Bill Mallonee – Eternal vigilance
Spending even a few hours with Mallonee, you quickly get the sense he not only enjoys what others might consider contradictions, but cultivates them. He’s an evangelical Christian who once considered going to seminary and eagerly devours volumes of theologically oriented literature by the likes of Frederick Buechner, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. But he also thoroughly delights in downing a few pints of Guinness and smoking huge contraband Cuban cigars. And he will tell you in no uncertain terms that most contemporary Christian music is “crap,” and that he recoils from the way much of evangelical Christianity has represented itself in this country.
For such a complex guy, Mallonee’s back story is pretty simple. He was born in Martinsville, Virginia, and mainly grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, though because his dad was a chemist in the textile industry he “moved all over and never landed anywhere for very long.”
After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in history, Mallonee stuck around Athens and eventually got a job teaching emotionally disturbed kids alongside his wife (who has remained in that field). “We’d come home at night and compare notes about how we were training the ax murderers of the future,” he says with a laugh.
Eventually, Mallonee began performing some of the songs he was writing with local bands such as the Cone Ponies and Bed Of Roses. “When I was first getting back into music, my wife and I would go out and listen to R.E.M.,” he recalls. “That was before they even had a record deal. They really were a huge influence on me. Michael’s vocals have a melodic sense that’s always struck a chord with me.”
Mallonee says Vigilantes Of Love was something he quickly appropriated from the New Order song “Love Vigilante” when he suddenly got a gig one night and needed a band name. The first VOL album, Jugular, came out in 1990, evincing a breakneck acoustic style that’s been referred to as “folk songs on speed.”
“The funny thing about that record is that we just ran off like 500 cassette tapes,” Mallonee says. “It was a direct reaction to what I call the beer politic in Athens. There was definitely a great music scene, but as it got bigger, it began to get more and more about putting 500 hard-drinking frat boys in a club. And we couldn’t do that on a Friday night. So my keyboard player at the time, Mark Hall, who was classically trained, bought an accordion, and we just started playing on the side. Just acoustic guitar and accordion, that’s all we had.”
The second Vigilantes record, Driving The Nails, which came out in 1991, is not among Mallonee’s favorites. But even its title points toward the kind of energy he would generate with what was destined to become a constantly shifting cast of players. Released the following year, Killing Floor was the album that brought VOL (which now essentially consisted of Mallonee and multi-instrumentalist Billy Holmes) to much wider attention.
The fact that it was produced by Peter Buck and Mark Heard was certainly a big part of the initial attraction. And in a sense the two perfectly defined the two sides of VOL. The late Heard (who died in 1992) was a Christian music iconoclast, while Buck’s band R.E.M. drew the creative blueprint for much of what became known as alternative music. But in the end it was Mallonee’s collection of contemplative lyrics and lilting mandolin and accordion-driven melodies that endured.
In 1994, Welcome To Struggleville marked both VOL’s debut on Capricorn Records and the beginning of the more muscular roots-rock sound Mallonee would consolidate on successive recordings. The relationship with the label lasted for two more albums, 1995’s Blister Soul and 1997’s Slow Dark Train (a 1996 compilation on Warner Resound was an attempt to market VOL to the Christian music audience).
“I think Capricorn was pretty nurturing,” Mallonee says. “But they didn’t really know what to do with us. The protocol was make a record, jump in the van and do 160-180 dates a year, just getting into that grind. We became a critic’s darling kind of band, I think. We just couldn’t sell records. We sold no more than 15,000 records a year and it took 180 dates to do that, which to me is a formula for demoralization.”
Over the past few years, Mallonee has managed to make another series of shoestring recordings he refers to as “credit card albums,” because that’s the way they were financed. Each of them — ‘Cross The Big Pond, Live At The 40 Watt and To The Roof Of The Sky –chronicles a new batch of songs and further evolution of the VOL lineup.