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 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, he’s able to say what he feels, and as a bonus — he communicates it in a manner which 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” shouted someone 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 serve 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 a group of friends since I was a kid, and the longest I’ve been sober since I was a teenager.
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…
Ron emailed me back last week.
About three months ago I stopped writing here — “for good,” I told myself. A few paragraphs continued beyond where I left off above, but none speak to where I’m at today — which, funny enough, is a place where I’m really struggling with exactly what’s at the heart of Ron’s answers below: Intention. The realization of aimless intention, or worse — selfish intention, is scary as hell to face. If you’ve been to that place, you know how that feels.
In closing, previously, I used another decontextualized quote of Ron’s which read: “Nobody ever needs to hear what any person ever needs to say.” But really, that’s not true. It’s so strange to think that I needed to not have answers to my questions just as much as I needed to hear the answers that have now materialized. I needed this process. Others need to hear these words. And I feel like this is part of a larger message that I couldn’t have come to had I tried to force it. I’m really fucking glad I emailed that guy.
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.
Ron Gallo: Did you ever respond to anyone asking about your tattoo by just singing “It’s What I Got!”??
I think that what is so admirable about Rollins is that he seems to actually EMBODY his truth. Self-realization of any kind is 50% of the journey. Many people have powerful “aha!” moments but unless there is an intention to manifest that truth into the way you actually live in each moment, then what is the point of realizing any truth at all? We can very easily delude ourselves in the name of righteousness. All of those admirable traits of his you listed, which are seemingly positive, are fully dependent on the intention which they come from. For example, the choice to not drink or do drugs can stem from two places: A person’s intent to want to perceive truth clearly, love for one’s body, or just an authentic lack of interest. OR, it can stem from a place of fear, judgment and suppression. Someone feeling the interest to partake but they tell themselves they can not based on fear stemming from a variety of places, or judgment of others and the self, “I’m above that” or some delusional quest for toxic purity that actually separates you from other people because you subconsciously judge others for their choices. In this way everything is double-sided and that’s why people should really take time to decide what they really value in each moment of life because otherwise you may be causing yourself delusion disguised as “good” when in reality your true Self does not care on way or the other. I think that’s why Rollins is inspirational because he attempts to LIVE it and change with it.
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?
Ron Gallo: Well, sometime last year, I listened to a talk online given by a teacher named Adyashanti. At the end of this talk, I had an experience, a sort of indescribable period of crying, laughing and then feeling bliss, almost as if I was seeing everything again for the first time. This lasted for one day. When I woke up the next day, it was gone, and this glimpse fueled my search in an even more toxic manner. Now, I had a direct experience, and lost it. What was wrong with me? Why did I lose it? I was so close!
So, I went online to see if there was some way I could meet him, I had a feeling there was something there for me. I found he was hosting a retreat out in CA in February, and so I booked it.
My intention for the trip was: I want to know who or what I am, truly, no matter what it is. I felt like if I had that answer it would answer ALL my questions, and then I could better understand all beings.
The few weeks leading up to the retreat I became overwhelmed with this feeling that I was going to die soon. Even when I saw people out and about, I convinced myself it was the last time.
Well, the plane didn’t go down and I arrived at the retreat. Two-hundred strangers from all ages, walks of life completely silent in each others presence for six days. Six periods of forty minute silent meditation a day, a few lectures given by Adya and meal breaks. One day one, I struggled hard with the mediation, I would go into neurosis then usually just fall asleep. Halfway through day one I told myself it wasn’t gonna happen, I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.
Then on Tuesday morning, everything changed.
Adya gave a talk that morning that seemed like it was custom designed for me. There were a few points he made about knowing your true self and the “search for awakening” that, like a domino effect, led to a moment that completely broke me. I had a very similar experience I had last year but this time, through meditation it was followed with what I would describe as a “direct experience with being.” In that moment, and right now I feel like I have no more questions. To experience your true being is a disorienting thing because the best way I can describe it is a vast, endless space of nothingness, awareness in which all experience, things occur. The other kicker is that, our true being is THE most obvious thing in existence and the fact that we ever lost sight of it is actually very humbling, hilarious and seems impossible to not see it.
So anyway, I got back from that trip a few days ago and in an odd way I feel ready to live now and enjoy myself and not make myself feel miserable or inadequate. Much like we’ve talked so far – finding a way to embody whatever I’ve realized about myself. Part of that being that we are all the same thing, makes Truth and Love good things to try and live out each moment of each day, and that it’s all right here, right now. This is it.
Sorry that was so long!
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.
Ron Gallo: Yes! What I’ve found is that we ARE the thing that is aware we are thinking. We are the space in which all thought and feeling occurs. For my whole life I didn’t even notice it, I thought it was all just the mind, which creates this almost dream simulation of experiencing life through the very tiny filter of your past, and all your ideas and belief systems. When you start to cut through it all, you find that how you see yourself is how you see others.
What is that thing that is aware I am thinking? To answer that question is worthy of anyone’s time.
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?
Ron Gallo: Absolutely. It’s all way more clear now. I convinced myself at one point that me being critical of the “evils” of the world was a way to fix them. Which turns out was EXACTLY how I treated myself. Judgmentally.
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?
Ron Gallo: I guess I really got into that above haha. What I’ve realized is that whatever this thing I’ve discovered hiding in plain sight within myself is at the core of all beings. A silent, eternal awareness beyond “good/bad” “dark/light” “right/wrong.” Some call it “god,” “love,” “universe,” “reality,” etc. It only knows what IS and has no ability to judge it. Whatever name or symbol you give to it is fine, it actually requires a name or symbol because it is beyond words. That’s why all religions seem different, because they use words and symbols native to their culture/language but actually are talking about the exact same thing.
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?
Ron Gallo: For a while I thought I knew what I was talking about there but couldn’t actually commit to LIVING it. But I knew there was truth there. Not becoming that actually made touring tough, the sensory overload, the crowds, etc. The only commitment I want to make now is to allow everything to be as it is, and try and make each moment an extension of truth and love.
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?
Ron Gallo: I think that people become overwhelmed by the malevolence happening in the world because they don’t know right away how to fix it. If the initial thought is “what can I do?!” [or] “how can I get out there and change the world?!” it seems really, really overwhelming and impossible. You instantly feel small and useless when you try to take it all on as an outward thing. This kinda goes back to the one main point, it is ALL internal. Every moment is a choice. The best contribution a human being can make to society or the world is to wake up and embody truth and love in every moment. Rather than see sexual assault charges, or evil politicians or school shootings and immediately respond with hate disguised as activism towards the “evil” side, how about responding with action that stems from LOVE for the “good” side? It’s all intent. If someone wants to get on Facebook and express all their useless opinions and beliefs and talk shit about “bad people” then step away and not manifest ANY of the positive into their daily life then what are they really doing besides making it worse? Do you BELIEVE in Love and Unity? Then BECOME Love and Unity. It will spread and worst case you get to live a life fueled by something almost no one would disagree benefits ALL things.
[This article was first published on Villin.net]