Exit Interview: Ron Gallo on packing up for Nashville

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Ron Gallo | Photo courtesy of the artist
Ron Gallo | Photo courtesy of the artist

I first met Ron Gallo in 2008 when his then-duo Toy Soldiers was making a lot of noise on the Temple house show scene. The band consisted of him backed by drummer Mike Baurer, and their rough-hewn bluesy grit and taut minimalism – best exemplified by a set of demos posted on their MySpace page called It Is What It Is. Is It What It Is? – reminded me a hell of a lot of The Black Keys. Carney and Auerbach were still a duo at that point too. Things change, bands evolve, the big wheel keeps on turning.

Toy Soldiers went through a handful of iterations over time, ballooning to an eleven-piece that surveyed the spectrum of roots-Americana sounds and tones on 2010’s Whisper Down the Lane (including gospel-infused vocals from Kate Faust, who went on to have a successful electro-pop career) and then striking the lineup to reorganize as a four-piece influenced by hip-shaking Afro-Cuban jazz and global folk rock for their EPs Get Through the Time and Tell the Teller, as well as a great sophomore LP called The Maybe Boys.  At the core of it all was Gallo’s emphatic, distinctive high-register vocal – drawling with emotion, shaking the room with vibrato. The band hit the scene hard, playing Philly monthly, sometimes weekly, and at their most active, multiple times a week, weaving into the mix Gallo’s cabaret at Fergie’s – the Ron Gallo Revue – where he dabbled in his love of other performing arts, including stand up comedy.

Toy Soldiers’ final for-realsies breakup happened in 2014, and Gallo refocused himself as a solo artist, releasing last year’s Ronnie – his most restrained, haunting and best work to date. Interestingly, around the same time, Gallo became not as much of a constant presence in Philly as he had been. He began seeking out-of-town gigs, going on the road, booking himself extended residencies performing in hotel lobbies in New York City, following in the footsteps of many of the jazz greats he admired. For them, a gig was a gig, and the important thing was what you left behind. Gallo saw it that way too, and saw the importance of expanding beyond his comfort zone.

That continues this winter as he leaves his beloved Philadelphia for a new home in Nashville, Tennessee. For an artist whose loves include Leon Redbone, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, it couldn’t be a more perfect fit; dude will be setting up shop in the backyard of the Grand Ole Opry. (Not literally, we think, but we wouldn’t put it past him.) With his farewell show slated for tomorrow night at Boot and Saddle, Gallo and I swapped emails for an exit interview reminiscing on his time in Philadelphia, and laying out his goals for the new digs, including the heavy psychedelic record he plans to release upon arrival. Characteristic of Gallo, the responses include emoji, all-caps passages and lots of love for the 215. Read on.

The Key: First things first: awesome to hear that you’re moving to such an incredible music city, and one that¹s such a good fit for your sound to boot. Was Nashville’s history / present a factor in your deciding to move, or was it more life changes? A mix of both?

Ron Gallo: Oh, life. The last couple of years have been a lot like me walking through a really long human carwash.  It’s been a process of digging deep internally, which has been both hellish and awesome.  Challenging everything to find what’s real and whatever I am.  Also, there was a very timely and powerful relationship too that guided me through it and vice versa. That being said, i’m starting to come out on the other side anew and upon leaning into listen to whatever guides us, everything points in this direction right now.  Aside from all the potentially “amber is the color of your energy” crap I just said, I think there is a great rock n’ roll, garage, punk scene happening in Nashville right now that I am drawn too, as well as a ton of great friends that live there.  I’ve left that city about 12 times wondering why.

TK: You were an active Philly musician for, what, eight years? What are the biggest changes you saw during that time span?

RG: Yeah! Shit, that’s a while.  Philly has always been a weirdo, underdog city.  I love that about it.  But over the course of my time there, the music scene has been built up like the neighborhoods, which makes sense I guess. The house shows and basements that existed 7 years ago are probably finished with drop ceilings and carpets by now, a lot of the bands back then didn’t stand the test of time either.  Now there’s a spotlight on the city (which there should be because it is responsible for some of the best music around) and that changes the whole vibe.  I feel like a jaded old guy veteran in Philly now because the scene really is a whole new generation and I know it’s not true cus I’m younger now! There’s actually a song on what will be the new record about my feelings on all of this (not just Philly but just the state of the world and music) called “All the Punks are Domesticated.”  I think that captures it better.

TK: For a while you were hitting Philly hard, gigging all the time. I feel like, since the release of Ronny, you’ve been more selective about Philly shows and set your sights outside the city a lot more, which has been awesome to see. How do you think you¹ll approach it once you land in Nashville?

RG: I go crazy when I’m inactive so I think once I get there I’ll still try and be out on the road a lot, exploring new cities and hitting the ones I have been.  I think I’m destined to be one of the weirdos down there so I’ll probably just try and freak everyone out and annoy them with lots of shows for a bit then retreat. My biggest advice for any band ever that wants to build something is to realize that there are hundreds of cities in addition to your hometown worth your attention so don’t get stuck there or comfortable! Go and get em all like little jazz pokemon.

TK: What are you plans as far as new music – is there a Ronny II: On The Rocks in the near future?

RG: I have a new record about 95% done that I’ve been working on for the last year.  It’s heavy. Sonically and content-wise.  It’s some strange brew of rock n’ roll, garage, early punk and psychedelia all wound together by a similar dark humor of “Ronny” and it’s probably  the most honest thing I’ve done so far.  I can’t hide behind pizza faces anymore and so I’m letting it all hang out.  Especially after the last couple years there’s a story to tell and turns out life is not spent lying in a hammock at some bizarre island beach party.  I’m working on finding an outlet for this record come early next year!

TK: What will you miss the most about Philadelphia? What are you glad to be leaving behind?

RG: I will miss XPN and all of you over there, Philly is #blessed with such a unique radio station and music community.  No city can touch it.  You also paid me to say that! [NOTE: I assure you we did not. -ed.] I will miss Cafe Pho Gah Thanh Thanh (a pho restaurant in Kensington) and the South Philly accent (not a restaurant). I will miss walking to places and some of my favorite venues. (JB’s, UT, B&S, ORTLBZ and other acronyms). I will miss the Philly comedy scene. I won’t even be dramatic and say I will miss the people, friends, bands and family because I will see all of you often, maybe more? And I’ll still be up here a lot. ALSO EVERYONE COME VISIT ME IN MY NASH-DOJO!

I will not miss the PPA (seriously, die), any bad vibes/memories, anyone that thinks they’re too cool, cheesesteaks or potholes.

TK: Anything you want to add?

RG: COME TO BOOT AND SADDLE TOMORROW NIGHT (WEDNESDAY) BECAUSE IT’S GONNA BE GREAT.  WE’RE GONNA PLAY A LOT OF THE NEW RECORD, FREAK OUT, HAVE A TIME, YOLO. COIN PURSE AND HIDDEN LIGHTS ARE PLAYING. MY BAND AND I ARE PLAYING.  HERRLLLL YERLLLLL. IT WILL BE A NIGHT IN ALL CAPS. LOL OMG SRSLY. CLUB SODA FOR ALL.

You heard the man. Ron Gallo plays Wednesday, December 16th at Boot and Saddle, tickets and more information on the 21+ show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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