"I feel more comfortable with people who are down," muses Willy Vlautin, Richmond Fontaine's singer and songwriter. "Tales of tragedy, I think, calm me down." Vlautin has been penning music and fiction to support this assessment since his childhood in Reno, Nevada, when an older brother began sending him Long Ryders and Blasters tapes from Los Angeles. Vlautin has produced three albums with Fontaine and written three novels and a host of short stories that explore his particular interest in troubled souls who have lost their way; most involve characters much like himself -- people who leave their hometowns searching for something better and rarely find it. Since leaving Reno for Portland five years ago, though, Vlautin has managed to skirt the tragedies that befall the broken-down characters in his imagination. Given Vlautin's musical upbringing, that's no small feat.
"Being in a band in Reno is hard because it's a casino town and there's really no place to play if you're not an Elvis impersonator," Vlautin cracks.
Though he's friendly and laconic in conversation, Vlautin tends to understate things. Like the fact that Reno's music clubs generally resemble the bar scene in the Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse. "Reno's a redneck town full of washed-up gamblers and narrow-minded people," Vlautin later concedes. "I played in slimy little dive bars where people just came to drink. Old men used to fucking yell at you to stop playing. Every night, guys would come up to you while you were playing and tell you that they could play better than you. Reno was a mean town."
Perhaps tired of the town's toughness, Vlautin's girlfriend wanted to move west in 1995. After realizing that he wouldn't have the resolve to do so on his own, the 25-year-old Vlautin decided to join her.
"I just picked Portland because it's the cheapest place on the West Coast, and they have basements for practicing," Vlautin says. The rainy climate seemed to match his music, too. Vlautin soon met bassist Dave Harding at the racetrack, and the two discovered a shared affinity for dive bars, "real" country music and early '80s punk. They hooked up with a drummer, Stuart Gaston (who was later replaced by Sean Oldham), and informal jam sessions eventually gave rise to the Impalas, though that name didn't last long. "We discovered that there are like three bands in every state that have that name," Vlautin explains. "So we switched it."
For a while, Vlautin took pleasure in the simple joy of playing live music without having to dodge beer bottles hurled by some down-on-his-luck gambler. "I was happy to be playing in a bar that was meant to have live music," he admits. "They let you do whatever you want and no one cares. I was just happier than hell to be in a band and didn't have a whole lot of expectations beyond that." The group eventually borrowed its current moniker from a coke-snorting janitor from Wyoming whom Harding met once while partying in Mexico.
But Vlautin wasn't nearly as happy with life outside the band. "I moved up to Portland with T&T Trucking as a loader driving a forklift," he explains. "It was union, which didn't jibe with my kind of lifestyle. I had just come out of a conservative, redneck way of life and wasn't real happy to jump back in. They spent all their money on their cars."
He didn't fare any better at his next job handing out free Copenhagen samples at construction sites. "It was a better job, but you get to feeling like a total drug dealer," says Vlautin, whose efforts were eventually thwarted by burly, health-conscious construction workers.
Fed up with soul-sucking jobs, Vlautin was on the verge of moving back to Reno in 1996 when Crave Dog, a small Portland label, expressed interest in some Richmond Fontaine demos. That led to a debut disc, Safety (later re-released on Cavity Search, the band's current label, in 1998), which helped the group build a loyal grassroots following. The addition of pedal-steel guitar virtuoso Paul Brainard helped solidify the sound. Vlautin even found satisfying work painting houses, and focused on his singular style of songwriting.
"My songs and short stories often coincide," Vlautin says. "I've written short stories that became songs, and songs that became short stories. It's pretty much the same to me. For good or bad, I kind of have my characters and my world, and I'm happy there. I don't really experiment a lot with my characters."
Indeed, Richmond Fontaine's lyrics read like fictional vignettes. And, Vlautin says, his fiction reads an awful lot like his music. "I may be working on a story and a character or an idea will make me sad, so I'll start playing guitar and it'll come out," he explains. "I really like most of my characters, so I'll get wrapped up in their lives. When I play guitar and think about them, it tends to spawn a lot of my songs. Does that make sense?"
In the context of his music, it does. Richmond Fontaine's second album, 1997's Miles From, bore the strongest mark of Vlautin's literary predilections, both in the stark, slice-of-life realism of its lyrics and in Vlautin's clipped Western drawl. The band's music provided a fitting accompaniment -- yearning, steel-tinged dirges that alternated with tormented, crunching guitar. The album, says Vlautin, was inspired by a bout of homesickness. "I'll often write a song around a mood," he says.
But Richmond Fontaine goes a step further on Lost Son, the band's newest album and its strongest to date. The album underscores themes of angst and frustration with bursts of guitar noise that give way to placid bridges on songs like "Savior of Time" and "Ft. Lewis." But the secret draw of Fontaine's music is Brainard's subtly innovative pedal steel. Rather than using it to add occasional texture, as most players do, Brainard pushes his to the forefront on songs like "Contrails" (the album's best) and generally treats it as a full-fledged melodic instrument.
Brainard's approach adds depth to Vlautin's typically troublesome lyrics on Lost Son. Tales like "Fifteen Year Old Kid in Nogales, Mexico," and "A Girl in a House in Felony Flats" allude to their unhappy subjects. Others, like "Hope & Repair" and "Ft. Lewis," which spring from Vlautin's fiction-writing, respectively concern a boy who is robbed and deserted by his brother and a young army recruit so damaged he jams a knife into his hand to relieve stress.
The lyrics might suggest that all is not well in Vlautin's world, but he shrugs off any concerns about his personal well-being that result from his art. "I wanted to write about the decisions people make when they shouldn't be making decisions, when something bad has happened," he says, and after a pause, adds, "Sometimes I kind of push it. I don't know why. Sometimes I write stuff that even kind of disturbs me."