Bill Mallonee was gracious enough to spend a little time with us recently and talk about his new record, Lands and Peoples. Bill has been living in the Sangre de Cristos mountain rage (part of the Rockies in New Mexico) for the past 5 years and he credits the southwest for heavily influencing his sound and approach with his more recent records. Be sure to check out this album along with his extensive discography at his bandcamp page. Special thanks to Bill for taking the time out of his schedule to do this interview.
IVM (Scott): I have always loved your guitar tones and just the overall sound of your music. I’ve felt for a while that yourself and Jay Farrar (Son Volt) have really perfected that ‘alt-country’ style. Who would you say are some the artists that have helped shaped your style/sound?
Bill: High praise. I love Mr. Farrar’s songs and what he does with Son Volt. He’s a national treasure as far as I’m concerned.
My early cues were “formed” by the obvious suspects. To an extent, folks like Dylan, Neil Young, the Byrds. They made me see the song as something that could convey some aspect of “transcendence.” And good songs should shoot for transcendence. By that, I mean they should articulate, via instrument, lyric & delivery, some aspect of our humanity.
It should tell that “truth” and tell it well.
It’s hard to describe what I’m seeking. And that is a deliberate choice of words, that word “seeking.” I write about 50 songs a year. And every song continues to be a seeking;” They are a way to develop a nomenclature with oneself, and the world within and without. That’s really all I’ve ever been about.
I don’t listen to a lot of new music. When i’m on the road touring I do listen to the old recordings that make me smile. I’m 60 plus albums into my life as a recording artist. I do what I do and am very happy with my approach. So, you’ll find me listening to my demos a lot.
Whenever i do “drop in” to hear the what’s “all the current rage,” I sense it often has a “paint-by-numbers” quality to it. Derivative. The influences are easy to spot. I’m rarely won over. That’s not at all meant to sound arrogant, I promise. Everybody has the right to put their thing out there and begin to grow as an artist. But, I do think critics often laud stuff that just doesn’t sound convincing.
I tend to be a “word guy,” so lyrics and delivery are important to me. There’s lots of writers “out there” who seem to have little to say.
Me? I think just about any band can make at least one good record. But: Can they make 5, 10, 15 good records over the years? That’s is the bigger question. Do they have something to say? Do they have a vision and the energy to seek such a goal?
I often wonder if that’s because the digital age has left us with a very homogenized culture. Even out way of listening has been effected.
These days, my wife (Muriah Rose) and I listen to a lot of stations we’ve created via Pandora. Genres like Flamenco, Cuban & Mexicana folk, old cowboy tunes, modern Spanish classical guitar, lute music, old-school jazz get heavy play here! You know things that take one out of the reference points of American pop music.
It’s a wondrous rush hearing the passion that’s common to the human heart in other soulful genres.
IVM: I notice that you played nearly 15 different instruments on this record. What are some of the challenges that comes from having to take on so many different roles in the recording process?
Bill: I enjoy exploring what each instrument can to “say” on a record. Obvious the bed-rock of guitars, bass, drums and keys are major components in my songs.
It’s always a challenge to see just how much an instrument “wants to say” on each song. Sometimes it’s just a few bits, sometimes a lot.
I’ve learned that no one instrument has to carry the whole weight of the song. How to arrange and frame a song and it’s recording is something one never stops learning about.
I’m a huge fan of harmony guitar parts. (That “transcendence” thing again that harmony guitars do for me!); I’ve taught myself bass over the last few albums. I started as drummer when I was, oh, 12 years old, I guess and got decent at that pretty fast. Guitars, both acoustic & electric have been my love. I love old instruments. Beat up, funky. Instruments with a story inside them. I acquired an old 1947 Es-125 3 years ago and have written about 5 albums on it. Very inspiring vibe. (I know the son whose father owned and played the guitar, so I’m very connected to it.)
IVM: I know that Muriah Rose plays keyboards/organs/vocals, but I was wondering if you two work together in the actual song writing process at all?
Bill: Ms. Rose’s articulation at the piano is beautiful, her parts are always just the right thing and almost all of them are “keepers.” But, no, we don’t really write together.
We’ve been married 10 years now and how it tends to work with us is that we’ll each get one of our songs to a certain point but not quite finished. Then we ask the other to step into the process, listen and offer critique about it. Muriah’s insight is invaluable. We’re working on her first album now. She’s a great writer.<<<
IVM: It seems with this record and your previous (Winnowing), there is a softer, more laid back feel to the music and vocals as compared to maybe ‘The Power and the Glory’ or ‘Amber Waves’. Does that have to do more with the mood of the record or something else?
Bill: I think Winnowing & Lands & Peoples are more restrained here and there, but definitely not laid back. They are more somber backdrops to lyrically work out these very deep and troubling issue I find withing and without. The Amber Waves (2013) and The Power & The Glory (2012) were definitive Americana rock albums. Almost garage records in places. They were big, aggressive “noisy” albums and I love that kind of approach.
We had a large studio, lots of gear an resources. Members from the old band Vigilantes of Love, played through out the record. It was a process of: learn the song, sketch the arrangement and push “record.” Very immediate, visceral and organic.
I love making records that way.
With Dolorosa (2013), Winnowing 2014 and now Lands & Peoples, you find Muriah & I making music in a smaller setting. The songs are very confessional, very direct.
A home studio. Very warm sounds. More of a folk-rock approach, those albums are more expansive. They are more “elegant” albums, I think. But the themes are very personal and often dark.
Our home studio setting allows for more time to think about the songs, the lyrics, the messages and how they are delivered. <<<<
IVM: I have heard you say in the past that you write “just to heal yourself.” How does that relate here to “Lands & Peoples?”
Bill: ”Winnowing” was a very personal and dark album. Very interior in it’s quality.
“Lands & Peoples” works on a couple levels. It is dark as well, but it’s themes are delivered by assuming a particular character. On Lands & Peoples, you’ll meet drifters, farmers gone bust, gamblers, truckers, alcoholics, coal miners, mystics & romantics.
Another major theme is that of taking inventory on where we’ve come as a nation in this great experiment called “Democracy.”
Is it working? Are folks being left out? Why do we still trust a war-machine to solve issues? What are the ways we’re worshiping Mammon, Power and Privilege today?
That being said, it’s not a politically heavy-handed album. (Such records tend to bore me.) What I wanted was to examine the structures we’ve created to live in and see if those are working well OR are in need of deep healing and repair. It’s obvious I believe the latter.
IVM: I love the song “Steering Wheel is a Prayer Wheel.” Seems like a tale of sin and redemption told through eyes of a weary traveler. Can you talk about that song?
Bill: Yes, you’re right…
It’s pretty much how i feel all the time on the road. One feels displaced after long stretches of traveling and that’s when all those old country songs make sense! ;-).
Muriah & I have this conversation a lot: How the road tends to both exhilarate and, at the same time, call forth a certain loneliness from you. In all of us, there seems to be these mysterious places in our spirits. Traveling seems to be the catalyst and metaphor we employ a lot to describe our these journeys.
The road is a history teacher, as well. One begins to sense that this thing called “The American Experience” is really a myriad of lives; a stringing together of stories; some beautiful, some very shameful; Many stories full of faith, resolution and courage against darkness and grim odds. So many wonderful hearts who just “did the right thing,” even under severe trails with very little resources.
Living as a touring musician for 25 years and you start to see that you’re part of all that is in this great country;
that we’re all cut from the same cloth with similar aspirations, hopes and dreams. <<<<
IVM: It seems that you are lamenting the state of America’s “Lands and Peoples” to some degree, but certainly have not given up hope. Would that be fair to say?
Bill: Times seem pretty dark to me. Ecologically, politically, economically it seems as if the planet is convulsing.
Fear, Greed and those who live by the short-view have the upper hand. It seems we’ve created a superstructure that has many faces and that it’s working for some and not others. So many folks falling through the cracks.
We are a nation that is starved for healing
I think we could start with 2 things: 1. Get honest people in office (state & national) and 2. Get money out of politics. That’s how a new kind of trust could be built.
I do think that if we fail to examine our values, goals and the basic trajectory of how we’re focusing this nation’s resources and energies, then we’re headed for some new dark ages.
IVM: There are some not so subtle moments lyrically that touch on the violent aspects of this nation’s past. Is that something that you specifically wanted to address here, or just part of the generally theme?
Bill: Here’s the thing: Yes, there are some stances here and there lyrically on “Lands & Peoples” that address that. I wanted to make them poetic; they are never implicating. We ALL have played a role in how this country got from A to B. We’re all complicit in whatever guilt & shame there is our country’s history. Again, the idea of creating superstructures that sustain inequalities, abuses and injustices is something we are all playing a part in. The employing of violence to solve things will always remain something of a mystery to me.
IVM: Do you still get together and play as the Vigilantes of Love?
Bill: Ah, sadly, No, not really. They were a phenomenal band, I think! Just wonderful players and friends.
But, our very negative experiences with record labels and management sort of killed the spirit of the thing post 2001’s “Summershine.”
Me? I’d LOVE to play with Kevin & Jake again. Yes, we do stay in some contact.
Our individual lives have led us away from getting in a van and doing the 175-180 shows a year we use to do.
I think the best we can do is try and get together every year or so and make a new album. Remember: “Amber Waves” and “The Power & The Glory” were done with Vigilantes of Love and those records are only a couple years old, so yes, we can still make those ventures happen.
IVM: Do you still play house shows?
Bill: Oh, yes…Muriah & I try and tour 80-90 shows a year if possible, although, we took last year off just to rest. I love the intimate settings. Good for the songs. Good for the audience, as well.
IVM: Who exactly are The Big Sky Ramblers? Is that just something you like to have in the name or is that actually referring to something?
Bill: The Big Sky Ramblers are just a name a this point; a rallying idea. The idea was to make the record have a full-band feel, which i think it does.
To me, Lands & Peoples sounds like a band in a room doing what a band does.
I’d use that name if we could find the right players out here in New Mexico, and establish a good chemistry around these songs….
IVM: This would be a great record to listen to on a road trip. What type of artist or bands do you listen to while driving down the road?
Bill: Thank you for saying that, Scott. It is a great road record, we think. Road albums?
Let’s see. “Trace” & “Straightaways” by Son Volt and “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty come to mind. Good audio companions. I’ll fill up a journal of lyrics of a month long tour…
Mostly, we talk, make jokes, look at the topography.
Muriah is brilliant, a wonderful woman, so we’re never at a loss for topics.
I tell ya,’ I’ve got it good!