an interview with Ben Nichols of Lucero (who are on tour with Titus Andronicus now, playing Terminal 5… again)
Lucero @ Terminal 5 (more by Mike Lerner)
Memphis, Tennessee’s Lucero are as much country as they are punk, or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, the band’s sound since their inception in 1998 has evolved along with their fans who are devoted to the refusal to be compartmentalized as the band is themselves. Lucero’s latest, Texas & Tennessee, saw the band sidestep the more involved sounds of previous releases without sacrificing the core element of songwriting that continues to underscore their signature sound. On tour now with Titus Andronicus, they return to Terminal 5 in NYC this Friday, November 8th, with Titus and The Menzingers for what is sure to be a great show. I had the opportunity to talk to vocalist/guitarist Ben Nichols about his writing process, appreciating his roots, and how he hopes this Terminal 5 show won’t be like the last.
My first question just concerns the formation of Lucero, Ben, and how you’ve seen the band evolve since then.
Ben: We started in ’98 or something like that. Actually, our first show was in April of ’98. There’s definitely been an evolution over those fifteen years. We started off trying to go against the grain and playing these punk rock shows and just playing the quietest, slowest, saddest music possible. It was mainly just me and Brian Venable, the guitar player, who started the band. Then we had Roy and John, and we became a drunken rock n’ roll band pretty fast after that. Then we hit the road, and yeah…we were quite possibly a too drunken rock n’ roll band. There were some dark years in the middle there. Actually, for the last six years, we’ve had Rick Steff on the piano, and we added a horn section for a couple of records. That kind of brought us out of the darkness. As far as me, personally, is concerned…it made me really enjoy playing music again. The touring had kind of just worn me down, but adding those extra elements and those instruments – that really got me excited about the band again. With the last two records it’s evolved into this…I don’t know…the Memphis sound and the Memphis roots, we’ve definitely tapped into those sources a little more than we did in the past. We’re kind of more comfortable with being a Memphis band. I think we’re more comfortable showing where we’re from a little bit and letting those roots show. Now we’re this rock n’ roll soul band. I don’t know. I’m not sure what the hell we are [laughs]. There’s still some country songs. Actually, the next record will probably be fairly countryish. It’s a big ol’ mess of fifteen years that’s tough to remember.
Had there been an initial apprehension with the band at the beginning in regards to being associated with a certain sound or even with a certain region?
Ben: Maybe so. I guess with Lucero, since we started, there were kind of too many rules at the punk rock shows. If it didn’t sound like this then it wasn’t cool. If you weren’t dressed like this it wasn’t cool. There were getting to be too many rules in punk rock, and then after we were around for a number of years, it started to feel like there were too many rules for an alt-country band or whatever the hell we were – a roots rock Americana band. There were a lot of rules involved in that all of a sudden, too. One of them being: you don’t have a horn section. If there ever get to be too many rules in a genre, it’s been really nice and refreshing to go a completely different direction. I think that Southern element has been one of the constants that’s kind of gone through all of the different variations and all the different sounds that have been part of Lucero as it’s grown and changed. Being from Memphis, we’ve always been comfortable being from the South. For me, it’s just learning more about the musical history of the city and the musicians who were from there, made music there, and just learning about more and more music that actually comes from there. As the fifteen years went by, and I learned more about where I was living, it was really cool to find the musicians to actually include that in the music we were making. I think the South has always been a part of what we do with as many rules as we’ve tried to break. I think me, personally, I’ve become more comfortable with the whole Memphis thing.
There’s definitely a bit of a stigma, at least in what might be called the indie rock scene, when it comes to music labeled country or music that’s generally associated with Southern culture. Do you see those attitudes shifting for country or alt-country bands or artists who aren’t managing multi-million dollar contracts and selling out arenas, or is that association still there?
It all depends on your perspective or what you grew up listening to, I think. With the people I grew up with, and growing up in Arkansas, when you’re twelve years old you’re discovering all this music from other places. It’s amazing. You’re twelve, so you want to be from anywhere except from where you’re from. As you grow older you begin to appreciate. Johnny Cash is an easy one. Plenty of punk rockers love Johnny Cash. Hank Wiliams, Sr. We’re old. I’m almost forty. With younger kids, kids in their twenties, I think that shift to traditional or kind of old school country music is accepted as cool. That’s part of being punk rock – liking old country music. Whether you learned it from where you grew up, or whether you learned it from Mike Ness. I think there’s a general acceptance of that kind of old school country. I still love it all, too. I definitely think mainstream country continues to gain acceptance, for sure. Something like what we do? Not really.
Speaking to that, I’m curious as to what your take is on the immense pressure for an artist or musician to maintain their integrity and, frankly, their sanity in a media driven culture where the attention span is virtually nonexistent?
I think the most important thing is to not really think about it. If you’re focused on thinking about whether you’ve got integrity or whether you need more of it, then you’re probably thinking about the wrong things. With Lucero, I like most of our songs. There are a few that are duds. Most of them mean something to me, though. The best ones, and the ones that usually end up being crowd favorites, I guess, are the ones that I had to stay up all night and write them, because I had no choice because of whatever situation was going on in my life at the time. The ones that are kind of out on their own, and the ones you don’t think about, and you’re not worried about how the song will be received, whether it fits into the musical direction that the band is going, or whether it fits into a kind of professional trajectory – none of that is important when you’re actually sitting there writing those songs. I think as long as you’re doing it for yourself, and you’d be doing it even if the song was never gonna be heard by anyone – I think if you’re doing it like that it doesn’t matter where it fits into the whole musical landscape at large. I think if you’re doing that, that’s probably integrity enough.
You mentioned staying up all night to finish a song earlier, Ben. What’s your personal process when it comes to songwriting? How have you seen it change since you wrote your first song?
With Lucero, I guess fifteen years ago is when I actually seriously started thinking about the songwriting. I was in a few bands before, but we kind of just focused on putting the basics of a song together. With Lucero, I started thinking about the lyrics and what I was saying. With some songs you don’t have to necessarily be saying anything that deep. You can just be touching on a mood or just trying to capture this picture that’s in your head. It doesn’t have to necessarily be heart wrenching every time. There’s really good rock n’ roll songs that don’t mean much. They’re really not that deep, but they’re brilliant songs. I just wanted to put that out there [laughs]. And Lucero definitely has a number of those. As far as the songwriting process, though, since Lucero started it’s really stayed the same. Usually I’ve got a song, and it’s fairly well mapped out. There’s a verse, a bridge, and maybe even a vocal pattern if not actual lyrics. I know how the vocals will fit in. I’ll take that to the band, and we’ll kind of hash it out, and everybody will go over their parts, and those parts will shape the song and make it into a Lucero song. Usually I’ve got some list of random notes that I’ve taken over how ever many months and years. Just a list of phrases and words I think might be useful in a song. A lot of times I’ll stumble across a guitar part, and I’ll just sit down with these random phrases and just try different ones out and see if one of them clicks. If one fits the cadence of the music, you can just build off of that. That’s pretty much still how I do it. There’s still some night where there’s the loneliness or the emptiness or whatever it is gets to you, and it just pours it out of you. Those are rare, but every now and again you get lucky. It hurts, but you can end up with a really good song like that. It’s really just knowing what to follow and what to let go of. You can sit around the house playing guitar all night and play twenty different guitar parts or twenty different guitar patterns. It’s knowing which one to grab onto that’s the tricky part.
With Texas & Tennessee, you mentioned that you or the band had grown into those roots. How did that play specifically into the process of making this album as opposed to records like Women & Work or 1372 Overton Park?
With 1372 and with Women & Work, we kind of really explored the Memphis side of things and really made it as big as we possibly could. We had, I guess, an eight piece band on both of those records. We grew in that direction. With Texas & Tennessee, we just kind of wanted to dial it back a notch and have maybe a little more down home feeling. I just played acoustic guitar on it, which I’ve never really played a whole lot of acoustic, so we used a pretty big element of that. Just starting from that acoustic place, that kind of automatically gave it a more down home feeling. We wanted something a little simpler, and I guess some people would call it more old school Lucero sounding. We went back to the barn in Coldwater, Mississippi, and recorded with Cody Dickinson, and we did our first two records with him. The self-titled and Tennessee. It was kind of like revisiting the old days. There’s still keyboards, and there’s still horns, but we weren’t focusing on those as much as we did with Women & Work and 1372. That might be the direction the next record goes. I’m not sure. I’m just now starting to write songs for it.
Now you guys have the upcoming show with Titus Andronicus at Terminal 5. It’s been a while since you guys have played there.
Man, Terminal Five is a big place. We played a show there once before with The Black Keys. We actually did two nights with them, and they were two of the worst shows we’ve ever played. We were nervous. We had a bunch of equipment malfunctions. We were actually getting heckled by the crowd. Yeah. It was a nightmare. Not even drunk. Usually you can blame the bad shows on being drunk. This was just awkward and bad all on their own. So, returning to Terminal 5 makes us, or me, a little nervous just because of the venue. It’s like…alright, we’re going back, and we’re playing our own show. Let’s try to do it right this time.
Lucero — 2013 Tour Dates
Wed-Nov-06 Richmond, VA – The National*
Thu-Nov-07 Baltimore, MD – Baltimore Soundstage*
Fri-Nov-08 New York, NY -Terminal 5*^
Sat-Nov-09 Boston, MA – Paradise*
Sun-Nov-10 Portland, ME – Port City Music Hall*
Tue-Nov-12 New Haven, CT -Toads Place*
Wed-Nov-13 Ithaca, NY – The Haunt *
Thu-Nov-14 Harrisburg, PA – Fed Live*
Fri-Nov-15 Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Smalls*
Sat-Nov-16 Detroit, MI – The Magic Stick*
Sun-Nov-17 Detroit, MI – The Magic Stick*
Tue-Nov-19 Huntington, WV – V Club*
Wed-Nov-20 Lexington, KY – Buster’s*
Thu-Nov-21 Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel*
Fri-Nov-22 Atlanta, GA – Terminal West*
Sat-Nov-23 Atlanta, GA – Terminal West^^
11/2-11/22 w/Titus Andronicus supports
11/8 Co-Headline w/ Titus Andronicus*^
11/23 American Aquarium supports
In 2014, Lucero is going out on the road with Dropkick Murphys.