With a mainstream cult following with a growing reputation in Christian circles, American roots rockers VIGILANTES OF LOVE are definite survivors. The band's Bill Mallonee spoke to Lukas Willcocks.
At Nottingham's Fair And Firkin pub on a steamy summer evening I met up with Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes Of Love. Since their formation in 1990 the band have gained a considerable underground following in the American scene, while thanks to their 1996 compilation 'VOL' have also gained a growing fan base in the CCM pond. With three tours of the UK this rootsy, bluesy team from Athens, Georgia have also established a following on this side of the pond. I began our chat by asking whether the band enjoyed UK pub gigs.
"It's kind of more advantageous to play the pubs because you're sort of sure of at least a clientele there. We did that last night in Manchester where probably half the crowd was familiar with us, and the other half wasn't, but the curiosity paid off and we made some new friends. Whereas, I think when you're playing the smaller rock clubs, the impetus is in trying to get the show promoted over anybody else's show in town, and if someone shows up who has more of a national reputation you're sort of stuck!
"The situation is much the same in the States. On the West Coast there is so much competition and there are so many people trying to get into the industry epicentre of power that's LA or New York, it's not uncommon for a band to have to pay for a room and basically end up selling tickets to rent the room and PA, etc. Most of the stuff we've done is play in college rock clubs and bars - just going in and playing for the door."
I observed to Bill that college radio is quite big in the States. "It's always been big - ever since the early '80s when REM (like the Vigilantes, from Athens, Georgia) and others re-invented the whole notion of a band getting out and being outside of the superstructure of record labels, which I still think is not a bad thing. It may not mean selling a gold or million records but it gives you the freedom to make art that'll stand up over the long haul. The more you get into the label thing, it's more about commercialising what you do."
I asked Bill about the band's musical influences. "There's definitely been some country influence -I'm not sure whether that's old school country - maybe more backdoor country through people like Bob Dylan or Neil Young/Tom Petty rather than Patsy Cline or Hank Williams! I love that stuff where 16-year old kids pick up on it through old Dylan or Hendrix records - where they're tired of being told what to listen to through the hyper commercialisation of MTV culture which is basically selling you a lifestyle, not necessarily a voice or a music."
Bill is currently listening a lot to Buddy Miller, veteran country boy, and producer of the band's 'Audible Sigh'. His wife, Julie, recently released a new record called 'Broken Things' (Hi Tone, Julie Miller). She's done some Christian dates in the States but her label now is completely mainstream.
Our free-flowing conversation turned to one of his most ear-catching recent songs "Resplendent". "It's one of the story telling songs on the record - most of the other songs are gleaned from our time off the road when it feels like all the externals of comfort are removed; the record deal goes away and the superstructure around you disappears you have to figure out why you do what you do and find God's hand in it. But this track comes from reading diaries about a geographic upheaval in the Mid West called the 'great dust bowl' during the Depression era. High winds blew the topsoil right off the land in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas. Strong, strong winds. Out on the great planes of the US the rooting system just doesn't go very deep and if you're farming you're in tough luck - particularly in the 1930s when this all happened. Woody Guthrie wrote music that chronicled what was going on. But 'Resplendent' is a track I've had for a couple of years, and when we got a chance to record it Buddy Miller suggested we get Emmylou Harris to sing on it - she's an American legend - a national treasure!"
I asked Bill if he could verify that Woody Guthrie once said, "If you're using more than two chords you're showing off!" "Yeah, that sounds like something he'd say - or maybe Pete Seeger."
Moving on from folk music giants to roots rock revisionists, I asked Bill to assess how Vigilantes Of Love had progressed down the years. "Initially it was me and an accordion player (Mark Hall) -a folk rock thing. I'd been playing in rock clubs mostly on drums and I got fed up with the beer politic - if you couldn't draw in 500 hard drinking frat boys it was like you didn't get good dates. So Mark and I decided we'd try playing more of the coffee houses and folk clubs, and within six months we had put out our first record, signed a deal and started touring heavily. We expanded the band at that point. I like both sides of the spectrum like Neil Young's quiet introspectives and his big noisy garage records. REM and more recently Pavement - some of the 'lo fi' stuff is part of what we do along with the more roots-orientated stuff.
"We've changed personnel over the years but the band we have right now has been together for three years. All of them friends I met on the way, except the new drummer who we found by auditioning - he actually knew a bunch of our friends - so a long way around! Good guys with big hearts and I'm glad to play with them."
I asked Bill who he thought constituted the VOL audience. Were they predominantly Christians? "It's about 50/50 I suppose. The people who've known the band a long time were probably introduced to it because of our work with Mark Heard on his Fingerprint label. He and Peter Bach of REM came in and produced on it also. So that gave it a bit of notoriety on both sides of the spectrum - a Christian audience and non-Christian REM fans! We try to create music that's heart-on-the-sleeve without a lot of the Christian buzz language that a lot of Christian labels demand their bands to use. I believe the Gospel is true propaganda when you are talking about things like the tenets of the creed - I've staked my life on it since I was 18 but you can also write about what grace looks like in your own life.
"If I'm doing my job well then I write about it without using the buzz language so that a non-believer can hear it and interface with it on some level emotionally, then perhaps we've done a bit of pre-evangelism. But I don't pretend to be a minister of the Gospel - if someone comes up to me after a show and asks why there are all these biblical references in the songs then I'll tell them straight out - I'm then under charge, but it's not the primary thing in our group."
But isn't Bill's faith evident to other musicians through his lifestyle? "It has to be there. My wife and I go to a small Presbyterian church. It's very small - about 80 students, poets and playwrights and other dysfunctional types! We all get together and work on each other! It's been a real nurture for me as an artist to be known as a believer, but also a privilege to have a pretty sized throw in the 'secular' audience. This band never had a CCM thing so there wasn't the usual crossover questions - I'm not saying that with any sense of pride, I just wasn't aware how prevalent the Christian market was in the US until recently. That scene is pretty ghettoized now - they know how to make people buy and tweak the machine - hyper commercialise it - not that that is essentially wrong but it makes everything lowest common denominator after a while - targeting kids ages 10 to 17.
"We have seen a trend in our audiences now, where kids who've been brought up on CCM stuff hit 16 years old and have wandered in asking, 'Where have you guys been? This sounds more honest and organic and more visceral!' Which is what they want anyway."
I asked how Bill came up with the Vigilantes Of Love moniker. "I took it from a New Order record! I was a huge Joy Division fan when I first got back into music and after Ian Curtis died they put out a song entitled 'Love Vigilantes'. But the story was basically we were going away from rock and a friend called up and said, 'Hey, I know you've got 10 songs ready to go - if you give me a name for the band I can go ahead and get you in the press in time...' I had the New Order record there and I didn't know what to say at the time so I said, 'Tell 'em Vigilantes Of Love'" - and it's served us pretty well! An interesting juxtaposition of something that's aggressive and violent with something that's all consuming and positive!"
Taking the Kingdom in by force, I suggested. "Exactly! In one way or another - maybe God's force which happens to be a little less aggressive than men's force sometimes."
Bill has a very thought out perspective about family and the music business. "I have two sons (ages 16 arid 12) and the bottom line with my wife and I has been - if this ever gets in the way of our relationship or being a good dad... I'm there 24/7 when I'm home -1 know many fathers who work nine to five jobs and they don't seem to connect with their kids so when I'm home -1 really am home! The pact was (if it ever got in the way) just tell me and give me two weeks to get disconnected from my business commitments - there's something eternal about relationships and rock music is only that - rock and roll - your not gonna see it in Heaven really. The music is part of our hearts but I think it assumes a bigger than life quality, but marriage is for keeps and so is a family.
I asked Bill to tell me about his latest 'Free For Good' recording. "It was recorded here in Cheltenham, UK in like three days off from the tour - a bit like 'Killing Floor' (third album produced with Mark Heard and Peter Bach - title based on an old Robert Johnson tune) - kinda acoustic but even so it rocks!"
More conservative elements in the Church might be uneasy with the alcohol on sale at a Vigilantes Of Love gig. "The fact that Christians come hang out and support us in a pub environment is really encouraging. My attitude has been that if the Lord were here in the flesh tonight he might be here in the Fair And Firkin! I don't think you can walk into a relationship and hit people over the head with the Gospel, but I think you try to maintain a level of integrity and you try to show them a little of what Christ's love looks like in the relationships among ourselves. So much of rock 'n' roll is a dominant kind of thing - managers try to get dominance over the club owner.... It's just like, excuse the term, 'pissing rights' - it's ridiculous. We try and go in and treat people like human beings with a soul, and nine out of 10 they'll actually remark, like, 'You guys are the funniest band we've ever worked with.' So who knows, next time? A lot of our fans speak up and say, 'By the way those guys are Christians!'The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.