Words by Art Jipson
On their tenth studio album, Lucero have made one of the most compelling records of their over two decade long career. Songs move from the intimate to the public. The turn toward darker and vibrant themes over the past several Lucero records is continued in the latest album, When You Found Me. While the songs have a more explosive propelling power than Among the Ghosts, the pictorial aspect of the songs is given expression in both the lyrics and the atmospheric music that keeps the line of continuity to Lucero’s Memphis home
Off Shelf: I’ve seen Lucero several times in concert and I just want to say, I really love your music.
Ben Nichols: Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you and the live shows are important to us. Hopefully, you caught some good ones. Some shows are so much fun and magical and some are absolute train wrecks and so you might have seen both. Either way it’s a whole lot of fun whether it’s a train wreck or a beautiful performance. And either way we usually have a pretty good time.
OS: I don’t remember seeing any train wrecks! All the shows I have seen have been great. I am from Minnesota and saw The Replacements a few times, so I know what a train wreck can look like.
BN: Man, I never saw them. That was a little bit before my time. You know, I listened to The Replacements all through high school, but I never got to see them. I grew up in little rock Arkansas and so I never actually got to see them live until we played the St Paul reunion show at the baseball field with them and The Hold Steady. I saw that show, of course, but the old days… I wasn’t lucky enough to see any of those any of those old shows.
OS: Well, sometimes the improvisation or the mistakes can make a show magical, unique or different. Musicians might be kicking themselves later and people in the crowd do not notice. They feel the emotion.
BN: Right and the hardcore fans, that’s what they’re there for – they in fact oftentimes are the ones buying the shots that produce the train wreck. So yeah, they’re the instigator sometimes. We haven’t scared away all the all the audience members yet so we’re doing okay.
OS: It sounds almost like you got a life goal.
BN: It is man, you know if we if we play our very last show, and then we finally scare away that last hardcore fan and everybody remembers the music, we can just die happy when we’re done.
OS: I have been listening to the record a lot; I really, really love it. By my count, this is your 14th record if we count live records and some demos, and things.
BN: Yeah, this one is the 10th. But you know the Attic Tapes, that kind of counts for me and it’s a solo record. Pillar in the West kind of counts and then yeah Live from Atlanta so yeah… 14 that sounds like a sounds like a fair number.
OS: I’m just curious, given that history, when we look at When You Found Me do you see that as different then the records that preceded it? Has your writing and recording changed?
BN: Yeah in this particular instance, it was very different from earlier recordings and the pandemic was part of that. This one I wrote more in isolation. Usually when we’re working on an album the band will get together in the rehearsal space, and you know, I’ll bring in a kind of a skeleton of a song. We bashed around on it and let the guys kind of figure out their parts and it becomes a Lucero song. In this case, we were all isolated and we were in quarantine.
And so I had these songs and I just spent time on them myself adding layers, maybe too many layers in the demos, that I ended up emailing the band members. Those demos were probably overly detailed but the band did a great job with this record. They learned some parts and they tried to interpret what I did. And when we got into the studio it was a very focused effort. Two and a half weeks or so.
There’s been a lot of discussion amongst hardcore Lucero fans and even newer fans that are listening to this record. The palette of sounds that we chose to use on this record, like the synthesizers in particular seem to be divisive for some people. It’s so funny to me because every record we’ve done has been different, and I like to think each one has its own direction and its own take on what Lucero’s style is in that moment.
You know, we added the horn section and that was a divisive thing in the old days. Now we feel like we’ve got this. We kind of delved into the world of synthesizers and that’s caused its own kind of ruckus but – like I said, in the end I think it’s still a Lucero record. And it was it ended up being the exact record, I was shooting for. I’ve been wanting to capture this mood and use these sounds and make a record that sounded like this for a long time.
And because of the pandemic I kind of had the time to really mess around with it on my own for so long. During quarantine I was able to kind of push those boundaries, a little bit and I was able to kind of achieve the sound that I’ve been looking for a while.
OS: I am curious why you say it was divisive. Is that, from the perspective of fans who have a clear idea in their minds of what they think a Lucero record or song is supposed to sound like?
BN: One hundred percent, yeah. And we’ve been lucky that a lot of our fans have been with us yet for almost the whole 20 years. And there’s still folks whose favorite record is you know, the first or second album, that self-titled or the ‘Tennessee’ record seems to be the most popular usually if you just ask around. That’s the one that everyone kind of gravitates towards.
So that’s kind of the benchmark, I guess, and the standard and the funny thing is that one’s got some drum machines on it – it’s got some weird sounds on it. I actually think what we’re doing now is maybe more similar to ‘Tennessee’ than anything we’ve done in the past, well, the middle records we’ve gone this direction and that direction, but this this seems to be kind of the heart and soul of a Lucero record to me.
But yeah, a lot of people just want to hear the same record again and again. And some bands get faulted for going too far afield, but then you get faulted for just being repetitive as well, so you’ve got to find that balance. And really, I don’t know… I probably listened to the bad reviews too much, and I don’t pay enough attention to the good reviews. I think what we were actually doing a pretty good job of balancing that out and kind of walking that line between staying true to your, you know the soul of the band, but not making the same record over and over.
OS: It seems to me that if you and the rest of the band are happy with what you’re creating, for any band shouldn’t that be enough?
BN: That is one hundred percent of the goal. There’s no other way about it. If you start to second-guess yourself, I think the battles already lost. You forget sometimes the whole reason that you started doing this. It wasn’t easy to write good songs, necessarily. It wasn’t to be a famous musician. I did it to literally get me through the tough nights, the long nights. Like the physical act of playing and singing the songs made me feel better. Just kind of like listening to rock and roll in the first place because the songs – they make you feel better. Whether it’s a sad song or a happy song it’s that you find something in there that it just bolsters you up and it gets you through and that’s why I do it and I forget that sometimes.
This is a very personal endeavor and it’s great if other people like it and it’s even better if you can make a living at it. That’s it! You’ve won the lottery. It’s a great success as long as if you can pay the bills. Holy moly, that’s very lucky!
OS: What is it about some of the critical reviews that that strike you?
BN: I think, you know, it’s just the standard. I mean everybody has a natural inclination. You want everybody to like you. And you want everybody to understand. You want that praise and adulation and it’s that those selfish kind of emotions that everybody has – you want to be adored.
It’s funny that some of the reviews they make good points, they’re like ‘oh this this song could have been in a different key his voice works better, in a higher register his voice works better, like this’, or I don’t know and lyrically I can find weak points all throughout like if I could have found a better word here right that would have been.
But then you get into nitpicking and I don’t know, like I said really it’s more of an ego thing with just with the bad reviews it’s as simple as that. If I can actually kind of separate myself from it and take a step back and look at what I’m doing… I don’t know, I really think I have to admit that I’m just making the records I want to make. Sure, and so reviews be damned whether they are good or bad.
OS: So this record was produced by Matt Ross-Spang again. What does he bring to the experience to the recording process for you in the band?
BN: He’s in fact a local kid. I’m impressed with him. He is so talented and just perfect. He seems like he was born to do this job. He started working at Sam Phillips he started working at Sun Studios when he was 15 or 16 giving tours. Then he started to kind of revamp their recording studio and tried to get vintage equipment and gear that was period correct. And it was one of those things that he was naturally obsessed with and he was blessed with a great ear and so knowledgeable about gear and music history, as well as a good taste in music and sound. He’s just an overall nice guy – all of that combined makes him a great guy to work with, and the fact like I said he’s a local kid in Memphis so he’s our neighbor – he’s right down the street. It is a blessing to have somebody like that in your town who’s willing to work with you.
OS: So you plan to go to him for the next one?
BN: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see. He’s working a lot. He’s got some stuff in the works, he’s building a studio of his own actually. And I’m not sure how far along, that is, or even you know how much public knowledge, it is. I think it’s okay to say he’s working on it, but yeah we’ll see. I’m sure he’s got some irons in the fire and some exciting stuff going on and just with him, you know, we had to fly in past producers and put him up for two or three weeks. And with Matt just being there we can just make the record kind whenever we want to. So he’s such a good match for us and it’s so convenient. I don’t see any reason to switch gears anytime soon.
OS: Well, the new album seems to have a lot of passion and a lot of energy I almost think of it as a lot of desire. I was wondering if it was purposeful when you when you were working on the record, before you took it to the band.
BN: Yeah. Some of the songs – some of those chord changes and basic structures had been around for a long time. In the keyboards I feel like it evolved very organically, in a way, because I’ve been working on those songs originally as kind of emotional soundtrack pieces that I thought my little brother Jeff Nichols might use in some of his films. We did some soundtrack work on his movie Mud. Some ideas were coming when he made Midnight Special which is kind of a scifi movie. And these are what I was working on way back then… this is six years ago. He didn’t end up using any of them, but these pieces were there, and I would listen to them from time to time. Eventually they evolved into these songs that are on When You Found Me – ‘Have You Lost Your Way’, ‘Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go’ and a few others were around for a while and I’d written them all on the keyboards with this kind of cinematic idea in mind.
Then my daughter was born a few years back, and I found myself writing songs at home with a toddler running around. A lot of that came out on Among the Ghosts but that idea of family is still very present on When You Found Me. So we had these kind of cinematic pieces in this, family writing environment and it combined to create something that was very personal. Kind of intense and dramatic.
OS: Many of the songs seem to have a complete narrative or complete theme or characters who are experiencing different things. Was that part of that process for you?
BN: I think it kind of came out of that I’m wanting to tell stories the way my brother writes films. And going back and reading, and you know I I’m not a voracious reader but the stuff I like I like a lot there’s some southern short story writers that I’ve wanted to kind of steal a little bit of their technique and try to make my songwriting stronger. I wanted to grow my songwriting skills, a little bit been doing it for quite a while, and I, and I still like the old stuff and I’m actually very happy that I can go back and play a song from 20 years ago and not cringe. I can put that full force behind it.
But it’s no reason to not want to challenge myself. I feel like there’s guys like Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen who write songs that are like short stories or miniature movies. They can encapsulate a two and a half hour film all in a three minute song, sometimes better than a two and a half hour film can tell it. And that’s what a I would love to get to as a songwriter.
I think I’m getting closer and it doesn’t come naturally to me that first person kind of kind of stories, or what I’ve made my career on… but when I’m looking outside of my own perspective that is fun and challenging. There’s a lot of that on this record. I think some of those songs like ‘Coffin Nails’ was one that really hit the mark that I was aiming for, but that one’s a little easier because it’s kind of based on my granddad and my family. John Rufus is my great granddad’s name.
OS: The storyline or narrative or theme seems to have a lot of tension between being found and being saved.
BN: And that I think has a lot to do with the change in my personal life. The way I was living before 2016, which is when I got married and my daughter was born, was pretty different than the way I’m living now. I am obviously still the same person and the songs are all coming from the same type of place but I’ve got this added perspective now of how important family can be. Before I didn’t think that way. Before I got married and before I had my daughter it didn’t really matter what happened to me. I had nothing to come back to necessarily. And I didn’t really have anybody to worry about me.
And when that changed I did feel like I was saved in a way. It is that I was lost and now I’m found kind of thing. I didn’t do it intentionally but when I looked back I got the first song on the record called ‘Have You Lost Your Way’, and the last song on the record is ‘When You Found Me.’ So it starts lost and ends up found, and it was kind of an accident, but it actually sums up the record pretty well. There is a there is a redemption to it and in a way, I do think my family kind of saved me. So I think that’s present in a lot of the songs on the record.
OS: And it’s interesting that so many of the songs even when they’re when they’re rockers are played loud still have an almost intimate feel to them.
BN: I hope so.
OS: Is that something you seek to do?
BN: Music’s always been personal. I don’t know in a way, music is what saved me in the old days. When I was a kid that’s how you have the strength to you know get up and go to school in the morning and deal with all that mess and do all these things that you’ve had to do, whether you want it to or not. The rock and roll and music kind of gave me the strength to get through it all. Then yeah, I was lucky enough to make that my career in life.
Like I said, whether they’re happy or sad songs that kind of help you make it through, that’s always been what I liked. Even the rock and roll songs like ‘Back in Ohio’ or ‘All My Life’ there is something there that… I don’t know… I figure if it makes it personal connection for me, maybe there will be some listeners out there that hear the same thing. I think that’s kind of run through a lot of the Lucero catalog, is just that personal, intimate kind of touch. That’s just kind of the that’s the box of crayons that’s the colors that I’ve always been most comfortable coloring with.
OS: ‘Back in Ohio’ is fascinating I was not aware of the story of William Morgan until the song.
BN: That’s awesome! I’m glad I can spread the word a little bit. It’s something I wasn’t aware of it either until I saw this PBS documentary, I’m pretty sure it’s called American Commandante or Yankee Commandante, I can’t remember which one right now. I think it’s on Amazon for free, right now, if you Google it or search it, whatever.
But I saw this movie and it’s only an hour and 15 minutes long but it tells his whole life story and yeah, his arc he deserves more than this simple rock and roll song. It makes great rock and roll lyrics. But it could be, it could be much deeper and much more and there’s a lot more to his life. And we’ll see, maybe I’ll write some more songs about him… but yeah I heard his story in this documentary, I immediately called my little brother Jeff and I was like “this is the coolest story I’ve heard in years” and “you should make this into a movie” and he’s like “George Clooney, he’s got the rights” Three years later, though I write the song and then George Clooney sells the rights to another guy that guy actually ends up calling Jeff. We’ll see if it ever gets made but it’s funny how it all comes around. So now we’ve got a William Morgan song and a William Morgan screenplay and he deserves a lot more.
He was very idealistic and had a very romantic idea of what a man should be and democracy, and you know, how the world should be. He had a very American idea of himself and the world, and he wanted to be part of something good and big and historical… but he was he kind of was a screw up throughout the first part of his life. Literally just traveling with a circus aimless, dishonorable discharge from the Hundred and First Airborne Division, spent time in Leavenworth, worked for the mob – all these crazy, colorful things. But then, in the end, he really fought for a democratic Cuba and then got kind of stabbed in the back by Castro. It’s just a very idealistic, romantic story with its own kind of tragic ending but I think the lady he got married to in Cuba ended up shot. Castro imprisoned her for quite a while, and she eventually got out and ended up moving back to Ohio where I think William Morgan’s mother was still alive at the time, and I think I think she still lives in Ohio now.
I don’t know, I was a history major in college and stories like that are why I was a history major. Stories like my granddad’s story as an infantryman in World War Two, those stories are things that I’ve always been drawn to. So anytime I can work those into Lucero song it’s just a lot of fun. I love songs about whiskey and ex-girlfriends and bars, that’s all great.
OS: You mentioned earlier about some of the divisiveness and I think of a song “Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go.” It has a slow, gradual build to it. Did you envision the song that way when you started writing it? It is very different from past Lucero songs.
BN: No, that was more a happy accident. That was that was when we finally got all the guys together. It didn’t have that drumbeat behind it, it doesn’t do that switch in the middle of the song. That, I think, really helped it. It really made it get it to the point where it needed to be before it was atmospheric and moody and cool. I really wasn’t sure how it was going to turn it into a song but then I kind of came up with that repetitive vocal pattern. I wasn’t sure what I could come up with that would be worth repeating that much. But, but then my daughter, actually she was three, said “pull me close don’t let go” and… oh man, of course! From the mouths of babes, that’s it.
Hopefully, that can translate. In one of the more critical reviews it’s almost like “fine you can make an 80s record, but maybe ‘Pull Me Closer’ hits that nail on the head too much.” But I think that’s where it’s going. It was so different it was just really… fun to work on – it was a lot of fun to build that song and make it even if everybody does not like it.
OS: It’s funny I read a review somewhere saying something about “Oh, this is clearly a relationship song”…
BN: No, no, no you’re on to something! One of the good things about Lucero is that a song can be a double-edged sword, everybody that listens to the music kind of has their own version of Lucero. And that’s what you really want. You want them to make it their own – the music – it doesn’t belong to you anymore.
So for that person, it is a relationship song and that’s just fine. That the interpretation is out there – there’s no reason why it can’t be a relationship song for them. But yeah when I sing it… and I don’t know, some of the lyrics actually probably make it seem more like a relationship song even if I didn’t intentionally write about that.
OS: Well, to totally change gears on you, how has releasing a record during the pandemic changed what you do? Lucero are known as a as a touring band.
BN: So this has to be a completely different field to release a record right now. Usually we would be doing nonstop touring just to support. To tell you the truth, I’ve really enjoyed my time at home. I don’t feel trapped. I’ve been writing songs about wanting to get back home and being separated from the ones I love and always being gone, all that stuff I’ve been singing about this for yeah 10 years now. Now I am home and I’ve been perfectly happy.
It does feel like part of my life is missing, and it will be very nice to get back out and play live shows again. I miss the travel. I miss eating in different restaurants all across the country. I miss you know, walking into a bar in Milwaukee or a bar in you know San Diego, knowing the bartender and having them treat me like a regular. Even though I’m you know, thousands of miles away from home.
And we’ve been lucky enough to be able to survive and scrape by doing live streams and internet shows. We’re actually planning a number of outdoor shows for this summer. Right now that the weather’s starting to change and I’m hoping that we can make it through and into the fall. Then one day, you know, we’ll be back in a seedy basement dive bar and I’ll be happy. I’ll be back in my element. But yeah, I’m not in a rush. Everything will come back in due time.