MAYBE IT'S a bellwether of the changing times in this city: One of Portland's most artistically significant—and best—bands is calling it a day.
You Can't Go Back if There's Nothing to Go Back To is Richmond Fontaine's 10th album since forming in 1994. Centered on the forlorn songs of songwriter Willy Vlautin, it's an aural collection of short stories that examine the lives and failures of its downtrodden characters, accompanied by dust, twang, and whiskey. The band's following never reached far beyond its Portland hometown, although fans in Ireland and Great Britain have embraced the group's devastating, remarkable twist on country, folk, and punk rock. For longtime fans of Fontaine, the album functions as a farewell gift; upon its release earlier this year, the band announced it would be their last.
"Yeah, it's sad," says Vlautin. "We get along great. The Fontaine's always been a blast. The camaraderie has always been the greatest thing about the band. I like all those guys, and I never get tired of 'em—I think they get tired of me, but I don't get tired of them. I really don't! I miss hanging out with them when they're gone. [After a tour] it's nice to get home and everything, but when we all separate, I'm like, 'Ah shit, what are you doing, man? Where are you going now?' And the guys are like, 'I'm going to my fucking wife, man! I'm going home.' And I'm like, 'All right. What are you doing tomorrow?'"
You Can't Go Back's valediction is bittersweet, to be certain, but Vlautin will continue to write songs and play music with his other band, the Delines, where singer Amy Boone does the heavy lifting. "I never liked being a frontman," Vlautin says. "I'm not meant to be a frontman. And I've done my time." The Delines also include Richmond Fontaine drummer Sean Oldham and bassist Freddy Trujillo, so those musical relationships will remain intact, and Vlautin says he and Fontaine guitarist Dan Eccles will always be close. The end of Fontaine will also allow Vlautin more time to focus on writing; his fourth novel, 2014's The Free, is the most recent in a line of affecting, minimalist fiction in the vein of Raymond Carver.
As we're talking about the band, and the changes to Portland in the past decade or two, the recent deaths of local musicians Jim Boyer and Andrew Loomis come up. Their stories run parallel to the ones Vlautin wrote for You Can't Go Back.
"I was thinking about guys who lived risky lives," he says. "I was thinking about those issues and that old idea that you can only run so far before you run back into yourself. When Fontaine started, all the characters were just starting to fall apart and start drifting—they were always thinking, 'Maybe I'd be a better guy in the next town,' or 'Maybe if I moved here or got a new girlfriend, I'd be a better guy.' All those ideas of breaking things or moving from place to place in the hopes that you'll find a better side of yourself, instead of just working on it. And now a lot of the characters in the new songs—like 'I Got off the Bus' or 'Wake up Ray' or 'I Can't Black It Out [if I Wake up and Remember]'—are coming back home."
The homecomings in these new songs are often rude awakenings, as You Can't Go Back if There's Nothing to Go Back To's title suggests. Many of the characters didn't recognize when it was time to stop, and now they've gone too far.
Vlautin and the rest of the band didn't want a similar thing to happen to Richmond Fontaine. "We really like this new record," says Vlautin. "I think we all were really proud of it. And it gets harder and harder to get each guy in the van, and I didn't want it to end when we weren't on what I thought was one of our best records, if not our best record. The band's been really good to me. Most of the good things I've gotten in life have come from the band, so I wanted to have the memories of the band be good, and leave it in a good place."