Willy Vlautin – a man who writes about hospital ward tragedies, accidental homicide, and every day destruction – feels lucky. He feels lucky his first novel, The Motel Life, was published last year by Harper Collins. Lucky to make a living writing, and lucky to have a band that enjoys playing together, even if he has earned the nickname “Captain Comedown” from his friends in the band Grand Champeen.
“We’re definitely not a sad sack bunch of guys,” says Vlautin, speaking from his home outside Portland, Oregon. “But I think I just write from that area, and the guys in my band are nice enough to play my songs. I couldn’t ask for a cooler bunch of guys to play with. So it’s lucky for me.”
Vlautin’s heroes have always been writers like Raymond Carver and William Kennedy, and Richmond Fontaine’s catalogue is peppered with songs full of emotional dead ends and soul-shaking despondency. But Vlautin never thought he could survive on writing alone. So he took jobs painting houses and, inspired by cowpunks like Rank n’ File, the Blasters, and X, turned to rock and roll. “If I had had more confidence I would have just been a writer, I think,” he says. “But I was a horrible student and I loved rock and roll more than anything and I didn’t even think a guy like me could write.”
Vlautin says that lack of confidence fed into some early lackluster performances, which were much more aggressive and punk-oriented than Post to Wire or Fontaine’s latest, Thirteen Cities. Those early records are still fan favorites, but there is much Vlautin would like to leave behind. “I can’t listen to Lost Son,” he says. “Number one, I used to be so shy I’d always sing drunk and you can hear it, and it drives me crazy. I guess the older I get, the more I just get kind of bummed out. I’m not as angry. That’s a pretty angry record. It’s hard listening to your old records. I just can’t do it.”
It would be easy to mistake Vlautin for one of his hard-luck characters. He eschews the hip clubs for the townie hangouts, and spends a lot of time at his local horse track in Portland, watching the races and the people and writing. “I just go there because it’s the only place in Portland that makes me feel normal,” he says. “The rest of Portland is just beyond me. I’ve always been the old man bar kind of guy. In this town it’s just hard. They keep tearing them down. I used to take pictures of every bar I liked, and they’ve torn down all my old favorite haunts. Which I guess is a good thing for my sanity.”
“Maybe I do and I don’t really think about it, but I’ve never really tried to seek out an edge. I’ve always tried to write to get rid of my edge. Maybe I don’t know the difference at this point. I don’t know.”
I used to do stupid stuff. When I lived in Reno, I used to cash my paycheck in casinos and I’d end up blowing a check. I’m not a complete idiot. So I only did that once or twice before I was like, man, you’re a loser. People say I always write about losers, but I never think of them as losers at all. I just think they’re struggling, and I’ve struggled with the same things. I’m really scared of being like that. I write about it a lot because I’m so scared of it happening to me.
A Modicum of Success
Lately, Richmond Fontaine has been successful enough for Vlautin to quit his day job. The band has found critical acclaim in Europe, driven by the English music magazine Uncut, and tours there regularly. “I think anytime a big magazine gets behind you, life’s just easier after that,” he says. “And I think in the States we never had that one big push where that happened.”
European audiences, and especially Irish audiences, tend to understand the redemptive aspect of Fontaine’s darker material. That’s something American club audiences might not respond to quite as readily, especially if they come to a show not already familiar with the band. Ireland has become almost a second home to the band. “They listen to the lyrics and they listen to the story of the song, which, for a guy like me, is like going to heaven, actually listening to the story,” says Vlautin. “So it’s been an amazing time, getting to play there. They understand what we’re doing, which helps.”
They’ve also recorded their most eclectic and engaging album yet, Thirteen Cities, and evolution from their more aggressive country punk roots. “A Ghost I Became” is a slow burn over a distant tympani beat with spare, atmospheric organ and guitar. Muted trumpet punctuates Vlautin’s busy acoustic arppegiation on “The Kid from Belmont Street.” There are even a few upbeat moments, the horns on “Moving Back Home #2” or the jangling beat of “Capsized,” belied by Vlautin’s psychologically intense stories.
“Sometimes if you’re in a bad situation like in ‘Painting Houses,’ the guy has a job with a crew that’s hiring illegals and then not even paying them. Sometimes maybe all the guy can really do is quit that job. He’s not strong enough to take it to the authorities and all that. Maybe he just realizes he doesn’t want to be affiliated with that, so he quits and gets another job. They’re trying to do the best they can.”
Vlautin credits producer J.D. Foster, with whom they’ve worked since 2002’s Winnemucca, with giving him the confidence to try new things, and also a change of scenery. “I was so excited that we would get to record in Tucson that I kind of wanted to write a ‘Richmond Fontaine goes to the southwest’ kind of record,” he says. “And I’ve always loved songs about drifters so I really wanted to write my version of those.”
Plans are already in place for a second book, which includes a soundtrack, to be released in the U.K. early this year, and Vlautin is busy doing what makes him happiest, writing a third novel and songs for a new album. “For me,” he says, “the only time I’ve ever felt I have control over a situation is writing because you’re the king and you can save who you have to save and hurt who you have to hurt.”