The Phantom Tollbooth

Bill Mallonee interview
Vigilantes of Love
May 12, 1999
Chicago, Illinois
By Linda Stonehocker

I am now convinced that Bill Mallonee has Seasonal Affective Disorder. The Phantom Tollbooth met up with him about 8 p.m. in the waning light of a May evening. Unlike the somber, thoughtful man of rainy fall interviews before, this time he was energetic and enthusiastic about touring, upbeat and positive about yet another business tragedy. Or perhaps it was the good report he had received over the phone about his son's baseball game, or the visit he was enjoying from his wife Brenda, who'd flown in at the two-week mark of the tour.

Even a hoarse voice could not deter him, though he asked that we talk in a quieter place than the main saloon of the venue. In the second floor green room, while the opening act warmed up their electronic cello and the roar of diesel busses carried through the open windows, Mallonee continued the conversation begun two years earlier.

Listening to the show later, for the first time I noticed the similarities to punk rock in his music, how he packs so much into such brief, hard-hitting songs, and the same can be said of his interviews.

Mallonee - My voice gets a little rough around the edges.

Tollbooth - Even with modern amplification?

Mallonee - We've been playing like two-and-a-half hours every night.

Tollbooth - That's okay!

Mallonee - The long shows are for our benefit just as much as anybody else's, though.

Tollbooth - You're having a good time?

Mallonee - We're having a blast! We always do. It's the payoff for us. We have to enjoy just getting on stage with our friends. If it's anything else, like Soundscans, or a full club, or an empty club, we're in the wrong area.

Tollbooth - I thought the whole rock 'n roll electrification and club stuff was sort of a necessary evil for you, but no?

Mallonee - No, no! At the level we tour at, with just being a four piece band, we don't go out with a manager or technicians. It's pretty guerrilla warfare, but we love it. We do anywhere between 160 and 180 dates a year. Last year, we were gone almost six months out of the year, but that included making the record, too.

But I love it. It's all about building a grassroots thing. For us, the superstructure is somewhat dubious as to whether it really works for us. It never has in the past.

Tollbooth - You have fresh evidence of that, don't you?

Mallonee - Yeah, we do, we definitely do. Isn't that wild? Who'd have thunk it? Signed and seven weeks later the label goes under. But it all has a happy ending. We got the record. We'll either put it out independently or shop it around. We may end up doing both. I know we're going to shop it right now. There's some pretty good-size labels that are interested in it. I can't really divulge who it is. And that's all good, but you know, the whole industry is just kind of in a dither right now, at least on the secular side, I'm not really aware of what goes on the other side.

Tollbooth - Sure. We're down to five major conglomerates owning everything and consolidating like crazy.

Mallonee - Yeah! And, at the same time, I think there's more power for the band, at least at the level we're at, to be captain of its own ship to a certain extent--with MP3. We've always had a pretty solid fan base who just seem to come out. In fact, that's what we've been seeing on this tour is that folks are coming out. We're doing the small club thing, whether it's a Monday or Tuesday night, which is a weekday night, but they're coming out to see live music. A lot of the club owners have told us, "Yeah, you guys did great in here! People aren't coming out to see live music like they used to the last couple or three years."

Tollbooth - They're not?

Mallonee - They haven't been. I think as a whole, people are more stay-at-home and music becomes something you consume. Music itself becomes a commodity.

Tollbooth - If we could get back to that moment when you found out that the label had closed. I got the message you sent out to the email list, and I was really shocked at the level of openness and vulnerability about a business negotiation and deal that you included. Can you tell me a little about the circumstances behind that?

Mallonee - Yeah! Here's what little I know. Pioneer Music Group was a subsidiary of an American company, a recording division of Pioneer Audio.

Tollbooth - No, no. We don't need to get into that.

Mallonee - But it does end up impacting what happened. When the Japanese company cut bait with its American company, there was a, from what we understand, a willingness and a desire on the part of the president of Pioneer to push the label--the whole label, everybody on the roster--into another situation. Well, at the same time, the employees were informed to go looking for work. And none of the bands on the label were informed that their careers were in jeopardy, not that it would've made a hill of beans difference anyway. It's just that it's kind of ironic that the ink was just seven weeks dry on a contract, and we had no idea of the financial health of the company. You're never really allowed to know this kind of stuff anyway.

So we just felt like, well, you know, if the record's tied up legally, it's tied up; but we're disappointed and we're going to tell our fans. Because they were banking so much on its release. We just told people, "We're disappointed. You guys have been there for us over six, seven, eight years now, and you guys have a right to know." The label wanted us to keep it quiet because they thought it would make the label more viable. I know they tried for some other CCM labels in Nashville, but nobody bit on it. That's not an affirmation or a disaffirmation of the record label president. I think he overestimated his abilities and maybe misread the market or the viability of his record label.

We just thought we'd been kind of like, not really jerked around, but we certainly weren't going to be played the fool for very long. So we just got our attorney and said, "Look. Whatever it takes, get the record back and let's see what happens." We weren't playing hardball, we just felt like we'd been deceived. And I think we were.

Tollbooth - What was the response when the word got out on the Internet?

Mallonee - Oh! People were angry, heartbroken, disappointed. I mean, it just ran the gamut. We probably received at least a hundred some correspondences in the first three days. Basically, just very short and succinct, saying, "I'm so disappointed, we're praying for you." Or, "I'm angry as hell, I'm praying for you." That was pretty much the extent of it.

Tollbooth - Do you think that kind of reaction and you being so open affected negotiations and your position with the label?

Mallonee - There was nothing to negotiate. It was like a record label with no clout, nothing to offer.

Tollbooth - It didn't matter.

Mallonee - I don't think it mattered at all. And I'm totally willing to admit that from my perspective, which at the bottom of the food chain, might be wrong. But at the same time, we've been in these situations before where we've been lied to about what was being done on our behalf, or not done on our behalf. Well, I think the truth is always the best policy. If they'd come to us and said, "Look, sorry, fellows, we'd like you to keep this quiet for a while, because we're trying to shop the label around, but we basically lost our support from Japan." That'd been much more up front, and we might've said, "Well, you know, alright, we'll just take one for the team for a while, and see what happens." But that seems to be the honest way to do it. I found out through another guy who works for another label in Nashville that a fellow that worked for Pioneer Music Group had been told to go look for work a month before we ever found out. So we knew something was going off.

But you know, the point is just that . . . I mean, it doesn't even bother me so much. We made a great record. We want it to get heard. It was a joy working with Emmylou [Harris] and Buddy Miller and all these folks. It was the best record we've been involved in. So we just wanted people to hear it.

Tollbooth - What are some of the overarching themes in the new album?

Mallonee - I think that in some ways, this record is more of a commitment to the country.alt thing. It was there on  ... Roof of the Sky, but this record is more radio friendly. It's really not that radically different from  ... Roof of the Sky, but it's sonically way more developed. ... Roof of the Sky was just such a garage record.

With this album, we had a session drummer, Brady Blade, who was Steve Earle's drummer, and Emmylou Harris's drummer. He's great. Actually, he's playing with Jewel right now. But Brady played drums on the thing, so we taught him the songs and laid it to tape. We had the luxury of people like Phil Maderia coming in and play keyboards for us. But it's mostly a band record. It was pretty much just Buddy and I taking time. We had a bigger budget, and basically a month to just sit there and make a record and do it right. Emmylou guested on a vocal; Julie, Buddy's wife, came in and sang on four tracks; so it took a little bit more sonically pleasing shape. Much more radio friendly is kind of the way to describe it.

Tollbooth - Do you have some singles on it?

Mallonee - I think there are at least three or four singles on it. We've already picked one, which would be the record, "Goes Without Saying," but right behind it was "Starry Eyed" and "Paralyzed," which we re-recorded from the other record, and the Emmylou Harris track. Depends on what radio format we're going after. We could get after like straight Americana or triple-A, and come up with two completely different singles. And I'm not sure how we're going . . . that's somebody else's problem, how to figure how to work that.

Tollbooth - But another reason to shop the album, and not just-Mallonee - just throw it out and say-

Tollbooth - do the independent thing.

Mallonee - Exactly. We could do the independent thing. If we did the independent thing this year, we would make an attempt to actually hire a radio person and hire a PR person. There have been some takers on that who really like the group and seem to get it. But that's expensive. I mean, you're talking about $3,000 a month just to hire people who know what they're doing and basically smile and dial because they're on a first name basis with the program director at (W)XRT. That's the way it works. You're kind of in the dark if you think it doesn't work that way. It's just a game to be played.

When we were with Capricorn (Records), we had a great radio crew. Jeff Cook(sp.) was one of the best, really well respected, and we got a lot of triple-A radio play. And I think some people have wondered since that time why ...Roof of the Sky didn't get any radio. Well, we didn't have the money to pay for anybody to work a radio thing. If we do it ourselves, we just want to be smart about it. But if somebody else wants to take the record and pick up the ticket, that'd be great, too.

Tollbooth - How has your life changed over the last two years?

Mallonee - We've made more business decisions. We've made more business decisions from a grassroots, kitchen table-level, about how to do it the right way. At the end of the day, though, we still get an incredible amount of joy of playing. And we've been through one personnel change, but Jake Bradley and Kenny Hutson have been with me for two-and-a-half years. Scott Klopfenstein got married the middle of last year and told us, "I can only do this for a certain amount of time." So he left the band in November of last year and we got Kevin Heuer in December. Kevin is a great drummer, he's been a fan of the band for four or five years; I think he saw the band in '92 at Cornerstone. So he's a long-time fan, and he was a drum instructor.  I think this is the best incarnation of the band since Struggleville, and that was a really musically adept band. Since then, due to having not very much money on the road, we were forced to use whomever we could find, which turned out to be just friends of mine in Athens who were great friends and fairly competent players; but they weren't necessarily great players, like these guys are. These are just over-the-top great. The music suffers at some point when you just put competent players in as opposed to people that really can make that music go up another level.

That's what people hire producers for. If the truth were to be told about most major records you'll hear, the producers are calling in the guys who are the triple session guys to play drums and bass. Not because the guys in the band aren't great, but they want to take it to another level. And it happens all the time with bands that we like.

This was the great reason for working with Buddy (Miller). Buddy let us make a record that was uniquely us. He contributed a lot that just made it go up a step. With this new record, Audible Sigh, I feel like we've got something we want to protect. It's like when your kid gets the lead role in Hamlet. You want the auditorium to be full when he walks on the stage. We're just trying to be real careful about not releasing the record too early, not releasing it without the right amount of fanfare and all that other kind of stuff.

At the end of the day, it could've been out. If the label had maintained its deadline schedules, that record would've been out in February; and we would have been losing for it. Because it's much harder to slow a record's pace down once it's been released. But what ended up happening is that the deadlines got pushed back, and I guess the Lord in his sovereignty just stopped it right there. It never made it out of the blocks except to a few people, journalists and whatnot.  And that's great. So the record for all practical intents and purposes has never been released, although people know about it. And the buzz has been good, so maybe that'll all work in its favor, too.

Tollbooth - When do you think it may be out? Do you have a timeline?

Mallonee - I'm thinking January of the year 2000. You'll probably see copies of it floating around by November/December for radio and all that kind of stuff.

Tollbooth - Eight months.

Mallonee - Yeah! It'll take the publicist at least ten to twelve weeks to set the record up, and that's all good. Then we'll just decide whether or not we're going to do it independently. I think we're going to make a decision to go ahead and shoot for that date whether we do it independently or whether we get signed and a label wants to put it out.

Tollbooth - Are you going to have any product for your fans between now and then?

Mallonee - We recorded a record in the UK and it'll probably be available at Cornerstone.

Tollbooth - 440 Live?

Mallonee - No, the live record is already out. This one is like an acoustic record that we made in England last year. We did it in four days. We had some time off, and we just threw it in the studio. I played drums. It feels very much like Killing Floor--swings a lot with mostly acoustic tracks. Definitely a cut above demo versions. It'll be at least a five- or six-song EP. We may have that ready by Cornerstone this year. They're all new songs.

Tollbooth - Well, you're really on top of things.

Mallonee - Yeah, we've been busy.

Tollbooth - You have new bands opening for you. You're not traveling with an opening act?

Tollbooth - Did you arrange these bands?

Mallonee - No, none of them. They're usually either people that the club throws on because they have a good draw locally, or they just wound up in the same time.

We played with  Alejandro Escovedo up in Boston recently. He'd been in a lot of punk bands, he's kind of done the country.alt thing, he's like one of the grandfather guys of that whole movement. He was great, he loved us. Apparently he had some previous acquaintance with the group. So that was kind of nice.

We'd like to tour more with people like that. I think we feel more in common with those artists. Obviously it would be great to open for Son Volt or Wilco, but Alehandro was wonderful. And some of the other bands that are out there doing that thing are great. And that's kind of where we feel like we belong.

Tollbooth - With the

Mallonee -Yeah, whatever that is anymore. What does it mean? I'm not really even sure. I just call it "country rock" because when I was growing up, that's all it was. Guys who grew up listening to rock and roll, but they liked country music too. And I think it's probably one of the more emotional forms of music out there.

Tollbooth - Let's talk about your Cornerstone remarks last year, the ones that caused such a controversy. Are you going to shoot your mouth off again some day from a stage somewhere?

Mallonee - Well, I just tried to correct bad theology. And I wasn't trying to be arrogant about it. I mean, I sincerely believe that in this case there was a corrective that needed to be spoken. And I just encourage anybody out there: look at the text of what he (Steve Pasch)said and look at the text of what I said. I don't see anything arrogant or incendiary about it at all.

Look, these kids are here to hear the truth. And if you walk up and say, "I used to be a face-down-in-the-gutter drunk, and God's made my life a beautiful thing," that's great. But if you tell them, "I used to be a face-down-in-the-gutter drunk and if you take a drink of alcohol, it's going to make you a heroin addict or an alcoholic," that's a lie. And that's just freighting baggage onto the Gospel that doesn't need to be there. I said less than nine sentences. I went back and looked at the text.

Tollbooth - Yeah, we were there. It was pretty quick.

Mallonee - It was quick. It was quick. And it's like, "Well, maybe you shouldn't have said it because it could be misunderstood." Well, for crying out loud, anybody can be misunderstood, whether it's four people or four thousand, or whatever.

Tollbooth - In any context.

Mallonee - The Three Crosses could be misunderstood. This is one of the problems in the evangelical church right now. A lot of strange doctrines are blowing around, and nobody's accountable to nobody. That's why there's forty thousand growing different denominations. And it's kind of sad.

I don't think that's even what the reformers had in mind when they split with Rome. I don't really think that's what they had in mind. The problem with American evangelicals is that we've gotten into a situation where they think it's just me and the Bible and the Holy Spirit. And that's not really ever what it means. I mean, that doctrine of sola scriptura is not even in the Bible. It has always been scripture and sacred tradition standing side-by-side, and tradition informing what the scriptures teach. Even in Paul's day, you can see where Christ quotes the law on the Sermon on the Mount, then says, "You've always heard it thus. . ." That's an appeal to tradition, but He's enlightening them in the Sermon on the Mount as to what's really behind that. It wasn't like casting out tradition and just making up a brand new one on your own.

And it's kind of scary. When people are asking me what Christianity is, I like to tell them what it isn't before I tell them what it is because there are just so many strange doctrines blowing around this country. I've got a good friend who was raised in an extremely nurturing and extremely reformed Presbyterian background, and he's getting ready to jump into Anglo-Catholicism just because there's some solidity there. You know, we've all had friends that have kind of gone in that direction because there's something there that, "Well I believe this because that's what the Church has always taught, the Ecumenical Council have stood for this, the bishops say X, Y, Z." Which takes some of the guesswork out of it for you.

Tollbooth - So what have you read or heard or seen lately that inspired or moved you?

Mallonee - (Grunts) I haven't read much or seen anything. I've been upset by all the national news: everything from wars to the Columbine thing. Brenda and I have been processing that a lot with our kids. We've got two teenagers, so we've been talking a lot. I just haven't read very much lately.

Tollbooth - Yeah, I was going to ask you about Kosovo and Columbine and all that sort of stuff. As a parent, I think it's all hit us pretty hard. But I realized in forming the question, you rarely write about current topics. You're not an issue-of-the-day topical writer per say, is my impression. Is that correct?

Mallonee - Yeah, I'm not, I'm definitely not. But I think the principles that have guided political decisions, or whatever, for years are still there. I mean, they've always been there, and I think I do write about those. I'm not a political writer, I'm more of a confessional writer.

But it's sort of distressed me at how easy it's been for this administration to get itself embroiled in things it probably really doesn't understand completely. You know, just centuries and centuries of misunderstanding and hatred that goes so deep, and it just seems almost to the point of arrogance to think that we could solve all that stuff. And we're going to bear the brunt of it. I just think they don't know what they've gotten into.

I've already told my kids they're welcome to go to Canada. Because I don't think this would be a just war, were we to get into it. And if they can't stay out of the fighting, they're welcome to go. I'll buy their ticket.

Walking through the saloon to the performance room in the back, Mallonee briefly described his hopes to re-print and independently distribute his Capricorn label records(Struggleville and Blister Soul) which are about to go out of print. He reminisced about seeing Terry Taylor play for the first time (he's a bruiser!). His wife Brenda found us, and we reacquainted ourselves before the fans began approaching Bill one by one. One had driven 7 friends up from Texas, another told of planning to include "Sanctuary" in his wedding this summer, and asked for a dedication. The traveling Mallonee family reunion was in full swing. As the Tollbooth writers stepped backwards, he caught our eye one last time, extended his palm wide open and said, "To be continued."