February 7th, 2011 | Interviews

photo by ben hoste

Gentle enough to pine over a lover’s escapades at a holistic getaway, but tough enough to spit tobacco into empty beer bottles, L.A. folk favorites Fort King are a complex duo: Ryan Fuller is the innocuous front man with a high voice and a pocketful of songs, and Yvette Dudoit is the multi-instrumentalist who brings the heart and soul. Imagine a Bizarro-world Eurythmics, but with better string pickin’. They’ve found a full-time drummer, and they’re about to embark on a European Tour—tonight, we prepare by eating shepherd’s pie and drinking too much. This interview by Dan Collins.

You have a song called ‘Osceola.’ That’s the name of a Seminole Indian, right? What’s the history behind that?
Yvette Dudoit (slide guitar/bass): Over in Marion County in Florida there was this part called the Big Hammock, and it was just a clay bed full of trees, and now it’s just been covered by roads and horse farms. But there are a lot of underground caves and a lot of water. And Osceola was an Indian who fought the Americans in the Second Seminole War. I grew up right where he lived—where some American soldiers would visit him. They became friends because he would go to the general store at Fort King with the Americans prior to the strife. I used to go arrowhead hunting quite a bit and mostly in Gainesville, where my parents lived, before we moved to Ocala, which is in the area where Osceola had resided in. So my childhood was fishing at a pond—a couple of ponds actually. A lot of natural springs and underground caves and arrowhead hunting, and that’s just always been in my imagination and we have schools named after Osceola. I came to find out after I wrote the song that my dad was born in Osceola, Iowa. Just a weird cosmic thing.
Well my dad was born in Cat Scratch Fever, Maryland, so I know what you mean.
Ryan Fuller (guitar/vocals): Osceola was a character that I found a little bit about, then a little more about, when I was growing up. One day when I was in high school in Marion County there was a headline about some northern company that was coming down and making kitty litter, cuz there’s lots of clay there. Then the more committed conservationists, like the nature lovers, people that want to not have canopy roads cut down and so on rose up.
There’s clearly a deep conservationist sentiment in the music—country, folk and everything in between—going on in L.A. right now. Do you feel like you guys are riding the crest of a big wave?
RF: I remember when I was a kid and listening to the radio. The year is 1977, by the way—I’m 38. ‘If I Had a Hammer’ came on, and I was like, ‘I want to be a folk singer one day,’ but instead I ended up doing rock music in my early twenties. Now I feel like I’m going back to the folk scene, which is what I originally wanted to do. Folk music with me began with Led Zeppelin. I got into music when I was 7—I was a juvenile delinquent, but my parents took on foster care for me. That was a very pivotal year and a half of my life, about when I was 7 or 8 years old.
YD: Ryan and I are the same age so we were coming from the same realm. I believe that’s why we get along. I think it’s cool that we’re both ’72 babies.
RF: Thinking of riding the wave, some of the best music is right here in L.A. … There’s a lot of support in the music scene here, big support for all genres of music here—a lot of exciting music that Echo Curio saw the genesis of and supported.
Till they closed.
RF: Yeah, and now there’s other places like Echo Country Outpost or Sancho, just half a block down from Echo Curio. What’s neat is that in clubs like the Echo, there’s a cross-pollination between the clubs and the art galleries and retail stores. It’s great to see bands build. It was neat to see Amanda Jo Williams start with a cast of characters and finally crystallize with the current lineup. And I met Tommy Santee Klaws at a Pehrspace show. A Monday night folk show. It was two years ago, and I like to joke with Tommy about this. I said, ‘I thought you were a Cholo’—because his brother Sam and the other male singer Dan both had shaved heads and they’re both burly guys, and I just thought in my puny little head, ‘Thank God—L.A. finally has a Cholo folk band. That is just cool as shit.’ Came to find out that’s not at all his background though—I think he’s from Tennessee.
A lot of your songs seem to hearken back to Florida and other parts of the U.S. Why don’t you write songs about California?
RF: Well, ‘To the Moon’ is about California. I mean, that’s a heartbreak song, and you know what? That is true. I don’t think a single other song I’ve written is set in California or had a California genesis.
‘To the Moon’ starts with the lyrics ‘I know you don’t love me no more/that’s what that yoga retreat was for.’ When you sing that live, people sometimes laugh uncontrollably. Is that intentional? Do you want to be funny and poignant at the same time?
RF: Wow, well … Hopefully I’m funny and poignant, but was it intentional? No, absolutely not. That was straight talk. That’s how I felt. You know, now when you sing a song, once you get past the rhyming of it, you’re just thinking of the musicality of it. You’re not thinking biography and you’re not thinking, ‘Is it clever?’ or whatever. Actually, no—that’s a lie. You become very conscious of the words and what it probably is conveying and how people are receiving it. But it becomes a song; it’s no longer the genesis of the song. Now live, Yvette plays bass on that and grooves it up considerably, which is something I love.
How much of a band leader is Ryan? Does he lead with an iron fist, or are you equals?
YD: We kind of just play. We’re like kids.
That’s really diplomatic. Were you ever overruled?
YD: Once in a while, like when he wanted to play something and I didn’t want to—like when he wanted to play a song that was in a different tuning and I know it would have taken forever to change to that tuning, and that was the only problem I’ve felt.
Why did you guys bring a third party into the band?
YD: Well, Michael saw us play. Michael Peffer. I knew this guy could play because I’ve played with more than twenty drummers and I love his drumming. ‘Yeah, I’ll come down and record.’ Then I was in Portugal and I e-mailed him and said, ‘I’m coming back to L.A., I’m not moving to San Francisco after all!’
You were going to move to San Francisco?
YD: Yeah, I was almost going to move there after Portugal.
You were breaking up the band?
RF: It was very traumatic.
YD: It was traumatic at the time. I e-mailed him and said I just needed a change of scenery, you know? But I think that the month in Portugal was good enough. And he’s like ‘Oh yeah, you’re coming back! I would love to play with Fort King as much as you will allow.’ And so I e-mailed him back and said, ‘As much as I will allow? I want you to play all the time! I just want to play guitar, goddammit. I don’t want to play drums anymore! I’m sick of drums!’ I just wanted to write that I’m sick of bringing the drums to gigs! Then having to remember how much shit I brought.
So what’s next for you guys in 2011?
RF: We have a few new recordings, and on those, Yvette plays this rip-roaring slide. On ‘Run Border Run.’ I’m very fond of the recording. Then there’s ‘Blow to the Man’ that I think kind of fits the mold of the last album, like ‘Black Palms.’ It’s a ballad, and on this one, Yvette plays this incredible Spanish-sounding guitar. Is it Spanish?
YD: My influence is really Hawaiian. Hawaiian music is really influenced by Spanish/Portuguese music.
I interviewed this band called the Honey Brothers—Adrian Grenier’s band—and they play the ukulele and swore that this Hawaiian ukulele player is their biggest influence. His name is like eighteen syllables long.
YD: Are you thinking of Israel Kamakawiwo`ole? Who did ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’
YD: That’s what he’s most famous for—it’s on TV commercials.
Is he your biggest influence?
YD: He’s not my biggest influence.
You think he’s crap?
YD: I think he’s awesome, but I’m going back further than him. I’m going back to more traditional Hawaiian music. Gabby Pahinui is like the ultimate slack-key guitarist ever. He was the Hawaiian guitarist of like, Django Reinhardt caliber. Even Israel is influenced by Gabby. He was an incredible guitarist, and I’m a big guitar player. I mean, I thought I was going to be like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
How big are you?
YD: How big am I? I’ve got a ’79 Strat.
How many watts do you have?
YD: It’s a 100-watt man. Silver face, late ’70s model.
RF: I’m not as much of a musician as Yvette, I have to say. I had guitar lessons for like nine months when I was 12. I was a spotty player. I got obsessed with Dwight Yoakam about seven years ago and started copying his flat banging. And then I started finger-picking, but I’m definitely not a musician like Yvette, but that’s why I like playing with her. But we connect on other levels that are much more important, I think.
You guys both like cooking?
RF: Oh my god, that shepherd’s pie was so good. Yeah, we both like cooking.
YD: I learned how to make some really good catfish and collard greens. It’s so good, I still make it and it’s insane. I think I make it better actually.
They served lots of shepherd’s pie in Ireland when I was there. What parts of Europe are you going to?
RF: Well, I think Scotland, England, British Isles and Ireland will be good places to start, only because the album came out in 2009 on a little micro-label in Scotland called Autumn Ferment Records.
That’s why I got Scotch in the package from that label! I just went to the Bushmills brewery in Ireland, and all their Irish whiskey was way better than most bourbon we have here, yet it’s aged in bourbon casks, which they get from the U.S.
RF: Bourbon became ‘bourbon’ because they would ship grain alcohol from New Orleans, and so the Kentuckians would just say ‘the bourbons.’ That was their cute name for the French-speaking Southerners. And one day there was a big old fire on a ship carrying the alcohol up north to the city on the river, and when it landed, they didn’t want to waste the alcohol, and when they tasted it, it was burnt, so they decided, ‘This tastes good, man. We should flame our barrels from now on.’ That’s how bourbon came to be named. It’s all cuz of accidental fire. Very resourceful, isn’t it?