A recent Robbie Fulks show in Milwaukee included a horrendously funny German beer-hall-style song, a soon-to-be-trademark cover of Cher's "Believe," and more evocative originals like "In Bristol Town One Bright Day." At the end, Fulks bounded offstage and played his way back to the bar with a final chorus of "Let's Kill Saturday Night." Fulks' fans come to shows seeking this kind of playfulness as much as the music, which is one reason his new double-disc live set Revenge! is so entertaining. Fulks recently took a break from mixing an episode of his Secret Country XM Radio series to tell The A.V. Club about the evolution of his live set and the logistics of killing people with pianos.
The A.V. Club: Why is the album called Revenge?
Robbie Fulks: Well, I'd heard this old saying that performance motivation is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent revenge, or some proportion like that. And once that cover concept with the grand piano came into mind, it seemed to match that well. That was before I saw that Janis Ian had a record called Revenge, and Charles Mingus had a record called Revenge! I didn't realize it was a clichéd record title along the lines of Meet The Beatles until I saw it on Amazon the other day.
AVC: On the cover, you're about to drop a piano over the audience. Aiming for anyone in particular?
RF: Yeah. Probably the bald guy that's painted into the third row, stage left. It isn't really a big enough piano to cover the whole audience, but if you aimed for the middle, just for maximum density of impact, you could probably wipe out one third of my total demographic. The problem with digital pianos nowadays is, they just don't have the heft to wipe out an audience.
AVC: During the first song, there's a sketch where you nonchalantly ask the president of Yep Roc Records to wire you $50,000, which is funny, because you've really never had that luxury.
RF: I've never had that luxury, and in fact still don't. [Laughs.] "Wire me $10,000" might kind of work, but might still be greeted with a stricken heart-attack sound on the other end of the line.
AVC: That isn't the first time you've gone out of your way to mock your label. You included a pretty nasty cartoon about Bloodshot Records with Country Love Songs.
RF: Yeah, making fun of the label seems to be de rigueur for me. I don't know why. It's just a naturally, inherently tense relationship. Not even tense, but there are mild conflicts that come up from time to time. I haven't had any horrible conflicts with any of my labels that I can think of, but things come up sometimes, so maybe it's a little way of blowing off steam by having fun with it, I guess.
AVC: You said you wrote new songs for Revenge! because you think live records are a rip-off. What else did you want to do differently?
RF: I had no idea what to do with this record. I just don't like live records. I couldn't get a line on how loud the audience should be. When you try to take them out of the way and make it a pristine, hothouse-sounding live record, that seems to defeat the whole idea, but since I don't like the idea to begin with, I wasn't sure if I wanted to defeat it, exaggerate it, or what. But I knew from the top that it needed to have the value of new songs and not just go through a bunch of retreads. The difficult part was where to place the audience, and how much of me just yakking with the audience, and yelling things between songs the way I do.
AVC: If this record catches on, do you think you'll change your live show?
RF: Just to fuck with people? I don't know. Really, the spectrum of what I can do live in a bar or a club or whatever is kind of defined for me. I don't have much control over that at all. If the parameters are electric guitar, acoustic guitar, rhythm section, and a crowd full of drunks, which it is most of the time, then I can't do Shostakovich or piano ballads. I just go up there and make it broad and loud, and keep their attention. That's really set the boundaries for my live shows for a long, long time.
AVC: Your shows seem to move easily between funny and serious. How did that develop?
RF: Well, I got a criticism kind of early on, probably 10 years ago, one of the very few and most useful criticisms that I've ever learned from. Some critic was at my show, and I pretended to weep. I sang a really sad song, and then afterward, I wept in a really maudlin, sarcastic way, and it was just off-the-cuff, the way I felt that second, that I would undermine everything I had implied emotionally in the last four minutes by doing that. Anyway, he called me on it, and I thought it was a good call. I thought, in retrospect, "Well, that's kind of obnoxious to do, because you're there to set and sustain a mood, and not to be pulling the carpet from under yourself constantly. It's just self-defeating." So I've tried at least to keep the moods consistent since then, but I still think there's room for serious and funny stuff. I think not to have that kind of emotional variety in a two-hour set is really boring. I hate to listen to the same mood for two hours straight. Maybe a lot of electronica or bluegrass fans do, but I like to have it mixed up. It's just part and parcel of my idea of what a good show is. It goes back to old corny things like a show by The Louvin Brothers, where they'd have five minutes where the bass player would step forward with blacked-out teeth and do a little number about how he went down to the county to get immunized that week.
AVC: Songs from very different albums tend to sit together pretty well on this album. Does that surprise you?
RF: I haven't really thought about it, but it doesn't really surprise me. I've liked the same basic musical things since I was probably 5 years old. I like melody, energy, and the same things probably everybody likes in a three-minute song. The lyrical vocabulary and the way that I put chords together gets more refined over the years, but the basic core of it, how your own tastes play into that, is kind of set from an early age, I think.
AVC: It's just that people tend to talk about each of your albums as a big shift from the previous ones.
RF: Yeah, that's overplayed with me, though. That's not really entirely true, I don't think. To me, it all sounds like my personality. Obviously, there's some superficial differences, and I think there's maybe a growth curve in the recording quality and the arrangement quality of my records, but I don't think there's miles of difference between "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1" and "Let's Kill Saturday Night." Obviously, one's fast and one's slow, and one has a louder this or a softer that, but to me, it sounds like the same guy writing them. Definitely the same nasal nerd singing them.
AVC: Did it take you a while to find an audience that enjoys being messed with?
RF: I really don't know. I would say that the caustic side of the humor in my shows, and the amount of humor, has probably increased over the years as I've gotten more confident about it and put out record after record.
AVC: But some people seem to come to your shows hoping to be antagonized a little.
RF: Now that you mention it, there are people who come to my shows with the idea that they're supposed to give me 10 kinds of shit, and that's a mixed blessing. There are shows that I do in sit-down, sacrosanct, NPR-ish kind of rooms, where it's a theatrical presentation and the expectation is that everybody's gonna be quiet, but there's two guys in the room who are maybe younger and more into the punk aspect of my records, and they'll come out and sort of ruin it for everybody. Maybe it is funny, but in the moment, it's always two guys that don't know what the fuck's going on, or how to read the room. A couple guys came up onstage one time and starting fucking with me, and it was one of those very delicate rooms where they didn't even have security. They didn't even know what to do, because everybody was just the kind of polite person with a mustache, about 50 years old, except for these two guys. A couple shows a year, that'll happen.
There were some guys out in San Francisco that were, like, skinheads and just wanted physical contact, and wanted to turn the show into kind of a boxing match with me, just knocking over shit on the stage and pushing my mic stand into my mouth. Frankly, I'm not G.G. Allin. I sort of expect adult behavior for some reason out of my audiences. [Laughs.] I'm just sort of old-school about it, I guess. I expect people to clap between songs and just stand there and take it, like adults. But when they start rushing the stage and knocking me around, I don't like it at all. I never know what to do. I think a lot of singers are tougher than me, and more pugilistic than I am. I can control a lot of kinds of audience behavior, but fighting, I can't control.
AVC: People don't seem to catch on to the cover of Cher's "Believe" until you get to that vocal hook.
RF: It's possible they didn't even know the song until that point, and were just laughing at the way I got that noise out of my throat. That's very possible with my audience, actually, that they don't know some massive contemporary hit. I mean, I didn't know it until recently. It's easier to be out of it in that way than people might realize. I heard that song probably in 2004, and it comes from 1999 or so.
AVC: What made you want to play it?
RF: I remember liking the song almost as soon as I'd heard it, just really drawn to it. The melody and the hooks just wormed their way into my chest or something.
AVC: It can be easier to appreciate out of context.
RF: There are all these songs that are dressed in a certain way so as to prevent a segment of the population appreciating them. All these great songs. They've just got a great chorus that goes up high and is scientifically designed to stick in your craw.
AVC: In a good or a bad way?
RF: Well, I don't know. It sticks to you like a piece of gum sticks to your shoe, or a piece of great meat sticks to your gullet. Take it how you want. [Laughs.] I find out about these things in kind of retarded ways a lot of the time. I have this older son who's 23 now, and that's one way I find out about things. Recently, he was listening to some Beyoncé, and I ended up buying a record of hers. I seldom listen to Top 40 radio or buy a copy of Spin and make a list and go out and buy whatever they're talking about. I don't really feel any need to do that. And then when I do find something I like, it just seems so much more miraculous for some reason.
I think I get this arrogant point of view that there's nothing of interest out there, just because 80 percent of it strikes me as junk, and I accidentally hear something that I really like, and I'm kind of proud of myself for a moment for keeping up with the times or something like that. I tend to brag about it. I found out how good Eminem was a couple years ago, and I started really overplaying that hand. Anytime I'd meet someone who was 19 years old, I'd start singing that little excerpt of, "If there's any bitches in this room…"
AVC: You made that really melodious.
RF: "I never thought I'd see you get so out of control / even though my penis was deep down in your hole…"
AVC: When you're introducing the song "I Like Being Left Alone," you say that you're running out of enthusiasms with age. Where does a songwriter go from that point?
RF: I think in that statement, there's just kind of a grain of truth, but I don't think that whole sentiment was too much more than just a way to set up that song. I don't really feel that's glaringly true of me, because I get totally excited about lots of things, especially about the kind of music that we're talking about. And I have a great life. It's more of a little bit on the record. I don't think it's emotionally representative of my approach to the world. It's not what I'd use for my epitaph, or anything like that.
AVC: On the first song, you mention Cracker Barrel, which seems to get a bad rap from touring musicians.
RF: If you talk to Alison Krauss or Larry Cordle or Vince Gill or one of those guys, I bet they'd have some good things to say about the old Cracker Barrel. We actually search it out from time to time. If a billboard says it's another 10 miles, we'll pass a whole bunch of Denny's and other things. I think it's a cut above what else is out there for breakfast.
AVC: So country musicians seek out the faux-country place?
RF: I think you'll hear some good things about Cracker Barrel from the crackers themselves. I know what you mean, but I think country people are kind of cool about it. I shouldn't speak for all of them, but I don't think they necessarily object. I mean, country people watch My Name Is Earl, for God's sake, and that's kind of making fun of them. I think country people are pretty easygoing about that kind of thing.
AVC: How did your Secret Country radio series get started?
RF: My wife conceived it as a way to keep me in town more often. It takes about a week of time out of the typical month for me. I get to invite anybody that I want to come to the Old Town School of Folk Music, and the school contracts it so I don't have to argue about money with people. Then afterward, I take the recordings and I get to mix them down with my friends at the studio and pick out the songs and present them and write a little commentary. It's like being 8 years old, and you probably weren't this nerdy when you were 8, but I'd make radio shows and have a Beatles song play, and I'd pretend to be Johnny Olson or Don Pardo and do an announcement for a commercial or a sponsor. It's like the same thing for a grown-up.