More Than Wallpaper: A Conversation with Robbie Fulks
A conversation with the country songwriter who listens to more Michael Jackson than Nashville.
There's no "alt" to Robbie Fulks's country, but nonetheless, he was embraced by the alt-country crowd as one of its own upon the release of his first two albums for Bloodshot Records, Country Love Songs (1996) and the slightly superior South Mouth (1997). Their eerily accurate inhabitations of '50s honky-tonk were the makings of a true traditionalist, not an integration revivalist, and Fulks proved himself to be a songwriter of great intensity and humor alike: "Barely Human" and "Cold Statesville Ground" chill to the proverbial bone, while "I Told Her Lies" and "Fuck This Town" are milk-snortin'-out-the-nose music.
Mainstream notoriety was not so easy. Geffen Records brought Fulks aboard its soon-to-be-sunk-in-corporate-mergers ship in 1998; Let's Kill Saturday Night, the strong, steel-hoofed result, was buried thanks to the impeccable idiocy befitting the most starched of corporate suits. Since the 2001 release of his most adventurous and rewarding album Couples in Trouble, Fulks has kept a low public profile, surfacing last year to produce Touch My Heart, a tribute to Johnny Paycheck. But despite a slowing of his otherwise prolific output, he's been keeping himself busy as ever. Most recently, he put his efforts into recording his seventh official release, the fantastic Georgia Hard (Yep Roc), which marks a return to his country roots after a few years of experimentation.
Georgia Hard doesn't perpetuate Fulks's usual '50s-obsessed modus operandi; instead, it moves up two decades and goes for the jugular of more pop-inclined country, an echo of Nashville's last bastion of quality before the walls were breached by sentimental profiteers. On first listen it's a bit jarring, like running into a co-worker at a public place, but once you've gotten over that, you realize it's exactly the kind of record only Fulks could make, stacked with rambling anthems ("Where There's a Road"), murder ballads ("If They Could Only See Me Now"), self-deprecating weepers ("Leave It to a Loser"), and, of course, the requisite rotten valentine to phonies ("Countrier Than Thou"). PopMatters recently caught up with the congenial Fulks over the phone, on the eve of Georgia Hard's release.
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PopMatters: Your last few records of new original material experimented with different genres. Any particular reason why you chose to make another country record now?
Robbie Fulks: It was just kinda what I was listening to, and I really missed writing country songs. I hadn't really sat down and written a set of them for a record since ... I don't know, 1997 probably? So it had been a couple years and I felt I could do it a lot better at this point. I was really eager to take another stab at it.
PM: It's also a different breed of country music this time.
RF:Yeah, what I was listening to was kinda different. I felt like I'd exhausted the '50s honky-tonk, not just for my own purposes, but I wasn't listening to it as much as I was ten years previously. I was listening to more ... I don't know, cheesier stuff like Conway Twitty and Don Williams -- not all of it cheesy, but some of it. It seemed like a fun challenge to jump into that more "adult" school of country. It also seemed to be where my life was, or is right now: I'm out in the 'burbs, I've got a family, I'm an older guy, and I have a mortgage. That style of country just seemed to suit me better than the rave-up style.
PM: Backtracking a little bit to Let's Kill Saturday Night and Couples in Trouble: How do you feel about those now that you've got a couple of years' perspective? They're very different than anything else in your catalog.
RF: Those two records are different?
PM: Yeah, I think so. The style ... Let's Kill Saturday Night has a lot of rock 'n' roll in it --
RF: Well, I think it's proper to pair those two records, 'cause the chain does kinda skip over, in a way chronologically, the Very Best [of Robbie Fulks] and the covers record [13 Hillbilly Giants]. The Very Best record was odds-and-ends, recorded over a lot of different years and the Hillbilly Giants record was what it was. It was supposed to be a website-only release, despite the fact that Bloodshot put it out later. It sorta kept us going on the road for a year and raised some extra money to finish off Couples. It's not that I regret putting out those two records, but they do kinda interrupt the timeline a little bit. I think Let's Kill Saturday Night and Couples in Trouble are a more closely related pair if you consider them without the other two in the middle. Couples in Trouble is, I think, a more polished and successful version of what I was trying to pull off in [Let's Kill Saturday Night]. It takes a lot of different styles and fuses them more successfully. I think I had more time and more knowledge to get it right -- better -- on the green record than on the brown record.
PM: Was it challenging for you to write in different styles for those two records? Songs like "Caroline" or "She Must Think That I Like Poetry"?
RF: Well, I would say that half the songs on [Let's Kill Saturday Night] were written as long as eight or nine years before I made it. Maybe half of them were written in the year leading up to the record. Couples in Trouble was more purely conceived as a record, and was sorta written as a set of songs, even down to the key of one song going into the key of the next song, the crossfades, and stuff like that was a lot more deliberately storyboarded and overseen than the other record.
PM: Wow, I've never even noticed that.
RF: Oh, it's the kind of thing probably nobody but me would notice. [laughs] You just like to think that somebody somewhere is gonna say, "Oh yeah, that goes from A down to A-flat, and the mood kinda depresses a little bit too when that happens".
PM: You use more wordplay and humor when you're writing country songs than not -- is that an instinctive thing when you're writing country tunes?
RF: Well, I think the lineage of funny country songs is a lot more clear and better defined to me than other styles I work in. If I did calypso, then there might be a chance to write funny calypso songs, but I just can't think of a lot of funny ... like on Couples in Trouble there's that old-timey song, a No Depression-sounding song ["In Bristol Town One Bright Day"]? It would just be weird to graph a humorous sensibility onto those styles. Whereas a country two-beat, you know, you can immediately think of a dozen groups: "Oh yeah, that sounds like the Carlisles, or a funny Louvin Brothers song, or whatever". I guess I can hear it, the precedence, better in my head.
PM: Sometimes when you use humor, it comes across as a way to make something sad even sadder. Is that the intended effect that you have?
RF: I'm not sure exactly of an example of what you're talking about, but if you're writing a sad song, it probably helps to use the whole spectrum of emotion to make it seem more true-to-life. So maybe that includes comedy too, I don't know.
PM: Do you enjoy the theatricality involved in performing?
RF: Oh yeah, I love it. We just did this video for the new record ... I just looked at the rough edit today and it's weird, I've never done a video before. I do love the theatricality of performing, but I wasn't sure how to work singing in close-up for this video. There were takes when I was just making goofy eyes, doing weird shit that didn't come off at all, and other takes where I'm just doing it straight and it looked a lot better. I guess all that is to say that it's just kind of an ingrained thing for me by now when I'm performing in front of people. I'm sure that a lot of stuff comes off goofier than I'm feeling at the time [laughs] ... I was just mortified to see some of the things I was doing, just pronouncing a word or the eyes roll up in the head or the lips go up in a sneer. It's emotionally inappropriate, you know? But it's just part of my vocabulary of gestures by now, I guess.
PM: And singing from different perspectives as well, is that something that draws you to songwriting?
RF: Yeah. Some writers ... like, I just did Danny Barnes's bio, and on his new record -- I think really on all his records -- he sorta claims to just take a large perspective: this song's about this character, and this is poetry that concerns this guy on the bus and he feels like this ... I don't know, I think that's a weird point of view. I'm sure he's sincere when he says that, but I just can't imagine writing like that. I think probably everything I've written has a bit of me in it, but I would say that none of it is a diary. You do have to have perspective and look on it as a piece of "work" [laughs] when you're doing it, just try to look at it objectively. In that sense, none of it's me, but all of it's kinda me. I would assume it's the same for almost anybody that writes songs, except for Danny Barnes. [laughs]
PM: When you're writing, do you look at it as a job that needs to get done? Or are you more emotionally invested in it? I saw this interview with Bob Dylan on 60 Minutes a couple weeks ago, I don't know if you saw it --
PM: He made this bizarre comment about how his songs from the mid-'60s were "magically written" -- I think those were the words he used -- and that he didn't know how he had written them, they just kinda came out of him, you know what I mean? You seem like you probably take a much more ... pragmatic approach than that.
RF: Well, sort of ... you don't know exactly where it comes from, or really what makes one set of eight bars successful and the other one not, even though technically all the pieces may be in place. It is a magical thing -- for me, it's more magical in the moment when you first are hit with the hook or the basis of the song. I really have no idea how to get to that point. I wish I did, but a lot of times I just sit alone in a room, strumming on a guitar and trying to hook into something beyond me for a day -- two, three, four days -- until something just strikes.
PM: It's funny that you say that, because, especially on Georgia Hard, the songs just seem like their construction is so airtight.
RF: Well, I would say that after that phase, if you can call it that, that I do spend anywhere from a couple more days to a couple more months just looking at it as skeptically as possible. Once you're at the point where you have a verse and a chorus, and you're in working on the second verse (or whatever it is), at that point you're going back every day over what you did the day before and trying to look at it critically. I find myself taking out as much stuff as I add after a certain point. There's definitely tons of self-censorship involved for me.
PM: Do you keep the audience's reaction in mind at all?
RF: No, not really.
PM: One of the reasons I really like "If They Could Only See Me Now" is how the understanding of that phrase shifts over the period of the song ... that's kinda what led me to that question. Is that something you think about ahead of time, that you want someone listening to it to think it's about this one thing and then it turns into something else?
RF: Oh yeah, that's definitely a device, you know ... I think that's an example of the song where you start with a phrase and you think, "Yeah, I could do a narrative and there's a murder in it and I could keep coming back to that phrase." And you sorta get the ending in mind even before you really start working on any of the particular lines. You get the shape of the story in mind. I think, again, as with humor, it's just such a strong country music idea. I'm forgetting the name of it now, this Ferlin Husky song about the guy who drives his wife out to an overlook, and then pushes her off in the car and kills her. Shit, I should remember it, because it's sort of related to that song. [pauses] Oh, "You Pushed Me Too Far". It's kinda played for comedy in that song, but you yourself can imagine the whole chain of verses based on that hook. And at the end he kinda goes, "But this time you pushed me too -- FAAAAaaarrr" [voice trailing off]. It goes into echo, and that's the end of the song. Oh, and then at the end of "FAAAaaarrr", he goes, [Vincent Price-esque laugh].
PM: What is it about human follies, or waywardness, or heartbreak that attracts you to them as subjects?
RF: Happy and joy and ha-ha and sunshine are just boring, really. Dottie West has that "I was raised on good ol' country sunshine" song, and I'm sure that's an interesting song and everything, but I think that stuff is just so tricky to pull off without sounding like a Coke commercial.
PM: Where do you see yourself in the current climate of country music? Are you in there at all?
RF: Oh God, I have no idea, that's probably for you to say. I don't really buy that much new country stuff ... I bought Patty Loveless's last couple of records and I thought they were really good. This new Lee Ann Womack is pretty good. They really haven't gotten back on the rails, as far as I'm concerned, since they jumped the rails in the late '80s. That's the point of view of a middle-aged curmudgeon, probably, but ... When I was younger and I'd get a Randy Travis record or Dwight Yoakam record, or Marty Stuart or Foster & Lloyd, the stuff just seemed young and kinda kick-ass and fresh, like the musicians weren't writing with an audience in mind. There was more of a spirit of adventure in the music. I just don't hear that nearly as much in the new stuff that's aimed at the radio. There's all sorts of stuff, obviously, a lot of it in Nashville that is around the margins, either older or weirder or that comes out on independent labels. There's a lot of great country-related stuff, but as far as the radio stuff, I just don't know.
PM: Do you think there's any one thing that caused that downward spiral?
RF: Well, whatever's successful is what everybody impersonates. First it was the Garth Brooks model, and then I think Shania was probably the next person to come out and sell over 10 million records, and that sorta set the standard for a while. And the Dixie Chicks -- actually, I like some of the Dixie Chicks' music a lot. You can probably guess what I like, because we probably both have slightly elitist tastes in music. It's just too imitative once these models get established and everything has to sound like Garth Brooks for the next five years. It's a good way to run a business; it's just really boring for somebody that's interested in music as more than wallpaper.
PM: Do you have any kind of professional relationship with Nashville currently?
RF: No, if you mean publishing, management, lawyers, then no. I just really have friends down there. I like it there a lot -- it's a great working environment, there are so many great players there, great studios and production houses. I have friends that work at labels there, but I don't have any business ties there.
PM: What about the Secret Country performances that you host?
RF: The third Sunday of every month, it's a live show at the Old Town School [in Chicago, IL]. It's turned into a produced package for XM that airs about a month after that (they air it three times a week during the last week of the month). I curate and host the series; each show is a double bill of acts that are, like we were talking about, the more interesting acts on the outside of country music, on the fringes. So far we've had Rosie Flores, Bill Kirchen, Phil Lee, BR549, Buddy Miller, Al Anderson. Coming up we've got Bobby Bare Jr., Johnny Dowd, Redd Volkaert...hopefully for the fall (nothing solid, but hopefully) Bill Frisell, Neko Case, and if I get really lucky, Connie Smith, but I haven't talked to her yet.
PM: Wow, that sounds great.
RF: Oh yeah, it's just the highlight of my month. I love putting the shows together, and I get to play with some of the people that come through or put together a band for them, maybe just sing alongside them -- that's thrilling. Satellite radio is such an open format right now; for me, it was just calling up the program director and saying I had this idea, and they were like, "sure, send it in". It was so easy, probably because nobody listens to it, but I think it's just common sense that it's going to keep growing exponentially over the next couple of years, because the alternative to satellite radio is so barren and irrelevant.
PM: How did your relationship with Yep Roc come about?
RF: They've been really fantastic so far, and I'm just waiting for the record to come out so I can become bitterly disappointed at them or something. [laughs] I'm just really, really happy and enthusiastic about being with them. Glenn [Dicker], the guy who runs [Yep Roc], sent me an email about this Michael Jackson record that I had in the pipeline two years ago (I've sort of stalled on it since then). Anyway, I had the record finished and was kinda shopping it around; he sent me a note saying he might like to distribute it through Redeye's distribution arm. That didn't come to be, but we kept in touch after that. When [Georgia Hard] was done, I sent him a note to see if he was interested in hearing it, and he was. He's just really, really flexible, kind of in that way that Bloodshot is, like the kid that just opened his record label in his basement down the street. But the more you find out about the label, you find out how resourceful and large it is. They have 24-25 people working in there, just on the record label side of their office, and the other side is this big warehouse where they have more people working. Everybody has a young attitude and is really accessible ... I hate to use a cliché, but it's a big, positive attitude, which is kinda hard to run across in the record business. It's such a brutalizing business.
PM: Yeah, it seems like a lot of people have been running to that label lately, like its roster has tripled in size in the last few months.
RF: Well my first question to him when I met him in the flesh was, "Where does all your money come from?" Because they get all these acts -- and some of them aren't coming cheap -- and then you see these full-color ads in Spin and ritzy magazines. I never did find out the answer to that question! [laughs] But I'm not complaining about it; they paid me a very fair advance, I'm there for two records ... hopefully more if those two records work out.
PM: Speaking of the Michael Jackson covers record, is that going to be indefinitely delayed?
RF: I know Glenn's not interested in releasing it, so it won't be my next record. I do want to get it out sometime, even if it's just digital downloads online, 'cause it's done and it's good and it was a big investment for me. But as long as [Jackson]'s a figure of ridicule and some menace to the world as this alleged child rapist, then it's probably not a good idea to put out a tribute to him.
PM: Which songs did you do for that?
RF: Some of the better-known ones would probably be "Billie Jean", "Ben", "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" ... we even did one from his last record, Invincible, which we did kind of as a tone poem, kind of like John Zorn, a noisy approach to that song. Musically it's all over the map, from bluegrass to that.
PM: What was the impetus for that record?
RF: It's a boring story, but there's this cultural center downtown in Chicago where I arranged a set of his songs for guitar and mandolin. And then just because "Billie Jean" was such an easy song to work up with the band, this simple idea of how to reinterpret the song based on a repeating motif in E-minor. We started doing it at shows, and the reaction was always really strong -- people liked it better than anything I wrote. It was an interesting reaction, because you sing the first line ("She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene") and people go, "Ha ha ha ha". And you go into the song, and maybe there's another little titter as the audience realizes you're actually going to go through with this crap. Then you present the song really seriously, in this different moody arrangement -- and it's a good song, that's the thing about his songs. He's got so many good songs, just apart from being such a kick-ass singer and a really talented guy. The songs really stand up to different treatments. By the end of this song, people are kinda hooked on it ... and it is kind of a spooky set of lyrics when you play them spookily. It seemed to get a guaranteed reaction. That was the basis for it: the idea that maybe you can take these songs that everybody thinks are jokes, for some reason ... people think Michael Jackson's some kind of a joke, and I'm not sure why. It's just all part of our cultural baggage; we don't think about it that much. If you sort of cast it all in a new light, maybe it can be interesting music.