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Thursday, 08 December 2011 12:54

'A certain kind of innocence' An interview with Ben Nichols of Lucero

'A certain kind of innocence' An interview with Ben Nichols of Lucero / Renato Cifarelli
Written by Scott Allen

Lucero is a band of road warriors in the truest sense. Playing 150 to 200 dates a year, the Memphis-based group prides itself as workhorses.

Earlier this year Lucero took some time off the road to write and record a new album due out next spring. I caught up with lead singer and songwriter Ben Nichols, who was at home recovering from the Thanksgiving holiday and resting up before playing a weekend's worth of dates in Tennessee and making his way, band in tow, for a KDHX-welcomed concert at Off Broadway on December 9.

Scott Allen: We're looking forward to having you back here in St. Louis. Last year's show at Off Broadway was incredible.

Ben Nichols: We had a good time. We're looking forward to it as well. St. Louis is really turning around for us. For a long time in the early days -- this was 10-12 years ago -- St. Louis was a tough spot for us. Then, we ended up at Frederick's Music Lounge and that was fun. Recently, everybody has been super nice to us. St. Louis is a fun place to come to now.

Glad to hear it. The latest news is the band has a new album titled "Women and Work" due out in Spring 2012. What can the general Lucero fan expect from the new album?

We're taking what we did with "1372 Overton Park" and running with it. The horn section is still very present on the record. There is plenty of Rick Steff on B3, piano and Wurlitzer. It's a big sounding record. Actually, this is scary for some people, but I might be singing on this record. It's not all just growling, but there's plenty of that on there too since I can't help that. I quit smoking for a while and that made a big difference in my voice. I realized I could actually hit notes. We're still experimenting a little bit. There are a few songs on there that are a step in a new direction for us. That might sound super scary, and that a lot of our old fans would hate it, but it still sounds like Lucero. It's still songs about losing girls and I'm still living the exact same life as I have for the last decade. All the old traditional elements are still in there.

So you're still building on a general theme yet pushing those boundaries? You don't want to keep making the same album over and over again.

Yeah, it happened with a number of songs on this new record. We found that we can play a song like this. It's a riff I've never played before. It might be a different kind of drumbeat. It's nothing real drastic, but it's just the little things that push it in a different direction and make it really fun. We've been playing about half of the new songs live over the last couple of months. I think folks are digging it. Hopefully, the folks will come along with us, and they'll think it's just as fun as we do.

Let me just say that I loved the last record. When you said you were going with the same general theme that had me excited.

Man, thank you. I think we stumbled into that last record. It was our first time working with Ted Hutt as producer, and it was the first time making a full record at Ardent Studios. We realized we can push things a little bit, but we were kind of doing it by the seat of our pants. This time we went into the record knowing that these things were possible and knowing more what to expect from the producer and from the studio. I think maybe these songs came out more intentional this time. We actually crafted the songs with the studio experience in mind.

I read that that some of the new album has a lot of old-school rock 'n' roll references from Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke to Chuck Berry and Jim Croce. Were you listening to a lot of this music while writing or did it just creep in from memory?

That's stuff I've always listened to and still listen to all the time. Jim Croce was a newer thing within the last year or so. That was one of my dad's favorites. I remember it from being a kid and it took a while to come back to it on my own and start paying attention to it. Not that there are any songs on the record that sound exactly like a Jim Croce song or anything, but there is sort of a certain lightheartedness to it. A certain kind of innocence that is present in that early rock and roll and a lot of the fun that is part of that music. I think that's what I was shooting for when I was writing these songs.

I see what you mean there. Rock 'n' roll has become more serious in the last 10, 15 or 20 years or so. I grew up listening to that music as well, and there is sort of a wild abandon about it.

Exactly. There are definitely a couple of serious songs on the record for sure. I didn't want to get too precious about any of that stuff. You know, hell, Bruce Springsteen has been a reference point for Lucero for however long. He was really good at not getting too precious too. Just playing rock and roll for rock and roll sake. That was definitely a part of writing these songs and making this new record. Playing these songs live it feels really fun. There's room for some faster, fun songs and slow, fun songs actually. We'll see how it goes. Hopefully, everybody will stay on board.

Speaking of Bruce Springsteen -- are there other musicians that influence your work, but not necessarily your sound?

Definitely. [Pauses] The traditional answers to that question are Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. He's always been one of my favorite songwriters. I don't know if there are any Lucero songs that sound like they could be a Pogues song, but that's definitely present in my subconscious whenever I'm writing. I'd say Tom Waits as well. We're not doing anything that sounds like Tom Waits. Those two guys embody that romantic ideal of a songwriter that I've always grown up with.

Have you heard the Constantines from Canada? They were on tour with the Hold Steady for a little bit. They have a record called "Kensington Heights" that I listen to every now and again. It's nothing like Lucero. It's kind of a post-hardcore type sound I guess, I don't even know. It's rock and roll when it comes down to it. We don't sound like them. We're not doing the same thing as them necessarily. Every time I listen to it I wanna go home and write songs, which is never a bad thing. There are some other things out there, I'm not borrowing from the sound at all, but it's good music and it makes me want to try to write good music.

You mentioned recording at Ardent Studios with Ted Hutt. What do you like most about recording at that studio?

I love the fact that Jody Stephens, drummer from Big Star -- I'm not exactly sure what his official role there is if he's a studio manager or what. He's kind of the guru that is always present, and that old Memphis spirit flows throughout the whole place. From the Big Star stuff to all the Jim Dickinson stuff with the Replacements [on "Pleased To Meet Me"]. Rick Steff, our piano player, has done hundreds of records there as a hired gun, as a studio musician. The history of the place is something palpable. It makes me feel like we're actually part of the city's musical history. That we're part of this story that is Memphis music. Just to be involved in that at all is a cool thing and an honor. Plus, it's a world-class studio. I mean, hell, most ZZ Top records were recorded there. It's a great studio with a great history behind it and a really good, relaxed feeling -- and it's five minutes from everyone's house.

Do you enjoy not having to leave town to find a great place to record?

That's definitely a part of it, especially with "1372" and this new record. I think Memphis is becoming a bigger, more pronounced part of Lucero. It's something that we wear on our sleeves. It's always been there, but with the last two records we're kind of running with that and accentuating that. It wouldn't make any sense for us to go to California and try to make a Memphis record. This is just right around the corner.

What does a producer like Hutt bring to the table to get the best performances out of the group?

Before we worked with Ted we'd done a record with Jim Dickinson. That was really laid back and really easy. We did that in Mississippi actually at his place, and it was a very organic and very simple, easy experience. With Ted we actually work a little more regimented. We actually do a couple of weeks of pre-production. He comes down and hangs out and comes to rehearsals and we practice the songs. He says, "All right try this. This seems to be lacking. Give this a shot. Try switching this around" and we experiment a little more. Then we go through the demos so it's a much more thorough process.

Whereas, with Jim he didn't want us to do demos because he knew it was dangerous. You can fall in love with a demo and then sometimes the songs in the studio never live up to the demos. He wanted it more spontaneous. Whereas, with Ted Hutt, it's a little more thorough. There are pluses and minuses to both ways of working. With Lucero being as rough around the edges, as we naturally are, [it's good] having Ted Hutt's sensibilities with the tones, the mixes and the really subtle stuff like what preamps you're running the vocals through or what preamps you're running the guitars through. With the technical stuff he's got a really good ear for that. I think we're rough enough as it is, and so I think having Ted help us with the details has produced the better sounding records we've made. The old stuff I still love, but with Ted we're able to make a more finished-sounding record.

You mentioned a tour. It seems you're booked through the month of December, yet no dates have been announced after the New Years Eve shows. Do you have dates booked for January and February or is that a time slotted for other projects?

That's still up in the air. I'm not exactly sure when the record is going to be released. That’s the tricky part. You're trying to book this tour around this date that's in a gray area. They're working on a big U.S. tour right now for the spring. Then we'll be busy March, April and May for sure. So, January and February we'll see. Hopefully, we'll play some shows because if not we're going to go broke. I'm not exactly sure what's going to be happening in January and February. We're pretty busy for December. Hopefully, we can take some time off. Nobody wants to be driving around in the snow anyways. Once it starts to thaw out a little bit then you hit the road. Then you're on the road for the rest of the year.

Speaking of touring, I interviewed Craig Finn in the summer before the Hold Steady played at LouFest and we discussed a tour for his new solo album. I threw out an idea for you to go out on tour with him, as support/co-headliner and he loved it. Any interest?

I would jump on that in a split second. I would do that whenever he said. Man, I haven't talked to him in a while. Does he have a new solo record out right now or is it coming out?

It's coming out in January and he's touring to support it. He plays Off Broadway here in St. Louis on February 10.

Yeah, that's cool. I have no idea of what to expect from a solo record from him. I'm very curious to see what that would sound like. That tour would be a whole lot of fun. I think that would work very well. I'll shoot him an email. (Laughs) I'm gonna have to touch base with him. That sounds good.

Hopefully we can make this work. If we need to do three way call just let me know.

Thank you. I appreciate your help.

When Amy LaVere came through town a few months ago she and I chatted before and after the show. She was excited about the support of local music here in St. Louis and lamented that Memphis doesn't support its artists quite as well. What are your thoughts?

Our experiences in St. Louis over the last few years have been great. If there's that many folks actually coming out to bars and clubs to watch us play that's a pretty good sign they're going to other shows as well. With the radio station [88.1 KDHX] there you've got a very good infrastructure for sponsoring live music and getting people out to shows. That's important. Memphis has a public radio station, but I don't think it's exactly what y'all have up there. I think you've got something special up there. You seem to be a little bit more in-tune, whereas Memphis is stuck. It's hard sometimes with the history that Memphis has. It's hard to outrun that. That history actually overshadows what's actually going on at the moment. St. Louis might be a little more active in what's happening now and what is actually a little more current.

So a quick fashion question, a bit tongue in cheek of course: Do you ever wear anything other that the white v-neck t-shirt for shows? How did this tradition start?

[Laughs] That stems pretty much from me being one of the laziest guys on the planet. I made some really poor fashion choices in high school and junior high. It was the '80s. It was rough on everybody. Once I graduated from high school I adopted the philosophy of keeping it as simple as possible. I've got 15 white t-shirts -- a couple of packages of them. Try to keep a good pair of jeans and everything's fine. I've got a couple of flannels. A couple of plaid, button-up shirts that see the light of day every now and again, get fancy. On stage I just get too hot. I don't know how guys play shows wearing jackets or heavy flannel shirts. I'm doing something wrong. I sweat through my clothes every night. I can't wear a whole lot of clothing like that so a white t-shirt is breathable.

What's spinning on the record player for you lately?

It sounds cheesy, but with the gray and cold wintry weather I'm a fucking sucker for Bon Iver --especially in this kind of weather. I've been listening to "For Emma, Forever Ago" a bunch. After that it's always the classics like Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac. I'm not ashamed to say that I like Fleetwood Mac. I was talking to Tim Barry from Avail about it. He said, "It's comfort music. It's ingrained in us from classic rock radio when we were growing up. I understand. You don't have to be ashamed of that." I'm definitely a sucker for Stevie Nicks.

One of the other thing I've been listening to the last year or year and half or so is the Night Marchers record ["See You in Magic" – Vagrant, 2008] with Johnny Reis from Rocket From the Crypt. They've been around for a couple of years. I think they only have the one record out. It's an excellent rock and roll record. The second half of it in particular is brilliant. Start with "Whose Lady R U" and then listen to the rest of the record. "You've Got Nerve" is a great song too. So yeah, some Bon Iver, a little Night Marchers and some Fleetwood Mac.

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