Magnificent Obsession

How Two Dudes From San Francisco Have Tapped Into The Deepest Levels Of Americana.

click to enlarge THEY DIG MUSIC: Tyson Vogel and Adam Stephens of Two Gallants bring their sound to the Skatepark this week. - Charles Villyard
Charles Villyard
THEY DIG MUSIC: Tyson Vogel and Adam Stephens of Two Gallants bring their sound to the Skatepark this week.

I once took the three-hour drive up to Gennie Springs with a buddy and his then-girlfriend, and spent a lot of the trip being asked by the girlfriend why I was changing the radio station, which I did often. Because I really didn't want to get into a stretched-out conversation about my personal beliefs regarding what music should do or be, I always responded with that familiar shorthand that's supposed to encapsulate the passionate music fan's levels-deep dissatisfaction:

"Because that song sucks."

To which she would invariably reply:

"But I like that song."

As if I, the unassailably more knowledgeable, empathetic and committed student of sound, hadn't just delivered the final word on the subject.

The fucking nerve.

I'll admit it. I think I care more about music than most people. Not yards more, but miles more. I completely and desperately believe that most people can't possibly fathom my need for music to be more than entertainment, more than a distracting confection for the ear and mind or something that's got a good beat and you can dance to it. The average pop music fan doesn't understand what I do and what I believe — that music has to be emotionally resonant, the sound of feeling, woven tightly into the fabric of human expression, to be really worthwhile.

I use the above anecdote and subsequent expansion on my personal love for music only to illustrate, by way of contrast, how the members of young San Francisco indie-roots duo Two Gallants feel about the same thing.

Because, compared to them, I'm the pedestrian listener.

I'm the girl in the back seat asking why that last pretty little ditty didn't cut it.

Talking about music, drummer Tyson Vogel's comments often take on an almost theological weight. When asked if he worries that his band's guitar-and-drums lineup would be lumped in with superficially similar but truly different duos like The White Stripes and The Black Keys, for instance, Vogel's response is more philosophical than pop-cultural.

"The beauty of it is in the simplicity of it," he says. "Like the older blues musicians, they would play these amazing songs that are incredible melodically and emotionally, and it's just one person with a guitar. All they needed was that emotion in that one moment. And maybe that's why all three of us have that similarity — being two people, you see that things don't always have to be a lot of effects and fireworks. Let the music speak for itself. That's the most honest form, I guess.

"It doesn't mean that the other formats don't mean anything, it's just that maybe that's what these bands have in common. We're trying to hold on to some kind of lost beauty with the simplicity of our format."

Those, ladies and gentlemen, are the words of somebody who cares about music, thinks about it, takes it in like air.

Vogel and singer/guitarist/harpist Adam Stephens have been friends since grade school. Both became obsessed with music at an early age, experiencing the usual piano lessons and expeditions through parents' record collections and short-lived submersions in whatever the kids their age in America were listening to at the time. The pair spent their adolescence and young adulthood digesting tunes and hanging out in Vogel's mother's basement, drinking and jamming for hours on end.

"We've kind of always played together," Vogel says. "And around 2002, the format we're playing in now came about."

At some point, both Vogel and Stephens began to appreciate seminal American songwriting styles like folk, country and blues. While other budding musicians their age were still aping punk and metal influences, the duo became enamored of the timelessness and emotional impact of the enduring archetype of an aching man with an instrument and a cathartic tale to tell.

"I think both of us, by coincidence, came across older American music at the same age, about 18," Vogel recalls. "I remember the first record I found was a Blind Willie Johnson album, and it really struck me at the time, seeing the picture of this man just sitting in front of a piano. I bought that record, and Adam was introduced through other avenues. Country and blues have been huge influences on our lives individually, and it just kind of worked out that we share that affinity for older music."

Two Gallants' material is steeped in those traditions. The outfit's second album, What The Toll Tells, mixes moody Southern Gothic imagery, character-driven fables, Civil War-era laments and hill-country blues with raw, lo-fi production and an almost scary feel for compelling dynamics. That a couple of guys raised on rock 'n' roll would delve into older American music in a search for something real isn't new or unexpected; that two musicians in their early 20s could execute it so convincingly, however, is. What The Toll Tells isn't the sound of a punk band spitting out a country album. It's a mature, utterly believable bare-nerve exercise in the deeper, more evocative end of Americana that makes one wonder how two young men from Frisco could tap into something so primal.

And why didn't they just get a bass player like everybody else?

"We thought about getting a bass player, or adding other members, but it never really seemed to make sense," says Vogel. "We even made flyers, but we realized that since we've known each other so long and had this connection, it would be hard to find someone on the same level.

"In many ways, the music didn't really need a bass. It would've distracted from some of the rawness, the little things we like to keep out there."

And I thought I cared about music.

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