Ron Gallo Throws Another Change-Up
If you include his 2014 digital-only solo debut, last year’s blistering Heavy Meta, humorous/oddball eight-song EP Really Nice Guys from early this year, and his recently-released new album Stardust Birthday Party, Nashville-by-way-of-Philly musician and songsmith Ron Gallo has made four striking albums that sound very little alike. And that’s just fine with him.
“I think the music I make is usually pretty reflective of what I’m into at the given time, when I’m making it,” he admits, noting that he’s zig-zagged among numerous musical interests his whole life. “I’m all over the place. My roots are in south Jersey punk and hardcore – that was kind of like my musical beginnings. And then, I, like, ditched all that and got really into like Dave Matthews and jam bands for like one year of my life… Then I got really into emo and indie rock in high school. And then I took a weird turn back into, like, American roots music, and I got obsessed with Delta blues, and really early country and jazz… I guess I feel like I’ve spent periods of my life exploring each era of music, and so now I’m kinda coming back almost full circle to where I started. It’s kind of a combination of digging up things that I was familiar with when I was younger, but I guess I wasn’t really created from that place. And now it’s me coming back later in life and going, ‘You know, these are the people and these are the things I really resonate with.’ Also, in combination with modern bands, and my friends, you know – you just listen to things, and you can kind of see where people are pulling from. Ultimately, it’s just whatever speaks to me – I’m just gonna start there and see what happens… I’m just kind of like a sponge.”
It was upon New West Records’ release of Heavy Meta in early 2017 that I first became aware of Gallo, the onetime frontman of a Philadelphia band I’d never heard of called Toy Soldiers. I latched onto Heavy Meta’s nihilistic inferno bigtime. With songs that lived up to and surpassed great titles such as “All the Punks Are Domesticated,” “Poor Traits of the Artist,” “Why Do You Have Kids?” and “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me,” it was an outburst of shitty attitude, boiling up from a really dark, messed up/fed up pit of desperation. The music on that record is wild, raw garage rock ‘n’ roll, the lyrics blunt and brutal but exquisitely vivid. It was clear that he’d lived it. It still resonates with yours truly, which, admittedly, probably reflects poorly on me. As for Gallo, he’s all but disowned Heavy Meta (the songs for which were written three to four years before its release, anyway), having moved on to a more upbeat outlook on life, himself and the world and people around him. The music’s shifted, too. Compared to Heavy Meta, Stardust Birthday Party plays like a spasmodic new wave pogo party.
“I think that late ’70s/early ’80s sort of transition from punk into new wave, that’s kind of a really cool, creative time in musical history,” Gallo acknowledges. “I think people were just getting a lot more weird. And kind of expressing themselves in a way that was kinda… I don’t know what the word for it is, but… idiosyncratic, unconventional, irreverent… I do love all that stuff. It resonates with me, for sure… It has a weird sort of timelessness to it. Which I think, for the first time in music, it was kind of pushing it forward for the first time. Introducing new sounds, and electronics, and all those things. So in a way, it always sounds modern and unique, no matter what period of time, I guess, you’re in. Devo, Talking Heads, all that stuff, it makes sense to me more so than anything else. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it does at the same time in some ways.
“When making Heavy Meta, I was delving back pretty heavily into late ’70s New York punk, and The Stooges and stuff like that. And also a lot of contemporary garage stuff. And [now], I just don’t really identify with the whole… I guess, really, the sentiment of that record much anymore, and the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ elements of it. I think with Birthday Party, I was kind of, uh, being a little more true to myself. I think my brain works in much stranger ways. And that kind of resulted in… you said ‘new wave.’ I think I just kinda went in a positive way this time. It’s much more rooted in positivity, and being constructive. Whereas Heavy Meta was much more finger-pointing, outward blaming, rooted in my frustration and anger. Just toxic bullshit. This one’s maintaining some of that element, but having more fun, getting a bit more weird, being myself. It’s more positive, so I think it’s naturally gonna sound more fun, and maybe even danceable at times.”
While Meta and Birthday Party both barrel through the streets with the jittery rhythm of urban motion, the former plays as if fueled by late night black coffee and cigarettes whereas the latter pumps the bloodstream like a Jolt Cola Big Gulp at 10 a.m. I point out to Gallo that, lyrically, Stardust Birthday Party is also far more succinct, more economical with its words, than the loquacious Heavy Meta.
“I did notice that, for sure,” he says. “I think with this record, kind of the point of it, a lot of the songs are one chord, too. They’re almost like mantras, in a way, where you can kind of create complex ideas, but simplify, simplify, simplify… I think you’re most successful if you can find a way to say what you’re saying in as few words. That’s just my goal with everything. I write too much, and I talk too much, and I can be very neurotic sometimes. So, using the music was kind of where I went, ‘OK, dial it back. You don’t need to cram 6,000 words into every line, and explain everything.’ Simply, give it a little more room to breathe, make it a little bit more digestible maybe. It kinda just made sense with this record.”
Gallo, 30, has stated that Birthday Party is directed inward, “confronting the big question, ‘WHAT AM I, REALLY?’ It’s about the love and compassion for all things that enters when you find out you are nothing and everything.” Which sounds deep and borderline new-agey on paper. Yet the album is marked by a conspicuous sense of humor. I mean, there was plenty of dark humor on Heavy Meta, but Birthday Party is, by contrast, blatantly goofy at times.
“Yeah, and that’s me, if I’m being honest,” he says. “That’s probably the most important thing, I think, in all of music for me. Especially when you’re talking about serious stuff. If you can find a way to make people laugh at themselves, or laugh at it, that’s when people are really getting it. Just with anything. If you’re laughing, it means you’re really understanding something. I guess nothing’s really all that serious. It’s just nice to find the humor in just about everything in existence. ‘Cause it’s there.”
Recorded last January as a purposeful contrast to Heavy Meta’s tidal wave of fucked-up situations, Really Nice Guys is undoubtedly the funniest and most sardonic of all Gallo’s records so far. It plays like a concept album about the ballooning East Nashville indie rock scene with its meditative indictment of local in-crowders and hangers-on (“I’m on the Guest List”), the persistent “friendly folks in terrible bands” conundrum (“They’re really nice guys, they’re really nice guys/ But when they start playin’ I wanna rip out my eyes!”), and tedious “industry” small talk among local musicians in a town where you can’t go to the grocery store without bumping into 15 people you sorta halfway know when all you wanna do is pay for your hummus and frozen pizza and get outta there (“The East Nashville Kroger Conversation”). It’s THE comedy album of the year, without compare!
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s RONNY, his aforementioned Bandcamp debut album from four years ago, which not very many people have heard or even know exists. It’s totally a country-flavored, folky, singer-songwriter thing which, true to his ever-changing musical moods, was just a phase he was going through at the time.
“At that point in time, I was really into Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. That stuff mixed in with just coming out of this long study in American roots stuff. So I made that record,” he says. “And then… I guess it made sense to kind of shed that and explore something very different [with Heavy Meta]. I’ll probably do that forever, honestly. My next record could be a rap album. I don’t know.”
That particular idea could prove to be rather embarrassing, I warn him, recalling Dee Dee Ramone’s ill-fated stint as rapper Dee Dee King.
“Of course! Maybe embarrassment is what I need. Maybe that’s the logical next step in my journey, is to do something that’s just completely ego-crushing and awful. Who knows? I’m just gonna surrender to it,” he responds. “And when the time comes to make a new record, I’ll do the same thing I always do – let’s reflect what you’re into right now, what speaks to you. Maybe it’ll be that, maybe it’ll be jazz, maybe it’ll be along the same lines as [Stardust Birthday Party]. I don’t know. I just think that’s the only way to be honest, and stay making music forever, if you don’t ever commit to being one thing. Because I think that’s unnatural. If you ever say, ‘We’re a band that makes music that sounds like this…’ then there’s a timeline, there’s an ultimate demise built in to that. But if you say, ‘I’m a person that makes songs and music, and there’s no real limitation to it,’ then you can make music forever. I think it’s important.”
Photo by Chiara D’Anzieri.