"Met your mother at the hospital where she was waiting patiently for her new reassignment." These are the lyrics Adam Stephens sings on Two Gallants' most recent fuzz-rock track, "Incidental." The song charges forward as Stephens continues, "She had rusty hinges, I forgot my scalpel, she had indecision." His voice is a valiant call, at times piercing with scruffy, torrid tones similar to the Replacements' Paul Westerberg. In the stop-motion video for "Incidental," the skin of a white, plastic, male figurine melts away, and (spoiler alert) there's a woman inside. The song is off Two Gallants' latest full-length, We Are Undone, released in February. The duo of Stephens (guitar, keys, vocals) and Tyson Vogel (drums, guitar, vocals) spent a month recording with engineer Karl Derfler (Tom Waits, Roky Erickson) at Panoramic House Studio in Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco. Stephens spoke from his Oakland home, while playing with his dogs in the backyard.
What brought about the subject of reassignment for "Incidental"? It was one of those rare songs where the lyrics and the melody all came out at once. Out of nowhere. It wasn't something I really thought through. It deals with the idea of gender fluidity and the sentiment a lot of people have of feeling discomfort in their own bodies, and the need to change. The discomfort that can be imposed on us by society, where people don't feel beautiful enough. Or feeling like we don't look the way we wished we looked. Also those people who don't feel comfortable in the bodies they were given regardless of societal pressures, who want to change. There isn't really a message to the song, those are just the themes that were floating around in my head.
Why did you forget your scalpel? Were you going to perform the surgery? Not that it comes through in the song, but I take issue with the outdated ideas that we're stuck in these specific gender roles by what you're assigned at birth. I believe even the toughest, most misogynistic guy has feminine aspects to him, and vice versa. I just don't believe in this strict division between genders. Worrying about what people are and should be has done so much more harm than good. People should be what they want to be.
In Jungian psychology, there are the archetypes of anima and animus. The male's anima represents his female qualities. It's exactly what you're talking about. What were you doing when the song hit you? I was at home. There's this room at my house where I play guitar a lot and work on songs. It's a wood, gazebo-like room with a clear Plexiglas roof, almost a little greenhouse. I hang out in there a lot. Fortunately, for "Incidental" I didn't have to beat myself up too hard; it came together naturally and thoughtlessly. The one thing we wanted to avoid was actually being in the video ourselves. So we went with tiny skeletal versions of ourselves and stop-motion.
I saw you all at Bumbershoot a few years ago. Tyson had quadramullet hair. There was a mullet in every direction coming off his head. Watching him play was an audiovisual spectacle. What hairstyle is he going with now? Right now, he's going pretty conservative, compared to his history. It's kind of long and normal now, no crazy angles going on [laughs]. My favorite version of his hair is from when we were younger. He used to rock this one long, big lock hanging down from the front with the rest of it mostly shaved off. [Adam becomes distracted.] Hey. HEY, STOP. Shhh-shhh-shhh. Sorry, my dogs are going a little crazy right now.
What kind of dogs do you have? What are their names? I have a border collie named Purdy, and my roommate has a small white poodle kind of thing named Howard.
Tell them I send my best. When you were recording We Are Undone, did engineer Karl Derfler have a magical Tom Waits button? No, but Karl does have this intrinsic vintage quality to him. I feel like when we were working with him, everything that he touched and changed sounded exactly like what we wanted. We never really butted heads on anything. We didn't have to tell him too much, as far as what we wanted sound-wise, because he had an understanding. We wanted it to sound like the room we were playing in and have it maintain the character it would have if we were playing live.
What did he do to enact the sounds you wanted? Was it a compression setting? An EQ thing? Or a type of tape? Some of it has to do with mic choice and placement. When we were using acoustic guitar on a couple songs, we used crappier, older mics for a crisper, more biting sound. And placing room mics to record the room and the space because we recorded together live. We wanted to have the sound of the instruments in the room and not just direct mics. We did use Pro Tools, but we ran everything through two-inch tape.
When I hear your song "Seems Like Home to Me," I've always imagined a scene: A guy stationed on a submarine is thinking about his wife and home. He's lying in his bunk, down deep in some ocean, and he hasn't seen the sky for two months. The submarine thing is definitely nothing I've ever thought of before, but I like it. I'm open to all interpretations. The song is pretty literal. It was written at a time when we were touring so much that our van had literally become our home. Touring can be a lonesome feeling, while at the same time you're meeting so many people.
You and Tyson started playing together when you were 12. What was the first KISS cover you played? I'm thinking "Love Gun." No KISS covers, but we played a bunch of Nirvana covers, and some early Green Day covers [laughs]. We both got guitars around the same time and played in crappy little bands in school. We called one band JAT for Jeff, Adam, and Tyson. That's how deep it went.
There's no way you didn't play "Love Gun." Everyone's played "Love Gun." Pretty positive there was no "Love Gun." Sorry. Maybe it's in our future.