Ahead of Richmond Fontaine visit to 10 Feet Tall in Cardiff, Kevin McGrath caught up with singer, songwriter and guitarist Willy Vlautin to asking him about his diverse career and their latest album.
Kevin McGrath: You always play Wales when you tour the UK, so a big thank you for that. Have you had a chance to learn much about Welsh culture during your visits?
Willy Vlautin: I’ve read just the basics about Welsh history, I’m not a scholar by any means! I always like reading novels by Welsh writers and have just finished a few by John Williams that were great.
Richmond Fontaine has long been labelled an Alt Country band. Is that how you see yourselves, or do you find that description somewhat restrictive?
I never think about labels. People have to describe you somehow and we do have pedal steel. I like alt-country quite a bit, but in general we’re a band with a lot of different influences from country to garage rock to instrumental and folk music.
Your latest album, The High Country, is something of a Gothic melodrama, featuring a gallery of grotesques with a predilection for murder. It’s a sombre set of songs, interspersed with narrative pieces and snatches of dialogue. How has the experiment been received?
It was a risky record to do, some people really like it and others obviously don’t know what to make of it. They think we’ve lost our minds and maybe we have! The one thing everyone agrees is that Deborah Kelly is a great singer. She’s always been one of my favourites and I was excited as hell to have her on it.
I came quite late to your music and pretty much bought your albums in reverse order. Which album would you recommend as an introduction to Richmond Fontaine’s work?
Either Post to Wire or We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River. Both of those show all the different sides of RF.
You often name-check Dave Alvin and Tom Waits as artists that you admire. What is it about their song-writing that resonates with you?
I’ve always liked Dave Alvin’s folk side. His ability to set a scene in a song and then leave it open ended for the listener to decide has always inspired me. Tom Waits I think is one of the great classic songwriters. A pure tunesmith with great melodies. To me he’s right there with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Gershwin.
I have heard you remark many times in interviews on the affection you have for Reno. How did growing up there impact on your writing?
Reno is a great place. I was sad to move from there and hope to move back some day. I was born into the right town that’s for sure. It has a certain underbelly and sadness to it that makes sense to me and makes me feel normal. It makes me feel like I fit. I love writing stories set there. In general wherever I live impacts my writing, but Reno is always the most fun to write about.
Your three critically acclaimed novels, The Motel Life, Northline and Lean On Pete are all immensely moving pieces of work. Do you try to write dispassionately about your characters or are you, like the reader, on their side every step of the way?
I’m invested in my characters. I spend years with them, and most times their struggles are really my struggles or at least ideas that I struggle with. Wish I was better at being more analytical, but hopefully I’ll get better at that.
Blanche Dubois famously ‘depended on the kindness of strangers’ in A Streetcar Named Desire. Your most vulnerable characters often find solace or sustenance through chance encounters. An example would be T.J Watson’s unconditional generosity towards Allison Johnson in Northline. Do you have an essentially optimistic view of human nature?
I do believe in the kindness of strangers. One of the great things about being in a band is you find that out. People really help struggling bands. Over the years people have been so nice to me and my band, helped us out, fed us, put us up for the night…It’s easy to be scared and cynical. All you have to do is read the paper. I know I have a rough time that way. But I do believe humans, although violent and destructive, have a great ability for kindness.
You always write with great empathy about the dispossessed in American society, which in itself suggests a discontent with an economic system that weighs heavily in favour of the rich. Do you have any plans to write a more overtly political novel in the future?
I’m always trying to write about things that are important to me, or ideas I’m struggling with. My next book is more political in many ways, but I hope to write about politics in the way John Steinbeck did. Through the eyes of the working class.
To me you are a genuinely romantic writer, not in the grandiose style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course, but on a grittier, more recognisable level. Would it be fair to call you an incurable romantic?
That’s the first time anyone has ever told me that! But I guess you’re right. I am a sort of romantic. Maybe it’s too many movies, I’ve grown up on and live on movies. I blame them for it.
Is it true that a short story by the great Raymond Carver inspired you to write?
That’s true, Carver is a big influence and really the reason I started. Where most writers intimidated me, guys like Raymond Carver, Larry Brown, Barry Gifford, and William Kennedy inspired me…You know I live thirty miles or so from where Carver was born.
Are you an admirer of Carver’s poetry, too? His poem, ‘To My Daughter’, is just about the most heart-breaking thing I’ve ever read.
Attending a reading of Lean On Pete in Cardiff a couple of years ago it struck me that, with your distinctive voice and understated manner, you might move into acting at some point. Now, with The Motel Life being made into a film, I wonder if it’s ever crossed your mind to take the plunge?
Ha never! Not even if I become a drug addled ego maniac. Not even at my worst have I ever thought of being an actor. Shit I have a hard enough time just playing gigs and looking in the mirror.
Allison Johnson, Frank Flannigan and Charley Thompson are such memorable characters. Will you ever write about them again?
I’m not sure at this point on the first two. I don’t think I’ll write about Charley again ‘cause then he’d have to live and that would mean he would have hard times again. I want him with his aunt, stuck in time like that. I want him safe, I want him on easy street reading westerns and playing sports and eating dinner with his aunt.