If there's a rockabilly bar in Hell, the Michigan quintet known as the Goddamn Gallows will probably end up as the house band. Their music is frenzied and ferocious, heavy on the double-thumped upright bass, serrated-edge riffing, and blinding tempos we've come to associate with modern-day rockabilly revivalists. And they'd fit the lyrical bill as well, as song titles like "Smoke Satan," Y'all Motherfuckers Need Jesus," and "Seven Devils" will attest.
They're also tough enough to take the heat after spending four of their 10 years together living in whatever touring vehicle would support them as they played shows anywhere and everywhere. They've dragged their oddball combination of banjo, accordion, guitar, bass, and drums across the country year in and year out, somehow managing to release three raw-as-rust studio albums and a split LP with the Austin, Texas roots-punkers Black Eyed Vermillion.
So what's the secret to cranking out a decade of corrosive, hiccupping hillbilly metal and living in a van without killing each other? "It's easy," says TV's Avery, the band's accordion and washboard player. "None of us like the same music at all, and we all insist on only playing the music that we want to play. So the metal drummer will be playing metal and I'll be playing polka and [guitarist] Mikey Classic might be playing something rockabilly, and you just have to make a song out of it. So there's no compromise."
Ah. So that insistence on playing whatever you want, regardless of what the other four are playing, keeps you happy? "Oh no, we kick the shit out of each other all the time," Avery says. "It's nonstop."
OK then. It's worth noting that the above statement was neither preceded nor followed by a laugh on Avery's part. He also takes the idea of making a hell of a lot of racket on their mostly acoustic instruments pretty seriously — or not. "It's fun because not many other people are doing it, but it's challenging because it's really super hard making an upright bass sound metal," he says. "Or an accordion, for Chrissakes. There's nothing metal about an accordion. I tried to play with a metal band for a second, and they just shook their heads and said, 'Stop it.' So you have an idea of what you want in your head, and trying to make it manifest on grandpa's instruments is hard as hell."
Perhaps that drive to make their sound work comes from all that time living from hand to mouth on the road. The band, which also includes Fishgutzzz on upright bass, Joe Perreze on banjo, and Baby Genius on drums, learned to put their heads down and make their sound work out of pure necessity. "It definitely made us stronger, because we were eating out of garbage cans for like two years," Avery says. "It makes you want to hold on to whatever you get. Back in the early days, there was no such thing as pacing ourselves. We couldn't afford to take a day off. We had to play every single night to afford to get to the next place. Wherever we could play, we had to play. I think the longest we did without a day off was 64 dates or something. That was pretty bad."
The band is certainly in a better place now, but a lot of sacrifices had to be made so they could keep doing what Avery says is the only thing they know how to do. "We still try to play a lot now, just to maximize what income we can to pay rent when we get back, now that we're not homeless anymore," he says. "But you have to give up everything. Every single thing. Relationships, physical security, any hopes of saving something up. People who work a regular job, one day they could save up enough to buy a house. We have no such luxury. We can't do that. I can't tell you how many [romantic] breakups we've had because we're on the road all the time. But we don't know anything else. We don't know what to do other than this. Not that we have any real skill in this arena, but we have even less in the real working world."
Which is why, to sum up, the Goddamn Gallows are ready to sell out and sign with a major label now, please. "We've never found ourselves in that situation, but I'd do it in a heartbeat," Avery says. "We've been trying to sell out for years."
But wouldn't they have to change their name for a better shot at the mainstream? "Who cares? Whatever! I'd do whatever it took to sell out. I want money," he says. "The music and the love of it are important, but they are extremely, extremely less important than money."
Again, no laughter.