Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An EXCLUSIVE Interview With NICK LOWE




What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and… 

Nick Lowe?


By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

Unless you are a serious music fan, the name NICK LOWE may not be instantly familiar to you. But trust me; this is one artist that the word 'legend' was created for. Apart from producing many groundbreaking records in the late '70s, most notably for Elvis Costello and The Damned, the British singer/songwriter has composed some of the finest songs of his (or any) generation, including his own hit single “Cruel To Be Kind” and the oft-covered “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding”.
Beginning his musical career in the ‘60s, things began to look up the following decade when he and his mates formed the Pub Rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz (who recorded the original version of “What’s So Funny…”). When that band split in the late ‘70s, he aligned himself with the Punk and New Wave scenes while they were in their infancy, becoming an in-demand producer and solo artist. Joining forces with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, he was able to work as both a solo artist and as a member of a respected band. When Rockpile split, Lowe continued his successful solo career throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
By the end of the millennium, Lowe switched gears, turned the volume down and began to create albums that not only highlighted his skills as a songwriter, they ushered in a new relaxed sound that took his music to a whole new level. Instead of ‘borrowing’ musical ideas from his heroes, he began crafting his own timeless classics that transcended anything he’d done before. The cheeky New Wave and Pure Pop guru of the past had matured and finally joined the ranks of those artists he had admired all of his life.
All facets of Lowe’s career can be found on Quiet Please: The New Best Of Nick Lowe, a brilliant two CD career retrospective that begins with Brinsley Schwarz and takes the listener on an exciting musical journey through his solo career, including brief stops with Rockpile and the short-lived supergroup Little Village. Both a great introduction and a wonderful reminder, Quiet Please really needs to be a part of every music fan’s collection. The three disc version with a bonus DVD is even better!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee caught up with Nick Lowe, who was happy to sit down and talk about Quiet Please, his music and so much more. They were joined by Super D’s Craig Swedin and Dave Rayburn, who were also able to inject a few questions when Spaz was out of breath!

SPAZ: With such a long and respected career, how did you go about picking the tracks for Quiet Please? With a few other compilations on the market, including The Doings box set, do you feel that this is the best representation of your career to date?
NICK LOWE: Well, I have to confess that I handed the whole project over to this great man called Greg Geller, who was the A&R man at Columbia Records. He signed both me and Elvis Costello, amongst many other people, back in the day. He's a great guy and sort of an old-school record business guy. He's more like a Harvard professor than a satin tour jacketed A&R guy and he's been an archivist, for the last few years, with Warner Brothers and has put out some really fantastic compilations. We've stayed friends over the years and I asked him if he would do this job for me and, to my great pleasure and surprise, he agreed to do it. I let him just go with it because I think he's got great taste and great ears. He had a couple of surprising choices, I thought, but I have great faith in him and I think he's done a great job. His great thing was only to do songs that I'd written. Because I thought, “Crikey! This one isn't there and this one isn't” and he said “Well, you didn't write it”. And in a lot of cases, I'd kind of forgotten that I didn't write it! (laughs). You know, things like “Switchboard Susan”, for instance, is a song which is particularly popular in the United States...
SPAZ: It's a Mickey Jupp song, right?
NL: Yeah, that's right. So, that one, for instance, is not on the record.

SPAZ: Going back to the beginning of your solo career: when Punk and New Wave hit in the late ‘70s, did it inspire you creatively? And were you surprised that your work was so warmly received even though you had come from a Pub and Rock background?
NL: Well, yes, it was a very different sort of set up over here in that scene. Especially in London, because it started in London. Not only that, it was a real handful of people who were in on that, a lot of whom had been involved with the Pub Rock scene... people are starting to realize that it was the sort of start of it. We were young and very pleased with ourselves and it was 'our turn', if you like. I, and my contemporaries, we'd done our apprenticeship playing with bands up and down the country. We got to the front of the queue, you might say, and now it was time for us to try and make a mark. It started with the Pub Rock thing. We were very disaffected by what we saw. There were a lot of Progressive Rock groups and really terrible singer/songwriters. And when it was time for us to have a go, our feeling was “It's awful. This is terrible...we don't want to join in with this! It's time to pull it all down and kind of start again.” That was the feeling with the Pub Rock scene, which was very much a London scene. They tried to get it going in other cities in the UK but it didn't really work...it was really a London thing. But when Punk came along, the English scene was a copy of what was going on in New York, really, but it was much more attractive to look at. The kids in those bands were much younger than we were by that time, but I was all for it. I didn't like the music much, actually, but I liked the mischief that was made. So I was producing records for Stiff at that time. I mean, I didn't really know what I was doing, but I became the 'house producer'. I produced this record by The Damned, who were one of the first Punk rockers and they actually called me 'Granddad' or 'Uncle' or something like that...and think I was 26 years old! I was much older than all the other bands at that time, but it felt really natural to me. I didn't think it was the start of something new, I really thought it was the end of it. I thought we were just kind of dancing around the corpse of Pop music and it was going to be all over by 1980 or something.

SPAZ: Throughout your career, apart from being a solo artist, you’ve been a member of numerous bands including Kippington Lodge, Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile, Noise To Go and Little Village. When all is said and done, do you prefer working solo or within the context of a band?
NL: That's a very good question...I've got the position now that when I do shows with a band, the guys that I play with, I've played with for a really long time. They really get me... they get my act and what I'm trying to do. They're very very good musicians...or I think they are really good musicians. There are plenty of people who know more chops and more licks than they do, but there are very few who would know how to play Rock 'N' Roll... or what I think is Rock 'N' Roll music... and you've got to have a feel for that. These guys know what I'm doing so I don't really feel as if I'm in a band. I sort of feel as if I'm kind of in charge, but in a way there is a band mentality because we've done so many records together. But it's kind of easier on your own. You'd think that stood up in front of people with just an acoustic guitar would be much harder, that there is nowhere to hide. In fact, it's much much easier. I'm lucky because I've managed to write some good songs, along with a lot of old rubbish as well, over the years. And if you've got good songs, they can do the work for you. If you just play them very simply with an acoustic guitar, people can be touched and moved. In a way, it's a lot easier because you can drag the beat if you want, slow it down, speed it up, change the set around at the drop of a hat... Playing with a band, of course, it's quite different but it has advantages in other ways.

SPAZ: Apart from your own work, you’ve produced a lot of classic albums including titles from Elvis Costello, The Damned, Paul Carrack, John Hiatt, Graham Parker, The Katydids, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Pretenders and many others. Did you actively get involved with the arrangements and performances or did you prefer to let the artists just go ahead and do what they did best?
NL: Well, I haven't really produced anybody else for a long, long time now. The last thing I did was The Mavericks; I did a session with them in Nashville. It was quite a different experience than what I was used to. As far as I remember, I stood at the back of the studio and whenever everyone's head swiveled around to me with an inquiring expression on their face, I sort of nodded and said “Yes, very good Very good!” and everyone seemed to be very pleased. And they had somebody else do all the work that I used to do. I mean, I never laid my hand on a fader or anything like that. I just sort of turned up in a good suit and said everyone was marvelous. And that was it... it was nice work if you could get it! But it was very different when I was producing records where I used to be very involved in the arranging. When I was doing it, you were sort of a ringmaster. You had to know when to tell jokes and when to shut up and where the power lay in the group. In a group, the power might not lie with the glamorous lead singer who's on the cover of all the magazines... it might be with that rather sulky bass player over in the corner. So you make friends with him and get them to do things through him. But when the 1980s came around, I found that I wasn't in so much demand. And also, the way people made records was changing. It became computerized, you know; drum machines and things like that. And I'm not saying that there haven't been great records made with computers and drum machines but I'm not very interested in them. I didn't want to stare at a TV screen... and, as they always used to say, drum machines can't tell jokes! (everyone laughs). I wasn't very interested in working like that so I let it slip, I produce my own records because I know what I want to do and the people I work with understand the way I work. We have fun doing it, but it is sort of a retro method that we have which doesn't really suit people anymore. When I look, on the very rare occasions that I see how 'real people' make their records nowadays, I am way way out of date. All my chops and licks and everything I sort of knew have gone. Although, it's basically the same thing: you're just making a noise and having it picked up by some means.

SPAZ: Are there any artists out there, new or old, that you would love to work with?
NL: Wow, that's a tough one. Merle Haggard, maybe. But why would he be remotely interested in me? He's so fabulous that you can stick him in front of a microphone and away you go! In terms of having my 'wonderful talent' enhance somebody else, I can absolutely not think of anybody! (laughs)

SPAZ: Your biggest solo hit in the U.S. was “Cruel To Be Kind”, from the album Labour Of Lust. The song was previously released, in different form, as a b-side. What inspired you to rearrange and re-record this track?
NL: Well, it was the aforementioned Greg Geller, in fact. When he signed me... he was interested in Elvis (Costello) really. But then he came to London and he'd never heard of me, but I was producing Elvis' record and sort of making some stuff on the side myself and he happened to hear something that I'd done. I think it was “(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass” or something like that. He heard that when he came to the studio and he went “Oh, well this guy's got something going on, too”. So when he looked into it, he heard this song, as you say, that was a Brinsley Schwarz demo. We (Brinsley Schwarz) tried to record it properly for an album that we made as we were breaking up. It never came out; it really wasn't a very good record. We tried to do it properly but it wasn't as good as the demo. But anyway, Greg heard this demo and when he signed me and I was making my first record, he said to me “You really ought to consider recording “Cruel To Be Kind” and I thought it was just an old Brinsley song. I'm “Yeah, man, I don't do that stuff anymore. I'm into this new Pure Pop stuff now!” He sort of leaned on me, in fact. And his tone of voice got a little more hard every time he mentioned it, “I REALLY think you should record it.....” (everyone laughs). And so, I did. He said it was a hit record. I really couldn't hear it at all. It was originally sort of a copy from a song that I really liked by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes called “The Love I Lost”. The bass line is the same. We sort of conceived it as a Philly disco song. Then I recorded it with Rockpile, it was a Rockpile record, really. And, of course, he was right, it was a hit song, and I was wrong...and not for the first time... or the last! (everyone laughs)

SPAZ: Johnny Cash recorded your song, ‘The Beast In Me’. Although you had known him personally, what was your initial reaction when you first heard his recording of YOUR song?
NL: It's fantastic. He recorded three of my songs altogether including “The Beast In Me” and every time, he always sort of changed it to fit his act. And the way he did it was always better. He'd change a line here or... his phrasing was great. I do them now like him. Not entirely, but on a few crucial bits, he did 'em so much better that I changed how I do them to his way. And so it is when you hear covers of your songs done by people who've really got hold of it. It's always great when they do, and I know it sounds a bit cheesy to say that, but it's true. It's a tremendous compliment when people record your songs, it is wonderful. But sometimes, they tend to do a (straight) copy of one's own version. And you think “Oh, that's a pity. Why did he do that? It's already been done this way. Just have a go at it some other way!” Then other of people take it...just awful... they take it the other way. But usually, if people really have an honest go at doing it differently, I really like that. I've heard some amazing versions of, particularly, “Peace, Love & Understanding”, which has been covered so many times by different people. I've heard some amazing versions of that song...and some pretty awful ones, too! (laughs)

SPAZ: Your last three studio albums (Dig My Mood, The Convincer and At My Age) are filled with songs that sound like timeless standards that COULD fit comfortably on an album by artists as varied as Tony Bennett or Willie Nelson. Did you have anyone in mind when you wrote them… apart from yourself, of course?
NL: It's very kind of you to say all that. But yeah, sometimes you do. It's such a mysterious thing, songwriting. You'd think that the longer you do it, the easier it becomes. It's not that it gets any more difficult and it certainly doesn't get any easier. It's a mysterious process. I'm not the first person to say it, if I knew how to do it; I'd do it all the time. But you can't, it just comes. Some people can do it all the time but you find that their stuff all sort of sounds the same. I've got some friends who are extremely prolific. They've got tons of songs, but they're not really much good. Every so often, they'll come up with a really good one. I just don't get that many. Maybe I'm just green with envy! They've got all these ideas but they're not very good ideas. Maybe I'm just always trying to look for something that stands out. I subscribe to that theory that they've all kind of been written, they are all floating around in the ether and you have to sort of be able to reach up into the ether and kind of pull one down. And certainly, the older you get, the better you are at doing that... at kind of listening. My latest theory (on songwriting) is: in the apartment next door to yours, there's this radio, tuned to a fantastic radio station. It's on all the time, this radio station, but you can't really 'hear' it, it's coming through the wall, you know. And then one day, they program a new song and suddenly you notice it, you can 'hear' it coming through the wall. And you never know when they are going to play it, when it's going to come on or what stage of the song you're going to notice it... it might be in the second verse of the third verse... but every time it comes on, you stop what you're doing and put your ear up against the wall. And every time you do, you hear a little bit more of the song because you want to learn it and play it because it's such a good song. And bit by bit, you learn the song through the wall. And the trick is to wait until you've heard it all because inexperienced songwriters get a good idea, and I've done it myself. I listen to my old records, and I can hear myself doing it... you get a really good verse or a really great idea and then you finish it yourself. You don't listen to the song that's coming off this (imaginary) 'radio station'! You're impatient. When you're young, you're very impatient so you finish it yourself. “Oh, I know how this goes!” And inevitably, you'll mess it up. The trick is to really wait and listen and you'll get this full lovely, complete song. Bob Dylan's a great example, of course. He's someone who seems to appear to be standing with a direct line to heaven. down through which these songs have come and pour out of him without him seeming to do anything to them. It all seems to me like he's a kind of a complete conduit; this stuff just comes out completely untouched. Great tunes. But most songwriters aren't nearly as good as that and they start putting their own nonsense in. And I'm continually trying to NOT mess with my songs

SPAZ: There are songs that you are best known for (“Cruel To Be Kind”, “So It Goes”, “What’s So Funny…”, “Breaking Glass”) but do you have any personal favorites that you feel have been unjustly overlooked?
NL: Well, I don't toss and turn at night, seething with rage about this (laughs). But a song that I did think might have picked up a cover... it's a sort of sappy, sentimental song, but a good one, called “Let's Stay In And Make Love”, which was on The Convincer. In fact, I'm going to do my first UK tour for about 15 years. I sort of gave up on playing in the UK about 15 years ago but not in London. Whenever I play in London, I can play a big fancy room and I fill it up if I just leave it two or three years. I gave up playing in the provinces....in the other cities in the UK like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds and all these places...simply because nobody would turn up. I got fed up with driving to these kind of horrible towns and playing to five, albeit very nice, people. I just said “I've had enough of this. I'll go where people want to hear what I do!” But apparently, all is forgiven now. I have this tour booked in May and I'm going to go out and play these towns. I'm told they're going to be good shows, that people are going to turn up. One of the things I want to do is this “Let's Stay In And Make Love”. I think it's a real sort of recession-buster. People like that real non-cynical, soppy music. And there's not doubt what you're talking about! And let's face it, I'm getting more pretty girls at my shows nowadays and they like this stuff.

SPAZ: At the end of the day, are you comfortable with the level of success you’ve achieved?
NL: Yes, I am. I've taken great steps to make sure that I never really get terribly famous! It causes so many more problems. You have far less fun. You make more money, of course, but the trick is to get to the position where you can do this. I've been very very lucky to be able to make a living doing this for so long. But there comes a point where to be any more well known is very tiresome. It wouldn't suit me at all. I like to go and do my shopping without people nudging each other and peering into my basket in the supermarket and see all the stuff I’m using. And to be followed down the street or have people bugging you when you're having a meal in a restaurant. It's just awful. But to be able to turn up and do a show and know that the people really want to be there in not-too-big of a place. And that's the other thing as well. They must be mad, these people who WANT to play in those great big places. It's awful. I've done that with Rockpile, the most experienced opening act in the world! We played all those places, opening for all those groups, and I remember thinking then “Man, one thing I do NOT want to do is have to do this for a living. It's awful!”. So the trick is to keep it small but healthy and vibrant. It's always nice when each record you do sells a few more. There's quite a lot younger people now who seem to like what I do... and a lot more women. I used to have an almost exclusively male audience and they sort of fell away when I turned the volume down. They've been replaced by some other people who don't really know what I did before.

DAVE RAYBURN: “What’s So Funny…” has become a sort of pop standard of peace, and is more often being evoked as if it were a Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan staple at awareness rallies and political events, not to mention good old fashioned rock shows. Was there an event or a person that inspired you to write this song, and are you surprised at its longevity and significance today?
NL: Yes, I'm very surprised. It's a curious thing with that song. I wrote it in about 1973 or something like that when I was still with Brinsley Schwarz. I always think of it as the first original idea I had. Like everybody else does when they start out, you rewrite your hero's catalog. Whoever you like, you kind of rewrite their songs and it's very obvious who you like. And then after you've exhausted their catalog, you move on to somebody else's and do the same thing to them. And they are pretty obvious steals from people. And then the day comes when you're rewriting your latest hero's catalog but you put in a bit from the first guy who you ripped off, you put in a little bit of a bridge from the first guy, so that, in the end, your songs are all little bits of everybody that you've ripped off and, Hey Presto!, you have a style...your OWN style. All you need then is a good idea, and then you really are in business. And I can remember when I had that idea, 'what's so funny about peace and understanding', I almost fell over! I couldn't believe that I thought of something so brilliant as that. I didn't know where it had come from because I was so used to stealing other people's stuff. I did not know. It was a completely brand new experience for me. Albeit, the tune was borrowed a little bit from Judee Sill. I don't know if you remember Judee Sill. Rather troubled woman and she died very young. But she had a song called “Jesus Was A Cross Maker”, which was a turntable hit in the UK at that time. It had a little chord trick in there which must have stuck with me. I hadn't heard this song for years and years, but I always remember thinking that I'd stole just a little bit in “Peace Love And Understanding” from that. But apart from that, it was an original idea. And how I originally thought of it was as sort of a funny idea. At that time, everyone was getting fed up with the hippie dream. People had started to drop that and were rediscovering booze, getting into cocaine and getting much more grounded again. They were a bit embarrassed that they ever thought that this hippie stuff was ever any good. The song was written from the point of view of an old hippie talking to people who'd moved away from the hippie ideals. “You think I'm an old loser. You're making fun of me, but when it comes down to it, what's so funny about peace, love and understanding. That's all I'm saying. What's so funny....”. So, it was written as sort of a funny song, really. But I do remember thinking at the time, as it came together, “Hey, don't mess this up now. Don't make it too facetious and too stupid here because this is actually not bad!” And we did it, we made a pretty good job of it with the Brinsleys. But when the group split up, the song went with the group. It wasn't until Declan... Elvis Costello... came along, who was a big fan of the Brinsleys, said to me, one day in the studio “Let's cut 'Peace, Love And Understanding'. He's the one who put that anthemic thing in which people reacted to so favorably, and gave it a whole new meaning without ever actually changing the words or anything. So, I owe him quite a lot.

CRAIG SWEDIN: With Quiet Please in the shops alongside with the remastered and expanded Jesus Of Cool, are there any plans to reissue the rest of your back catalog?
NL: They're making noises about doing Labour Of Lust. I don't know how far to take this. There comes a time when you think “Well, wait a minute. This is a bit much.” I suppose, if they think that there's any kind of demand for it. I'd like to release another new record. I'm recording songs for a new record. But nobody's really buying records at the moment or no one knows how to sell them properly. I'm in no hurry into this gets sorted out, and it will get sorted out sooner or later. In the meantime, if the powers that be think it's a good idea, then so be it. I must say, it doesn't make my pulse race with excitement, the thought of re-releases. They ARE good records, so, if they want to, fine.

SPAZ: What’s next for Nick Lowe?
NL: I'm going on tour with Ry Cooder over here. We're going to do a few shows together with his son, Joaquin, playing drums. That's immediately after my tour in May. I'm coming over to rehearse in Los Angeles and then we'll go out and do this European tour in June. As I said, I'm working on this new record. Whenever I get a good song, I call everybody up and we put it down. I think we I've got about four or five which are really good. So, that's nearly half!

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning in your CD player?
NL: Actually, I've got a little boy, he's only four and he seems to really like music. I thought that all kids liked music, but apparently they don't. Well, some do and some don't. But he seems to have a real feel for funny Rock 'N' Roll songs like Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and people like that. But somebody played him a Four Seasons record a little while ago and he went absolutely crazy about The Four Seasons. We took him to see the show Jersey Boys and he went completely nuts. And I thought my Four Seasons and Frankie Valli time had come and gone but hearing these records, they are fabulous records. “Walk Like A Man” and “Hang On To What We Got” and things like that... they are fabulous records, So, I suppose that's what I've been listening to.
SPAZ: At least it's not The Wiggles
NL: Yeah! (laughs)

1 comment:

DJ Lorraine said...

I wish I was a ladybug on the wall for this interview! How cool that three music fans like Spaz, Swedin and Rayburn got to interview Mr. Cruel To Be Kind - Nick Lowe! Bravo! Well done!