Tuesday, September 25, 2012 / 11:00 AM
“Act your age” is not advice typically given to, nor accepted by musicians. But these days, Nick Lowe is more than happy to do just that.
And not only does he wear his age well—he’s 63—but he’s garnering a new audience for his music as well. Sure, some of his original fans are still around, and they know his history as a denizen of Britain’s pub-rock scene with the band Brinsley Schwarz, and his early solo career that put him in the vanguard of the New Wave with classic songs such as “Cruel To Be Kind,” “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Lowe was also the in-house record producer for Stiff Records, where he worked with acts such as the Damned, Dr. Feelgood, Wreckless Eric and, perhaps mostly notably, Elvis Costello.
But over the last decade or so, a new crowd has slowly but surely latched onto the gentler, more subtle sound of his recent records—2011’s The Old Magic being the latest—and Lowe is gratified that his strategy to avoid becoming an oldies act has succeeded. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m very pleased with the fans that I’ve had who’ve stuck with me,” Lowe says. “But artists from my time are kind of committed to a sentence to just play to the same audience. You have to behave like you did when you were a kid. So I’ve been very anxious to try and avoid that if I can. It seems to be working.”
We spoke with Lowe by phone from Louisville, Kentucky, the morning after his recent gig there. Lowe performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Sheldon Concert Hall (3648 Washington, 314-533-9900). Tickets are $30-$75, and are available by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111.
The last time we saw you here in St. Louis, you were opening for Wilco. How did that relationship come about?
We had mutual friends. They’d been making contact, sort of extending the hand of friendship for a while. They invited me down to the studio when I was in Chicago one time, but I was unable to go. And when they did this tour, they asked me to open for them. I thought it was a really bold move on their behalf. I didn’t know how it would go down. But I’d been very anxious to find a new audience these last few years. I knew it was going to take a bit of time, but I suspected that Wilco’s audience probably could be mine, except they didn’t know it yet [laughs].
One of my favorite things in music is when performers who are popular now reach back and shine a light on people who influenced them. It just seems like that’s how it should be.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that was the case with Wilco. They seem to be pretty up on my stuff. And not just the new stuff, but the old stuff as well. Obviously, there is an age difference as well, that I’m older than them. Yeah, I think they had me along because I was a founding father or something [laughs].
I didn’t mean it like that.
No, not at all. I’m all for it.
On this tour, as on the Wilco tour, you’re performing solo. How long have you been going out just by yourself?
It’s been quite a long time. I got encouraged to do it first by Elvis Costello. He gave me a job at one point playing rhythm guitar. He had a very fancy band with James Burton and Jim Keltner and some really good people. We did a tour of Japan and Australia and one night he said, “Why don’t you go out to open the show, do 20 minutes or something?” I never thought I could do it. He sort of bullied me into it a bit. I went out and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. So I’ve done it off and on quite a lot since then. As long as it doesn’t get too…precious. It doesn’t have to be a dreary experience of someone reciting their diary to a few chords. If you keep your wits about you, you can get the room rocking with just a guitar and a decent PA. And that way, people have a pretty good time.
It’s the ultimate test of a song, isn’t it? If you can just do it with an acoustic guitar and get over with an audience, that’s evidence you’ve got a good song.
You make a very compelling point. After I’d done this solo stuff for a while, I found it made a tremendous difference to the way I wrote songs. When you start off doing it, your tunes are reflected back at you very starkly. The first few times I did it, I’d be playing some song of mine and I’d think, “Man, why did I put this bit here? This is so awful.” It changes the way you write. You tend to write much crisper and strip the fat off it. Make sure that everything works; make sure the rhythm of the song is working with the rhythm of the guitar. I think it’s a really great thing to do if you’re a songwriter. It stops all that sort of flim-flam and tosh that you can put in in the studio.
For some time now, your records have taken a more gentle, laid-back approach. What led you to change the way you’re presenting your music?
It was really after my career as a pop star was over, which I suppose was the early-to-mid-‘80s. I had very mixed feelings when it happened. I knew it was coming, ‘cause I’d been a record producer. So I always had one foot in both camps, as an artist and also sort of, you know, management and the back-stairs people. I knew I wasn’t someone like Elton John or Neil Diamond or Cher—someone whose career seemed to span the decades. I knew that I’d have a little time in the sun and then I’d have to figure out something else. And also, when it finished, I was exhausted. I was semi-ill, really: drinking too much, all that stuff. And no ideas. I was used up, really.
After I’d started to feel a bit better, I started taking stock and I thought, you know, I’d done pretty well. If it’s all over now, and I’ve got to go back to the biscuit factory so to speak and do a 9-to-5 job, I’ve done pretty well. I’ve written a few hits and produced a few records. But I didn’t feel as if I’d actually done anything really good yet. So I started to think how I could use the fact that I was getting older in a business which, up to that time, had no use whatsoever for anyone over 40. Over 30, even. Nowadays, you can’t move for people in their 60s and 70s doing really good work, like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Rather than the greats, who are still going, but really aren’t doing anything new; you know, just churning out their old hits. They’re like cabaret acts or something. God bless ‘em. But you know what I mean.
Hey, this is the hometown of Chuck Berry.
Oh, yeah, indeed. I wasn’t going to mention any names [laughs].
Anyway, I thought, “I wonder what I could do to sort of use the fact I’m getting old?” instead of having it be something I had to disguise or be embarrassed about. I thought maybe I could use this to my advantage. So I started thinking up a way of re-presenting myself and writing for myself and recording for myself. I knew it was going to take some time, and I knew I’d probably lose a section of my audience. But I thought if I’m clever about it and make it hip enough, I’ll be able to attract a younger audience. And it’s taken quite a long time. It started to work before the Wilco tours, but there’s no doubt that the Wilco tours made a real difference. It’s real good fun. I can’t believe my luck, really. I can’t believe how clever I was to suss this out [laughs].
You mentioned being a record producer. You were more or less the house producer for Stiff Records back in the day. That was during the vanguard of the punk era, but you weren’t a punk yourself. Where did you see yourself amid that weird mix of styles and people?
I’ve always seen myself as sort of an outsider. I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable…I could never see myself at the Grammys, or anything like that. I don’t feel very comfortable mixing with my contemporaries. I don’t know whether it’s a kind of shyness or a sort of snobbery [laughs]. It could be either. When Stiff Records came along, it was a sort of a home for misfits, really. All the people that we were interested signing up and recording were all people who couldn’t get a deal with a major label, because for one reason or another, they were kind of wrong—they either looked weird or they sounded a bit different. That’s why we had Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric. These people were all quite unique [laughs]—rather some strange people. It was more interesting. It just preceded the punk thing.
But when the punk think came along, because I was the house producer at Stiff, I produced a group called the Damned, who I thought were a really great group. They were sort of like garage rock and roll, which I really like. I never liked punk music—it was sort of dim-witted thrashing stuff. I always thought it was rubbish. But that wasn’t the point of it. It was the mischief that I really, really liked: the mischief and the toppling of, pulling down the temple. That’s what I really enjoyed. And I really thought back then that it was the end of it all. A lot of people think it was year zero in music, the punk rock thing. But I didn’t, I thought it was the end of it all and after this, there wouldn’t be anywhere else to go, we were just sort of dancing ‘round the corpse of pop music. But that wasn’t how it turned out.
What kind of music do you listen to?
For myself, for enjoyment and for reference, I don’t really listen to very much music that was recorded after 1975. I know it sounds an awful thing to say—and there are exceptions. There are fantastic records being made today. But in general, I’m one of those people who think the Beatles messed it up. They made everybody think that anyone could write a song. And Bob Marley messed up reggae. As great as he is, it was much better before he came along. I like the innocence and the wit that there was in music before it became so huge. That’s the time I look back to…rockabilly and stuff like that. I love that music.
That dovetails nicely with your original inspirations—Country & Western, Rhythm & Blues. American music.
Yeah. I love all kinds of American music. I make no bones about it. But, I really like what happens to it when it crosses the Atlantic. We’re in this sort of unique position over there to pick and mix—“Oh, we’ll have a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” We seem to be able to look across and say, “I’ll have a pinch of New Orleans here and a little bit of a Broadway melody, stick that in there.” You mix it up with a bit of Italian film music and a bit of French pop echo and you come up with something which is very peculiarly European. I’m very keen to avoid trying to take on Nashville, or trying to take on one of these classic American styles. I always try and sort of mess it up a bit so it sounds European. I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who is trying to cop something which culturally is not right.
How did it come about that Elvis Costello recorded your song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Wasn’t that originally a Brinsley Schwarz song?
Yes, it was a Brinsley song, and Elvis, or Declan, as I knew him back then, was a fan of Brinsley. In fact, the first place I met him was at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Brinsleys were playing. We’d seen him come to our gigs. It was actually in the pub across the road and he came in and I said, “Oh, there’s that guy who always comes to see us. I’m going to go say hello.” That’s when I first met him. When I became his record producer many years later, he said, “That Brinsley song, ‘Peace Love and Understanding,’ I want to record it.” It should have just really gone in the trash can with the rest of our repertoire when we broke up. But he was the one who fished it out and really brought it to everyone’s attention. And he was the one who put that anthemic thing on it. He put the hurt on it, really, which touched everybody. That was a really fantastic thing he did for me right there.
I’m still very good friends with him. I’m seeing him next week in San Francisco.
I’m glad to hear you’re still friends. He’s taken off in so many directions since then, you never know how that works on people.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s a funny thing. We have a rather strange relationship. I’m like a sort of elder brother to him—a rather slightly disapproving elder brother, s slightly less successful elder brother. For instance, I was gonna meet him one time in New York City, and he was late and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I bumped into Bobby De Niro.” This is the world he moves in, you know? But I couldn’t stop my lip from curling and saying Bobby De Niro? You mean Robert De Niro? I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Erh, he hasn’t made a decent film for quite a long time, has he?” I always seem to rain on his parade. But he really is a great guy. I’m very, very fond of him.
Last thing: Every time I speak with Marty Stuart or Rodney Crowell, I ask for a “Johnny Cash was my father-in-law” story. You’re a member of that club as well [Lowe was married for a decade or so to Cash’s stepdaughter, Carlene Carter.] Got one?
Yeah, I suppose so. I have quite a lot of good memories of him. But I remember a funny thing he said to me once. When I first met him, I was very nervous. He was a very charismatic man, and a great, great guy. One time I was talking to him and I was kind of babbling. He was asking what I was doing in America and I was explaining what the tour was all about. I kept saying “on my last record I did this” and “my last record, blah blah blah.” And he said, “Can I just stop you for a moment?” And I said yes. And he said, “A little bit of advice. You should never talk about your last record. Always, it’s your latest. [laughs]. And I’ve taken that advice ever since.
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