Willard Grant Conspiracy, lead by Robert Fisher, and joined by a rotating cast of dozens, is one band that never fails to strike awe and reverence from me. The striking, guttural voice of Robert Fisher is the perfect narrator of the dark, mournful tales he writes about, featuring such lighthearted topics as drowning, murder, damnation and ghostly haunts.
Besides being a uniquely gifted songwriter, Robert is also one of the most affable gentlemen you’d ever be fortunate enough to make acquaintance with. And the good fortune was mine when I met up with Robert at the recent TIG sponsored American Music Club tribute/ACLU benefit at the Sunset Tavern.
While you were in Seattle, we spoke briefly about how WGC is getting more European and UK support for your records than U.S. support. I've heard this from other great bands such as The Walkabouts, Sixteen Horsepower, Low, and even Tom Waits. Care to elaborate on why you think you are getting a better response outside of your own country?
Whew! The big questions right off! This could be a thesis or a serious rant and I will try to avoid both. There are a number of factors that contribute to this situation. The biggest factor has to do with the structure of the music business in the US and the support structure it has for marketing. Everything is aimed at lowest common denominator/highest profit margin and loss considerations. When only 3 percent of the music released pays for the rest, it changes the way people think about making choices for what music to market. All the support channels for marketing music have either been co-opted by the major label marketing efforts or have been marginalized. Though some of these elements have been creeping into different parts of Europe, indie labels and artists still have access to a level of mainstream press that doesn't exist here. It is a complex and pretty boring thing to read about but I guess it comes down to simple economics. If the audience can't find out that the music exists then sales can't happen and everything flows from that.
What impact, if any, do you think the independent media outlets (I.E. college radio, independent zines/webzines, etc.) have on artists within the U.S.?
Well, it is hard to say. I mean our last record got covered in all the indie press very favorably as well as radio and it sold less than other friends of mine who had no press or radio behind it. It may not have to do with radio and press exclusively. It may have to do with sales and distribution just as much. But as a partner to the other elements, how many people are really reached by indie press? And how much of what we call independent is really just covering music that has been marginalized by the majors?
So much of what we call 'indie' isn't really. There are tons of college stations that act like Clear Channel breeder stations. There are lots of indie magazines that behave like cool clubs where what gets covered is only what is in the club or what brings in the advertising dollars. There are really great websites that have all sorts of interesting writing, and yet the readership doesn't add up to much.
If you go to a show and the room is packed, there are probably 40 or 50 people who qualify as serious music fans out of 400 and the rest are there because they heard it was the place to be. How many times have you gone to see a band like Low or Lambchop where people paid good money to get in and only the first three rows in a packed club are really listening?
I've managed to wander off on a tangent again. Did I answer the question?
You answered it beautifully. I've almost gotten in fist fights at Low and Iron & Wine concerts for this very reason. For the benefit of our curious and highly intelligent readership (according to Zagat polling results), let's discuss briefly the current "business model" for indie artists. The path seems to be (in summary):
- Record a record
- Distribution the record into the mom-n-pops and a few chains
- Promote the hell out of it to college radio and independent press
- Tour like crazy to support it
- See how the dust settles.
Is this system broken? If so, where is it breaking down?
This answer is based on my experience with the band; the touring part is very difficult. Booking agencies are hard to find and even if you have a good one, as we do, it is hard for them to get you the kind of touring that will make a difference to your profile. If you are a band with people in it who need to pay bills of any kind and you want to tour beyond your town, someone has to pay for it.
The clubs are very conservative and will not support the kind of fees that are necessary to keep a band on the road. A lot of this has to do with the lack of proper promotion at the club level. Not many clubs do more than list the band name in an ad and open the doors. I have not found too many promoters at the club level who have any idea about how to reach a consistent audience. They rely on the indie press and college radio buzz to create word of mouth and fill the club. To be fair, it is a difficult thing to promote new bands to an audience. It is hard to gain their attention.
In the end, if a band doesn't have a way to pay to be on the road it is hard to get out there and make any headway into gaining an audience. Of course some people are just in the right place at the right time and through hard work they get a word of mouth buzz that spreads like wildfire and never have to be concerned about this kind of stuff, but it is rare.
The theory used to be to work hard on gaining a strong local following, and then expand it to a regional level, and ultimately a national level. Is this concept still relevant in the "information age?" In other words, can artists even rely on building a local audience anymore? If not, why not?
Oh, I think it can be done. It just needs a bigger effort than ever before, a good bit of luck or knowing someone with the right Rolodex can certainly be a help. It is amazing how fast things can become a big buzz if the right people talk it up.
In Europe, I have the advantage of working with two very good labels in their own respective territories, but even there it needs some serious groundwork to make a dent in awareness. For a band that is not easily "imaged" (is that even a word? I kind of hope not) or has one that lacks a gimmick or hook that allows people to write or talk about it, there is no substitute for old fashioned word of mouth touring. The music has to get in front of people some way, and introducing it live is the best way I know how. I think if we had the opportunity to tour as much in the US as we have had in Europe, things would be much better here.
The world is full of media and the competition for everyone's attention is brutal. It is far too easy to become a hermit and, by the virtue of what comes thru your TV or computer, still feel you are connected with the world.
There is a lot of talk in the industry about digital distro, and the buzz is that it will soon turn physical distro (I.E. record shops) on its head and, along with it, the way that people access music and artists make a living. What do you think about all of this? Is it just hype, or are you taking it seriously?
I think digital distribution has a long way to go to make the record store obsolete. But if you know anyone in love with their I-pod, it is pretty obvious that there is a market there to be explored. I suspect the computer is like any kind of tool. It can be used well or to a disadvantage. People who are inclined to be
hermits will find it harder to stay out in the world – even more so when a day to day living experience can be delivered into the home by digital and analog airwaves. Face to face communal experiences are harder and harder to come by.
Okay, new subject. How did you wander upon the name 'Willard Grant Conspiracy?' Is there a story behind it?
The name comes from the street that the studio where we recorded the first record was located. Willard Grant. The conspiracy is about the number of people that participate in the band – over 30 now.
That’s a ton of people. What is the thought process behind rotating through so many members? It's a bit of an unusual practice, no?
I think the practice is less unusual than people think. It's only in rock music that bands have a set membership as a rule. In all other music, people play with each other where and when it makes sense. This band was formed from an informal weekly gathering where people came to play. When it moved into live performance, I never saw the reason to change the already established dynamic of "whoever shows up plays". It keeps the music and the musicians fresh, and the audience benefits because there are no two nights completely alike. As a fan of music in the moment, it is what makes me happy as a musician as well.
Who is, or has been, part of this "Conspiracy" that our readers might be somewhat familiar with?
Of the group, David Michael Curry might be the best known since he has played with Thalia Zedek for years and has also done stints with Bonnie Prince Billy as well as numerous others. There are all sorts of people who are well known that have contributed to the music over the years; Kristin Hersh, Jess Klein, Edith Frost, Carla Torgerson, Chris Brokaw, Walter Salas Humara, Malcolm Travis and Mary Lorson are a few. I consider them welcome in the band whenever they want to be a part of it, but obviously their own careers find them traveling as much or more than us. There are a few others who I can call upon to play but these are the main group of folks.
I’ve always been drawn to artists who take on weighty subjects like murder, death and God. What influences in your life can we find in your words? In other words, are your lyrics the personal voice of a God-fearing man, or rather an artistic fascination with religious and macabre topics?
I suppose it is more of the latter though both are true in some ways. I am not a practicing religious person. That is, church is not on my calendar. I am spiritual though and believe in a higher power. I find issues of faith fascinating. I am deeply interested in what moves people through their lives including and beyond the mundane acts. I was raised in the Baptist church and my early experiences with religion ran the gamut of profane to profound, but I quickly discovered that the profound was not so much in what was being taught from the pulpit, rather found in the expressions of faith in the believers. The interest comes from honest experience as well as dutiful observation.
Spirituality resides in all sorts of unconsecrated places. It's in the internal discussion of how one comes to understand our mortality and the minute to minute struggle to become a better person before that grey end that we define our lives. To be fair though, the lyrics run a pretty wide swath through life experience and don't deal with these subjects exclusively. With some songs it's enough that it has a good story that someone's imagination can inhabit. It also helps if the groove is a good one.
You recently did a Eurpoe-only release for "There But for the Grace of God," which I understand is a WGC retrospective. Any plans to release it in the States? And are you planning to tour off it?
I don't think there is any interest in the US for releasing this record. I think that touring is not an option. I will keep trying to do shows but they will be more isolated playing situations and not proper touring. I am even considering doing more solo shows. Even though it is not the way I prefer to present the music, it is more economic with only one person. It is also a real challenge to make a guitar and a voice work for the whole show and that challenge is an interesting one.
We are planning on being in Europe for late April through most of May. We will start recording while we are there for another record if I can find a studio to work in.
I have to tell you that it depresses the hell out of me to think for a moment that there isn't enough interest in the US to release this record. You are a supremely gifted songwriter, with a strong penchant for narrative and storytelling. Speaking of which, our mutual friend Paul Austin (Transmissionary Six) told me that there is a good story behind "House is Not a Home" from the Flying Low CD. Care to share?
Well, I am not sure how interesting this is but Paul wrote the music and I think it was one of those things where we were sitting around the living room and he started playing something that caused me to sort of flash on some words and images. The story of the song and the story that actually happened are two different things. The storyline of the song is based a little bit on a Flannery O'Conner story called Wiseblood. The story that actually happened was when I was a kid here in California and my cousins and I would wander out into the desert looking for things to entertain us.
One time we came across a small abandoned house – something more than a shack, and something less than a full on house. There are all sorts of them floating in the desert but this one took our fancy. It was so decayed from the sun that you could literally walk through the walls. I remember walking into the bathroom and seeing a huge lizard across the back of the toilet, sunning in the rays coming in from the broken roof. Someone got the idea that it would be cool to burn it down. Someone else got the idea that it would be cool to film it. A third person thought it would be best if we did it at night. After returning home and getting the stuff together we trekked back out to the house and torched it. It made a great fire at dusk and we got it all on film. It was the kind of destructive behavior that kids revel in and jumped to mind as Paul played the chords for the song that became House Is Not a Home.
You grew up in the desert, but lived in the Northeast for awhile, where you met Paul, and now you live at the edge of the Mojave. Is there something magical about the desert that pulled you back?
I grew up in California between Azusa, Goleta and The San Fernando valley. My family has always had members living in the desert and I spent a lot of time here as a kid. I lived in Boston for 23 years and just recently moved back in part because it is cheaper and it helps the economics of being in a band and in part because of family considerations. I have always had an appreciation for the power of the desert. There is something unique in the colors and the air in the desert that drives imagination. Within five minutes of my house it is wide open primitive high desert the way it has always been. The connection between geography and songwriting is pretty well documented.
So, if you didn't have music, what else do you think you would be doing?
I would be doing what I have always done, working a day job. Right now I am a mortgage consultant and help people get loans for houses. Something I am doing between answering questions as we exchange them.
I always find it so interesting when I learn what my musical heroes do for a "day job." It's sobering, in a way.
I always think it is funny when I meet people who assume that I only do music. When I talk about my job, they act so surprised! It's not as thou
gh people need to know the realities of the business, but I always feel lucky if a tour breaks even and I don't have to pay for something out of pocket. It has only happened twice in all the years of touring. Any money made from royalties goes right back into the band for recording or touring. There has never been a surplus.
The reasons for doing the recording and touring are not about money though, it is about the songs and the people who play in the band. The songs deserve and audience and the people who play in the band deserve an opportunity to have people appreciate what great players they are. In some ways I just direct the traffic and let the music do the talking.
Last question – what advice can you leave for all the rest of us starving musicians, working dead end day jobs and waiting for our "big break?"
Stop waiting for it and just play.
Thanks Robert! This has been tremendously fun and insightful for me. I can't wait to see you in Seattle again.
Thanks for doing it. I appreciate the time you took to make it happen.