Romance, Richmond Fontaine style . . . Don’t go there alone!
Alan J Taylor met up with Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin recently at the Greystones, Sheffield, UK.
Just after the release of We Used To Think The Highway Sounded Like A River, Richmond Fontaine’s front man and principle song writer Willy Vlautin, had insisted that he was doing his utmost best to write a ‘Coles Corner’ as in the style of Sheffield’s own Richard Hawley. After listening to the new CD The High Country, back to back for two days, I suggested politely, that maybe he just wasn’t cut out for this love story thing.
Perching on a guitar case in the lobby (the only quiet place we could find) at Sheffield’s ‘Greystones’ venue, WV laughed out loud as he elaborated. “I tried with songs like the Eagles Lodge and Let Me Dream of The High Country, to be more like romantic, y’ know. This is a record of romantic songs or my attempt at them. In a lot of ways it is a gothic love story, which is overly romantic and overly violent, and there’s kind of B-movie acting thing and the radio station stuff, a little nod to humour . . . like all good gothic tales. But I guess I’m aware that the record can be almost claustrophobic at times, like a very small town”
Having personally described this album as a ‘sublime masterpiece of the darkest gothic Americana’, it was clear to me that the new record would never be classified as an easy listen, with songs fluctuating between lo-fi Americana and at times almost brutal up tempo rock. I asked if that was the design? . . .Vlautin couldn’t resist a smile as he answered. “The story of the auto parts girl and the mechanic is pretty much a romance. He’s trying to get her to build up enough courage to run away with him, so those songs are melancholic love songs. Then in the background you have a maniac who runs this bar in the woods (‘The Chainsaw Sea’) and he’s like really dark and repressive and he falls in love with the girl too but he’s just mad, he’s a speed freak and alcoholic and so his feelings are really dark and raw and loud and that brings out the pain in the music. Some of the instrumentals like the girl on the logging road . . . Well I live up in the woods and those logging roads can be really spooky, so some of those songs bring out that gothic, spooky feeling. I was trying to make the record have that very dramatic, country tragic love triangle feel to it.”
He had paused briefly, to take a drink but was clearly on a roll, continuing with his analysis without prompting, he said, “The way we figured things, we knew it was going to be a chancy record to make. We realised that some people just wouldn’t give it the time. There is an over abundance of music and bands in the world and there’s access to songs every second of your life, so it was a chance to make a record that only by thinking about it, and by the calibre of the songs, can you figure out the story . . . but it’s a pretty basic story when you do.” He took another sip from the bottle, smiled briefly at Laura Gibson (the support act) as she ambled by; and continued, “I guess the spoken word bit and the acting bit, we figured we would take a risk. If you are trying to tell a story or trying to create a world, you should just do it . . . I mentioned earlier today, about this record by Tom Russell called ‘Hot Walker’, which uses spoken word parts, songs, over dubs of speech and the such like. It really turns on its side the idea of what a record should be. So instead of just writing twelve songs we would put it all together in a piece, but we knew that some people wouldn’t take to it . . . But that’s life you take a chance with stuff like that, but we are all really proud of it. If you buy into the story of the girl, it pretty much works.”
I explained how the very first haunting track on the album, a virtual narration by Deborah Kelly to a lo-fi backing sound track, had completely hooked me in to the storyline. Vlautin took up the thread, without hesitation. “The first track Inventory, was meant to be an inventory of the girls life from her perspective, she is confessing her life to her friend and then she even says what she thinks is going to happen . . . You know, she thinks things have gotton so bad that the kid (her husband) might kill her, she thinks she might disappear and no one will ever find her again, it’s pretty bad. The auto parts mechanic spends the whole time trying to convince her to run away with him.”
The female influence on the album seemed to have given it that extra little edge, so I enquired about Deborah who features on the album and her sister Amy who had joined the band on tour . . . “Yeah, Deborah was involved with Post To The Wire and a song called Polaroid, she and her sister Amy are from a band called the Damnations from Austin Texas. We toured with them in maybe 2002 and I was a huge fan, they sing so similarly, I got the nerve up to ask Deborah to sing some songs for us. She has always been my favourite singer and when we were dreaming of getting a singer for some of our songs she was always the one. When she sings I just believe her, I truly believe her . . . But because she had a baby three months ago she couldn’t come with us, but her sister Amy is so cool. I just believe them when they sing” He shook his head as he explained; “You know you can get these singers with best voice in the world, but you just don’t buy it or they can sing the saddest song in the world but it doesn’t make you sad. Yet some people can just break your heart with just a mediocre song, Amy and Deborah are like that and they are great musicians too, so we really got lucky. They sing like bruised up, worn out, but really strong, great women . . . and you don’t hear that every day!”
The really brutal track, I suggested is ‘On A Spree’ where Claude Murray kidnaps the one legged kid (the husband) and kills him, thinking he’ll get the girl . . . then shoots his own wife in the back of the head whilst she is digging the grave . . . Then the trees laugh, cos he’s so unfit he can’t dig the grave himself! I couldn’t help laughing inside, as I pictured the image. I asked Vlautin to elaborate on ‘the trees’, a clear theme throughout the record . . . He picked up the story, “Well you gotta understand that I’m a little crazy . . . let’s just clarify that,” he said, still clearly amused himself. “I live in the woods where these massive trees stand so tall and I kind of figure that these old trees have seen so much. Maybe they have seen the madness of man and that’s when it get a little gothic, the trees take on their own life laughing at Claude’s predicament. I started this whole thing with the consciousness that these massive logging trucks go past my house from 4:30 am pretty much till 5pm at night and they are non-stop and they shake the whole house as they go by. So where I live there is great beauty but at the same time massive destruction, the loggers just come in rape the landscape and then go somewhere else. So it’s very beautiful and very sad. This might sound weird, or a little hippy . . . but if you ever go see logging, you can hear those trees crying and screaming as they fall, it’s really dramatic and I guess all of that went into the record.”
I asked about track 11 the tongue in cheek Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea which features . . . the sound of the radio changing three times before the guy finds something he can listen to, something we can all relate to . . . “Yeah, that was a little risky, it can be seen as humorous or it can be interpreted as being a little scary, you have got this agoraphobic who owns this cheesy bar in the woods who never leaves his house so he’s at the mercy of this crazy guy Claude, and when he comes to his house for advice, it’s all a little weird. The cheesy songs that appear on the radio station, we wrote them for the album and that was lots of fun.
I wondered out loud about the overall experience of making this latest record . . . Vlautin broke into his characteristic grin. “I have to say this has been the funnest record we ever made, we just had a blast making it. It’s a record that you can just buy into and then put away. It’s never going to be a dinner party record and it’s not a Friday night, go out on the town record. You know, it’s like The Fitzgerald, you can’t listen to that all the time otherwise you would get all weird and depressed . . . Its like listening to Nebraska, its great at the time, but you can’t put it on every day . . . you would lose your mind. I guess when I write I try not to go down the same old route, but hey, give me a good sad ballad any day! The new record High Country, well we truly hope people will buy into it . . . we sure enjoyed making it!” With the gig looming ever closer, the nicest ‘crazy guy’ I have ever met, shook my hand earnestly and thanked me profusely for “taking the time to listen so deeply to the new record”. Some time later, as I left the venue after the gig, I bumped into WV again. He was chatting casually to a slim fella with slicked back hair, specs and drainpipe jeans by the exit door, the guy looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite make him out in the half-light of the street lamps. I thanked WV for the interview and bid my farewells. It was only then that it dawned on me . . . the guy in the shadow was Richard Hawley. I left pondering just how small this world really is!
The High Country is a dark, misty, gothic Americana soundscape that draws you in irresistibly . . . Does the girl find romance on the logging road in Vlautin’s story? . . . Well, you would have to listen to the CD to answer that question . . . But beware, the trees are screaming, so don’t go there alone! AJT