The Angry Rock Side: Two Gallants’ Adam Stephens

It’s been over two years since Two Gallants came around. Lifelong friends Adam Stephens (guitar, vocals) and Tyson Vogel (drums) needed some time apart; then Stephens suffered injuries in two separate car accidents. The punk-folk heroes recently reunited for a pair of sold-out hometown concerts in San Francisco and hit Neumos on Monday, June 27.

CA: You guys were ahead of the curve in your appreciation for the roots of American folk music. It’s almost like taking two years off allowed the rest of the music world to catch up to where you guys were two years ago.

Adam Stephens: I feel like initially the music we played was too caught up in tradition. All I listened to when we first started playing was traditional music. I was a purist to the point that I didn’t listen to anything else, like Bob Dylan once he had the band. I didn’t buy the electric shit. In some ways that helped, because it gave me a naivete towards what I was doing, because I came from one angle, songwriting-wise, from a purist’s standpoint. The way I look at it now, I’ve branched out. Going forward, I think we’re going to accentuate the angry rock side and not as much the wimpy folk side. Not that it’s a bad thing.

That part has probably been digested or ingrained to the point where, regardless of what you play, it’s going to be a part of you whatever you move on to.

Yeah, it’s kind of inescapable at this point.

So what have you been listening to recently?

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music and studying the theory right now, but I guess more contemporary stuff. I’ve been listening to the Zombies a lot. I’ve been listening to John Phillips, from the Mamas and Papas, his solo record, called The Wolf King of LA. It’s a fantastic record. And a lot of British folk stuff, like folk rock, late ’60s early ’70s.

What kind of stuff? Like Pentangle?

A little bit. This guy Ralph McTell, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him. The record’s called Not Til Tomorrow. Liege & Lief by Fairport Convention.

It’s funny that you mentioned contemporary music but then it’s all ’60s and ’70s bands.

Yeah, I know. The thing is, to me that’s contemporary because, what I was getting at earlier, when we first started playing, it was pretty much all music from the ’20s and ’30s. Like old timey country music. It pre-dated country music, actually. Just blues and American folk and Irish music as well–songs that are as old as recording has been around.

So this is a flash-forward by a couple decades.

Yeah. I guess I listen to a lot of heavier stuff as well. Not too much contemporary stuff. I try but a lot of it doesn’t really interest me that much. I like the Elvis Perkins in Dearland record. That’s one of my favorites from the last five years.

You were in two car accidents in a year. What happened?

The bike accident ended up being not that big of a deal, kind of an initial scare, but I pretty much got out of it unscathed. I was on my way to the studio and I got hit by a car, and lost consciousness, and woke up in the hospital. It was pretty bad, but I was lucky with that. Nothing too serious came out of it.

And with the tour van?

That was way more serious. I thought I was going to die. It all happened so fast that I don’t know if I had any time to really think at all. I was asleep and then I just woke up and the van was flipping. I don’t know how many times we flipped and I don’t really know what I did, if I had any approach to it because I was asleep right beforehand. I think I got pretty lucky, because I was laying down on a bench in the back, and fortunately I had my seat belt on, which is like an extra precaution that I always took, and nobody else really seemed to do. And it paid off, the hundreds of times I’ve worn my seat belt while laying down. I was still pretty loosely tied in because it was loose around my stomach, and on one of our rotations, that’s when my shoulder got dislocated. I feel really lucky. I could have hit the ceiling with my head or hurt my neck, so it could have been way more serious.

Did you stop playing music at all after that? During these last two years, was there any real time off?

I couldn’t play for about three months. I couldn’t really move my arm. I could play a little bit of piano, but I couldn’t move my left arm very much at all. Right around four months afterward I was able to start playing guitar. So I took a little break on that. That was why I went back to school and started studying music more because I figured that I couldn’t really play it, and I wanted to get inside of it.

That’s definitely making lemonade out of the situation. Where’d you go back to school?

I started taking classes at this community music center near my house.

This is classical music studies that you’re doing?

It’s theory, so we’re just analyzing. I have one class where we discuss classical techniques and one where we study pop music from the ’60s. It’s insightful on a lot of stuff that I sort of already knew but didn’t really understand, didn’t have the verbiage for, didn’t know how to tell someone what to do. Now I understand progressions a lot more. It’s really interesting. Kind of beautiful actually, this stuff.

Interesting in a technical way or in a more over-arching, aesthetic way?

Both. There’s a lot of songs, especially Beatles songs, that have interesting chords in them, and the chords have this emotional quality. But you can’t put your finger on it unless you know its relation and what it’s doing in the progression. As a listener, the lay-person would just feel that note, and they feel it’s traumatic and out of place, but they don’t know why, and they don’t know what the significance of it is. In some ways it’s revealing the mystery, which is kind of sad, but at the same time it’s seeing the mathematics of it all. And that’s what’s beautiful about it–understanding the science of it.

Has that affected your playing or songwriting?

Yeah. I’m not sure if in a good way or not. When I first started writing songs, I wrote some of the best songs that I’ve ever written, simply because I didn’t know what I was doing. You don’t really know why you’re playing a certain chord, you’re just following some internal guide. That’s one way of approaching it, and then there’s the other way, which is really understanding what you’re doing and the significance of these chords.

I’m not really sure what the full outcome is gonna be yet–it’s still new to me and I’m still in the midst of it right now. I would say it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from where I was coming from initially, because traditional music is based on three chords usually, and they’re pretty standard, especially American Appalachian music. With this music it’s a little weirder but still pretty straightforward. And that’s the beauty of it–the simplicity. You never want to lose the simplicity. There’s mistakes I’ve made in the past by trying to get too complicated. Most people would agree that the loveliest songs ever written were the simplest songs ever written. Just like pure emotion, y’know? And not a lot of fluff and gloss on top of it.