Pain is passing, but Rocky Votolato is permanent. The eloquent Texan singer-songwriter (formerly of the emo-tastic Waxwing) just released his fourth album “Makers,” on Barsuk Records, and it is a gorgeous offering of delicate folksy harmonies, passionately galvanizing lyrics and catchy melodicism.
He’s really something special. I saw him live in 2003 and his raw sincerity was arresting, particularly during his brilliantly agonizing missive “Suicide Medicine.” I’m still waiting to be released from the thrall.
But it won’t be anytime soon.
The Art Beat chatted with Votolato yesterday about touring, teenybopper television and political debauchery. (Someone is going to get a scolding from Dick Cheney!)
See him live March 8, when he brings the noise and the empathetic funk to Downtown Brew opening for Minus the Bear and The Appleseed Cast.
Art Beat: So how’s the tour going so far?
Rocky Votolato: It’s been great. I just did some fly-out dates and now I’m back in Seattle. I’ve got a couple of days before I leave for the next four weeks, two of which are with Minus the Bear. Then I do “South by Southwest” (music festival). The shows so far have been amazing – the turn-outs have been better than expected. Everyone’s really excited about the new record. I’m really happy about it.
AB: Cool. I haven’t been to “South by Southwest” yet but I hear it’s just amazing.
RV: Yeah, I’ve heard that it’s a lot of fun. A lot of people getting really drunk. (laughs)
AB: This seems like a college-focused tour – at least, this leg of it. Is that different from general tours?
RV: You know, since I’m just supporting Minus the Bear, their agent did everything with it. I think that’s awesome if it’s more college-focused, because I really dig playing colleges. I do it whenever I can; there’s always really good energy and it’s a really fun experience.
AB: So let’s talk about your new album. What does the title, “Makers,” represent?
RV: Well, it’s kind of a dual meaning title. I think it really fits the tone of the record. The obvious answer is the American brand of whiskey.
AB: Back to the getting-drunk idea.
RV: Right. (laughs) That song has a line of it where my buddy and I were sitting around, having way too much of that stuff. But there’s also an existential overtone to it, or an existential preoccupation, that I think runs through the songs.
AB: Do you want to elaborate on that existential bent a little? It sounds interesting.
RV: Well, not that I necessarily do all the time personally, but I think the songs have a lot of issues. A lot of death – talking about it, thinking about it, sort of a nihilist view on what the point of existing is. That’s definitely a fabric that runs through the record. So there’s maker as in “your maker,” whatever created the existence that you have.
AB: Would you say that’s a leap from your past records, that whole preoccupation?
RV: I think it’s more prevalent in this record. I don’t know exactly why. (laughs) But I think there’s always been darkness, a lot of darkness, in everything I’ve written.
AB: So what about the song “Prison is Private Property” on “Suicide Medicine”? It seems to be very anti-capitalist. Is that a fair interpretation?
RV: I don’t know if anti-capitalist so much as anti-lying, anti-dishonesty with the public. It kind of was inspired by the whole Enron scandal – when that shit came out and I saw people who’d been working their whole lives lose their retirement, that f–ing infuriated me. White-collar crime in this country is not punished. … Look at the Bush administration. Politics just freak me out. I’m sad, really sad, about the state of the nation.
AB: So that answers my next question. Go on!
RV: (laughs) I just think there could not be a worse group of human beings on the planet. Cheney? Come on. The guy is pure evil. Bush is an idiot, an absolute idiot, and everyone knows this shit. He’s basically controlled by Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest of those guys and I think they’re all on the wrong side of every issue I care about. I feel powerless about a lot of it – I think a lot of people do. (Bush) gets away with lying, and cheating, and stealing, and breaking laws – he should be put in prison, but he’s the free leader of our country. … They’re just slimy, small, dishonest, cheating, stealing people. I really have nothing but negative feelings about them.
AB: What about Hillary Clinton – think she’s going to run?
RV: (groans) Aw, who cares? She’s an idiot, too. She’s the same as them. There is no separation. I hate the Democrats almost even more than I hate the Republicans because they suck up to the Republicans and try to act like they’re right-wing so they can fool everyone into thinking they’re hard on abortion and the rest of that shit. They try to look like Republicans so they can say, “Oh, once we get into office we’ll start doing our liberal things.” None of them have any balls. (pause) We should change the subject!
AB: Yeah, we should cheer up, huh? OK, well, you had a song on “The O.C.” recently. That show did a huge amount for your friends (and producer, Chris Walla) in Death Cab.
RV: It did, and it’s done a lot for me, too, now. It’s crazy – I am definitely selling more records than I anticipated. This record is going to pass “Suicide Medicine” soon and it’s only been out a month. … My mom recorded (the episode), and I saw the 30 seconds or so it was on, but it was so out of context because I’ve never seen the show before. My brother, Cody, who’s in The Blood Brothers, loves it.
AB: Cool family. What kind of music do you find yourself drawn to? Is it cheerful, sad, or some theme that keeps pulling you in?
RV: Hmm, I don’t know. I’ve always enjoyed darker art – literature, music, visual art, whatever. I like a lot of country music these days.
AB: It sounded like there was a lot of that influence on “Makers.” So, in country and outside of that, who are your musical influences?
RV: A lot of them came from my parents early on, from growing up down in Texas. All the staples – Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Willy Nelson, The Band, early Dylan stuff.
AB: Pretty diverse. Any parting wisdom for some college kids?
RV: Finish school! I got my English Literature degree from University of Washington and it’s done me a lot of good in the long run getting jobs and things like that. I’ve had to get a lot of odd jobs because I have a family to support, a wife and two kids. … I work with a company now that manufactures robots, so I like to tell people that I sell tape robots. There’s going to be a robot for everything eventually.
AB: Even for the president.
Stacey Anderson is a journalism and music senior, KCPR DJ and stone-cold mama. Catch her Sundays from 7 to 8 p.m. and Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m on 91.3 FM. E-mail her at email@example.com.