An interview with Nick Lowe for Mojo magazine, November 1994.
My 1990 interview with Nick is here.
“A million dollars. I won’t be coy. A million fucking bucks.” Nick Lowe puts up his hands in mock surrender. “What can I say? It was just the most enormous stroke of luck.” He refers to the recent arrival, through his Brentford letterbox, of an unfeasibly large royalty cheque.
It happened this way. In the early 1970s Nick Lowe wrote a song for his band Brinsley Schwarz, titled (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love And Understanding. It was covered by Elvis Costello. And more recently, Kevin Costner chose it for the soundtrack to his film The Bodyguard, re-recorded by American singer Curtis Stigers. Nick hasn’t seen the movie, but friends tell him they’re buggered if they can hear the track anywhere in it. Nevertheless it’s on the album – which has sold many millions of copies worldwide – and, as songwriter, Nick Lowe’s cut is worth a cool million dollars.
Now a million dollars is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. It can be scientifically proven. But life, alas, has not been uniformly rosy for the bass-playing pub rock godhead. For example after his last album, Party Of One, he was dropped by his record company.
“Embarrassing, more than anything else,” is Lowe’s view of the affair. “I always thought Warners were the best label, and I didn’t want to be with anyone else.” (In fact he’s now on Demon, the label co-owned by his manager Jake Riviera and Elvis Costello.)
Lowe’s been unlucky in love, too. His affair with the TV and radio presenter Tracey McLeod came to an end; she subsequently befriended Loudon Wainwright III. So it seems to be no coincidence that Nick’s newest record is one of almost unrelenting sadness. Gone is the chirpy ‘pure pop’ craftsmanship of yesterday: instead there is an album which, in its bareness and its melancholic evocations of “that mood indigo”, invites comparisons with two of the all-time greats – Springsteen’s Nebraska and Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours.
Song upon song surveys the desolation of heartbreak. Lover Don’t Go, Withered On The Vine, I Live On A Battlefield and others are perhaps the most affecting tracks he’s ever cut. (Among these sombre numbers is The Beast In Me, which he originally wrote for Johnny Cash, and which The Man In Black performs to chilling effect on his latest album American Recordings.)
But is Nick crying all the way to the bank? It seems not. He recalls the day that he trousered Kevin Costner’s windfall with no special emotion. “No-one came round in a van with lots of cardboard boxes full of fivers in elastic bands: Allo? Mr Lowe? Yeah, I’m from the money, er, fing. You want me to bring it in? You gotta shed or somefink? No-one did that. It’s just a number that changes places on a computer, and extremely unexciting.”
And in the time-honoured tradition of pools winners, he promises that it will not change his lifestyle: “I won’t suddenly get into polo, or yachting. And yes, I still live in Brentford and I love it dearly. Everyone laughs, don’t they? They go: Ah! Brentford Nylons! Ha ha ha! Well, long may they laugh. And long may they stay away, in their droves.”
What’s the title of your new long-player?
It’s called The Impossible Bird.
Is that in the ornithological sense?
Actually, I saw it in the newspaper; they quoted a passage from a theological book written in the 17th century, and it was called The Impossible Bird, which I thought was extraordinary and modern-sounding. But it works on a lot of levels.
Are its songs, as one assumes, about yourself and Tracey MacLeod? There is a distinctly ‘long dark night of the soul’ vibe.
I can’t deny that I suffered a break-up of my relationship with Tracey, which I was very blue about. I became very blue. But being blue is rather a glorious feeling. It’s not the same as being depressed. Depressed is like an illness, but being blue is a rite of passage – everyone has to go through it, especially if they’re lovelorn. It seems like you’re adrift on this sea: one moment you’re on the crest of this wave, filled with the righteousness that only comes with being truly misunderstood; and the next you plunge to the depths – you’re just this sad fucker who’s been kicked in the nuts.
Now if you’re any kind of a writer you use that as a source. But I was anxious that I wouldn’t diarise my particular case. I wanted to record songs that had atmosphere to them: this happens to loads of people, it’s no big deal, and I wanted people to go, “I know what that guy’s talking about”, rather than “Oh Nick! And what did she do then? And what did you say to her?” which I think is tedious – unless you’re Dan Penn. I just think it’s a bunch of good pop songs. My seventh or eighth album. It’s a personal record, but it’s not about a person.
What is the story of The Beast In Me? Did you write it for Johnny Cash some years ago when you were still married to his step-daughter Carlene Carter?
Well, I had the title and the first four lines. I’d see Cash every so often and he’d say, [in a cavernous growl] “How’s that Beast In Me song comin’ along?” and I rather thought he was taking the piss out of me. But he meant it, he knew I was on to a good idea. And one day I saw it all clearly, and I don’t know if I was still writing it for Johnny Cash or, by then, writing it for me. But, my God, I was so thrilled when he cut it. It’s a tremendous compliment. I know there is a certain nepotism that could be levelled, but I don’t think he would cut it unless he thought it was good and could express something about him. But now I’m older I think it applies to me as well.
Your record is very stark in its arrangements, isn’t it?
I was encouraged by Elvis to do some solo acoustic shows, what they now call Unplugged. And I really took to it: you’re up there with just your guitar and voice and you will see, unbelievably swiftly, the weaknesses in your own material. You play some old bollocks that you shoved on your record to tart it up – I was astonished by the number of good songs that I have fucked up when I came to record them. I’d just say, “This goes like The Temptations” or, “This goes like George Jones”, but when you’re up there on your own you’d never play a song like I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass because it’s kind of a crappy song. It’s a good record, but as a song it doesn’t even start.
So it focuses the mind. I wanted to bring what I’d learned doing those shows into the record I was now making. I thought it would touch people more. I’m 45 now – I’ve got to make records like that. I’m not gonna have it any more: you know, some half-arsed piece of whimsy that you sit in a studio with and then you make it into something, an album track, and it’s never any bloody good. After the age of 40 you’ve got to do stuff with some substance. Otherwise, it’s unseemly.
In 1992 you teamed up with Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner to make an album known as Little Village. How horrible an experience was it?
It was a wonderful experience. Even when it was horrible I enjoyed it. I found it much easier than the others to cope because I’ve been in bands before: those guys have only been leaders of their bands or guest superstars. I was astonished how little they knew and how much I could bring to the party. They’re kind of lost in showbiz, they’ve been spoilt. I love them, but they’re difficult, highly-strung people. I’ve no doubt I’ll play in the future with any combination of the three of them, but it’s extremely unlikely the four of us will do it again. It’s a shame we left behind this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it more – now, I was in Brentford most of the time, so I am not one of those certain members. It’s unlistenable to me. And yet the last live shows we did were exquisite. Getting to play with people as fantastic as that – what’s not to like about it? I mean, I’m just a pub rock guy.
You don’t sound ashamed of it.
No, I’m not. Pub rock is a term of derision but I think of it as being at its best when the Feelgoods surfaced, and when Ian Dury came along. Nobody ever remembers how sexy it all was. Everyone was getting laid like mad. And the music. It was all the white middle-class mods who’d become hippies, suddenly realising they’d made a terrible mistake. And re-grouping.
You played on much of Elvis Costello’s recent album, Brutal Youth. Was this before he went for a full-scale re-formation of the Attractions?
They were very nervous about Bruce, of course, because he’d written that book. [Bassist Bruce Thomas blotted his copybook by publishing The Big Wheel, a candid memoir of life on tour with Elvis and the Attractions.] They didn’t know if it would work again with all four of them. So I said, “Well, I’ll do it if you want. Just give me a little nod.” And Elvis sent me a demo of the tunes. But I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of them – it seemed like music from Venus or something. So I said to him, “Elvis, I can’t play any of this, I don’t even know what key it’s in. I don’t think I’m your guy.” And he went, “Oh nonsense, go back and try it again – and the ones you can’t do, we’ll get Bruce to do.” As it turned out, Bruce played beautifully. And these songs that I couldn’t figure out – London’s Brilliant Parade, Sulky Girl – now sound so easy and logical and fabulous.
Elvis is a tremendous artist, there’s not a shadow of a doubt. No matter what you might think of The Juliet Letters, no-one else would have the balls to do that. Here’s a man who’s got his allotted time on this planet and he’s going to bloody do it. I feel privileged that I know such a fantastically creative person. Because I’m not one. I’m just a lucky-to-have-got-away-with-it guy who could be found out at any stage.
Oh, too modest! Aren’t you confident you’ll achieve more?
Actually, of course I am. The classic thing in pop is that you start off fabulous, and then you get worse and worse. And I think I started off shit, and I’m getting better and better. I think I’ll reverse the trend.