What do you do when your recording label doesn't know what to do with you? You bounce. You drift. You never feel at ease, never feel at home. You sure as hell don't have the luxury of falling into the black hole of complacency. So you keep making great albums as if your artistic life depends on it. It's all you can do.
Since forming in 1991, songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist & & BILL MALLONEE & & and his revolving, evolving gang of song-crafty genre renegades have made a career out of defying expectations, challenging their audiences and confounding recording label executives by following a singular and roundabout path to success. And for the & & VIGILANTES OF LOVE & & , the distance between two points -- where they are and where they want to be -- is not necessarily a straight line. The trio -- with Jacob Bradley on bass and Kevin Heuer on drums -- plays at The Shop Tuesday night.
Their latest album, Audible Sigh (now distributed on Compass Records) is really the third incarnation of a song collection that was originally recorded in 1998. It's a bracing, guitar-prominent slab of folk-rock Americana that undercuts its tangible melancholy with a sense of hope and salvation.
"It was recorded for a label in Nashville called Pioneer Records and was due for release in March of '99," relates Mallonee via phone from a club in Joshua Tree, Calif. "Literally two weeks after we signed the deal, the label folded. And in a stroke of sheer divine benevolence, they just gave us the record, which hardly ever happens. So we released it independently, and then it was picked up later on and released by another smaller label and then again it was released by Compass. It's kind of interesting how it's worked out."
Mallonee and VOL have been dogged by label problems all along. And the group's mid '90s four-album stint with Mercury sub label Capricorn ended with Mallonee a little wary of major label entanglements and empty promises.
"Your value at a label is only as strong as your A & amp;R connection," he laments. "And those guys change real fast in that department. You can be a band that's actually selling really well and still fall out of favor at a label because your A & amp;R guy got fired or took a better job somewhere else."
When all else fails, it's time to fall back on the strength of your music and the reliability of your internal combustion vehicle.
"We're from Athens, Ga. (Mallonee came up in the same climate that spawned R.E.M. and the B-52s), so we've got that garage, do-it-yourself kind of thing clearly imprinted in what we do. But the thing about Athens is, there's no superstructure to get your band any kind of national focus. There's no management; there's only recently actual radio promotion to help young bands get on college radio. You need to get out of the town. It's pretty much, you know, pack your gear, get in the van and try to do 150-180 dates a year and live to tell about it."
The regional flavor Mallonee imbues his work with is yet another impediment to far-flung success. He has never shied away from drawing on the Southern gothic tradition in his songwriting, never saw fit to tame his Georgian accent in order to sound more radio-friendly. The result is that VOL records defy the recording industry's slick, homogenous standards. And though similar bands mining similar territory (Sun Volt, Wilco) enjoy higher profiles, even they don't move enough units to make them commercially viable -- at least by modern industry standards.
Says Mallonee: "The stakes are so stinking high now that if you only sell 150,000 records, to a record company person, that's just not enough. Audible Sigh was shopped around by a pretty good, well-known attorney in Atlanta, and he landed it on the top four or five major labels. Almost everybody said, 'We love this record; this is what we listen to when we get off work. But unless we can sell 200,000 copies, we can't sign them.' I thought it was kind of funny. This band's not country with a big belt buckle and a hat, and it's not college enough in the sense that it's whatever 'college' is anymore. The industry has a habit of getting into a channel and just staying there. Do they really want something safe and uninventive? Is that where they're at? It just seems like it is."
Screw radio and its restrictive formatting. Screw record labels and their shoddy promotion. When all is said and done, the best way of getting your stuff out there remains the most obvious: Get on the road and interact directly with audiences. It's a method that has served Mallonee and his VOL compatriots well.
"When there's no filter there, we've never had a problem making friends."
And though he admits it would be great to reach more listeners, Mallonee seems satisfied with the level of success he has managed thus far. Success on his own terms. Success that allows for a well-nurtured personal life.
"I'm married with two kids," he says. "And my wife has been a saint for letting me chase this little dream around the block. She's involved with the band, and we have our priorities straight about this whole thing because I don't think rock and roll is worth putting relationships on the rocks. And professionally, I've been fortunate. I've never had to go without. It's always been hand-to-mouth, but at least there's always been something in the hand to put in mouth. You learn a lot about living on faith and trust in this business. But the road has always led to one more open door and one more green light."
& & & lt;i & Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love perform at The Shop on Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 7 pm. Tickets: $5. Call: 534-1647. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
& & Yes, more local action & & & &
At Ichabod's this weekend, the irrepressible Bucket Riders will regale the troops on Friday night with their twisted alt-country tales stained with their unique brand of black humor and one or two Lou Reed numbers to boot. They share the bill with Urban Disturbance and Blood Red Zero. After the Crash, The Creeps (the 50cc guys with new lead singer Jon Coker of Trampoline Girl) and Last Chapter rock armageddon-style on Saturday. Both shows are $5 at the door and start around 9:30 p.m.
High caliber, live original music can also be found at Boomerang's where Thirteen plays on Friday and local blues-rock legends Too Slim and the Taildraggers do the good old dirty low down on Saturday night.
And if a boogie night is what you crave, be sure to attend the grand opening of Rumors 415 this weekend starting on Saturday at around 9 pm. Drink specials will be plentiful, hors d'oeuvres will be served and your hosts DJs Learn and o2-n will provide the mixes. All you need to bring is your dancing shoes and an open mind. You can do that, yes?