Ben Nichols: guitar & vocals
Brian Venable: guitar
John C. Stubblefield: bass
Roy Berry: drums.
Ben Nichols of Lucero smokes Marlboro Reds and wears worn white T-shirts with Levi’s and cowboy boots. In other words, he looks just like he sounds, right down to the tattoos. He says “Thankyouverymuch,” in a voice that oozes Memphis, Elvis, Jack Daniels, but is free of affectation, and rakes his hand through his hair and beard as he talks.
If you haven’t heard Lucero or didn’t catch them on their last trip through Denver with Against Me!, you should get to it. They could be described as alt-country, which to me seems to mean country with a soul and a serious drinking problem, country that calls to mind Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison rather than Shania Twain on MTV. Nichols writes songs about love the way they should be written—full of vivid imagery of lovely girls, jukeboxes, and whiskey, and his music lies somewhere between Hank Williams III and Bright Eyes.
I caught up with Ben in Atlanta, before Lucero’s show at the Masquerade with Against Me! to talk about love, punk rock, drinking, and the King.
Kaffeine Buzz: I had a friend when I lived in New Orleans who used to always go see you guys play when you were there, and after I saw you in Denver with Against Me! I called her and asked her why she never brought me with her.
Ben Nichols: Thank you very much.
KB: I was trying to describe your band afterwards to somebody else . . .
BN: That’s always a tough one.
KB: I said it sounds kind of like Kurt Cobain would have if he hadn’t shot himself, and had run off to Memphis instead to play in a country band.
BN: I’ve heard that one before, actually. And I get Mike Ness a lot, too, from Social Distortion.
KB: I think Mike Ness sings through his nose a bit more.
BN: Yeah, I might do a little bit less of that. But I like both those bands, so that’s fine. It depends on what music you listened to growing up, because there’s other kids who are like, “You sound like Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker.” But I think that’s fair. It started off kind of as an experiment, to see if we could write country music, or country songs, and it evolved into its own thing. I guess the way I describe it now is kind of a southern indie rock band. That’s pretty much what we are.
KB: People always say alt-country, but what the hell does that mean?
BN: Yeah, that could be a whole lot of different types of things nowadays.
[At this point, we were interrupted by a guy with a leaf-blower and laughed about that for a few minutes while waiting for him to finish.]
KB: So where was I? Alt-country and how it doesn’t mean a damn thing.
BN: So yeah, we started off more country and those influences may be less apparent in the music that it’s become, but it’s still—when I started off the band, I wanted it to be a combination of country music and the Pogues. You know, drinking music, heartbreak music. Now it’s definitely become a little more rock’n’roll, other influences have kind of cropped up over the last few years. Alt-country or not—we get pegged as alt-country quite a bit, and that’s fine. We play with those kinds of bands sometimes. Tonight, we’ll see. Against Me! and the Blood Brothers, their crowd, who knows what they’ll actually think of us. The Against Me! crowd can be a little too punk for us, or at least they are in their own minds.
KB: The last show in Denver was really interesting. There was a couple behind us that were just wrapped up in each other’s arms, dancing, and there were sixteen-year-old kids who were just being rude. It seemed to be an age divide. Everybody who was old enough to drink got it.
BN: It’s true. If you’re that young, no, your heart hasn’t been broken in the right way, and no, you don’t have a drinking problem, and those certain issues that we cover—they’re there to dance and sing along, and they like the fast songs. We’ve got some fast songs, but not everything’s fast. In that way, with the stuff we play, we end up playing with a wide variety of bands. And there’s some of the crowd that gets it, and some of them won’t. But when we play our own shows, it’s cool because we’ve got a real wide variety of audience members. You get the alt-country kids, and you get the weird hardcore kids that like what you do, and you get the indie rock kids and frat boys. There’s a little bit of everything when we play our own shows. Opening for other people can be kind of shaky sometimes, but it’s always cool when we play our own shows. It’s a cool, odd mixture of people.
KB: I listen to a lot of Tom Waits, a ton of Nick Cave, and I would almost relate your songs to them. There’s a real narrative structure, the visuals are great, you really get a picture of what’s going on, and there are little stories, like each song has a plot to it.
BN: In a lot of them, yeah. I guess those are the types of songs that I’ve always liked, it’s very Tom Waits, Shane McGowan type lyrics—at least that’s what I’m aspiring to be. I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere close to as good as they are, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
KB: I’m not a musician. Most of my music reviews have little to do with the technical stuff.
BN: It’s more lyric-based.
KB: Yes. Most of the music that I really love is based on what they’re saying.
BN: If you’ve got the right words and they fit in with the right music, it’s kind of the balance between the two and the way the lyrics and the vocal pattern play off of the music, it creates an emotional…I don’t know…it creates a certain feeling. That’s what I like about the songs. The way some songs go, not mine necessarily, but songs that I like, you can feel your heart drop when the chords change and the vocals do one thing and it’s the perfect lyric, it creates that heart wrenching kind of emotion.
KB: There’s an interview with John Cale in the new Magnet and he says, “It’s an intellectual exercise: how do you give people whiplash with a lyric?”
BN: Yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s tough, but it’s cool when you can do that. It feels good.
KB: There’s a big change musically from your first album to the most recent, but the feeling is still the same.
BN: I hope so. It’s still coming from the same place. We’ve been a band for over five years now, and we didn’t start until I was 24, and I’m 30 now, but I haven’t changed a whole lot over the last six years. You change more—I was definitely different when I was 19, and much different when I was 16, but I still like the same stuff and I’m still going for the same feeling. There are just more southern rock influences in some of the new songs. We’ll play a bunch of new songs tonight, so we’ll see what you think.
KB: Did I read somewhere that Tiger Style [their record label] has gone out of business?
BN: They’re on hiatus. The record’s still in print, you can still get it, it’s still in the stores. They’re just not putting out anything new. So we’re in the market for a new label right now, actually. We just finished that new record, got a decent mix of it, so we’ll start passing that around and see what our options are.
KB: Any one in particular you’re looking at?
BN: We’ve talked to a few people, and actually there are people that I haven’t talked to at all that I want to talk to. Tom Waits is on Anti, and I heard they just signed up Nick Cave, so I’d be very interested in talking to them. I haven’t yet, but I want to. There’s a bunch of good labels, Jade Tree, Sub Pop. . . we’ve talked to some of them, but not all.
KB: I love the art on That Much Further West and your website. Who did that?
BN: A guy named Tom Martin, back in Memphis. He’s just a graphic designer, and I think John, our bass player, knew him. He decided to help out, so he kind of put all that together.
KB: It’s almost like woodcuts.
BN: I think it’s actually off an old deck of playing cards, and it’s art off of those cards. He just cut it and pasted it all together. We were really happy with it.
KB: Have you ever seen the movie The Thing Called Love, with River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis? There’s a part in that movie where Dermot Mulroney’s character says that he likes country music because it’s not sarcastic.
BN: Yeah! That’s a good point, actually. There’s no irony in it. Actually, a lot of country music nowadays kind of devolves into a schtick, there are plenty of alt-country bands that go that route with it. But we’ve always avoided that. I’m not sure if my sense of humor isn’t right, or if I’m not smart enough to write really sarcastic, ironic lyrics like that, but all our stuff’s been pretty straightforward. Again, it’s just the kind of stuff that I like. There are guys back home who can write really witty songs, and they’re funny and they’re fun to hear, but it doesn’t get that emotional chord that I enjoy, so I’ve avoided that. Or not even avoided it, it’s just not what comes out when I sit down to write a song. So I guess real country music, yeah.
KB: There’s a really strong sense of place in your music. Are you originally from Memphis?
BN: I’m from Arkansas, actually, about two hours west, from Little Rock. I’ve lived in Memphis eight years, nine years now. I still make that drive from Memphis to Little Rock a lot. So that East Arkansas, Memphis, North Mississippi area, which is just the delta, I’ve just always really liked it. Well, not always, but since I was 19, 20. When I was growing up I hated it, wanted to live anywhere but there. Chicago, New York, L.A., San Francisco. Someplace “cool.” I ended up going to college in Arkansas, and I’m glad I ended up there, I’m glad I didn’t leave as early as I wanted to, because over that time I really developed a love for where I’m from, an appreciation for what actually came from there. I mean, hell, rock’n’roll came from there, so it’s really not that bad.
KB: I grew up in Massachusetts, lived in South Carolina, went to school in New Orleans, and a friend of mine from there commented to me that he could never live in a city that has no soul.
BN: That’s it. That’s exactly what it is. There’s a whole bunch of it over there. Memphis has a great history to it, the whole region has a really interesting history, a lot of character, and yeah, it’s got a lot of soul to it. I’d like to think that some of that comes through. In our better moments, maybe it does. That’s one of the things I like the most about it.
KB: I heard that Elvis used to take karate lessons at a place you guys lived in, in Memphis.
BN: We still live there, actually. It’s this loft space. The place downstairs used to be a pharmacy with a soda fountain and all that, and now it’s a dollar store, a variety store. And there used to be a movie theater next door and now it’s a Jehovah’s Witness hall. Apparently the upstairs had been, at one time, the karate dojo where Elvis took karate. Since then, I don’t know what it’s been. I think it was storage for a while, and then an artist used to live there. I’ve lived there for five years now, and over time all the guys in the band moved it. It’s been home base for a while now. Not much has changed there, probably. There are still the same showers, there are lockers in one room where I guess you would change into your karate outfit. I bet the toilet seats are the same, so we’re that close.
KB: In the deleted scenes from Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino starts talking about…
BN: Elvis and the Beatles.
KB: How there’s Elvis people and Beatles people, yeah.
BN: It’s very true. Of course, I love both, and it would be tough, if you only had to listen to one, that wouldn’t be any fun, but if you’re talking about Lucero, and our music, it would definitely lean more towards Elvis. It’s a little more simple and straightforward, whereas the Beatles can get very complex, I guess more intellectual. With us, it’s like, this is what’s going on, this is how I feel, take it or leave it. That might be one way of looking at it.
KB: Some music is just too smart for its own good, though. Or at least they think they are.
BN: We know we’re not smart. [laughs] We don’t even try to go that direction. It always ends up going bad. It’s better to play the music that you don’t have to try. The best songs usually are the ones that spill out of you overnight when you’ve got nobody else around and nobody wants to talk to you and you’ve got nowhere to go and everybody else is out doing something really cool and you’re not. And then it just pours out of you.
Check out Lucero with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Climax in Denver on the 13th or by themselves in Fort Collins on the 14th at the Aggie Theatre, in Boulder on the 15th at the Fox with Drag the River, Buckskin Stallion, or in Colorado Springs on the 16th at the Navajo Hogan.