Keeping watch

Forget the destination — Vigilantes of Love leader Bill Mallonee savors the journey. He’s sung about it on major record labels — and on his own, credit-card-financed label. And he lives it, performing his passionate, personal music close to 200 nights a year — and that’s for almost 10 years now.

Today, he’s on the road again, supporting the group’s debut album for Nashville’s Compass Records, titled Audible Sigh (2000).

“It’s good work if you can get it,” he jokes while driving between gigs in Colorado. “It’s pretty inexpensive therapy.”

VoL sprang from the Athens, Ga., music scene — part of the second wave, a decade after the B-52s and R.E.M. put the town on the map.

“There were no expectations then. … It was very much an anti-scene sort of vibe going on, where you just took your licks, got in a van and tried to make it work,” he recalls. “If you happened to get a record or two out of it, that was considered to be a good thing. Everybody just came home and worked their day jobs, and fortunately we haven’t had to do much of that.”

Mallonee graduated from the University of Georgia in Athens and began working with emotionally disturbed youth in a program funded by the state. Drumming was his hobby then, and he taught himself to play guitar at the age of 30. “I’d been playing drums in a few previous Athens rock bands, nobody of any real import. But I started playing guitar, and it felt like all of a sudden a floodgate of stuff came out,” he remembers.

Calling his band Vigilantes of Love, Mallonee began scraping together funds to put out Driving the Nails (1991) and Killing Floor (1992). VoL’s first big break came when they were signed to the Capricorn label in 1994. “We were sort of a critics’ darling band when we got on Capricorn, getting all these great reviews. But due to a number of variables, it became like a critics’ darling band that didn’t sell well at Soundscan.”

Nevertheless, their next three albums won them a faithful following across the country.

“That music had a stronger kind of blues influence than what I’m doing now. We made more radio-friendly stuff for Capricorn, where I think what we’re doing now is a little bit more of a … garage sound — [and] not necessarily a dirty garage. Our garage is a little cleaner.”

Released from Capricorn, they were pressed to finance the next record with Bill’s plastic, calling their homespun label Meat Market. “We just whipped out the credit card and did Roof of the Sky (1998), went to England six months later and recorded Cross the Big Pond (1999), and came back and released Live at the 40 Watt (1999). Over those three records, we definitely moved into the Americana folk/rock kind of thing,” he continues.

“We were playing with a pedal-steel player and a mandolin player for a while, so it got tagged a little bit like country/alt, but we’re all white suburban kids who grew up with some perks here and there. Hard to call it authentic country/alt because we didn’t ride rails, and we didn’t bale cotton, and we didn’t do time in jail,” he stresses.

The next record would ultimately turn into Audible Sigh. Pioneer Records signed the band and brought in guitarist/singer/songwriter Buddy Miller to produce VoL late in 1998.

Unfortunately, the label went bankrupt before the record came out.

“They gave us the record to shop, which kind of surprised everybody. After that we wound up on Compass,” the frontman reports. “Compass seems to cater to the singer/songwriter thing, and our thing is more of an organic band. I do the writing, but as opposed to being supported by a group of session cats, these are guys that I live and work with 365. And I think that shows up on tape. You hear it. It sounds more like a band doing its thing, going to work.”

Along with Mallonee, the band is made up of bassist Jacob Bradley, drummer Kevin Heuer, and Asheville’s Doug Nissley on bass and mandolin.

The band adheres to a breakneck touring schedule whether or not a label superstructure lends support. They’ve managed to sell more than 12,000 records out of their van since breaking with Capricorn, according to the undaunted Mallonee.

“The themes in our music are about loss, and trying to find some sense of significance and meaning,” he explains. “I think it comes up on the hope side of the coin, on the affirmation side of the coin. But it’s not an easy affirmation, and that stuff tends to show up in the songs a lot. They’re not necessarily road songs, but the road definitely becomes a bigger metaphor.”

One of VoL’s records, a compilation released in ’96, was marketed to Christian stores, and Mallonee was for a time courted by Christian organizations catering to a youthful market. This unlikely alliance has apparently ended.

“We smoke too many cigars and drink too much beer, and we’re unashamed about it,” he declares. “I’m a Christian, I wouldn’t steer you wrong on that. But I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to sell you on my position. We don’t have smoke machines and we don’t play to backing tracks — all that kind of cheesy stuff out of Nashville. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people that engage their faith that way in the marketplace, but personally it seems like whenever you take something that’s precious, like faith, and a belief system like Christianity, and start making it a commercial item, you cheapen the very thing you’re trying to sell. You trivialize it. That’s why I’ve sort of stayed out of it.”

Understandably, Mallonee is wary of VoL becoming a band whose records can only be had at the Christian bookstores.

“The world that’s hurting and broken and in need of some kind of hope and redemption doesn’t understand what’s going on over there,” he says. “Our thing has been more in the trenches, a kind of Mother Teresa-style thing, where you get your hands dirty and you say your piece, not too loud and long and not too splashy, and just let the chips fall. My faith is very much the mainspring of my life, but I think there’s a danger with throwing a commercial sort of umbrella over that very thing that makes you strong and hopeful.”

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