AUSTIN, Texas -- There’s a time-honored adage regarding the patience required for aspiring artists who move to Nashville. There’s even a song (by Tim Carroll) about the likelihood that success will come slowly. It’s called “Five Year Town.”
So when Ron Gallo, former leader of the Philadelphia band Toy Soldiers, packed up his guitars and sought a new beginning in Music City on the day after New Year’s Day in 2016, he might have reasonably expected to land a record deal in 2021.
It happened a lot faster than that. By August, the songwriter and bandleader had signed with New West Records, which put out Gallo’s solo debut album, Heavy Meta, an uncharacteristically hard-rocking release for the mostly Americana label, in February.
And last month, Gallo and his power trio played a baker’s dozen worth of gigs in this Texas capital city at the proving ground that is the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Gallo’s assaultive sound harks back to 1970s bands like the Stooges and Richard Hell & the Voidoids -- he cites Hell axman Robert Quine as a guitar hero -- and he enjoys playing the provocateur.
At SXSW, he began shows by saying, deadpan, what an honor it was to play alongside “some of the biggest names in music,” then name-dropped fest corporate sponsors, like McDonald’s, Toyota, and Capitol One.
Kim Buie, the New West A&R director who signed Gallo to the label, calls him “a semi-punk-rock instigator.”
“I like to take the antagonistic approach,” the 29-year-old Temple graduate says on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day afternoon after a show at an outdoor-lifestyle-products store near the Congress Avenue Bridge, where the world’s largest urban bat colony resides.
Sipping on Topo Chico -- the Mexican mineral water that’s the Austin nonalcoholic beverage of choice -- with poufy hair and sunglasses, Gallo’s rock-and-roll court jester’s look is straight out of the mid-1960s Bob Dylan playbook. Passersby in green shout out, “Great show, dude!”
“Not to intentionally go against things, but just staying true to what I really feel,” says Gallo, who will play a hometown gig opening for Hurray for the Riff Raff at World Cafe Live on April 21 and return for the Non-Commvention on May 18. “I’m going to go into the crowd, I’m going to stir s- up. Because for me, it’s just so liberating and fun.”
Heavy Meta’s attention-grabbers start with “Young Lady You’re Scaring Me,” which thunders in on a powerhouse riff reminiscent of Link Wray’s “Rumble” and makes reference to the Philadelphia killer who became known as the Kensington Strangler in 2010, the year Gallo graduated from Temple with a communications degree.
“Why Do You Have Kids?” was written while Gallo was living on East Girard Avenue and fronting Toy Soldiers, the band he formed with drummer Mike Baurer at Temple that stayed together through their The Maybe Boys album in 2013.
“Falling asleep standing up on the corner, with cigarette ash falling in the stroller,” he sings.
“That Front and Girard intersection of the El was just notoriously bad for attracting rough, seedy groups of people. I would get off there and see some of the stuff in the song, people hitting and yelling at their kids. Not in parent mode. One day, I saw that scene. Just taking a direct observation and putting it in a song. That was a big leap for me.”
“All of the Punks Have Been Domesticated” is a song that -- ironically -- is more subdued musically than most on Meta. It rues the loss of a sense of danger in rock and rails against complacency. “Every room is sterilized, all risk is paralyzed ... and no one really has anything to say.”
Gallo doesn’t romanticize decadence. “The whole lifestyle thing is bulls-,” he says. “You got to sleep. Eat right. Exercise when you can. You got to stretch. Be a decent person.”
But he is raging against “the loss of that spirit in the music.” He wrote the song while working as a house cleaner in Philadelphia. His coworkers “were total punks, aesthetically. But then they would talk about their student loans and car payments and how they had to go furniture shopping.”
Toy Soldiers “never really got to where people knew what I was about,” he says of his former band. “We were confusing. I was still trying to figure out what I was about as a human, but also what I was about musically.”
As a relationship was ending with a girlfriend struggling with depression, Gallo says, he felt stuck. “I was in South Philly, sitting in my room in this miserable house, just feeling incredibly lost.”
After Toy Soldiers' final tour, he headed west. Rambling around, playing shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Joshua Tree, “I got this revitalized feeling playing these new songs. A door opened to where I could be more myself, or at least be on a path to figure out what that is.”
He pretty much finished Heavy Meta, then moved to Nashville without any intention of making it. “I had a ton of friends down there, and one of them had a room available. I moved down myself. And then things just started to click.”
Immersing himself in the garage rock scene with bands like Microwave Mountain and Thelma & the Sleaze, he played with pickup players before bandmates Dylan Sevey and Joe Bisirri followed him. Bisirri, who recorded Heavy Meta in Philadelphia, rooms with Gallo in East Nashville. “We’ve got a porch, a house, and a yard. There’s room to breathe and hide from people. And if you want music, it’s everywhere.”
Gallo didn’t approach a single record company. But his music caught the ear of veteran music exec Buie. She was struck by his keen wit and sees him as “an artist who has a really unique voice who doesn’t want to stay stagnant.”
Playing so many SXSW shows was about “making an impression on a large group of people from all over the world in a concentrated period of time, and doing it with absolute ferociousness,” Buie says. “A lot of people saw him, and there was a lot of chatter. It’s like, ‘You’re the debutante, and here’s your coming-out party.’ "
For Gallo, SXSW was a kick. “I love the hustle,” he says. “To think that it was just two years ago that I was like, ‘What the [hell] am I doing with my life? I’m pushing 30.’ And now we’re here, and we’re going to go play Austin City Limits Live tonight? It’s just wild.”
What made that change happen, Gallo says, is “there’s nothing self-indulgent about creativity to me anymore. I want to make things that people can relate to, that can make them start to ask questions. Because that’s where this record comes from. That was the most important thing I ever did in my life. I started to ask questions about what I was doing, and who I was.”