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11 years and many labels later, Bill Mallonnee's Vigilantes of Love stick to music because they love it

By Andy Turner, July 2000

Buddy Miller compares Bill Mallonee's songwriting to Dylan's. But the main man behind the Vigilantes of Love doesn't see himself as anything as complicated as a singer-songwriter.

"I sort of make things up," he explains. "I'm like a kid on a rainy day, playing with glitter."

Nevertheless, one listen to "Audible Sigh," the roots rock band's latest release, and it's obvious this 42-year-old kid with the glitter has an awful lot of talent.

But making it so people could get that first listen has been the biggest challenge.

"Audible Sigh," originally recorded in late 1998 for Pioneer Records, wasn't released before the company called it quits. Then, a limited release was made available to curtail jacked-up sales of the record on EBay.

Finally, the CD had its proper release on Nashville's Compass Records in May. And this time the Internet had a positive affect on sales: "Audible Sigh" debuted at number five on Billboard's Top Internet Album Sales chart, an "indie-underground" effort sandwiched between -N Sync and Santana.

"I think the expectation was kind of building," Mallonee says. Despite a huge first week and the high chart position, the Internet chart is quite different from the regular Billboard album chart. You don't have to sell half a million records to chart high on it. In fact, Mallonee estimates the group sold about 600 that week.

It was a continuation of the interesting life of Mallonee and VoL, a group he formed in Athens, Ga. in 1990. Since that time, the group has released 11 albums (one "every 10 months"), recorded for more than half a dozen labels and undergone numerous lineup changes, leaving Mallonee the only original member.

The current lineup, Mallonee on guitar and lead vocals, Jacob Bradley on bass and drummer Kevin Heuer, has played together for about 2 1/2 years. His journeyman-like nature of changing labels and band members perhaps isn't a surprise for a guy who says he grew up a big baseball fan.

Mallonee was born in Martinsville, Va., but raised mainly in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his father worked as a chemist for Dow Chemical. His father took him to see the minor league Durham Bulls play in the early '70's, when the team was very minor league and didn't always attract large crowds.

But those players, unlike many today, didn't play for money, he says, and taught him an important lesson.

"You do it because you love it," Mallonee says. "It seems there's a certain degree of honor that's gone out of it."

He graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in history and afterwards remained in Athens to work as a teacher, instructing emotionally disturbed kids.

In the mid-'80's, he began drumming in various local bands, and by the later part of the decade, he was performing songs he had written in Athens' bands like Bed of Roses and the Cone Ponies. Mallonee said he was about 28 before he started writing seriously.

The songs helped to serve as "pep talks," he says. "I suffered debilitating depression from age 15 to 24, until my marriage," he said. "It just ran a bit of a cycle. I was able to develop a clinical approach to it. I was able to step outside myself and say, 'You're going down the tubes.'"

Mallonee's struggles and convictions are easy to spot on the new album, when he sings lines like "see the gutter it was once my home/but that was when I was all alone" on "Starry Eyed."

Or "Faith, she's a whistling trainÉrunning hard in the dark/hope is like a thing untamedÉgonna lay waste to your heart/love is a little bit of GodÉthere for all to know/love is the everlasting armsÉthat never do let go" on "Could Be A Lot Worse."

Miller produced the album. Mallonee says he and his wife have been friends with Miller and wife Julie for about six years. Mallonee had wanted to work with Buddy for some time.

"He's such a giant," Mallonee says. "He's a hero of mine. Finally, he had a window of time to work with me."

Julie lends backup vocals on "She Walks on Roses," "Starry Eyed" and "Nothing Like a Train." Emmylou Harris also sings backup on one song.

Mallonee says he's pleased with the results. "We had a lot of good first takes," he explains. "I think he helped us achieve a very organic and honest sound like the records he makes."

As for his musical tastes, he listens to everything from Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr.

Mallonee's introduction to country music came second-hand, through albums like Dylan's "Nashville Skyline."

He says while the first two Uncle Tupelo albums really struck a chord with him, he doesn't understand it when "smart-ass college kids" try to pull off being the real "spirit of country music."

"None of us picked cotton, rode the rails or spent time in Folsom Prison," Mallonee says.

Old country musicians played without a safety net, he says.

"Old school country artists made music for different reasons," he says. "They made music because it was their heart and soul, and they loved to do it."

The country-influenced music he likes shows "his or her take on it," he says. "The way it looks through their heart, their angle."

It's likely there'll be another VoL album before too long. Mallonee writes about 50 or 60 songs every year and admits that band loves to be in the studio. He provides an interesting description of the new music the band is working on: "sort of psychedelic, folk West CoastÉBuffalo Springfield harmoniesÉa post-punk, folk thing, with a few quiet moments thrown in."

He's makes music because he loves it. "It's crazy. I love it. I'm one of those dysfunctional people. It's good work if you can get it."