“All over the musical map”: An interview with Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks follows his own path. Trying for years to break into the country music scene in Nashville, Fulks eventually gave up, striking out on his own and releasing Country Love Songs in 1996. Never looking back, the twists and turns of his career have been as unconventional as his songwriting.
Demonstrating his wit and sense of musical adventure, he’s released a “best of” album filled with original songs never previously released, a live album containing his well known songs plus new material and an album of Michael Jackson songs. I recently talked with Fulks by phone from his home in Chicago as he “trained” for his upcoming Twangfest 15 show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on June 10.
Scott Allen: You’ve played St. Louis quite often in your career. What’s your favorite memory of a past gig here?
Robbie Fulks: My favorite memory of St. Louis is probably the Hi-Pointe back in the day. Those are real good memories. Kind of a difficult load in and a real filthy club filled with smoke and strange people. But, it was always a good punk rockingly good time over there.
Unfortunately, the Hi-Pointe is no longer functioning as a music venue at this point.
I think I’ve closed down a lot of places there. The Side Door isn’t there and like five other places I’ve played aren’t there either.
You’re playing your Twangfest date with Nora O’Connor. How did you two first meet and begin a musical collaboration?
Well, we met probably 20 years ago. You know, Chicago is kind of a small town in certain ways. In country music ways it’s a real small town so we’ve known each other for a long time. We didn’t really start singing together as an “act” till about two years ago. I have a little residency here in Chicago and she came and did a night and we kinda clicked and went from there. We don’t play together every week, but we play pretty regularly — probably a gig a month somewhere.
What’s the best part of doing shows with Nora? What does she bring to your music?
It’s different when we play just as a duo. That kind of show is real quiet and we draw from her records and mine. We also do various songs that we’ve recently fallen in love with and arrange for duo. What we’re doing in St. Louis (for the upcoming Twangfest date) is I’m bringing my band and she’s backing up a lot of my songs. Then, maybe she’ll sing a song or two on her own. It’s kind of like me-centered. She sings a lot all over everything, dances and plays tambourine and looks real good.
Your songwriting and the writing that you do for your website both seem quite cerebral. Can you tell me a little bit about your educational background?
Oh, I thought you were going to say surreal. (Chuckles) Yeah, that too. (Laughs) Almost zero! I think I was M.I.A. through a lot of high school and college until I dropped out of college. I think I had two years of post-high school and then have been banging away at music ever since. But, I love words and I love books and so partly autodidact and partly whatever osmotically crept in through high school lessons when I was otherwise gone on marijuana or idle daydreams.
What are some of your earliest memories of music and what type of music influenced you growing up?
I would have to say Doc Watson was probably the first thing to make a huge impression on me. My dad had his first couple of records on giant reel-to-reel tapes. Doc is such a strong stylist and continues to impress me over the years. I would say people like him, John Hartford, the Country Gentlemen, and a little bit later Bob Dylan and the Beatles. All those people came from different points of view, but impressed me with individual style and not being afraid to follow their muse all over the musical map.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” Can you tell me a little about your inspiration for the song?
Yeah, it probably wouldn’t make any sense, but the inspiration for that song was really kind of…I was at a show that Harlan Howard, the songwriter, used to put on in the parking lot of the BMI building just off of Music Row. Every year he’d throw this birthday party and different people would sing. Nanci Griffith got up and sang “Outbound Plane” by Tom Russell. That was kind of the germ of it. It didn’t come out sounding anything like that in the end. It took about nine months of twists and turns before that ultimate product. Oft times I find that I start from a different point than I end up at.
Due to the issues with your record label [Geffen] at the time, I realize why it wasn’t a big song for you, but I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t a bigger hit for someone else.
Yeah, I don’t know. Kind of a mainstream band a couple of years later called Pinmonkey covered it. Oddly enough the song might be a curse or a millstone because they quickly were dropped literally five days after they put out that single. The record label folded or they were dropped or something weird happened. But the songs don’t go invalid after two weeks; fortunately they stay alive. I think one of these days that song or one of five or six others that I’ve got out might strike paydirt.
You still live in Chicago and actively participate in the local music scene playing frequent Monday dates at the Hideout. How has that scene changed over the years?
I don’t know how the scene has changed. (Chuckles) I mean I was marginally aware of what was going on in the scene 25 years ago and less over the years. Now, I’m completely out of it. I live in the suburbs and do my little shows and I’m the last guy to know what’s going on.
You have obviously been affiliated with Chicago-based record label Bloodshot Records over the years and they’ve still continued to put out records, but it seems like maybe in the last few years it’s been not quite as big for them, although maybe Justin Townes Earle is helping that for them.
I think it’s been going downhill for everybody. I don’t know any label that is prospering right now including the big guys. I think it’s remarkable that Bloodshot has stayed around as long as they have, and I like them. I expect to do more with them in the future. But not for anything in the world would I want to run their label, or be involved with any other label on the business end of it. It seems like a doomed business model to me.
You mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. Since Dylan just entered his “later years” stage and you like to play cover songs, which Dylan track is your favorite to play live and why?
Well, the night of his birthday I was doing a show. There was a four-piece band and each of us picked a song at the end of the show kind of off the cuff to do and we did a medley. The one I picked was not one that he wrote, but the first one off his first Columbia record called “You’re No Good” by Jesse Fuller. I wouldn’t pick that as my favorite, but the songs of his that come close to being inseperable from the style that they’re imitating and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Among the country songs, “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You” or among the blues songs “Meet Me in the Morning” or among the Woody Guthrie style songs “The Death of Hattie Carroll.” I think those songs are imitations of other styles that surpass imitations and stand as monuments to the craftsmanship.
Become your own singular voice even though it’s been based on someone else’s work?
Yeah, I think he imitates a lot. But, I think when anybody imitates really well then the charge of imitation becomes irrelevant.
As a songwriter you’re very interested in the craft and trying different techniques. What other songwriters do you admire and inspire you to be a better songwriter? Maybe somebody that you didn’t necessarily grow up with or somebody that’s more contemporary.
Well, Liz Phair is a newer, but she’s not even that new is she? I’m trying to think of somebody younger. There are people like that that when I get too involved in older styles of music and get a little too hidebound in my songwriting I might put on something. Somebody like her is more inclined to follow stray threads into the ether and not to be too rigid in musical forms or throwing out a weird word or a weird line here or there. I think that’s probably healthy for a guy like me. So, Liz and a guy like Chris Legan who lives in town here. I’m sorry I can’t pull more names off the top of my head here, but there are others.
What advice would you give to other inspiring guitarists? Was there a music teacher that gave you a great tip or words of wisdom?
We were just talking about imitating and I think it’s a good idea to do your homework and to learn from the other great guitarists out there, but to somehow step away from it. I think that’s something that I latched onto a little too late in my music. It seems to me there are a lot of guys out there who take that plunge into originality way too early like when they’re 14. The “I’m doing my own thing and I don’t care if it sounds right or whatever” attitude. I’m not so into that, but I’m into doing the homework. It seems to me that everyone that we revere nowadays in country guitar from Doc Watson to Albert Lee to Pat Flynn to David Greer, they all kind of went their own way. They didn’t just sit around imitating Tony Rice like a lot of guitarists do.
What’s your favorite guitar of yours to play – your go-to guitar?
Man, I’ve got a guitar that I really love right now that Roy McAllister in Washington State made me three years ago! It’s kind of been through hell because it’s a real light, sensitive guitar, 00 size [a standard size of guitar made by Martin] and every time the weather changes the guitar kind of changes sometimes for the worse. We just turned the heat off at our place here and I’ve been humidifying it really carefully, but it’s changed a little bit and it’s changed for the better right now. I just love playing it and I look forward almost everyday to getting up and goofing around on it.
That’s kind of nice when you have that instrument that you just don’t want to put down.
That’s exactly it! That’s what helps make you better.
The last three projects you’ve had were a live album [Revenge] with unreleased songs, a 50 song mostly original song MP3 project and your most recent album was Happy [Yep Roc, 2010] a covers album of Michael Jackson songs. Is there a method to the madness?
Why cover the “King of Pop”?
I got involved with that about 12 years ago when somebody hired me to do a concert of Michael Jackson songs. I had fun arranging it and I started playing a couple of the songs out. Then I recorded one or two, then recorded a couple more. Then, I decided to make it a collection — make it a full album. This is about 2003. Then, he got in the news in a bad way, so I put it on the back burner for a long time. Then, he died several years later and I thought, well, time to put out that one. So, I put it out. It was kind of a long, festering thing that was kind of a labor of love and an experiment, I guess you might say, in taking something that was outside my style and trying to shoehorn it in. Also, trying to arrange songs in a variety of different moods. You know, half the fun for me is not in writing stuff, but bringing it to life after it’s been written. To orchestrate it as to who might play on it and to think, what parts repeat, what parts don’t, how much reverberation — all that stuff is fun to plan out.
So there’s something that inspires you about rearranging then?
I think so! I heard Mark Ribot say not long ago that to him the idea of originality isn’t necessarily tied to having written the song, but a lot of times he finds he can be more original with something that somebody else wrote. I think that’s 100% true. So that’s why that record in a lot of ways was my most original record.
Due to the prolific nature of your songwriting, down the road should your fans ever expect a box set or is that something that you’re completely against as a musician?
I don’t know if I could afford the physical cost of a box set since my records sell in the low thousands most of them. I think a box set is more of a case of supply and demand with a guy like me. (Laughs)
You mentioned on your site a couple of weeks ago you were working on new songs. Should we look for a new Robbie Fulks album in the near future?
Well, I’m planning on making one later this year. Hopefully, I’ll have out it out the year after.
Are you still affiliated with Yep Roc?
I’m not affiliated with anybody. I haven’t really signed a long-term contract with anybody since 1997. I kind of tend to steer clear of those long-term entanglements. So, I don’t know under what auspices it’ll come out. I might just put it out myself like I have some recent records, but we’ll see.
It just depends on if somebody finds it interesting or if somebody at one of these labels wants to put it out or you decide I’m doing it my way and to hell with everybody else this is how it’s going.
Sometimes nobody wants to put it out, and other times people want to put it out, but it’s just hard to see what’s to gain from somebody else putting it out.
What kind of songs do you have for this new record? Should it be something that fans should expect or are you moving in a different musical direction again and we should expect something new sounding?
It’s kind of quiet and acoustic. It’s gonna be a small group acoustic record with just maybe four players. A lot of the songs kind of verge on bluegrass, but more of them sound like pre-bluegrass.
Is there anything you’d like to tell the fans here in St. Louis?
I’m gonna just keep working out on the treadmill and keep working toward the show. I’ve enjoyed coming down there a time or two and say “Hello” to everybody at 88.1 KDHX.
Robbie Fulks (with Nora O’Connor) appears at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room as part of Twangfest 15 on Friday, June 10.