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Artist on Artist: Robbie Fulks talks to Steve Albini 

"My mind seems to be this chaotic jukebox of obscure and unloved songs from the last 50 years."

Robbie Fulks and Steve Albini

Robbie Fulks and Steve Albini

Dino Stamatopoulos/Jason Persse

Robbie Fulks has spoiled his Chicago audience. Aside from a handful of weeks each year, he's in residency at the Hideout every Monday night, trotting out entertaining themed sets that show off his mind-boggling versatility and musical curiosity—he's explored just about every conceivable strain of Americana, covered great rock songwriters, and even played programs of jazz. As a singer, musician, and songwriter, he's long been the city's most potent and erudite triple threat, but his Hideout residency underplays that last talent. Thankfully, Fulks reminded us of his masterful skill as a composer last year with Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot), his first album of original material in eight years; its poignant and powerful acoustic tracks traffic in the languages of honky-tonk, folk, and bluegrass with efficiency and wit.

Fulks's withering humor and incisive intelligence are part of the reason he's formed a mutual appreciation society with Steve Albini, who engineered Gone Away Backward. A guitarist who's led noisy, uncompromising postpunk bands since the mid-80s (Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac), Albini might seem like a bad fit with Fulks, but both men speak the same no-bullshit language with brutally frank candor. For this week's Artist on Artist, Albini interviewed Fulks in advance of a January 10 concert at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, where he'll put a welcome focus on his own songs. Peter Margasak

Steve Albini: I noticed from your blog that you have a record out.

Robbie Fulks: Do you remember working on Gone Away Backward at all? That was like two years ago.

I enjoyed that session tremendously.

Me too. It was a fun couple of days.

I'm curious—when you're not doing any kind of obvious self-promotion, your website exists in this kind of strange slice of the Internet where it's for enthusiasts who are also kind of personally attached to your progression through the world.

I like to think that anybody could look at it and get something out of it. Well, probably just anybody that's interested in music, although sometimes I write about what I'm reading or what I'm thinking that's not music related. I just use it as a tool to try to sharpen my writing, and I take heart from Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math and from a few other music and culture blogs that are, in my opinion, really superior and well written. Better than most of the stuff you see in magazines. I think it's inherently interesting to see what a musician who can write says about what he does every day.

Can you think of any other country people . . . you had, like, country-industry Nashville-­songwriter credentials. Can you think of any other people in that world who have embraced the electronic format the way you have? I mean, your 50-Vc. Doberman package, for example, would've been impossible to distribute physically. It seems like you've made an embrace of this electronic distribution of music—the interaction directly with your fans through the Internet.

Yeah, I can't think of anybody in country. You know, in a lot of ways, I identify more with people outside of country, except for country is the music I play. The way that people go about it; the way musicians sort of conceive and discuss what they do. I seem to be as much as or more at home with people in your neck of the woods. Or with people in jazz. And people from those worlds seem to be more on top of the electronic thing than in country. I don't know why that is.

Well, I could guess, but you know, it would be rude. All of my guesses would be rude and dismissive, so.

I was thinking of some rude explanations too. It's certainly a pain in the ass to go write on the blog every day, you know—and who needs it, in one sense. If those guys are out fishing or making love or doing something that's more productive in that way, then maybe that's the answer.

Sure. Every now and again, you make reference to other people that you know who are in a similar sort of position, sort of getting by as a working musician but not really household names. I wonder if you read—there was an essay that Danny Barnes wrote about four or five years ago about what it's like to be a professional musician.

Danny is a perfect example, if he counts as country, but I'm not sure he does. I kind of don't think he does.

Yeah, me neither. But I was talking more generally about people who are getting by without the support of a monolithic industry behind them.

I'm sure I've read that. I've read almost everything Danny's written on his site. I like him and I like his work and his writing, all three of them. What was the specific thing?

It was a kind of a how-to manual on getting by as a musician without copping out in any way, like having to make music you don't like or be a person you didn't want to be. It's all very common-sense stuff, like don't be ashamed if you have to get a job and things like that. And you're playing to get paid, so try not to play and not get paid—that kind of thing.

That's a real good point about "don't be ashamed to have a job." People write him and ask him questions, and some of the people write in about how hard it is. They kind of complain to him, and he just won't have it. One woman wrote in and said, "Oh, my husband's so talented, but he's having such a hard time making records." I was reading this letter thinking that the response was gonna be more or less "Go to hell!" or something, which is what I would say. But he said, "Well, that's interesting. Maybe you should read a biography of Renoir or one of these guys, because all of these guys in the arts, especially if you look back 100, 200 years, pretty much everybody has a really hard time. It's not a very good way to make money. Take heart from all the many, many people that have had it harder than you trying to make money from the arts." I thought it was an excellent response.

Something on the order of, "Be glad your husband isn't having to write from prison." It seems to be a chapter in an awful lot of those biographies.

That would be your response to her.

I should ask you some questions.

OK, go ahead.

When I do interviews for this record, people bring your name up, and they say strange things about you. It seems you have—they're at odds, your reputation with what I've observed of you.

Well, yeah. I would think that that's true of most people whose reputation precedes them, is that the reputation is probably not that well founded.

One thing that's not good or bad or anything like that: people are surprised to hear that you're associated with acoustic instruments. I've heard a lot of what you've done with your bands, but outside of that, I might've heard maybe only a dozen things that you've recorded that aren't me or yourself. It seems like, you know, Nina Nastasia has plenty of acoustic or all acoustic instruments. Page & Plant had acoustic guitars going on, and Will Oldham I think you've recorded in an acoustic setting. I'm just wondering—it seems an odd thing to say about an engineer. You wouldn't say that Tom Dowd specialized in this or that, and I think you've represented yourself as an all-around competent recordist over the years and have in fact backed that up with what you've done.

One thing that's nice about your sessions specifically is that you tend to have a conceptual framework for your record before you come into the studio. It's not just "Let's all sit down, bash it out, and see what happens!" From an engineering standpoint, that helps tremendously—if I know you're going for, for example, on this record you were going for an intimate sound. An up-close-on-the-instruments, up-close-to-the-singer sound, rather than a concert-hall sort of setting or a chamber sort of setting. If you know things like that in advance, then it's a lot easier to look good, because you haven't put the wrong foot forward.

You don't feel that you're stronger in one or the other, because you've recorded more electric guitars and loud music?

Well, to be honest, the problems posed in the session are unrelated to the idiom of the music. I've worked on electric sessions where the delicacy and the balance of the instruments was absolutely critical. There's a Japanese instrumental band called Mono that I've done a couple of records with. Their music goes from "very quiet murmur" to "full jet roar" over the course of songs that are quite long and involved and are sometimes very lush and romantic. In addition, they'll often have strings, or in the case of the last album I did with them, they had an entire pocket orchestra of 24 chairs, I think, playing along with them. So there's an example of a session where I need to be not just competent with a rock band, but competent with acoustic instruments, and then somehow marrying them together so that they sound coherent.

Working on all this music that's so different and working on so much of it every year, and so much of it being not music that's in whatever funnel goes to the public ear—does that give you a much broader range of styles that you're seeing in your work than an engineer who's working with more commercial music generally?

Yeah, I think it does, and also I feel that's one of the lucky aspects of what I'm doing. It's like those Smithsonian records, those Folkways records—those are sort of broad-swath Americana. It covers a lot of territory, and none of that stuff, or very little of that stuff, was actually meant for a general audience. So the people working on that had to be prepared for anything from somebody whistling into a jug to somebody beating on a tub or a room full of people hollering their lungs out, you know? And I feel like my situation is similar, in that what kind of music somebody decides to make is much less significant than that they are a marginal entity or that they're an outsider in a way.

I did a record a few years ago, this fellow collected those electric air organs that were given away as premiums for selling flower seeds or selling Bibles or whatever. Door-to-door sales premiums. There were also very cheap musical instruments that were in department stores and stuff—those little air-powered harmonium-type things. I'm sure you're familiar with the kind of organ I'm talking about.

How many keys are on it?

You know, a couple of octaves, tops. A few chord buttons on the side. Typically made out of plastic, typically they'd sit on a tabletop and be plugged in, and there'd be a fan inside that would whirr and blow air across reeds. This fellow had a hobby, and he would just collect all these things, and eventually he had dozens of them. He made a record that was just the sound of all these organs plugged into a million extension cords, just sitting there humming on their own, 'cause they all made a little, tiny harmonious sound, you know, the anticipatory hum, waiting to be played, the air leaking through the reeds.

Was it just him in the room or was it various keyboardists?

It was just the organs.

Just the organs!

All these air organs plugged in, and he just wanted to make a recording of the sound of these air organs playing simultaneously 'cause he'd never been able to do it before.

Wow, is that funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, I wonder? [Laughter.] The engineers you were referring to a second ago with the Smithsonian, like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax, you've mentioned a sort of admiration for those—well, for Alan Lomax in particular before. Are there others that you look up to?

It's hard to have heroes in that regard because it's kind of an unsung profession.

But you've heard a lot of stuff and you know who records it a lot of the time.

Yeah, I've seen a lot of people in action as well. There was a guy who was really important to me when I first started making records—Iain Burgess. He was an English engineer who lived in Chicago. He eventually opened a studio in France called Black Box. It was really a terrific studio. He died a few years ago, but his bedside manner, for lack of a better word, was really fantastic. Whenever a band was in the studio with him, he made it clear that whatever crazy bullshit they wanted to try, he was down for it. He would go the extra mile to do whatever they wanted to do and just made the band supremely comfortable. It seemed like he was the biggest fan of every band that he recorded. I can't muster that kind of enthusisasm, hardly ever—

No, no, you don't. [Laughter.]

I feel like if I could, then things might go a little smoother and I might not have this reputation you've made reference to. There's another engineer, a guy that was a supremely good technical engineer and also sort of prided himself on being a sharp businessman—that was John Loder. He ran Southern Studios in London, which later became Southern the record label and SRD the distribution company. But when he was just an engineer, just making records, he made some astonishing, really great-­sounding punk-rock records for almost no money with almost no resources. Big Black made a record with him when he was deeply embroiled in the business part of making Southern into a big company. He had complete command of his equipment, but he never made the equipment the focus of the attention. I was just really impressed with how he was able to take the scrappiest, crudest sounds and assemble them in a way that made them not just listenable but really an exciting representation of what was happening. So those are guys that I saw in action that I really admired.

Then there are other people, sort of my peers as musician-engineers, guys that sort of started around the same time that I did that I think make really good records. Bob Weston is one of those, and Brian Paulson from—he lives in North Carolina now, but he's from Minnesota, from Minneapolis. He was another rocker who came up in the punk-rock tradition who started making records. He's done really well by the bands that he's recorded. And there's a guy named Matt Barnhart from Texas. I think he makes really great-sounding records as well.

When we started, back in the old days, we were in your house on Francisco, and I was wondering—besides the sort of hassle of running up two flights of stairs all the time from the tracking room to where you were sitting, if you ever, for any reason, missed that? It seems like it's pretty much like hell to heaven in a way—to go from that situation to that fancy studio you have. But is there any way in which you're nostalgic for that?

I'm not by nature a nostalgic person, but every now and again, I'll hear one of the records that I made in that old studio in the basement of my house on Francisco, and I'll be surprised that all of the things that I thought were limitations at the time are not evident in the recording. Like I would have felt like the space was physically too small, but then when I'll hear the record it'll sound fine. It'll sound nice and big and broad and open, you know?

It's kind of like an instrumentalist getting a brand-new, much fancier, expensive instrument and sounding like the same guy, isn't it? I mean, there's a lot of continuity between those two realms.

I have made records in a lot of different studios, and I would like to think that I can do as good a job basically anywhere. The one problem I'm having now is that shit is just broke everywhere else. Studios are just not kept in the kind of repair that they were when there was label money available and when there were occasional really big gigs to bolster the bottom line. It just seems like most studios have completely written off the concept of maintenance, and they just have equipment, and when it breaks, they get something else. So that's the problem that I have in other places now. Here at Electrical, it's kind of built into the culture of this place that everything is supposed to be working all the time.

But as far as the sound of it, it's kind of surprising, given your limitations in your house, how great things sounded over there and how much—even though your place now is plusher and I assume that products that come out of there are more continuously great sounding, there's a continuity between the two of them.

Are we almost—how long should we yap here?

I have a few more questions.

Oh, OK.

And I'm in bold, so . . .

There's gonna be a lot of bold in this feature. [Laughter.]

I just read a thing that you wrote about Annette Peacock.

Oh, I love Annette Peacock, yeah.

Not somebody I would have instantly pegged as being someone that you would have either (a) come across or (b) like.

Well, to be honest, I love I'm the One and I like My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook and some other stuff, but it seems to me that the early-70s stuff really focuses for me everything that's great about her. So maybe I don't like her whole thing, maybe I just like a piece of her. But were you hip to her?

I knew who she was and I had heard little snippets, but I made a point of listening to that whole I'm the One album after reading your thing, and you're right, it's an amazing record.

It's amazing.

It has a really out-there, really fucked-up quality that a lot of naive—like, you compared her to the Shaggs. I don't think that's an unflattering comparison. A lot of the territory she covers, it seems like a lot of the naive artists kind of stumble into that territory. But when she does those kind of insane parallel runs where she sings along with the synthesizer—when she's making those weird synthesizer swoops, and she's sort of doubling them with her voice—I have to say that's an aesthetic choice that I've never heard anybody else duplicate.

She's singing into the synthesizer—she invented a kind of tube where she could sing into it. It's a really interesting story, and readers who have no fucking idea what we're talking about—she was the first person, basically, to perform with a Moog synthesizer, in 1969 I guess. And it was so cumbersone that she would—like, when she was at the Village Vanguard performing, the audience would have to sit there for 20 minutes between songs while she adjusted it for the next song. And she also did crazy stuff like performing topless with it, is what I read.

That sounds great.

Yeah, she was a sexy crazy person. But an intensely musical, smart, savvy person too, who somehow was able, as you say, to tap into that thing where the music sounds convincingly naive and has just a lot of animal instinct propelling it.

Yeah! But she's associated with, and all of her sidemen and everything—those are all complete nose-in-the-air jazz snobs. The kind of people who make music that's antithetical to that, where the smell has been kind of removed.

That's an interesting part of the rub of it, because you can't really say what it is. You're hearing it, and it sounds kind of like nose-in-the-air jazz, and it sounds kind of like funk rock, and then it sounds like nothing you've heard before.

It kind of sounds like a bag lady shouting at something.

Right, right! And it sounds like poetry-slam night. It sounds like a lot of things that don't go together, and in that particular record it all does go together. She was a fun person to find out about—I was so happy to find out that she's so smart, you know. To read an interview with her—I personally profited a lot to hear her thoughts in interviews. Really interesting person.

Every now and again your band will cover really outside stuff. You're kind of known for your live shows of covering pop songs that could be considered parts of the throwaway culture, but you manage to find the kernel of value in some of these songs.

I have done that, you're right, and I'm trying never to do that now. [Laughter.] I think it's kind of limiting, and I've had this problem over the years, that if you do something that's either jokey or lighthearted or has some amusing aspect to it, it's like being a communist or going to a communist meeting in 1949—it just spreads like poison to all your other activities. [Laughter.]

So your lightheartedness is over, is that what you're saying?

No, not that.

What I was getting at is that in addition to doing that—like, you can do a spirited version of "Dancing Queen" or "Billie Jean" or some current R&B hit single or whatever, but you also cover Raymond Scott and outsiders like that. People the audience is certainly going to be unfamiliar with. It's not just that you're presenting your own music to people; it's almost like you feel like you've found things that are cool, and you want people to see it. It's like a show-and-tell.

You've said it so much better than I could say it. As it happens, these days there's kind of a dichotomy that's come up, because when I go do my own shows, I'm generally at pains to do my music, and a lot of times I just don't do anything that anybody else wrote. But that's because I have this outlet for the other side of my interests at the Hideout residency—every Monday night at the Hideout in Chicago.

Chicago's friendliest tavern! [Laughter.]

The neighborhood that has no name! I do almost nothing that I wrote there. So that's like a perfect sort of set-aside vehicle for, as you say, bringing stuff that I just happen to be in love with at the moment to light, and usually altering it so that it fits my particular voice.

What are some things that you've always wanted to work into your set but still haven't? Is there like a holy grail, and you're gonna drop it on people one of these days?

I don't think so. I don't know if it's a function of my advanced age, but so many songs are in my head, and some of them go away for as long as decades, and then you find yourself walking down the street and it'll just pop unbidden into your mind. So given that my mind seems to be this chaotic jukebox of obscure and unloved songs from the last 50 years, there's just an endless—I almost don't decide what is gonna interest me. It just kind of pops into view and I track it down.

I should say that I think that a valuable idea that I take from the jazz guys—I don't remember who said this now, but somebody said it—is that you're not necessarily less original when you're performing something or recording or arranging something that somebody else wrote. Marc Ribot said it, as a matter of fact. I think you can be more original a lot of times in working with something that somebody else wrote. You don't have to deal with the insecurity and neurosis of having your poop out there for everybody to look at.

You're not 100 percent responsible for it, so you can be a little more game to take chances with it.

Well, you go into it knowing that it's good, being convinced of its worth, and that's a big boost.

So, this has nothing to do with your music, but I'm gonna ask you about it. Are you familiar with—there's a short film that your lovely wife, Donna, has been asked to be in that I have also been asked to be in. Are you familiar with this?

Sure. I told her never in a million years to even approach you because you would be uninterested, but it sounds like there's a possibility you could do it.

Well, what happened is—it's a short film about a Twitter beef between a writer and a musical celebrity, let's say a slightly passe musical celebrity along the lines of a Richard Marx.

Like Groucho Marx but from Winnetka.

When I read about that original Twitter beef, my initial reaction was that the writer guy, who was all incensed about how cheap Richard Marx was—my initial reaction was that that guy was a cock and a half, and I hoped that Richard Marx punched him square in the nose. So I was curious to read the script, because I wanted to see if the script was from the perspective of Richard Marx or from the perspective of the writer. Or if it was from some external perspective.

Have you read the script?

I did read the script. And now I'm kind of creeped by it, and I kind of don't want to do it. But I feel like I'm an awkward position, because it seems like this guy has written this part for me to play me, saying things that I would never say about someone I would never say them about.

That's kind of why I told her that I didn't think you'd be interested in it. Because it's you playing you, right?

I think that's the idea. Were you aware of this Marxstroversy when it happened?

I guess I did read an article about it somewhere, yeah.

Secondarily, I'm a little freaked about it because I appeared on—there was a local taping of a podcast, the Scharpling podcast [Low Times]. It's Tom Scharpling from The Best Show. He and a couple of other people from the show have a podcast, where it's more related to music. Anyway. They taped it at the Hideout, Chicago's friendliest tavern, and they had me and Richard Marx as guests. So I actually met Richard Marx.

And he wasn't a cock—he was a nice guy.

Well, you know, he seemed like he was a little out of touch and maybe a little full of his own dump. But I find it really hard to think ill of a guy who's self-aware enough to come down to a thing where he knows he might get picked on. I thought that was, relatively speaking, big of him.

To want to punch a music blogger is an inherently creditable notion. [Laughter.]

So I'm wondering if you've ever—you were in sort of a minor dust-up with Ryan Adams. Have you ever had any of your public statements come back to bite you?

It's more like people are angry about what you sing than anything that I've written and put out there. If I sing something that sounds offensive to somebody, whether racist or antitheist, either some horrible thing that a character in a song says or something I'm actually saying that they disagree with, then sometimes they're ready to meet me when I step to the side of the stage. You must've found that to be the case as well.

Yeah. There's a famous incident where the comedian Bill Hicks was making light of the behavior of Christians, and a Christian took him aside after the show and said, "Hey, I'm a Christian, I don't like what you had to say about us." And he said, "Well, then forgive me." [Laughter.] I don't know if that went over the guy's head or if it hit him square in the head.

Maria Bamford says something similar on her latest record: "Preceding everything I'm now going to say that's awful about God and Jesus Christ, if you believe in that stuff, just sit there and revel in how marvelous it is that you're right and I don't know what I'm talking about. Because you could be right about that, although I very much doubt it."

There was a brief period where there were a lot of Christian rock bands who were sort of inching their way into the mainstream consciousness—even in the underground scene there was kind of a branch of Christian indie-rock stuff.

Your wife [Heather Whinna] did a movie about that [Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?].

Yeah. And during that period, I ended up recording a spate of these Christian rock bands. No different from any other sessions—some of them were good, some of them were bad, some of them were talented, some of them were full of their own dump, whatever. But I did have a conversation with a Christian during one of these sessions where I said, "You guys actually have an easier time of it, because if somebody pisses you off, you can just forgive 'em. Me, I gotta carry a grudge." [Laughter.] I don't think the intrinsic advantages of having that kind of a theology behind them—I don't think they take advantage of them enough.

We have to rub it in their faces, the actual consequences of what they profess to believe.

Can you redescribe the minor dust-up between you and Ryan Adams? Or is it a moment you don't want to relive?

No, it's fine. To begin with, I don't like his music. I don't like him. And I think I said as much before I really started laying into, like, gratuitous insults. Then he did something—I wasn't there, but it struck me as lame. I maybe shouldn't have commented, because I wasn't there, but he was at the Ryman performing, and a guy yelled out for a Bryan Adams song. Ryan kind of made a scene of it and had the guy ejected from the auditorium, like, "I'm not gonna sing another note till this guy is thrown out." According to the official story he was escorted from the building, but then 20 minutes later he weaseled back in and sat back down in his seat. Anyway, I used that as a jumping-off point, and like I was saying about the comedy, it does sort of come back to bite you. I got the idea before long that this was gonna exceed my music in popularity.

That just shows how many people hate Ryan Adams.

It just shows how many more people are interested in comic insults than a musical work. At the point where, a couple months later, Rolling Stone wanted me to do something, like, on video as part of a cable show about rock feuds, I said no thank you—I don't want this to be my sideline, much less an everyday occupation.

Or your tombstone.

But I do like insulting him. [Laughter.]

One nice thing about having character-­driven songs is that if you ever do feel like there's something that really needs to be said but you don't want to be responsible for saying it, you can just have Old Smokey say it in a song.

Yeah. "I just totally disapprove of this guy saying this, but I'll sing it on his behalf."

The number of people who are murdered gratuitously in music is kind of astonishing. And for the slightest of insults. There are revenge killings that really can't be justified.

Nice guys like you and me would never do that. But it's good to sing about.

Well, I'm now kind of tired of talking about you. [Laughter.]

We've certainly said 18 times as much as could ever be used. An entire magazine.

Final query. When I first met you, you were working as a clerk at Jenner & Block, is that correct?

That's right. I was a paralegal.

Have you ever found any of your paralegal or legal training to be useful in your musical endeavor?

I would say between elementary school and that job, I really picked up nothing useful for my life. And that's between ages 5 and 25. So a long fallow period for Robbie. But music just gives it back every day. Life improved as soon as I started looking to music as a full-time thing, with all the hazards of it and the financial setbacks.

What was your last somebody-else-paid-you-to-do-it real-job job?

Sort of that, but I went from that to the bluegrass gig for a couple of years.

Special Consensus?

Yeah. And when I left that, I had to temp during the days while I did musical stuff at night, so it was sort of part temping, part teaching at Old Town School, and part gigging. But the last time that it was really just a straight job, day in, day out, nothing else, it was then, in 1983 to '85.

Wow. You've done a lot better than I did!

That's not true!

I had a straight job until, I want to say until 1987, somewhere in there.

Was that in the studio, in photography?

Yeah. I was a photograph retouch artist.

And how long did you do that?

In service of the sale of cigarettes. That's how I was using my God-given talents. To try to convince more people to smoke different cigarettes.

You were evil!

I did that for probably about five years.

And did you learn anything from that that's come in useful?

Certain aspects of graphic design and photographic knowledge have come in handy during artwork production for albums and stuff.

Well, you're a very observant fellow—I'm sure you could've been a coal miner and picked up useful tips for life.

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