Vigilantes of Love's Bill Mallonee
Weatherspoon's Pub, Harlesden, London, UK
October 22, 1998
By James Stewart

VoL in the UK
The Band Present And Past
New Record Label/New Acoustic EP
Mark Heard's Influence
To the Roof of the Sky
New Material
What Are You Listening To?
Changes in Musical Direction
Inspirational Reading
Churchmanship
Celtic Theology
"Isadora Duncan"
Post-modernism
Closing
Contacts for UK-released Albums

Much has changed since 1990 when Bill Mallonee released his first record under the name Vigilantes of Love. The band has changed form and line-up many times and seven further albums have made their way into the fan's collections. But the past year has to count as one of the most eventful. Starting with a complete split from all previous ties to management and record label, extensive touring, an independent album launch, it ended with the release of a live record and a return to the studio for a new major label. Things don't look likely to slow down as the band prepares for the release of that new major label recording and also an UK-only acoustic EP.

The Phantom Tollbooth managed to catch up with Mallonee during Vigilantes of Love's recent UK excursion and set the tape rolling as he offered his thoughts on music, politics, theology, and anything else that happened to tie in.

VoL in the UK

Tollbooth: How do you come to be in UK?

Bill Mallonee: Jonathan Mark Johnson [sometimes known as JJ] with Startled Chameleon Records licensed To the Roof of the Sky which will be our second record release available directly in the UK, the other being the VoL compilation. Jon Mark had seen us at Greenbelt and then came over to the States for a couple of shows, set up this record label and basically signed us on a handshake. He's done a great job with it. The cover of the record is better than the US version, it includes the lyrics and some extra pictures. He's done a great job and he's tour managing this whole thing.

Tollbooth: How's the tour going?

Mallonee: The tour's gone really well. We had a couple of dates where there was no one there, less than 30 people, but for the most part there's been between 75 and 200 folks which is pretty good for a band that doesn't have the machinery, video and big press. There's been a bit of radio and folks have been coming out.

Tollbooth: You've said before that you really enjoyed playing at Greenbelt. Do you think that's helped your name get around before this tour?

Mallonee: Greenbelt was definitely a great thing. We loved the festival; we loved the people we met. Dot Reid, I guess, the first year was the promoter. They're doing a great job and they were good friends. Dot's in Lies Damned Lies, a great band, and they were stellar folks. We got to come back to Greenbelt with the four-piece, the first year was just the three piece. The band we've got now which has been together about two years, I think it's the coolest line-up of Vigilantes of Love I've ever had the privilege to play with. They really stretch me; they're stellar players and are great friends.

Tollbooth: Have you had a chance to get much of an impression of Christian music in Britain?

Mallonee: I'm not that clued in to how it works over here. It feels like it's not as watertight over here, [for] some of the bands like Fono. They'll play a club and people will turn up. In the States it's a little more abnormal for Christian bands to play in clubs. They'll have lots of fans and sell lots of records but they'll play in churches. We do the Cornerstone festival, it's the more alternative end of the CCM thing in the States, but that's about the only one we'll do. Over in the States we take flak for playing in clubs. My attitude is that if Christ were here tonight maybe he'd be here at this pub and not at the First Church of Whatever. That's my attitude, without wanting to be snobbish about it.

Return to the Top

The Band Present and Past

I don't want to take the mantel upon myself as the voice of God in any context. We want to live our lives as believers, do what we do artistically and treat people right. I think it's all over the music. I think that you can't really listen to four or five of songs and not come to the conclusion that at the very least we come to a very theistic view of the universe and if you get underneath that I think it's very, very clear we're Christians.

Tollbooth: Are the band all believers?

Mallonee: Yeah, they're all believers.

Tollbooth: Have you made a conscious decision to get away from a couple of years ago, when you were the only Christian in the group?

Mallonee: Yeah, it was always the original intention. The Welcome to Struggleville record was the only band where I think all the other guys wouldn't have professed Christianity, or if they did it was probably some sort of fuzzy understanding of what it was. They weren't bad, they weren't the worst pagans. They were lovely guys, but at the same time because my vision for the band was kind of spiritually motivated and the themes I write about and the issues I struggle to deal with... at some point we don't come up on the same page. That plus the fact that we toured heavily for two years with little to no support from the record label. We were really demoralized and I basically left the band, broke it up, because I couldn't go on like that. I did make a conscious decision, I prayerfully said, ”Lord I need to find players who are mature Christians but also good musicians,” and that's what it's evolved into.

Tollbooth: I gather Scott {Klopfenstein, drummer} is leaving.

Mallonee: Scott is a newly wed. He's been married about eight months, and his priority is his wife. I'm married with two kids, been married for seventeen years. Brenda and my boys are priority. I've kind of been allowed by them to do this. Obviously I have a few more emotional coins invested in it than Scott does, being the songwriter. It's a delicate balance, it's been really hard. We were having a band meeting the other night and we realized that this year we've been on the road more than six months. That's a lot of time to be away from home even if it's just family and friends. But we had to do it this year. We just lost our major label. But with Scott leaving, we've got maybe eight to ten drummers on the line back home who we're going to audition. It was all handled really well. Scott needs to be with his wife and doesn't want to be away more than three weeks at a time. Which is about all we want to do anyway but with the new label deal coming up we can't really be sure.

Return to the Top

New Record Label/New Acoustic EP

Tollbooth: Can you tell us anything about this new deal?

Mallonee: The company is called Pioneer Music Group. Their biggest artist is the gospel artist Cece Winans. She has a lot of clout in the soul and R&B scene. We're signed to the secular side of the label that is distributed by Atlantic Records so we're very excited about that.

Tollbooth: When can we expect to see another record?

Mallonee: We're aiming for March of 1999. We'll be in the studio November and December. Because we're not formally signed yet, we've recorded an acoustic EP for Startled Chameleon records which will hopefully come out next year in the UK.

Tollbooth: Are we likely to see any more ”fan club tapes”?

Mallonee: Probably not. Record labels are kind of funny like that. They see bands releasing stuff independently and to them its competition whereas I come from a school of thinking that it just reinforces the band's draw. Bands as diverse as Metallica to the Grateful Dead have always said, ”tape our shows, distribute the tapes, do what you want to.” I've never had an aggressive stance against bootlegs and things like that. In the days when music can be downloaded off the Internet it's just one more thing they can't control.

Young bands when they're starting out and ask me what they should do, my attitude is to tell them to get out and try and sell 5-10,000 records by yourself. If you sell that many records a company's going to sit up and take notice. And you're going to see all the money from sales and learn how to budget and hire PR. You'll become a businessman as well as being an artist and I think that's a good thing to do. Sometimes you can let the label do too much for you and you find that you can't trust them as much as you thought you could and so it's good to understand at least the theory end of the business side of it.

Tollbooth: Are you looking for management to go with the new deal?

Mallonee: We're looking for some management, we don't have any leads yet. We've been doing it by ourselves for the past year, kind of learning as we go, and some of it's gone really well. I do think there's a breed of manager who can smile and dial and ring up the phone and all of a sudden you're on the David Letterman show and who can have that kind of clout. We've never been privy to that sort of power but for one reason or another it seems that we've been able to get the job done on a small club and college level.

Return to the Top

Mark Heard's Influence

Tollbooth: How influential has Mark Heard been for you?

Mallonee: I only knew Mark about two weeks. We worked together in the studio for about 15 days. I knew who he was but I'd never met him before. There wasn't a long-standing friendship there. But I think stylistically and maybe the stuff that motivated our music there were a lot of similarities. It was as if we were walking on opposite sides of a tall brick wall for a ways and then all of a sudden rounded a corner came face to face and thought ”oh, you think the same thing I do about it”. I think we kind of chummed up pretty quick because of that. There were maybe another twenty or thirty phone calls after we finished that--the record was Killing Floor that he worked on with Peter Buck from REM. After that, Mark went to Cornerstone and had the heart attack. I had one conversation with him afterwards, and then there was the second heart attack.

Tollbooth: Have you come across any other artists treading a similar path?

Mallonee: No. I've found bands who are sort of wanting to do what we do and without running the risk of sounding prideful, we really have gone out and paid a lot of dues. We play maybe 140-180 shows a year out of a van. There's no manager, no road manager, no technicians, we do it all ourselves, hitting small college clubs. The band over the years, since 1992, has had good reviews in well known journals like Spin and Rolling Stone and so the band has become like a ”critic's darling” band. The problem is not being part of the machine that throws in large sums of money. So we kind of get the label of being critics darling band but not selling a lot of records. We've been lucky that we've been able to do it from record to record but the shoestring is pretty low on some days and there's very little security in it. I don't mean to over-spiritualize, but this is what we do and we're happy to be there. We don't play a lot of churches, we haven't capitulated and run to the Nashville CCM scene where there's lots of dollars to be made if you say the right things and dress the right way and promote the right agenda. That's not who we are, we feel like we're a roots-rock band. We have a passionate view of life and that passionate view of life is fueled by Christ being risen from the dead.

Return to the Top

To the Roof of the Sky

Tollbooth: How are the sales of the new record going?

Mallonee: It's gone real well. With no video or radio, just word of mouth, it's sold more in 16 weeks after its release independently than any record we did with a major label. It's kind of slackened off a little, we hit a ceiling, but still that's pretty good. The VoL fanbase--those people are real sweethearts--they've shown a lot of grace to us. The whole summer tour was based on an e-mail solicitation so it was a mixture of shows the fans had set up, church shows, rock club shows, even a couple of people’s living rooms. It was great, a lot of fun.

Tollbooth: How did the living room shows work?

Mallonee: We'd just set up and maybe sixty to seventy people would show up and we'd play anywhere between twenty and thirty shows. Very stripped back. We sometimes used a small PA, but very acoustic, it's a good way to do it.

Tollbooth: Have you managed to get much radio play?

Mallonee: I don't know that the To the Roof of the Sky, depending on what JJ can do here, I don't think that record's going to achieve much radio play unless it's on specialty shows. I know some Christian shows have been playing it, but in the States, unless you drop into the machine of hiring independent radio people who make phone calls to make sure stations are playing a particular single off a record, it's hard to do.

Tollbooth: A number of people would like to see you involved with the ”No Depressions” crowd.

Mallonee: We're always trying to make contact. We think that stylistically we have a lot in common with bands like Wilco, maybe not as much as some people think, I think we have more in common with bands like Wallflowers or Counting Crows, or even early to mid-period REM. It depends on the direction we go in, twangy newer stuff or edgy stuff like Slow Dark Train.

Return to the Top

New Material

Tollbooth: Do you still write a lot?

Mallonee: It's slacked off a little bit there. I used to write sixty to seventy songs a year. It's probably down to more like thirty or forty now. We just moved my office downstairs and I had like 190 cassettes full of ideas. Some of them have seen the light of day but maybe 70% of the stuff I'll never go back to. I've been keeping a journal on the tour for about the last two years so I've got a lot of lyrics. We actually finished one song in the studio a couple of weeks ago. I wrote it and we recorded it the next day.

Tollbooth: Are there any particular themes coming through in the latest work?

Mallonee: Again the idea of God showing his face in the most barren of places. Whether it's a geographical barren place or a spiritually dry place. That's coming up a lot. There's some lighter stuff too. I've started writing as a casual observer, a third person, which is a challenge.

Tollbooth: Do you think it's possible to draw a line between expressing worldview and propaganda?

Mallonee: I believe that you can talk about what grace looks like in your life and remain in the area of artistic integrity. I think that as soon as you start hammering people over the heads with a particular worldview...That's a hard question and I'm having to think out loud on that... I think then it becomes propaganda.

t seems to me that a lot of the bands I hear coming out of Nashville, some of them are quite good and definitely improving. The interesting thing is
we‘re friends or good acquaintances with guys like Jars Of Clay and DC Talk, bands that have sold large, large numbers of records to youth group
audiences, and they‘re fans of the band. I‘ve often wondered why the chasm between the numbers of records they sell and the 10 to 17,000 records
we sell. I think I know a little bit more now, those bands have really more of a modern-esque pop thing going that appeals to youth group kids. They
came out of the youth group market, because they started in churches with the intention of playing to youth groups and we‘ve never done that. I
don‘t even write with an audience in mind. I just try to talk about what grace looks like in my life on the good days and the bad days.

Tollbooth: Even though you don‘t write for a particular audience, you have a strong fan base. Is it possible to generalize about that fanbase?

Mallonee: It‘s kind of hard to say. They tend to be somewhat well educated, some of them very, very well educated. Age wise it spans a pretty
big area, from a sensitive thinking teenager to someone in their mid-40s to early 50s who recognize the Bob Dylan, Neil Young influences and all points in between. It seems that we have a large Christian fanbase, probably 70-80% would be believers; Christians who are also buying U2 records and Van Morrison records and Waterboys records and maybe a lot of other bands who don‘t have spiritual overtones in their music. They want a challenge. After that, it‘s pretty hard to nail it down to a particular demographic.

Return to the Top

What Are You Listening To?

Tollbooth: What are you listening to?

Mallonee: I haven't been listening to a lot lately. Over here on the road I've been listening to whatever JJ's been playing: British pop. The pop band Dodgy is kind of interesting. What else? The new Emmylou Harris record got really high marks with us, we liked it a lot. [I’m] Awaiting the Son
Volt album and the new REM record that's not out yet. The new Cracker record we've listened to a lot and that's pretty cool. That's it. When I'm home I'm more getting my songs together, I don't listen to a lot. We have teenage sons and they listen to a lot. They'll be playing Garbage or the new Smashing Pumpkins record and stuff like that, a fair dose of the modern rock.

Tollbooth: What do you make of the songwriting coming through in modern rock?

Mallonee: It seems like the slicker production is taking over the modern rock scene making things sound good and radio friendly. We've played too long in the small clubs and we like the more organic sounding music, almost to the point of letting it sound as live as it can be. We don't use drum machines or neat and tidy little sequencers. Some nights it'll be absolute magic when everyone in the band's really going for something, other nights it won't be as good and feel sloppy. It forces you to put your heart on your sleeve every night and that's what we have traded on as a band. It may not be for every body but the people I've really enjoyed listening to over the years--Great examples are the bands in the No Depressions movement like Wilco, Son Volt, Counting Crows--definitely do that.

Return to the Top

Changes in Musical Direction

Tollbooth: How is the band's musical direction changing?

Mallonee: I think we've gravitated back towards the more mid-tempo stuff. A little more rootsy a little sloppier. Not sloppy intentionally but not quite as frenetic or like the psycho-folk stuff we used to play. I get back to that stuff every once in a while but it’s a little rough on the voice and I think lyrically it always goes in the same direction. It has to be a song like ”Odious” or ”Runaway Train” or ”Undertow” [but] it all tends to end up in the same place for me, I want something with a little more soul to it.

Return to the Top

Inspirational Reading

Tollbooth: What are you reading at the moment?

Mallonee: I'm reading a book by Frederick Beuchner. He's a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Vermont up in the northeastern part of the US. The book is on the Irish saint Brendan. It's a pretty cool book. I'm reading also a book that I'm almost finished with by Thomas Howard called On Being Catholic and it's sort of his rationale between moving from Protestantism to the Catholic church and that gets a lot of sympathy from me.

Return to the Top

Churchmanship

Tollbooth: Do you think your Churchmanship is changing much?

Mallonee: Over the years I think it's changed. I'm an elder on leave at a small Presbyterian house church and it's given me a great deal of nurture. It meets in the pastor's house and he's definitely been a mentor to me for well over twenty years. I've learned a lot living in one place, we've been
in Athens[Georgia] since ‘79.

Over the years I've noticed that Protestantism in the US can be more and more defined by kind of a careless attitude towards authority. Anybody who has a Bible and a little bit of money can start a church and say that they've got the inside line. It seems that the unity that Christ spoke of  is non-existent in the American church, and it also seems to be victimized by every little trend or whim that comes down the pipe. There's no appreciation for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. No one really knows what that is and I find it harder and harder as an artist to tell people what Christianity is if I'm having to tell them what it isn't. In my interactions with non-believers in clubs I have to do a lot of back peddling to explain what a relationship with Christ and Christianity isn't.

I think that a higher church mentality gives not only a high view of scripture but you also get the scriptures interpreted by the years's worth of the church's best theologians; men and women who have lived it and thought about it, pondered it and written about it. All that means a lot to me. What it comes down to is a commitment to the liturgy and the creed which have been on the lips of the saints for centuries. Even the evangelical church, we're not talking about the advent of liberalism or a return to Orthodoxy. We're just talking about people who would call themselves evangelicals or fundamentalists or whatever. Even they can't tell you what it's about on different points or what's a priority, what ranks at the top. That is disturbing to me and I think that Thomas Howard in this book cuts through a lot of the kind of gray matter to something a little more solid. So I've been looking a lot more at Roman Catholicism. My wife is too, by the way.

Tollbooth: How do you think the separatism common in the evangelical church has developed?

Mallonee: The church has really never made peace with being in the world and not of it. We think that to be a Christian is to be out of the world, really out of it completely. That means culturally being out of it too. In a lot of ways I think we've got this idea that we can reduce it to a neat little box. That if you abide by those same things you're in and if not, you're definitely on the out. I think that that's how people in the US have lived their lives and aligned that view with a political cause. The church through a number of people has become rather a large lobby in US politics and if you can say the right things you are liable to get the church vote on things. Jimmy Carter took a great deal of the evangelical vote when he was elected president. Jimmy was more of a liberal minded kind of a guy, he really was a very, very good US president and had a lot domestically going on and a lot of ideas about what it meant to be a nation leading the discussion about human rights. I think that over the years the US has swung back towards a conservatism that basically insulates itself from the world's problems and we are very cut off from understanding of the world. We in the US with our economy and the ways the companies do business do more to influence the bad equity and injustices in economies than anybody in the world. In some countries, the US has resurrected them economically, but they're losing their culture completely because they've so wanted to be like American, the Americans you see in movies or ads.

My point is that as Christians we're supposed to be in the world if not of it and that's a hard place to be. There's this kind of drawbridge Christianity that evangelicals tend to adopt. You run inside the castle, pull up the drawbridge, don't have any association with the world outside and we pay for one another and write for one another and make music for one another and pretty soon we're talking this kind of buzz language that no one outside can understand.

Return to the Top

Celtic Theology

Tollbooth: Have you looked into Celtic theology much?

Mallonee: Sammy Horner from the Electrics is really big into the Celtic theology and has given me stuff to read and it's very, very fascinating. He's a great guy, took us out to this old pub near Loch Lamon where he lives in Scotland and it was beautiful. We recorded a praise song with him, Psalm 23.

Tollbooth: I believe you studied history at college. Where does that interest come from?

Mallonee: Even as a kid, my dad was a World War II buff and obviously, if you're a kid, the stories that reach you first are the heroism and stuff like that; coming through in the face of overwhelming odds. That's what I tend to notice when I'm reading history or even the newspaper.

Return to the Top

“Isadora Duncan"

Tollbooth: How about the song ”Isadora Duncan?”

Mallonee: Isadora Duncan was probably the mother of modern dance. She didn't have a very good reception in the US. She really was pioneering a lot of the free-form expressive movements and rejected a lot of the classicism. She lived a very tragic life, she lost her kids before they were six in car accidents. She herself died in a strange case of strangulation in another car accident. It was a life of pain but a woman who was a hopeless romantic in a lot of ways. She never seemed to lose sight of being immersed in her art and what she thought was her gift. Maybe to a fault, maybe she thought too highly of what she was doing, but she definitely had a vision that wasn't going to quit. I think she wound up in Russia for a time because it seems that in 1916/1917 they were encouraging artists to come and were the country that was free for artistic expression but obviously the Bolshevik revolution changed all that.

Return to the Top

Post-modernism

Tollbooth: You've mentioned the phrase ”post-modernism” before. What do you make of that concept?

Mallonee: I think nine out of ten people on the street, even if they were well educated kids, couldn't give you a definition of postmodernism. I think it's more of a feeling than anything else and it's liked to despair. But I think we've got past the intellectual existentialism of the European 40's and 50's where every thinking Bohemian could explain to you what it was and why it was what it was. I think now we're at the point where we see the emotional stimuli and response in a culture that doesn't have anything to hold on to. It all seems to come down to the pop culture of the day.

You guys over here definitely have some kind of a cult of personality and celebrity cult going on. You guys aren't afraid to drag people across the coals in the tabloids and really give them hell for it.

Return to the Top

Closing

One of the most active of those trying to get VoL some notice in the "No Depressions" scene has been Emmylou Harris producer/guitarist Buddy Miller. Since this interview was conducted Miller, has begun work as producer on Vigilantes of Love's Pioneer Music Group debut. Word from the band is that things are going well and they're all enjoying the experience. Look out for the album next year.

Return to the Top

Contacts for UK-released Albums

VoL have a few copies of the UK version of To the Roof of the Sky available through their website at http://www.coaster.com/vol/ otherwise see http://www.britlinks.co.uk/vol.html for details of availability of UK releases of the album and the forthcoming acoustic EP.

Return to the Top