In an era where studio magic can make anyone sound like a rock star, true musical authenticity is something to be appreciated. Over the course of fifteen years and nine albums, Ben Nichols and Lucero have evolved from a punk-tinged country outfit to a full-on Memphis rock and roll outfit, complete with horns. The one constant in this journey has been the band’s adherence to delivering honest, bricks and mortar music to its fans. As Lucero prepares to release its debut for ATO Records, Women and Work, Nichols talked with Prefix about creating narrative songs, incorporating a horn section mid-career, and being married to his music.
You obviously write what you know, but you’ve also gotten song ideas from Cormac McCarthy and adapted lines from Townes Van Zandt. Where does this album come from?
Most of the new record, Women and Work, comes from my love of old rock and roll. A lot of the songs have more traditional rock and roll type lyrics, and maybe aren’t as emotionally wrenching as some Lucero lyrics in the past. I’d venture to say that the lyrics are a little bit more “fun,” as creepy as that sounds, maybe. A lot of the songs do have an old rock and roll spirit- there’s Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly type stuff. There’s a lot of boogie-woogie piano and elements of more fun rock and roll. I just wanted to kind of lean that direction this time out.
The other thing that’s front and center on this record is the horns. You toured with them last time out and the songs seem to feature them more organically. Is this the Lucero sound going forward?
For right now, it’s too much fun not to do it. You’ve got guys like our keyboardist Rick Steff, saxophonist Jim Spake, and trumpet player Scott Thompson who are old school Memphis guys. They’ve played with a ton of people, from Al Green to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Guys of that caliber, if they’re willing to play on the record and go on the road, there’s no way I can say no. Since 1372 we’ve been touring together, and they have become part of the band. As we were writing this record, we knew that we were going to have the horns, so hopefully they do sound more integrated. We don’t want them to just be laying on top of a regular Lucero song. We’re trying to make them part of the band and part of our sound. That’s not to say that the next record won’t be just guitars and xylophones. One of the reasons we started to Lucero was to not have rules. When we added the horns, people were like, “You can’t add horns. It’s Lucero.” And I’m like, “Fuck you, we’re adding horns.” Nobody’s going to tell me that we have to keep the horns. The horns are part of it right now, but we’ll make records as we see fit. Right now, we’re having a blast going out on the road with an eight-piece band and making country soul rock and roll boogie records. This is what we want to do right now, and it’s working out all right.
It must be cool just to be around guys like Steff and Spake. Wasn’t Steff out with Hank Williams Jr. for a time?
I don’t even know. You’ve got a pretty extensive list of people who have come through and recorded records in Memphis. I don’t know who he’s been on the road with necessarily, but he was part of the Memphis horns. If you’re from out of town and wanted to make a “Memphis” record, it was quite possible that Spake played saxophone on your record. They’ve been around for a while and they do have quite a few stories. But these are also the easiest guys in the world to work with; you can take them on a nine week long tour, and it’s like having a twenty year old kid along. It’s better, actually, because they don’t complain as much. They fit right in. They’re professional musicians.
The beginning of the album has a guy in a bar, and a lot of the subsequent songs seem to feature him at different points in his life. Do you consider narrative when you’re writing?
I consider it, but I don’t adhere to it strictly. The first song on the record is “On My Way Downtown,” which I thought was appropriate. It’s more of an upbeat record, so this guy is out on Saturday and heading down town. It’s a tear it up kind of record, and I think the first song fits that pretty good. But then two songs later, you’ve got “It May Be Too Late,” which is me trying to do my best Sam Cooke impression. It’s a kind of country and soul song about how the person you were going to meet downtown never showed up, and you ended up drinking by yourself. Beyond that there’s not a whole lot tied into the same story, except that all the songs are in the story of Lucero. Most of these songs were meant to exist on their own.
The album starts with a little one-minute intro. It’s a little odd in that it seems like a part of the second track. How did you decide to put it together that way?
It kind of happened by accident. The song “On My Way Downtown,” which is the second song on the record, started from a bridge of an old demo song. Basically, the bridge was so good that we extended on it; we took it and made it into a “real” song and took the demo song and used it as the intro. There was some nice phrasing and just a nice feel that I didn’t want to lose completely, even though the bridge became a complete song. They were eventually two very different cadences, but I didn’t want to lose the feeling of that intro. That’s something we’ve never done before- to show a remnant of the song’s origins. We thought, what the fuck, we’ll throw it on the front there, and I think it works pretty well. It kind of eases everything into place, and then it kicks in and the record hits its stride.
You said this album was about ripping it up, but I see a lot of the guys in these songs looking for redemption with women. Do you see yourself in those guys, or are you a confirmed bachelor at this point? We are getting older.
I’m definitely getting older, but I don’t know. That one’s a tough one. Whatever answer I gave to you right now would probably mean that I would go out tonight and do the exact opposite. The band has definitely dictated that it’s a bachelor’s life for me at this point. That doesn’t, however, stop you from second-guessing yourself and wishing for the possibility of something different. Every now and again I think it would be nice to have a family and someone to come home to; I definitely think about what I’m missing and if I should change the way I live. I chose to pursue other goals, and the band has been my main focus. We stayed on the road and stayed busy. I think that’s made it difficult to have relationships back home. You get both sides of that on this record. I think that this is a rip it up record, but it has its more emotional moments. That’s not completely gone. I don’t think you could ever take that away from Lucero.