Robbie Fulks is an affable member of the well-read redneck underground, tasked with advancing the alternative country genre like a lonely Don Quixote, constantly charging former definitions of the term with a fresh set of songs. But the Chicago-based singer isn't as taken with Americana as he used to be. Now 50, Fulks has thrown away the distortion pedals, and picked up an acoustic guitar -- his weapon of choice for the foreseeable future. Fulks' latest work Gone Away Backward sees this often-divisive artist returning to Bloodshot Records, while giving a go at bluegrass and old-time. The result is a powerful album, and the beginning of a Robbie Fulks renaissance that'll hopefully last for many years to come. Last month, The Sitch had a chance to catch up with the very funny Fulks by phone to talk about working with producer extraordinaire Steve Albini, hotel songwriting and the King James Bible.
You're the prodigal son that's come back home to Bloodshot Records to release your most acoustic album to date. What was the impetus for going back to your old label?
Well, to begin with, they were interested. So that's more than half the battle there. There's not a huge set of companies that want to release my stuff. There's a couple to choose between and that's great, but once I heard that they were interested I didn't really take it anywhere else, because I like the thought of working with them. I've worked with them so many times over the years. They're real close by and they kind of level with you. I was just down there an hour ago and Nan [Warshaw] was telling me some good news about the record. And I said, "Well, you're not just blowing smoke up my ass, are you?" Then we kind of looked at each other, and I asked "When have you ever done that?" She's the first person to give you the bad news straight up, which in the record business is really kind of rare and special.
You worked with legendary producer Steve Albini on this new record. He’s been notoriously aloof whilst working on other recordings he’s done. Did he get his hands dirty during for Gone Away Backward?
I read the article that you're referring to, and I think it refers to only one record he made, but I can't remember which one. I know that the guys in the band were complaining about it.
The Cloud Nothings' record, Attack on Memory.
Yeah, I don't know what happened with that record. I've worked with him many times, and he's an old friend. He adds a ton to any recording he works on. He's not demonstrative about it, and he's pretty quiet. It serves me great, his style, because I like to arrange the music myself and work with the musicians, unimpeded to a large extend. And he lets that happen. He sets up the mic, sits in the control room.
So he has more a hands off approach?
Well, I think so. You wouldn't think, having said that, that his records would have a continuity of sound. But they do. They kind of sound like his mics, his room, his board and his brain. And his aesthetic, being as cautious as it is, [avoids] adding any outboard effects to the music. I feel like I've learned a lot from that approach. It rankled me sometimes in the early days, working with him in the late '80s and early '90s. I wanted my records to sound like the latest WHAM! UK records out [laughs., I wanted the sound that I was hearing on the radio! But in retrospect, that was such a valuable lesson to have learned and I'm so happy that he prevailed against that instinct of mine. Not that he wouldn't have been able to do that to begin with … but anyway, I learned a lot from his approach. And it's not totally accurate to call it a "hands-off" approach because he brings a positive value to what he records.
Each song sounds like you've put your ear up to a moonshine jar and collected the thoughts of the bootlegger inside.
Well … no, but go on!
Is there a central moment on this record that stands out to you. A moment that, perhaps, all the other songs revolve around?
Not really. There's a couple that might stand out. I've found that when I'm on stage I know which ones are going to consistently get a good response if I deliver them right. Like the first track, "Money for Wine." I'm not sure why but that always gets a good response. And "That's Where I'm From," and lately "Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener."
Tell me about that track in particular. It has a few biting lines for the music industry and I don't think a Robbie Fulks record would be complete without that.
I guess you're right. I hear some influence of my friend Danny Barnes on that song, he's got one called "I'm Going Back to Mom and Dad," and we played that together a couple times. Mom and dad turn up in "Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener." Sometimes I kind of hear myself singing it in his voice a little bit. So he's been influencing my approach real strongly over the last couple of years.
But beyond that, I think [it's] kind of a John Duffy song, because it's set up in his neck of the woods. It's seems like that phrase "up in New York town" is a bit John Duffy-like. Just calling it "New York Town" [laughs] has kind of a folky ring to it.
And then it's got a little autobiography in it too, given that I lived in Virginia and moved to New York City. And I didn't bring my dad's guitar with me -- that was a little bit later in life.
I love how you yell "Tear It Up!" on "When I Get to the Bottom." It's a great moment, shrieking at the top of your vocal register.
It is about the top of it. A half step higher and I'd be hospitalized.
Can you tell me a little bit about that song? Have you ever had a rock bottom moment that you can share with us?
Well that song is absolutely not biographical. It's just a made up character in a made up situation -- I think … I hope it is. I think (I feel like I'm letting the cat out of the box with a few of these musical references) that Jim Lauderdale was a strong influence in my head when I was picturing that song. The sneaky chording at the end of the bridge of there -- he always has one chord in every song that sort of takes you unawares.
You're 50 now. A lot of this album seems to look back at your life and your career. Can you tell me about the best career decision you've had?
The best one? [Laughs] Oh man, that's the hardest question I've heard in years. Best career decision? I know the happiest choice I've made in the last six years (and this is not a slam on the band that I traveled with for a long time). For 12 years I went around with an electric guitarist, rhythm section, drum set and bass guitar -- the happiest decision I've made was to get away from that and do what I'm doing now, which is 75 percent solo, duo, trio. Playing acoustic things into microphones is where I'm at now. It's really turning me on. I don't know if you would call it a career choice. If it works out well with this record, it will have been a good career choice as well. But it was a good psychological choice for me. It keeps the juices flowing and keeps me excited for the next performance.
You're based in Chicago, a town that's experienced quite a bit of violence in recent years. Does any of that reality seep into your music?
I don't think it does. I have to say, I'm in a bubble. I live in a village that's a little bit outside of town. I watch it on the news just like everybody else. My son lives in not exactly a bad neighborhood, but kind of a harder-luck neighborhood where there's lots of break-in and stuff like that. So I guess it affects my life that way, but really, when I'm making up songs it's imaginary stuff that happens in them.
Where do you go to write songs?
When I retreat to write a song, it's in my house -- like into the basement, or I lock myself in a bathroom or something. Or sometimes I'll Priceline a hotel down the road for more splendid or total isolation. And also I write from hotels on the road. A lot of hotels, I'd say 60 or 70 percent hotel rooms.
Do you have a lot of hotel notepads in your guitar case?
I travel with a composition book, but it's interesting … Linda Gail Lewis wrote this song that we recorded two years ago or so. She wrote it, I guess, as a duet for us on that Best Western stationery. It made such an impact on me to see her beautiful long hand in blue ink on this Best Western stationery. I saved it and I carry it everywhere in my guitar case. It looks kind of magical. I should write on that stationery!
How is the town you grew up in and its history entwined in this record?
I grew up in a lot of towns because we moved just about once a year. I lived in maybe 12 different places between when I was born and when I left home at 17. So in my early years in Pennsylvania it was York, and Mountville. In Virginia it was Waynesboro and a couple of houses in Charlottesville. Then in North Carolina, it was Wake Forest and finally Creedmoor where we settled. My family actually ended up hanging there for a good 20 to 22 years. So, I kind of think of that as home. It's where I went for Christmas for a while. And that's where I sort of lived the most years in one place. But I also think of Pennsylvania as home because I was born there and that's where my grandparents lived. That early experience, like all of my experiences, I more or less exploit and cannibalize in the scenarios of my songs. If I feel like I need to set a situation or particular character in a place, I'll likely set it in some place that I've lived because I feel like I'm not talking out of my ass. I can insure the setting and speak more authoritatively about it. Those places keep popping up.
Tell us about the cover design for Gone Away Backward -- what does the tornado represent?
Markus [Greiner], the guy that designs Bloodshot's covers -- he and I went through a lot of ideas. As did Mary Gunn, another designer that I've worked with. It was hard to think of what I wanted on the cover. But I thought of tornados early on as a possible route. [Markus] found that in some old newsprint in a found-antique sort of way. And it was a photo that we didn't have to get rights for and it looked pretty good to me. I don't have the best eye.
What does the album's title Gone Away Backward mean to you?
Well, it's Isaiah, Chapter 1. And Jehovah's talking to the Israelites and that's a phrase he uses in the King James translation. As an act of desperation, like the cover, I was having several months of trouble coming up with a title for the collection. And I finally checked out the bible and started skimming through it and that phrase sort of jumped out.
There seems to be an endless wealth of crazy shit to choose from in the King James translation.
Oh yeah! If you had to get it down to one book, even though I'm not a Christian, It would probably be that or Don Quixote. There's so much unbelievable writing in there.
Any other authors in particular that have influenced your music over the years?
With this record it was Flannery O'Connor and Wells Tower. It's an odd pair but those are the first two, and only two, that come to mind. Especially Flannery. A project I've sort of been working with off and on for a few years involves musicalizing her stories. It's a long story, but it's something that has been off and on, as either a theatre piece or an album, or a performance art thing. At any rate, I was immersed and read all of her stories and thought about them a lot. But then, the actual songs -- probably 15 instrumental pieces and 15 lyrical pieces were written for that use. The "Money for Wine" song is one of them. So that was actually written for that project. But I think the mood of it -- the somberness, the religiosity, the meteorological aspects of her stories that concentrate a lot on the sky and the sun and the weather -- it's hard to shake that out of your head once you dive into her books.
Why did you choose "Rose of the Summer" to end the record?
I ended my second record with a tragic ballad like that called "South Richmond Girl." And I generally like to end records on a lighter note. Speaking sonically (a word I hate) I'd rather end with a guitar and mandolin in duet than end with a rocking good time barn-burning kind of thing. I think it's nice to end on an unsettling, not quite resolved feeling. There's actually consonance with that song, I guess it has the resolution of death in it [Laughs]. But if I would've ended with one of the faster tunes, I wouldn't have felt as at ease with it.