Catching up with the wickedly talented Robbie Fulks
More often than not, Chicago musician Robbie Fulks is slapped with the alt-country label. Fans of this smart, clever and occasionally outrageous artist know that Fulks’ music can’t be that easily categorized. How do you define a performer who’s likely to begin a set with a rockin’ irreverent tune like “She took a lot of Pills (and Died)”, follow it with a beautifully crafted song like “Georgia Hard” and conclude the evening with a tongue-in-cheek, but somehow still oddly sincere, cover of a Cher or Michael Jackson classic? Fortunately, no label is necessary to appreciate the searing wit, brilliant flatpicking, artful lyrics and versatile vocals that comprise Fulks’ performance arsenal.
For fans, there’s good news on the musical horizon. A new recording is in the works. I recently had the chance to contact Fulks by email about his upcoming release, and here is what, in typically entertaining Fulks fashion, he had to tell me.
JWW: What made you decide it was time for a new release?
RF: I spit out a record every year or two. More a biological function than cerebral. I don’t have quite as many external motivators as I did in the 1990s, so the pace might be slowing as I get into my fifties and on toward the grave. But I’ve more or less decided that making records is part of the overall scheme of what I do, making music, and so I’ll keep at it as long as no one gets seriously hurt by it.
JWW: Are these songs you had already written, or are they all written specifically for this release:
RF: I started with a half dozen folkie/odd-old-country/bluegrass tunes I’d written for my 50-vc. Doberman album. I don’t necessarily like reusing, but I thought maybe since that album was a superlarge online package and a bit under the consumer radar, I could get away with cherrypicking a few for a CD release; and much more to the point, after living with and performing those 6 songs for 2 years I had a much clearer idea of them. It’s good when you go in to make a record to have a core of songs that you’ve lived with a bit and feel confident enough to tear into with no higher-mammal hesitancy. Anyway, then I went on to write another 15 or so, thinking of a kind of instrumental sound as I wrote, and before long had lined up the exact instrumentalists, and wrote to those people. So it’s a pretty thorough mix of writing-to-an-abstract-ideal and writing-to-individual-strengths, and I hope it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.
JWW: When you first started out on this latest project, you described it as “old country” and “hinting at bluegrass”. Is that the direction you’re still headed with this?
RF: Well, when it comes to bluegrass, the hinting-at stops when the banjo begins. In general my movement for the last couple years has been back to the country music that was greasing my piston when I was 5 to 15 – Doc Watson, John Hartford, Carter Family – and away from most music that’s in any way of-the-moment. I understand those artists I just mentioned were “acts” and were of their moment when they were first popular, but for me these problems of hyperawareness or knowingness – the artist knowing all about who his audience is, and the audience knowing all about what each other is listening to – are more nettlesome in our time than in theirs. So the record I think reflects this indifference to newness, and my ongoing idea of what my strengths are as a musician and writer…and in a more determined and thought-out way, I also wanted to try out the hinting-at-bluegrass thing you mentioned. Which, musically, boils down to bluegrass minus banjo. Surprisingly or not, since Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band, there haven’t been very many banjo-less grass records made – Tony Rice’s Manzanita, most of Mr. Watson’s, but not many others come to mind. In the final event there was a banjo played on a song or two (and it was Scruggs-style, besides), so it seems there’s really nothing too conceptually rigid about the record.
JWW: Will you be pulling out the banjo for this one?
RF: My banjo playing is pretty primitivo. A real banjoist, named Mike Bub, did the duties for me.
JWW: You seem to have a knack for surrounding yourself with great players. You used quite a diverse group of musicians on Happy. Who are you using for this CD? Any surprise/unexpected guests?
RF: No guests, it’s a very humanly defined small-group record, and the group is Robbie Gjersoe, Ron Spears, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub and myself. I’m in the process of weeding through raw footage right now and so I’m not altogether sure what’ll be on or left off, but it seems like full-quintet music will be represented a bit less than duo and trio music, meaning me and Robbie and Jenny…but we’ll see. Mike is a fellow I knew slightly in the 1980s when I was on the bluegrass circuit, and since then he’s become royalty from his many years of great string bass work with Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien and others. Ron has played a variety of instruments with a ton of people, Rhonda Vincent to Doyle Lawson to his own group Within Tradition. I met him when he was in Special Consensus, which he joined a couple years after I left. His tenor singing is pretty unbelievable. Jenny’s been a friend and musical collaborator/inspirer for some years now, and Robbie has been the same for…oh my god, almost 22 years.
JWW: You released Happy as a CD and before that 50-vc. Doberman as an electronic download. What format do you plan on using to release this latest effort?
RF: Electronic! I like that word for online. Almost sure this one’ll be a physical product, and conceivably it could be released through an outside label that someone has heard of before. I have to see what my options are when I’m done with it, and go from there.
JWW: Do you have a working title?
JWW: Estimate of release date?
RF: Sorry! As soon as this August or as late as next spring is my very unhelpful estimate.
-With permission from The Current. Photo credit: Randall Smith