The Toad Interviews the Willard Grant Conspiracy

Robert Fisher

[Warning: this article is pretty long – it continues below the break – but there will be some mp3s at the end. Please leave feedback if you like it, because I have the opportunity to do a few more of these and it’s something that I am definitely up for if it’s something you find interesting.]

Robert Fisher is the leader of Toad favourites the Willard Grant Conspiracy in much the same way that Howe Gelb is Giant Sand and Bill Callahan is Smog. He may be the centre of a cloud of musicians nearly forty-strong, but the true core is still Fisher himself.

What is it that they do that’s quite so compelling then? Well a couple of things really. First and most obvious is Fisher’s quite amazing voice. It’s deep and dark, lush and emotive, dragging you into songs and able to stir an inner response far in excess of almost anyone else I can mention. There is a dark, sad atmosphere to the music that is incredibly distinctive, even on Let It Roll, from their recent album of the same name, which spirals into a frothing rage, or on Fare Thee Well where it ascends into a melancholy so deep it’s actually oddly uplifting.

As he travels the world Fisher seems to collect musicians, finding new and interesting people to work with and weaving bits of them into his music. But it all, no matter how much the music itself changes, still ends up being quite obviously still the Willard Grant Conspiracy. I got into the group for the first time when I heard a version of Twistification recorded as part of an In the Fishtank collaboration with TeleFunk. It’s a bizarre splicing of European electronica and the Willards’ trademark dark Americana, but to me it still sounds clearly a part of the Willard Grant Conspiracy.

As a result of all these disparate collaborations, and of touring with anything from a full band with string section to a suitcase and a couple of guitars I think I’ve heard a half dozen versions of several WGC songs already. I mentioned to Fisher that there must be dozens of versions of almost every song floating around his head at any one time and he responds quite fiercely that “there is no ‘version'”.

It is this idea of clouds of versions existing around the intangible core of a song that helps to define just what the Willard Grant Conspiracy really are. Fisher showed real vehemence a couple of times during the interview, the first in annoyance at the band frequently being labelled alt-country by reviewers and writers. I have some sympathy for them: I myself am particularly lax with this sort of thing as I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful – I throw the term Americana about with reckless abandon and it may be lazy, but these generalisations can be useful.

The thing is, they can also be dead wrong. “What the hell am I supposed to have in common with someone like Merle Haggard?’ demands Fisher, with frustrated bewilderment. How he does describe himself helps explain the network of musicians he has accumulated and the allergic reaction to the idea of there being a definitive version of a song. These are attributes of folk music, where songs were passed down from generation to generation, often becoming barely recognisable after centuries of Chinese Whispers, and songs which were passed on whenever like-minded groups of musicians came together and traded songs and swapped their stories. Much, it seems, like Robert Fisher.

Old folk music was almost religious in its nature really. I am not a religious man, so I was a little cautious to suggest to Robert that both religious texts like the Bible and ancient folk songs are no more than morality tales that serve as elaborate parables to teach people how to live their lives, and if they feel the need to terrify you into obedience then they frequently do so. Fortunately, he agrees with this suggestion – there is something of an Old Testament fire and brimstone brutality to a lot of early folk and these qualities permeate his music as well. These are qualities shared by old fairy tales as well. Not the saccharine, lifeless Disney versions you read nowadays, but the horrific, grotesque versions as offered by the Brothers Grimm. “It’s funny you should mention that,” he says “because it’s something I’ve always had an idea to turn into a musical project one of these days, with all the really nasty bits left in. Some people say, you know, Tom Waits should do it but it’s something I’ve always been interested in doing.” Personally, I’d like to hear both.

The religious comparison is an interesting one as well. “I was toying with the idea of doing a gospel album actually, [he has been known to describe himself as a “failed Baptist”] until last year, when everyone did one. But as someone said, a lot of my music is almost gospel music anyway.” He’s right, but then I think of the excoriating Evening Mass from his second album, Flying Low, with the lyrics: “Oh the greedy come a-calling/And oh the needy come a-courting again/ And oh the desperate come up wanting/ the lord has come up empty again.” – and I think that although the music can be similar stylistically and even thematically, the truly devout might baulk slightly at some of the lyrical content!

It’s exciting to hear him talk about these ideas though. The man is already falling over new projects as it is. Following Regard the End, there were two albums in his head. The first was Let It Roll – essentially a document of his live band. I am not sure that superficially small shift in approach quite explains the unhinged ferocity that this record reaches on occasion, but who cares – it bloody worked. The other album rattling around Robert’s head, and indeed the next one to emerge, will be more of a direct follow-on from Regard the End. I must admit to overhearing a conversation where he mentioned the string arrangement being done by a former Delgados collaborator. The enthusiasm with which he talked about this chap’s work makes me feel very confident about the new record.

In fact, if there’s one thing I really enjoyed about this interview altogether it was Fisher’s enthusiasm. Even when he was pissed off or just down about things it seemed to be simply because he is the sort of person who engages, someone who thinks and cares about things.

The Current State of the Record Industry, a question as predictable as it is necessary these days, brings forth all sorts of ideas, frustrations, questions and optimism. Given the Willards have been going for fifteen years, Fisher has seen a lot. If anything, the sheer lack of imagination of the industry as a whole seems to have made him so angry so often that all he can muster now is a sort of sad frustration.

Its easy to see how a desperate focus on image above all else would pass a man like Fisher by. The Willards have never been an easily-pegged band and he is not an obviously marketable front man. When he explains to me: “They give you an advance, and then they tell you ‘here’s a list of ten producers you can work with and here’s a list of five studios’. And they’re all incredibly expensive and the artist pays for everything, and you could have just as good a record for a fraction of the price”, it is with no attempt to disguise his annoyance.

As he sees it, they wasted their time and money insisting on albums and image from disposable popstrels when they should have concentrated on getting them to dominate the singles market, rather than releasing albums with two decent songs – the singles – and another eight of filler. In doing so, they also completely lost any ability to handle the bands who actually could produce albums – whole albums of quality music. If it didn’t fit the model of an easily marketable image and couple of catchy singles (with accompanying sexy videos) then they would just batter the square peg they had until it either jammed itself into their round hole or shattered in the attempt. “People say I should make a video, well I’ve got a video, a beautiful one [for Distant Shore, see the website] but what am I supposed to do with it?”

This same utter inability to think outside their desperately narrow paradigms showed again in their reaction to Napster. No-one I have ever spoken to can believe that the music industry didn’t treat Napster as a colossal opportunity. “They reacted with pure fear, and couldn’t think beyond trying to get it shut down and there was so much potential there.”

It’s a tricky thing to do, of course it is. As Fisher quite rightly points out, no-one seems to quite know what to do with the internet yet. Nor do they know quite where the money is coming from in future. Downloads are killing album sales, and the shortfall was supposed to be mitigated by touring and merchandise sales, but the sheer number of groups out there willing to play for nothing, or virtually nothing, means that this is complete bollocks for all but the biggest names in indie music. The explosion of music festivals isn’t helping like it might either as, apart from the few lucky headliners, the majority of the bands playing are doing so for an embarrassing pittance.

He talks about these things, but Robert doesn’t seem downhearted. He loves the fact that the internet enables people to share and talk about his music so much more easily. He’s not sure about the effect on album sales, but he is still full of ideas as to how this technology can provide new ways to sell music and new ways to enjoy it. “You know, now people are free of stockholding, of having to store hundreds of CDs there are so many ways you can bring something more to the experience of buying music, and I think that’s where it has to go. Somewhere you can add to the experience, give people something personal.” These and other ideas excite him and I am left with an odd contradiction: someone whose music is so strongly rooted in the past, yet who seems so much more willing to embrace the future than half the rest of his peers.

“I think something you and I have to accept – and I know a lot of musicians don’t want to hear this – but I think we have to accept that there just aren’t as many people out there who care passionately about music as we’d like to think. I mean, we have this wonderful, rich thing in our lives and we think other people should be able to have it too, but it’s just not that important to a lot of people. And that’s fine, you know, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that.” He may be right, but it’s nice to talk to someone who does care. Someone who has consistently worked a day job for fifteen years to enable him to tour, play, learn and release, well, four of my favourite albums ever. Probably five by this time next year.

Willard Grant Conspiracy & TeleFunk – Twistification
Willard Grant Conspiracy – Fare Thee Well
Willard Grant Conspiracy – Let It Roll
Willard Grant Conspiracy – Evening Mass