In which the songwriter tells us what’s what. Any questions?
INTERVIEW BY RANDY HARWARD
In conversation, great songwriters don’t mince words. Chicago’s Robbie Fulks, author of such songs as “Fuck This Town” (an indictment of Nashville), is great. He says what’s on his mind. Sometimes bluntly. Often artfully, playfully. Think about how many great country songwriters copped that same style. The proof is in every album Fulks has ever made, from 1996’s Country Love Songs up through Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot, released in August).
In his songs about, well, everything, Fulks paints pictures of humanity in all its guises, whether it’s weekend partiers, frustrated songwriters, Fountains of Wayne, a sickly unemployed amateur children’s magician – or himself. No matter what or whom he’s talking about, Fulks is unfailingly forthcoming, always entertaining. Here’s what the original South Mouth had to say about aging, politics, the Bible and Saturday morning cartoons, a Muppet and himself.
I find it interesting, at age 50, that I’ve moved into a new chapter where I look back not exactly with a sweet feeling toward those old days, but equal parts dewy-eyed nostalgia and Thank God I’m out of there.
[Bloodshot Records and I are] both small-timers, we both got a little attitude, you know. We’ve been up and down through the story of music for almost the last twenty years. But because we’re both still around, a grudging admiration.
My personality probably has its roots in MAD magazine and you know the love of the freaks and the oddballs. I really love anybody that has the balls to stand outside of the mainstream and be totally confident in bizarreness. Whether it’s a Hell’s Angel, a radical lesbian, or a vegan. But maybe not a religious cult. Anybody short of that.
My 16-year-old went through a phase that got me a little bit up to speed [on heavy metal]. He took me to Cannibal Corpse concerts. And Metallica. I have one of their—I’m kind of light on metal. Not that I don’t like it. But I don’t like it a lot.
I do like novelty music. Like the Re/Search album that came out in the ‘80s, with the speeded-up xylophone shit on it and The Logger’s Lament or whatever. I loved the Rhino World’s Worst Records with Edith Massey singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I love-love-love all that stuff. And John Waters’ Christmas record, and—well, you get it. And I love song-poems. I’ve worked with some of those song-poem guys in promoting that documentary… I love all those offbeat, weirdo, not necessarily conventionally talented characters.
I’ve gone through different phases and I hate to get too specific about politics, because it only gives people a reason not to buy your record. Whereas, if you don’t say anything, you can sort of be all things to all people. But just so I’m not too cagey about it, I was a Reaganite in the 80s.
After the Cold War, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a principal threat, I kinda moved, definitely, toward the Libertarian side… Libertarianism was just a hopeful philosophy for all people. The more freedom you have, the more you take responsibility for your own mistakes… But then 9/11 kinda snapped it back a little bit onto a war footing.
I think there a lot of practical reasons that Ron Paul wouldn’t make a good president and that libertarianism might not work as a day-by-day governing philosophy for America. But I still think it represents a lot of forward-looking optimism. And I think, in contrast to … Republican or Democrat, it’s in line with our founding ideals.
And libertarianism means freedom in business and freedom in the bedroom, both.
I’m gonna have a really wishy-washy answer [about the NSA and spying] because, as a Libertarian, as a practical American – I think there’s merit to David Brooks’ argument that what Edward Snowden did was not an act of patriotism and that governments need secrecy in order to function properly. Secrecy in diplomacy and secrecy in warmaking—and arguably this is a branch of warmaking. Beyond that, I don’t have enough information to make a material pronouncement.
It’s probably useful to our characters to grow up with some kind of constraints, or difficulties—challenges, whether they happen to be the weird religious beliefs of your parents or whatever. [It helps when] you’re desperate to beat that and establish your own reality.
Oscar the Grouch without question is my favorite Muppet. I met his voicer, Carroll Spinney, two weeks ago in New York. He’s like an 80-year-old bohemian. I told him the first song I ever sang onstage was “I Love Trash” in a Baltimore nightclub when I was eight. But you could tell that he didn’t listen and didn’t care, which was even cooler.
I think maybe the Book of Revelations would be good for a Saturday morning cartoon. You know, huge unbelievable monsters … pregnant women knocking their fetuses on the rocks in order to abort themselves, and blood flowing from the sky. All that stuff.
My kids used to sing along to my song, ‘Cocktails.’ They would go, ‘Popcorn tore up my family.’ They kid-ized it somehow. They take the heat out of it, instinctively.”
The government shutdown, yeah. I think it’s a little overblown, you know? I watched PBS news last night and it had a lot of grim footage of senior citizens trying to enter national parks and moaning about how now they couldn’t tell their grandchildren what Yellowstone looked like. And this [crisis] happened before when I was an adult and the water continued to circle the correct way down the drain, and things go back to normal when no planes fall out of the sky. Until some of that starts happening, I think it’s all overblown nonsense and in a week, they’ll work it out. It’s just symbolic nonsense.
Photo Credit: Dino Stamatopoulos. An edited version of this interview appears in issue #14 of BLURT.