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Year in Review
Bill and Brenda Mallonee
Saturday, December 7, 2002
Bitter weather and dark nights bring out the best in Chicago; Over the Rhine with Bill Mallonee as an opening act. Mallonee played to a packed room of music lovers who wouldnít give in to the seasonal gloom and chill. He also sat down with the Tollbooth for our yearly update.
Traveling backwards through time, and then looking ahead, we reviewed Bill Malloneeís recent additions to his catalogue and everything else that was on his mind. Rockís most mercurial wonder certainly knows the simple gift and high cost of turning and turning till he gets it right better than anyone, and doesnít mind sharing the lessons hard-won from leading a college band.
Tollbooth: Can you talk about yourself as a Christian artist? How has your well-known journey back to Catholicism affected your music, and your view of yourself as a Christian artist?
Mallonee: The fundamental dynamic inside Catholic theology is a sacramental view of the world in which God communicates very valid and sometimes very profound pieces of information about himself to us through very physical things. The first thing that comes to mind is creation itself speaks reams. Now the reformers definitely picked up on that, but it was inherent in Catholicism all the way back to the second century when the sacraments started to develop. We have this notion, for example, of the Holy Eucharist, of God taking a little bit of himself and placing it in us so that we can become more like his son. And I like that and I sense a huge dependency in that we can only come to the communion table with a huge amount of nothing but child-like faith. C. S. Lewis said one time, and youíve probably heard this quote, because he was having a hard time with some intellectual getting around the communion and what went on with it, and I think Lewis did believe in transubstantiation, Lewis said, ďGod said, ĎTake and eat, donít take it on yourself.Ē Thatís what it comes down to . . . a very sacramental way of looking at things. Only point being is that God has charge of this whole physical world we live in, whether itís our skin and bones, or something profound, like the Holy Eucharist, with himself.
How has that affected my work? Itís allowed me to appreciate things that are; this has always been there in the work. It means that everything is sacred, and there is not this sharp, sharp distinction between sacred and secular. Catholicism was the framework around things that Iíve been thinking for the last decade, if that makes sense.
Tollbooth: Yes, it does. Iíll send you a copy of an article from our current issue. We just transcribed Kemper Crabbís talk on the Eucharist and the arts. http://www.tollbooth.org/2002/features/kcrabb.html
Mallonee: I bet itís pretty engaging.
Tollbooth: It is very engaging. It is revolutionary. We should all be on street corners celebrating the Eucharist daily.
Mallonee: Itís interesting to me, though, because I think a lot of CCM (Christian contemporary music) functions on the whole notion of ďWordĒ and an intellectual understanding of that ďWord.Ē Youíve got a sermon replacing the sacrament, and more of a Protestant fear of it. And now weíve expanded on that to not only a sermon replacing the sacrament, but an intellectualizing, academizing of that Word. I was in a very hyper-reformed, hyper-Calvinistic church for twenty-five years. It was as if those who had gnosis, the knowledge, they were the superior Christians, and then there was a secondary level of Christians sort of underneath of that. It was all implied, it was never stated, which does not ring true with scripture, which just does not seem right. I think sacramental means all of a sudden everything; God communicates grace through our marriage, and food, and all that stuff!
I think it has allowed me to sort of relax about what are spiritual things, and [what] arenít spiritual things.
Tollbooth: So you donít have to write in ďcodeĒ anymore, to convey Christian principals in your songs.
Mallonee: There you go.
Tollbooth: This is the ďOn to Bethlehem Tour.Ē What are your 2002 thoughts about Christmas?
Mallonee: Christmases to me are about healing. They are about healing and building bridges.
Tollbooth: How is Christmas about healing?
Mallonee: I think itís about healing, especially at this time in our nationís history. Weíve got more people who are recognizing spiritual hunger than ever before. People who havenít darkened the door of churches in a hundred years, their families and whatnot, 9/11 was such a catalyst for that, wasnít it? It feels like all of a sudden, people are thinking, nothing is a given anymore is it? Marriages, families, jobs, life itself, which is a perfect opportunity for the church to be Jesus. To just be that, and nothing more than that. Arms of compassion, arms of help. Come on in, the waterís fine. I hope we can do it.
Thereís a huge controversy going on right now in England; the Archbishop of Canterbury is a very liberal individual, but heís also a very eloquent individual, and he does want to bridge. He recognizes that there is a rift between the traditionalists who would like to see the church return to what it was pre-new Book of Common Prayer, but I donít think thatís where heís at personally. Heís very left of center on a number of issues, but heís also very godly and historical on a number of other issues, so he may be the guy for the job right now.
This is a big concern for people. Itís such an irreligious country (United Kingdom). Most people donít give thoughts about it. But thereís not a pub where we play every night where I donít get up and say something about God, His love for individuals. I just say it. Hey, I donít have any apologies to make; Iím 48 years old, darn it! I can say whatever I want! Itís my microphone! So I just let it rip. And Iíll tell you, every single night, whether it is the heart of London, or some wilderness area, like out in Wales, people are starving. Their own churches havenít told them anything. The church is not proclaiming Jesus. The church is proclaiming something that is probably more like, status quo, or legalism, or, I donít know what it is. But people just donít know what it means anymore.
Wouldnít it be interesting, even in this country, if you told somebody you were a Christian, and they said, ďOh, that means you believe this guy raised from the dead,Ē and nobody ever thinks that! Thatís not the first thing that comes to peopleís minds; itís usually something else. ďOh, you think abortion is wrong,Ē or, ďYou think there should be prayer in schools.Ē Thatís usually the first thing that comes to mind. Or, ďYou think sex is dirty,Ē or something. Who knows what people think, but they donít think that (Christís resurrection) because the church hasnít done a very good job of communicating its truth.
Tollbooth: And yet, we still have to go on to Bethlehem.
Mallonee: And we have to go on to Bethlehem. Iíll try and get that in the second set. Maybe I should jump that in at the top.
Tollbooth: Is your current release, Locket Full of Moonlight, another step away from the No Depression/American vibe of your earlier stuff?
Mallonee: No. Definitely not.
Mallonee: Itís a little bit of everything. There are three or four songs on there that are just really garage Americana and a bunch of other songs. A friend on the (fan) e-list MP3ís of ďLocket Full of Moonlight,Ē ďTable for Two,Ē and one other one, and he called it College Dream Rock. Iíll go with that; thatís really good, because itís true. Dreams are symbolic of other things. I asked if heíd heard that term before, and he said no. But I thought thatís what it was. Itís really big. Itís not dream rock like Pink Floyd, obviously, or anything like that, but thereís something else going on thatís a little bit more fragile.
Tollbooth: Tell us how the new project came about.
Mallonee: It came so fast, Iím sort of trying to get my head around it. I think itís a really dark record. Itís a real sad record. Brenda and I have had a number of friends who have bagged marriages after fifteen, twenty, some of them thirty years, just gone. Christian and non-Christian, it doesnít matter, it seems. I just kind of got inside just what the emotions might be of that on a couple songs, just to see what would happen, sort of wrote from a first-person sort of stance, even though, I knew people were going to hear this and think we were having such woefully bad problems, but weíre not.
It was a real challenge. In fact, the producer called me in after I did ďTable for Two,Ē and ďAfter the Glow.Ē He stopped the tape. I know Mark [Cooper Smith], he worked on Slow Dark Train and Roof of the Sky, he was part of the Struggleville session. Mark Smith actually played drums on this record. He called me aside and said, ďThis is not going to effect what we do here, but are you having troubles with your marriage?Ē And heís a friend!
I said, ďI didnít think about that. No, these songs are sort of written from a first-person stance, but weíre doing fine.Ē But weíve had a number of friends who have had hellish years. Things donít look pretty, and I tried to get inside that.
Tollbooth: What did you learn in there?
Mallonee: What did I learn? [pause] That thereís probably a little bit of failure in everybody. That nobody should rest so confident that they think that they arenít immune to the same sort of disasters. The incredulity of watching people who you thought, oh, theyíll never have problems. Nobody is safe. Thatís a really hard place to be in a world. My wife and I have been talking about this for the past few days. Do you think there would ever be problems? Because itís just been such a beautiful ride. But if you look at it just scripturally, if the heart really is desperately wicked, then there are just no guarantees other than complete resolution in Godís grace. Thatís all you get. You have to go from there, and it is just one day at a time.
At this point in my life, I turn 48 in January, I kept thinking, I wish there was something that is really solid. I know there is, but it feels like that understanding and appreciation of that grace feels more existential than ever before. It feels like it really is something that you have to work at appropriating and appreciating and surrounding yourself with and bathing yourself with to make it work. Because all these people that we knew, some of them on a first- name basis, we never thought twice about them having problems.
The other side of it, in terms of production, is this is a completely new team of players. Iíve never worked with a different rhythm section in I donít know how long, five, six years? It was great working with new people. Kenny Hutson wasnít available, and Jake Bradley has just been so, so busy renovating houses in a very old, historical section of Athens. He just did not have the time to come in and do it. We had six days to get the record recorded, and mixed, and over to Nick [Purdy, Paste Music]. They already had artwork started before we ever finished. It was a bit of a slapdash project, but hopefully, it doesnít show through. I donít think that it does, and I listened to it pretty critically.
If we do a [nationally distributed] label deal, probably some songs Iíve been recording with the band in England will make the version of this record which might well show up again at the back end of next year , maybe November. This is (presently) just an Internet release. What weíre doing, folks, is weíre selling 2,500 to 3,000 records every time we put it out on Paste. It hits the ceiling, and thatís it.
Yeah, all of that to say, Iím selling 2,500 to 3,000 records. Now thatís great. We sold three records this year. Thatís great for me.
Tollbooth: Thatís been your strategy, to put out frequent, small releases.
Mallonee: Yeah, but at some point, people might just get flat out bored of it, and just say, Iíve got Blister Soul, Summershine, and I donít need any more V.o.L. And you know what? Iím that way with some artists.
Iíve always thought that somewhere around Summershine, Kevin sees this, Jake doesnít, I told them, when we committed to Compass, we really bet the farm on a label that wasnít worthy of the band. I really do believe that. I hope that doesnít sound arrogant, but we entrusted them with everything. They wanted the UK . . .and, Summershine never came out over there!
We were flat-out stunned and when we got back home, we read the writing on the wall. This is not right, and this label has tied us up for two years. So I think thatís when we all just thought, well, weíre screwed.
I would never say that about Capricorn or Fingerprint, or anybody. People have this idea that I just donít like labels. Thatís not true. I understand from Capricornís perspective, Iíd make the same decisions about us, probably, and the same way with Dan Russell and Fingerprint. Dan and I are actually talking now, which is really good, but not Compass. I think those guys made a conscious choice to take Audible Sigh, milk it for all it was worth, and I think they had no intention of ever doing anything with Summershine. Because since they knew they had that record in their catalogue, Audible Sigh for five years, they could just keep pushing it.
So I felt wounded by it, but I also felt that we had been deceived. It hurt us. Thatís two years of time where I think we thought, if weíre going to be able to go beyond 3,000 people, say to 10,000 people, 15,000 people, make some new fans, make some new faces, that was the time to do it. God is God and obviously, He could open any door He wants to. But Iím having to try on this hat of just functioning very under the radar, and just being content with selling Internet releases and hoping to push it to maybe five or 6,000 faces.
When we step up there and itís just Kevin and me, you are looking at the audio-logical version of downsizing. Because we donít have the resources to hire anybody else. So it is sort of withering away, to a certain extent.
And then, does that mean I just step in front of a mic with a guitar and a room full of people? Because itís funny. Thatís full circle. Thatís the way it started. So, maybe thatís what it comes down to. I think Iím a lifer. I donít think Iíll stop making records. I think at some point, I just have to wrestle with a bit of a disappointment that, somehow or another, I really think it should have been, probably could have been, a little bit more well accepted, if it had the right resources.
So anyway, weíll see. I think my attitude is, one always has to leave room for the hand of the Lord just in case something great could happen. England was never supposed to happen. BBC was never supposed to happen. Nobody did anything there, except one little roving photographer who just knocked on doors and said a prayer, and wouldnít take no for an answer. And pretty soon, Bob Harris is playing us in front of three million people weekly.
Good things go on, too. I didnít get the band on the road this year. It was just impossible. Kevin was really, really kind enough to say, look. I love the songs. I enjoy playing these things. I donít have to be the big, loud pop rock drummer. I can split this down. It is more orchestral. Kevin is playing more hand percussion, and things like that. I think it works.
In my perfect world, weíd
have a guy playing double bass. Itíd be back to a three-piece again. Thatís
my Christmas wish list. I want Santa Claus to bring me a double bass player.
Tollbooth: What was it like, to collaborate with Buddy Miller on a song?
Mallonee: Buddy called me up and he said, ďLook. Julieís sick. I donít think I can get the lyrics out of her that I want.Ē He said, ďI donít want ĎThe Rising,í because Springsteen had already released that record. He said, ďIíd really like the sentiment of why does one keep going when everything seems to be useless? But I do want to have some sort of general feel that that song was going after.Ē
I had to pull that out of him because initially, he just sent me the song and wanted the first thing off my brain, which was terrible. Iím not even going to tell you what I turned in, but he rejected it, completely. At this point, Brenda and I are on vacation, so I gave it a second shot, which is, ďWater when the Well Runs Dry,Ē and he loved it.
The only little problem we had with it was that I tend to be a little bit wordier than he is. He has everything in nice, clean-cut, balanced cadences. And I said, ĎBuddy, youíre going to have to do a bit of a (Bob) Dylan thing here. Youíve going to have to really look at the words, and just sort of push and pull them into position.í And he did a great job of it. But I noticed when Brenda and I saw him play it in Atlanta maybe three months ago he had little cheat sheets on the floor (laughs) just like I do. Heíd play a verse, heíd go over to the amp, and then heíd come up to the mic. It was great, great! It was the only song he did that way. He gave me a big send up, so that was nice.
I loved it. They have been way generous with me about that stuff.
Thereís a guy; heís an unsung hero! For crying out loud, why doesnít Buddy Miller sell gold records? And the same way with Julie; gosh, I think sheís an incredible pop-rocker. I think Julie is one of those rare individuals. I donít think she really even analyzes or knows, the craft of what she does, it is completely instinctive. When it is time for a bridge, she just knows what itís supposed to be. And the melody lines are so instinctive.
Tollbooth: You are talking about her writing.
Mallonee: Yes. It is just gut level with her. I just stand in awe of her and itís a real chore for her, too, obviously, because of her illness. I think sometimes, itís like, ďOh, Iíve got to make a record,Ē and she writes a lot of songs in a very compressed amount of time.
I tend to be writing all the time.
Tollbooth: ďWater When the Well Runs Dry,Ē like many of the ones on Fetal Position, has a lot more testosterone in it than some of your earlier stuff. You seem to be addressing the male aggression/violence/propensity towards physical-ness.
Mallonee: Is that the line, ďIím a man of peace, with a few exceptions?Ē
Tollbooth: ďWith a few exceptions.Ē Right.
Mallonee: I love that line.
Tollbooth: I know some of your super-early stuff had a little more of that.
Mallonee: It (the early work) was a bit twisted. I think it was a bit more psychotic back then. It was sort of like jumping into oh, whose one of the characters in Flannery OíConner who is just a bit whacked? That was sort of that, that whole Southern. . . I got away from that because itís hard to play that card over and over again. And I think a lot of people sort of like that sort of Killing Floor, Struggleville part of the thing. It was kind of like a sort of, it was kind of getting into character. I couldíve pushed it a little bit more, probably, and been like the sort of crazy street corner preacher that you are afraid of, but there is a prophetic element in it. I just kind of got tired of it after a while.
Tollbooth: It seems to me that you are currently exploring ďmalenessĒ more than you have in the recent past.
Mallonee: Iím not conscious of it. Iíd say that on Summershine, itís more like that whole nuisance of what it means to fall in love for the first time, and what that all feels like. I think Summershine is kind of that way.
Tollbooth: You have another new release planned shortly. What are the details?
Mallonee: Paste is morphing into a label. They are distributors, but officially what they are doing now is they are linking up with this other record company called Telegraph. Telegraph has some really cool indie college rock artists Telegraph and Paste are joining forces for whatever the second (version) Fetal Position is going to be. Itís going to be called Custom Critical. Itís going to be a real pop record; an indie pop record. Itíll be the first thing down the block, Iím thinking in March.
We went back and recorded songs that were more like ďLife on Other Planets,Ē which I think may have been one of the best ones on the project. That song might be as good as a ďReal Downtown.Ē It has a hook in it that youíll love. ďSheís so LiquidĒ is a nice follow-up. Oh, what is the one that Billy Holmes plays the keyboards on? ďWintergreen.Ē Thatís a nice sort of George Harrison tune. But I went back and recorded five more that were a little bit more toward that.
There is one song on there that is probably the most symphonic, at least in terms of the way it is done. Itís the closing song on the record and it even has a touch of a Radiohead thing. Itís called, ďShirts and Skins,Ē and itís huge at the end; it is just immense and it starts out a voice and a guitar, not unlike ďAlong for the Ride;Ē acoustic twelve-string, and at the end itís this big symphonic thing. I donít hear anybody doing that kind of stuff anymore. Iím trying to challenge myself as a writer and an artist to think in a bigger picture. What will it take to start small and fragile, and make it bigger than life at the end of the song? So thatís what went on the record.
Fetal Position was, okay, weíre going to make three or four records this year, what are the first ten songs that fell out of the notebook? Iíve only got three days to make this. So you get these songs like, ďAll or Nothing,Ē which is a rave up kind of song, and yeah, itís got a little bit more of male authoritativeness about it, or something like that. I donít know that weíd ever played the song live. It rocks; itís a nice sort of roll-down-the-window-and-drive song, but I donít know that itís one of our best.
ďSummer in Our Veins,Ē I still like. I think itís a pretty tune.
Tollbooth: What about your fanís reactions? Here you are, putting out retreds again.
Mallonee: Who says this?
Tollbooth: Critics of the situation with Audible Sigh, where there were so many versions. It seems to be repeating itself here.
Mallonee: Oh, yeah. I know. Well, hopefully, after we get Locket Full of Moonlight out the second time, thatíll be the end of that. Itíll just be two records a year.
Part of it for me is, I just want the songs to have the biggest audience. It hurts to think that songs like ďLife on Other Planets,Ē maybe this is completely selfish, but if those songs had the possibility of being heard by a lot of people, and showing up on WXRT (Local AAA station), yeah, Iíd put out that record again with some more songs on it, and give it another push through a real publicist and a real radio person. Sure, Iíd love to have that, because I think the record deserves it. So thatís really what itís all about.
Tollbooth: So it is a way for fans to support you.
Mallonee: Itís a way to support me, and theyíve (Paste) been real clear and upfront about that, but itís not necessarily expanding the fan base, whereas, this kind of retred, if you will, of Fetal Position makes it a bit more of a focused kind of thing, which I think is what weíre going for.
Custom Critical will give me national distribution, itíll be in all the right stores. Itíll probably have some radio support eventually, but itíll definitely have national press since itís through a woman who has done amazing things. She actually lives in Athens. Funny thing is, there is a history with her. Michelle Wood actually worked Killing Floor when it was on Sky. She knows the band, likes the band, so weíre happy.
Tollbooth: Do you see yourself as a No Depression/Triple A band, or are you going in a new direction?
Mallonee: Weíve never seen ourselves in any of that. We see ourselves a college band.
Tollbooth: A college band
from Athens, Georgia, a college town.