Ben Nichols of Memphis country rockers Lucero explains to Steve Bell about how their hometown gave them a healthy disrespect for authority, as well as all that righteous music.
When Southern country-rockers Lucero released their seventh album 1372 Overton Park back in 2009 they surprised a lot of folk with a startling new direction, the album tapping into the rich soul tradition of their hometown Memphis rather than the punk-infused country that had characterised their work over the preceding decade.
The album was well-received by fans and critics alike, but it was difficult to tell whether it was a momentary diversion or a whole new approach for the talented and notoriously hard-working (and hard-playing) outfit. To cloud matters further it was their first release for a major label after years in the indie wilderness, so it was hard to judge how much of this new vision belonged to the band and how much to their new bosses. Now, three years later with the release of follow-up Women And Work everything has been pulled into sharp focus: the major label excursion didn't pan out so Lucero are back with a new indie, but their new music is just as indebted to Memphis soul as 1372 Overton Park was and works just as well as it did the first time around.
“Yeah, when you've got a legend like Jim Spake playing saxophone and you've got Rick Steff playing B3 organ and piano, when you've got these kind of old school Memphis guys who are that talented and willing to be in the band and willing to go on the road, there's no way you can not continue to go in that direction – it's just too good to not do it,” chuckles frontman and songwriter Ben Nichols. “We're just having so much fun writing and playing these songs – it's so cool to stay at home and put together a song on the acoustic guitar and then bring it into the practice studio the next day and watch it take shape and grow into this monster of a boogie woogie soul song and just share what these guys do. It's really exciting.”
The rich tradition of the Memphis sound has echoed around the world for generations, but Nichols explains that even growing up right next to the source it still took a while to sink in.
“I'm from Little Rock, Arkansas originally, which is a two hour drive – it's not very far away – but even still growing up in Little Rock and going to punk rock shows there was a whole lot about the old school Memphis soul scene and Memphis music in general that I was oblivious to,” Nichols continues. “Everyone knows Elvis and everyone knows Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, but not everybody knows the whole story – and goddamn, I still don't, but I'm learning more and more about as we continue to make these type of records. We were lucky enough to work with [legendary musician and producer] Jim Dickinson on a bunch of stuff and with Jody Stephens from Big Star. Of course there's all the Sun Studios stuff, but then there's all that great Stax stuff – Booker T & The MGs with Steve Cropper and 'Duck' Dunn – and then all of those great Otis Redding songs were recorded just down the street. It's huge, it's earth shattering. We're learning more and more about it as we go and we're trying to do it just a little bit of justice – we're trying to tap into that and do that history justice and play it with a certain amount of respect. Because it's just awesome.”
Women And Wine is an upbeat batch of songs compared to past Lucero fare and there's none of the 'crying in your drink' tear-jerkers that were prevalent on earlier albums.
“That's true,” Nichols ponders. “It wasn't really conscious, it's just what happened to come out of me. The track Women And Work was one of the first songs written for this new record and it was so much fun and I just loved the piano and the direction it was going in, and I just wanted to write more songs that would fit well with that song. Once that song was written, everything else just kind of fell into place. There's a few moments on the record, like I Can't Stand To Leave You has some of the favourite Lucero lyrics that I've written in a long time actually and those are very traditionally Lucero – very emotional and tugging on the heart strings, it's the loneliest song on the record for sure – and then you've got a little nostalgia with When I Was Young, so it's still Lucero.
“And even with the fast stuff, Lucero had plenty of fast songs in the past, you've just got a few more of them – it's just weighted a little bit more to that type of song on the new record. The next album we do could have everything in 6/8 time signature and really slow, and it could all be acoustic guitars – who knows what will happen on the next record – but on this one I've got to admit that we're just having a lot of fun playing these songs right now. It was a natural direction for it to go.”
Lucero are one of those bands that just seem to transcend pigeonholing: they're usually identified with the Southern country-rock crowd such as Drive-By Truckers or Slobberbone, yet they slot just as well in the punk realm – Nichols' first solo trip to Australia was on the punk-oriented Revival Tour and the first Lucero tour proper last year (which they loved) was supporting Boston punks Dropkick Murphys – and again this malleability harks back to their Memphis upbringing.
“I think we're a band that can exist in both worlds – and we do,” Nichols offers. “We exist in two worlds at the same time: one being the punk rock side of things and the other being Drive-By Truckers and Ryan Adams and that whole alt-country/Americana thing that exists. I like being able to play slow, sad acoustic songs or really fast, distorted rock'n'roll songs. The main reason that I like Lucero is that I can do anything that I want to and there are no rules as far as the types of songs that we play – I think that was the whole reason we started the band in the first place. Especially in Memphis there was a very regimented punk rock scene – there were a lot of rules, or at least there was getting to be a lot of rules – and my guitar player Brian Venable and I decided to be in a band that would play these shows but not really pay any attention to the rules, so that's how we started playing slow, sad country songs at hardcore shows. We never really thought it would be a real band, but now 13 years later we're still kinda doing that same thing.
“We've never tried to 'out-punk' or 'out-Southern' or 'out-country' anybody, we're just holding on and flying by the seat of our pants, we barely know what we're doing. We don't have time for labels and rules, and if that's punk rock then that's fine with me too.”