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Two Gallants Come Undone: On Their Fifth Full-Length, S.F.'s Hard-Living City Boys Take to the Sea 

Wednesday, Feb 4 2015
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For a couple of guys in their early 30s, Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel sure seem world-weary. As Two Gallants, the singer-guitarist and drummer, respectively, almost seem to have been born that way. Having known each other since age 12, the two friends began playing shows at BART stations and San Francisco house parties in 2002, when they were both 21. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that a good amount of the band's fanbase treats Two Gallants' music like an old friend from high school: You might grow apart, but when you do see each other? Well, that's shit's forever. That soft spot, the kind that comes from having seen someone with pimples and bad haircuts and drunk off cheap vodka and Sprite, is there for good.

That's a comfortable place for any band to live in; it means, really, that you don't have to try too hard. But Two Gallants have never seemed especially interested in comfort. On 2012's The Bloom and the Blight, after a five-year hiatus, the two debuted a sound that was simultaneously heavier and more stripped-down than anything they'd previously released. It was a record that sounded, fittingly, like a band that was growing up, and in so doing was maturing nicely beyond the edges of its earlier wheelhouse (namely, songs about hard living and whiskey drinking). The pain and poignancy in Stephens' voice still cut through walls of irony, while Vogel's drums sounded like he could start a revolution, if only he could hit hard enough.

Three years later, Two Gallants haven't so much reinvented themselves as a band as they have retreated farther into themselves: quieted down, thoughtfully observed some massive changes in their native city and in the world at large, considered their place in it all, and then took to the hills — quite literally — to get it all down on tape.

We Are Undone, out this week on ATO Records, is the dusty, perhaps more world-weary-than-ever result. Recorded at Panoramic House Studios, in the scenic, wooded expanse above Stinson Beach, the album marks a handful of firsts for the band. It's the guys' first time working with engineer Karl Derfler, best known for crafting the sonic atmosphere around Tom Waits' trademark growl. It's also the first time, says Stephens, that the duo wound up doing the majority of writing and shaping songs in the studio, as opposed to on the road.

"For our first three records, we were just on tour constantly," Stephens explains in a recent phone call, as he walks his dog in a San Francisco park near his mother's house. "So as soon as we had a new song, we would just play it a lot. This time, a lot more of the songs were worked out on the spot as we were recording, which for us was really refreshing."

Stephens and Vogel stayed at the studio (whose non-recording rooms basically make up a vacation house) for the entire month of the recording process, and the salt of the sea clearly crept into their songwriting — as did an undeniably Waits-esque dust, tinges of hopelessness and romanticism in equal measure. (It's arguable that the duo traded in some of its sharper punk-blues ethos for this dust; whether you view that trade as a positive or negative is, obviously, rather subjective.) Regardless: "I was getting up really early to work on lyrics, and listening to a lot of old British ballads from the '30s and '40s, and something about being out in a beautiful place, listening to these sort of simple songs that really get to a central nerve in a beautiful way — there was definitely some of that [influencing] me lyrically," says Stephens. "It's in the hills overlooking the beach, and you could definitely hear the ocean, feel the ocean."

Evidently, the distance provided some perspective on the perils of city life, as well. Consumerism, income inequality, and America's pathological drive for wealth at all costs make up the cloaked figure, says Stephens, at which the band casts a nervous side-eye on many of these tracks.

"These words are so weighted, because they seem like you're being so negative ... but in some ways I feel like the things that are happening right now are unprecedented, and it's very frightening to me," Stephens says of the themes he approached in the record's title track. "Unfettered capitalism is what I tried to direct some of the songs toward — this notion that we're constantly progressing toward somewhere but we have no objective, no destination in mind. The idea that we need to keep growing and consuming more at all times. There are some serious repercussions to that that we're seeing, and I have trouble not writing about that."

These observations are manyfold: For a San Francisco native (though Stephens now lives in Oakland), there are shades of sadness about the music scene losing its spark and verve. "I feel very grateful that I got to witness and be a part of a really vibrant music scene here, which had been going on for decades — I feel like we caught the tail end of it," he says. "But it is sad to me that a lot of the house parties, the scene we were a part of, is pretty much dried up, hopefully only temporarily." And then there are the broader issues that keep Stephens up at night: "The notion that we don't know if we're gonna have winters anymore? That's a terrifying thought. I'm walking around today and it's beautiful out, actually hot, and it depresses the hell out of me."

Don't expect the band — which kicks off a world tour this week with three shows at home, Feb. 5 at Leo's in Oakland, and Feb. 6 and 7 at the Chapel and Great American Music Hall — to start bludgeoning listeners over the head with its politics, though. Nor are the two concerned with the proverbial "blowing up," whatever that means for an indie-rock band in 2015.

"What our music hopefully does is give people a sense of relief from their lives," says Stephens. "When you're disburdened for a few hours at a show, it can have a great effect — I've certainly experienced it myself at shows ... so as long as it's affecting people's lives in a positive way? I'll probably keep doing it."

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About The Author

Emma Silvers

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Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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