been playing us for a long time on his show and we have a great manager here in the UK who does a fantastic job helping us tour. Another thing in the US there's a lot of bands so it seems harder to get any visibility there compared to the UK.
CDtimes: Do you think the UK audience understand where you coming from as much as the US crowd?
BM: I think so - I've noticed on this tour most of the audiences know all of the lyrics to the Audible Sigh so it seems to have struck a chord despite the fact that was the experience of four guys getting in a truck and most of the time getting the shit kicked out of them. That's our world and it's what the world looks like when there's no safety net beneath you. But the overriding theme of life's fragility is really what gets across. Also the UK audience seem to know a lot of the so-called Older School of musicians, Hank Williams to Steve Earle as well as the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Especially Dylan who seems to be a god over here!
CDtimes: Finally could you recommend 5 CDs you've listened to recently?
BM: Ah, a good question [he thinks for a while] I'd say Wheat - Per Second, Per Second, Per Second, an older record: Guided by Voices - Isolation Drills, Gillian Welch - Soul Journey which is a great record, Dylan's Nashville Skyline and we've been listening to Wilco's Being There CD - it's not all great but mostly great [laughs]. I think Jeff [Tweedy, Wilco frontman] is great - a real artist...
Bill Mallonee's new record, Locket Full of Moonlight, is available on Fundamental Records in the UK. Order at Amazon.co.uk