After a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful stint with Geffen, alt-country artist Robbie Fulks is out on his own.
Through a distribution deal with Bloodshot Records, Fulks’ fourth album, “Couples in Trouble,” is out Aug. 21 on his own Boondoggle imprint. And this winter, Bloodshot will release “13 Hillbilly Giants,” an album of country cover versions.
Fulks’ trademark wit remains a constant on “Couples in Trouble,” but he takes a serious approach to telling stories of people facing strife.
In an e-mail interview, he touches on “Couples in Trouble,” his new status as a label owner and the forthcoming “13 Hillbilly Giants.”
Pause & Play – What was your manifesto for “Couples in Trouble”?
Fulks – “To make a record where the songs might be treated without extramusical considerations, to make some music that went anywhere at all so long as the lyrics and mood led it there. The theme of pairs of people undergoing hardship was imposed to make such a varied menu more digestible.
“This aspiration to a radical artistic broadmindedness obviously bumps against the usual black hats – marketing demands, label pressures and consumer ignorance – but I was more concerned with jettisoning my own dunce cap.
“Inevitably, over many years of writing and recording, I had settled into certain technical or methodological habits which governed my work with metaphysical force. For instance, just about every song I wrote for the better part of 20 years contained five or six guitar chords, three or four melodic figures (verse, channel, chorus, bridge), and one of about four different grooves. Further, every recording was an unembellished document of me and four or five other musicians performing either live or nearly so. So with the new record I strived to open myself to the unexplored, especially in chords, song structures, recording techniques and electronic noisemaking gewgaws.
“Interestingly (though maybe only to me), as I worked on getting these ideas on tape, my original partiality to live tracking and disdain for up-to-the-moment digital editing programs came back redoubled, and at some cost (one song alone cost me $10,000 to record first in pieces on ProTools, then, after that much-ballyhooed software and oft-used contemporary approach failed me utterly, over again as a natural performance on 2-inch analog). But I did come up with some songwriting and arrangement novelties that pleased me very much.”
P&P – Are the stories and characters drawn from personal experiences or from people you know?
Fulks – “There is nothing diaristic on the record. What I didn’t brazenly plagiarize from poems, short stories and other songs, I made up.”
P&P – Any ideas on how can couples stay out of trouble?
Fulks – “Stay off ‘Temptation Island.’ ”
P&P – The album is all over the map musically; as a new label owner, is this posing a problem in marketing it?
Fulks – “The early signs are generally encouraging, i.e., the press reaction is mostly positive, and the retail interest and pre-orders are strong compared to previous records of mine. Needless to say, I personally don’t feel the record is disjointed, as most of it was written expressly with this presentation in mind. The print ads we’re doing – No Depression and Magnet – reflect exactly who I think will respond to the music – the educated roots-leaning NPR folks and the indie-rock crowd. Both are cliche-averse and attentive to lyrics and subtexts.”
P&P – What convinced you to start Boondoggle?
Fulks – “The profit motive, the artistic license, the disinterest from a number of my record-label suitors in a ‘departure’ record, and the financial leverage afforded, in part, by my Geffen buyout money. And, after the 75th time an industry insider tells you not to put out your own record under any circumstances, you can no longer resist doing it.”
P&P – Tell us about “13 Hillbilly Giants.”
P&P – “Most performers and musicians like talking about where they come from and who made them what they are, and doing a record like ’13 Hillbilly Giants’ is the loudest way to talk. Besides the personal payment rationale, there is a cultural disfranchisement of the C&W heritage that one wishes to deplore, and – dare we dream – to change.
“Classic country music isn’t sufficiently recognized by our cognitive elite as the sublime artistic achievement that it was; to the extent it is recognized, it’s through a few well-weathered totems- Hank, Merle, Willie, etc. But country can’t be reduced to these Mount Rushmore figures. Like jazz and R&B, country is a deep and rich lode of unmined brilliance, with most of the gold concentrated historically between the Great Depression and the Tet Offensive. Shania’s not the antichrist or anything (I actually happen to like her records), but the general drift in country music for the last 30 years has been decidedly hellward.”
ROBBIE FULKS ON THE WEB: Get hooked @ www.robbiefulks.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Robbie Fulks album discography – “Country Love Songs” (Bloodshot, 1996); “South Mouth” (1997); “Let’s Kill Saturday Night” (Geffen, 1998); “The Very Best of Robbie Fulks” (Bloodshot, 2000); “Couples in Trouble” (Boondoggle/Bloodshot, 2001); “13 Hillbilly Greats” (Bloodshot, 2001).