Interviewing your musical – if not heroes then certainly at least fantasy friends, the kind of artist whose tunes and words make you feel not only as if you know them, but more, as if you would connect with them in some genuine way IRL – is, more often than not, a dispiriting experience. Through absolutely no fault of their own, these wonder women and men of music are suddenly there, on the end of a phone line or sat opposite you in a pokey backstage room, fallible, real, a bit bored, or with opinions that don’t match up to your ridiculous idealised view of them, or having a bit of an off day or just somehow not who you had (unfairly, unrealistically) built them up to be.
The punchline here, of course, is that this was resolutely, brilliantly, not the case when I spent a near-perfect three quarters of an hour last week speaking with Willy Vlautin. Laconic, humble (in the actual¸ rather than the overdeployed oh-this-Oscar-I’ve-just-won-has-made-me-feel-so-humble Hollywood sense of the word), courteous and real, the Richmond Fontaine frontman, Delines songwriter and guitarist and hugely gifted author exudes the same careworn wisdom, the same gentle humour and charm as his beautifully-drawn characters (in song and on the page), as we discuss the end of Richmond Fontaine, the continuation of The Delines and how it really felt to sell his book The Motel Life to Hollywood.
The obvious place to start is with the new record, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. Did you know all along that it was going to be the last Richmond Fontaine record?
I always equate a band like Richmond Fontaine to an old van, and any time one of the wheels doesn’t fall off I was amazed. The way I looked at touring with Fontaine was: when each guy got into the van to tour I was surprised that they’d actually do it. Cos we’re a small-time band and so everybody’s got lives and responsibilities so when everybody makes sacrifices to be in the band it’s a great… I felt really lucky.
With this record our bass player Dave moved with his family to Denmark and we’ve always been a band that just kinda woodshedded songs. I’d bring songs in and we’d kinda dress them up in different outfits, give them different paint jobs and see which ones stick. And you can’t do that when a guy’s living half way around the world, and so we kinda all just went in different directions. I think in general we just didn’t want The High Country to be the last record.
The High Country was an art record, it was violent and crazed and I was a maniac. I told those guys: bear with me on this record and then we’ll put out at least one more. So, I wasn’t sure it would be our last record but I kinda had the feeling of it when I was writing the songs – it felt like the last record, you know? All the guys, we’ve kind of been drifting in different directions and I think we just wanted to put a record out that we were all really proud of before we called it. We all love this record so we feel really grateful that we got to stick together and make it.
It’s funny you mention The High Country – I particularly loved that album, and it’s haunted me since I listened to it. Could you talk to me a bit about how the hell it came about?
You know, I’d been touring too much. I live about an hour out of Portland Oregon, where the majority of logging in this part of Oregon happens. I live next to a bunch of logging land. I remember I woke up one morning about 6am and the logging trucks started rattling by our house and my girlfriend goes: oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, they’re logging, up from our house. And so it would rattle our house and where we live it can look real gothic-y, it gets real foggy and there’s trees everywhere and you can’t see your neighbours but you can hear ‘em. So you hear gunshots all the time and you hear… you know, drunk guys driving through the creek and it sounds mad at times here. So I just thought of writing those tunes.
It was the first record that I wrote out every song and then I wrote out a small thesis on why the guys should do it, and I kind of kept it from them. And then we were having our Christmas party and we were all sitting around in this restaurant getting drunk and talking and I told them the story of what I wanted to work on. And you could tell, I mean, they’re the coolest guys in the world but you could tell they were just like: Uh, Christ, he’s lost his mind entirely.
I believe you’ve just got to take chances and do different sorts of things and I really like the record. For more conservative country rock people it kind of goes past them, it’s a kind of more avant-garde record and it turned out to be the most fun we ever had making a record cos there was no pressure, everybody was just having fun, it was such a crazy idea.
I wanted to write a straight gothic kind of story, cos it feels really gothic out here to me a lot of times, so it’s very violent, it’s very romantic and it’s kinda goofy. At least in my interpretation of gothic, it does have kind of like a goofy element to it, it doesn’t quite make sense, and that’s what I was trying to do with some of it. It was fun to make but I’m glad I don’t think like that any more.
You got it out of your system, perhaps?
I hope so, I hope so man. Being around those creepy meth-fuelled guys is the biggest fear out where we live, it’s like, random meth… hoodlums will pick your house to terrorise, which happens, once in a while. I think that gave the fear of the darkness of the record.
Are you able to look back over the band’s 22 year history now and think of it as an entire entity, identify some of the best times and worst moments?
One thing with Fontaine is, we’ve never been a hard-working band. We never toured that much. I think everybody knew how hard to work with this band and I think no-one thought we would become rock stars, because of my singing my weird songs, but I think we all liked what we did, so we always pulled back when things got rough or when most bands would up the touring regimen we would ease back on it.
So there was never a temptation to go all-out for superstardom?
Well just trying to make a living, a clean living with Fontaine, I think woulda broke us as a band. I think we all kind of knew that would never happen. Plus, you know, we’re all older. When we started touring I think we were all pushing late 20s and so no-one was that crazy about getting on the road all the time. Just the amount of touring we’ve done it was hard enough to keep your home life straight.
I guess the best thing with Fontaine, though, has always been the camaraderie. I still love those guys - the only reason to call it as a band is we’re all drifting apart and I wanted to make sure we were proud of everything we did, and didn’t just keep being a band cos we like drinking together or whatever, you know? The camaraderie of Fontaine’s always been the most fun. And we were a really struggling band - at least 10 years we stuck it out and no-one cared about us, but we had such a blast, it was so much fun just being in a band I think those are always going to be the memories that I remember most. And the only dark, bad side of Fontaine I’ve ever felt is I felt a massive amount of guilt that I wasn’t writing better songs. Cos these guys are all talented, I always felt kinda guilty that they let me write the songs and I never brought more to ‘em, we never hit a payday for the guys. It would have been great – buy each of those dudes a Cadillac. That kind of idea. But in general, I didn’t have a passport before Fontaine, and only one of the guys did, so I feel we got nothing but luck and good things from it.
And will you keep up the drinking together, now that you’re no longer playing together?
Well me and Sean. Dan doesn’t drink any more so, he’ll probably be our designated driver. Sean and I play together in the Delines and Freddie who’s playing bass with us in Fontaine now is in the Delines. I’ll see all those guys. And Dan is one of my favourite guys in the whole world so hopefully we’ll always be pals.
So will the tour that you’re doing around this album be a ‘greatest hits’ set?
The thing is, you just bring in the songs. I work really hard on the tune and then the tune has to prove itself, and the song either sinks or swims depending on if the guys like it, If one of the guys says: I’m getting tired of playing this song, can we not play it, the only rule was that if you didn’t like playing a song then you didn’t have to play it, we just cut it from the set, because there was always other songs. With this tour it’s the same: we just cut out all the songs we didn’t feel like we could bring anything to the table with any more, or somebody’s tired of, or it reminds somebody of an ex-girlfriend or a bad situation, or they just never liked the tune. You always try to play at least a song or two off each record cos, some people like certain records, or they forgot to buy the middle three and they don’t know the songs and they just want to hear their song. You try to always edge towards that.
Moving onto your other band - The Delines – I wondered how being in that band differs from Richmond Fontaine. Is the vibe different? What’s the dynamic there like?
Again, we just got lucky. Sean and I and Freddie are great pals and you just can’t find a nicer person than Amy, she’s just, one of the most fun people you can imagine. And then we got lucky again with Cory Gray who started out as a touring keyboard player in the place of Jenny Conlee, but now he’s in the band and he’s cool as hell so it’s a really fun band. Surprisingly hard-living for such old people – we seem to have a really good time.
The greatest thing for me is I get to hear her sing every night and, everybody loves her voice in the band. I always was insecure, I’ve never been a great singer and I knew that, you know? I’ve never been that comfortable or excited or even into being the frontperson in a band. And so for me it’s like going to heaven. I get to do the work I like to do, which is – I love writing songs and I love being a part of a band, but Amy can be in front and I can hear her singing. In most bands you turn down the singer. You get tired of their voice so a lot of people will turn down the singer’s voice in their monitors but with me I turn it up as loud as I can cos I just like her voice. It’s a fun band, I hope we get to continue to do it cos I think we all enjoy it.
So are there plans for a second Delines album?
Yeah, we’re almost done with it. We’re fussing and fighting over it as we speak. Hopefully it’ll come out in a year or so and we’ll get to continue with The Delines. I’ve always liked that kinda late night country soul vibe and I think Amy fits that well and so hopefully yeah, it’s a band that I know we all want to keep going.
Thinking generally about your writing – novels as well as music. In all of your writing, your characters seem to be, broadly speaking, the underdogs, the people who life hasn’t treated as kindly. Particularly to a British audience it always seems really interesting because your kind of writing seems to be revealing a side of American life that to outsiders you don’t see so much. What you draw on for your characterisation – does it reflect your own background, your current life, or is it observational?
It’s kinda all of it. As a kid I was always interested in workers’ rights I guess, and being stuck. My mom was 30 years in a job where she was sexually harassed all the time and she didn’t get paid as much as the men. She was always scared of losing her job. She was a little crazy, sure, but it was real, her fear, and I think that she was worried that she would lose her kids and the job. And she was not in any kind of position of power for many years. She was very open about it.
So I think that my ideas of work came from her, as well as her boss. She worked with an old man and her boss used to hire - we called them ‘the guys who lived by the river’ the drifter bum kinda guys, homeless guys who lived in Reno. Where I grew up was a casino town so there was a lot of vagrant men, alcoholic, gamble-oholic guys who had fallen on hard times, and I grew up watching and being round those guys as they kinda got their shit together and were okay, and then fell again, and I was raised to think that you’re really not that many steps away from living hard.
And as I grew older I just felt attracted I guess to the harder side of life, I felt more comfortable around people that were scarred up or dented or weird, I was just felt more at home there. That’s why I always wrote about that, because that’s just the way I felt, you know. If you look at your heart through a story, the story of my heart in a lot of ways were those kind of stories and those kind of people.
I’m interested about the balance between novel writing and music in your career. If someone asks you what you do, do you say you’re a musician or a writer? Which one feels like your main profession?
I make my living writing, so I usually say writer. I guess it depends which one I’m doing better at, at the time. If I’m writing a novel that’s a failure and I’m feeling hopeless about it, then the reason I’m not writing well is because I’m a musician and I should just give up being a writer. And then when my songs aren’t doing good or the band’s doing bad and no-one really likes us then I would just say: well hell, it’s because really I’m a writer, I just do this music thing for fun. So they take the pressure off each other in that regard.
I’ve been doing them both so long together that it’s like they live in the same house together. But I don’t know, they’re hard to juggle. I think writing just takes so much time. It takes so many hours, but I’m way more built for that kind of work, just the grunt labour of writing a novel makes a lot of sense to me. And I find great satisfaction from putting in hour after hour after hour and whittling it, trying to fix it and trying to fix it and trying to save it. Being in a band’s just so much fun. Since I was 11 or 12 that’s all I ever liked to do and so it’s just hard to quit. I’ve tried to quit a bunch of times but haven’t been able to.
I hope, selfishly, that you continue finding it hard to quit!
Well that’s nice of you to say. Maybe I’ll put out a record and you’ll go: god, he should have fucking quit! But I’ll write another one after that one, and it’ll be better, hopefully.
How did it feel when The Motel Life was made into a movie - seeing your characters being cast as actual people and put on the screen. Was it painful? Wonderful? Somewhere in-between?
It’s all of it, you know. Well, I guess I should say first: early on I knew that I didn’t want to have any part of making movies. Although I’m a huge fan of movies, I’m obsessed with movies at times, but I never felt I had the mental wherewithal, I wasn’t savvy enough to navigate that world. I think you can waste a lot of time writing screenplays and being involved in projects that never go anywhere, and I didn’t necessarily want to do that, so I just kind of decided that I would sell it and run the other way. And sell it to the best people that were interested, if anyone was interested, the best of the interested parties, but I ran the other way, so you can’t really bitch too much when you do that, you have to accept what you get, and you just have to hope to god that they make something that they’re proud of. And those guys did work really hard. They stewed over it and worried over it like a sick kid.
Did they consult you during the filming and planning?
Yeah, I showed them around Reno. When they wanted to buy the rights to the book, they were interested in what I had to say just cos they wanted the book, and so they put up with listening to me. But I just asked them if they would make it in Reno , which they did. But after that they didn’t want to have anything to do with me - and fair enough, you know? They wanted to spin it their own way and do their own things. I could have helped them out in some regards I think, but maybe I would have hurt them in other regards by them taking my advice, so I don’t know.
But you know, I got to meet Kris Kristoffersen. And really importantly for me, they documented a bunch of Reno places I grew up and hung out in that might not be there any more in a few years. And they hit a few things, like: I used to live a lot like Frank Flannigan, the narrator and the writer of The Motel Life. I lived like him for years and they must have read the book because they ticked a couple of scenes in his house, where he lived in his bedroom, and it looked exactly like my old place and I swear to god when I saw that I almost started to have trouble catching my breath. I lived as kinda hard and as hopelessly as he did for a while, and so that was interesting.
In general the movies, you know it’s a lucky ride. And it was the first time ever I was in Reno and I felt I’d done something good. Because of my book people had a job for a couple of weeks, who didn’t have a job before that. And I brought money to the town cos all these guys needed to stay somewhere and they all needed to eat and they all needed to go have a couple drinks at the local bars and I felt like: man, the Flannigan brothers helped support people for a little bit. And that was huge for me, cos it was the first time I felt anything but a loser where I grew up.
What’s a typical day for you like, when you’re not touring. What’s a typical Willy Vlautin day?
That depends. Writing novels takes a long time so if I’m off the road I just get up, start working on the novel until something interrupts me and I’ve got to deal with that. I write all day long really, I guess. I waste a lot of time, and then I just do. I’m a Mom and Pop operation at best, so me and Sean are always trying to duct-tape the business side of Richmond Fontaine and the Delines and I’m trying to figure out how to stay alive in that book world. I’ve got horses and shit always breaks. I live pretty lucky cos I get to write through the day when most people are working. I try to take advantage of it the most I can. Getting to write stories for a living is the luckiest thing that could happen so I try not to fuck around too much, but life gets in the way.
A certain amount of fucking around is necessary when you’re writing that intensely though, surely. Do you mess about on the internet, log onto twitter for half an hour?
No, I don’t do any of that. I have a weakness for movies. I start researching movies, I do that a lot, or I just start playing guitar. I waste a lot of time listening to records. But no, I try to stay clear from that. If I’m a fan of something I research it on the internet, and you can get lost researching book stuff for days, waste a lot of time. But no, man, I try to stay away from stuff that makes me sick to my stomach, which is like twitter and facebook and stuff like that. It’s like reading somebody’s diary sometimes, and I just don’t want to know. I’d rather have the mystery of things.
If your music and writing careers hadn’t taken off, how do you think your life would be now? I know you did painting and decorating for a while – would that have been your main career?
Painting, yeah. Painting was only… I hate to say, I was never very ambitious. I just always wanted to be in a band and write stories. I used to quit jobs. All through my 20s, I’d work a job for a year, two years and then I’d save money and quit so I could write a novel. I’d write a novel – and this is before I even showed my novels to anybody, I never sent them out anywhere, but I needed the concentrated time to get the first draft done, and then once I got the first draft done I could go back to work, and then at night and weekends work on it.
So, you know, I’d just be an alcoholic painter, I would guess! I think it’d be safe to say I’d probably have a lackey, an employee. I used to have an employee that I had just so that I’d show up, because he was showing up. I hate to say it but I’d be like some bum painter, most likely. But I’d probably be very happy. That’s a depressing thought – Jesus! Hey, thanks a lot, I’m gonna have to crawl into the house and hide after that [laughs].
When you were younger, do you remember who your main inspirations were, the people that turned those lights on for you?
In general, the idea behind my relationship with movies and novels and records is escapism, you know? I just felt stuck in a not very comfortable situation when I was a kid. I didn’t like being a kid and I had a hard time navigating my way through my life, and so when I saw a movie I could disappear into the movie. And records, you know, it’s one of the easiest ways to disappear, you can just disappear inside a song.
As I got older, the greatest escape of all time is a novel, it just takes so long and you become such an instrument in how the novel looks in your mind, and how it travels and which passages you really study and stick to you, and which kind of places you gloss over. So in a way you kind of create the images and ideas of the novel to customise to the way your brain works.
As a kid I loved records: Springsteen, I loved how he was always kinda depressed but he always got the girl and he lived on the East coast and had a cool car; and then as I got older all these issues came, and the Replacements were… none of them graduated high school and they were all alcoholics but they were still in a great band. I loved the Pogues for their romanticism and again just the debauchery - I guess when I was a kid I thought that way of rebelling made sense, and their love for traditional music, cos I always was a huge fan of traditional music, even as a kid. So you know, I had dreams like that, those were the kind of musicians – and Tom Waits – that really inspired me, the more story-driven songwriters were always my favourites.
Your Delines set at End of the Road last summer was really special.
We almost missed that gig, just cos of the ferry, it took us a lot longer to get there than we thought. But what a lucky gig, it was so beautiful, it was one of the highlight gigs for us. We really had a good time at that festival and it just felt lucky to get to play such a nice place.
**The sun came out when you came on stage.
All that stuff can go the other way too, you know? Like, you’ll play a festival and the sound won’t work, it starts raining, there’s a metal band playing too close to you. But when it all lines up – it’s like anything, when something good hits, like gambling even, when it finally all lines up and you win, or at least do okay, it’s pretty remarkable.
And that’s what you chase after, isn’t it, that’s what keeps you chasing...
It’s like life in general. It seems good when you hit those times, and it’s really fun when things are working your way, and you feel like they always will be. And then a month later you feel like: bothing’s going to ever work right again, what’s the point? But I guess that’s what makes it interesting, you’re right. It’s the chase of the idea of the thing you want. Makes life interesting.