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“Once you lose romance, there is nothing left but darkness”: Best Fit meets Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin

“Once you lose romance, there is nothing left but darkness”: Best Fit meets Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin

23 September 2011, 11:00
Words by John Freeman

Willy Vlautin has a way with words. As the chief songwriter for Richmond Fontaine, or as a highly-acclaimed novelist, he can spin magic into even the most humdrum of situations.

“It’s beautiful out here,” he remarks to TLOBF as we conduct an interview in the fading light of an Autumnal dusk. Except it is not. We are on the Manchester University campus, in a quadrangle surrounded by ghastly 1960s architecture and a set of over-flowing rubbish skips. Okay, it may not be raining and the tolling of an adjacent church is nice, but we’d hardly describe it as ‘beautiful’.

But Vlautin is an old romantic at heart, and on the eve of his first UK gig to support Richmond Fontaine’s astonishing new album The High Country, perhaps we find him in a particularly evocative frame of mind. Indeed, we are sat on a bench (the very bench that your scribe always chooses to conduct interviews if he can, where he once spent 30 minutes thigh-to-thigh with Faris Badwan, because said bench was half-covered in rainwater) and TLOBF is feeling light-headed as Vlautin’s answers sound like lines from John Irving novels – rich, hopeful and tinged with melancholy.

The High Country is a story album – like a novella set to music. Based in a desolate logging town in Vlautin’s native Oregon, it paints vivid pictures of abusive relationships, drugs use, loneliness and pent-up desperation, against a soundtrack of murder ballads, stirring rock and crackling alt. country.

For Vlautin, the inspiration for The High Country was all around him. “I live out in the country, in the woods. A lot like the story, I live surrounded by forest. It is really dark and gloomy for six months of the year but it is really beautiful,” he says when we ask how the idea for the album came about. “I came back from a tour and I was strung out and tired. Anyway, at 4.30 in the morning all these logging trucks start going by my house. They shake the whole house as they are so loud and heavy. So, I woke up and wrote ‘The Meeting On The Logging Road’; a two-minute love song. It was one of my favourite songs I’ve written, it was so easy.”

However, any Richmond Fontaine album is unlikely to be without a darker side. Having struggled with alcoholism throughout is young adult life, Vlautin was aware that The High Country would become a more ‘rounded’ story. “So, I set about writing the most romantic songs I could, set amongst where I live,” he continues. “But, because it is me, I started writing the other side – the answer to those songs – and what turned out to be this straight-up, gothic story pretty much slipped out. So while it is very romantic, it is also very violent. There is light and dark – there is even B-movie humour with the logging songs.”

The songs tell the story of a girl who works in an auto-part store and falls pregnant to a young logger. He loses his leg in a logging accident and cannot work. They marry, but she loses the baby and the relationship descends into nothingness, with the girl trapped by her circumstances. We are not particularly giving anything away; the narrative is explained in the spoken-word opener ‘Inventory’.

Like Vlautin’s novels, the subject matter for The High Country is taken from what he knows and loves. “In little towns in the US, there will be a grocery store, a pizza parlour and an auto-parts store,” he says in his sing-song late night accent. “The only girls you will ever meet will work at one of these places. I used to always know auto-part store girls because I always drove cars that broke down. So, when I wrote the story I took it right from a woman in that situation. In those towns you either leave or you get married early. The way I look at it, she gets drunks one night, sleeps with the wrong guy and is horrified at what to do. Small towns are also really anti-abortion, so she ends in over her head.”

Sonically, the music seems to fit the story, rather than the other way around. Vlautin sheds a little light on the matter, “I was trying to channel all the bands from the North West, like Mudhoney, and then someone like Richard Hawley – who writes great romantic songs – and try to write songs that weren’t so fucked up, in the hope that it would lead me to a better head.”

Having never interviewed a songwriter that is also a highly successful author, TLOBF is intrigued about the level of character development required for lyrics, compared to writing 100,000 words of fiction. We ask Willy as to whether he ‘believes’ in his song characters as much as his novel characters. “I really believe them. It was really important for me when I was writing the story of this record that the girl had to make it, regardless. I wanted the romance of the guy giving her confidence. Their romance makes me more romantic in life. Once you lose romance, there is nothing left but darkness.”

By now, TLOBF’s head is spinning – Willy’s words are like interviewing catnip. We feel a bit groggy from the combination of his maudlin poetry and the stench coming from the rubbish skips. “I wanna be a guy that just writes love songs,” he continues. “I know everyone doesn’t, but me, I try and write them in the hope that I’ll lighten up. Jesus, that was long-winded. Sorry.” He doesn’t need to apologise.

The ‘girl’ character’s voice is provided by Deborah Kelley of The Damnations. Willy tells us that Deborah has just had a baby and that her sister, Amy Boone, is covering on the UK tour. “Amy has a really amazing voice,” he says. “They sing similarly and I believe it when they sing. They just seem like North Western working-class women with beautiful voices.”

Later, Richmond Fontaine play their first show of the UK tour. Vlautin has admitted to being nervous, but there is no hint of this as the band effortlessly leads a rapt audience through The High Country and its tales of isolation. It is so evocative, that a number of us are pretty damn relieved to find we are still in Manchester, and not some Oregon logging town, when we step back out of the venue. Vlautin is right about Amy Boone. She may look like a ‘soccer mom’ but she sings such huge emotional depth that she almost steals the show.

So Willy Vlautin has much to be content with. The High Country is Richmond Fontaine’s finest album since 2004’s career-high Post To Wire, while his publishing career continues to gather momentum. He is the author of three well-received novels with a fourth currently still being written (“It’s a more complicated novel than I’ve ever done so I am just letting it breathe more.”)

However, most excitingly – to us, anyway – Willy’s first book, 2006’s The Motel Life, is being made into a feature film and is due for release next year. We go all ‘movie journo’ and ask him how it all came about. “I’d sold The Motel Life years ago, pretty much when it came out,” he begins as TLOBF settles down to listen like an entranced child. “The great Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga bought The Motel Life – he wrote 21 Grams and Amores Perros and all these great screenplays. He bought it and I couldn’t sleep as I was really excited. But, a couple of years go by and he can’t get it made and the option runs out.”

“I then sold The Motel Life to the Polsky brothers and they are really ambitious and really fun. But again, they would call and ask me if I was ready and then I wouldn’t hear from them for eight months. But then they called and said they had got Emile Hersh and it just snowballed from there.”

As the chief creator for his band and the writer of novels, Vlautin is used to having a considerable degree of artistic control. He tells us that his only input was to make notes on Noah Harpster’s screenplay. Like any author he has firm views on what his characters would look like. The cast list for The Motel Life looks nigh-on awesome and we ask Willy if the chosen actors fit with his imagination. “Emile Hersh is really cool, he is much better looking than the vision I had in my head. Stephen Dorff too; I was cool with those guys. Dakota Fanning I’ve only seen in pictures, but I always pictured her character, Annie James, to be blonde. She was based on a girl I knew. Dakota is more glamorous and beautiful than my Annie James. But it’s their take on it. It’s like anything else, like interpreting a song. They’ve got to put their stamp on it.”

As well as the innate delight of seeing his story on the big screen, Willy enjoyed the fact that many scenes were made on location in Reno, Nevada, the town of his childhood. “It was shot in all the bars I used to go to and all the restaurants I used to eat at,” he says with just a frisson of pride. “I’d been going to this one restaurant since I was a little kid and I didn’t know the owners, but then everyone is nice to you when you are coming back not as a fucking bum.”

And while Willy may not be getting too excited at a potential trip to a future Cannes Film Festival (“Do you get free breakfast? Honestly, none of that shit really means anything to me”) he is well aware that his other books (the 2008 novel Northline and last year’s Lean On Pete) may never make it to celluloid. “The stars have to align, you know. I wouldn’t have bet money that The Motel Life would have been made. With movies, especially sad little movies which would mine would be, you have to find someone who falls in love with it.”

With its stellar cast, it looks like The Motel Life could be a huge success. Although Will has written stories since he was 21, his belated success as an author will eat into the time and energy he can spend on Richmond Fontaine. For a man who enjoys his own company, being an author suits him more than fronting a band. “I’m happiest writing fiction because I like the work ethic,” he admits. “You are by yourself, you are not promoting very often – you are just editing and rewriting. I’m more suited to that than playing gigs, mentally. But, I’m really honoured to be part of Richmond Fontaine. These guys aren’t as dark-headed as me but they trust me and they let me write the songs.”

Formed back in 1994 and boasting a discography spans ten albums of spine-tingling country blues, it is clear from their Manchester show that Richmond Fontaine remain great buddies. “The reason we are still together – besides that we are all pals – is that when someone starts cracking, we pull back. Fontaine, to me, has always been like an old van. You are waiting for one of the wheels to fall off and our wheels just haven’t fallen off yet.”

And as for The High Country, we are left wondering whether this beautiful album could be made into a full-blown novel. “I’d like it to become a graphic novel,” he suddenly pipes up, as if reading our mind. “I’ve always thought of it more as a graphic novel. Before I die, I always wanted to write one. There may be some dumb fuck who will be crazy enough to become involved on it with me.”

When the interview is done, we stand up in the cool evening air. Willy loiters for a few minutes and we chat about two mutual loves, the singer Kristin Hersh and the author John Irving. Willy leaves us with a handshake as warm as his words.

It’d take a dumb fuck not to want to work with Willy Vlautin.

The High Country is out now via Decor.

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