Mission Freak Interview: Rocky Votolato

Way back in September, when the trees still had leaves but the temperatures were probably about what they were yesterday, Rocky Votolato rolled through the Picador and blessed us with an evening of tunes from his solo records, drawing primarily on his two most recent releases. Last year, he put out his second album for Barsuk (his 6th solo record overall), the wildly understated The Brag and Cuss. It was, however, his Barsuk debut Makers that captivated me and continues to be one of my favorite releases from the last several years. I caught up with him before the show and spent time rapping in the parking lot, bumming his smokes and asking about his solo career, fatherhood, and his Americana roots.

Mission Freak: So, The Brag and Cuss is your new record, and it’s been billed as the full-band record, as opposed to Makers, which is the “solo” record…what led you to that?
Rocky Votolato: It was just one of those decisions that I made on the fly. I had all of the songs done, and I took it to Casey (Foubert, of Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls), who co-produced the record with me, and we both just listened to them all and decided that we should put a band together. We had a week to rehearse before we actually went in the studio to start recording. So we called up some guys really randomly and it just worked out really nice that everybody was in town and had time to do it. We just started rehearsing and it just snowballed from there.
MF: You had the songs together and then you pieced the band together?
RV: Yeah, everything was written and so we just then had to figure out the instrumentation for each of the songs and they wrote their parts separately and then we just started recording it.
MF: Is it the same band you have on tour with you?
RV: It’s a totally different band.
MF: You still have the solo, acoustic songs on there, like “Silver Trees” comes to mind. What is it about those that keeps you coming back to that style?
RV: You know, I think it’s just always been really interesting to me, I’ve always written on acoustic guitar. I think on records that I’ve been interested in, it seems like the slower, sparse acoustic numbers are probably my favorite too, so I think that’s what drives me towards that. At the same time, I played in a band for 10 years, and I really like that feeling too. If you do the solo acoustic thing for long enough you just want to have some new experience.
MF: The band you’re referring to is Waxwing, right?
RV: Right.
MF: I haven’t heard a whole lot of Waxwing, but that was sort of in the vein of Mineral and Texas is the Reason, right?
RV: Probably, yeah. I’ve heard Mineral. I haven’t heard Texas is the Reason but I know that type of band, sort of Fugazi-ish, harder type of band.
MF: So, how did we get from there to here?
RV: I was always writing acoustic songs at the same time, so by ’99 I had a record’s worth of songs that totally didn’t fit our style. So it kind of was always happening, like, I really wanted to be in a punk band so I wrote more aggressive stuff when I was younger, but I always had this passion for folky or country-ish type acoustic songs, and so, I think I always have been doing both, but the focus changed over to this. I lost the desire to have those more screamy songs.
MF: Do you see that coming back out? Is there going to be a Rocky record that’s more like a…
RV: …like a Waxwing record?
MF: Yeah.
RV: I don’t know, I guess I’ll just see where it takes me but I definitely have recently been getting more into a little bit more aggressive stuff. I like having the band, they definitely influence it. Now I have this band who’s become my permanent touring band, so I’m hoping that the new stuff I’ve been writing I can take to them and we can flesh it out and see where it goes. I wouldn’t rule it out.
MF: What are some of those records that you said are more influential for you, the more sparse folk records?
RV: Well, early on, I grew up in Texas, so it was stuff my dad listened to like Steve Earle, early Dylan, a lot of ’60s era folk writers and country stuff, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Johny Cash, all the major outlaws. But when I got to Seattle, I moved away from that stuff. It was like, “Ah, I don’t want to hear that shit,” you know, even though it was still in the back of my mind that I have a love for that style of music, I just moved completely away from it for a long time, and then it started being more nostalgic for me. I realized “Wait a minute, these are the records I like to listen to,” like Tom Waits’ early stuff. Nick Drake, that type of stuff.
MF: I wanted to talk sort of about some of your recurring themes, nostalgia, travel, being on the road, being away from home…
RV: I think it’s always been kind of bittersweet, chasing whatever it is I’m chasing, which I don’t really know what that is, I guess being able to play music for people, and balancing that with the life I want to have at home. There’s two really strong forces inside me that want to have a certain kind of life, and you can’t have everything. It’s always a tough mixture, I think that has informed what I’ve done the last few years because it’s been one of the major struggles for me, to try to do what I want.
MF: You’re married with two kids now right? Fatherhood is a theme that comes up a lot too, “Tinfoil Hats” comes to mind. Is there a big difference between Rocky Votolato at home being dad and being on the road?
RV: Not intentionally, and it’s not like it’s an act or something, but it’s just a different lifestyle. It brings out different elements of your personality, different things that you won’t experience when you’re just at home, stationary, in a routine. I think there are different aspects of my personality that are accentuated in either situation, but overall I think I’m just the same person either way, trying to get by, get my priorities straight and get the best out of each situation.
MF: Most people have kids and get married and settle down, and they don’t get to go on the road and make records.
RV: Yeah, they kind of give it up.
MF: Is there going to be a point on the horizon where we see you become a full-time dad?
RV: I don’t know, my kids are already older, my daughter is 14, my son is 8, so I’m going to take it one year at a time. I know at least up until the middle of next year I’m going to be touring, so we’ll see what happens.
MF: The songs that you sing are pretty personal, introspective or sentimental. How much of what you sing is fiction, and how much is culled from personal experience?
RV: Almost all of it is culled from personal experience, but there are fiction elements woven into it, especially the last two records. Before that I’d say most everything was just me dealing with stuff happening in my life. I think that’s a necessary quality. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve talked to other songwriters that are good friends of mine. Actually Ben Nichols from Lucero and I were just having this discussion, he’s a good buddy of mine. We both agreed that it has to be informed by personal experience in some way, or else it’s just lost. It can’t be all art. There has to be something real to it to give it weight, or else I don’t think it will resonate and other people won’t relate to it the same way. At least the way that you would want to songs that really mean something. I also think that the other elements are important. You can’t just be some confessional asshole, bleeding heart idiot…

At this point our interview devolved into some silliness that may or may not have included poking fun of Dashboard. He then politely excused himself to write a setlist and I went on my way as well. Rocky Votolato will be touring Europe this winter starting February 11.

Download: Rocky Votolato - Portland is Leaving [from Makers]

Download: Rocky Votolato - Lilly White [from The Brag and Cuss]

In other Rocky Votolato news, in 2000 he starred in the movie The Edge of Quarrel, an indie-as-fuck flick about rivaling punk and straight edge gangs in Seattle that also starred members of the Murder City Devils and Botch. The film, long out of print and previously only available as on hipster-friendly VHS is getting a limited edition DVD re-release via Excursion Records. You can find out more info here.

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