HELLO, My Name is Robbie
Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places, and, sometimes, when the muse pouts in a corner, the only place to turn is the Bible. Not for divine intervention, but to pilfer phrases. In our monthly Q&A, Robbie Fulks admits to Janine Schaults that the title of his latest release can be found in those holy pages.
Illinois Entertainer: The new album is called Gone Away Backward. Can you break down that title for us?
Robbie Fulks: It’s from the Bible. God says it to Israel in the first chapter of Isaiah: You are gone away backward, you are corruptors of children . . . I don’t remember the whole verse. I couldn’t find a title for a long time and I finally sat down with the Bible. It’s kind of like the final go-to for phrases.
IE: You weren’t even reading the Bible, you were just like, I’m going to close my eyes and point my finger and wherever it lands
RF: Exactly. I fucking skimmed the Bible; I might have even been sitting on the toilet at the time. It was an irreligious way to use the Bible probably, but it seemed to fit the music and gone is such is potent country word – it’s a beautiful phrase, I think.
IE: You’re releasing this album on Bloodshot Records – the first time since 2001. Why go the label route?
RF: I’ve put out my own stuff from time to time, including my last two records, and there’s things about that that I really like. I think in both circumstances – working with others or working alone – there’s assets and liabilities. It’s pretty obvious, I guess. The assets in working with other people, for reasons I don’t fully understand, people pay more attention. I don’t understand if it says this name or that name or no name at all, why would it would be reviewed more or less. And the difference in sales isn’t as striking as the difference in the number of reviews, but there is a difference. Finally, there’s the sharing the work with somebody, not only in terms of getting some of the drudgery off your back, but a sense of shared enterprise. If it’s all through my site and through me mailing out things or shipping people MP3 files, it’s just kind of a lonely existence. With Bloodshot, it feels like me and my friends are working really hard to make a little money and do something fun together.
IE: They say you can’t go home, but was returning to Bloodshot a lot like going back home?
RF: Yeah. They’re the same people. It is like going back home because then you go see your mom and dad and you walk in and you’re like, “Jesus Christ! Nothing has changed here? Like, literally nothing?” Now you’re gonna treat me like I’m 15 again and here we go. So I guess that’s the bad side of going home. But with them, yeah, I feel like we’ve been through the fire together, and I’m totally impressed by the fact that they’re still there making records. And I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing, but I think most of the labels I’ve worked with and much the ones you’ve observed and read about over the years, they have a five or ten-year life span if they’re lucky. But [Bloodshot] defined this really weird, particular thing that they do and stuck with it and had business smarts and some luck, I guess too. So I’m really impressed that they’re there. Their longevity, in a way, makes them even more attractive to work with, along with the fact that we’re friends.
IE: As you were describing the label, it also seems like you could be describing yourself.
RF: Yeah! Right. I’m sure they’re surprised that I’m still here too.
IE: Explain the different approach you took when recording this album.
RF: This was like recorded in three and a half days, and then we didn’t listen really as we went. So we just recorded and recorded and recorded . . . it was important to me to have a whole bunch to choose from and not to spend the time over those three or four days sitting around listening and debating this or that. We just played. It was probably like 24 hours of music across multiple CDs, and I took it home and I waited for two or three months before I listened to it so that I would forget about it. And then I listened to it and started sifting. So the whole thing took almost two years from the recording date to the release. The usual way to do it is you [sit] back and listen to it, and then everybody talks about it and then you make decisions . . . and I assume a lot of people work that way and I didn’t do that in this case, and so the decisions are made sometimes by talking after a take, like you think back on what you did instead of listening. You think back to what happened, which seems like a less effective way to do it because you’re working from memory instead of the evidence of your ears right there before you, but if they’re real good players and people’s memories are good, it can work. And even moreover, you’re working on instinct a little bit more. Things can just improve without being discussed, and that’s what I was hoping would happen with this method. I think sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t, but luckily we had all that music to choose from so when it didn’t happen, then you could still work around it.
IE: Did you enjoy this process enough to continue doing it going forward?
RF: Not necessarily. I did enjoy not listening to it, and it felt more productive just playing and playing. I’ve made like 10 or 11 records and looking back on it, I start to think that so much time is wasted with that aspect of it. It seems crucial to listen as you go, but I’m not so sure with digital tools that it is so much anymore. But, like I said, to me, it was kind of fitfully productive. It wasn’t 100 percent productive because we missed things. You could tell listening back a couple months later that we missed some opportunities to strengthen things that we would have caught on playback, so I think it’s kind of mixed results. But in terms of how you feel when you’re in the studio and keeping momentum going, it was so much more satisfying because you just felt like it was a continuously moving train rather than play something, stop, grab a coffee, go to another room, sit down on a couch, listen to something, talk. It’s such a jerky way, if you know what I mean, to do it.
IE: The character in “Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener” transforms himself for the worst at a record label’s bidding and loses everything that made him unique. How did you keep yourself from falling into that trap?
RF: Well, I got let go by my label, that’s how I kept myself from falling into that trap. I think if I’d made a longer go in that world that I could have ended up embittered and maybe different musically, I don’t know worse or for better, maybe divorced. I think, all in all, it was kind of lucky for me that that wasn’t the path because I’ve been able to enjoy almost total freedom in the kind of records I’ve made, which is more important than money. After a livable level of money, it’s more important to me to be able to pursue something that strikes my fancy, in a deeper way than the word fancy suggests, but to follow the instincts around the musical map without regard to committee thought, without having to get every step approved. That’s been really valuable for me, I think.
IE: For actors, Chicago is seen as this place where you go to work – not become famous. If you want to work and make a living as an actor, you can do that. Do you think that also fits for musicians?
RF: I think so. A surprising number of the musicians I know and work with here, and especially people my age, they own houses and stuff with yards. And the houses are pretty nice and their spouses work too and everything, but that’s not any big deal in modern-day America, and it seems like yeah, there’s this whole body of musicians here that is pretty happy, content to be here, despite whatever value is lost in the fact that people don’t know their names 200 miles away from here and farther. I definitely don’t want to move to L.A. or Nashville. I kind of like New York in a way, but there’s so many hardships about life there, so, all in all, I’m pretty content here. Not 100 percent, but 75 percent.
IE: If you were 100 percent anything your songs wouldn’t be that good.
RF: Well, they wouldn’t be those songs. They’d be Luke Bryan songs or something, but they wouldn’t be mine.
IE: You described the current state of popular country music as love songs for people younger than you. Is there an expiration date on love songs once you get past a certain age?
RF: You know what I mean by love songs, with an element of lust and, like, “I’ve got to have this above all costs and this is going to change my life,” and that kind of totalistic biologically imperative kind of a love song. Yeah, I think we have these feelings in middle age, but I think to look at somebody my age singing about that stuff can be kind of alarming for people. I’m not sure audiences want to see that and also, I don’t honestly feel it in the way that I used to either, so I think it would be a little a little bit inauthentic and also be creepy to observe.
IE: What is love like in middle age then?
RF: It’s marriage, so it’s mellower and it’s also projected onto children obviously and other objects than some passing fancy. So it’s ripened and mature, I guess is the positive way to put it.
IE: What kickback do you owe Tina Fey for declaring that everyone should buy everything you’ve got available on iTunes?
RF: I owe her a big, sloppy kiss is what I owe her. Today’s kickback will be in the form of kisses. I’m going to kiss her entire face. I was happy that she said it. And she’s done nice things for me on and off for years. I love her.
Robbie Fulks appears at Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln Ave.) in Chicago on Sept. 6 to celebrate the release of Gone Away Backward.