Q/A with Robbie Fulks - Part 1

Q/A with Robbie Fulks

April 2000 Interview by Steve Millies    Author

What does it say about us when it is such a big surprise to be reminded how much fun it is to love music? Sometimes we want to learn from music or about music. Sometimes we want to wallow in music emotionally. Sometimes we're too focused on listening to the right music (whatever that is). Sometimes we mindlessly crank up the volume and have fun with it. But how often do we bring all of that together and exhult in the tremendous experience of a FUN live show that hits us in the head, in the heart, and in the gut? Better question: Why does it feel like it's so rare?

When Robbie Fulks took the stage in Arlington, VA on the opening leg of a tour that will take him up and down the east coast, then over into Texas during the next month, I found myself wondering just that. His blistering one-hour set opened by borrowing "Karn Evil 9" from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, closed by borrowing "Dancing Queen" from ABBA, packed some of his own best songs in between, and ripped the roof off of the Iota Restaurant & Bar. You may guess that a lot of winking went on during that set--and maybe it did. But maybe too, Robbie Fulks is a man with a message: dont take it all so seriously. Maybe thats why his new album, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, promises that "the theme is Fun, yours and mine." That capital F on fun is important.

Four albums can leave us little doubt that Robbie Fulks is a gifted songwriter, and songs like "God Isnt Real" and "Cold Statesville Ground" convince us that he has big thoughts that he wants to communicate to us. But the only big message delievered that night in Arlington was to get up on your feet and enjoy the beat--"happy feelings," as the man said himself. And with that he sang some of his best-known cuts from five years of published songwriting, not even pausing to smirk when he sang about "four white guys in each band" in "Roots Rock Weirdos"--with three white guys standing behind him.

The Iota Restaurant & Bar in Arlington, VA is not Madison Square Garden, and Robbie Fulks is not a millionaire rock star. He'll probably never play the Garden and he'll only make a million bucks with some sharp wits and the help of Charles Schwab. But those of us who have been buying his albums and those of us who were packed elbow-to-elbow in Iota too tight to move should know by now that he probably doesn't want those things anyway. I don't think Robbie Fulks is in "the business" to feather his own nest and I'm not even sure hes in it for us. What I can tell you is that I'm sure hes having Fun.

You've just come out of Annapolis, you've just gotten started through Ohio and Pennsylvania, you're on your way down the east coast. Hows it been going for you so far?

It's been going great. I'm not one to hype things either, but it's been going great. We're turning the corner on the old touring thing. As little as six months ago, coming through towns like Columbus and Cleveland where we're not really strong, coming through them on a Sunday or Monday--really terrible nights like that--would've been just disaster. But it's been going nice.

Do you think that's the exposure you got through being with Geffen, or do you think it's just that you've been plugging away at it?

I think it's patient, plodding progress for--whatever it's been--for five years, coming back to towns again and again and again, not giving up.

You're from Pennsylvania. Do crowds there have any sense of your being some kind of a native son?

In Pittsburgh? No, not really. The places I lived as a kid where I come back and play, like North Carolina or Virginia or Pennsylvania, it's building from scratch like anywhere else, I think, because it's been so long since I lived there.

You say you've been plugging away at it for a while, and I think the first thing I really want to talk about is what your career was like before Country Love Songs. Because I see in the liner notes from The Very Best of Robbie Fulks that "Hamilton County Breakdown" was recorded in 1989. So were you recording that far back?

Yeah, I was in [Special Consensus] Bluegrass Band for the late eighties, 1987 to 1990. And then 1990 to 1993 I had a show I did in Chicago in a couple places called the Trailer Trash Show, and the only recording I made out of that was a single, two songs called "Jean Arthur" and "Little King," both of which I put out later on. After that I sort of fronted a songwriter band in town for a couple of years at the same time I was doing the National Staff Songwriting thing for a publishing company down there. Things with Bloodshot started in 1994.

So 1994, 1995, that's when they signed you and you started doing some of the stuff we can find on the compilations with Bloodshot, the songs we can find on the new album?

Yeah, I started working on Country Love Songs at the end of 1994, and one of those from the first session--"She Took a Lot of Pills and Died"--ended up on one of their compliations and then the full record came out in 1996.

You bring up one of the songs I wanted to ask you about, "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died". Did you have somebody specific in mind when you were writing it?

Dorothy Dandridge.

Between her, Jean Arthur and Susanna Hoffs, I get the feeling you may watch a lot of movies?

Yeah. I used to. Since I have two little kids--I've got a sixteen-year-old kid and two little kids--and since the two babies came along it's been like no movies for the last three years, I think. But there were ten years when I was really catching up when the videos came along. When I got a VCR I was watching just millions of movies all the time, catching up on everything I'd always wanted to see.

Old movies and new movies?

Mostly old ones. I'm into art movies and I'm into Hollywood classics, and I'm into a lot of American independent stuff--anything that's got some sort of quality to it, I guess.

Do you have a favorite you've seen recently?

No, I get to check out a video like every three months and I fall asleep within twenty minutes. Kids, you know [laughs]. I can't make it up to midnight anymore.

You're going to be out on tour until the end of April. For those of us who live regular lives and dont go out on tour for months at a time, leaving your family for that long sounds like a tough thing to do.

Well, it's the kind of thing where performing is so--"rewarding" is a goofy sounding word, but I really miss it when I'm at home, when I'm not doing it. And then the day I go out on the road I start missing the kids right away, so it's pretty much an even trade-off.

Some of the reading I've done talks about some influences you've had that might surprise somebody who has just listened to your Bloodshot records--influences like Elvis Costello and The Pretenders. A song like "Tears Only Run One Way" is a song that requires some literacy both for the songwriter and the listener. Wordplay is an important part of your songwriting, language is clearly important to you. Does that come from reading, does it come from anywhere specific? Do you think of your songs--or songs in a general sense--as some kind of literature?

I think it comes from all of the above. I think it comes from just being in love with words. But as far as the nexus between literature and songwriting, I think it's a dangerous leap to make. A lot of guys have tried to write songs that mine the same territory as literature, but fail terribly and come out as bad literature and worse pop songs. And while maybe three of the guys that have tried it have succeeded from time to time, Lou Reed and Paul Simon and Elvis Costello, one or two others, I think it's an incredibly hard thing to do and I think there's nothing wrong with a fluffy piece of bubblegum songwriting, if it works at what it's trying to do. Those things can be written well on their own terms. I'm inclined to think that a lot of people would be better off if they found their own strength, even if it's something comparatively trivial. If it's something that doesn't remind everybody of a Faulkner novel, if it reminds people more of "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Yellow-Polkadot-Bikini"--if they do what they're strongest at and not worry so much about importance or immortality, because there's so much great, disposable stuff.

And I think you'd be one to sing the virtues of, let's say the Bangles, or anybody who's after a good, three-chord hook, but at the same time I think you'd agree that if you can say something about those dark places in the human mind, that's often the best kind of songwriting if it can be emotionally authentic.

I don't know if thats true or not. I think making people dance or making people laugh is probably as useful as making people upset or depressed. I agree that what you're saying seems axiomatic when you're a songwriter and you're after something more lasting, that it needs to be done in a serious way, it needs to go darker and deeper. But I'm not sure if it's true. It just seems true. I think there's lots of ways to write songs, there's lots of good songs. And to me a simple novelty song or a rant like "Fuck This Town" has its place in the world and so does a six-minute murder ballad that might get sort of metaphysical or reflective.

This will be the last heavy question, but do you think that to be serious, or to be of some kind of literary merit, that a song needs to have a serious theme? Or can a well thought-out rant like "Fuck This Town" have that merit, at least in the sense that it works the language and makes you think so you can appreciate it? I'm not asking you to define literature, but do you think of it as being so narrow that it needs to be about a serious theme?

I don't know. You know, I think about what we're talking about from time to time and I'm not sure I'm able to formulate some kind of a universal, apodictic response. But as far as the comparison between literature and music, at least in music, I think you can go wrong by looking too much at the meaning of the words, at the lyrical content of the song. I think there's more to it than that. The key way to look at it for me is, is the music going to last? Is this song or this song going to speak to somebody in two hundred years in the way that Moby Dick is going to speak to somebody? That it speaks to somebody now, in a hundred years, and will in another hundred years? And it seems kind of perverse to think that it's true, but I think pop songs can do that. There are pop songs that will mean something to somebody hundreds of years from now. I think that already we have Jimmy Rogers and the Miller songs. When you look back over a hundred years of music, there's music that still reaches us today and will continue to do so a long time from now. There's not so much in those songs, like the word-for-word meaning of "Waiting for a Train" by Jimmy Rogers, but it's a whole world that's created in that three minutes of music. I think it's not so much the subject that you're writing about, whether you decide to go light or heavy, as it is that world that's created in the three minutes.

NEXT WEEK: Robbie on Geffen Records, songwriting, Let's Kill Saturday Night and "White Man's Bourbon."

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