Nick Lowe is a peculiar variety of celebrity. His collaboration with Dave Edmunds in the band Rockpile brought UK chart success and a half-nod from the States in the mid-'70s, and his work recording and producing talent for Stiff Records lifted acts like The Damned into the spotlight. He's frequently referred to as the songwriter behind other's hits, namely Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?" and Johnny Cash's comeback serenade, "The Beast In Me."
Rooted in garage rock and pop, Lowe's catalog has become standard issue for any aspiring songwriter, but few have the polish to rival him. He's a musician's musician, a poet's poet, which is why longtime fans Wilco snatched him up as opener on their last tour. By showing Lowe off to a new generation of fans, it was a reminder that songs like "Cruel to Be Kind," "Heart of the City" and "When I Write The Book (About My Love)" are timeless, tireless and damn near perfect.
Lowe is touring to support his new release, The Old Magic, which gives us his more sentimental side. He performs with a full band at the Granada Theater on Wednesday, May 9, so we caught up with The Basher himself by phone. He's touring the country by train. Of course he is, he's Nick Lowe.
You opened for Wilco on their last tour. What made you decide to do it solo, and how did you wind up meeting Wilco? Well, we had some mutual friends and they knew about me and my records. I think it was a courageous move on their behalf, seeing as I was going to do it without a band. The reason why was two-fold really. One: It's so much easier for the headlining group if the guy who's coming on first just has a guitar. There's no drums to move or any of that stuff. And they knew it was about the limit of the size of the crowd that I could still reach them with just an acoustic guitar. They knew I could do the job. The other reason was financial: They paid me really good money for a man with an acoustic guitar, but terrible money for a guy with a four-piece band.
Something that's always struck me about "I Trained Her To Love Me" and "Long Limbed Girl," off At My Age, or "Stop Light Roses," from your newest album, is that you describe these beautiful, often gruesome profiles of individuals. And in less than three minutes we know what drives them on a very intimate level. Are these people you already know? Or do you only know them after you've written them? The answer is: I don't really know. I think it's a bit of both, really, because when the idea for a song strikes you, in my case, a character comes to mind. I'm not an autobiographical writer. I mean, I know what I'm talking about: I know what it feels like to feel blue, or abused. Essentially, a little character comes to you, and in the case of "Stop Light Roses," I've seen someone standing, waiting at a traffic light, who tried to shove a whole bunch of them through my window at me. And I was suddenly struck by how, if one of the reasons for giving flowers to people is to say "sorry," and you gave someone a bunch of these flowers, it would make things about ten times worse. And that was the spark for that idea: This is a good idea for a song here, about a guy who just got away with it for ages, you know. Suddenly, he's gone too far this time.
What do you think it is about the stop light roses that puts them in a different category from other flowers? Well, you don't have to go through any effort, or even get out of your car! Just hand over a few buck and there you got them. And they don't smell of anything. They just say, "No Love Lost/No Effort Spent" on them. If I gave a bunch of those to my wife, she'd be furious. It'd be quite fun to see actually... I think I might try it.
The act of songwriting is so peculiar. I learn that the more I do it the more mysterious it becomes. And the best songs are those that you have as little control over writing as possible; I kind of go into a trance and try to make the thing write itself. When I listen to a lot of my old songs it's quite frustrating because I think, "Oh, man. That was a really good idea, why did you force the action there?" I can hear myself going to work. Don't get me wrong, I think I did manage to write some pretty good songs back in the day, but the ones I do now sound more natural somehow.
I don't think you can possibly be hard on yourself for that, because the time that you were writing those earlier songs you were at this tremendous vantage point. I feel like there was just a lot of spontaneity and immediacy to what you were putting out. You, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello were cutting these off-kilter hits that sounded like nothing else. Were record labels just blindsided when you boys rolled into town, rolled up your sleeves and got to work? When I started out in the music business in the late '60s, I had to serve an apprenticeship, which I don't think happens the same way anymore. In our case, we went to the clubs in Germany, which the Beatles famously started out in. The great days had gone, but there was still this thing where you'd go out to this club and have a residency for a month and you'd play all night, and on the weekend you'd play all day and all night, starting at lunch time. It sounds ghastly, but we were 18 and it was really great, exciting and very funny. And we were able to learn our stuff without being famous. We didn't like it at the time; we wanted to be famous, but you had to wait. You had to wait your turn until suddenly some voice said, "Right. You, you, you are next. Up you go."
When we got to the front of that queue, we looked around and saw what the music business was like and we thought it was really hopeless. Just lots of these awful old progressive groups and awful Southern rock and we thought, "Oh, no. We've got to do something else." Especially since we were real fans, our generation got to see the whole cycle of rock and roll and was the first to start recycling it as well. I think rock and roll had sort of stopped right about there, so we got in and started jamming it up. Mixing this bit with this and that bit to come up with something new. And, as you say, we were young and there was this spontaneity and no shortage of ideas. And if one idea didn't work, well, you'd just throw it away, do another one. I think we got rid of quite a lot of really good things just because they didn't happen straight away for us. In our little gang, everyone could write a really good song.
Are there any songs you don't like to play off your earlier catalog? Yeah, there are a few I can't make work that people sometimes call for. But some of the songs, like "Mary Provost" for instance, I can't really sing anymore. It's just a bit too young and junky. Well, the word is "callow," I think. And "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" is great but there's not really much of a song there. I used to try to have a go at it with my solo shows, but there's not enough meat on that bone for me.
It seems not long after you guys were flooding the charts, you also become the producer for a whole new wave of talent, like the Damned on Stiff Records. What was that like? Well, I really liked The Damned. A lot of punk groups, well... it wasn't very nice music. I never really liked punk music, but I like the mischief that was caused by it. And the sort of mayhem and the upset, that was fabulous. But The Damned I thought were great because they were almost like a garage rock band, and that's the sort of music I've always loved. It swung, and it was exciting, great music, not that awful thrashing away for the sake of it. They were quite cheeky and a bit of a handful. They called me "grandad" or "uncle" and I was 24 or 25.
Did you find you had to reel them back at all? Well, sometimes, as the producer, I'd have to say, "C'mon, let's get on with it. I've got a train to catch." But we just all loved the records and I remember that with "New Rose," which was recorded in this tiny studio in North London where a lot of tremendous records were made. Things like "Sultans of Swing" and "Roxanne" were all recorded in this tiny studio, because it was cheap. But I remember being there when we recorded "Neat Neat Neat" and "New Rose" and we just couldn't believe that we had made something that sounded as good as that! That doesn't happen very often. It happened again with "Watching the Detectives," where we just couldn't believe how good it was.
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Your music is so famous, in part, because other musicians love snatching it up and putting their own spin on it. Johnny Cash, for one, with "The Beast In Me." What was it like writing a song for your father-in-law and how was that deal arranged? It wasn't really arranged, but John and June had come to London to do a show at Wimberly and I had the idea for the song right before the show, and I stayed up all night long trying to finish it. I had this great idea for a first verse that I thought was really good, and the next day he wanted to come and hear it. I didn't want him to, but Carlene [Carter] said, "Nick's written this great song and you should come and hear it." So he turned up, and it wasn't finished, and the experience of having to play this song to him, in front of his band and June, and the nannies and the kids, and the whole sort of touring party, really... the experience was so embarrassing. I made such a terrible job of it the first time, he made me do it again. It was so traumatic and awful.
But whenever I'd see him he'd always ask me about it. He was really encouraging and said, "I think it's a great idea and you should finish it." So I said, "Oh, blimey, no. I don't think I can." But each time he'd ask I would try. I'd take it mentally out of the box and have a look at it. About 12 years went by and I went to see him and he asked me about it, so I went home and just finished it, just like that. And it sounded like it had all been written at the same time and I made a demo of it and sent it to him. I didn't hear anything until I spoke to my stepdaughter Tiffany and she said, "Grandpa's been playing your song to everyone that comes around the house." Next, he sent me a copy of the record. It was such a fantastic experience and one that I'm extremely proud of. He was such a wonderful man, and June. I miss them still.
Last question: Rockpile reunion? No I don't think that will happen. I mean, if I really had to put shoes on my boy's feet, I would consider it. But, in fact, it would be impossible because one of the members is unable to play anymore. Also, there's few things sadder than seeing a bunch of old men up there on the stage trying to recreate what they did when they were young and beautiful.
Spend an evening with the impossibly cool Nick Lowe on Wednesday, May 9, at the Granada Theater. Opener The Autumn Defense goes on at 8 p.m.. Tickets cost $30 to $49.