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VoL - Bruce A. Brown feature Part 1

  • 1999 15 Sep
VoL - Bruce A. Brown feature Part 1

A line in the blues standard, "Born Under a Bad Sign," says "if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." And you couldn't blame Bill Mallonee, leader of {{Vigilantes of Love}}, for thinking that line applies to his band. Though long tagged a "critic's darling," for its gritty roots rock and stark, confessional lyrics, VoL has struggled with both the major mainstream and Christian labels that have released its product over the past ten years. But even after releasing ten albums on seven different labels, Mallonee remains optimistic that VoL is just hitting its creative stride. Bruce A. Brown spoke with Mallonee at this year's Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Ill. Their conversation, presented in two parts, continued a few days later at a Nashville night club.

BAB: Your involvement with the Christian music industry roughly parallels your association with the Cornerstone Festival, doesn't it? Tell me about your first fest visit, in 1992.

Bill: Cornerstone was the first Christian music festival we did. I remember Mark Heard saying, "Don't get involved." I'm not sure if he was talking about the festival or the Christian music industry in general. I think we went on in front of Over the Rhine, in one of the afternoon tents. We were really pleased with the turnout. If there was a place that gave us a big visibility to a whole new audience, that was it.

BAB: It was that week that you released your third album, Killing Floor, right?

Bill: Right. ==Driving the Nails== and Jugular came first, but Killing Floor was the first national release.

BAB: Stretching back to your first album, ==Driving the Nails==, themes of faith have always permeated your writing. But it doesn't seem like you necessarily think in those terms when you write.

Bill: I'd say all my songs tend to be songs of faith on some level because they're either pep talks to myself about keeping focus on where life's significance and meaning lies, which as a Christian, I believe is in a day to day walk with the Lord. Or it's a more confessional thing, feeling like I've come up short, years and years after being a Christian, not getting things right, not attaining to a the level of spiritual vitality I'd like to. Which for me means very specific things like being a better husband, loving my wife more, showing love toward my kids, charity toward my neighbor. The songs wouldn't necessarily be enumerating those items, but might be saying "I'm really not doing well here." I think we get a lot of folks identifying with the band on that level because that's not always a line of thinking that's discussed, even though it's the bedrock of Christian theology.

BAB: Fans of Vigilantes seem to enjoy the privilege of getting to know you off stage as well as the opportunity to hear your music

Bill: I'm still overwhelmed that people like what we do. My gut level tendency is to say "thank you for listening, thank you for getting what we do." It's a very symbiotic relationship. That may be kind of unique, to have that kind of closeness with your fan base. I'm grateful to the "nth" degree.

BAB: You seemed to have a pretty good relationship with Capricorn, which put out three of your albums. But it appears they lacked both the will and the means to help VoL achieve success in either mainstream or Christian music.

Bill: I don't think they had a strategy. Their philosophy was "get the band out there and let it tour hard." We got some strong "Triple A" radio exposure. But then there was no support beyond that, whether through video, distribution, or getting on a bigger tour. We were a college band that needed a little more "tweaking." We had some edges that probably didn't fit any of the categories Capricorn was used to marketing.

BAB: You also put together a successful compilation for the Christian marketplace in 1996. Did you think at that time it might be worth focusing your efforts on the Christian industry?

Bill: Warner Resound and Barry Landis, God bless him, came to us and said, "I got a list of 15 or 20 of your most overt songs. What do you think about me compiling these for the CBA market? My job is to join you on the street corner where art and commerce meet." He allowed us to record a few new songs, one of which was "Double Cure." It was a way of galvanizing a fan base that we already knew was there, to see if we could find a few people who wanted to get our music, but were averse to shopping in a Best Buy or whatever. If they were confused about the band, and if they were more comfortable shopping in the CBA chains, this was a way of making ourselves more accessible.

BAB: The Slow Dark Train album ended your association with Capricorn and former manager Dan Russell. What was the band's mood like at that point?

Bill: That's one of my favorite records. Capricorn wanted "Love Cocoon" as a single [Editor's note: "Love Cocoon" is a ten-year old song Bill re-recorded for Slow Dark Train. Written to his wife, it espouses the joys of sexual relations in a Christian marriage]. I told them "I'll record it for you, but you can't release it as the first single." I thought it would be spitting in the face of a lot of people in the Christian industry, who love this band, and have given us a reason to keep going. Not because I don't stand behind the song; I absolutely do. But it's too prone to be misunderstood. I still maintain that Capricorn just ignored me and released it anyway. Consequently, we were denied shelf space in many of the same stores that had just taken a chance on a VoL CD for the first time, with the Warner compilation. All on account of a song that simply pushed the limits of frank Christian discussion of sexual relations in a marriage. This in spite of the fact that a great deal of the theology in a lot of best selling Christian market albums might be suspect anyway. The album was dead in the water when it was released. We still toured on it through the summer, and came back from Europe in the fall of '97, to learn Capricorn had officially dropped us.

BAB: That seeming disaster was the impetus for many of the songs on To the Roof of the Sky, an album that many fans and critics felt was your best to date.

Bill: We embraced our independent status in the winter of 97-98, and recorded an album, using the band's credit card. It was real tense at first. It meant we had to go back to the garage and figure out how we were going to do this thing. The role model was really Neil Young. I'm a big fan of his quieter stuff like Harvest and Harvest Moon, but I also love the noisy stuff too. I think we have a balance of both those on To the Roof of the Sky. That album enabled us to book four months of touring completely off the fan base. We emailed people and said, "If you've got a show for us, we'll come and play your church basement, your rock club, your back porch, your living room whatever. And we made a good living through the summer of '98 like that. To the Roof of the Sky sold quite well for us, and was what led to Pioneer's interest in us.

Click here for Part Two of our interview with Vigilantes of Love leader Bill Mallonee, where Bill talks about the band's two most recent projects, and hints at what lies in store for the much loved roots rockers.

Check out more about Vigilantes of Love and all their albums at their website: