"I write a lot of stuff that's informed by a theology of the fall. Everybody has that experience, believer and non-believer. In fact, I think that's the meeting point between Christian and Non-Christian. We have a vocabulary to describe feelings of lostness and alienation that still plague us, to my mind, this side of heaven. Non-believers feel the same thing; they just don't have anything to explain it. So they try to distract themselves, or numb themselves, or whatever they're going to do to cover it up and pretend it's not there."
One doesn't really interview the Vigilantes of Love. Instead of the obligatory question-and-answer format, with its arbitrary and distracting transitions, you get a conversation. All of your questions may not be answered, but the result is far more interesting.
The guys in the band--guitarist/writer/lyricist/lead singer and founder Bill Mallonee, bassist/singer Chris Bland, and drummer Tom Crea--are used to thinking and talking about art and life. They have an ongoing discussion on the road and are more than willing to share their thoughts with other people. More than this, they are interested in what people outside the band are thinking and saying about art and life. It's these qualities which create the conversation.
Linda and I (Chris Parks) had a chance to talk for about 45 minutes with Bill and Chris before their October 23, 1996 set at Schuba's in Chicago. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
VoL in general and the realities of the music business.
Linda: . . . we thought we'd just ask you some groovy questions, find out what you're up to, what your story is these days. Your past is pretty well documented already.
Bill: Yeah, we talk a lot. And then there's that massive Internet interview out there with Joe Kirk.
(Note: The interview is available at http://www.coaster.com/VOL/)
Bill: As long as that information is out there, people just oughta grab it and go. In fact, it's one of the reasons why we're winding the fan club down. There's enough information out there already. If the fan club is for people to sort of get the inside line on the band, we'd rather have everybody have it than just a few people.
Linda: No more special tapes?
Bill: No, well, you know what? I got in trouble for doing that. I have a publishing deal, and my publisher would flip out if they knew I was doing my own thing without their middle-man. So the days of trying to put it out ourselves are gone. They have to know about it; they have to have all those titles registered and documented. If it ever came to them (the publisher), I could lose what's keeping my family alive right now, which is my publishing money.
Linda: If you're going to buy into it at all, you gotta go all the way.
Bill: Exactly. You gotta play the game. Anyway, I'm rambling on.
Linda: That was one of the things I was interested in. You seem to be playing the game a little more now than you were.
Bill: I'm not sure what it is, but we're just out there doing it. I mean we don't travel with guitar techs or road managers; it's just three guys and a cargo van. It's very Americana, very roots rock-n-roll. We have six records out, and I've had to lower my expectations of what record companies can do. My attitude now is, "well, let's do it as streamlined as we can, so we can find our audience and live to tell about it."
(At this point in the conversation, we were joined by bassist Chris Bland.)
Linda: OK, so it's sorta like people are finally finding you?
Bill: I think there's always been an audience there, ever since we came out with the first release which was back before we ever did Cornerstone. I don't think too much about the numbers but, at the end of the day, it really IS about numbers when you're working with a major label. You have to sell units, you have to move product. And it's never the distributor's fault or the label's fault or the lack of radio or the lack or advertising. We've had all of that. We've had great radio and great reviews. We have had distribution problems, but it's always [considered] the band's problem. And if in a particular year, we put out a record, and it doesn't sell well--well, we're gone. So that's the real world of doing it on this side of the fence, so to speak.
Then the discussion moved to broader topics of the CCM industry and art in general...
Chris P: In the latest interview, you talked about this one-off deal with Warner-Reprise as perhaps a way of broadening the audience a little bit.
Bill: Yeah! Absolutely. I think it's a way of galvanizing a fan base that I think is out there.
Chris P: Is that working for you? Is that headed where you thought it might be?
Bill: Umm, I'd like to see. I mean, that whole [CCM] industry is kind of an anomaly, and it's probably the major topic for conversation among the three of us in the band. Just the basic things like: Why does it exist? Does it have a right to exist? Is there anything over there worth listening to? Is it all just agenda ridden? Is there actual art over there? I think there are answers to those questions, but they're complex answers.
Yeah, [the VoL compilation] is a way to galvanize a fan base, a motivation which I don't think is mercenary. If those people only buy records in bookstores, then have at it. Because from the very beginning, we've always made very clear statements about where we stood and how we look at the world.
Linda: And you've never made any bones about your faith and what you're all about, but you went about it (your musical career) from the secular industry. Do you think you have a base in non-believers as well? Are they attracted?
Bill: Absolutely. I think the reviews are evidence of that. All the reviews have generally been four and five-star reviews on every record we've ever done.
Chris B: I think that's because the music is really not about an agenda, but is just an expression of Bill's own experience of life. There are songs that are more personal, and some other songs that are more story-telling. Because of that, I think a variety of people can look at it, listen to a song, and go, "Yeah, I understand that. That's my experience. I didn't realize it was my experience, but I've heard this song, and that makes sense to me." And I think it makes sense to a lot of people because it is about the music and the communication of one person's experience of life.
Bill: Frequently, we (the band) will talk about what is the function of an artist. Maybe the function of an artist is to put words in people's mouths, to put flesh on the bone of their feelings so that they come to those conclusions quite naturally: "That's the way I feel. That's what I need," or "That's what I want." They recognize it.
I usually tell journalists [that] I write a lot of stuff that's informed by a theology of the fall. Everybody has that experience, believer and non-believer. In fact, I think that's the meeting point between Christian and Non-Christian. We have a vocabulary to describe feelings of lostness and alienation that still plague us, to my mind, this side of heaven. Non-believers feel the same thing; they just don't have anything to explain it. So they try to distract themselves, or numb themselves, or whatever they're going to do to cover it up and pretend it's not there.
Bill: Have you all heard the CD? What's your favorite songs, and why?
Linda: No, I haven't...I have Welcome to Struggleville and Blister Soul.
Bill: Well, you've got a lot of it. We weighted it towards Blister Soul and...
Linda: I liked the one about the Vietnam Vet.
Bill: Why is that?
Linda: Well, because I'm old enough to recognize that guy. I like "Double Cure," too. I recognize the hymns.
Chris P: I like all the new stuff, especially, and right now, "Double Cure" is narrowly ahead of "When I'm Broken, See What Happens" as a favorite.
Chris B: Any particular reason why you like it?
Chris P: You talk about giving people words to express this feeling that they have, that they can't find words for, and I think there's a lot of that in your music. You can't really explain why, but [you hear the songs and] suddenly you're a little closer to understanding what's going on around you.
[Since the interview, having listened to the VoL compilation album a lot more, I can say that one of the things I like best about "When I'm Broken, See What Happens" is Bill's guitar lick--cp]
Bill: You see, I think the great thing about art and grace in general is it doesn't have to be analyzed. Because then you start robbing it. At some point, the experience really does exceed, or go beyond, words. I think there's just something you can enjoy. For example, not to over-spiritualize it, consider a child who knows that Jesus loves him. He may not understand any of the theories of atonement, or what Christ did on the cross, and he may not understand anything of Christ taking our punishment and giving us His righteousness; he just knows that Jesus loves him. A child can enjoy that experience, and I think it's the same way with art. You don't have to over-analyze it, and in some ways, you almost rob it of being able to be appreciated if you do. I think art operates in a subversive kind of way, which is good for us.
Chris B: I disagree with [the word] "subversive." Bill and I disagree here.
Linda: How do you use that word?
Bill: I use the word "subversive" because I think that people are constantly running from those feelings in a lot of ways. So if all of a sudden a song like "River of Love" or "Parting Shot" taps into something that makes them a little more aware of that feeling, that's subversive.
Chris P: And also subversive in that it's not grabbing somebody by the lapels and shaking them until they see it. It works a little more subtly.
Bill: Yeah, maybe "subtle" would be a better word.
Chris B: When I hear the word "subversive," I think about somebody trying to do something to somebody, to undermine...
Bill: Oh, no, no, no, this is more exposed.
Chris B: Not even undermine in a bad way, but you know...
Linda: I like songs where the meaning all of a sudden hits you. It lasts longer if you have to dig a little deeper for it. What you have said is exactly what I believe to be true about art. I think it functions in a sense where the artist creates something, whether it's music, painting, poetry, or whatever, and people hear, read, or see that and recognize all of a sudden their experience in that thing. I think that's what true art is about.
Bill: To do that, you have to put a little of yourself in it. Speaking personally, a lot of the stuff that turns me off about CCM, and always has, before and after I was a Christian, was this sort of pontificating from a higher ground. That doesn't allow the listener any access or connection to the artist. They just told me how to fix my wagon, they'll be glad to do it for me, but they haven't given me any of themselves.
Linda: And there's no guarantee THEIR wagon isn't broken.
Bill: Exactly. I think that's one of the reasons why, whatever you think about her worldview or her view of sexuality, Alanis Morrisette was just really tapping a lot of hearts, particularly among women in this culture last year--simply because they knew what it was like to experience the receiving end of [mistreatment by] voyeuristic males, or whatever. Here was somebody expressing deep-seated anger about that whole arrangement and yet still not feeling she could do without a relationship. But she gave a piece of herself for that to make sense. I think that's why people kicked in on it. I think the same thing can happen for artists of faith, but it can't be this pontificating from a higher ground.
Chris P: I think that's one of the things your fan base, myself included, appreciates; there is that honesty, there is that exchange. Another common complaint about CCM is this tendency to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, and we certainly don't see that coming from you. But somehow with all the falleness, there's still this strong undercurrent of hope going on.
Chris B: Before I became a part of the band, my sister gave me a CD, and I once said to somebody, "It's rare to find music that talks as much about death as [Bill's] music does, and still has all this life in it." Like you were saying, this undercurrent of life both within the actual music, and with what was going on lyrically. I was really drawn to it because of that.
Linda: A powerful combination.
Bill: At the same time, you know, within the whole confines of CCM, it doesn't seem to be the accepted formula for making hit records over there.
Chris P: Right.
Linda: Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Chris B: We really have been discussing this quite a bit because it's a real seductive arena. You can say the right things, do the right things, and get instant, almost instant, approval.
In her essay "The Mind of the Maker", Dorothy Sayers talks about two types of false art. Not that they're inherently bad, but they're not necessarily what true art is. One is entertainment, and the other is propaganda.
Linda: Propaganda? That's a bad word.
Chris B: Well, I feel like that when any minority group--be it African American, homosexual, or Christian--support an art form within that group, the art tends to be less about art and more about promoting the ideals and goals of that group. Generally, it tends to be sub-standard. If you've ever gone to an arts festival related to any of those groups sometimes, you see that it's more about...
Bill: Cutting to the chase of that agenda...
Chris B: Right, more about the agenda of that group, to the detriment of the art. I think CCM music....
Linda: Is stuck in the ghetto?
Bill: I don't think it's stuck. I think it's chosen to put itself there. And we should stress that we say this in all humility, too. After I became a believer, the works of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were very instrumental in my life. A lot of this stuff comes out of sitting down, thinking about it, and taking its parts and holding it under the magnifying glass.
Linda: One of the reasons we started this magazine is that we are on a similar exploration, and we're discovering people who are all over the map spiritually and approaching this in many, many different ways. You're certainly not shocking us by what you're telling us!
Bill: But sometimes when you make these sort of blanket statements about CCM...like I said, we've met numerous people over there, both artists and people in the industry itself, who are people of sterling character and mean well. In fact, the common denominator a lot of times is, "Yeah, we wish it was different." It's as if they're aware that they're making formulaic records to sell in a formulaic way to a particular group of people. They wish they could change it but, at the end of the day, things seem to be dictating that it be done the way it was done before. They gotta put shoes on their kids' feet just like we do, and this formula worked last year, and the year before that, and let's just do that again. And that's what's going on.
The new compilation, VoL, and the reasons behind it.
Linda: You've got four new songs on this latest thing. That's all you were allowed on your latest release. Doesn't this frustrate you?
Bill: Well, no. This compilation was really Barry's gracious way of saying (Barry Landis of Warner-Reprise), "I want to introduce this band to a broader cross-section of people. I know where they're shopping--in the bookstores. We think we can move some units through there; do you guys want to do this?" And our attitude was, "well, where else is it going?" [Warner] does have general market distribution. In fact, it's in Blockbuster, Best Buy, and everywhere else. Again, [our attitude] was very pragmatic and almost mercenary. If those folks want to hear the music and the only place they'll buy it is at the [Christian] bookstore, go get it. But we also wanted our old fan base to have a reason to buy the songs, so we got a chance to record four new ones. Initially, it was just going to be twenty VoL songs gleaned from other records, so Barry came up with some; and he also wanted "Double Cure." He had heard "Double Cure" off of a demo.
But we're right back on the major label again, Capricorn-Mercury, for the next record. This is a one-off situation.
Linda: A chance for people to catch up with what you're about?
Bill: Yeah, or at least introduce them to something.
Chris B: And because the band has evolved to basically a three piece and the music has evolved a little bit, it's almost like a retrospective; this is what it has been, with a little introduction to what it's going to be.
Bill: Absolutely. It is, in a way, the closing of a chapter and opening a new era. See, the interesting thing is, a lot of people don't know this, but our records have made their way into the hands of people like Sam Phillips, T-Bone Burnett, the guys in U2. We know through the grapevine that they enjoy the band. That's great, and it's nice to be liked by other artists. But at the same time, we're not traveling on a bus. We make humble salaries, and we're grateful for it. But it has been something that we struggle with, simply because the industry has a tendency to promise more than it can deliver. A lot of my personal struggles, both emotionally and spiritually have been, "OK, this is what they SAY they're going to do," and realizing that it really isn't what they were going to do at all or had any intention of doing. The great thing about being a three-piece is that it really can weather a great deal of knocks and transitions. We've done it for the last twelve months, in spite of the fact that the record (Blister Soul) went to ten in the triple-A market, had great reviews, but it was very hard to make it sell. It wasn't in the stores very much.
But Barry Landis has done a great job for us. He's done a wonderful job by allowing us this opportunity. But I don't know. Again, it is about the money thing. [And I think] maybe that's what it's about for bands that have "crossed over," such as DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and the Newsboys. I don't think it's because the people at the top of those record companies have all of a sudden have said, "We really agree with your message." That's not what it's about; it's, "We agree with the amount of money in your wallet, and we'd like to see some of it in ours." So they are willing to sign these bands up and put them out. I think that's what it is.
Some thoughts on the band's current lineup, previous lineups, and where they'd like to be...
Chris P: You had mentioned in previous interviews that, at least at some point, if the budget would stand it, you'd like to have a fourth person back with the band. Do you see that happening any time soon?
Bill: If this VoL record is somewhat successful, I think that's a possibility. A lot of the bands in the "No Depression" movement, like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayjawks, [and] Sun Volt, are more roots bands that have got deeper themes going on inside of them. We're pretty close in a lot of ways, and we'd like to get out with those bands. Those bands can do the loud electric stuff, and the acoustic stuff with the traditional instruments. We'd like to be able to do that, too. The fourth person is going to have to be able to handle a whole lot, like play mandolin, pedal steel, fiddle, or whatever. They're going to have to be a multi-instrumentalist. We've had a number of people come up and say, "I can play guitar,' but it really is more than that right now.
Linda: And they have to hold up their end of the discussion in between gigs?
Bill: Yeah, that would be great, too. Bands are funny things, they really are.
Chris B: It's a lot like a marriage.
Bill: There's a chemistry that has to happen, or the music doesn't thrive. In fact that's one of the reasons, and I've said this in print already, the Struggleville band basically shut down is that I was over here, and the other three guys were over there, and it just never seemed to work. We joked about it, but from a mercenary standpoint, we could be on stage and be the greatest little band in any town in America for about sixty minutes every night, but the other twenty-three hours were spent in turmoil. I was kind of glad to put an end to it.
Chris P: I remember reading where you learned two new songs in thirteen months.
Bill: This band, with Chris and Tom, started right in on two records worth of stuff right from the beginning. We learned it inside of sixty days, I would say.
Chris P: And those new songs keep coming at a rate that's pretty amazing. Where do they come from?
Bill: I just get off the road and put 'em down. I got another...
Chris B: Early mornings.
Bill: Yeah, early mornings and too much coffee.
Linda: Is that when you wake up, or before you go to sleep?
Bill: That's if I get the kids off to school and clean up the house. When I'm home, I'm the glorified housedad. And my wife is just an absolute saint about allowing me to do this. This is a lot to ask of anybody, to go out on the road for two weeks, much less six weeks, and then keep doing it and doing it, but Brenda is just a huge support. My kids are old enough now where they can kind of see some of the things. They ask, "How many people were there last night?" They'd like to see it be successful. They come out on the road with us occasionally and sell shirts. And Joseph, my nine-year-old, loves Tom, so he'll drum tech for Tom and take stuff off the stage for him. It'd be great to get it big enough where I could bring them, but at the same time, I don't know if I'd want to consign anybody to ride around in a van or a bus for weeks on end.
Linda: It's pretty disruptive.
Bill: It's disruptive! I don't think I'd want to do it if my dad was the guy doing that. "Yeah, Dad, great. We're going to Who-Cares-Where, Iowa. (laughs) Again. Two nights? Oh, great, Dad."
What VoL did with their summer vacation and future recording plans
Linda: Are you touring all the time, pretty much?
Bill: No, we had all summer off.
Chris B: We had a few key dates. They were going to be key dates, except the Olympics kind of made them less than key dates.
Bill: Nary a person.
Chris B: But anyway, we played some dates during the summer, and then, as Bill probably told you, we've been in the studio most of September.
Bill: Yeah, we did a new record for Capricorn-Mercury that is coming out in March.
Chris P: And it's called?
Bill: We don't have a title yet. Couple of things floating around, but...
Linda: Still on Capricorn, then?
Bill: Yeah, Capricorn was bought out by Mercury, so I think Mercury's money is basically funding it, and their distribution channels should be better. The word we get on the street is that's going to be better for us.
Linda: Have you ever considered just going independent and doing it all yourself?
Bill: We did that initially, the first two records were that way. And if I had it to do over again, at this level, I think we could sustain it. I think Over The Rhine is doing that. I think we could make it run with our fan base as sort of a cottage industry. Yes, I think we could.
Chris B: We just batted around the idea, not that we're pursuing that, we just thought, well...
Bill: We haven't had a reason to pursue it yet.
Linda: It would be a fall-back position for you, if you had to.
Chris B: There are artists that have [done it]. I think Ani DiFranco..
Bill: Ani DiFranco and the Dave Matthews Band. Before they signed with a label, they sold over a hundred thousand copies.
Chris B: They've found ways to make an independent release very successful.
Linda: I think it gets easier all the time; the equipment is out there.
VoL, technology and the internet
Chris B: I think even what you all are doing is part of it. And I think with the explosion of technology, eventually people will be able to [do that]. I think they're already gearing up to be able to download albums. A record store, for instance, can just have a CD writer at the store. Somebody wants to order the CD, they can just download the digital information, write the CD there. So all of a sudden, there's no backstock needed, there's no...
Bill: Is that right? They just go straight in? So, like distribution is just a thing of the past?
Chris B: Yeah. It could be.
Linda: The CD Insert, they could print that on a printer!
Chris B: But one thing with the Internet, the word of mouth is just huge. Somebody in one city says, "You like that band? Well, maybe you'll like this band."
Chris P: That's how I first heard of VoL.
Bill: I think we had a lot of cross-pollination between VoL and Mark Heard audiences.
Chris B: The downside of that is, and Bill and I have talked about this, you have to really be careful about what you say now because the gossip potential is huge. What's said in some small town somewhere can all of a sudden be world-wide in a short period of time. That's not to keep secrets, you just have to be wiser than you were before. It's a double-edged sword, but I think it will be beneficial to the artist in the long run.
Bill: I think we're also coming around to thinking that, whoever will listen is who we want to play for. It just doesn't matter. I think that to a certain extent, those categories--CCM, secular, whatever, all that host of genre differentials inside the secular market--they're just artificial. At the end of the day, they really are just artificial. It's really about putting music in people's hands and having them moved by it. I think that's where we're going with most of what we've talked about when we have these long discussions in the band.
We were really surprised when we played Greenbelt. We had been attempting to get there for three years running....Got over there this year, in pouring rain, 12,000 people and they loved it. They knew about the band, they were calling for songs by name, some of them. It was just amazing. We don't have any direct distribution over there. I think they just heard a little bit of buzz, maybe off the 'net, maybe off a record that made it's way over, a little print [coverage], but [the crowd] was immense. I think that really heartened us a great deal because we thought, well, these folks have done some work, and they seem to be getting it.
Linda: Are you going back to Europe?
Bill: Ah, we'd like to. There's been talk. We'll probably play Greenbelt, and we'd like to play Flevo Fest in Holland, and then go back and do some club tours.
Chris B: I'd like to play Glastonbury. I'd just like to play everywhere we can. From the label's standpoint, if they don't have distribution, from a purely business standpoint, they think, well, what business do you have being over there because nobody can buy the CD anyway...which presupposes that the only function that the group has is to sell the CD. But you know, that's a cynical view.
Linda: You're there, you're popular, and they can't get the records there?
Chris B: No, no. I will say...
Linda: There are certain people [in Europe] ordering your stuff for them, because somebody over there asked me for the numbers for your CDs so that they could order them.
Chris B: No, I'm just saying theoretically if you don't have the CD over there...
Bill: They have to work harder for it.
Chris B: And, actually, Warner UK did a great job of getting the CD out at Greenbelt so that people could purchase it, and it was there, so I certainly don't want to...
Bill: But that's the first Vigilante record that's been officially carried there.
Chris B: But all that said, I would love to go back over there, purely from a selfish motivation of nothing but the land.
Bill: Have you been there?
Linda: Alas, no. I got a first-hand account on the Internet this year, heard about the Buskers that go around singing to the tents after midnight. I think a lot of the same groups do play Cornerstone Festival. I know I'd love to go.
Bill: You'd love it, you would. It'd be great. Well, thanks for the space.
By Chris Parks