I was 14, holding a basketball under my arm, mouth agape in a vacant stare, soles of my shoes melting on a hot summer sidewalk. Ron Gallo pulled up in a shredded utility van, said "hi" and introduced himself. He opened the trunk and after some digging around pulled out Whisper Down the Lane, The Toy Soldiers' first album, and handed it to me. Produced at Drexel University, the CD was raw and unpolished but the songs were catchy, harkening back to a bygone era of American roots music. Years later in 2013, Ron's "[musical] training wheels" released their second and final album, The Maybe Boys, to positive critical reception but not much popular success. During their 8-year stint, The Toy Soldiers were comprised of a rotating cast of musicians. The Philly band constantly played shows and was lauded in several local publications but following a particularly stressful and grueling tour, Ron decided to quit the band and go it alone.
His solo album, Heavy Meta, was released this February and along with it came Gallo's first contact with mainstream success. In a stark departure from his Americana roots, the album is all boiled frustration and industrial rage. It's a screaming, spitting, often not so pretty snapshot of Gallo's raw emotions and is fueled by his desire to cut through the noise and deliver an honest piece of art. I was lucky enough to interview him over a bowl of Japanese Curry, a bold pre-show choice, before his performance at the Bowery Ballroom.
Q: How did your time with Toy Soldiers shape your experience up to the recording of Heavy Meta?
A: I was just learning how to play music with people. I learned how to be a slightly better musician, how to tour, how book shows out of town. It was done in a lot of different phases with a lot of different people coming in and out of the band. Towards the end I felt like it had really run its course. I didn't really identify with the music or the name anymore so I decided to change it up.
Q: Maybe I'm wrong but it seems like you're still embracing your Americana roots, not sonically but more in a post-modern sense. You're trying to portray what being an American is now. Can you speak to that?
A: I don't really like the term Americana, I feel like it's taken on a bad connotation. People think of fucking Mumford and Sons, really watered-down white guys with beards playing acoustic guitars and singing about trains and whiskey. That's got nothing to do with American roots music and nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with what's going on right now. I feel pretty brushed-up on American roots music from my time with Toy Soldiers and I still have that in me but now I want to embrace my freakish, fuzzed-out, punk rock side.
Q: Did you feel like The Toy Soldiers were getting dangerously close to the Americana cliché you just described?
A: I never really thought we ever became a cliché, I was just getting into different stuff and I wanted put all of myself into something. I feel like I never did that with Toy Soldiers stylistically. When it came time to go out on my own, I had the ability to reinvent.
Q: Did something spur on the jump to a solo career or did it happen over time?
A: We did a really long tour and when we finished everyone was burnt out. I went out west to do a solo tour and started to feel that, yes I put 8-years into this band but I'm not happy doing it anymore. I wanted to do something fulfilling that was more me.
Q: Let's move onto Heavy Meta. What was your vision for it going in and did you fulfill that? How do you feel about the album?
A: There wasn't much of a vision going into it. Joe and I just recorded a few songs and over the course of 2 years or so, we (Gallo, Joe Bisirri and Dylan Sevey) sort of evolved into a power trio. The album wasn't really premeditated at all but the next thing I knew there was something cohesive happening both lyrically and sonically.
Q: Since your music is firmly in the art camp, I'd love to get your take on popular music and why so much great stuff goes unnoticed.
A: I think today's sensory overload of fast food, the Internet and reality TV is dulling us. It's making people feel less and making people think less. People are only picking up what they've been given. They aren't digging too deep or thinking too much. It's interesting because I think this sort of complacency is what leads to crisis eventually. A lot of people are upset about the political climate right now but that's what happens when a lot of people are tuned out. This is the kind of oblivion that leads people to say 'Oh my god what have we done? We need to wake up!' But I think it's partly how this country works that brings people to that place of just being numb and mindless, unfortunately.
Q: This is coming straight from your website's bio: You say you exist in a state where 'you're simultaneously above the illusion but also an active participant' in it. The album is called Heavy Meta and is decidedly post-modern so I'd like to ask how you think irony functions in art today.
A: Irony is kind of a slippery slope. Once you get on board with that mindset and you think you're separate from something, you sort of start to think of yourself as an all seeing eye. It's all a joke and you see the absurdity in everything. I think it's an important thing to go through but you have to maintain the self-awareness to know that you're never really above anything. You have to realize you're a part of the thing you make fun of. That's the line. Being self-aware is just realizing you buy into bullshit just as much as everyone else. If you want to go off the grid and live in a tent without electricity, that's cool and very authentic of you but no one wants to do that. People just want to criticize each other for not doing it.
Q: I really love the last track on the album: All The Punks Are Domesticated. Do you think there's a sort uncoolness nowadays attached to caring passionately about something?
A: Yeah, there's definitely a feeling that apathy is cool now. I think that's an attitude that a lot of people live with but I think that's just as much bull shit as anything else. It's just an alternate version of the same complacency that leads to disaster. For me it's about being okay with who you are, being okay with your intensity and being okay with giving a shit about something. It's cool to be yourself. Any time you compromise that, it's extremely uncool. People end up trying really hard to pretend they don't care.
Q: So what do you care about?
A: I care about the individual. I think people need give themselves more credit and need to empower themselves. Like I was saying before, I think American society is designed to make the individual feel small and helpless and to make people feel that they need some higher power to define worth for them. More so than anything else, I care about people realizing their inherent, limitless value. I want to use my platform to reach people in that way. I want to use my music as an art form rather than as entertainment.
Q: What do you think the distinction between art and entertainment is?
A: I don't think our goal is necessarily to create a show environment where people dance and party and get wasted. Maybe there are elements of that and maybe people can have a good time but it can also make people feel uncomfortable or weird or feel like it's okay to be themselves. The things we're singing and talking about, if people listen to the words, aren't necessarily celebratory. They're written for people to look inward and to think. The difference is, entertainment is escapism and art is inward looking. It's about facing things.
Q: Who do you think is doing this today?
A: I think a lot of comedians are really killing it in the commentary department. Louis CK. Hannibal Burress. I take a lot from them.
Q: So now that you're approaching fame, how do you feel?
A: It's really cool to feel the awareness for the first time in 10 years of making music. There are people in cities we've never been to saying we love your videos, we love your record and it's like 'what is happening?' I'd be happy if people find something in it and take something from it. If we could do that but not have it become to overwhelming of a thing, I'd be happy.
Q: Do you have any desire for fame?
A: No. If there was a way to do this and make a living but remain anonymous… Daft Punk and MF Doom did it right because no one knows who they are.
Q: Is the reason you don't want fame because you like your anonymity or are you worried? By in large things that are super popular are usually trite. Are you scared that by some transitive property, becoming famous might ruin your art?
A: I don't think so. I think we're always going to make things that are true to ourselves. If they want to put some of our music, on the radio or it becomes a big thing, it's going to become a big thing as it is. It's never going to be compromised for the sake of reaching more people. Even with our record, the label even said 'yeah this isn't radio' music but it's weird because radio has been such a huge a part of promoting the album. A lot of bands make music with the intent of getting on the radio and we did nothing of the sorts. It's a kind of a weird bonus that we're getting airplay.
Q: So where are you getting airplay?
A: A lot of the traction started with smaller stations like XPN but now we're getting time with bigger stations. We actually have a studio session with 104.5 in Philly tomorrow. They've been playing Young Lady you're Scaring Me a lot. It's unfortunate because it's not relevant.
Q: It seems like that's the single. Why isn't it relevant?
A: I'm fine if it helps me get a platform. If a certain song that's maybe not the most substantial to your message is what gives you the platform, next time you come out, you'll have a platform to speak to.
Q: In most creative pursuits, it's hard to love what you've made after you've finished it. If you were going to honestly judge Heavy Meta, did it come out the way you wanted it to?
A: Surprisingly I'm still really happy with it. The record still holds up and I continue to play the songs live. I'm not bored of them yet. I think we did Heavy Meta the way Heavy Meta was meant to be done. It's cool because when we make the next one, there will be a whole new pallet of things to work from.
Q: If you had to distill the message of Heavy Meta down to one thing, what do you want people to feel?
A: I want people to feel empowered. I want people think of themselves and believe that they have a voice. They mean everything in this world. I want to get people to question certain things. I don't want them to say 'oh that's just how it is'. I want them to challenge themselves, to push themselves a little bit. I want people to live up to their potential.
After the interview and a discussion with the manager, Ron and I went into the Bowery Ballroom. The show was revelatory. In a counterintuitive move, they opened with Young Lady You're Scaring Me. Despite starting with their single, Ron's spectral wailing and aggressive, almost schizoid guitar playing kept the energy level maxed out for the entire set. They weren't headlining. It didn't matter. The room was packed and there wasn't a person there who wasn't enthralled by the bizarre spectacle, the screeching and thrashing of true artistic expression. It's not enough to listen to the record on Spotify. Ron Gallo needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the level of intensity he brings to his music. He is a rarity. In a world dominated by fads, he dares to be authentic. He'll challenge you to look inward and he's unapologetic if you don't like what you see. Ron Gallo believes that All of The Punks are Domesticated and compared to him, they certainly are.