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Richmond Fontaine's career has started to take off since they went totally independent, and they are now beginning to break into Europe. Back for a second interview with us, co-founders Willy Vlautin and Dave Harding speak to us about their new album, 'Po
‘Post to Wire’ is a horse racing term that is used to describe when a horse holds the lead in a race from its beginning until its end.
Richmond Fontaine’s co-founders, vocalist Willy Vlautin and bassist Dave Harding, are both horse racing fans and first met at a race track shortly after Vlautin moved from Reno, Nevada to Portland in Oregon in 1994, As a testimony to their decade-long friendship, ‘Post to Wire’, which is the title of Richmond Fontane’s sixth and latest album, is a fitting name.
It is, however, a relevant title in other ways as well. The group have found themselves in recent times on a similar winning streak. They released their first three albums, ‘Safety’ (1996), ‘Miles From’ (1997) and ‘Lost Son’ (1999) on Cavity Search, a medium-sized local Portland label, before deciding to go independent and to start releasing their records on their own label,El Cortez.
For many bands, wearying of record label politics, self-releasing their own material is often a last resort and the final chapter before they break up. Self-management has, however, given Richmond Fontaine an extra lease of life. They have been playing to increasingly packed houses. ‘Winnemucca’ (2002), their fourth album, sold well. ‘Whiskey, Painkillers and Speed’ (2002), a live album, sold out. ‘Post to Wire’, the first of the band’s albums to be given official distribution in Europe, also looks sets to do well. It was made ‘Uncut’ magazine’s Album of the Month in April, and the full band, which also features pedal steel player Paul Brainard, drummer Sean Oldham and new recruit guitarist Dan Eccles (who has joined the band since ‘Post to Wire’ was recorded )are set to play their first British dates to promote it in May.
Lyrically ‘Post to Wire’, whcih was produced by veteran producer JD Foster, who has worked with the likes of Richard Buckner and Dwight Yoakam, also finds Richmond Fontaine looking in a much more positive direction.
The group, whose music combines together elements of country, folk, punk and the blues with a strong storytelling factor, have garnished a reputation over the years for being bleak. Unrequited love affairs, murder and suicide have all been common territory. Some of Vlautin’s lyrics on ‘Post to Wire’ are once again similarly black in tone. The menacing ‘Hallway’ tells of a deranged man with a gun. The teenage main character of the abrasive ‘Williamette’ meanwhile believes that he and his mother are saved from poverty when his older brother returns from two years away in the merchant navy with an endless supply of money. Then, just as quickly as his brother has reappeared, he again disappears.
Yet every dark track is counterbalanced with something more hopeful. Two anguished lovers find brief respite with kind strangers in a bar on the waltzing ‘Polaroid’ . The wistful ‘Barely Losing’ tells of an idealic short vacation spent gambling in Reno, while the much abused main character in the tender ‘Allison Johnson’ finds a near perfect love. ‘Post to Wire’ is also Richmond Fontaine’s most rounded album to date.
Willy Vlautin and Dave Harding, back for a second interview with Pennyblackmusic, spoke to us about ‘Post to Wire’ and its recording.
PB : ‘Post to Wire’ is a change of direction for you. It is a much more hopeful album than some of your previous offerings. Did you make a conscious decision to go in that direction ? You have dealt with some pretty black stuff in the past.
WV : I was definitely trying to see the lighter side of things. I am much more in fear of dark things. If you think about them too much, they really beat you up mentally. I have a tendency to not to be able to stop doing that, and the older I get the harder I find it is to recover from that, so I was trying really hard both in songwriting and in my personal life to try to look at the lighter side of things.
The band is also doing a lot better. When we were recording the album, everybody was a little bit happier than they had been in the past,. ‘Winnemucca’ had done well and we had a little bit more confidence. Our new producer JD Foster also helped us out a lot, and built up that confidence up further. I think the songs reflect that as well.
PB : How did you become involved wiith JD Foster and what do you think he brought to the recording ?
DH : That actually came out about kind of casually. Larry Crane, who owns Jackpot Recording Studios in Portland, and who we have worked with in the past, was with us one day. We were talking about Luther Russell and Joanna Baume, two of the past producers we had worked with and JD’s name came up, because his production work is like a mix of those two people
We hadn’t thought about working with him before even though we were a fan of his music and the stuff he had done. He lives in New York, and we thought that it would be too much to bring him out to Portland , but Larry Crane got the ball rolling and contacted JD and said that we might be interested in working with him. We sent JD some of our old records and he really liked them a lot and so we were able to get him out to Oregon. He stayed at Willy’s house and he turned out to be just an incredible guy, this really nice, down-to-earth very positve person.
WV : To me he was the kind of guy like you hope that you are. He is in his 50’s now, but he is definitely the kind of guy that you hope will be at that age, or in life in general. He seems to have life figured out as much as a guy can have it figured out.
DH : He’s been around. He’s played with Dwight Yoakam, and achieved a certain level of success and position . He’s been through a lot as a producer and in some ways he has burnt out on the music business and the business side of it. I think it was kind of refreshing for him to come out here and to work with us.
He had a lot of freedom to do what he wanted. It was very intuitive situation on both sides and he had a relaxed attitude in the studio with us. He was really good about working different instruments into the songs and arranging the songs.In the past we would record a song and each do our bit, but JD had his own ideas as well. On ‘Barely Losing’ he brought in these melodic hooks that reappear throughout the song, and I think that really helps the record.’Hallway’ origtnally sounded like a folk song, but then we added these heavy drumbeats and it just threw in the song in a totally different direction.
PB : ‘Hallway’ is one of the more frightening songs on the album. In terms of sound it sounds like something like people like Sixteen Horsepower would do. It’s very scary.
WV : That one is about a friend of mine and is a true story. This friend and I would meet every Saturday. We would got and eat breakfast in this casino,but he never picked up his phone from the night before and again that morning, and so I went over to his house. I walked in and I yelled out his name and he went “Hey, Will. is that you ?” and I said “Yeah” and he was hiding in this hallway which lead down his basement. He was sitting there with a gun in his underwear, and he’d been up for a couple of days and was completely out of his mind. For him and me it was the most frightening thing to see.
That day always stuck with me. Eventually those kind of things often end up coming out in my songs. They can take years to get to where I can actually think about them in a way that I can describe them.
PB : Has your past had a bearing on a lot of the other songs on ‘Post to Wire’ as well ?
WV : Yeah. Some are definitely influenced by that. ‘Williamette’ is a really personal song to me even though it is completely fictional story, but it has a lot of similarities to my own life. It is much more dramatic, but I tend to tell stories about other people’s lives that are really just a cover-up for my own.
PB : What is particulary striking about that track is that as much is left unsaid as it is said. You’re left as a listener to piece together a lot of it yourself, and it’s left open-ended. You don’t know where the brother has gone. You don’t know what is going to happen to the narrator. That’s something you do quite a lot, leave things thing open-ended. Do you do that consciously ?
WV : Yeah ! I do because it interests me when I hear a song or a story like that. I like being left to decide the fate of each person,. Songs like those give the listener more freedom to think what they want to think and to interpret the kind of people that they’re hearing about.. If they do actually like a song enough to listen to the lyrics, then they can make up their own decision like, with ‘Williamette’, was the brother really a merchant marine ?How did he get hold of this money ? It’s hard for a 17 year old kid to go off and be a merchant marine and to come back two years later with a bunch of money. I have always been interested and a fan of that way of songwriting. I also like never to judge the situations that arise in my characters’ lives. I don’t want to be too heavy-handed about it because I kind of hope that they will be alright and I want the brother, for example, to come home.
PB : That raises another question. Do you see that in some ways as a greater reflection of reality because stories in real life don’t always come to a conclusion?
WV : Yeah, I would totally agree with that. The situations, although dramatic, don’t always have to be concrete. They don’t have to be definite. Things just seem to slide from side to side more than they disappear or just drop out completely. I am more interested in the situations than the outcomes people find themselves in.
PB : The album is interespersed with a series of postcards by an imaginary character, Walter Denny. Where did you get the idea for putting these postcards on the album ?
WV : I have always been a big fan of postcards and I started writing them when we were on the road.It is how my grandmother and I stay in contact . I send her one from every town that we go to, so I always had a bunch of postcards that I would be mailing out . Then I just started writing crazy ones for fun and then Paul Brainard, our steel player,also started writing crazy ones. I then began writing them from this character called Walter and I wrote a whole bunch of them from him. I have always liked spoken word things if they’re well done and I thought that it would be a really cool idea to put some of them on the album, although I was pretty insecure about it as well.
DH : Originally we were thinking of setting them against some weird, kind of jazzy background music. At one point I was even going to say the postcards, but JD steered us away from going too much into Tom Waits territory with spoken word, and we ended up using this really cool kind of folk music as a backdrop instead.
WV : And then in the end one night the guys went to dinner and JD and Larry and I knocked them out, and then Paul came back and put the diifferent steel tracks on. We then looked at them a little later and decided if we should keep them or not.
PB : Was that a hard decision ?
WV : It was a pretty hard decision. I didn’t want to ruin anybody’s listen. I was worried because sometimes spoken word can annoy you. People’s banter in between songs on records, for example, can get really annoying, and I was worried about that, but then we decided that the listener could always fast forward through those tracks if they didn’t want to hear it.
PB : It works really well.
WV : Thank you !
PB : Those postcards actually have a really bleak sense of humour to them. What happens to Walter is pretty awful, but also at the same time it is funny in a black sort of way. Would you agree ?
WV : Yeah, some people think that they are really sad or disturbed, but I wrote them as like dark humour and thought that they were pretty funny. I didn’t take Old Walter too seriously. I never assumed that anything really tragically horrible is going to happen to the guy. I think that he will kind of muddle along, and I think that he will hit a few good strikes. He’ll be on the lam sometimes too.
PB : ‘Allison Johnson’ in contrast is very optimistic and hopeful for the future. Where did the inspiration for that one come from ?
WV : Allison was this character who I wrote this long story about. I felt really bad for her because I had put her in a really bad situation and I didn’t want her to end up there, so I also wrote her like a little love song (Laughs). I wrote her a song to tell her not to give up.
PB : Dave, Richmond Fontaine takes its name from a rather remarkable character you met while hitchiking in Mexico. Who was he ?
DH : He was an ex-patriot. Me and my buddy Brian were down in Bahra and ran across this guy, Richmond Fontaine, who had lived in the States, but who had moved down to Mexico and all he did was gripe about the US and his family and the business he worked for . He was something else and a real character and lived out of this trailer with his dog,
We were down there over New Year and it was my birthday. He drove a little four wheeler quad and showed up one morning at where we were staying with coffee and marijuana (Laughs).and we sat on this sunny beach and had them. It was like the two things we wanted most of all, and he pretty much won a place in our hearts after that.
PB : What happened to him ?
DH : I don’t know. We sent him a couple of letters after we got back to the States, but we never heard back from him. We always talk about going back there and seeing if he is still living out there in the trailer out there. He was alright. He was a good guy.He had turned his back on the world and was pretty upset with it. He was one of those guys who would literally talk for like about four hours at a shot and you couldn’t get a word in edgeways (Laughs). There was nothing to do down there, so we would just sit back and listen to him.
PB : The album features a guest appearance from Deborah Kelly, who appears on the title track, which is also the band’s first duet. She is in her own band, the Damnations. Who are they ?
WV : They’re from Austin, Texas. It’s her and her sister Amy.
DV : And there’s also Rob Bernard.
WV : Rob is an amazing guitar player. They’re one of the best roots rock bands around and we toured with them, Deborah and Amy are just just amazing singers. The way in which the sisters sing together is incredible. We asked Deborah if she would sing on the song. She agreed which was really nice because we have never had a good singer in all the years we have been going. Whatever you call my voice it is what it is. It’s not much compared to hers, and so when we were lucky enough to have her sing on it we were all blown away and secretly hoping that she would join our band (Laughs). She is also really beautiful. You’re around a bunch of really ugly guys all the time and there’s this really good looking woman who’s really cool and who can really sing and it’s like “Jesus, that’s what we need. Maybe we will be famous. We need a good looking girl like her in the band.”
PB : (Laughs) It didn’t work out though ?
WV : (Laughs) I think one song with us and she was like ready to run. l. Seriously though it was a really good experience.
PB : You’ve just taken on a new guitar player Dan Eccles. Who is he ?
DH : He’s played with us in the past as well. He played for many years in a Portland band called Fernando. He’s a great guitar player. He totally puts himself into the music, and puts heart and soul into every note. He’s just a really tasteful player, and on top of that he’s just a very positive, very inspirational guy to be around.
PB : How did he end up in the band ?
WV : He started playing some shows with us and then we strung on him (laughs) and made him join us.
DH : Actually we locked him in a cellar ....
WV : And brainwashed him. As a five piece it’s been really fun. I love watching good guitar players, and I am not a good guitar player, so it is great having both Dan and Paul in the band.
PB : How long has Dan been a member for ?
DH : Since last summer he has played every show with us, but over the years he has done several tours with us just here and there. Since the summer though he has been an official member of the band.
PB : Is it correct that you’ve now also got another album, the follow-up to ‘Post to Wire’, also in the pipeline ?
WV : Yeah, we did ‘Post to Wire’ and after that JD was out in Portland for this conference,The music recording magazine, Tape Op, has this big conference in Portland and he came out and was on some panel. We asked him if he wouldn’t mind staying on an extra couple of weeks and doing a kind of stripped down folk-orientated record. It was a real blast doing that too. We’re putting the finishing touches to that now.
We’re hoping to go in and record the next album after that in the Fall at the Wavelab studio in Tucson in Arizona, where Steve Wynn has done his last two albums. We met the guy who runs that through JD and Larry. It’s going to be a bigger record.
PB : So when’s the folk record liable to come out ?
WV : We’re not totally sure, but are aiming for probably October. We’ll see. It’s a pretty bleak affair, so I don’t know if anyone else will like it. I think that it is pretty cool, but I have my insecurities about it as well .
PB : Do you have a title for it yet ?
WV : It’s ‘The Fitzgerald’. That’s the name of a hotel in Reno. It’s this place I go and stay when I visit my folks there .I got on a hard streak writing lyrics there, and some of the songs that will appear on that album come from there.
PB : The band’s become increasingly popular on the West Coast, and is now starting to break into Europe Your following seems to have grown and extended since you went totally independent. Would you agree with that ?
WV : Yeah, I think so.It is getting better slowly.Now that we own our own records when good things happen the band sees it. We all get more excited when the crowds grow stronger and we find we have sold some records. It keeps everyone interested and it is far better than sitting in the back of the tour van and bitching that A, B and C didn’t happen. It’s always easy to blame things on other people and in rock ‘n’ roll it is really easy to place the blame on your record label or whatever. Nothing that we ever did with Cavity Search though ever really saw any positive outcome . We toured really hard for them and then they would say that we were losing money. We toured really hard for ‘Winnemucca’ and immediately we did a lot better. We are not real successful, but we are getting more successful and it keeps the band energised.
DH : It’s really exciting. Willy and I aren’t anywhere near like being business people, but we’re kind of learning. We’re learning a little bit as we go along. It’s frustrating and time-
consuming, but it is also great fun.
WV : It’s a lot more healthy in the long run at least for everybody’s attitude. We don’t just sit there and bitch like we used to.
DH : We’re a lot more proactive.
PB : Final question ! You’ve got ‘The Fitzgerald’ coming out later this year You’re going to be working on the album in Tucson after that. What other plans do you have ? Is it simply just to tour ?
WV : I just want to keep being drinking buddies with the guys in my band and to keep putting records out.I have always liked the whole ride of being in a band. It’s as fun as working a straight job. It gives me something to live for. I’ll do what it takes to keep going.
DH : I made up my mind a couple of years ago that as long as Willy keeps writing good songs and as long he wants me around I’ll play bass.
WV : We all realise that we’re lucky to be in a band that people sometimes even like and to get to go off and see things. You work with guys and they’re sititng there moping going “Gosh” and “Man, you’re so lucky. At least you have a reason to leave your job and go and screw around for a couple of weeks”. The older I get the more I think that I am lucky just to be in the band and to be able to go away on tour. It’s healthy for me, if not for my liver. I think that I would have that problem whether or not I was in a band though (Laughs).
PB : Thank you both of you very much !
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