Garage punk retreats into silence and emerges with a new outlook on sophomore album 'Stardust Birthday Party'

For the past couple of years, Ron Gallo has been on a spiritual quest — turning inward, deconstructing himself and asking big questions for the first time in his life. In the process, he spoke to other people on a similar path, and that led him to Adyashanti, a California-based spiritual teacher who periodically hosts retreats.

Thanks to a tour that fell through at the end of February, Gallo signed up for his first retreat. “On paper it's a very strange thing to do — to spend seven days in total silence with 200 strangers doing five periods of 40-minute meditation a day. It's the exact opposite of how we live our lives,” Gallo said recently by phone. “I was stressed for a month leading up to it. I convinced myself I was gonna die — all this crazy, nervous anxiety. I got there, and on the first day I was like, ‘What are you doing? Why did you do this? This is not what you're looking for. This is super bizarre.' And then the second day everything changed. And it ended up being one of the most incredible things I've ever done.”

Going into the retreat, Gallo was supposed to arrive with one specific goal in mind, and after thinking about it for a month, he came up with a question as simple as it was vexing: “Who am I?”

Not coincidentally, Gallo's new record, Stardust Birthday Party, opens with the track “Who are You? Point to It!” “It gives context,” Gallo said of the trippy, two-chord meditation. “That's what the record is. It's trying to get to the core of what all of us are, and this is my experience doing that.”

In his meditative searching, Gallo realized the answer to his biggest question required embracing the idea of endless mystery. “The only thing we all have in common is that we don't know where we are going, just that we are going to go there,” he sings on “The Password,” a far more playful rock tune than the subject matter implies.

“We spend every day of our lives as human beings trying to understand everything and give a name to everything and put everything into a box because it's way scarier to just actually accept the fact that none of us really know anything at all about our existence or ourselves,” he said. “I like that, because maybe if people realized that, they wouldn't take themselves so seriously. I think it would make people more peaceful and compassionate, because you're like, ‘Hey, man. We're both completely lost and have no idea what we're doing in this strange place. Let's just have a good time. Let's not get all serious and make a big deal about these fake things we think we are.'”

This compassion-centric, zen-like outlook may come as a bit of a surprise to listeners of Gallo's garage-punk debut, Heavy Meta, which didn't often veer into such territory. In fact, the outlook on Stardust Birthday Party is so different from Heavy Meta that Gallo doesn't play a song like “Why Do You Have Kids?” at live shows anymore. “It completely feels weird to try to push the idea of compassion as something that's constructive and then also play songs that lack compassion and came from me being a judgmental asshole,” he said.

Gallo actually wrote the bulk of Stardust prior to the retreat, which makes many of the songs oddly anticipatory, even prescient. Gallo already knew some of the answers to his questions; he just didn't know it yet. “Before, you're talking about these things as cool thoughts or ideas that you like the idea of believing in, and now you're like, ‘Oh, cool. I can actually speak from experience now about this stuff,'” Gallo said. “There's a difference between going around and playing songs about things you think sound cool and playing songs about what you know to be true for yourself.”

The challenge now, Gallo said, is to not let his post-retreat existence decline back to the “anxious, ego-driven, noisy American lifestyle.” It's a tall order, and on “Always Elsewhere,” a delightful dose of high-speed krautrock, he paints a picture of what it looks like to live life in fast-forward mode, never taking the time to stop and be present in the moment. “Always elsewhere/No time/To feel what's real,” he shout-sings.

“One of the biggest things is being aware that you're not being aware,” Gallo said. “Being reminded of that is one of the good strategies to get there again.”

And the unknowability of that all-encompassing question — “Who am I?” — no longer paralyzes Gallo. “It used to be the most terrifying thought, so I spent my whole life trying to cover it up. But then something occurred to me: That's actually the most beautiful thought: ‘I don't know what I am. I don't know what you are. I don't know what this place is,'” he said. “It's the most positive thought. You're letting go of all the stupid shit we use to divide ourselves from each other. You're all unified by the fact that it's a total mystery, and that's cool. That's fun to me now.”