Interview: Robbie Fulks Discusses Working With Steve Albini, Why He Doesn’t Listen to His Older Music
Twenty years ago, Robbie Fulks released his debut LP, Country Love Songs, a record soaked in slide guitars and honky-tonk rhythms that serves as a great introduction to not just Fulks’ career, but to the sounds that emanated from that decade. Now, in 2016, Fulks is celebrating his latest album, Upland Stories, a personally reflective collection that highlights his evolution toward a more folk- and bluegrass-fueled sound since Country Love Songs first hit the streets.
That evolution isn’t without consistencies, and one of the most consistent things in Fulks’ career seems to be his relationship with Chicago’s legendary label, Bloodshot Records, and album “recordist” Steve Albini, who has worked with Fulks for many years, including collaborating on Country Love Songs and Upland Stories. While out on the road promoting Upland Stories, Fulks took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to chat with The Boot about those consistencies in his career, as well as why he still digs vinyl records and how he wound up challenging David Letterman to a fight.
First things first, congrats on Upland Stories. I know it’s been out for a couple of months now, but how does it feel to have it wrapped up?
Well, I haven’t seen the sales in awhile, but I think someone is buying it. It’s good to have it out.
This seems like an awfully reflective album for you — before you even listen to it, it’s tied to you personally thanks to the title.
You know what happened: I keep writing songs in this geographical center, this broad center of Virginia, down to Georgia and Tennessee and Kentucky — the Upland South states. I noticed it was becoming a bit of a crutch in my writing, so I resolved not to do it anymore.
Well, that was my first thought. My second thought was, “No, I’ll do this exclusively for a whole album, and I’ll get it out of my system.” That is sort of the genesis of that thematic thread.
Was it your intention to write a record that’s relatable to many? I think your fans are able to connect with it on many different levels.
I’ve come to the conclusion over the years … I’ve noticed, not just in writing but in life, the experiences that you think are most mortifying and embarrassing and unique are often shared by 90 percent of humanity. Embarrassment and mortification are thrown out the window; you just disregard those when you’re making stories. The specifics you put into songs — places, people, oddities, whether you’ve observed them or write about them or whatever — those are surface-level, non-relatable things that, for some reason, pull people deeper into the story. It seems real because it has this aspect that you haven’t experienced, and you suddenly sense that the creator is not explicitly trying to create something that’s relatable and universal. There’s something weird and personally-generated in the story.
You and Bloodshot Records will forever be tied to the championing and fostering of the ‘90s alt-country sound. How have you seen yourself evolving over the last two decades from that sound to this more acoustic, folk feel?
I couldn’t have predicted it. Evolution wise, when I started working for Bloodshot, I had already been a musician for many years. At the time that first record hit, which was 20 years ago, I was sort of freshly in love with a kind of country music … the electrical kind of country music, so to speak, you know, 1950-65 or so, the classic honky-tonk period. For whatever reason, I fell in love with that kind of music.
That’s faded over the years a little bit, and other things have risen up to interest me since. I don’t think less of the music — but that level of passion can’t sustain itself forever. Over the years, meeting different musicians and working with the guys that I work with and learning about other people’s tastes, that has brought me a lot. My interests have evolved a lot over the years. You are what you eat, you know? What you spit out in your music reflects what turns you on when you’re listening.
Do you listen to your old music?
I think it’s too complacency-inducing to take any pleasure in what you’ve done. I don’t listen to old stuff very much. Every once in awhile, when I’m having trouble writing a new song, I’ll sing an old song that I still like, just to remind myself that I can do it. That sometimes gives me confidence to forge ahead.
One thing I love about Bloodshot is its commitment to vinyl — is that something that’s important to you, too, not just as an artist, but also as a music fan?
For the label, it’s economically necessary; they get a sixth of their sales from vinyl. It changes from artist to artist, but I think on average it’s a sixth. For me, it’s a nice ego boost because that’s the form of music that I consumed when I was a kid. The size of the package is more artistically “there,” and so it’s nice to see my big fat face on a cover of a vinyl jacket as opposed to a little postage stamp. It’s a handsomer object.
Whether they sound better or not, I don’t think CDs sound bad at all; I think that can be a little bit overblown. I do like the enforced intermission of a vinyl and the shorter playing time. In both the cases of my last two records, I recorded a length of about 47 minutes and had to cut music off of it — I don’t like doing that. I wish the capacity was just a little bit larger on vinyl records, but in general, that limitation is probably a good thing. It’s easy to think of some horrible 70-minute CDs that only had three good songs on them.
Over those last two decades, you’ve worked with Steve Albini a lot, including on Upland Stories. How did the two of you first get hooked up?
He was in a band called Big Black back in the day, and I was friends with a guy who played sax on some of their records, a guy named John Bonhen. I worked in a law firm with John, and that’s how I first met Steve. I cut six songs with him in late 1986; he was still working out of his house at that point, he didn’t have a studio. I certainly wasn’t sold on him as a lifetime artistic companion at that point — I liked his personality, and he’s an interesting guy to spend time with. Over the years, we bonded more and more. I’ve done music with different people, but I have returned every few years with him because there’s nobody quite like him.
What’s the process like working with him as the producer and you as the songwriter and performer?
I wouldn’t call him the producer necessarily — he actually disdains that title. A producer means a lot of different things to different people, depending on who assumes that title. In general, they’re making suggestions about the songs and the arrangements and the lyrical content and the chord changes; sometimes they’re like baseball coaches, trying to inspire people to do better. He doesn’t do any of that. [Laughs]
He’s a recordist — that’s what he calls himself. Sort of like Chet Atkins and a few other people, he actually does silently change the process in the studio a little bit, just by his nature. Since he’s opinionated and expresses his ideas and opinions, he does come to affect more the mixes than the tracking of the songs. When I track with him, I feel free and on my own, to tell you the truth.
It wasn’t too long ago that you shared a video of you writing a letter to David Letterman (below), challenging him to a fight. What was this all about?
It’s a simple story: I was a big Letterman fan, really back into the ’70s, but especially when he did his morning show and started the late night gig. When he started taking viewer mail, I wanted to get on it. I wrote … I’m not exactly sure how many letters I wrote, maybe five or six, and on the sixth or seventh one, I got through. I don’t remember the subject matter of the first attempts, but I was happy I made it with that one, and then I stopped.
I made it on a show where Phyllis Diller was the guest, and she really bombed when she came out there, and it didn’t go really well as so many of his interviews went in the early days. And I figured I’d never get to see the episode again because of that; I was really disappointed. But thanks to the miracle of Facebook, it is once again out there. [Laughs]
Watch Robbie Fulks Perform “Alabama at Night” from Upland Stories