By Adam Lovinus
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For two friends and performers who grew up to be so close to each other, you wouldn't think one of Tyson Vogel's earliest memories of Adam Stephens would involve hand-to-hand combat. Though they'd eventually grow up to be bandmates in San Francisco blues/punk duo Two Gallants, the drummer/vocalist still remembers the epic battle scene from grade school that tested their ability to throw down before they decided to jam out. "I remember meeting him in [a] carpool. I didn't really have any friends or didn't know that many people at 5 years old," Vogel, now 31, says. "About a year later, we found each other in a fistfight on the roof of our school when he kicked a ball at my head."
Despite the brawl, Vogel and Stephens forged a friendship and around the same time became smitten with the idea of playing music. Soon after a mutual friend's parents bought Stephens a guitar, he and Vogel got into Skid Row and Guns N' Roses, evading their parents' mutual love of "cheesy classical musicals and Neil Diamond." As Nirvana took off around middle school, the guys participated in a "pretty grunge" band that played their school's eighth-grade dance. High school brought the punk rock of Operation Ivy, Black Flag and the Germs, and then the blues, which they serendipitously discovered separately after growing bored by late-'90s rock. "My first blues record was Blind Willie Johnson, and I remember thinking [about] one blind man in the '20s, being black and having all this stuff working against him, [who] could just, with an acoustic guitar and his own voice, delve into this honesty and emotional and musical depth without having any electricity or any sort of additive to it," Vogel says. "This is pure expression."
The blues would come to make the most serious impression on the band. After spending time apart because of higher education and other life changes, they would come together again in 2001. Vogel had been playing bass in a "really heavy band" for a spell, so he made a suggestion to his longtime friend: "'We're only two pieces. Why don't we put your acoustic guitar through my bass amp, and it'll add some bottom end?' Slowly, over time, the band have grown from there to this extremely loud band."
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As Two Gallants, Stephens and Vogel have embraced the finest tropes of folk, punk and blues. They make an intense but versatile clatter and have waded through DIY tours, as well as bills alongside metal and punk outfits with whom their style has little in common. They signed with Omaha indie label Saddle Creek, encountered drama in Houston when a concert ended with cops making arrests and handing out tasings, and have committed to ballsy moves (such as covering an old black-worker-empowering song whose lyrics include "nigger"). The band go searching for danger, and the rawness of their output demonstrates as much.
This, however, isn't to say they've haven't tangled with difficult times. After touring and recording hard for years, Two Gallants plotted to take a break at the tail of 2007. Since they ran into opportunities they couldn't pass up, they ended up delaying it until summer 2008. But by that point, they were so weakened the hiatus would run a lot longer than the year Vogel figured. Over the years, they kept themselves occupied with solo projects while dealing with deteriorating romances, problems finding jobs, potential substance-abuse issues and, in Stephens' case, a pair of road accidents—one of which almost left him dead. After a long-delayed comeback, the band returned in 2012.
The reunion itself aside, the duo's big news for the year was the September release of The Bloom and the Blight, their fourth record. At first, Stephens wanted to call it just Blight, but, Vogel says, "[Blight] didn't really give any pedestal to the positivity and the togetherness of what the record represents. It has a little bit of that yin and ying, and also, [in] dealing with some of the themes it deals with, it's like this serene acceptance that there is blight and there is bloom at every moment. It's all around you at all times," he says. "With the songs [ranging from] fragile to super-loud and pounding, there's that sense of balance within the bloom and the blight, too."