A Conversation With Nick Lowe

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Nick Lowe is a songwriter pure and simple. He’s been a pop star too and a record producer, in fact if you were to put together a flow chart of the development of English pop music during the late 70’s and early 80’s, the lines, trunks and arrows, would consistently point in his direction, such is Nick’s influence over Punk and New Wave music. From his roots playing the Camden gin palaces coining the rambunctious Pub Rock sound, to his writing of The Beast in Me for his one-time father-in-law Johnny Cash, Nick has plotted a consistently prolific course, releasing some of his strongest material during the latter half of his career. I met him outside the Railway Pub in Kew, fresh from a successful American tour accompanying Wilco, to talk about his new album The Old Magic and his emblematic status in British popular music.

The new record “The Old Magic” is reflective in nature and rather wistful in sound, is this something you planned or something that came together as the writing and recording progressed?

No, no, I didn’t plan it really. It’s so hard to write songs.

I know, I’ve tried, I got nowhere!

You would think that after a few years of doing it you would get the hang of it, but actually it gets more and more mysterious, the whole process. So if you’re sent something, without getting too wet about it, if you’re inspired to come up with an idea, to work away at it, you don’t really think about and try to mould it into anything. In that respect I’m kind of an old fashioned hack. I just try to hear what the ideas being transmitted are somehow, and try not to interfere too much with it myself, and if it comes out a certain way then so be it. But there is no doubt that the older one gets, it seems to be more credible, to sing something which has got some element of the blues in it somewhere. So if that’s what you mean by wistful, whether the blues can be described as wistful or not, I don’t know.

The blues are probably a little more desperate than wistful! In an interview I watched with you yesterday you said you find “hapless characters” endlessly fascinating.

Yeah, I do.

So the songs on this album are character portraits, rather than autobiographical?

Oh yes, I hardly ever write any songs about me at all, and again this is me being an old hack, but I’m not a putting one’s diary to music kind of guy at all. I know what I’m talking about, when I want to talk about having your heart broken, or about feeling like you’ve been misused, misunderstood or righteously indignant about something, or just being in love and feeling good, although it gets harder to write songs like that as you get older. So I know what I’m talking about, but generally I make the character up. There’s a couple of lines in this album that are autobiographical, I sing in one song Checkout Time,I’m 61 and I never thought I’d see 30” that’s true, but after that it’s all a lot of guff about people thinking I’m marvellous after I’m dead, it’s just a catchy tune with some funny lyrics.

Say a song like “Stoplight Roses” did you see something which inspired that then?

Yes of course. One day, I was approached as you sometimes are by someone shoving one of these pathetic bundles of flowers through the window of my car, some Romanian bloke, and as I kind of shooed him away, I was suddenly stuck by why would anybody buy these things? I mean the traditional reason one buys some flowers is very often to apologise for something, or to express your admiration in some way towards somebody. And I thought that if you actually present one of these things, it means the total opposite, it’s like a frightful insult, that the best you could do is grab this shit of some street seller or the garage forecourt. And I thought, oh this is a great idea for a song, but my main problem with it, the song itself was written quite easily, but my problem with it was getting a title, because I didn’t know really what to call them, Traffic Light Roses is kind of wrong, then I thought, you buy them in the garage, so maybe Forecourt Roses, something that sounds a bit creepy, but it doesn’t really sing very well, it’s not a very swinging phrase. So then I thought the Americans, oh yes, they call traffic lights, stoplights, and I thought that sort of works.

Coming back to Checkout Time , you write quite a lot about getting older, as you age, does mortality and age over take love as the primary inspiration for your songs? I would imagine it doesn’t?

No, I don’t think it does. Yes, that is an interesting question. I think love is always the most interesting thing, love and the lack of it and how it affects people.

It’s the lack of love which often inspires under 30’s, but when you’re 60+ you have it, it’s more often than not secure, so does the impetus to write about it disappear?

What you think love is when you’re young certainly changes as you get older, and then of course when you get your heat broken. I mean, I didn’t get my heart broken seriously until I was quite old. I’d written songs about it, but when it actually happened, it was the most unbelievable feeling. It’s sort of glorious in its hideousness; you rise on this surge of righteous indignation, thinking (thumping the table) “I have been mistreated!” And then you plunge into this gloom, “Oh my God, how am I going to carry on? How am I going to live?” I mean at least you know you’re alive, that’s about the only thing you have, you know you’re a human being. But love is really the fundamentally most fascinating thing to ponder and try and find new ways of explaining.

How is the song writing process for you? I listen to song like “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” and it sounds so effortless, like every word has just dropped into place, is it an easy process? Or months of re-writes?

It’s kind of you to say that. That one wasn’t too difficult; it’s a very good title. Obviously it’s a well known phrase or saying and I’ve not been averse to using them in the past. I saw it in a book one day and it just hit me, that’s a great title, I wondered if anyone had used it for a song before, of course they had, but there’s no copyright on titles. I mean, I would think if you wrote a song called Bridge Over Troubled Water, people would raise an eyebrow. But it does take a lot of work to make it sound effortless.

And the process, for you?

I get asked about the song writing process a lot and it’s fascinating because it so hard to know how it actually happens and how you make it happen, because sometimes it doesn’t and there’s nothing you can do about it, because if you force it, it sounds it, it sounds forced, and I’ve tried that, I’ve tried all sorts of things. I have two theories that I use to describe it. One is that I used to say that this bloke, who is a really fantastic songwriter, who has no interest in doing interviews or being on the telly, or hacking around the United States in a station wagon for month after month, he has no interest in that at all. But he writes these great songs, and he’s decided that you’re going to promote them for him. So he comes around to see you, you never know when he’s coming, sometimes he comes in the dead of night, shows you these great songs, one or two at a time and then disappears. And those are the really good songs. Then if he doesn’t come back for a while, because you’ve worked with him on a few occasions, you can do a pretty good impersonation. And that’s how I used to explain the process. It’s out of your control almost.

I had another explanation which came along, which is, if you imagine yourself in a flat, and there’s a radio next door tuned night and day to a really fantastic radio station, and you can just about hear it through the dividing wall. And then one day, and your always sort of aware of it, they start programming a new tune, it’s a really hot tune and it’s so good you think I’ve got to learn that song. You never know when it’s going to come on, but when it does you stop and you put your ear to the wall and you strain to hear it and you get a word here and a phrase there, and you put it together and then it’s gone, it’s drowned out, but bit by bit, you learn it. That’s another way of looking it at it.

So you don’t really have much to do with it, it’s just something that plants itself in the
back of your head and you just have to try and coax it out?

Yes, you don’t want to interfere with the idea yourself. I don’t like it when I hear myself at work. If I get a good idea for a song, I go into this trance like state, which poor Peta, my missus, gets very frustrated about, but she knows it’s the way it is. You’re not really here, people talk to you and you don’t really listen. But if I’ve got that going on, I’m trying to avoid making the song up myself, you have to really think, that’s why I’m talking about listening through a wall, you’ve got to think what the idea is and not squash it and do some clunky finish to hurry it along, which I’ve done many, many times. I tend to work at my songs until they don’t sound like I’ve had anything to do with them at all. I ponder and ponder and change a bit here and change a bit there, until I can’t hear any vestige of me at work and I think I’m singing a cover song. And it works the other way around as well, if I come across a cover song I want to do, I’ll work at it and work at it until I think that I’ve written it, so you kind of wind up at the same place. Then the new song can be played in any style, fast or slow, it can take any kind of abuse, when you’ve got it down solid and the words mean something, it’ll be totally fireproof.

So do you think that’s why so many people have been able to have hits with your songs, because you don’t write them with yourself especially in mind, you write them thinking and expecting that they are going to be sung by other people?

Yes, I think I do, I’ve always got one eye on the covers. In fact the reason why a lot of my records are rather under-produced is because I rather like that sound, unfortunately the general public doesn’t, the general public gets nervous when they hear something that they perceive as a little home made. Of course if you have ears to hear, then it sounds like a refreshing change, but if you haven’t, and most people don’t, it sounds a little “oh it’s not for me,” it sounds a little too unfinished and annoying. But part of my thinking is, because a lot of people listening to my records are other musicians and people in the music business, producers and people like that, they tend to go “oh blimey, old Nick’s got a good one there, oh but he hasn’t done it right, he hasn’t done it right, I could do it much better.” And then of course the old line goes taught, the rod bends and you’ve got one. So I make the songs like glorified demos. But yes, I don’t write them for me. I sometimes think that the kind of song writing I do is akin to knowing how to thatch a roof or build a dry stone wall; it’s like an old craft, which no one is going to have any interest in or use for in about fifty years time.

Really, you think it’s dying out?

Song writing the way I understand it, with verses chorus and a melody, I think that is dying out, I really do think it’s dying out.

In some of the songs on “The Old Magic” in the kind of country rock-a-billy stomp that appears now and again, you can hear echoes of Johnny Cash, a man you knew. Did he teach you anything, pass anything down from songwriter to songwriter?

Oh he was a fabulous bloke, a really, really fabulous bloke, I absolutely loved him and miss him, and June (Carter-Cash) as well, she was great. They were absolutely top people. The reason he was great is because he was sort of un-cool as well, he had this “man in black” thing, but he was just like a regular fabulous bloke, except that he had this tremendous talent. But he could make a goon of himself, just like all the best people can; he was by no means immune to that.

But yeah, he did, he said all sorts of things to me. I remember one thing, it came back to me quite recently, I’ve been doing interviews in the United States and somebody asked me about him. One thing he said to me, which I never used to understand, he used to say this thing which I’ve heard old-timers say loads of times, when they’re asked to give advice to youngsters coming up, they always say “all you’ve got to do is be yourself.” And I always thought this is the worst cliché, what the hell does that mean? Be yourself? No one wants to see some turkey get up there and be themselves, you want to see something magnificent. But the older I get the more I, sort of, understand that because if you’ve got a point of view, or something that you want to get across, the most naturalistic way of getting across is the most effective. It really is the most effective and its way easier said than done, of course you have to use a little stage craft, stuff that you’ve learnt, but if you can do it in the most naturalistic way possible, it is way more effective. You don’t have to cover your tracks either; you don’t have to cop an act, the less you have to cop an act the better. Of course when you’re young, that’s all you do, copping an act, trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, in a lot of cases anyway. But simply being yourself, in the entertainment business is a very nice trick, if you can pull it off and it’s taken me about fifty years to figure it out, but it does make it much easier. The penny dropped.

When people talk about Nick Lowe, the term “Pub Rock” is always mentioned, springing out of your album The Jesus of Cool, which is often considered to be the pinnacle of your early work. Tell me a little about Pub Rock, the sound is somewhere in between Punk and New Wave isn’t it? And something that grew out of Stiff Records, which you were a part of?

Yeah, it kind of pre-dated that, Stiff Records pre-dated punk, but they had the same attitude. The pub thing was only in London really, it was a London thing, they tried to get it going in other cities, but no one really got it.

I was in a band called Brinsley Schwarz, we had a disastrous publicity stunt. It was big news at the time, if anyone did a film about it, you wouldn’t believe it, it wouldn’t stand up. It came from a time then there were definitely two distinct halves of society, straight people and non-straight people, cool and un-cool, buttoned up and non-buttoned-up. Now everyone is hip, even Simon Cowell is hip. Everyone is hip, there are no straights now, even the stupid people are all hip, with it, know what’s going on. But back then there was an underground beneath straight society and it was pretty good fun.

Yeah, because there was someone to offend I suppose, now controversy is almost a difficult task!

Exactly, exactly, and it was pretty good when it was like that. So after the disaster, instead of us scuttling off and breaking up, we stayed together and got a house, we didn’t think it was a hippy commune, but it sort of was, we just thought it was cheaper to live together. It meant we listened to the same records, it was like going to school, we listened to the same records, we had a rehearsal room and we played and played and played, morning, noon and night. We didn’t have many jobs either because we were a laughing stock. So anyway, one night our manager went to The Marquee and he saw this group, Eggs Over Easy, open for someone and he liked the look of them, he got talking to them and they were American, and he invited them out to our house. They turned up at midnight, we were all still up, and we played for each other and they were way better than we were, but they liked the same kind of music as us and we became very good friends with these guys, still are to this day. Chas Chandler, who discovered Jimmy Hendrix and was a big cheese at the time, had got them over to do a record. In the mean time, before the sessions, he’d put them up in a house in Kentish Town and told them to wait, and they waited, and waited, and waited, nothing happened. Anyway there was a great big gin palace at the end of their row called the Talley-Ho, now it’s been knocked down, but then it was a huge lovely old Victorian pub. They used to go in there for a drink and one night they asked the governor if they could do a gig there, and he said, “oh no,no, we only do Irish music and jazz here.” So they said, “well, we can do both of those things, just give us your quietest night.” He said, “well, Monday.” And bit by bit they started building up this fantastic following, of very, very strange people, because in those days Kentish Town and Camden were not for the faint hearted, you just didn’t go up there, now it’s all coffee shops and beautiful, but back then it was rough and this pub in particular. So they had this very interesting clientele, their fans were almost Hogarthian, there were hookers and West Indian bus drivers in their uniforms dancing all over the place, it was fantastic. We started going up there and we really liked it, in fact we pinched half of their act and when they went back to America we took over their slot.

We took over their audience too and we thought that it was great and started to look for other pubs to play. And that’s what we did and by this time one or two other groups had come along, and really the bands played a kind of jukebox, yeah they were like live jukeboxes, all different kinds of music, as many as you could, plus whatever was in the top 10. It was really good fun and it became almost a term of abuse to call someone a “pub rocker” I even use it myself and it describes a kind of earnest boogie, that only guys seem to like, but back when it started it was really fresh, brilliant and fun. And all the bands were good, like Ian Dury, Kilburn and the High Roads, that was Ian’s group.

Oh yes, I read Ian Dury was part of that scene.

Yeah, they were really good some of the bands, very eccentric and quirky and the gigs were free, so they were packed; these places were absolutely packed as you might imagine. But it never caught on anywhere else, apart from strangely, Holland, they went nuts for it over there, they had pub rock everywhere.

And then with Stiff Records you started to produce records for people like Elvis Costello. Were you a very hands on producer?

Yes, I suppose so, I became the house producer at Stiff. My manager and myself and one other guy started Stiff Records. I didn’t really have too much to do with it, I was just the third one, but because I’d had more experience in the studio than the other two I became the house producer, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had a point of view and in those days anyone could be a record producer! You had to have listened to a lot of records and be able to encourage people. And then in the 1980’s there was a seismic change in the way records were made, that’s when everything went digital and I was never really interested in that, not that there hasn’t been some great records made like that.

Do you still find it quite easy if you want to put out a record, is that a fairly easy process for you, you don’t have to hunt around for labels?

No, I’m with Proper Records in this country and Yepp Records in America, who are small independent labels, which suits me much more than being on a big label. Big labels are absolutely useless to me, they wouldn’t know what I was up to and I don’t want the same things as they would want for me, I’m not interested in being a star, which is of course the only thing they’re are interested in. So no, I like being a big fish in a small pool and then I can make my own judgements and decisions.

So just to sum it all up, you said your career at the moment is in something of an “Indian summer.” Why do you think this is? I mean, you’ve gone the opposite way than many musicians of your ilk, in that a lot of your best stuff has been done in the last few years, thinking of The Brentford Trilogy albums for example. 

Well, when I was a pop star, in the 1970’s and did Jesus of Cool and I was on the telly all the time, it was almost as if someone had said, “right, it’s your turn now, step up, what have you got?” But I have always wanted to do something which I kind of felt I had to be a bit older to do. I wanted to make a mark back then. It’s very difficult for me to say because I didn’t work this out at the time. It’s only now in hindsight that I can look back and think, well, I was just marking time a bit. I was more interested in doing records with other people than I was in doing my own, my own records were silly stuff, so people would go “oh, that’s naughty!” I never really took it that seriously, I thought well, I’ll have a bit of fun here, and that’s really what I did, I had too much fun. But I was waiting until it was all over, because when my time in the sun came to an end, as it always does, unless you’re very unusual like Elton John or Cliff Richard.

Goodness knows how he’s still going, Cliff Richard, he had his day in the sun way back in the 1950s!

Well no! He actually didn’t, he does very, very well. Anyway, when it was all finished, and I knew it would because I’d been a record producer, so I had one foot down on the shop floor with the kids, but also I’d been yucking it up with the suits, I’d had a foot in both camps, and I’d heard how they talk about their artists, with great contempt in some instances, and I knew that sooner or later the public would get fed up with my schtick and move on. And when it came, I was sort of ready for it, but you do end up with very mixed feelings, I couldn’t get a table in a restaurant anymore, I didn’t have legions of exotic looking birds queuing up to go on dates with me just because I had been on TV, they wouldn’t look at me twice in the normal course of events. So when that all finished I was sorry to see that go, but on the other hand I was absolutely buggered! I was alcoholic pretty much, I was completely burnt out, my marriage hadn’t sort of broken up as disappeared and everything was in disarray, I was ill and filled with self loathing, it was awful. So I had a lie down basically, for at least a year and I started thinking to myself, well, I’ve done pretty well here, I’m on the scrapheap, but I’ve actually done pretty well, I’ve written some good songs, I’ve got a good reputation, just about, produced some good records, I haven’t got much money, but I’ve got a flat and a car, so if I’ve got to go back to the biscuit factory then I haven’t done too bad.

But, I began to think, well, I’ve been in pop land and it’s been pop-tastic, but I haven’t done anything really, really good.  So I started to think about how I could re-present myself, write myself, produce myself, record myself and use the fact that I was getting older, inevitably getting older, in a business which at that point had no interest in older people, and I was in my mid to late thirties, so I was kind of over the hill, nowadays its nothing, but then it was over the hill. So I thought I’d figure out a way where I could use the fact that I was getting older as an advantage, to the extent that people will think “oh I just can’t wait to be as old as Nick Lowe,” because I’ll imbue my thing with some lived in quality and if I can make it hip enough, so that I can interest a younger audience in it, without having to get down with the kids and do something really embarrassing and patronizing, and I won’t have to squeeze myself into tight jeans and trainers and do what I’m know for.

The last few records I’ve done from The Impossible Bird on-wards have all been very well received, they haven’t sold very much, but they’ve all been very well received and again I get covers, and when The Bodyguard doe came along (a cover of his song What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding was featured on the million selling film soundtrack), I almost fell to my knees and gave thanks! It couldn’t have come at a better time, because it meant I could tour the record in the US, were, frankly, most of my audience is, I could tour over there in reasonable comfort, pay my boys, and most importantly make another one, which basically took care of that money! And slowly I can spot now that it has come good. I can see in the audience that there is a wide range of people coming to see me now, instead of just old guys with grey pony tails, which used to be the predominant species. They are still welcome of course! But a lot of them have dropped away, because they think that I rock’th not, which in fact I do, but with a different attitude. I haven’t really got a terrific following in this country, I think they think I’m some old Country and Western singer, they don’t really get it, and it’s too bad.

Why do you think that is? Because the music has become more American in sound?

Yeah, I suppose it has, although I’m quite anxious to be not very reverential to that, I mean I love American music, but I love what happens to it when it comes over here as well, and people muck around with it. I like Italian pop music and even French pop music. I love the European sensibility and shove that into my music so it’s kind of gawking and not very slick. I love that. So I’m not by any means a contender for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over here they can’t really be bothered with what I do, although that’s a little unkind, in London I play a big fancy place, but I’m sorry to say the last time I was in Manchester I could see the tumbleweed blowing through the aisles, they had no interest at all. Nonetheless, I’m going on tour there after Christmas, trying again!

Well, I’ll come!

Oh, please do, and bring about 400 hundred of your mates!

The Old Magic is available now.

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