In the opening track of What the Toll Tells, Adam Stephens of San Francisco's Two Gallants plays the role of a murderer facing the gallows, yowling like a tortured young Black Francis over country-punk guitars while keeping counsel with the dead. He's shot his wife and dumped her body in the Frisco bay in "Steady Rollin'." And then there's the infamous "Long Summer Day," in which he plays an angry black man haunted by the memory of his daddy's murder at the hands of rednecks, who not only lynched him but burned him alive.
"I guess it's just a lack of interest in my own life," Stephens says, with a laugh, when asked about his tendency to sing in other people's voices. "I don't really care enough about the daily events of my own life to construct a song around it. It's just not that interesting to me."
His interest in the racial horrors of "Long Summer Day," he explains, was inspired, in part, by his obsession with the music and culture that sprang from that dark chapter in our nation's history (and, in part, by the opening line of a field recording by someone named Moses "Clear Rock" Platt). So many of his favorite artists were made to suffer through racial injustice, he felt he had to document their struggles. "Not to say that I could write a song from that perspective," he says, "but this is at least an attempt."
Many critics, from Pitchfork to Prefix, have slammed the song and Stephens for brazenly dropping the N-bomb, arguing that even if the character he's playing is a black man, he's still white. But Stephens isn't buying that.
"I don't want to disrespect any black folks who hear the song and might take it the wrong way," he says. "And if that situation arises, I would definitely want to clear it up. But if some white folks are uncomfortable and want to call me on it, I don't really think they have much of a place to, because it's just part of our history, part of our country's past. And it's something that's never ever written about in indie-rock or whatever kind of music it is that we're involved in."
He isn't sure what kind of music he and drummer Tyson Vogel are involved in, but he's pretty sure it isn't folk, no matter how indebted to the folk tradition it would seem to be.
"Music today, when it's based on traditional music, it's not really real," he says. "It's not real folk music. It's just a regurgitation of the past. And I think we're a part of that in some way. There are influences that I think are pretty obvious in our music, a lot of traditional music, country music. But I don't really like to use the F-word very often."
Now, the N-word, that's a different story.
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