Words by Sean Moeller , Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Photos by Jesse Codling
As far as the public record shows, Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel don't contemplate the state of Missouri's wineries and the tiny, ancient towns they were founded in during the mid-1800s when they are making songs. Where this laptop sits, in Hermann, Mo. , the history of a German town racked by Prohibition in 1920 is exactly the kind of subject and (some would say) a tragedy that created the kinds of people who make for the best muses. The people who had it all, lost it all and the people on the outside looking in, who will never have anything and want so much more. It's a little place along the Missouri River and the Katy Trail, tucked into some fertile hills that served as a breeding ground for grapes, mushrooms, greed, the haves and the have-nots. There were millionaires and beggars in this city an eternity from everywhere in the 1800s, but really just an hour and a half west of St. Louis. Stephens and Vogel, the lifelong friends who make up the San Francisco duo Two Gallants, might never have set foot or given this place one care in all their lives, but it carries a history with it that the balladeer and his right-hand man can appreciate. They could appreciate the government coming calling to rip out every grape vine in the country, with the blood of the last city's vines dripping from its maw. It could appreciate the bootleggers, who secretly imported the little purple creatures that were so utterly forbidden that grape jelly was imported throughout Prohibition.
Just as Stephens appreciated the story of the homeless man in the parking lot of the Jack-In-The-Box enough, over a decade ago, to pen his first song about him, the woes and injustices and harrowing stories of fighting to live life the way its meant to be lived - with verve and choices - find their ways into many of the lyrics he continues to write. They may not be first-person accounts about the girl-next-door or thankless jobs, but the storyteller in Stephens is better for his eye to antiquated people, places and details. He's the Cash who sings, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," and he's Willie when he sings in "Red-Headed Stranger," "She followed him out as he saddled his stallion/She laughed as she grabbed at the bay/He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her/She never heard anyone say/ Don't cross him/Don't boss him/He's wild in his sorrow/He's ridin' and hidin' his pain/Don't fight him/Don't spite him/Just wait 'til tomorrow and maybe he'll ride on again/The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset/The stranger went free of course/For you can't hang a man for killin' a woman/Who's tryin' to steal your horse." He's got a murderous mind when he boils and the way he can grit his teeth, even in the middle of verse, is some kind of glory. What's in Stephens is this clever and calculated stranger who warms his heart when and how he chooses. He's a fireball who skins his throat when letting out some of the agitation that resides in the pits of his belly. He's a fake inmate. He's no killer. He comes off as a Jesse James/Billy the Kid type of character - an outlaw, though he has no kill count. In fact, he's much more of a gentleman that he gives off when he's behind a microphone. He's a character actor with a steely look that could burn the Golden Gate Bridge down to a pool of metallic lava.
And Vogel is the slightly built man who remains in shadowy description, the foil to Stephens whether he wants to tear his hands up with a ripper of a song or go tender with one for the rose of a lady whom he can't stop hankering for. Troubled times can be like currency to a songwriter and Stephens comes across as a wealthy man on this year's "What The Toll Tells" and on last year's "The Throes," two albums of fascinating tales that pull their inspiration from the tough times before the abolition of slavery in the South, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Gold Rush years. He sings, "I ain't good at reminiscing," and that's probably both a truth and a lie. It's a fabrication as his twines very subtle swigs of his real life in with the studies of these fictitious men of imaginary design. He empathizes with their plights and makes it sound like they're his own. He rages and seethes like a Viking, at times, and makes every moment of time sound potentially self-destructive. Stephens and Vogel are vicars for the desperate times, putting the gall back into gallants.
The Daytrotter interview:
*How was Belgium? Sweden ? France? All those places? Did Europe wear you out?*
Adam Stephens: They were all lovely. Especially, Sweden. We had a few days off in Stockholm and left to a friend's country house in the archipelago for sailing, swimming, and shrimp sandwiches. I wouldn't say tour ever really wears us out. It just makes us miss our former lives at times.
*Do you really soak it up over there? I take you guys as two who enjoy history and there's sure a lot of it over there. Do you get into thinking, "This happened here..." and "So and so lived here?" when you're different places?*
AS: I think that is a tendency of everyone. Those who don't think about what has occurred beneath their own footsteps don't deserve to walk. They should just stay in bed so they can fully appreciate themselves.
*Do you appreciate American history? Do you prefer to think about the creation process of your music through the eyes of olden times? The only reason I say that is because of some of the phrasings you use in your lyrics. They're outdated a bit and it's great in a sepia-toned, bygone-era sort of way.*
AS: We both appreciate American history, of course. But I don't think we look at our music in any historical light. It just is. If some think it's outdated they can go listen to The Killers. That does not really concern us. The phrasings might seem a bit anachronistic -- words like 'rad', 'dude' and 'sweet' just seem to do the music a bit of an injustice.
*How do you approach a song, standing in the present looking back or standing in the past looking ahead?*
AS: I think I prefer sitting. Some times in my chair, some times on the bus. Other times on the sidewalk, but once in a while I do find myself standing usually looking at myself in the mirror with a Bible in one hand and a portrait of my president in the other.
*You're really a balladeer aren't you? You're a story person and it really comes through on the songs you did for this session.*
AS: I don't know. The songs I write are the only ones I know how to. I wouldn't know if they were ballads or slanders. The words just come out of my mouth and the music just comes out of my hand. I wish I knew more about it.
*Do you remember what the first song you wrote was about?*
AS: I think it was about a homeless man I met at Jack-in-the-Box when I was 15. I was out rebelling against something with a few of my friends and he was sitting on the sidewalk asking for change. We started talking and he told me about his home in Arkansas, I believe it was. She had left him because he couldn't keep his job and took their only child away with her. With nothing to live by or live for anymore he decided to start bumming about and eventually ended up in San Francisco some years later he could not recall. I don't think the song was very good. It just seemed to me something had to be said about him at the time.
*How long have you known each other -- I know it's been forever? What's it like to be two great friends growing up and making music together? Have there been any difficult times?*
AS: The difficult times are unavoidable when two people spend more time with each other than their families and girlfriends. But we have been friends since we were five so it is easy to get through it all.
*Which songwriters do you admire?*
AS: Uncle Dave Macon, Clarence Ashley, Sleepy John Estes, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Davies, Immortal Technique.
*Whose brain would you like to pick for half a day?*
AS: Karl Rove. I'd pick his brain until he could only eat through a straw and had to have his diapers changed every hour.
*I know you're very friendly, kind guys, but there are obviously some who have never met you who probably assume you've got some sinisterness in you. Can you talk about both sides of that? Where does that bite that we hear in the songs come from?*
AS: I really don't think they are that dark. It's usually in jest anyhow. We are not very cruel people. Perhaps, if there is an element of aggression in our music it is an escape from the monotony of being two skinny white effeminates from a city where the sun never sets.
*Who have you gotten a chance to play with that you never imagined would happen?*
AS: Playing with Built To Spill was pretty amazing. Modest Mouse was shocking as well but the situation was a bit blown out of proportion. It was at a Hilton Casino in Reno. Our back stage room was called the Frank Sinatra Room, built especially for the man on the right side because he had a superstition to only enter the stage from stage right. Needless to say, we entered from Frank's side that night. We played a festival with Kanye West in Denmark this summer, but I don't think that really counts as a few hundred other bands did the same. He was angelic.
*What's next for you two?*
AS: Pregnancy, obesity and interment.