Best of 2014: Digging for Transcendence w/ Bill Mallonee

Bill Mallonee & The Darkling Planes – Winnowing is one of our favorite records of 2014. Remarkably concise, elegant and beautiful, the album is a master work from a master craftsman. To have an opportunity to hear directly from Mallonee is a privilege and an honor, so I figured we’d give you the whole exchange, only edited for typos. Also, if you aren’t familiar with Mallonee’s back catalog, let me encourage you to head over to his bandcamp page and buy the whole thing.

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Ryan: A lot of stories written about you focus (rightfully so) on your songwriting process but one aspect of your career that has always floored me are the amazing guitar tones you coax out of wire and tubes. This latest record is no exception, there are some fantastic electric guitar parts all over Winnowing. Do you get as much satisfaction from putting together the sonic elements of a song as you do crafting the lyrics and melodies?

 

Bill: Absolutely. I just go with what I have and use my ears a great deal. I love constructing guitar parts. Over the last few years, I think I’ve really learned, stumbled upon “how” to make melody lines and guitar harmonies “converse” with the vocal delivery. I think Winnowing is a good example of that sort of interplay tween electric, acoustic and vocal.

My gear is very simple, both the electric and the acoustic side of things.

 

I’m sure my old record collection informs what I think are great tones. 

 

As far as the song itself goes?

 

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I think a good song is a good marriage between a bed-rock melodic chord structure, engaging lyrics, sonic textures and above all: the delivery of those lyrics.

The trick? Never over think it. That’s my angle anyway.

I’m 60 some albums into this songwriter’s life now. You learn to let one idea shine in a song and then support it with the proper filigree, you know?

There’s no one music that “for everybody.” As harsh as this sounds: The digital medium has pretty much insured that the pond is over-stocked; full of hacks, weekenders and dilatantes. Makes it harder to find the good stuff, I think. I’ve stopped listen to popular music years ago, mostly because I wanted what I bring to be as original as possible.

Me? I’m betting on “Tried & True.”

Hopefully, my classroom, over 25 years or recording and touring, has a Tried & True “take” on things.

That’s all I try and bring.

Are there specific guitars/amps that inspire certain songs? On a song like “Locust Years” from Slow Dark Train, you can hear the demo, which already sounds great on its own, take on a whole new life when you get to the album version as a result of those spiked-punch guitars and the fuzz bassline.

 

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I’m a huge Neil Young fan. Although his guitar sound is massive, his sound source is usually not.

Usually nothing more than some old Fender Deluxe tube amp, say 12-15 watts … Of course, when he’s playing “live,” he mic’s that small sound source and literally runs it into another PA on stage and then into the house PA.

But the origin of his tones is great guitars into old Fender tweed amps. That’s a sound I love to work with.

I think I get at that fairly regularly. Amber Waves (2013) and The Power & The Glory (2012) are both quite nice representations of that “sound.”

Amp world? Small Fender amps 10-35 watts. On occasion, I’ll use a VOX AC-30 or  a 100-watt Fender Twin for the cleaner sounds required from a jangle-y Rickenbacker or a Telecaster part, but 90% of the time it’s small Fender Tube amps.

Pedals? I know nothing about boutique pedals. I hear there are some fantastic ones out there. I really can’t afford them. I do have a few “go-to” pedals that do the job, but I’m surprisingly pedal-free.

To me it’s always about the song. Whatever serves the song and of course the delivery of good lyrics.

Is Winnowing the first time you’ve played all the drums and bass on an album?

Oh, no. I’ve played drums since I was 12 years old … Bass is newer, but even there I’ve played that over the last few WPA installments.

I played drums with a few early Athens, Ga bands. Keep it simple. Charlie Watts & Ringo, you know?

0000911878_36With everything about being an artist democratized, you have more direct access to fans, but there are no longer the same gatekeepers filtering the good from the mediocre (or even the terrible). So, in a way the digital medium is both blessing and curse? Do you think the record labels, at least conceptually, did a good job of providing the deserving musicians access to a wider audience?

Yes, it is a blessing and a curse. I am grateful that I have such access to folk’s ears.

And there are some incredibly talented artists “out there” these days.

I suspect that they’d be “discovered” no matter what.

But, there are also many artists who seem to have nothing much to say. And musically they so “paint-by-numbers’ that it holds no interest for me. That means the pond is quite over-stocked. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed on the road. There’s no substitute for that intimate “live” show…it’s how I’ve managed to make new friends and fans.

Still, every generation will champion “their” particular artists as they should.

That’s all part of pop cultural identity.

Still, I’ll offer 3 somewhat forgotten thoughts to your readership:

1. Bad bands and artists rarely made it to a 2nd of 3rd album. The people knew crap when they heard it. This is pre-digital. One had to be able to play in the studio, deliver the take and play it “live” without the aid of tracks being flown in to bolster a band’s sound. Also there was no such thing as auto-tune in real time…You either hit the notes or you didn’t.

If you or band weren’t able to deliver then you were quickly shown to the sidelines.

2. Gone is the role of the A&R man (It stands for Artist & Repertoire);

It was he or she who typically brought an artist to a major label when he or she thought that artist was ready to go big. Being “ready”  usually meant years of hard work, constant touring and song crafting by the artist well before they were in a position to turn any heads.

That A&R role is gone now, abolished. In it’s place is the “anyone can do this” attitude that the digital age has “bestowed” upon us. I think that’s a fallacy.

And it results ( I believe) in a general lack of creativity….

3. There has also been the death of that gatekeeper known as the educated rock journalist.

Knowledgeable people who more or less guaranteed that “good” music was at least noted. That was the point of the informed rock journalist.

Follow me here: We live in a day and age where anyone with a computer has the technology that allows one to fashion something he/she thinks is a real record in his/her bedroom. It “corrects” mistakes, it auto-tunes bad pitch in real time.

It even gives you all the sonic “discoveries” that took producers like George Martin years to perfect … all within easy access within a chip.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with making records in one’s bedroom.

But with the loss of real journalists who knew rock and roll, we’re left with no one informed to listen to, scrutinize and render a judgement on the value of such offerings; there is no one to judge the value of the art.

That aspect is gone now.

It has often been replaced by self-appointed hipster bloggers who’s musical roots and references run about as deep as REM’s first album. (And I love REM); It’s often, it seems to me, to be no longer grounded in the streams and nuances that rock & roll drew from.

The journalistic “excavating” (which is what a real journalist ought to do for his/her public) is absent b/c it is without reference points in the past. I am very sorry this sounds harsh. But, today’s “journalism” often strikes me as an uneducated enclave of writers with a keyboard in front of them. Now, when I read someone’s blog/review, all I know is who his friend’s bands are.

On the new record, you continue to delve into themes of surrender and loss, finding hope in the midst of despair. Do you find, 20 years and 50 plus releases in, that you are more or less at peace with your humanity than when you started the journey?

I suppose so. Peace is a funny word, though. Peace is never a static thing.

I’d say there’s been something more like a resignation … punctuated with glimpses into something bigger than ourselves that make life beautiful, meaningful.

I think, underneath it all that Man is a mystic.

All great art seems to acknowledge that, strive to name it and reveal it I think.

On the personal level, I write to save myself. That’s it. No agendas here.

Sure, there are things I’d “bet the farm on.”

Peace & Joy … those things are fleeting, aren’t they? One has to go beyond & grasp the thing they point to. And I think that’s where all the great theologians, poets and writers go.They struggle to employ a nomenclature to describe this thing we call Life.

And so I think Faith and Courage are required to make sense of it all.

Everyday.It seems to me (at least as far as my journey has gone) that when we reach out for answers or mercy, opening our hearts to God (or whatever you understand Him/Her to be) it seems that we’ve been reached out to in advance.

We awaken to this thing called Grace. No displacing the need for faith, even if it’s a wavering faith.

As a writer, I’m never completely at peace with my humanity.

Like I said, when we speak of this mystery called “Life,” we know it is not static thing. We’re forced to grow, wrestle and strive to believe and make sense of it all…

The themes on Winnowing, just like all the records really, are about one person’s struggle to believe and affirm that Love (whether God’s Love of human love) has the last word when it comes to describing the reality we live in. That may not sound like the stuff of an engaging pop record, but I think it’s the only thing worth delving into.

Conclusions vacillate. And they vacillate because we’re all a curious mixture of faith, doubt, belief and unbelief. Learning to recognize this unfolding, moment-by-moment thing called Grace is what my work is about, I guess.

It comes wrapped up in that glorious Americana genre. It’s fractured, dusty, worn and I like to believe, “authentic.”

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I find it really inspiring that you are still on the road, both literally and metaphorically, searching out the mysteries of existence, relationships and faith. Have you ever felt any pressure, internally or externally, to write a “certain” type of song? Like a protest song or a love song or a “hit” song?
No, I never have …

I don’t think you can’t be all things to all people. I’ve had huge pop oriented albums, but never had the right label superstructures surrounding them to “break the band” to the next level … C’est la Vie, eh?

But, I’m still at it. I didn’t need some chart or labels “permission” to be an artist.

That makes me something of a “best kept secret.” Phrases like “cult following” start showing up when I’m written about.

It’s ok. I can live with that …

One just finds their voice and their particular strengths…and then stays at the plow; keeps writing, experimenting and creating work …

The road has been a teacher to me … It can be hard. My wife and I live in poverty, to tell the truth.

It’s a big club, though …

The road puts you in touch with the deepest heartaches and wildest joys that people can feel …

It’s why the next album I’m recording is something closer to a real folk album.

 

Was “Dover Beach” the first song you wrote for this project?

Yes, I think it was, actually … the lead off track … It sort of defines the terrain of the whole album.

 

You wrote about Winnowing being an Autumn record, can you expand on what you mean by that?

A few ideas here. 

The earth is going into her dormancy. Autumn of life is generally associated with wisdom that only time brings.
Winnowing feels like a record born of such hard won wizen-ness.
This record was a time for re-assessing, of holding things up to the light. Perhaps even letting go of certain thing you once believed were truths, but now seem to be flawed or at least incomplete.
The record is quite lush and beautiful, I think.
I spent a lot of time on the arrangements and mixes, sometimes doing 20-30 mixes of particular songs …
I still think the guitars are gorgeous on this. And also they have “teeth” where they’re suppose to.
But it still operates with a certain sparse-ness. Autumnal.
The basic instruments of rock & roll: guitars, bass drums, keyboards and voice…
Can never go wrong there.

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