:: Marquee Magzine and Radio 1190 presents :: Richmond Fontaine :: supporting Slim Cessna’s Auto Club :: Bluebird Theater :: June 30 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
Since 1994, Richmond Fontaine has released 10 albums, most to tremendous, rave reviews. The band is a critical superstar and they’ve caught on big in Europe. But while reviews use the terms “masterpiece,” “mind-blowing” and “absolute perfection” when describing the Portland, Ore.-based band, the truth is that most folks still don’t know the group. A perfect example is a headline that ran in Uncut Magazine, that stated, “They’ve just released one of the albums of the year, but who the hell are Richmond Fontaine.”
Who they are is easy, but conveying the power of what they do is nearly impossible. The band started when lead singer/guitarist Willy Vlautin met bassist Dave Harding at the Portland Meadows horse track, a place where, to this day, Vlautin gets a lot of writing done because, as he said, “It’s like being in a library, but once in a while you can bet on horses and look around and see all the interesting guys.” Harding and Vlautin found that they had a mutual love for the music of Hüsker Dü, Willie Nelson, X, The Blasters and The Replacements. They brought on a pedal steel player and a drummer and named the band after an American expatriate that Harding had met while hitchhiking through Mexico.
With a library of dark songs and sad, down-on-their-luck characters that make much of Tom Waits’ material look merry, Richmond Fontaine remains an exit or two away from the main cities on the map of success, and it seems like it’s just the way they want it. “Our music is pretty dark and moody and always has been, so I can’t see us ever being a real huge mass market band. I just don’t think it’s in the cards for the sorta stuff we do. We all know that and have known it from the beginning. I think that’s why we’ve always done things at our own speed. We tour when we want to, stay home when we want to,” said Vlautin in a recent interview with The Marquee.
The band’s latest album, Thirteen Cities, is like the albums that have preceeded it from Richmond Fontaine, a heartbreaking collection of stories about people who seem to make the wrong decisions no matter how hard they try to make their luck turn around. It’s a theme that is echoed in Vlautin’s other creative outlet, his fiction writing. In addition to releasing Thirteen Cities this year, Vlautin has also published The Motel Life, his first novel, which has been compared to the works of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver.
“I started writing songs when I was 13 or 14. I have always been a fan of short stories and novels, even at that age, but I never thought I’d get one published. I had a hard time in school, I had a hard time in English so I just thought I’d be in a band. Anyone can be in a band, and so I joined one. But my heart has always been with writing. That’s why I think my songs are so story oriented, and in the end the two have really helped each other. When I’m writing bad songs I think of myself as a writer and when I’m writing bad fiction I think of myself as a musician. It sorta takes the pressure off,” he said.
Taking the pressure off is a theme that the band itself experimented with on the new album. Having formed in Portland, the majority of their recordings have been made there. But for this CD the band traveled to Tucson, Ariz., where they rented a house and lived together while working with their long-time friend and producer JD Foster, at Wavelab Studios. “We aren’t and never have been a real confident band. That’s why JD has been so great. He sorta gives us the confidence to do what we want to do. He’s a lot of the reason the music sounds so great. We’ll come up with things and he’ll be supportive and tell us to try it,” Vlautin said.
The temporary move to Tucson also provided the band with the chance to be joined on the album by Howe Gelb of Giant Sand and a couple members of Calexico, which, Vlautin said, “made my year.”
When Vlautin says things like “it made my year,” there’s a sincerity and humbleness to the man that is as genuine as his characters’ desire to be the good people they want so desperately to be, even when they’re fucking up. In his early days of touring, Vlautin used to send his grandmother a post card from every town he visited, and it’s that bittersweet, aw-shucks type of attitude that makes his stories, both musical and on the pages of his novel, the stuff of which American legends are made.