Yo, ho, ho!
The Deadly Gallows
Remember a couple of years ago when pirates were still fun? Back in the salad days before the recent slew of attacks by Somali pirates made piracy a no-laughing matter, the first images evoked by the mention of the word “pirate” would be of Johnny Depp wearing a tricorne hat and doing his best Keith Richards impersonation. Or you might think of Captain Hook or, better yet, Cap’n Crunch.
Reno “pirate-core” band The Deadly Gallows has the rum-drinking, sea shanty-singing, booty-plundering, village-pillaging spirit of the pirates of yore. It’s the sound of the rough-and-tumble adventure on the high seas—but recast to the high desert.
Pirate-core is a spin-off sub-genre of the folk-punk movement started almost single-handedly in the early 1980s by the London band The Pogues, who played traditional Celtic folk with the gutter fury of punk rock. The pirate theme was prominent on their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. That album, along with Adam Ant and a couple of Tom Waits songs like “Singapore,” is the root of pirate-core.
But the biggest and most recognizable influence on The Deadly Gallows is a defunct Reno band: local pirate-core forbears The Scurvy Bastards, who had a fierce swashbuckling run in the early 2000s.
Johnny D., The Deadly Gallows’ vocalist, banjo player and principle songwriter, recalls being blown away upon first hearing The Scurvy Bastards as a teenager. He had recently taken up playing the banjo and the rowdy 18th century tavern atmosphere of The Scurvy Bastards fit perfectly with what he wanted to hear—a case of listener and music fitting together like a patch over an eye.
“I just started naturally figuring out the pirate sound,” he says.
And what’s the pirate sound?
“Well, I write everything in A minor,” says Johnny D., with a laugh. “It’s a good pirate key.” A minor is a favorite key for folk musicians and musical primitives of all stripes because it’s arguably the easiest key to play on both the piano and the guitar.
The pirate theme provides a treasure chest of inspiration. Johnny D. works the raw materials of life into sing-a-long tales of freighters and buccaneers.
“I always had trouble knowing what to write about,” he says. “This gives me a metaphor for everything.”
For example, when a band member quit, the group’s frustration and disappointment was transformed, using the magic of pirate metaphors, into a song aptly named “Mutiny.”
In addition to Johnny D., the solid, dexterous current lineup includes guitarist Barry Belmont, bassist Stefan Jensen, drummer Russell Garrison and pirate brothers Zachariah and Cameron Rees on accordion and violin, respectively.
The music occasionally has a dissonant and foreboding quality, sometimes slow and moody, but often underlined with urgent and driving rhythms. The vocals, led by Johnny D., but with the others joining in for the raucous choruses, are gruff and throaty—more shades of Waits and The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan and even The Scurvy Bastards’ Brooke Walker.
The pirate theme of the songs—not to mention the pirate costumes—might strike some readers as a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick backed up with some good songs. And what could possibly be a better gimmick than pirates? Ninjas, maybe?