On Tour With Gallant: A Backstage Look at a Star in the Making

PRE-ORDER ISSUE 005

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words and photos by Grant Spanier

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10:23 AM | OCT. 24, 2015

Burbank, CA, USA

I’m sitting on my suitcase on the sidewalk in an industrial park on a late October morning. I’m a little bit apprehensive because I’m about to head out as the tour photographer for the twenty-four-year-old singer Gallant. Over the course of nine days, we’ll be in seven different cities where he’ll perform as the supporting act for Sufjan Stevens. I shot with Gallant a few weeks earlier at a festival in San Diego, and shortly after was invited on tour. It felt like going on a first date and then deciding to take a vacation together — it’s romantic, but it is a bit of a leap.

Gallant, born Christopher Gallant, attended NYU to study music after what he calls a “relatively quiet childhood,” in Columbia, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated in 2013 and then ended up in Los Angeles. This is undoubtedly an overly smooth version of what has been a tumultuous journey. Just listen to the emotion in Gallant’s voice and it’s clear he’s got energy, and at times frustration, pent up. “[The music industry is] so much of people saying ‘we got this, and it’s all good’ — but that’s not the truth. A lot of people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. They don’t got this,” he’ll later tell me. 

He released his debut EP Zebra in 2014, which was produced by his NYU classmate Felix Snow, a New Jersey producer that also produced the singer SZA’s debut S. Zebra made enough of a splash to land him partnerships with lauded booking agency Windish and management company TH3RD BRAIN, as well as a record deal from Warner subsidiary Mind Of A Genius. In June 2015, Gallant’s single “Weight in Gold” was the first song to be premiered exclusively by Zane Lowe on Apple Music. In April 2016, a month before I’d rejoin the tour, he released his debut studio album, Ology, climbing to #1 on the iTunes R&B/Soul charts almost instantly and winning wide critical praise.

I’ve been lucky to have a front-row (actually, for most shows I’m in the pit in front of the front row) view of this swelling career curve. I’ve been separate from the team, but still part of it. I get to tag along, as well as create alongside a remarkable artist at a time when he’s just hitting his groove, then I get to get back on tour with him eight months later.

Ok, ok, back to the tour.

A sleek black tour bus parks across the street (this is just our crew, Sufjan’s bus is meeting us later). Slowly, other cars pull up, people get out, look at me sideways and start situating themselves. Eventually a natural order develops and we start to load our things onto the bus. Suitcases below in the baggage compartment, personal items with you in the bus. Inside, there’s a front lounge area with a television, a small table and a refrigerator. On the inside of the seat is a small card with sharpie scrawled out, “RULE #1” and just below it is “NO #2”. Got it.

The other door leads to a hallway with 12 beds. Someone has attached a piece of blank scotch tape to the assorted bunks and the band is handing a sharpie around writing their names on a bunk of their choice. It feels like a mashup of summer camp, a reality show and Almost Famous. It’s not long before the culture of touring becomes apparent. Let’s be clear; this is a strange existence. Some days it's banal and monotonous; other days it’s dreamlike, and on the same day astonishingly stressful—it is a lifestyle for a specific type of personality, one willing to endure constant highs mixed with constant lows.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone who hasn’t been a touring musician before, including myself, the general schedule goes like this: load-in equipment, then sound check, then prep for show (vocal exercises and wardrobe changes for Gallant), then perform, then come down from the show (hanging out and having a drink or two), then load-out equipment, then review the night’s show and finally go to bed around 4 AM. Then, wake up the next day around 11 AM, in a new city, parked outside a new venue. I didn’t actually meet the driver until almost a full week into the tour.

The people on the tour are a mixed bunch. There’s Gallant’s backing band — a crew of musicians including keyboard player Dani Ivory, drummer AJ Novak and guitarist Dylan McGee Jones, who have toured the world playing for stadium-filling superstars like Beyoncé. Besides the band there is a manager named Miles, a front-of-house sound technician named Johnny and a musical director named Wes.

There are “Tour Dogs” — guys that jump from tour-to-tour, never leaving the road, constantly involved in some sort of production. They are stagehands, lighting/visual guys, sound engineers and tour managers. A couple of them don’t have a permanent address.

But I digress. I note these things because they’re what is beyond bright lights and perceived stardom. As much as the the buzz of someone like Gallant is initially alluring, I find myself drawn to the nuances of the situations surrounding him: the sub-sub cultures and the mini-narratives that unfold behind the curtain. 

Sometime in the first 45 minutes of the tour I realize that Gallant has no fucking clue what he’s doing. I don’t mean that pejoratively, existentially or artistically — the truth is this is his first real tour ever, and he’s figuring it out as he goes.

Gallant arrives 20 minutes late to the bus in semi-rockstar fashion. He’s a tad disheveled with sunglasses on and a wrinkled shirt. His suitcase, frayed and falling apart, has surely seen better days. It’s not until we get to talking that it becomes clear Gallant was not being a “rockstar,” he was just trying to get his shit packed and didn’t know what to bring. He’d later tell me, “I definitely should have brought way more pants, way more socks, a couple washcloths, some toilet paper. All the essentials. Whoops.” He had never been on tour before. He was kind of freaked out. 

Every city on the tour was the first time he’d been to that city. He was simultaneously working through many things — how to run a band, how to operate on tour, how to take a good picture, how to handle his health, how to focus his energy on the task at hand, how to be the center of attention, how to sing “Hotline Bling” with Sufjan Stevens during Sufjan’s encore on Halloween in Jersey City. 

 A few weeks into the tour in the middle of November, I talk to Gallant about the Sufjan performance. 

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GR: Can you talk about the Sufjan relationship and the “Hotline Bling” stuff? It was sort of radio silence early on the tour, and now it’s just like BAM we’re homies, eh? Want to tell us the story of how it went down?

GALLANT: I was just chilling on the bus and my manager Miles was like, ‘Yo, Sufjan wants to do Hotline Bling?’ and I just ran, like bolted off the bus, into soundcheck, and I was ready. I was the most excited I had ever been. To be honest, when we played our first show I was nervous. Sufjan had only heard the early ambient stuff I released and I was nervous he would hear our set and be disappointed they brought us on tour. But after talking for awhile it was clear they’re super open-minded to an eclectic mix of musical styles. They don’t have egos and just take pride in what they do. And they’re honest—it was super inspiring to see that… it’s so easy to be the other way it seems like.

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I don’t realize it at the time, but I was actually standing at the foot of what will probably be a mountain: the precipice of Gallant’s ascension as an artist. I was there just when things were hitting any discernible level of critical mass. It’s not like it’s complete chance people blow up, but the pathways are now based on digital momentum and thus, artists can go from relative anonymity to relative fame in much less time than in the past. 

I think Gallant might be more of an outlier in this new era of ascension. To me, it’s clear he’s playing a long game. He has a passionate, dedicated, benevolent-seeming team around him. His artistic ability is undeniable. He completed the Herculean task of completing and releasing an album. He adapted to an entirely different type of audience on the second tour, from the sit-down theaters and middle-age audience of Sufjan to the dance clubs and younger folks of Zhu. He played colossal Coachella sets –– one, his own, included special guest Seal; another, with Sufjan, was a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” in the wake of the star’s death. He has consistently stepped up, with seemingly-bigger stakes each time.

I’ve seen beyond the veil and I believe him. I believe in him. He’s not masquerading as avant garde, or hiding behind a facade. His semi-normal self is sitting right in front of us. Gallant is at-times nerdy and at-times the most normal dude. He’s often curled up in the back of the tour bus, or in his bunk, with a Nintendo DS. Other times he’s playing the Nintendo Wii that he impulsively purchased two days into the tour, or playing board games like Settlers of Catan with the drummer AJ. 

Gallant represents a gorgeous duality. For all of his introversion, he is in some ways, completely different on stage –– passionate, expressive and unbridled by expectations. Not unlike the rest of us, Gallant is constantly faced with different contexts, competing emotions, relationships and labels. He is one coin, his two sides just have widely different decibel levels. 

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GR: Your lyrics are sort of poetic, weirdly accessible, but poetic. What inspires your writing?

GALLANT: It sort of feels like when you’re an emo teenager, writing shitty emo poems that you don’t want anyone to read. I guess I don’t really like to talk about my lyrics. It’s that level of personal that it’s embarrassing to talk about. I feel like, getting over that fear has really helped me realize how important that vulnerability is for other people. And I guess that the way that I write, is it’s usually me alone. Or just me completely quiet with someone else there. 

GR: You kind of have a duality. Your music is very emotional and very raw. I can sense that, but you’re a pretty chill even keeled dude. It’s interesting.

GALLANT: I recognize that, too.

GR: Is that your outlet for stuff that you don’t deal with day-to-day?

GALLANT: When I’m onstage it’s the only place I could express myself in that way. If someone gives you a punching bag and leaves the room, that’s your opportunity—you punch the fuck out of that bag. But you don’t go in the street and punch someone out. So when I’m writing music it’s like that’s my opportunity to get everything out of my head. When I’m on stage that’s my opportunity to express the way that I am feeling.

A particularly memorable show at my last stop on the Sufjan tour is in Baltimore on November 1st, essentially Gallant’s hometown. It’s his dad’s first time seeing his son perform, and additional family members plus maybe two dozen high school friends are present. They hug him. His friends circle around him. It’s real, it’s raw and it’s all love.

As perhaps an ode to his semi-nerdom, we conduct the final interview of the Sufjan tour in the waning hours after the Baltimore show on the back of the bus, playing Mario Kart on Wii U

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GRANT: I’m curious to hear a bit about you coming to Baltimore. This is the only city you’ve ever been to on the tour, prior to the tour. You just drove across the country, and now we’re in your home city. Were you nervous today?

GALLANT: It was so weird. I’ve never driven across the country. And now I’m home. It’s really trippy. My dad has never seen me play a show. My extended family hasn’t seen a show.. and all my friends. It’s been such a learning experience to do shows everyday, accepting that things go wrong and having to do better the next day.

GRANT: How many of your high school friends were here?

GALLANT: [laughs] A ridiculous amount. Like thirty I think? Thirty-five? They’re my closest friends. So I was really hyped, but it puts the pressure on. They’ve been there since the beginning of high school. To have them actually see a show in person, I can’t even describe what that’s like.

GRANT: Can you talk a bit more about teamwork? It’s such a vibe of this whole operation. It might be weird since part of your team is sitting here.

GALLANT: No! That’s actually perfect. I feel like the biggest mistake that an artist could make, even though I don’t know shit, is thinking that he or she knows everything and is in charge of everything, and everyone around the artist is there to just back them up. When you’re working on music you don’t tell your collaborators what to do, you just do it together - that’s when something special happens. I see everyone in the band as a teammate, in it for the same thing. Everyone’s opinion is valid, and if anyone has an idea it deserves to be tried out. It’s a team effort from beginning to end.

GRANT: I’m wondering what “self-awareness” looks like for you? How do you develop your voice?

GALLANT: Creatively, I guess I just stopped telling lies. If you’re writing songs you can be in this mode of ‘I’m writing songs for you in the third person,’ which is wack. When you go around and introduce yourself to new people, that conversation is going to be honest because you don’t have any facades to keep up. You don’t have stories to remember. You don’t worry about how you want to be perceived. I guess if there’s a cohesive voice in the stuff that I do it’s because I’m just talking. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to say what I want to say. I’m not worried about how it’s going to come off or if it sounds too vulnerable or soft. I just tell the truth.

GRANT: You seem to have a strong ‘why’ for writing or sharing...

GALLANT: Yeah, I mean, if we’re being super real I’m not the type of dude who shows a lot of emotion… so the time I do is when I’m making things or I’m on stage. It’s the only time I get to let that out.

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3:46 PM | MAY 7, 2016

Chicago, IL, USA

I’m meeting Gallant in Chicago. Last night, around midnight, my phone rang. Gallant’s manager Miles told me Gallant was ill and they were skipping Minneapolis because he was prepping for a big opportunity the following week, the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Seven months after the Sufjan tour, a lot had changed.

 

3:29 PM | MAY 11, 2016

New York City, NY, USA

The fabled “30 Rock,” AKA 30 Rockefeller Plaza, is everything one might expect it to be. Tight security. Lots of fancy clothes, pressure and production staff. Wardrobe, hair, makeup, catering, nametags. Nerves abound.

I’m in the larger of two dressing rooms for the band. Gallant can be heard through the wall in the other room doing vocal exercises that mostly consist of lips flapping together in ever-increasing scales. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a diminishing return on these exercises. I think he’s just trying to find something to do so he can avoid thinking about the millions of people about to watch him perform. 

In this room it’s all hands on deck. The band is here, so is David Dann, the head of Mind of a Genius, Jake Udell the head of TH3RD BRAIN, and an assortment of others. As the show streams over the close-circuit television, a hush comes over the boisterous crowd. 

The stage is decorated to resemble a living room and everyone besides Gallant is tucked back behind assorted furniture. A television sits perched on a small side-table, static streaming steadily on the screen.

As the show begins Jimmy teases the guests. He holds up Ology and presses plays a snippet of “Weight In Gold” on his computer for the audience. Jimmy stands and dances around the desk, smiling. The crowd loves it, and so do we.

During the performance Gallant nearly wipes out on an aggressively-thrown couch pillow –– they edit out most of the actual slip –– and the drummer, A.J. miraculously saves a collapsing drum set. The truth is, this group has such a difficult-to-stop energy and talent, that they power on through some potentially major setbacks. It would appear that sheer force of skill and will could see this dude through most misfortune. Gallant receives a standing ovation. 

6:53 PM | MAY 11, 2016

New York City, NY, USA

Jimmy Fallon bursts into the dressing room praising the hell out of Gallant, hugging him and meeting his parents. Though a generally excitable dude, Jimmy was genuinely hyped about Gallant’s performance. He can’t stop talking about how much he loved it. Less than an hour later we’re back on the van buzzing with excitement, heading to the first of two NYC shows. As expected by now, Gallant and the band thrill a sold-out crowd at Terminal 5. 

 

11:21 PM | MAY 21, 2016

Miami, FL, USA

I’m sitting on the bus at the end of a 16-day run. We’re reveling in a successful tour, but I think all of us are thinking about what’s next for Gallant. I’m glad this quiet Maryland kid is sharing his music and his emotion and his words with us. Watching Gallant perform is like reading a diary. It’s intensely personal and ultimately, it makes us feel something.