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Robbie Fulks: Getting his Revenge!
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
Ask what kind of artist Robbie Fulks is and you're bound to get a myriad of answers. Country, Alt-Country, Insurgent and Retro are all more than likely to be suggested. All that really, truly matters is that he is authentic, intelligent, humorous and challenging. Fulks will be playing June 21st as part of the D.I.D.ís Freimann Family Thursdays outdoor concert series.
Born in York, Pennsylvania ("where you're either a Methodist minister or a crack dealer"), Fulks now resides in Wilmette, Illinois (about an hour north of Chicago) with his wife and kids. He's released eight wonderful albums, including his 1996 debut Country Love Songs on Bloodshot Records. Let's Kill Saturday Night was his third album and major label debut for Geffen Records, a partnership that didn't last very long. Fulks was soon back on Bloodshot with a collection of previously unreleased songs titled The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. A tribute of sorts to the unsung country greats, 13 Hillbilly Giants, was released in 2001, along with a collection of songs about the dark side of relationships Couples in Trouble. Then in 2005, Fulks signed with Yep Roc Records and released Georgia Hard. Recently, he released his first live album Revenge!
FWR: I heard that you were introduced to bluegrass and folk through your family at a young age.
Robbie Fulks: My dad played. He never made 100% of his living off of playing but it was a pretty good sideline for him for several years. So he and his band would play festivals. It wasn't pure bluegrass; it was more like a folk version of bluegrass, like Kingston Trio used to play. He and my mom got me into it. They were always into music and we always sang and played together in the family and that's how it started for me.
FWR: Did you listen to rock n roll and jazz at the time also?
RF: In college I got more into that kind of thing. When I was a teenager I listened to The Beatles and Bob Dylan and really obvious stuff like that. Rock culture stuff. But the first type of music I heard, when I was probably around four, was Doc Watson and The Country Gentlemen and Carter Family and people like that.
FWR: Your new album Revenge! is a double live album with half of the songs being brand new. Are there plans to re-release any as studio versions?
RF: No. It's all done with.
FWR: I hear that you're not a fan of live albums. Is that why you included so many new songs?
RF: I just can't think of that many live records that I have that I like to listen to over and over again. There's Cheap Trick at Budokon and maybe four or five others but there aren't that many. I think the noise level is one annoying factors. There's kind of a white noise, applause sound after every song. Your ears aren't given a rest between tracks. It's presented as a continual concert. A lot of little things like that, I don't like. Not to mention that the songs are retreads and are generally better in the studio versions. If you do a good enough live record I don't think there's any reason to revisit any new song you included just to get it in a more pristine version.
FWR: Have you begun touring in support of Revenge! already?
RF: Well, the album came out on May 1st so we've been out doing it since then. We went to Italy, not like four weeks long or anything. I got out to the U.K. recently for some dates and we did some Midwestern dates after that. Just kind of plowing along.
FWR: How were the shows overseas?
RF: They were really fun. I haven't been over there in (long pause) well, I was over there last year. (laughs) It had probably been four years since then. Every year to every couple of years, I guess, I get over there. But you have to get over the hump of buying flights for a whole band, if its band shows, so it doesn't happen too much. I love the scene over there and love Edinburgh. I got to hang out and take a day off, just kind of stroll around.
FWR: On this tour are there any new places that you are going to be playing?
RF: Yeah. Fort Wayne, Indiana. (laughs) Where are you guys near?
FWR: Two hours north of Indianapolis. Pretty close to Ohio. Two hours from Toledo. A few hours from Detroit. It's one of those cities where you normally have to travel for shows. Recently things are changing.
FWR: Where are some of your favorite places to play?
RF: I just recently played one of my favorite places, a room called the High Noon in Madison. It just has a really awesome stage sound and a really nice staff and it's always a good turnout for us in Madison. So that's one of my favorite places to play. The night before that we played Minneapolis, which is also one of my favorite places to play. We played the Turf Club which is probably the venue that I've been wanting to play for years, not that I knew that it existed for a long time. I've probably played about eight different places in Minneapolis over the past ten years. For whatever reason, none of it was quite right, but this place is really awesome.
FWR: Touring can sometimes be less than fun. The food, the schedule, being away from family. Do you limit your time on the road for that reason?
RF: No, I enjoy it. I enjoy it okay and I enjoy getting to see new places and if the productions good at the venue then that usually makes it a breeze. With the family and everything, I don't like to stay away and not just for the family but also for the physical impact aspect of it. When I was in my thirties or twenties I could go out for three or four weeks and that was always a pretty good stretch of time, maybe not psychologically, but I'm just not very interested in doing that anymore. Three or four dates seems like a pretty good run.
FWR: Regarding the Geffen situation, did you think at the time that it was the end of the world or was it for the best? It seemed to happen right when the album was released.
RF: The record came out in September and the label was kind of gone by December, so yeah, it happened pretty quickly. I don't know. It was just like working for a really big bureaucracy. It was hard to get correct information and you can't talk to the people who are really in charge. So, that aspect of it was frustrating. Little things like getting invoices through and being paid in a timely way. At the same time, there was a lot of investment of time and talking to different functionaries. A half hour on the phone in the morning with the A&R guy, a half hour in the afternoon talking to a lawyer and over the course of a day talking for an hour and a half with the manager. So there were all these players that came along. It wasn't my little do-it-yourself operation anymore. All fine with the goal of getting played on the radio and taking it to the next level and I was able to build my audience a litter over the course of the year that I was with them but not in proportion to the amount of time and money spent.
FWR: So then Bloodshot took you back with open arms?
RF: Yeah, they did. I got out of there and just started working on another record and finished putting it together and actually put it out myself. They were aware since we were friends, so they eventually put it out.
FWR: Are you still friendly with Bloodshot? My friend received an autographed copy of Georgia Hard that read 'No More Bloodshot!'
RF: Oh, I was just goofing when I wrote that. I don't know why I wrote that. For some reason I have a strange tic where I'm always quick to make an angry, negative comment. We still get along fine.
FWR: How did your relationship with Yep Roc develop?
RF: They heard that I was working on an album and the guy that owns the label would come to my show and make friends with me. They were just really, really friendly. The friendliness factor is important in any business and I think some of the indie labels overlook that. I'm just really turned off when guys start acting like what they think big label guys act like. Self important and gruff, you know. (laughs) I just think we're all in little businesses together, let's just have a friendly conversation over dinner and cut the bluster. Yep Roc has always been nice and we've gotten along great ever since the very beginning. Their company is of a really impressive size. They work out of a warehouse with probably 40 people working at different aspects of distribution, marketing, A&R and press. They've got all the bases covered and a great, big qualified intelligent staff. The intelligence level out there is really impressive. They get records in the stores, which is the main thing a label needs to do at that level. It sounds absurd but it's really what you want the label to be doing primarily, otherwise you could just put out records yourself. These days it's pretty easy to put them out yourself but it's not so easy to get them into record stores.
FWR: Was their roster of artists (Billy Bragg, Marah, Robyn Hitchcock, John Doe) another reason for signing with them?
RF: Yeah, that's what made them really attractive just to begin with and made me want to be on that label. The roster reflects such good taste and variety, not to put down labels like Bloodshot or labels that are more sort of niche labels that create a musical identity. Yep Roc has more of a cultural identity than an identity of musical style.
FWR: You're not shy about making your influences known. You covered several of them on 13 Hillbilly Giants and then there was the tribute album to Johnny Paycheck that you produced. Who else do you feel is trying to do something similar?
RF: I think there are quite a few torchbearers for that older understanding of music and the idea of old fashioned craft and songwriting. A strong performance style and songs that are rooted in a specific space and time. I think a guy like Marty Stuart, not to necessarily compare myself to Marty, but the way that his musical and biographical choices reflect who he is, what he stands for and who his musical heroes are. There are others. I think most of us out there want people to know who's shoulders we are standing on. Bruce Robison is another guy. Dale Watson is a guy who is tireless in raising the flag for that stuff. Wayne Hancock is another example.
FWR: How about Dallas Wayne? How did you end up producing his first record and are you planning on producing more albums in the future?
RF: Dallas played bass in a band I was in during the 80s called Special Consensus and he was one of the guys I looked up to, when I was in my 20s, as a guy who was sort of born into the tradition and had a really strong natural gift. He's just one of the best country singers out there, so I just learned a lot from him as a slightly older person when I was young and going on the road. As for producing, it seems to come up every couple of years and I wouldn't necessarily be in favor of picking up the pace just to do it. If good stuff came along every week then I would do it all the time but I don't think that much good stuff is going to be offered to me all the time.
FWR: Your songs invariably contain humor. What comedians do you enjoy?
RF: When I was somewhere around fifteen years old was when Fernwood 2Nite was on the air and Martin Mull was kind of an influence on my way of thinking of how to put music and humor together. I always thought he had a pretty good grasp of the formal skills of music combined with the kick ass, sort of, unpredictability factor of making people laugh all of a sudden in the middle of a song. Not really favoring either side of the
equation but getting them in pretty good harmony together. In general, growing up with MAD magazine and National Lampoon was my induction.
FWR: Were you joking when you offered free merchandise from your website to anyone who could prove to have disrupted a Ryan Adams concert?
RF: Yeah, it was an offer I put on the website. No one took me up on it so it kind of ended bluntly right there. I think my fans are just too polite, although his fans aren't as civilized as my fans are, obviously. It just arose out of his show where he got heckled and lost his temper and his mind. Though it wasn't clear that it was a sort of Kaufman-esque set up on his end. I thought that either way it was a sort of invitation to mess with him.
FWR: Why exactly?
RF: He doesn't really even have any talent and I think that's kind of my problem with him and maybe with our age in general. Three generations ago in popular music you had to have an act, sort of. (laughs) We've gone from having a lot of acts to having a lot of concepts nowadays.
FWR: Did you ever hear directly from him about it?
RF: No. I haven't had any personal relations with Ryan since the late 90s. I just run into him at shows now and again. I did run into him at a show after that and I hid from him. I think I ducked down at the end of the bar because I didn't want to deal with it. Some bar in Chicago. He came strolling in wearing dark sunglasses at night with a rhinestone ball cap or some crap like that. He's just a ridiculous man. When he's not falling down drunk trying to act like the reincarnation of Gram Parsons then he's writing terrible songs. I don't know which I like less.