A PASTE Conversation with Bill Mallonee

Music Features Bill Mallonee
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It’s a lazy afternoon at cozy Athens, Ga., bar Flicker, and former Vigilantes of Love frontman Bill Mallonee is busy checking the levels on my portable recording gear, high-speed spewing verbatim excerpts of The Gettysburg Address, Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing speech and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are with a tongue limber as an auctioneer’s. His new wife/keyboardist/backup singer Muriah Rose at his side, the loquacious Mallonee talks with PASTE about his new record Permafrost, life on the road, his personal struggles and the ups and downs of the music business…

PASTE: All of the records I’ve listened to of yours seem to have a confessional tendency, but do you think Permafrost is one of the most personal records you’ve made?

BILL MALLONEE: Yeah, it definitely has a lot of confessional stuff and overview stuff on it, too. There have been a huge number of changes in my life in the last two years, so it all shows up in the music, and it’s still showing up in the new songs. I’m still writing at a clip of about 45 to 50 songs a year. I think it’s just good therapy. It seems to make for an honest song, even if the costs of attaining that kind of information tend to be a little bloody. You know, the record—when someone said they heard it they said “it’s a little bit of everything that you’ve ever done.” Also, it’s more straight Americana rock, and reflective.

PASTE: There are great pop moments, too.

MALLONEE: Yeah, there are some good pop moments, and then the more acoustic stuff that tends to be more confessional.

PASTE: There is such a variety of emotion on the record. You said when you were writing the songs, you had a lot on your mind. There are so many different themes—personal responsibility, sympathy, empathy, pain, authenticity, healing, compassion, rebirth… so why did you choose Permafrost as the title? Because that seems, in a way, almost the antithesis of these dynamic feelings and change and deep emotion.

MALLONEE: It seemed antithetical to those things?

PASTE: Coming at it from that angle.

MALLONEE: I think maybe the feeling on the record—if there’s a difference between light and darkness, so to speak—then the 51 percent errs on the side of darkness and coldness this time. On some of the records, I’ve always let the last track be kind of like a quiet coda piece. And this record is no exception, but I don’t know if it’s got quite the element of hope about it.

I talk about this kind of stuff a lot—because of some of the past I came out of, and also because some of the demographic fans who I thought were listening to the records and listening to what I was doing for maybe the wrong reasons. To a certain extent you can become, unwittingly, a poster child for particular kinds of views or movements or whatever, and, somewhat unbeknownst to me, I think I kind of became that. So, when life hits its screw-ups and its darker moments, and you realize that you are living with a very fractured, fragile kind of skin anyway—I’m kind of talking around some of this stuff, obviously—I think a lot of people get upset, disappointed and outright pissed off. And, really, years ago I just stopped thinking about who the audience was. I never really wrote with an audience in mind anyway; I just sort of wrote from the inside out. Because, like I said, honest to God, it was a cheap form of therapy.

If someone said, “what are the defining emotions in your life?” I would say, well, probably fear, dread, terror. And of all it is classic symptomology of being a kid growing up in an alcoholic family— depression and all that kind of stuff. And it’s no different than 99 percent of most of the writers that I’ve met. You really are struggling for a reason to put a smile on your face. I think there’s also some pretension when you sort of drown in it, too, and it just becomes grandiose and, honest to God, I try to stay away from that. But at the same time there’s no denying these last two years [during which Mallonee went through a divorce and a difficult time of family crisis] have been hellacious. You know, a great deal of it self-inflicted. So the Permafrost title, just to get back to the original question—it’s still a little cold and crusty and devoid of light.

PASTE: It’s kind of a numbness?

MALLONEE: Yeah, that would be a good word for it. Sure, I’ll go with numb.

PASTE: Do you feel like, now, having this record out and behind you—I know you said there is not a lot of hope on it, but I did hear stuff like “Flowers,” where you have things growing up through the parched ground. You know, coming through the pavement, and so to me that was like a little hint there at the end. Something to hang on to.

MALLONEE: Absolutely, yeah. I haven’t bailed on the things that have driven my life and, to a certain extent, my music. I haven’t bailed on it at all. But you have to come to grips with a part of yourself that, maybe you thought you were something that you weren’t, and when you wake up finally and realize that you’re not everything you thought you were… those are painful moments, but they’re moments of truth, so in some ways, in the long run, they’re liberating moments. Whether you like what you see in the mirror or not. And so I think it’s just a series of songs to work through.

PASTE: Was making the record cathartic in a way, to where you feel like you’re in a little better of a place now?

MALLONEE: Yeah, that record and probably—there’s a subscription service that our ex-manager still helps us run called Bill Tunes . And that thing is probably worth four or five new songs a month. And with the new record, plus the new tunes, Muriah Rose and I are working together. We’re married but also we’re also formally working together. So it’s been nice to go back and write with a female voice in mind, and work with that dynamic in mind.

PASTE: Who’s the voice on the record?

MALLONEE: It’s Muriah’s.

PASTE: It’s really beautiful.

MALLONEE: It’s not mixed loud of enough in most places. We had to wrestle—the guy that produced the record, a guy named Ben Holst, we produced it together, but I was always trying to wrestle control of the board just to get her vocals up a little higher.

PASTE: You know, its funny—you probably have no idea about this, but actually heard you recording some of one of your last records, Dear Life. I was at John Keane Studios in Athens and was interviewing John Keane for another piece for the magazine, and all of a sudden I hear… I was like “Man, that’s Bill Mallonee’s voice coming from down the hall, and I heard you playing an acoustic guitar and playing a song. I hope you don’t mind, I sat there and listened for a while.

MALLONEE: No, I’m glad you did. I wish you’d come up. Jake [Bradley], who was with Vigilantes of Love, and I did that record. Basically, Dear Life and Friendly Fire were recorded at the same time. It was 25 songs and we thought they were all done, we just had to figure out which album they’d go on.

PASTE: What was Permafrost recording experience like?

MALLONEE: We worked with a band—which is fairly obvious—from the outset, from the first song, “Pour, Kid.” And it was a lot of fun. We basically had the songs down, Muriah was working out keyboard parts as we went, but the basic tracks were done with a drummer named Jeff Reilly, who’s here in town and Ben Holst, who’s a bass player who plays with everybody.

PASTE: You’re calling it Victory Garden?

MALLONEE: Yeah, Victory Garden was this loose confederation of musicians…

PASTE: For the project?

MALLONEE: Yeah, and it’s also kind of a conscious decision to have… OK, there is a band, it is called Victory Garden and it’s—by the way—not Vigilantes of Love. Because the weird thing is, I’m like eight records into a solo career, but you’d never know it. It’s like you get this Golden Age, which was the Audible Sigh period: Roof of the Sky and Audible Sigh in three different versions, it was basically 20 songs we had recorded in a year, and a live record ’Cross the Big Pond, which was an acoustic record that we did in England—all in the span of about a year-and-a-half. For a lot of people, there is no doubt, that was a kick-ass band, no doubt about it. We did 180 shows a year, and they were all great—I loved that group. But I haven’t had a real full-band experience to record with until the Victory Garden thing. So it’s been nice getting back to that, even though I can’t afford to take them on the road. But it was great being able to say, “okay, here’s the tune, run it down for 15 or 20 minutes,” and then push record.

PASTE: What is it you like about having the band, as opposed to doing a lot more yourself—is there like a cohesiveness or a chemistry?

MALLONEE: It’s more of an energy thing, I think. The cool thing was I’ve played with Ben before but never Jeff, the drummer, and it was Muriah’s first—well, you’ve been in the studio before, but it was the first time with us. The first time, it was like okay, there’s almost this kind of childish thing to prove. It’s like “you’re in my sandbox now, and I’m going to show that I can build a good castle.” So you’re in there really pushing and I didn’t have any of the arrangements done—so we really did hammer it out and hit record. I think the record has a nice arranged quality to it. The songs feel like smart songs, on the pop side of the equation. That’s what I’m really the proudest about. Everybody seemed to have that instinct of what would make a good arranged pop song.

PASTE: I’ll tell you, this record—for maybe like the last year or two… When I was growing up I was always into albums. I was, “beginning to end,” listen to the whole thing, take it in, digest it, but the last year or two I’ve felt myself being pulled in the direction of “oh, there’s three or four tracks I love with this record.” You know, being more about the single. Permafrost was actually the first thing I heard in a long time that made me think, you know, gosh, I really want to start listening to albums again, and in their entirety. From beginning to end the new album seems like such a cohesive piece.

MALLONEE: And I’ve always made records like that. The record that I did for Paste when you guys were taking a swing at doing the record-label thing was [2003’s] Perfumed Letter, and it’s like 42 minutes. I’m really into the short rides because the records that I was listening to when I grew up—you did get it said in nine or ten songs and you had about 35 to 42, 45 minutes to say it. Just because a CD holds damn 75 minutes doesn’t mean you’ve got to use it all. And in some respects you can shoot yourself in the foot by saying it over again, and it becomes repetitive and the record loses focus and it loses a certain energy. I’m really into the short ride. That’s one of the reasons the record, it’s not real long.

PASTE: That was my next question—about the dilution of albums in the CD age.

MALLONEE: Well, I’m a huge Son Volt fan. I thought Son Volt was great, and it was not without notice that their second record, you know, Jay [Farrar] released Straightaways and it was 35 minutes and some change, and people asked him, “why is that?” and he said, “Well, because that’s what fits on an LP.”

PASTE: It’s easier to digest and it holds someone’s attention. I think sometimes no matter how good somebody is, after an hour-plus of hearing the same artist, your attention might start to waver, and there’s also the tendency for the artist to keep songs they normally would’ve cut.

MALLONEE: You can deal with concepts, too, in smaller bits than some massive sort of thing. Not everyone was meant to write The Messiah.

PASTE: You were talking about working on songs before. When you write, does it tend to come in spurts, or is it something you work at everyday?

MALLONEE: Mostly in spurts. It used to come everyday, but my life has been in such transition. We moved like three times in the last year. In fact, I’ve just been on a run recently—in the past two weeks I think I’ve knocked out about 10 songs. Before that it was like a three-month dry period. You get scared sometimes. You think, did I lose it? Is it gone? The magic’s finally left. And that’s been unusual for me because, in the old mode, I’d be writing everyday. The only person that I ever actually knew who wrote more than I did was Rob Pollard from Guided By Voices, and that guy’s just insane. I mean, he writes like two records a week or something.

PASTE: I had a chance to talk with him a few weeks ago. He is constantly creating—that’s his whole thing, and now he’s even brought on someone he is working with who basically handles all the arrangements just so he can concentrate on songwriting even more than he has.

MALLONEE: He’s a monster. I love Guided By Voices and his solo stuff’s been great, too.

PASTE: So do you have anything coming up? Are you working on anything new? Any tour plans?

MALLONEE: Working on some new songs for the subscription service; the download site. Lucky enough, I own all of the masters that I’ve ever done. This latest is, I think, record number 24, and almost all of those are up for download on our site. We just got back from England, did five weeks over there. We have a tour coming up, just a short tour, like a week long in December, and then after that it’s tighten the belt. We don’t have label or management now so we’re making it all up as we go. And that’s pretty scary on most days…

PASTE: You say it’s scary, but is there also comfort in it, in that you’re not worried about people taking you in the wrong direction or mishandling things…

MALLONEE: [starts laughing] You know, I could use a little direction, actually. I don’t know, at this point… the last year has been…

MURIAH ROSE: It’s fly-by-night; like being in the middle of a river and you only have two rocks, so you have to pick one up and throw it in front of you and step on that one, and then you have to throw the next one—we never know if it’s going to go anywhere or not and we just hope to make the next step.

PASTE: So a mix of adventure and terror?

MURIAH ROSE: Laying awake at night and worrying.

MALLONEE: I don’t know if this was symbolic or not, but we got married in February [2006] and made Permafrost, put the thing out [self-released]—so this summer we’re driving around in a piece-of-shit Honda. What is it, a 1986? What do they call those van wagons? Anyway, we’re coming out of the great state of New Jersey, heading toward Pennsylvania on Highway 78 late in the afternoon, and the car has about, oh what was it? About 285,000—over 200,000 miles on it. Her name was “Gracie,” and it was a death machine. You would definitely look at that thing and think, “my God how would you get in there.” So, in that thing, we’ve got all our luggage, all the merchandise, a full eighty-eight key keyboard, three guitars and no air conditioning—and last summer was just hot as Hades. So we’re out there and the car’s always had these little hiccup problems, and one was it had an alternator that seized on us. We are driving into a deep afternoon sun, 70-mile-an-hour traffic on 78 and it dies, like, right in the middle of the road. And I got out of the car… I mean, it was a tense moment. I thought, you know, cars just zipping around. This guy behind me stops, puts on his flashers and I think he thought I was trying to… I just wanted him to push me to the side at this point. So he gets out of the car and says, “I’ll help you push it to the curb, but you know we’re gonna f—ing die.” That’s what he says!

It was kind of one of those epiphany moments. I thought, we have been riding around in this car, at the sake of our lives, for, Lord, two years trying to get this stuff done. But anyway, we did end up coming up with a new vehicle, but it was one of those things where I thought, ‘You know, actually, that record deal with a little bit of an advance that could maybe put us in a nice vehicle that was gonna get us from A to B, and they said I have to use this song as the single’ … Yeah, I could use that kind of direction. You know? All of that long-windedness to say it would be nice to have a little bit more superstructure around [my operation].

PASTE: Are you guys actively looking for a label; are you shopping around?

MALLONEE: I don’t really—I’m not good at that, I don’t know. I’ve always trusted other people to be the face and I know this is the day and age where everybody—you know, it’s sort of my axe to grind with everybody that has, like, a 4-track recorder or some home studio and a MySpace site, [like] it’s just as legitimate—and I know that sounds like I’m being, you know, down the nose at that, but I think there’s a place for the artist just to be the artist. When everybody tries to be artist and businessman I usually think one is gonna suffer. And I suck as a business person, I really do. And I know it, so somebody else has to do that. But the other side of the equation is I think I’m a pretty good artist and I’ve figured out how to do this over the years, so let me do that and I’ll be glad to cut you in on part of the pie if you’ll do your side of it. So that’s really it, and I think every artist needs those symbiotic relationships with managers.

The thing that comes to mind, I know you saw the No Direction Home Scorsese movie with Dylan. There are some great moments in that movie where you’ve got this—he is a mofo, Albert Goldman, he’s insane. And there’s that one moment where Dylan’s in England and Dylan is sitting there—Mr. Peaceloving folk-artist poster child smoking a cigarette, tuning a guitar—and Albert Goldman is down the end of the phone into some British promoter’s throat about how Bobby might have to go home if he doesn’t get a few more thousand dollars. He is negotiating this right on the phone and I thought, you know, “that is overbearing,” but there’s another side of it—this guy was looking out for Dylan because he knew that Dylan was the guy, and everybody needed to hear that guy and the way he was doing it. But Dylan didn’t have to worry about the business side of it. So Dylan is standing in the room, and here’s this picture of Albert just giving this guy hell on the end of the phone. I think every artist needs somebody to be—maybe not that much of an asshole, but somebody to champion their work with a vision that says “hey man, you need to hear this music,” and I think those people are hard to find these days.

PASTE: Some of the best managers I’ve ever met are assholes! They get the job done, you know?

MALLONEE: You hear those stories about—who is the Zeppelin manager? Peter Grant? You know, those are scary stories—if half of them are true, they’re like thugs. But, Lord, I don’t know…

PASTE: Anything for the artist. Anything.

MALLONEE: Yeah, anything for the artist. Anyway, we could use something with a little focus to it. [But] these things will happen [for us eventually]. I guess we try to wake up with a little bit of faith in the process and just figure nothing happens by coincidence; we’ll run into the right person, whoever he or she is out there.

PASTE: How has it been on the road? Do you do the whole show as a duo?

MURIAH ROSE: Yes, well we… It was just jumping in and swimming, really. When we first started touring, I just played on a couple of songs, and now I play most of the set and Bill plays a couple by himself, which I still enjoy because I like to listen to him. I play the keyboards and sing backup vocals.

I like touring. It’s very enjoyable to be out on the road and have those conversations and not really have the everyday responsibilities taking precedent, so you can just kind of sit there and talk.

PASTE: I tell you, there are more and more husband-and-wife duos traveling now: You’ve got Mates of State and Viva Voce and all these people, and they all seem to love it.

Well, Bill, thanks a lot for talking with us. It’s good to hear from you, especially since you and your music were one of the main reasons Paste magazine started in the first place.

MALLONEE: You guys have been generous over the years. I know that—and you can leave this on the record or off, it doesn’t really matter—we went to war for a while just because the Perfumed Letter record—in my perspective, it was the first solo release and [Paste] got completely screwed with the distribution—it wasn’t their fault.

PASTE: Well, we’re a better magazine than we turned out as a record label. [laughs]

MALLONEE: Well actually, [Paste Records] was a generous label. Muriah and I were actually talking about this on the way over. Those guys [Paste co-founders Nick Purdy and Josh Jackson] gave me a goodly number of CDs to sell, which were automatic tour support—no labels really do that, I mean it was like a thousand free CDs. And then the other thing was I got to keep the master. But I think when I talked to [former Paste Associate Publisher and label president] Joe Kirk, I think Nick had felt overwhelmed trying to be the [media group] president, and at the same time I think they realized that whoever the distributor was, was being sued. So all of the lawyers and accountants came in and said, “OK those 5,500 copies of Perfume Letter—along with a number of other Athens’ bands that were on a label called Kindercore…

PASTE: Was that when Kindercore went under?

MALLONEE: Yeah. So all of that stuff was locked up in a warehouse and seized as intellectual assets, so nobody ever got their records in the stores.

PASTE: Commerce completely destroying art.

MALLONEE: Yeah, it’s like, how does this happen, it’s just so ridiculous. But you know, it was all in good faith. I reacted poorly. I got really bent out of shape. Anyway, whatever. These things happen. I think we’re still on speaking terms. I’m glad that [Paste] is doing well—I just think, now, starting a label is, it’s a big jump for anybody.

PASTE: It’s a tough time. I mean, there are so many labels now that are failing. The old model doesn’t work really. They’re refiguring what it’s going to be, going forward.

MALLONEE: Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because the music has become, like, everybody feels they should get it for free?

PASTE: Downloading is the huge thing, and how that change everything. I actually did a story on the music-business program over at the University of Georgia [for UGA’s Terry College of Business magazine], and I went in and sat in on a lot of great lectures with [R.E.M.’s attorney] Bertis Downs and all kinds of people. But one thing he was talking about was a new vision for a one-stop kind of company that would be involved in every aspect of the artist’s career, not just the record, like, be involved with your touring, with your merch and give you support in all things to where they’re more invested in you, but the catch is they also share in the profit from all of it. They’re management, they’re booking, a label, everything all in one. That’s been talked about a lot. Nettwerk is a company that is like that.

And, you know, of course, coming at it from the other end, you’ve got all these bedroom recording artists like you were talking about earlier.

MALLONEE: Yeah, some of that stuff is really brilliant. It’s sort of incumbent on you guys as critics to help the average guy/girl on the street to sort of weed through what’s good or in development or already great. Because I think part of the problem is when everything is described in next-big-thing terms, you can’t distinguish. What it does is, it creates a cycle where you get six months of fame and then you’re back to your day job. It really can be like that.

PASTE: Its almost seems like there’s going to be a great leveling in the music industry—where you’re gonna have the people that are really, really high at the top, it seems like they’re gonna have to come down a little bit, and maybe the people on the bottom are gonna be lifted a little bit. Maybe it’ll get to where it’s no longer the fame and fortune, but just people making a living. And that’d be great.

MALLONEE: That would be great. That’s the thing I’ve found; the singer/songwriter thing has been lovely because I’ve been able to find a lot of acquaintances all over the place. … And if you go into it realizing that not everything you have to say is gonna be heard by everybody—and that’s okay ’cause you’re not supposed to be for everybody—then you actually write a more honest song. And then you go out and try to find that group of people that are connecting with it and that makes it easy. But I think you’re right, I think the expectations have to be brought down a great deal.

PASTE: Maybe more people will start doing it for the right reasons again.

MALLONEE: Yeah, no kidding. That’s a good point, that would be the ideal thing.