“I can do afternoon, too,” Willy Vlautin says. “Maybe safer!?” So we meet at Slim’s in downtown St Johns at 3 p.m. Some afternoon sunlight shoots a bright stripe through the open front door, straight down the middle of the room and onto the pool tables in back. A handful of really regular regulars huddle together in the shadows. We sit at the bar with discernably bad posture.
Vlautin’s 22-year-old band, Richmond Fontaine—a twangy, artful alt-country band with reclusive tendencies—just released a record called You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To. He holds forth on living hard, the difference between songwriting and novel writing, and his longtime musical family.
This new record, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To, isn’t a concept album like your last one, but what were you thinking about when you wrote it?
Granted, I hang out with more fringe kind of people, or at least I used to, but at this stage I’m at the age—and the Richmond Fontaine guys are at the age—where with the friends we’ve had that have lived hard, the bill has sorta become due. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, living hard, living bad. You never think that your friends are going to pay the price for that. Or you’ll see guys that you know married the wrong woman, and you think they’ll figure it out. But you realize, oh no man, they never figured it out—your buddy is in a really bad situation, and it gives out when he’s in his 40s and he’s tired and stuck. I was interested in all those things with the new record. I’ve always been interested in that idea of paying the price for the way you live.
This is really the last album?
Well, our bass player Dave [Harding]—he and I started the band—moved to Denmark to be with his family. He’s a great dude, and he made the best choice for him and I’m glad he did, but we realized after a year that we hadn’t hung out together in the same room. And finally we did some one-off Fontaine gig and we realized, “Oh my god, we haven’t seen each other in almost a year.” So we kinda got scared, and we got back together. I just think we’re all so proud of this record, and I wrote it thinking it might be our last—it felt like everybody was going their own way. I just thought, man, this is a good place to stop.
It feels like a last record.
I really wanted a big desert, sad vibe. I was writing under that theme, and the theme interested me, but I was also writing thinking about Richmond Fontaine kind of coming home. I whittled away at it. And I knew I wanted it to be kind of a blown-out desert record, because I always thought Fontaine sounded really nice in that frame.
The band has taken you to a lot of places at this point.
Richmond Fontaine is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. My big goal coming to Portland was to be in a band that was on a flier for a show, and my second big goal was to have a van. I always just wanted to be a part of it. My books would never have gotten published if it weren’t for Fontaine. That’s another part of it. And you wanna leave your pal with the best bottle of tequila you can. We all thought this was one of our favorite records, and so, out of respect, it felt like the last. Me and Sean [Oldham] have really done a lot of the heavy lifting on the last couple of albums, and we talked about that a lot. We wanted to leave on the record that we felt good about.
When you’re used to writing hundreds of pages, does it ever feel limiting to write something so short and inherently limited as a song?
Well, then you’ve got the melody to make up some of the story, and the tone of your voice and a guitar lick or a piano lick—Dan [Eccles]’s great guitar playing hopefully says stuff, too. I guess it’s like writing a poem—you just have to get the lines that work. Every once in a while you hit it, and maybe the melody helps it get better, and the playing of the guys makes it even better. That’s the addictive thing. Writing a good song really is like finding money on the street. Sometimes I do it, and sometimes I spend weeks trying to do it and I don’t even get near it. For me personally, if I’m more on edge and my life’s more fragile, I write better tunes. But I only write those kind of tunes. I’ve never been good at writing upbeat love songs. I started writing songs as a kid because I was so messed up, not because I wanted to be a rock star. I was just trying to figure out how to be closer to the songs I loved, and the songs I loved were always kind of sad and fucked-up—they made me feel less alone.
I love writing fiction because of the work ethic. You’ve got to get your guy from A to B to C, and then you’ve got to make it run and feel good. That just takes hours and hours. But writing songs is like walking down an alley, looking for money or an unopened beer—some kind of gift. And once you get the gift, then you can put the fiction work ethic to it—you can whittle and move and change. I love doing that more than anything, just the editing. That’s why fiction works for me: I love tinkering and being hard at work at something.
Do you have alternate versions of songs, then? Do you have versions that go down different alleys?
Oh yeah. But I always figured it would save those guys time and me time if I knew what I wanted by the time I brought a song to the band. But usually I will bring a song in as sort of a folk song, and I shut my mouth. The song either sinks or swims, and the guys get to work on it the way they want. I bring it in and they change it all around, and we kind of riff off of it. Fontaine was a neat band that way: The song had to survive on its own merit, and I was cool with that. I liked to see if my song could swing with those guys—and if it couldn’t, fuck it, I’d just write another one.
Why is there so much emphasis, in your songs, on creating a sense of place?
As a kid, I loved the Pogues. And when I listened to the Pogues I was in Ireland. When I listened to Springsteen I was in Jersey with a girl driving through the streets by oil refineries and all that. That sense of place has always been the most important thing to me, because when you put the record on suddenly you’re dreaming, and you’re far away. I said if I was gonna write songs I’d write about the places I was in love with. So I write about the West and the desert and Portland. I wanted it to move people, so that a kid with a big edge on him could listen to my tunes and be somewhere else with someone else’s big edge.
Do you like touring and being onstage? Or do you put up with that because you like the songwriting part?
When I was young I liked touring, because I wanted to be in a band that toured just so I could say I did it, and I had never been anywhere. But I’ve never in a million years was meant to be a front person. It’s almost killed me a few times, especially when I was younger. I wanted to be in a band so bad that I would play gigs, but it killed me. I’d have to drink a lot. When I was like 16 I’d have to be so drunk I could barely stand, and then, obviously, it’d be horrible. That went on until I was practically 30, and when I was living in Portland this guy drove eight hours just to see our band play. I was really drunk at the show, and I was so ashamed of myself, that this guy drove all this way and was sleeping in his car, and I didn’t have the respect for him to do it right. I was too nervous to do it. But after that I grew up a little bit.
But I’ve never really liked touring that much, because I like writing stories and I can’t do that on the road. We’re going on the road next month, in Europe, and we’re playing like 31 shows in 32 days, something like that. There’s no time to write. I can’t say it’s not nice when people like your band, but I’d rather be in the back room working on a story. I like the free beer and the free food and people saying they like my songs, of course, but I don’t care that much about it.
There are times with Fontaine where I just feel guilty. I think, “Man, if I were a better singer, or if I wouldn’t have dragged these guys into this shit, maybe they’d be in a much better band.” But that’s up to them, I guess. Those guys could all write their own songs. They just let me do it, and I’m grateful to them for it. I don’t fuck around with it, you know? I really write as hard as I can. But I’m limited by my own fucked-up head and my lack of caring about pop sensibilities. It’s like with writing a novel, I’ll hand it off and then I’ll think, “I wonder what, like, commercially, people are going to think?” And then it’s too late. I never think about that until it’s too late, which I think is both good and bad.
You probably wouldn’t be able to do it any other way.
My take on it is that I’d rather fail being honest. I never thought I was smart enough to figure out how to navigate success by playing the game. And you kind of live and die by that, but that’s OK.
When we did all right with Fontaine, more than anything, I felt grateful that I had given something back to these guys. Like, we’re going to Ireland or fucking Spain! Who would have thought? And granted we didn’t do great in any place, but we did good enough.
Is it fair to say you’ve done better abroad than in the US?
Oh fuck yeah. We started touring there in 2004. Back then we toured Europe and US, but it just about killed us. We didn’t make enough money to stay on the road all the time, and I think it would’ve broken the band up. We weren’t going to be famous, and we all knew that. Because of my voice, the idea of these songs—it just wasn’t going to happen.
Other than Sean, who was the smartest guy in the group, none of us had passports, none of us had been anywhere. So we decided, let’s just put it all on Europe, so we can see it. Let’s take every opportunity to see things we’ve never seen. We were all pretty rational.
The thing Fontaine always had is that we were always buddies. We drank a lot of beer, and we just like to be in a band. Everybody’s trying to keep a lid on things now. We get in the van and they have the same arguments about which 1973 Grateful Dead board tapes are better, and I have a stack of books, and the other guy’s maybe hungover and grumpy, and I get to read my books. It’s fucking great. I think a band is really fragile, but in all the years and all the mad drunken high jinks—because we were a fucking hard-living band for a while—no one ever crossed the line. It’s a great family.
Richmond Fontaine plays the Star Theater on Friday, May 13.