INTERVIEW: Richmond Fontaine | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Willy Vlautin is a celebrated novelist and the guitarist and songwriter for country soul band The Delines, but it’s his first labour of love, Richmond Fontaine, who are calling it a day after over twenty years.  I caught up with Vlautin as the band prepares to embark on a European tour, which includes a date at The Cluny on Tuesday 26th April. “Our founding bass player Dave Harding moved to Denmark and after that we just quit playing,” Willy muses. “We realised we hadn’t played together in almost a year and we all got nervous and made a pact that we would make one more record.”

The result of that pact is the excellent You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To, and it’s classic Fontaine. Vlautin’s storytelling captures tales of those whose American dream has turned into a nightmare; the put upon, the downbeat and the downright unlucky are sound tracked by a distinct musical backdrop. “When I was working on the songs I first started thinking about all the friends that we’ve known that lived harder and started falling apart and they started paying the price for living the way they were living; that whole idea of living recklessly and burning bridges along the way, then you come home ‘cause you’ve run out of any other options. A lot of times when you do that, you come home and find there’s nothing left for you.”

Fans of the band’s previous nine studio records are in for a treat, as there are some familiar characters – as well as places – that the Reno-born Vlautin has revisited. “When I started Fontaine I’d just moved to Portland and I’d never really lived in many other places. So the heart of Richmond Fontaine, the lyrics anyway, came out of Reno, so I wanted to go back to it. So songs like I Got Off The Bus or I Can’t Black It Out are about going back home as a middle-aged man.”

If the song gives you a feel to it, an emotional punch, that’s the emotional punch that’s in me

The closing down of The Fitzgerald – the eponymous setting for Fontaine’s 2005 record – in the mournful I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up And Remember will resonate with a lot of fans in particular. “The Fitzgerald had rooms for 20 bucks from Sunday through Thursday,” recalls Vlautin. “I used to stay Sunday through Thursday, then stay at a friend of mine’s house on Friday and Saturday, and go back and stay at the hotel ‘cause it was so cheap and they had Guinness on tap and lounge bands. It was a place where I wrote a lot; I wrote The Fitzgerald there and I wrote a lot of The Motel Life (Vlautin’s 2006 debut novel) there.”

Although presented as fictional characters, fans have often wondered just how much of Willy Vlautin there is in the stories that he’s telling. “I found early on – when I was about 19 or 20 – if I wrote through a character it was easier for me to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t really have the courage to put it in the first person, so it’s all half-truths. If the song gives you a feel to it, an emotional punch, that’s the emotional punch that’s in me. Luckily I didn’t have to go home with my tail between my legs. I almost did a handful of times in the last twenty years.”

Two Friends Lost At Sea is particularly vivid, a break-up song that paints a sad and painful picture, despite being musically upbeat. “That shit’s fuckin’ rough. The only thing I ever learned about that is if you just batten down the hatches and don’t be self-destructive, it goes away. The one saving grace when shit really went south with me was I quit drinking. Some guys start drinking and me, I’ve always had a self-preservation that kicks in that’s always kinda kept me from drifting too far into the ditch.”

That self-preservation has enabled Vlautin to find a balance between being a musician and a novelist, with the writing taking more of a front-seat these days. “The one thing is I’ve never toured a lot. I’ve never been able to tour that much because I like writing and it just takes time – day after day after day – and it’s the kind of work I like and I think I’m suited for. But it’s hard to do both, and I’ve struggled with that for years, switching gears, and I never thought being in two bands would be a pain in the ass!” He laughs. “I just assumed that ‘cause I didn’t sing with The Delines it would be much easier, but obviously I was wrong, so having two bands and I have three horses and I’m try’na write a novel…it’s tough!”

With Richmond Fontaine touring, another record for The Delines in production and an all-but-finished novel, it promises to be a busy time for Vlautin. Yet he’s able to reflect on what’s been a great career with Fontaine. “The money was never very good. We were all just drinking buddies that could keep it together more than not. In Fontaine, no matter how many weeks we were on the road, or how crazy we’d get, no-one ever said anything that was unforgiveable and I think we all knew that the greatest thing for the band was the camaraderie.”

Richmond Fontaine play The Cluny, Newcastle on Tuesday 26th April.

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