Ron Gallo Talks ‘Foreground Music’ and The Call For Change (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Chiara D’Anzieri

Ron Gallo will be releasing his new album, Foreground Music, on March 3rd via Kill Rock Stars, and it marks his first release with that label. While fans sometimes comment on a new release as a return to form, in this case, Gallo is heralding a kind of consolidation of his musical identity with Foreground Music. He feels that it brings into focus some of his experimentation over recent years and also expresses a lot of ideas that concern him. Gallo has followed his own trend towards multi-media by releasing companion videos which tease out key ideas and highlight the humor that’s usually layered into his work as well. 

While some of the songs like “Entitled Man” and even “Big Truck Energy” spell out a need for change, quite a few songs on the album handle the idea of change with relatable ambivalence. The construction machinery that tears down art may also make a neighborhood safer. Gallo doesn’t hide behind simple answers about change, but expresses the human experience of change in its terrifying and even amusing aspects on Foreground Music. I spoke with him about the refocusing that he feels this album represents and about the good, the bad, and the ugly of change in our world. You can also make sure to catch him on his spring tour and his appearance with his band at SXSW this Spring. 

HMS: It seems like your approach to sharing these songs has been very steady over time, working way ahead of album release. Was that a particular plan?

Ron Gallo: I guess I was a little anxious to show these to people. I re-found my way a bit with this album and I wanted to show people that I know I’ve been chaotic and experimental for three records now, but I’ve dialed it back in. I’m ready. [Laughs]

HMS: I can understand wanting to release some of these songs as soon as possible because a lot of these songs feel very current and modern also.

RG: That’s the other thing. It’s a pretty big thing. This album is very topical. There are news stories coming out and things are happening and then I have a song for that. That’s part of the intention as well. It’s about.

HMS: I saw on Instagram that you’d posted a discussion of your year rounding off 2022. You said that there were several projects that you were working on, some audio-visual stuff, and a book. It seems like that is equally topical.

RG: The book is something that I’m finishing up now and relates to a practice I was doing every morning where I’d wake up and write three pages the moment I woke up. The film relates to a secret, unannounced show we did back in May. More info is TBA!

HMS: I saw a teaser video about an unannounced show in Philly that related to building developments covering up important art. Development of urban areas seems to be on your mind, like with the album cover photo. 

RG: We had to take that photo that very day, because it wasn’t going to continue to look like that. Places aren’t going to continue to look like what they look like now. There’s a kind of theme running through making a lot of this stuff in the music videos, too, and the upcoming film. It’s the idea that tomorrow things might not be there anymore, so you have to get in there while it exists. 

HMS: This idea comes up in the video for “Anything But This” also. When did you start realizing this theme was emerging in the new music and videos?

RG: That video was shot, basically, at the end of my street, so while recording the album, you’d hear machinery and drills. Walking out my door, it was perpetually annoying me and disrupting my life. The day the album cover photo was taken, they had the bulldozer in the perfect position, so I knew it was the setting to try to get a record cover photo. This was what was happening twenty feet from where my record was actually being made. We ran out there and I brought a chair. It was the most accurate depiction of what the record was about and where it was made. Two days later, they put up a giant barrier, so if we’d waited, we wouldn’t have gotten it. 

HMS: Is there anything reassuring about this amount of change in life, or is just terrifying?

RG: I like to try to find the positive. There’s obviously the nuisance of change because it feels like one step forward, two steps back. Our neighborhood definitely needs a deep cleaning, because the streets are covered in syringes, and trash, and stragglers. There’s just chaos. Then the big developers come in and change a neighborhood, and it’s loud, and your whole house shakes for months, and you can’t breathe the air outside. There’s that part of it where you hate it. But you have to fast-forward, and in a year or two it might be okay. Growth looks like destruction at first. Maybe in a year, it’s actually a safer, cleaner place to live. So in that sense, it’s good. I think is change is necessary and good most of the time, especially now. The record addresses a lot of that. It talks about a lot of things that I think require change. [Laughs]

HMS: Yes, I was going to say that! 

RG: I think if I were to say that change is not good, it would be pretty hypocritical. 

HMS: In the song, “Anything But This”, I can see the resonance with seeing your neighborhood being destroyed. But in some of these songs, maybe there is a call for change, like in “Entitled Man”, “Foreground Music”, and others. There’s a sense of looking at what’s decayed and unhelpful.

RG: So many things! 

HMS: Tell me more about “Foreground Music”. Was that a song that came about early in the album process, or later?

RG: The record was made in two phases. I started it with some songs from a few years ago that I liked but just never got properly recorded. Songs like “Entitledn Man”, “Yucca Valley Marshalls” and “Vanity March” were hanging around. I had tried to record them before but they never really worked. I started with those to get into the headspace as Phase 1. Then Phase 2 was trying to write now there was a through-line and a certain headspace. That’s when “Foreground Music” came around. The title came before the song did. 

People ask me, “What kind of music do you play?” Or, “What’s your genre?” And I decided I was going to start telling people, “foreground music” because, as stupid as it is, it’s kind of the opposite of background music. It has intensity and urgency in sound and lyrics where it’s abrasive and can’t really be ignored. I’ve had that term rattling around my brain so I decided to write a song called then. Then I realized it should be the record title. 

HMS: That resonates with what you said at the beginning of this conversation about the ways in which this record is a kind of re-grounding of what you’re doing. You’re making that statement here. 

RG: That’s cool! It definitely makes sense to me. It’s hard to find ways to sum things up. Finding two words that get the point across makes me say, “Yes!”

HMS: In that video, though it has some comedic feeling to it, we do get the general sense of disenfranchisement, of things being taken away. 

RG: One of the people who directed the video had that idea of a person getting robbed while they were in VR world. It wasn’t based on the song, but when he told me the idea, he said he thought it was up my alley. So it was more a situation of choosing which song it might go with. But the irony and humor behind it was perfect for this record, and I thought this song worked.

While there are serious topics on this record, I think it’s really important to ground it all in a sense of humor, since it just makes all of it so much more digestible. This video is a perfect balance of those two things, I think.

HMS: Yes, it could potentially be a very sad video, played differently!

RG: It kind of is! This old lady is having her physical, real-world life suffer because she’s in VR. Which is happening in real life, too, with people investing in the meta-verse. It’s insane! [Laughs] Life is stranger than fiction, in a way. 

HMS: The song “At Least I’m Dancing” feels like it has some significance to this whole collection. It fits into this discussion of things that are wrong with society. Was that an intentionally hopeful song, or an answer to some of this?

RG: To me, that song is probably the most “me” thing that I’ve ever done. I’m always trying to literally dance the line between really dark, heavy stuff, and the humor in it all. That song is basically about that nihilistic thing when sometimes it’s all just too much and you want to say, “Fuck it!” And stop caring. You want to part on through until the end. But in the verses, it musically changes a lot, so it’s basically the two sides of it, the two ways of things. There’s a nihilistic dance chorus, then it breaks down, then it’s sort of that hopeful side. 

That’s pretty much the space that I exist in. The biggest thing for me is trying not to fall into the nihilistic thing where I stop caring. I care a lot and I probably care too much about things. I’m making the point that it’s important to do that but also saying that sometimes it’s all too much. To bundle that up into a fun song, that’s the whole thing. 

HMS: I did notice a freedom there in the sonic elements. It’s energetic but it moves between these different aspects. It seems like you weren’t making yourself conform to a certain sound but exploring what worked best.

RG: It’s all over the place. It’s had a few different incarnations. The original demo is pretty drastically different. But when I started revisiting old songs and I started seeing what this record was, then I took that song and broke it down. I went back to just guitar and voice, and rebuilt back from scratch in a way that fit where things were going. In a lot of ways, there’s more simplicity, but we got to the point where the verses and the chorus were almost two different songs, but the question was how to make them work together. 

We got it to a point where it could be played live as a trio and sent it to our ghost fourth member. He came in last minute and wanted to add some things. He added all this crazy shit into the chorus. There’s so much going on, like twinkling pianos and synthesizers. I was almost ready to just let the song go before he added all that in. His idea was the chorus and the verses were so different that we ought to lean into that. It took me a second to react, but I said, “I really like this. Even though I don’t even know what this is!”

HMS: I really like the fact that you kept all that. It seems like the sort of things some people cut from their records and miss out. Though it might be really hard to play live!

RG: I don’t know if we’d do it as a trio. I could almost see it as something with 50 people on stage like Talking Heads, super-maximalist. We’ll see.

HMS: If you end up touring with other bands, you could pull them into service.

RG: Yes! I am all about that kind of thing. We’ve done that in the past and we’ll end the show with 12 people on stage. I love the communal aspect. I think it should happen more. 

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