Two Gallants: Despite What You’ve Been Told

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By: Andy Tennille

Two Gallants
In 1959, after scraping together a few hundred dollars from his job as a grease monkey at a local gas station, a relatively unknown guitar player from Maryland named John Fahey launched his own record label, Takoma Records, in order to issue his debut album, Blind Joe Death.

As a result of his deep obsession with early blues music, Fahey tried desperately to have his first LP pressed in shellac in the hope that the antiquated medium would convince collectors of its old-school authenticity. When he couldn’t find a pressing plant that could honor his request, Fahey settled on subterfuge, sneaking into Goodwill stores and record shops to stash copies in the used bins alongside his heroes Skip James and Bukka White.

Adam Stephens is well aware of the anachronistic qualities of the music he makes. The gritty blues-punk amalgam he’s created with drummer Tyson Vogel in San Francisco-based duo Two Gallants is driven by salt-of-the-earth tales of heartbreak, murder, poverty and betrayal that would fit comfortably in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. But don’t think for a second that you’ll ever catch Stephens sneaking into the local Salvation Army with an armful of LPs to slip in next to Blind Boy Fuller.

“I would never be so audacious as to go to a store and slip them in the sleeves of a Skip James record like John Fahey did,” Stephens says with a laugh. “To me, it’s hard to live and breathe the music like those old blues musicians did ’cause our times are completely different. A lot of my songs are about things that I never lived nor ever will live, mostly because the world we live in is extremely superficial compared to the world a lot of those old guys grew up in. I’d never want to put our music or myself in any kind of category or place near theirs, but the influence is definitely there in a major way. I don’t at all deny that the music we’re playing references music that preceded us.”

Two Gallants
It’s that humble reverence for their musical predecessors, coupled with their ballsy willingness to reinterpret music far beyond their years, that make Two Gallants one of the most intriguing groups to come down the highly derivative indie-rock pipeline in the past few years.

On Two Gallants, the duo’s most recent studio effort released on Saddle Creek in September, Stephens and Vogel don’t stray too far from the successful blueprint they laid out on 2004’s The Throes and last year’s What the Toll Tells. Many of the songs deal with love, lost or absent, but there is also an overarching tone of anger – at times mournful (“Trembling of the Rose,” “My Baby’s Gone”) but also vindictive (“The Hand That Held Me Down,” “Reflections of the Marionette,” “Despite What You’ve Been Told”). On the surface, the songs appear to be barbed missives directed at a former lover, so much so that many critics have labeled the album a “break-up record.” But much like the bluesmen he reveres, the subject matter of Stephens’ lyrics shouldn’t be taken at face value.

“Yeah, there’s definitely anger in some of those songs, mostly directed at a third-person who’s not exactly disclosed. If one pays attention, there’s definitely a repeated theme of the ending of some sort of relationship in a way,” Stephens says. “But, it’s rare that I write a song that is directly related to anything going on with me personally. A lot of people say the blues were about an underlying current of racial oppression that couldn’t really be voiced overtly, so the first blues musicians wrote about it through other forms, mostly about struggles between a man and a woman. Of course, there are varying degrees of yourself in every song; I think that’s kind of inescapable. But I like taking a little less direct approach to my songwriting.”

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A lot of my songs are about things that I never lived nor ever will live, mostly because the world we live in is extremely superficial compared to the world a lot of those old guys grew up in. I’d never want to put our music or myself in any kind of category or place near theirs, but the influence is definitely there in a major way. I don’t at all deny that the music we’re playing references music that preceded us.

-Adam Stephens

 
Photo by Steve Hopson

So if his approach isn’t autobiographical, what does inspire Stephens?

Two Gallants
“Old age. The fear of not doing enough with my life before it’s too late,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t really find specific things as being inspirational. You can hear a beautiful song and it may have a momentary effect on you, but that’s not what made you write a song. For me, you just write a song if you have it in you, or if you have a desire or a need to write a song. That’s how it’s been for me at least. Every day, I’m kinda bombarded with thoughts and ideas. I don’t really try to do it so much as I don’t have the choice. I try to just sort of allow the song to lead a trail, word-by-word, and each line leading to the next line. They kind of just write themselves.”

Whatever his Muse may be, it’s been plentiful for Stephens of late. In June, the band issued a five-song EP, The Scenery of Farewell, that started out as their next full-length album.

“We actually recorded four more songs and were planning on doing it as a full-length but it ended up being extremely heavy and a little too depressing,” he recalls. “Everybody who heard the first masters of it was a little bit frightened. I understood – it had some pretty dark, long, depressing songs on it that we didn’t play very much live and were mostly forgotten. They’re acoustically based and we don’t play live acoustic very often. But I really wanted to record them so they wouldn’t disappear.”

For both The Scenery of Farewell and their eponymous studio release, the band brought Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta) on board to produce. Newport wasn’t entirely new to the band – he was responsible for remixing The Throes in 2006. In producing both the EP and LP, Newport managed to achieve a sonically rich recording of the band’s music without sacrificing any of the primal simplicity that makes it so unique.

“Alex’s got a great ear and we liked what he cared about in music and what was important to him,” Stephens explains. “It was really fun to get to play these songs and have someone be completely straightforward and honest with us about them. We’ve never done that before. It’s always been just Tyson and I, so it was nice to have a third opinion. It made us have a broader view of what was appropriate for these records than any of our previous ones.”

So, if he had to sneak into a record store and slip one of his records in with that of one of his heroes, whom might he choose? Stephens ponders the question silently for a moment before reluctantly offering an answer that may best explain why Two Gallants are the modern torchbearers of the Delta blues.

“I was given The Yellow Princess by my girlfriend’s dad and it sort of turned me on to this whole world of the blues that I just had no idea even existed,” Stephens says of Fahey’s 1969 masterpiece. “His influence on the whole genre, even though he came after everyone, was huge because he reinterpreted the music in a really beautiful way that no one else has really ever done, before or since.”

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