In 1997, Robbie Fulks announced his displeasure with the Music Business in an acidic (and outright hilarious) attack on Nashville called "Fuck This Town." Now, he's become the business, producing the 50-cut epic 50 Vc. Doberman, and selling it online-only. The Doberman barks blues, rock, country, jazz, and pop that ranges in tone from deadly serious to seriously outrageous. It's a year-long diary of one of America's most talented--and most unfairly neglected--songwriters and performers. And it's a hopeful statement about the power of technology to level the playing field--if only a little.
I talked with Robbie recently about how 50 Vc. Doberman came to be, why it might (or might not) be a permanent change in his career MO, and what it's like to manage a continuously rotating cast of musicians through a year-plus recording effort that nets 50 tunes, critical raves, and enough sales to maybe even turn a profit.
I've been listening to the tunes and trying to think of awards categories this project might be eligible for. One that occurred to me was "Recordings of 49 songs or greater featuring covers of the Carter Family, Harlan Howard, Beyoncé, and the Jackson 5."
I think all of that is music that 50-year-old guys are into. I'm not so sure about 20-year-old women, for instance, or 80-year-old hermaphrodites. There's a lot of 50-year-old guy spread of taste there: not a lot of electronica, not a lot of metal. I guess there's a little metal touch here and there in the package, but I think I've been hitting the same half-dozen styles for a lot of years, and it might be a lot wider than my average record. But if you were gonna put 50 of the same [style] out, that would be kind of dull.
I feel like it does have a broad musical range. It's beyond what an average Robbie Fulks album would be, and certainly beyond what an average album by anybody would be. What was the whole impetus for this project?

Well, you know, it wasn't really conceived of as an album in a way. It was more conceived as write a bunch of songs for a year in any style you feel like and record-a lot of it, anyway. And put it out with the understanding that it wasn't any official shiny new release that you were trying to call attention to, and putting it out online and not using a label. Hopefully, it was the idea of presenting something halfway serious that people might be interested in buying, but not to put any undue stress on it as a great artistic statement.
How did the songwriting happen?

I hadn't sat down and written like this in a long time, probably in over ten years. I had been going album-by-album and even cannibalizing from earlier writing periods, so I hadn't been writing like this since I had a job as a songwriter and was getting paid to do it. And that was another reason to sort of beef up my catalog and to give myself a new spurt of creative juice rather than limp onward to the next twelve for a typical album, so… By now, I forget what the original question was.
The songwriting. It seems like a lot of songs to write in a year. Did you throw away any stuff?
I tried to throw [a song] away before I finished it, if not before I finished verse one, if it seemed to be going in an unfruitful direction. I would say for every one of the fifty, I started another three or something, but most of what I finished I recorded.
Aside from the covers was there any particular music you were listening to, that influenced the writing or influence you musically?
Oh God, I'm sure there was tons of stuff I was listening to. I don't even know if I could pick out ten things I was listening to over the period of fifteen months or however long that was. I saw a couple of shows over that period that kind of knocked me out. My friend Danny Barnes was playing with Bill Frisell and I went to see those guys play and I was really knocked out by his, uh… his kind of freedom with country songs and his kind of inattention to you know, just keeping the audience entertained every second of the show. Things like that. And I think some of that attitude kind of shook down into my music over the last year. And also playing with this violinist Jenny Scheinman a lot while I've been living in New York, and that kind of bolstered that idea, too. I don't know if it's reflected in a lot of the songs directly, but it's reflected a lot in being emboldened to follow a thread wherever it might take you. And I think it's reflected in the running times of a lot of the songs. They run five or six verses and there's a lot of five or six minute songs and a couple ten-minute songs, I think. So I think that general idea came into being. Not to be Al Jolsen and get on the stage, knock 'em off as quick as you can, make an economical statement, and get off the stage, but more like laying out a story and following it where it wants to wander.
What about the recording sessions? How did they work? I mean, did you block them together, and say "Today we are gonna do soul tunes and tomorrow we're gonna do country tunes?"
Well, it seems that when the end of the month came around and I had three or four songs or five or however many [written], I would just go based on what the songs seemed to need. If it was a song that was just a solo banjo piece, I'd wait till my banjo friend came into town at some point later in the year. But if it was just a conventional [song] that I could play on my guitar or if it was a typical rock song, I'd call around and see who was available and just kind of set it up.
Did you have the core of your regular band there in general?
It was so scattershot and depended upon people's schedules. So the drummer I used on almost everything was Gerald [Dowd] who plays in my band, but the guitar duties were split up between four or five different guys and the bass duties too. It went on so long and guys' schedules came into play. It just got really spread around. Which was cool because I love playing with my band, but I get to play with them a lot. Gigs and so on. If you get to spread it out, it's kind of fun.
Did the musicians contribute to arrangements as well, or was it you directing it?
They always contributed. It always works that way. It's a fun way to spend an afternoon. You don't play anything for anyone in advance, and you come in and you meet. And you strum along on guitar, you talk about the roadblocks a little bit with the players, and make charts if need be, but otherwise you spend the first hour or so, probably, for a song of moderate complexity just figuring out the roadblocks and figuring out what's going to sound good for the whole team to be doing at point X in the song, if the bass is gonna be active in this place or quiet in this place--that kind of stuff. The most enjoyable part of it for me is to see the thing come into shape. It's always surprising. Sometimes it just kind of leaps into shape and it's exactly the way that you pictured it. And sometimes it's laborious in ways that you never imagined. So the idea of music being created kind of formulaically is kind of a misleading idea. It's never been my experience.
I was wondering what songs from the project are rising to the top for you right now?
That's a good question. There's definitely some on there that I don't want to do just thinking about them. I'm not interested in them anymore. Not a lot. Probably five of 'em.
Name me one.
There's a song "Bad on Both Sides," it's called. A country rock song. There's a kind of country rock song that I've always enjoyed and never been able to pull off, and I think that song fails on a lot of levels. And there's another one that I identified in the liner notes as having been a failure. I'm not sure that it's a bad song per se, but the performance was… a song called "Just Too Easy to Cry," the performance and the mix and everything just kind of went to hell. The more we worked on it the worse it got. But I think the best ones, uh, the one they put up on iTunes, struck me strongly certainly after I finished working on [the project], and they were like…. "Trade You Money for Wine," and "Guess I Got It Wrong," "Schoolteacher!," "You Can't Go Back But You Can't Quit Trying," "Coastal Girls." Those seem to me some of the stronger ones.