IT'S A RARE BAND that looks good on paper. And by that I mean a band whose lyrics, when exposed in written form, still manage to convey the same impact that they do with the added flourish of music. Densely detailed and rich in character, the songs of Portland's Richmond Fontaine read like intricately twisting short stories rather than just a handful of sentences designed to conjoin with rock's standard triumvirate of guitar, bass, and drum kit. Swollen with lines like "So guard your tears because people will take them year after year," these are the kind of songs that stick with you long after the last notes have faded, taking up residence in that place in your soul where hard lessons and hope burrow side by side.

Essentially, Richmond Fontaine is Willy Vlautin, who, over the course of three excellent albums, has conjured up some of the most forlorn, godforsaken characters ever to walk an imaginary earth. Rich with devoted local fans, the band has yet to gain the kind of full-blown national attention it so richly deserves. This is a crime against all that's supposed to matter about music, and jeopardizes my belief that honest and unpretentious talent will always, somehow, find its way to appreciative ears. Still, Vlautin manages to fill me with a sense of hope in spite of myself. And friends, that's saying something.

Over the course of a day, via e-mail and telephone, Vlautin and I discuss Richmond Fontaine's latest album, Lost Son, and the band in general. More than anything, I am struck with the realization that he genuinely cares about his woeful characters, speaking of them as if they were living and breathing along with the rest of us, rather than existing in recorded limbo.

In addition to songs, you write fiction, too. Which came first, songs or fiction?

Oh, songs first. I wrote songs from when I was 13. Pretty much the same type of songs, I guess. There was a band in Reno that played country punk when I was a kid, and I always tried to be like them. It wasn't until I was 19 or 20 that I read Raymond Carver, and then he made me feel that a guy like myself could write stories... I didn't have to be a professor. I always thought you had to be a Rhodes scholar to write stories, and he was the first guy I read that I felt on the same plane with. And so, the day I bought his book, I read it and then I started writing stories. And it helped my songwriting a lot. I was always trying to write quick, one-liner songs, and then I started writing 12-minute folk songs after that. I'll bring a song in once in a while and it's six verses, no chorus, and it's really depressing... [the band guys are] really cool and they're like, "Jesus, this is fucking depressing, and it's three times as long as it should be."

Your songs are like short stories set to music. When you write lyrics, do you write longer, fleshed-out narratives first and then condense them into song form, or is the finished song pretty much how it looked in the beginning?

It depends on the song. The poppier, more punk rock songs usually start out as an idea of a story that I didn't have much time to play with. But "15-Year-Old Kid in Nogales, Mexico" was a short story I had written a while ago -- it was kind of different as a short story, but the kid in it was the kid in the song. I was playing around with the tune and it seemed like that kid's song, and then I just wrote a similar story as lyrics. "Hope and Repair" was a 20-page short story I had written, and then the guys and I were down in Reno going to whorehouses and I started thinking about that story again, so I rewrote the whole song. So yeah, a lot of them come from stories I've written.

Is there a theme to this album?

I was really interested in how people feel they have to make major decisions when they are down, confused, and depressed. It seems like most people have to make huge decisions -- or feel they have to -- when in reality [it's] the last time they should make a decision. But a lot of time they have no choice, and when they do make that decision, sometimes they just stop where they are falling, move over, and fall in a different direction -- when all they are really looking for is a solid place to be. Everyone on this record is lost, and each [person] is trying to find a direction. Most are making decisions that are horrible for them, but they are in no state to see that. Like in "Savior of Time," the guy goes back with his mentally unstable girlfriend -- maybe because he's lonely, maybe he figures that being with her is better than being alone -- even though he knows that things with her won't change, and that most likely it'll just pick up where it left off.

Let's talk more about Lost Son's characters and their bad choices.

"Ft. Lewis" is about a kid who joins the Army because he wants a concrete direction in his life, only to find that it was a wrong choice, and now he's stuck. I wrote that one with the idea of the Army as an answer to how to live your life. A lot of people with shaky, uncertain upbringings join the Army because the Army tells them [what's] right and wrong. Some people grow up where right and wrong change, depending on the mood of the parents.

What about the kid in "Cascade," whose stepfamily robs him?

"Cascade" is about family and throw-together families. A kid is trying to find family in a mother who has died. Yet he goes [to her house in the Cascades] to pick up her things with his new family, a stepbrother he barely knows. [It's about] the uncertainty of new family, of stepfamilies.

"15-Year-Old Kid in Nogales, Mexico" -- we talked about this one already, but it's similar to the others in that the kid makes a huge decision to run away, but he's running away because of his home life. He's having hard times. But he's a kid and picks Mexico. In his mind, it's the TV sort of Mexico. But the reality is of course much more real, brutal.

"A Girl in a House in Felony Flats" is about a guy who wants love from a girl who's been partying too hard. She's a mess; maybe she's dying from it. But all he wants is this girl to love him. He doesn't think about the fact that she would be a horrible choice for him, that she would drag him down, he just wishes she loved him.

"Four Hours Out" is about a guy who tried to leave his hometown, but couldn't find anywhere to settle, so he's going to end up back home. And he knows he'll end up in the same role. He'll be the same guy he was that made him leave. He wants to drive off the road, but he knows he can't, and he sees what he'll become -- yet he feels that his hometown is his only choice left.

"And from the East blows uncertainty/And from the North blows complete despair/And from the South blows alcohol/And from the West hope and repair." That's a stunning, beautiful chorus.

"Hope and Repair" is a love story where the guy falls in love with a prostitute (which I don't think is ever a real good idea). But he was lonely, and she needed someone, too. For what reasons you're not really sure. But I guess it's similar to "Felony Flats" and "Savior of Time" in that it's about damaged people searching for love and finding people that most likely will be bad for them, but not being able to see it because they are doing so bad themselves.

You get lumped in with the No Depression movement. Has that been helpful or a hindrance to you?

Live, since we have a pedal steel player, we'll always be thought of as a country band. We could play six or seven punk or really fast songs and then play a country song, and then people would say we're a country band. Which is all right -- I mean, the pedal steel is my favorite instrument, and it always makes the songs so much better because it's such a sad instrument, and that will make us a country band no matter what. We do get a lot of people who follow us because of that, and that's cool. But then again the No Depression kind of people also think we're too hard. So, they're not huge supporters of us because they think we're too punk rock. It's that same old thing -- we're not country, we're not punk enough. We're kind of just in the middle, but that's all right.

Does playing for small crowds ever get you down?

Oh yeah. I'll be playing some nights and if no one's there I'll think, "God, maybe I should try to be an electrician's apprentice. I know this guy who's a plumber, and...." And I'll be thinking that right when we're playing, 'cause I'll get so freaked out. I try not to think about it, but I do think about it when things are bad, and then I just get depressed. Then, you know, I'll write songs about that. It's a never-ending thing.

Who's your favorite character on Lost Son?

"15-Year-Old Kid." I like that one because he's the type of guy I wish I could be. I used to always plan on making my big escape to Mexico, and I would write down a list of everything I was gonna take and all I had -- I had a really nice shotgun and I had a ton of records, and I was gonna sell all of those and just go. I'd get to the point where I was gonna go, and then I just couldn't. I wish I was the type of kid that could have gone. He goes through so many hard times, but he still makes it. It's pretty much the only hopeful story on the whole album, so hopefully he's down there right now on the beach in Mexico.

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