Please Yourself

Ron Gallo

There was a little voice inside me saying, “Don’t do that because, really, who the fuck are you, anyways?” but in August I sent Ron Gallo an email asking for an interview. “Aside from your music,” I wrote him, “I’m really interested in talking about some philosophical ideas… for instance, I’d read (or maybe come across in a video) some of your thoughts on clean living and that you were at one point reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I’m curious if you’d be interested in digging into some of those sort of ideas?” Within twenty-four hours Ron wrote me back, “absolutely down. especially to talk about the non-musical things!” That really made my day.

I don’t remember what first led me to Ron’s music, but once I heard a little I wanted more. This is where Google quickly confirmed for me that I was without a doubt late to the game in terms of “discovering” him. One of the first things I read was a nice explainer written by NPR’s Ann Powers for Ron’s “Please Yourself” video. I’ve probably watched that at least a dozen times now — it’s electric.

“Straddling the fence between two (2) mindsets” begins (something resembling) Ron’s mission statement, “1. THE WORLD: is completely fucked and 2. THE UNIVERSE: is inside you. TRYING: to lean more towards the latter.” This is what speaks through that video, and is something I really appreciate about Ron: he’s thoughtful and talks his truth, but is able to communicate it in a tone that dovetails with my own sense of humor.

I’ve seen him play twice since I sent him that first email, and when he took the stage at Exit/In last month he began with a solo trumpet performance. The trumpet was the first instrument Ron ever played. His dad passed it down to him. With that in mind, Ron knows how to appear as though he doesn’t know how to play the trumpet really well. “I hope you’re better at singing than you are at trumpet” someone shouted after he removed the horn from his lips. Without missing a beat Ron greeted the jeer with a well-timed clearing of his throat and continued on with a deadpan reading of his show introduction. His reaction to the heckler was improv, the reading was schtick, all of it brilliant.

“Irony is kind of a slippery slope. Once you get on board with that mindset and you think you’re separate from something, you sort of start to think of yourself as an all seeing eye. It’s all a joke and you see the absurdity in everything. I think it’s an important thing to go through but you have to maintain the self-awareness to know that you’re never really above anything. You have to realize you’re a part of the thing you make fun of. That’s the line. Being self-aware is just realizing you buy into bullshit just as much as everyone else. If you want to go off the grid and live in a tent without electricity, that’s cool and very authentic of you but no one wants to do that. People just want to criticize each other for not doing it. More so than anything else, I care about people realizing their inherent, limitless value. I want to use my platform to reach people in that way. I want to use my music as an art form rather than as entertainment.” —Ron Gallo, Popdust interview, April 2017

That same dry wit winds its way through the band’s live show, just as it does Ron’s social media pages and interviews. Ron can be silly (critiquing his own potency on Yelp) and he can also be wry (covering K-Ci and JoJo), but his tone throughout retains a very distinct purpose.

Born in New Jersey, he spent a little bit of time in Kentucky and played in some punk bands growing up before moving to Philadelphia, where he went to school at Temple University. When he was 19 he started the band Toy Soldiers which, over an eight year span, “went from a two-piece, lo-fi, garage rock thing, to a twelve-piece freak show, and then it went down to a five-piece thing.” Toy Soldiers broke up in 2014 but Ron hardly slowed down, releasing the “weirdo, whimsical countrified acoustic album” Ronny via his own American Diamond Recordings label that same year. Ron continued as a fixture in the local scene, but even then it seemed like his tongue was firmly planted in cheek as an artist.

Exiting Pennsylvania with “Search and Destroy,” Ron moved to Nashville in early 2016 and by the end of the year had signed with New West Records. That same year Ron released music with the band the Minks and prepped HEAVY META, an album that “talks about a stalker, dead love, domestication, medication of the masses, the cycle of bad parenting, the struggle of pursuing art, self-empowerment, illusion, and personal frustration with the state of culture, music, [and] food.”

The chances of writing a better article than Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune profile piece on Ron are slim, so I’ll leave the biography writing at that (this video is also a great primer), but the point is to say that what we hear from Ron Gallo now isn’t a frivolous blend of heady lyrics and irony. It’s something more, and it been a long time coming.

Delivering a message of revolution with a side of cheese isn’t just refreshing, but it’s something of the point. “I’m angry, saddened and fed up with how easily ‘medications’ of all kind are just being handed out and creating a plague of addiction, disease and keeping people in a daze. More so than ever, we as a people, should wake up, be alert and not be tamed by the medicine man because we are all a lot more powerful than we are made to think.” Statements like this one might read with a heavy-handed tone if not for Ron’s ability to vary his focus and delivery, each of which serving as mechanisms to soften his delivery. Ron’s approach leaves the messages he’s trying to communicate through his music and words exponentially more attractive than if he were just another humorless voice of revolution, self-righteously advocating change to a society that has lost its way.

“I think people should feel their pain, face it, overcome completely as opposed to just relocating it. Also, I’m not into all that ‘rock and roll lifestyle’ bullshit. It’s not 1975 and I think it’s a good time to stay clear and become our best selves. In the words of Ian MacKaye ‘don’t dull the blade.'” —Ron Gallo, DMNDR interview, August 2016

A lot of thoughts have come and gone since August. Looking back, I felt lost for a good portion of it, which may be due to maneuvering through terrain that is entirely foreign to me. Yesterday I passed two years at my current job, as an example, which is something I’ve never done before. This is also the longest I’ve ever lived in the same city since the last Millennium, the longest I’ve had friends since I was a kid, and the longest I’ve been sober since I had my first drink.

About three months after Ron and I had first connected he sent me another email, “hey man, just wanted to hit you back, things have been a little crazy the last couple months so my apologies for not getting this back to you sooner. i’ve actually tried it a couple times and then revisit and feel like my answers have changed haha. which, needless to say, these questions are really great and challenging so thanks for that.”

Now looking over all of my notes with fresh eyes, about a month and a half removed from that last correspondence, I’m learning something about myself that I don’t think Ron’s answers could have ever provided for me. Certain blind spots are starting to become obvious — one of which relates to all this process.

Maybe this reads in my questions, maybe it doesn’t, but only recently have I started to realize that I take myself far too seriously when I’m trying to impress other people. The moments of late where I’ve really connected with people are the occasions where I’m just being silly and playful. That’s it. That’s the place where I thrive and the avenue by which I best share who I really am.

Rarely can I get my point across when I stew over how to perfectly articulate my thoughts. In such cases I feel like it comes out without even the slightest bit of my true personality behind it. My message gets lost because I’m trying to over-intellectualize my way into impressing someone else without letting them see that I’m really just kind of a goofball. Yet when I return to write here that’s who shows up. I feel most distant from others when I’m at my most self-serious, and I’m at my best when I just cut the bullshit and lighten up. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” Maybe this, the forty-seventh time I’ve publicly quit blogging by way of blog post, will be the one that evidences a leap forward in personal maturity for me.

In a way, Ron’s message helped guide me toward something I didn’t know I had set out to accomplish with my first email. It was a bit of validation, sure, but it was also closure to what I had once thought my aspirations were with “my writing.” Simple as it sounds, everything looks different with the lights on. Closing with the questions I asked of Ron as a meditation seems secondary to everything that’s already run through my mind here, but it also just sort of feels right. As much as I want to have an answer with all of this, there is no conclusion. I’m content not even trying to end with a joke.

“Nobody ever needs to hear what any person ever needs to say.” —Ron Gallo, Vinyl Mag interview, May 2017

Rad

Not that there’s anything wrong with Sublime, but from time to time I have to explain to people that I don’t have the band’s album art tattooed on my arm. What I do have, however, is something of a tribute to Henry Rollins — the words “Rise Above” featured over a far far smaller version of the sun he has on his back. You once wrote that “Henry Rollins is the truth,” so I feel like you’ll get me when I say he has had a tremendous impact on my life… I was introduced to him in junior high and started ordering his CDs, and eventually his books. I’ve really looked up to him ever since.

But for me, he also represents something else that I don’t think I still entirely grasp. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, focuses on his health, and generally does well to think through his ideas, measure his beliefs, and speak up when he has an opinion. Throughout various stages of my life I’ve struggled with each of those things, yet I’ve still returned to my ideal version of him as something to aspire toward. He’s influenced this idea of who I want to be, for myself, yet I’ve often willfully acted in disharmony with that belief.

There’s a galaxy of distance between intellectually recognizing what it is you may want out of life and sincerely living with intention to get there, and on the timeline I’ve found myself on I’m still learning how to execute through continued purposeful action. It’s not even something like personal transcendence I’m aiming for, it’s on as small a scale as consistently digesting an idea and manifesting its wisdom in my own life. I really struggle with that, and to that end, I’m wondering what you see yourself struggling with now, in face of learned knowledge, or if there’s a personal understanding you might have where you feel you should be taking different action in your life than you are, or challenging yourself further?

I watched a video recommendation you’d made titled, Jiddu Krishnamurti “On Observing Ourselves,” and while viewing it my mind latched on to his idea that the observer and the observed are the same thing. While I don’t have anything new to add to the idea of oneness, what hit for me with regard to this idea was recognition within myself that the more I’ve been able to work through the things about myself that I tend to judge, criticize, and fail to love, the closer that’s allowed me to come to other people.

It’s been a few years since you’ve written it, and you’ve already gone into great detail about what inspired “Why Do You Have Kids?” (and subsequently, why you’ve phased it out from your live set), but I’m wondering if any of the anger or frustration that surfaced between your first and second chapters of your life was due to being outwardly critical of what you didn’t want to face within yourself?

Through the same playlist you referenced “I Believe” and wrote, “When I listen to Mahalia Jackson I believe in the god she is referring to.” While I haven’t yet read Autobiography of a Yogi, I know it has started to bear a significant influence on your life. While skimming through passages from it, “If you don’t invite God to be your summer guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life” resonated with me. In the last two years, or so, I’ve given up on a stubborn rebellion I had against the idea of God, and have started to accept a still-evolving concept of a higher power. I’m wondering to what degree a god or a higher power or even something as vague as spirituality is part of your life?

You’re a fan of comedy podcasts, so maybe you know what I’m talking about – but TJ Miller has mentioned something to the effect of how through absurdism nothing has meaning, therefor it’s up to us to create our own meaning in our lives. (Elsewhere, I think this has fallen under ideas such as “Optimistic Nihilism.”) Grace and hope are concepts that are surprising to find within loud, brash rock and roll, but those are concepts that stand out when reading about your current direction. Forgive me for relaying more of your own words back to you here, but I’m drawn to this statement from Native, “The hope is in people’s ability to change, and I’ve seen it myself. The ability to become happy and put light and goodness out into the world. Everybody has that power, it’s just that some people get caught in the illness of being a human. So it’s trying to chip away at the bullshit and get to that good core. You gotta start somewhere.” As you get out on the road more and are introduced to more of the world and its people, how has that helped shift what you place a significance on in your life, and is there anything that has influenced an understanding of personal meaning in your life?

There’s a thread of self-empowerment which I feel is at the core of your mission, it seems, but that’s something wholly different than self-awareness, which I feel is given this a sort of hollow importance in our culture. There’s this interview with Aziz Ansari — and I have to say, I think a lot of what he says is great in his standup work and in the interview — which outlines his personal experience with news & media burnout as it relates. “I don’t think me reading the news is helping anything. I think it’s hurting me. It’s putting me in a bad state of mind. And I could see how someone could hear that about me and be like, Oh, you’re ignoring what’s happening in the world ’cause you don’t want negativity in your head. That seems very selfish. Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s not like I was reading it and then, like, immediately taking action in a way that was helping to fix problems.” But I think that’s only part of the answer — unplugging from an unhealthy interaction, without plugging back into something that carries more meaning. I mean, in his own words he became aware of a habit that was not healthy or beneficial, but replaced it by just tuning out completely. This seems like awareness without empowerment to me. What do you think about this separation that seems to exist within us – analysis without empowerment?