Two Gallants are, in most every imaginable respect, a band out of time. Their music resists convenient labels, their influences are varied and obscure. Unlike so many popular contemporary bands who unabashedly wear their lineage on their record sleeves, Two Gallants make you wonder precisely where they’ve come from and what they’ve seen and heard along the way. Their 2004 debut, The Throes, arrived almost unheralded, yet it stands as one of the most dynamic, convincing albums of that year. The follow-up, this year’s What the Toll Tellson Saddle Creek, is a record which serves to consolidate the band’s reputation, both as performers of thrilling immediacy, and as folklorists of profound human empathy.
Two Gallants are Adam Stephens (vocals, guitars, songwriter) and Tyson Vogel (vocals, drums). Both are still in their early 20s, a fact that, understandably, was remarked upon by numerous commentators upon the first album’s release. Simply put, the depth of living and experience in their work belies such early youth. Their music, if I were to take a stab at describing it, is a western-based blues, one that leans on folk and blues traditions and somehow, through it’s rabid energy and insubordinate refusal to be defined, takes on hints of punk as well. Stephens’s voice possesses all the spark and fissure of metal hitting concrete, while Vogel’s drumming is a panoply of controlled chaos. Both lads grew up in San Francisco, and perhaps because of that, their work conveys distinct traces of the American West, both in aesthetic and content.
“I suppose to some extent that is true,” Stephens said recently. “In origin definitely… we are both of and from the West. In content perhaps slightly, but only in the outdated and idealized theme that the west is some endless expansive frontier where one can find escape from his or her failures and start all over again. But that’s only faith in a dream. In aesthetic, I really can’t say. I’m not sure if anyone has really portrayed a purely western aesthetic in music since maybe Nirvana or NWA. I don’t think we hold a candle to those.”
The tales Adam Stephens spins are of drifters, outlaws, and outcasts, people trapped by poverty, bad marriages, and by race. Four of nine songs on the new album weigh in at over eight minutes in length, a testament not to self-indulgence, but rather to an unwillingness to compromise the truth of the stories. “Long Summer Day”, for example, takes for its narrator a black man fighting the wages of oppression in the post-reconstructed South. “Everything that takes place in the song happened in some form,” Stephens says. “I got the first line of the chorus—‘Well a summer day make a white man crazy’—from an old work song that many consider goes back to the days of slavery. The version I have is sung by a man named Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt, although the rest of that song has nothing to do with what ‘Long Summer Day’ ended up being about. I guess it all just came from history books and public television, and I wrote it in the first person because otherwise it would have just felt like me sermonizing on something that happened long ago… and what good would that do?”
Given the desolate, bleak lives Stephens often describes, and coupled with such relative youth, one can’t help wonder a little of his own upbringing, and of the duo’s shared sense of destiny.
“San Francisco has always been our home. It is where we were meant to be raised,” Adam says. “My mother was a Georgia slattern who moved here to avoid small town social scrutiny. My father was a key maker for a traveling locksmith. Never met him. I think it’s pretty hard to avoid the influence of one’s surroundings, particularly as an impressionable child… but nothing in particular that I am aware of influenced me. Except perhaps the lack of music in my family, which lead me toward it, towards discovering something unknown to my known world.”
And what of this, to me, decidedly western imagery and aesthetic? “Crow Jane” from The Throes, is derived from a blues standard, and is redolent with imagery from, say, the grittier edge of the western movie canon, or from the novels of Cormac McCarthy. And then there are echoes of mariachi horns on “16th St. Dozens”, or the story at the heart of “Las Cruces Jail”. In the work of Two Gallants you’ll find references to shootings, sheriffs, and hangings, and in language that is if not entirely archaic, then which at least harkens back to an earlier time. Or am I simply misguided in all this?
“Everyone likes cowboys,” Adam says dryly. “But, ‘Las Cruces Jail’ is the only song, in my opinion, that really fits into some sort of wild western theme. It’s based on a true story, just a fact-based fiction. But to be honest, I don’t know anyone who has ever shot anyone, and the closest I’ve ever been to jail is the drunk tank.”
Stephens possesses an extraordinary gift for creating narrative fiction, as well as taking an obvious joy in language for its own sake. Unsurprisingly then, the band name Two Gallants arrives courtesy of the James Joyce story in Dubliners, but apparently, more as a matter of happenstance than from any profound reasoning. “By coincidence, we were both reading Dubliners when we started playing shows,” Adam explains. “We had to come up with a name and it almost seemed too obvious. Corley and Lenehan [Joyce’s protagonists in the story] have more than a few similarities to our personalities and relationship, but it’s just a name. It’s not the music.”
Indeed, when my line of questions continue to follow the line of literature with a capital L, he is quick to downplay any bookish pretensions.
“I don’t really like the word [literature] actually. Anyone can write, but not everyone can necessarily write with a sense of urgency that can slay open the audience. Some well-respected writers don’t mean a thing to me because they don’t seem to have any veins in their words. I suppose a few who carry the weight in my opinion are Rilke, Rimbaud, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, Sleepy John Estes.”
And in music?
“Blind Boy Fuller, Charlie Poole, Pink Anderson, Georgia Bill, Roy Smeck, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Blind Joe Death, Joseph Spence, Hickey, Immortal Technique, Steel Pole Bathtub, and Jay-Z, to name a few.”
As suggested earlier, in the world of contemporary rock and pop music it’s become almost a point of pride for groups to build careers on the aping of bands from earlier music fashions. To display no sign of your lineage is somehow to display a lack of credentials, and to broach outright originality, if ever such a thing could exist, is imagined as gaudy or distrustful. Likewise in music journalism, where a list of contemporaries and of bands that sound alike is too readily accepted as considered criticism. With Two Gallants, this latter trend has perhaps most obviously identified itself in comparisons with Bob Dylan. Certainly, Two Gallants songs offer poetic fictions and, yes, occasionally feature harmonica, but really…
“Not only is it lazy journalism, I think it is uneducated journalism,” Adam says. “Mentioning Bob Dylan or the Beatles in the context of modern music is redundant. Of course the influence is there. It’s like pointing out Thomas Edison’s influence on a well-lit room. The only reason people say it with us more often is because our songs might have a bit of content. But, we don’t really like to describe our music with words either. Not like what we do is beyond description, but we just try to avoid the undertaking whenever possible. Whenever people describe bands, it’s always a litany of other bands. Sometimes that works, and some might think it works with us. I don’t. We just try to stay away from it altogether.”
Two Gallants have spent the first part of this year touring this UK, and they returned to the US at the end of February, in time for the release of the new album. In comparing the new album to their previous effort, Adam says, “It’s longer. It’s a bit heavier in the pocket. And it sounds better, without a doubt. I think it’s just an older record than The Throes.”
And if, as has been suggested, the blues is a means of expressing something that doesn’t just want to be said, but has to be said, then the music Two Gallants plays is a decidedly authentic blues. That being said, however, I suspect the band themselves will be keen to keep the a in authentic in lower case, in much the same way they imagine literature, lacking in all precocity.
All of which might most accurately be summarized by Two Gallants’ philosophy of “career”. Asked what success would look like if he could choose it under his own terms, Stephens stated simply, “Well I just moved out of my mom’s house. That for now is about as much as I need. Tyson is still at home, unfortunately, but he’ll escape soon enough. All we have ever really wanted was for people to listen to us. As long as we are playing rooms that fit the people we will be fine. If the people stop coming than we’ll probably just go back to Tyson’s garage and start over.”