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an interview with Willy Vlautin by Stav Sherez
"Dave Harding, our bass player, was down in Baja, Mexico and he met this guy from Wyoming, an expatriate of sorts, a guy who had found a large bail of cocaine and hid it out in the desert. He and Dave became friends, his name was Richmond Fontaine. Then Dave went over to his place one night and the man was gone. All his stuff still there, but no one saw him again. No one knew anything," Willy Vlautin explains, sorting out one of life's little mysteries, the inexplicable filing of Richmond Fontaine records in the 'F' section of yourlocalrecordshop along (of course) with Pink Floyd and Ben Folds Five. And it's a fitting tale. For that's exactly the kind of story, the unfinished, mysterious fragment that songwriter Vlautin so excels at, making Richmond Fontaine perhaps the most underrated band creating music today.
First coming to light on these shores through the inclusion of the tense, bewildered, agonised Calm (from the album 'Miles From') on the first of Loose's 'New Sounds...' compilations, it has remained one of the music industry's beguiling travesties that none of their records has been distributed here. From that first, initial listen you knew that this was the band that you'd been looking for all these years. In the desert of modern music, in the wastes of bad lyrics and the dark cellars of the imagination, theirs are amongst the only records to emerge in the last few years that seem to have taken on the mantle of Waits, Springsteen, Newman; writers who mattered, who you gave a damn about, and, in Vlautin's terse, uncertain, often savage and brutal tales there was something fresh, something challenging, disturbing and distinctive.
1999's 'Lost Son' came next, a screaming, angry, trapped behemoth of an album, alternating between sheer SST rage and delicate acoustic stories about kidnap, murder and self destruction. That they could afford to leave out so strong a song as the title track (included on this month's covermount), a song most other bands would kill for, attests to the deep well of quality to be found here.
This year's 'Winnemucca', a certain contender for album of the year, is the most coherent set of songs released in a long while, an unbroken tapestry, each track almost serving as a chapter to a larger tale centering around themes of escape and escapism, through distance and drugs, deserts and wasted, empty nights, complemented by an easy acoustic feel that relinquishes none of the intensity while adding a whole new spacious vocabulary to the band's sound. I talked to the band's singer and songwriter, Willy Vlautin, and asked him about this shift.
"We wanted the songs to fit the feeling of being beat up or worn-out and hiding out," he says. "So yeah, we went in with that idea in mind. It was great to let Paul [Brainard] have his way on the steel too. He's so good, it was a lot of fun to watch it come together, and let him be seen more.
"I guess, in a way, the new record is an answer to the last record, 'Lost Son'," he continues. "That record was the darkest one we'd done and it hurt doing it, 'cause I felt like that record for a long time. When I was writing the new songs I was tired and I've always dreamt about escaping. I've always been that way. I started going to Winnemucca to hide from Reno so my family wouldn't know I was there, and I could drink and gamble without anyone knowing me, and no word getting back to my mom that I was back in town and out of my mind," Willy says in way of explanation to the recurrent draw of Nevada in his songwriting as a place to go back to, get lost in, become invisible. "It's like knowing you said something you shouldn't have or someone said it to you or you'd done something horrible, whether drunk or not, or getting the shit beat out of you, or making a fool out of yourself. When that sort of thing happens, you wake up the next morning wanting to disappear, and that was the kind of record I wanted to make. One you could go to sleep to or get up to and listen to when you felt like that. Nothing real loud that would ruin your nerves worse."
I asked him how much that was based on his childhood, had he grown up there? "I did grow up in Reno, Nevada with my mother and brother and lived there mostly until I was twenty six. I then moved up to Portland where I live now. I think, in the beginning, with our first records, I was so homesick that all I thought of was Reno and so I used to write about it all the time. I used to lay in bed at night and dream about it. But I'd dream about me not being who I was when I was there, but a different guy. I wasn't much there. I worked for a trucking company and drank and gambled in the casinos. My rent was low and I knew all the great places and I knew enough people. When I left, I guess I used the town as something to ease my mind when I was trying to make a go of it in Portland. I wanted to get in a real band, that's why I moved up there, but it was like pulling teeth for the first while 'cause I was scared being in a big city away from everything I knew. I ain't the most adventurous guy around. I guess in a lot of ways I'm still trying to get to where I can move back there and not fall back on the slide where I was when I left. But I guess Reno, it's my ace in the whole, when things fall apart I dream about it and all the good times I had there."
A lot of Vlautin's characters find their escape through alcohol, drugs or acts of violence. There's a tense, stranded claustrophobia to his lyrics that never fails to draw the listener in. I wonder, does the writing of songs, in some way, fulfil Vlautin's own need for escape? He nods. "A lot of the time I suppose I'm trying to confront things that worry me, or scare me in a way that won't leave me alone. That's why a lot of the things are so dark. Alcohol has a good hold of me, and has been such a part of my life that it has to be in the songs as well as violence. I'm scared of violence, of seeing it, of being in it. It haunts me, they both do. They're some of the themes that run in me and I can't get them out yet. It's like Jim Thompson, the American crime writer, they say his wife would read the paper to him and tell him of some horrible act of violence that had recently occurred and he'd get so upset he would nearly cry and then he'd write some crazed violent story to get it out. I'm sort of like that. I don't know if it's healthy or not, but that's why they come out that way. Not all dark, but it's there."
And there it most certainly is, as one of Vlautin's earliest lyrics so elegantly and concisely conveys that it's worth quoting in full: "A kid steps out into the road / and duct-tapes three M-80s to his head and lights them / His brother watches from a barber shop window while he gets his haircut / from a guy who touches his leg / and touches his arm / and says sex things in his ear / It's the luck of the Irish in Reno, NV."
Running through his work are recurrent images of innocents trapped, seduced into dark horrors while the narrator stands helpless or vainly tries to save them. It reminds me of the dank, festering novels of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs. I ask Vlautin for his thoughts on why these themes re-appear so often. "It's sort of a gamble, one's life," he replies. "Where will you fall, what are your weaknesses, will they kill you? If you're hurting, will people help you or take advantage of you? Will the people you love, love you when you need them to? The mistakes you make, they could ruin you, set you off on a bad run. Hell, I think about all that all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than someone hurting and then being done wrong or worse by someone who's aware of that. As far as my songs, in a weird sort of way, I'm both characters a lot of the time. I see myself as both the fallen and the person wanting to help the fallen. I hate when someone I like is going down, and I'd do most anything to get them back right, but some of the time I hate to say, it's me who's on the bad end. Not as much now, but used to be."
And it's this empathy for his characters that elevates Vlautin's songs above the merely voyeuristic to a much deeper and more resonant level. It's also his relentless scrutiny and resolution to write about subjects that most songwriters wouldn't consider fit. Child abuse for one, normally, if tackled at all, is layered in metaphor and allusion to a point where the meaning of the song becomes obscured and sugared. Vlautin's lyrics, as evinced above, never flinch from the subject. I ask him if this is part of his general empathy for victims. "Hell, I guess it runs back to what I was saying earlier about being vulnerable and being taken advantage of. It's one of those themes in life that just saddens me over and over. It's happened to me, and you never see it coming, or who it's going to come from. I'm not just talking about abuse, more just about being worked over, like a grifter might do to you if he sees you're in a bad way. He'll work it the way he wants to, for his benefit. All that goes whirling around my head and they just come out in the stories... I hate that I write some of them, but I do, I can't help it."
And thank god for that. For this is exactly what's missing from the majority of modern-day music. It's the specificity of the language that makes the songs so powerful, belying the misguided belief that the more specific your lyrics are the narrower their appeal. In fact it's the opposite. I asked Willy if he's always set out to eschew the lazy generalisations that fester amongst most music and whether this is just a way of cloaking the fact that you have nothing to say. "Yes. I've always been a big fan of songwriters who bring you into their world. Details for me bring me in. Whether a town, a street name, a table, a bar, the lighting, character's names, posters. Whatever it may be. I always wanted to take people there to a different world. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Once inside the world you tell a story or give a feel you hope makes sense to people. My hope is if someone likes the song enough they will listen to the lyrics then they will hear the story. Maybe it will work for them, and if once in a while they do, then it hits them hard. When I hear a song, and the lyrics take me to a different world than my own and the story moves me, then I feel I've just been in that world and it kills me. I get heat sometimes for writing such dark story songs, and hell, I wish I wouldn't either, but a lot of the time I do and can't help it."
"I've always liked Tom Waits," he says when I ask him which other lyricists he admires. "He always takes me somewhere else and then breaks my heart when I get there. On his new record, 'Alice', he does it time and time again. The one where Carroll has a girl in the back of his head who would tell him things that are only told in hell. That song [Poor Edward] just kills me. I see it all in my mind, for a moment I'm him and I know who that girl is, I know what she looks like and why she's there and she scares the hell out of me. I used to be a huge fan of Shane MacGowan. When he was good I thought he could do anything. He took me to World War I, to Spain, the IRA, to drinking in Australia and Thailand, to being with the greatest women in the world, to London, and to America at the turn of the century. Bob Dylan, he's great at that. John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X do the same thing to me, as does Dave Alvin. He tells a great story and always leaves the ending open, and depending on the way you feel about things is the way you'll have the story end. I like that a lot and try to do that myself."
But perhaps it's more to literature that we should look when talking about Vlautin's songs. There's a novelist's richness of detail and eye for nuance in his work as well as the feel of a total vision that seeps through the oeuvres of writers such as Charles Bukowski, Ray Carver, Denis Johnson and Thom Jones. I ask him if he considers any of these as influences. "Not a lot of people know Thom Jones, but I think he's one of the best short story writers going. He lives up in Olympia, Washington, I think. I'm glad you like him. He seems crazy as hell. I saw him read once and he was great, just out of his fucking mind. I read Bukowski when I'm on the road or on vacation. I can't read drunk, but him I can and so I do. At times he's the greatest. The one, 'South of No North', that's a great collection by him when I think he was really on. I liked 'Jesus Son' by Denis Johnson but I haven't been as big a fan of his past that. I've tried. I'm a big fan of Raymond Carver as I wouldn't have written stories if not for his work and me living in the same general area as he and feeling that my life and his were so similar really made me relate to him in a way that's lasted. A ton of others. John Steinbeck, John Fante, Flannery O'Connor, Larry Brown's first two books, Barry Hannah, Larry Watson."
Vlautin has been writing fiction for some time now and is currently working on a novel. I ask him if he finds that fictions gives him the expanse to say things that can only be touched on in the brevity of song lyrics. "I think you hit it on that one," he agrees. "I might write a song about a guy, but you can only be with him so long in a song so I'll often write a story about him and carry it out more. I like fiction, both short stories and novels, because I'm able to have more control over the feel. My stories tend to be less dark, with more humor or lightness. More life to them. I have a hard time writing a happy song, although it's not hard for me to write a story with a happy ending, or, say, a comedy. The other thing with writing is, you don't bother anyone. You just sit there and mind your own business. There's nothing but the work, and you can do what you please. You can kill off anyone, quit your job, get married, be a pilot or doctor or a middle-aged alcoholic nurse who's on a bender. It's complete freedom and all you have to do is write it down, you don't have to explain it to anyone. Because in the end you don't have to show anyone if you don't want to. You're not in bar trying to beat someone over the head with it." Winner's Casino
: Is an actual place in Winnemucca, Nevada. It's the main casino in town and I've been there countless times. They have cheap rooms and usually a pretty good country lounge band. I'll go and gamble at night, and during the day you can play bingo and drink beers with all the old ladies.Out of State
: Is about a couple hiding in a motel. They're hiding from the world, more or less, and she's scared, she thinks they'll never escape their world and he's telling her, it's alright, just be with me and together we'll be alright. At least for a while, a couple days or weeks or whatever.Northline
: Is more or less about loneliness and how far one will go not to be. The man in the song is messing around with a skinhead Nazi girl and he tries to justify his actions by blaming her boyfriend, saying it's him who's to blame. But he's lonely and scared to be alone. And she, she's an alright girl, I think, she's just lost and on a bad run. He falls for her even though he
hates who she is, or who she says she is, because he's on the slide.Santiam
: Santiam is a work prison, minimum security, south of Portland. It's a fuck-up's prison. Not for horrible people, but for guys who just screwed up, got too many DUI's or got caught with drugs, etc. This kid, the narrator is heading down there, his brother's driving him, and the kid's seeing the whole city in a way he hadn't seen it before. He thinks everything in it's beautiful, even the warehouses and the kids yelling, and all the old restaurants and clubs. He's scared, he's about to spend a year and a half there and he's hoping he won't come out the other end not liking anything, not himself, the city, anything.Twyla
: Twyla was written for Twyla Beckner, my favorite jockey at the local horse track, Portland Meadows. I've bet her every race for the last five years and she's sort of my good luck charm.Patty's Retreat
: That was a bar in Portland they closed down, and Dave and me and Paul have had some crazy times there. It was the last of the hardcore old man bars in downtown Portland, and us three we had one of the craziest nights I ever had there.Glisan Street
: Is a street in Portland near where I live, but I wrote it for a time when I was dating a girl from Portland and living in Reno and, after it all ended and I moved to Oregon, I thought every person in the whole state would be her. I'd be in some little town, or at the coast or in a bar or restaurant and I'd be sure I'd see her. My heart would fall apart, and I'd get nervous as hell if I saw someone with the same hair, same sort of clothes.Somewhere Near
: This song follows this couple walking home, and they see a car wreck, but they're in love, and they don't want to see anything dark at all. So they walk down a different street to escape it. The narrator, he's happy, he's with this girl and she likes him and he likes her, and he's alright. He knows darkness, however you imagine it, is all around, that it's always
somewhere near, but right then, with that girl, it's all okay.5 Degrees Below Zero
: Is about a guy having to move in with his uncle for reasons we're not too sure of. Probably gambling, drinking. On the bus, heading towards his uncle's, he sees all these crazy people living such hard lives, and the thing is he's trying as hard as he can to keep straight and try, but the people, they start getting to him, breaking him down, so he tries to escape, and in the end him running away could be the thing that kills him.Western Skyline
: I wrote that song for my uncle Bill. He died in a hunting accident in 1968. He was 18. He fell on his gun and it went off. His friend held him in his arms until he died. I used to fish the Truckee river all the time, and where I'd go was right by where he died. And every time I'd be there he'd appear in my mind. For years. He was supposedly a great kid. I was named after him, he was my godfather. I used to sit there and think about the poor kid who had to hold him. What would you say to your dying friend, how would you say it? So I'd go around and around
about it, and in the end I felt I'd tell him a drunkard's dream. That where he was going there was a golden light, that there were women who were gentle and kind, and everything had a nice light to it, and we'd be walking downtown having a good time.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002