“I wanted to tattoo the memory in a good way,” maintains Willy Vlautin, the affable frontman for Richmond Fontaine. “I thought this was a good spot to just leave the band where we all liked each other, and on a high note.”
The singer-songwriter’s much-loved (and absurdly underrated) alt-country quartet are calling it quits after 22 years and 10 albums, which include 2004’s magnificent Post To Wire and this year’s exquisite 13-track swansong, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. Richmond Fontaine excel in gritty, evocative tales of dislocated individuals longing to escape their circumstances. Songs like “Wake Up Ray” in which a man is “haunted by his past and his marriage and wakes up early and thinks his town’s cursed, too”.
“I worked in warehouses for years and years until I was 35, and you feel so stuck and hopeless,” maintains 48-year-old Vlautin who was brought up in Reno, Nevada and now resides in Portland, Oregon. “You start thinking of new places, getting a new identity and a new idea of who you are.”
Vlautin’s barbed, acutely observed songs are populated by (mainly) doomed working-class Americans who drift, hustle, booze, fight and flee – or dream of fleeing. He’s an adroit lyricist (“She spent nights in the bathtub just to calm her nerves” on “Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt”, and “Her husband’s fist, her swollen face, her broken ribs and missing hair” on the harrowing “The Janitor”) whose influences include US authors Raymond Carver, Larry Brown and Flannery O’Connor.
Vlautin has written four successful novels of his own. Northline, from 2008, was hailed by the crime writer George Pelecanos as his favourite novel of the decade, and 2007’s The Motel Life was made into a film, starring Kris Kristofferson (which was “mind-blowing”) and Emile Hirsch. His 2010 novel Lean on Pete is also being made into a film, to be directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend and 45 Years). It’s all a far cry from Vlautin’s challenging childhood growing up in Reno, where he felt “beat-up”. However, he benefited from his encouraging folk singer brother, who told him to write songs about what “hurts and haunts” him.
“I was into punk rock and I identified with the pain, and the songs about not fitting in and feeling dislocated,” he maintains. “I write about broken people, the idea of a guy hard up on his luck or a damaged person,” he continues. “I write about a working-class guy living in a working-class neighbourhood and working in a working-class job, which are notoriously going by the wayside in America where worker's rights are being taken from us.”
Vlautin is very animated by the state of his nation, where he believes the US working-class are “being strangled away” and where “white working-class men” are besotted by the politics of Donald Trump.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he claims. “The right wing has really been working on this for years through talk radio and propaganda, and this is what you get if you get people fired up year after year.
“It’s a low-level angry that has no real place to go and people get really frustrated and scared, and then Trump comes in – and he’s a maniac – but he says what he wants to say and he’s not scared of anybody and people identify with that.
“It’s always mystified me that people vote against their own self-interests and I think so many working class people vote against their own self-interests, and it’s always baffled me and it's very depressing.
“But that being said you could put a shovel up against Hillary Clinton and it would be a neck and neck contest,” he maintains. “The sad thing is this is not the end, regardless of who wins it’s going to be a long slog until America can figure out its broken system.”
The garrulous Vlautin is, by contrast, in a far better place, with his recently formed band The Delines (featuring the exquisite country vocals of Amy Boone and two Richmond Fontaine stalwarts, bassist Freddy Trujillo and percussionist Sean Oldham) garnering giddy reviews in 2014 for debut album Colfax, which features the languid “Flight 31” and the menacing “He Told Her the City Was Going to Kill Him”. Further material will appear once Boone has fully recovered from injuries sustained from a car accident in March: “She’s so damn cool and to think of her in pain is miserable,” laments Vlautin.
However, for the next few weeks, Vlautin’s energies will be focused on dragging his beloved Richmond Fontaine over the finishing line, playing his distinctive songs that habitually avoid rhyming couplets. Have the band ever felt aggrieved that they didn’t produce more “catchy” tunes or achieved more success?
“They would have left me a dumpster somewhere if they cared that much,” he quips “It’s only in the hindsight that I think ‘Jesus did I really write that?’
“I work so hard on the lyrics and writing the tunes because I feel so honoured to be with the band and for them to play my songs. I never think of the songs as commercial or catchy or whether people are going to like it until we’re done recording it, but there’s been times where I feel really guilty and I’ll write catchy songs for a little bit.”
“I think the world would be in a serious disarray if we topped the charts,” Vlautin adds. “If there was a world which actually had a Richmond Fontaine record as the top record then I think it would be a pretty messed-up world, but then I could finally pay back the band their time and buy each of them a Cadillac. I’d be super relieved and excited if I could do that.”
So why end it now, especially after producing such an exceptional album?
“We’ve stopped with a record that we all really like and it’s one of my favourites,” he says. “We all get along so well, but it’s getting harder and harder to get each guy in the van.
“I didn’t want to put out a record that everybody wasn’t so excited about and I could feel that coming,” he admits. “The band has been really good to me and we’re all best pals and the thing I’m going to miss the most is hanging with those guys.”
Richmond Fontaine’s Farewell Tour ends at London’s Electric Ballroom on Friday; ‘You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To’ is out now
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