Somewhere between his 2017 debut, Heavy Meta, and his 2018 followup, Stardust Birthday Party, Ron Gallo snapped.
Perhaps the listening public should have seen (well, heard) the signs, chief among them his 2017 EP Really Nice Guys, eight tracks of Gallo taking the piss out of the music industry, the insularity of the Nashville scene, and the algorithms that dictate who lives and dies inside all-powerful streaming services.
It was conceptual anti-art, an inside joke delivered with a straight face and punctuated by soundbites from his mother’s boyfriend, Jerry. There is, of course, an accompanying twenty-minute mockumentary chronicling his transition into an insufferable jazz-head: “People are just in cages, and they’re imprisoned, and they can’t deal with the level of liberation that’s experienced during jazz,” he muses during the interview portion. Amid his tuneless trumpet solos, his bandmates and label team long for the sweet release of death.
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Having exorcised those satirical demons, Gallo dropped Stardust Birthday Party, complete with an acknowledgements section thanking Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts, Osho (you know, the beard in Wild Wild Country) and the like for “sharing their guideposts towards truth.”
This was not the Gallo of Heavy Meta, whose manic garage punk demanded to know when the punks became so domesticated and why terrible people insist on reproducing. He now characterizes the record as “a little small-minded and critical and judgmental.”
Beyond the confines of his Spotify discography were a number of personal changes: He moved to Nashville from Philadelphia in early 2016 after recording Heavy Meta, which drew heavily on his relationship with a woman struggling with substance abuse and mental health problems. She upended their relationship by disappearing to South America to live with a shaman, re-emerging a year later via a lengthy letter to Gallo describing a total personal transformation and extolling the virtues of silence.
“It got me thinking, ‘Okay, maybe there’s a little more to all of this,’” he says. “I started dabbling, reading, trying to understand the human condition. A big part of that is detangling yourself from everything you’ve been told and entering into this big thing that maybe you don’t know anything.”
On top of this, he was also approaching his thirtieth birthday, a milestone famous for introspection. His recollections of the decade prior are hardly romantic.
“I absolutely knew nothing at all the entire time,” he says. “When you’re younger, you think you know everything. Or more. I’ve realized I know absolutely nothing.”
Born and raised in South Jersey by a businessman and a hairdresser, Gallo grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Tom Petty and standard-issue ’90s Top 40; Crystal Waters’s 1991 house classic “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” sticks out in his memory. His father gave him a trumpet — “I think it was my dad’s way of vicariously trying to get me to do what he stopped, kind of a ‘Do what I did but stick with it’” — but Gallo lacked the patience for lessons. Instead, he learned to skateboard, eventually asking for a guitar for Christmas. He got what he wanted.
A few years and a handful of Green Day covers later, Gallo realized that music just might be a decent vehicle for something he was already passionate about: writing. He tried songwriting and joined a band in high school.
This was the 2000s, so hardcore, screamo, pop punk and emo were standard fare. This happened in the suburbs, and all of the above was happening in local VFW halls. That first high school band eventually morphed into a “synth screamo” outfit called the Exchange Route, in which Gallo sang lead and the guitarist “just played drop-D power chords and screamed."
After surviving a brief Dave Matthews Band phase and forming a garage roots band called Toy Soldiers in college, Gallo returned to punk. And this time, he did it under his own name.
“I struggled with what to call myself for a while. Then I had this idea that if I start playing and I make a band under my own name, the band can never break up; I can just die,” he says. “You might as well create under the name you’ve always had — not try to come up with some name with the word ‘foxes’ in it.”
Gallo’s willingness to embrace his own name — “The name my parents gave me,” according to an old bio — belies his distaste for today's obsession with branding and self-promotion. At an industry event he agreed to attend solely for a free meal from a posh Nashville restaurant, he watched people introduce themselves by passionately listing off their accolades for minutes at a time. When his turn came, he stood up and said, “Hi, my name is Ron Gallo, human being,” and sat back down.
“Everybody broke for a second and laughed a little bit,” he remembers. “It was this moment of breaking the tension in the room, because everyone clearly felt weird. 'Why don’t we chill the fuck out? We know this is weird. Let’s stop pretending it’s not.'”
And then, somewhere inside the quest for either enlightenment or just feeling like a real human person, came Stardust Birthday Party, a vaguely post-punk-meets-art-rock collection of existential ruminations, Coltrane references, optimistically philosophical proclamations and scuzzy guitar work, albeit delivered at a more measured pace than the breakneck speed of Heavy Meta.
His sincerity comes with a tinge of self-deprecation, delivered best during “OM," a seventy-second tongue-in-cheek voicemail from his own mind, set against a Buddhist chant and encroached upon by street noise. If Gallo strikes you as a bit new-agey or kooky, that’s fine. He thinks he sounds a bit kooky, too.
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He also knows that self-deprecation is the only way to maintain any semblance of sanity, especially within the music industry.
“You have to go out and play these roles, so you might as well make fun of the fact that it’s happening and make fun of yourself in it. It makes the whole thing more human and tolerable,” he says. “That’s how you keep your soul alive in the context of it: not taking the whole thing as seriously as it wants to be taken.”
But other than that, Gallo knows nothing. He’ll tell you himself.
Ron Gallo, 8 p.m. February 4 and 5, Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street, $17.75-$20.