The Willard Grant Conspiracy has gone underground. The only way you can hear the new album by one of America's best bands in their home country is to visit a particular bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, walk up to its jukebox and put in your 25 cents. It suggests the way a secret agent might hide a vital formula in plain sight - not a bad metaphor for the Willard Grant Conspiracy's place in American music right now.
Regard the End is the fifth and arguably finest full album by the band, an amorphous collective of 30 musicians spread across the States and Europe. An alt.country outfit, if you like, they tap into America's musical roots, never more than on the new record, a seamless blend of Appalachian hymns, slave spirituals, European folk and singer-songwriter Robert Fisher's own lyrics of love and death, set to vivid, stately rock.
It's the culmination of a process Fisher began as a child in the Californian desert, one of a family of small-town misfits and eccentrics. An outsider even in that company, he first lost himself in books with such desperate fervour that his mother had to shake him back into reality. By 10, he was writing seriously, as well as "self-medicating", trying to fit in with "normal" friends by a prodigious capacity for drink and drugs. As an adult, carelessly roaming California's under-side, he witnessed bizarre and violent acts. His own excesses included slamming his motorbike into a mountain.
He eventually quit drink and drugs, in 1980, finally focusing on music. In 1982, he met Paul Austin, another terribly damaged soul, in another small-town wilderness, Portland, Maine. Inspired by punk, their first bands were aggressive, purging assaults on audiences. When they formed Willard Grant Conspiracy, in 1996, the intention was quite different. They would confront rock crowds with quietness and slowness, communicating to those who could take it. With an open door for like-minded members, the Conspiracy's music was looser and less predictable than regular bands'. When their cathartic shows connected, fans claimed their lives were changed. These listeners were part of the Conspiracy too: one designed to restore honest community to American rock.
In the time since 2000's Everything's Fine, Austin has left. But Fisher, who when I met him once before was still struggling with his old self-loathing, now seems a man almost at peace. Bulky, with a big new beard, he has been left brimming with confidence by the Regard the End sessions. And yet, somewhere along the way, his band lost their US label, and were left with that Massachusetts jukebox as their only outlet. Like many other American roots musicians released only in Europe, the Conspiracy seem exiles from their own land.
As we settle into a west-London pub, it's a charge that makes Fisher snap with frustration. "I hate that idea," he says. "I will get Regard the End an American release. A lot of American bands have given up on America, but that's for a good reason. At some point somebody in the major labels needs to wake up and admit that they have done nothing but release 99 per cent of shit for the past 30 years. They're in love with the idea they have the power to create something from thin air, but of course that can't survive, so they have to keep making it again. And by the nature of its disposability, nobody cares about it. Recording 200-year-old folk songs was my way of noting that, if people just took a look at what's out there that isn't being shoved at them, there are things that actually have resonance in their life. Because folk music is about the big stuff, life and death - what everyone has always cared about."
I watched Willard Grant Conspiracy once with an acquaintance who only knew stadium rock, and she loved them immediately, suggesting Fisher's frustration at being forced underground is well-founded. Classic songs on a par with the best hits of the Sixties and Seventies, the era in which he grew up, are scattered through their records. But there is a difference.
Fisher is writing in an era when the natural community that rock once spoke to is gone. His lyrics are instead about shut doors, being iced in, and failing to communicate. They are symptomatic of alt.country as a whole, which deliberately turned its back on the sound and fury of America's mainstream for quieter, private ground. And yet, in his band and their concerts, it is from this shared loneliness that Fisher is trying to form a new community.
"That's a big theme," he agrees. "Especially in the US, because people don't hang out in pubs, they don't become part of a community on a regular basis. They hide in rooms with their internet and their television, and you find people vicariously living. The whole idea of the band is against that. The idea that there's 30 members, who live all over America and Europe, like a family, is important. It's also the more natural way to make music. The idea of four people in a band works when you're 18. When you're a kid, you cut yourself off from everyone, you're the musketeers. You only realise as you get older that it doesn't work, that music should be reflective of life as a whole."
It's a realisation also made by Nashville's collective, Lambchop (whose Kurt Wagner continued carpenting years into their success, not wanting to separate from society). But Fisher's lyrics still tap into his pained individual life, too. The family "about to explode" in the new record is like the loveless one he escaped from with "medication" and a move to Maine, 20 years ago. Whether his chosen family of band mates and fans has healed him enough to deal with his real relatives will be seen soon enough. He is preparing to return to California.
"Am I going to be able to deal with that?" he wonders. "I guess part of the reason I'm moving back is to see. I hope I'm stronger. But I know back-sliding is as easy as me walking over to this bar and drinking. I mean, it's a very short road."
Regard the End, as its title suggests, deals with how much strength it can take even to live sometimes. "Beyond the Shore", in particular, suggests to me the immense, pained shame that leads to suicide. Fisher knows those extremes well.
"I've never consciously had suicidal thoughts, ever," he says. "But subconsciously, when I drank I was obviously trying to kill myself. And I know what it's like to be in such a dark box that you don't see any way out of it. Because you've done it to yourself, it's in the nature of the thing. You're in no position to listen to anybody. It's only by - what ? - the grace of some higher power that you find the strength to escape."
Like the blues - or The Smiths, to give a more recent example - the best Willard Grant songs lead you through such loneliness. But Fisher won't take the credit.
"That makes me uncomfortable," he says. "This sort of music really is folk. It expresses the community's needs, and it allows for everyone's nature. I'm only one piece of that."
'Regard the End' is out on Monday on Loose RecordsReuse content