All the Punks Are Domesticated: A Chat with Rock 'n' Roll Disruptor Ron Gallo
There's a fine line between optimism and crushing nihilism, and it's a border that courses through Ron Gallo's latest album Foreground Music, a near 35-minute venture of doomy, angst-ridden garage punk or in Gallo's own words, what an existential crisis would sound like if it could also be fun. To dive deeper into the new album, we caught up with Gallo to discuss how his ever-evolving style is uncategorizable, bringing humor to tough topics, and exposing the cracks in society, while combating against the seeming pointlessness to it all.
Since releasing 2017's Heavy Meta, the Philly-based rocker Ron Gallo has traversed through various styles and concepts over the last few years flirting with oddball garage punk, breezy avant-pop, and even jazz poetry. Across his latest album Foreground Music, released earlier this month on Kill Rock Stars, Gallo gravitated towards blending every styling he's done while rallying against the many issues that were brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Led by his usual tongue-in-cheek commentary, Gallo takes aim at everyone and everything — the developers turning neighborhoods into unremarkable Airbnb advertisements, corporate overlords deciding how much music costs, and extremists hellbent on bringing forth an apocalypse of racial and civil destruction. Despite the chaos, the result is a very timely American album both musically and in the sense that it reflects the sort of person who begs for collective action and gets laughed at by cynics on the left and fear mongers on the right. Gallo's consistent theme across the album is to confront, disrupt, and sometimes even confuse people into a sense of awareness. The more rollicking numbers like "Entitled Man" and the title track throw Gallo's scratchy, Lou Reed-esque rambles into a treasure trove of fuzzed-out guitar storms, while the more reflective, dirge-like epics "Vanity March" and "Big Truck Energy" are primal meditations that drift perfectly between roughness and trained-control.
To dive deeper into the new album, we caught up with Gallo to discuss how his ever-evolving style is uncategorizable, bringing humor to tough topics, and exposing the cracks in society, while combating against the seeming pointlessness to it all.
Paperface Zine: Aside from just playing at this year's SXSW, what have you been up to lately and where are you based now?
Ron Gallo: Lately, I've been painting a lot of walls and things in my house and cleaning out my basement, watching a lot of mindless television, eating three meals a day, washing lots of dishes. Currently living in Fishtown, Philadelphia, my block is one big construction zone. Really wild and romantic indie rock lifestyle.
PZ: Each of your records have been a constant evolution for you from the oddball garage-punk on Stardust Birthday Party to the breezy avant-pop on Peacemeal. Tell us a bit about your background and where've you come from musically. Who are some of your musical heroes?
RG: I work in phases. I usually get really into something and milk it for that period of time then move onto something else. Always chasing whatever feels genuine at the time, aka myself through music. I took three guitar lessons in my life then just started teaching myself and using guitar mostly as a songwriting tool. I started my first bands and actually playing shows in high school in the South Jersey hardcore/punk scene. I was in a straight edge group called Evesham PRIDE that put on shows at VFW's, bowling alleys, batting cages in the area. My first three bands were terrible, so I decided then to be the songwriter and singer in the band. When I went to college, I went on a deep dive into American music history/roots music and then kind of worked my way forward. The people that have stuck with me consistently through all the phases — Iggy Pop, MF Doom, John Coltrane, Talking Heads, Mahalia Jackson, Jeff Buckley to name a few.
PZ: While your songwriting has always been loaded with troublesome lyricism and worrisome observations on society, it's all been very tongue-in-cheek. Is it therapeutic in a way to have fun while also bringing awareness to topics that actually need to be talked about?
RG: Yeah, I think it makes all the heaviness way more digestible if you can find a way to laugh at it and maybe there is something wrong with me, but I really think there is at least some humor in 99% of things. Even the darkest things can at least be delivered in a light way and that's the space I live in. I think music is purely a vehicle for the message at this point and can't be justified without contributing in some way to move things forward, but at the same time I do not take myself or life seriously at all so that's where that comes from. The state of the world can come with a sense of overwhelming hopelessness sometimes and people don't need to just relive that or be reminded through music, we need a way out and that way out to me is finding a way to look at it head on and laugh at it. To not be afraid of it.
PZ: What was it first like transitioning from fronting the folkish blues band Toy Soldiers to settling into a solo career? What's been the progression like from your debut LP Ronny now to your latest album Foreground Music?
RG: I'm all about build up and destroy. I think that's how to stay honest and engaged. With that band (which lasted for five years and went through a million evolutions), it got to a point where it just didn't resonate any longer with who I was or where I wanted to go. In a band context, it's hard to have total freedom to evolve, but going into a "solo" project it can just be whatever I am at any given moment and it can't break up, I can just die. It's like committing to yourself. It was a bit scary at first because we started doing some cool things right when I called it off, but ultimately I am glad I did — I knew there was more to it. I suggest everyone take those leap of faiths based on a feeling rather than stay comfortable — I think it always works out. The Ronny album being a kind of joke weirdo country album was a basement recording project I did with my friend Reed [Kendall] that kind of paved the way for a solo project and then life kind of crumbled shortly thereafter and I morphed into this intense, frustrated with humanity person and started creating from that place and that's when I feel like I found my purpose with music. I realized I've always been that person that gets off on being disruptive and constructively confrontational. I feel like Foreground Music ties together everything I've ever done.
"I realized I've always been that person that gets off on being disruptive and constructively confrontational. I feel like Foreground Music ties together everything I've ever done."
PZ: I totally agree, this new album is a roaring attack of your familiar fuzzed-out riffing, post-punk poetry, and swelling eclecticism that's been present on all of your albums. How did that record come together and what were the session like?
RG: It started on a day off on tour in October '21 at 1809 Studios in Upstate New York, actually right after we played in Rochester. We stayed in a studio and recorded some songs live. Got home and asked myself "what justifies a 'guy' with a 'guitar' even making an album in 2021?" Started by going back to some older songs that never got properly recorded — "Entitled Man" being one of them. Started to find the answer by focusing on the collective experience we've all been having and using myself as the test subject. There is a whole new era of problems humanity is facing and ranges of emotions and anxieties we are dealing with so that's what I need to focus on. And through that I remembered the point and it felt genuine again. Very similar to the mindset I had when I recorded Heavy Meta. From there, it sort of unfolded and we recorded them in batches — drums at our drummer's studio nearby then the rest at the home studio.
PZ: Thematically, you take aim at everyone and everything including male entitlement, the age of anxiety, xenophobia, the dread of future generations, the corporate greed of tech developers, etc. I was also wondering if social media impacted the album's creation and songwriting process.
RG: Social media has impacted the album in the sense that it's ruining my brain and making me more anxious and disconnected and giving everyone a warped sense of reality and that probably helped fuel the general sense of anxiety, fury and dread behind the album. There's specific references to it throughout the album too, especially on the title track when I say, "I'm so sorry I missed todays daily comparison, I, like, literally died from embarrassment."
PZ: What do you want fans to mainly take away from this new record?
RG: To feel seen in their anxiety, psychosis, and existential dread. To feel empowered or unafraid to confront the things that don't serve them or the collective world. And to have a good time and laugh at themselves while doing all of that.
PZ: Were there any songs that turned out way different than initially planned?
RG: "At Least I'm Dancing" and "Can My Flowers Even Grow Here" were completely revamped from the demo. Took them from a fully-produced demo back down to just chords and lyrics and built them back up and they turned out completely differently and more in tune with the rest I think.
RG: How did you get connected with Kill Rock Stars for the new release?
PZ: After many months of shopping the record, they swooped in at the last minute and saved me from the wreckage of the music industry. Found out later that my former label had shared it with them which I did not expect. Thank you KRS, it's an honor to be a part of this label with such integrity, similar ethos, and that has put out some very important records in my life.
PZ: Your cover designs are always so vibrant. How did this new one come about?
RG: I had two cover photo ideas and couldn't decide which should be the one so I used both. Cover #1 is me sitting on a chair with the orange notebook I wrote a lot of these songs in wearing big headphones in front of a huge construction site and bulldozer on my street that has disrupted my life and the recording process for the last year. Really captures the vibe — trying to exist and find peace amidst the chaos. Cover #2 — a month or so ago a car crashed into the foundation of a different construction site in my neighborhood and it became this ridiculous tourist attraction for a few days. So, I went and took a photo with it. Also, really captures the vibe.
PZ: A lot of these visuals really captured the themes on the new album. What was it like putting together the music video for the high energy title track?
RG: Ryan Bender, one of the directors, called me one day and told me this idea he had for a music video where a person's entire house gets robbed while they are in a VR world. Thought it was perfect so he flew into Philly and we shot the VR game footage and then he and other director Jordan M. Hahn shot the rest out in Los Angeles.
PZ: Let's backtrack now. Your previous album, Peacemeal, was a reinvention of sorts that flirted with outsider pop, jazz poetry, and left-field hip hop. What was it like putting that one together with your wife Chiara [D'Anzieri] and with additional touches from legendary producer Ben H. Allen? And was its pure pop bliss a reaction particularly to the pandemic? Even with all the off-kilter fuzzy backdrops, I felt that record was unafraid to be skeptical and insightful.
RG: Yeah that record was me seeking comfort during those early pandemic days — I found myself gravitating towards nostalgia and going back to '90s R&B and hip hop I listened to as a kid, "feel-good" at-home music, lots of jazz, and Peacemeal was the result from all of that. It was a full experiment to try out things I hadn't tried before. Not sure it worked, but it got me through those early pandemic days for sure. We were supposed to physically go to Atlanta to work with Ben on March 16th, 2020, but that was basically Tom Hanks/NBA day where the pandemic became real so we called it off and worked on it remotely.
PZ: That record also came with an EP of remixes from Sports, Caroline Rose, and Boyo. How did that come about and was that first time your songs have ever been remixed? I remember you doing a remix of MF Doo's classic "Gazzillion Ear."
RG: We got the remix idea because it was a way to collaborate remotely and no one was on tour and had free time so we reached out to new and old friends whose music I love and respect and they were all down. Was first time ever collaborating in any way and being remixed and that MF DOOM remix was the first one I ever did.
PZ: Following the recent SXSW shows, you will be embarking on a North American and European spring tour. What are you looking forward getting back on the road? Any good skate spots? Also, who will be part of your live band?
RG: Real life exchange of band and audience in a room to remember that not all is futile like the internet has convinced me. Any well-paved plate surface is a good skate spot to me. I'm a flat ground cruiser these days because it would be really dumb to break a bone right now. I know Chiara will be on bass, Josh Aaron will be behind the drum kit, and we got Kyle Sparkman on guitar.
PZ: Moving forward following the tour, what will be next for you?
RG: Full world takeover, sell out MSG, headline Coachella, become the face of Whole Foods and Amazon (the rainforest and the company), buy all of my friends unsolicited obnoxious sports cars, be forced to run for president, accept the role then fake my own death and appoint my Vice President Amanda Gorman then go back to painting walls, washing dishes, and cleaning my house.
Foreground Music is out now on Kill Rock Stars.