In an alternate universe, we would all know that the initials V.O.L. stood for Vigilantes of Love, one of the most important indie bands of the 1990s, a band universally acknowledged as a shining example of what can happen when punk rock aesthetics meet Southern pop. Every once in a while, too, we'd hear about some dude who used to be in a little-known band called R.E.M., and we'd think "hey yeah, Michael Stipe, I think I've heard of him."
The conceit here is pretty obvious: V.O.L. coulda been R.E.M., ha ha. They're both from Athens, Georgia, they both write smart, literate pop songs, they both know how to rock when they have to, etc. But Vigilantes of Love (who disbanded in 2002) are more than R.E.M. coulda-beens. Their entire career -- including, now, the consistently solid solo output of former frontman Bill Mallonee, who plays an Inlander Showcase at the Empyrean on July 6 -- begs the eternal question asked by fans and bands for years: Why not them?
Mallonee, who's been without a label, manager, or booking agent for five years (his publicity contact number is his real phone number), remembers his V.O.L. days with fondness, even if the so-called "Athens scene" never benefited them the way it did some others.
"It's funny," said Mallonee, at the moment standing in a street in Custer, South Dakota, dodging motorcycles. "We're definitely from Athens, but Athens was never that good to us. I've talked to other bands who came out of 'scenes,' whether it's Seattle or Minneapolis, they're like, 'yeah, sure it's all great for the Replacements and Husker Du, but it sucks for us.' It was a good town to be from, but a bad town to come back to."
Mallonee formed V.O.L. in 1990, playing regional Georgia gigs with an acoustic trio, but eventually joined with multi-instrumentalist Billy Hodges for the band's breakout album, Killing Floor, which was produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and cult singer/songwriter Mark Heard. Eventually expanding to a rock outfit and signing a deal with the legendary southern Capricorn Records, V.O.L. began to make a dent in the international Americana scene with Welcome to Struggleville and Blister Soul.
"We thought about moving to England for a while," Mallonee said. "It's not that big of an island -- you can tour the whole thing in about 2 weeks. We had a record that was top 5 there, Audible Sigh."
For a band with "hardly any resources behind it," V.O.L. did pretty well for itself in the late 90s. "It got me out on the road with a guitar, playing my songs," Mallonee says.
Even when his band went down the tubes, Mallonee didn't stop writing. He still writes 50 to 60 songs a year; by his count, he's put out around 25 records since the early days of V.O.L. In fact, it was his prolificacy that led to his most recent studio record, Permafrost, even being made. He figured since he'd built up such a loyal fanbase over the last decade that he could count on the fans to pre-order the disc in order to finance it. He charged 15 bucks a copy.
"We have folks that came in, people really felt like they had something invested in it: 'Here's my chance to help out.' So there was a lot of that going on," Mallonee said, adding, "It took a year, because I went through a divorce."
He's since remarried, and his wife Muriah Rose helps out with booking shows, and plays and sings on Permafrost. Together, the two have become something of their own business -- making records, booking shows, traveling and playing together.
Paste Magazine spoke highly of the record, and recently named Mallonee number 65 on its "Best 100 Living Songwriters" list. He has a long history with the magazine, which in its early days ran a record label venture which re-released several V.O.L. albums and some of Mallonee's solo records before becoming mired in legal problems due to a distributor bankruptcy. But Mallonee's not bitter.
"Actually, I'm one of those guys that believes there can be a nice healthy symbiotic relationship between an artist and a label," he said. "(But) I don't hear the A/R guys out there like they used to be. Do those people even exist anymore?"
Mallonee presses on, though, putting out his songs by any means necessary.
"To be both record label and band, it takes a couple people to do that," Mallonee said. "My wife and I deal with that every day." Their most recent venture is the download-only Circa, recorded live in their kitchen.
Throughout his career, it's his songs, and their hopeful-if-discontented character, that have been Mallonee's strength. They remain somehow both optimistic and world-weary -- "You gotta know the bad news before the good news makes any sense," Mallonee says -- like Permafrost's bouncy "Flowers," on which he sings "Maybe you're just a prayer away / from getting your shit together." This marriage of sunshiney Southern pop and glass-half-empty lyrics is something of a trademark.
"The solo stuff has become more acoustic-oriented, trying to paint the mood a little darker," Mallonee said. "I'm a huge fan of really well done British pop -- if I had a band that's what it would sound like."
Then again, if he had a band, we'd be in that parallel universe, and we'd never get a chance to see Bill Mallonee spilling his guts on an intimate stage like the Empyrean.
The Empyrean presents an Inlander Showcase Series concert: Bill Mallonee and Karli Fairbanks on Friday, July 6 at 7:30 pm. $9. Call 838-9819.