Cradling a “Purple Haze” smoothie outside The Post East cafe in East Nashville, Ron Gallo is talking about the tortured relationship that spurred him to write and record one of the year’s most searing and unfiltered alt-rock albums, Heavy Meta. “Loving somebody that is outside your realm of understanding is a pretty earth-shattering thing,” says Gallo, 29, who could pass as an afro’d younger sibling to actor James Franco.
In 2013, around the time a burned-out Gallo decided to leave Toy Soldiers, the band he’d fronted for eight years, he entered into a two-year relationship with a woman who struggled with mental-health and drug-addiction issues. “It was a pretty dark time –not all of it — but, god, it was a heavy situation. I was frustrated and pissed off with humanity,” Gallo tells Billboard, adding, “Through the course of that relationship a lot of Heavy Meta was written.”
For someone not yet 30 who describes his upbringing in the Philadelphia area as “pretty basic, middle class suburban” — albeit colored by the divorce of his parents during his early teens — the lyrics that Gallo wrote for Heavy Meta sounded like the work of a man much older and irreparably world weary.
Although as Gallo explains in the interview below, he is essentially apolitical, his discontent dovetails with the collective anger that resulted in Brexit and elected Donald Trump. On Heavy Meta, he levels his jaundiced eye at the parents of unwanted children in “Why Do You Have Kids?”; dysfunctional relationships in “Young Lady Your’re Scaring Me” (a No. 30 hit on Billboards Adult Alternative Songs chart); Big Pharma in “Kill The Medicine Man”; and dead marriages in “Put The Kids to Bed”, Gallo’s latest single and video, which premieres below. (Note the copy of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose that Gallo holds in the clip.)
If it sounds like a slog, it’s not. Spiked with surf and psychobilly guitar lines and feral hoots that would be home on Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska album, the music on Heavy Meta is often as catchy and cathartic as the lyrics are dark — and the songs were made to be played live. In between a schedule that will see him and his band play 24 dates between Sept. 24 and Nov. 21, Gallo talked to Billboard about his path to Heavy Meta and how his worldview, but not his music, has changed dramatically since he wrote those songs. Just as abruptly as his ex-girlfriend dropped out of his life, she resurfaced months later — and rocked Gallo’s world once again.
I’ve got to be honest with you. Until I read your bio, I’d never heard of Toy Soldiers.
No reason you should have. It’s even funny when people bring it up because, though it was a long-running thing, it was an insignificant part of the path I took to get to the point where I began to like myself. We had like a seven- or eight-year run. At the end of that, we did a long tour and when we got back, everyone was burned out. I was pretty unhappy. I felt like I was doing something that was not me at all. So, I went on this trip out West for a couple of weeks and played some solo shows. I came back revitalized about music again. I was playing new stuff that I was writing that had nothing to do with the band.
So, you went solo?
Yeah. It was a hard thing to do, but after eight years of building something, I was like, I don’t think I can do this anymore. Then, around the time I left the band, I met a girl that I was with for a few years. and that relationship was a real learning experience in a lot of ways. I started writing this record — a lot of the songs on it are two or three years old now — and then things really got bad, to the point where she had to go away. So there I was in Philly — I’d been there for 10 years at this point — and I was like, if I stay here for one more week, I’m going to blow my head off.
That’s when you moved to Nashville.
I had been thinking of coming here for a while. And on New Year’s Day two years ago, I drove down here with this fire beneath me. But to be honest with you, I was completely lost with what to do with my music. The thing that I knew was that for the first time in my life, I was being my most honest self, and I was starting to find my true writing voice. I was also figuring out what the point of me making music was. It wasn’t really for fun or vanity or success — none of that shit. It’s literally what I have to do.
With Toy Soldiers, I wasn’t really scratching the surface. It was just like a party-time thing. I felt like I was bullshitting, and life pushed me in this direction where I had no choice but to be completely straight up with myself and everything around me.
While you were in the relationship that inspired Heavy Meta, you stopped drinking –and you didn’t miss it.
To support her, I stopped, and then some time passed, and I was like, “Whoa.” I started to see how normalized alcohol use has become as a form of escape and self-medication. And then I realized I wasn’t that interested in hanging out with the same people anymore because the only thing we had in common was that we would drink together. I started to peel back the layers and be honest with myself about the way that I was living and the people I was surrounding myself with.
I’m not saying everybody that drinks is a fucking loser, but I think it does contribute to a lot of the oblivion in America. It definitely did for me. I mean, it’s insane to think that altered perception is, like, the norm, and people are not thinking about the effect that it’s having on them.
A number of songs on the album, including “Why Do You Have Kids?”, “Kill The Medicine Man” and “All the Punks Are Domesticated,” seem to be saying that we live in a culture of anesthesization.
Yeah, it all aligns with my last years in Philly. I was in this really taxing relationship, and I was also just lost creatively. So I wrote “Why Do You Have Kids?” after I got off the subway and saw some of the imagery that’s in the song. It left me asking the question in my head, and I went home and the song just came out. With “All the Punks Are Domesticated,” for like the last four months that I lived in Philly, I wanted to get a car so that I could move. So, I picked up this housecleaning job where I was working with punk rocker kids.
With that song, the title came first. It was just so funny to me that these straight-up punk kids would be talking about all these domestic things, like the new place they’d gotten with their significant other and, like, how they’re trying to pay for their student loans. And what started as this dumb little observation turned into, wow, this sums up the way I feel about the state of the world — the feeling that everything has lost its honesty, its truth and its edge. And that anger and frustration is really only a reflection of how you’re feeling on the inside, which you project on the world around you.
Have your feelings about the world changed since the release of Heavy Meta?
I’m at least happy about where things are going. Once you start questioning everything, you kind of realize that everything is inherently good, and everyone is capable of transforming themselves. The part B to the impact that my relationship had on me is that my girlfriend went and lived in the rainforest in South America for a year and a half with shamans and a spiritual community that worked with different plant medicines that healed all kinds of mental disorders and addiction issues. We didn’t talk for six months because she went away totally incognito, with no phone service or anything. The first time I heard from her was in a long email in which she retold her experience. And it blew my fucking mind.
This is a girl that I always thought had an amazing view of the world and a creative gift, but didn’t know how to use it. I would always say, “You should write things down,” and she would say, “I don’t know how to fucking write.” But then six months after she leaves, I get this very open, prose-like email talking about her experience, and there was such a deeper truth to it. This came into my life about a year ago, when I’m on this path of frustration… Now, it’s like, “Oh wait, I have hope because I’ve seen what is possible.”
Did you get back together?
No, although we’ve reconnected. We’re still great friends, and she’s doing great. We look back at what happened, and we’re like, holy shit. We obviously came into each other’s lives to walk each other across very important bridges.
Will this affect the tone of what’s on the next record?
I guess things have sort of balanced out. Heavy Meta is me going, “What the fuck, world?“ And the next record will now probably be from the compassionate perspective of, “Okay, what can we do about this?” We’re all in it together.
I’m just trying to pay attention to what [the universe] is telling me, because I’ve been given, like, a lot of super-obvious clues. And I’m super grateful for it. The last three years have been really hard and intense, but it all makes sense now. A year or two ago, I was sitting in my room in Philly completely lost. Now, all of a sudden, I have a platform — we’re touring, and I feel like I actually have something to give to the world. Being honest with myself, I think, has resonated with people.
With a song like “Why Do You Have Kids?” — in which you sing about “accidents having accidents” — do you find people trying to politicize that song given these Trumpian times?
Rarely. I think that that would not have been the case maybe a year ago. What’s interesting to me is that the current political climate has a lot of people feeling that sense of frustration that I was feeling three years ago when I wrote a lot of these songs.
What do you make of what’s going on right now on the political landscape?
My take is that it’s just one more piece of this illusory world that all of us exist in, and I’d rather just go beyond all of it. The society that we live in constantly tries to take away like our self-empowerment. It wants everybody to be kind of plugged-in and distracted, looking to other people and other resources for comfort and security. And I think that’s probably by design because if people were able to discover what they’re capable of and how they can transform themselves and the world around them — and how perspective is really everything — no one would give a fuck about politicians.
How do you respond to someone who says, I’ve got to feed my kids and pay my mortgage or college loans?
I know that everybody needs to make a living, but the ways in which we do that have become very much a system or a source of conditioning. We carry around everything our parents ever said to us and everything that society expects of us, and it affects how we live. There are so many divides, you know? You’re this social status; you’re this color; this is your job. And I’m not saying that I’m not a part of it, because I totally am, but I would like to rewire my brain.
Your ex’s experience in the rainforest clearly made a impression on you.
Yeah. That’s really when I knew, like holy shit, people are really capable of transforming themselves, and why wasn’t she able to access any of that stuff in the United States, which actually makes it all illegal. Why would these beautiful things, natural things, be illegal here? Because they want people to get hooked on [pharmaceutical] medication. It’s just so fucked, man. And I could go on forever about how fucked it is, but I’d rather take personal responsibility for doing something about it.
Given your perspective on the distractions that consume us today, what’s your take on social media?
In order to survive, I have to use social media, and I know I’m on it way too much. I have a problem with it. I think everybody has a problem with it, especially younger generations. But at least I’m aware of it, and I try not to take it too seriously. But you have to do it.
What are you listening to these days?
God, I listen to a lot of modern jazz. I really like Parquet Courts. The writing is amazing, and I really like everything they do sonically and stylistically. I got into Sun Kil Mon because of his feud with the War on Drugs. He seems like a curmudgeonly guy – super honest and outspoken – and I’ve been listening to him a lot lately. I’m also a fan of Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, West coast garage stuff, Courtney Barnett and the bands we’ve toured with, Twin Peaks and White Reaper.
What was your childhood like?
Pretty basic, middle class suburban upbringing. I was in South Jersey for most of it. I started off in Catholic school through fourth grade. I was always kind of an asshole kid; always going against the grain. I could not be really convinced of or told anything. And it got me in a lot of trouble. I think I’ve found a more constructive way to use those instincts rather than getting suspended from school all the time.
My parents split when I was probably 12, and I kind of took it out on the world. Everything’s great now, but as a 12-year-old – kids around that age are kind of predisposed to being assholes – and I was always pushing buttons and making Jack-ass videos and skateboarding and doing whatever I could to piss people off. Then I chilled out a lot in high school. That’s when I started playing in my first few bands.
Have you started recording your next album?
Sort of. We started some basic tracking, and a lot of the songs are written. The whole idea of the album is formulated, too. We’re going to get a break in touring and dig in then.
Based on the experiences you’ve recounted here, it sounds like it’s going to be quite a different album than Heavy Meta.
It is pretty different — not necessarily sonically. It will make sense in the realm of where Heavy Meta was going, but it’s definitely going to come from a more compassionate place. It’s actually weird to like play a song like “Why Do You Have Kids?” now because where I was when I wrote it, I was like lacking compassion and just super pissed off. But there was a reason.
Actually, I think the song is compassionate –it’s tough love, saying, why are you continuing this chain of pain where you’re bringing kids into this world and then neglecting them, as you were neglected?
I’m glad to hear that because that’s where that song comes from. I don’t care if it rubs people the wrong way. I’m happy to take the backlash, but I’m not making fun of these people. I’m saying, there could be a better situation.
In “All The Punks Are Domesticated,” you sing, “I will be forgotten in two generations/ What will have been my big mark.” Is that a question that weighs on your mind?
I would be happy just knowing that at least I tried to do whatever I could to contribute to, you know. And to be honest with you I almost feel like I already have. It doesn’t need to be much bigger than that. A few months ago, I got this email from a kid in Wisconsin; a total stranger. He wrote me saying, basically, hey man, I just want to let you know that I was strongly considering killing myself, until a friend of mine showed me your music — and it seriously saved my fucking life.”
It was everything that I live for. I know that music has an impact – it has impacted me — but I did not ever think that I would ever make anything that would talk a kid off the ledge. So, to answer your question, that’s good enough for me. Everything else is a bonus.