Two decades on the road and nine studio albums in the bag, indie-rock band Lucero — consisting of Ben Nichols (lead vocals, guitar), Brian Venable (lead guitar), Roy Berry (drums), John C. Stubblefield (bass) and Rick Steff (keys) — have never been afraid to experiment with their sound. While at their core a rock ‘n’ roll band, the group has had many sonic leanings over the years — country, punk and in recent years, Stax-horns and piano boogie-woogie. That is all but gone with their latest release, Among the Ghosts, with the band steering back to the straight-ahead, Americana rock ‘n’ roll that’s kept them afloat all these years. They're heading to Dallas this weekend to promote the album.
“We had been working with Ted Hutt for the last three records, where we had added a horns section, a pedal steel player and were really exploring the Memphis sound," Nichols says. “For this record we stripped it down. There wasn’t a lot of pre-production or demos; we just went into the studio, set up on the floor and started playing.”
To help simplify, the band stayed home in Memphis and recorded at Sam Phillips Record Service, enlisting the help of Grammy Award-winning producer Matt Ross-Spang.
“We took a more laid-back approach with this record,” Nichols explains. “We recorded it piece-meal over the course of a year. Working with local folks in a Memphis location, it gave time for each song to figure out its own direction.”
Among the Ghosts is raw and dark, with Nichols’ sandpaper voice providing the signature grit that has always been a part of Lucero’s sound. The title track's intro hooks you with a haunting guitar riff that quickly segues into a song of desperation for home with Nichols screaming the chorus fearing that it is too late. Brian Venable’s guitar tones on “Bottom of the Sea” are practically an homage to The Cure, and “Everything Has Changed” has the markings of an Americana radio hit. The 10 songs that make up the record were all written within a year of one another, which gives the record a more cohesive vibe.
From a songwriting perspective, Nichols went off the typical Lucero script of using autobiographical tales of heartbreak and life on the road, instead drawing inspiration from various literary sources to create vignettes of various characters and their situations.
“I wanted them to be more like short stories rather than diary entries, which was new for me. It didn’t come naturally,” he says.
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Prime examples are the cinematic “To My Dearest Wife,” a Civil War battlefield letter from a soldier to his wife, and “Long Way Back Home," a tale of brothers feeling the repercussions of having turned to a life of crime.
On a lighter note, Nichols says the secret to keeping a band together for two decades is compromise.
“Being able to compromise and communicate of course, but it’s also about how badly you want to avoid getting a real job," he says. "Nobody in the band wants that, so there’s a strong incentive to make it work.”
Friday’s show at The Rustic is free to attend.