“My life would have been so much easier if I had just played punk rock songs at punk rock shows, or played country songs at country shows. But for some reason, there’s something in me that has got to play punk rock songs at country shows and country songs at punk rock shows.” – Ben Nichols (Lucero)
It’s an interesting phenomenon to have been a band long enough to have something resembling an arc or a trajectory to your career, thanks in no small part to the amount of “figuring you out” that fans and industry people and pretend music journalists like yours truly will try to do. If you’ve followed the path of Memphis’ Lucero, who’ve now crossed the twenty year mark as a band, you’ll know that it’s one marked by a series of genre-busting left-hand turns; depending where you jumped on the train as it careened down the track, you found yourself a fan of a band that was performing markedly different music – and was composed of markedly different members – than somebody who hopped aboard five years in either direction.
The early part of 2018 brought with it the 20th anniversary of the band’s first show (celebrated in a barn-burner of a block party in their collective hometown back in April), and also found the band putting the finishing touches on its soon-to-be-released ninth studio album, Among The Ghosts. Due out August 3rd on a new label home (Thirty Tigers) the album finds the quintet taking a hard left once again. Gone is the quintessentially Memphis boogie-woogie sound that had been a focal point of the last three Ted Hutt-produced albums. Instead, Among The Ghosts finds the band producing some of the fullest sounds and most complex textures of the band’s two-decade-old catalog: Nichols’ lyrics and vocals are more earnest, the bass grooves are punchier, the time-keeping pocket is deeper, the guitar leads are soaring and more angular, the keys and strings and horns lead to a fuller and more cinematic quality than we’ve heard the band commit to record. In many ways, it’s years different from a lot of what we’ve heard from Lucero in recent memory; in other ways, it’s the most “Lucero” album yet.
We caught up with Lucero frontman Ben Nichols via telephone from his house, and it became instantly apparent that it’s not only the band’s musical direction that have changed since the release of their last album, 2015’s All A Man Should Do. An hour before our conversation, Lucero announced a slew of US tour dates that’ll keep them busy for the bulk of this coming fall. For a band that long-ago earned its Road Warrior badge of honor, that should not come as much of a surprise. However this Lucero circa 2018, not 2008. Nichols, who spent the formative years of his songwriting career penning some of the most soul-crushing songs of whiskey-soaked heartbreak and unrequited love of the last generation, has not only gotten married but has become a father for the first time (his not-quite-two year-old daughter Izzy is the whirling-dervish focal point to the band’s limited-release seven-inch that hit shelves a month ago).
If Nichols and company weren’t so immensely proud of the new record – and with good reason – the remainder of this calendar year might look radically different. “I’m really excited about the new record,” Nichols states rather emphatically. Now, it is obviously standard operating procedure for bands to publicly pronounce that their new music is more satisfying than anything they’ve produced to date, especially when it’s fresh. Nichols is nothing if not tangibly genuine in his appreciation for the new material, perhaps because it is, legitimately, so damn good. “I really love these new songs, and I love playing them every night…it hurts a little more to leave town, but I’m just so proud of the record, so it’s totally worth saying goodbye for a little bit and going out on the road.”
When it came time to write material for the first post-fatherhood album for two of the band’s members (drummer Roy Berry’s own daughter is just shy of two as well), the band opted not to team up with Ted Hutt again, as had been their recent pattern, and instead stuck with the theme of keeping things different this time out. Where the Hutt-era albums involved a lot of pre-production and a concentrated editing effort geared at cutting things up and making them fit in the best way possible, the Among The Ghosts sessions started the band back toward their earlier influences. “For the last three records,” Nichols states, “I wanted to go for that more Memphis sound, with the horn section and the boogie-woogie piano parts. It was fun to explore that. But with this record, I decided to go back to our roots.”
Those roots, as should be probably apparent given Nichols’ age and place in the music scene, involved traditional country music and late-80s alternative rock, run through a bit of a punk rock filter. Sort of. “When I started the band, it was kind of a rejection of the punk rock scene. I wanted to play sort of traditional country music, which we quickly found out we were unable to play,” explains Nichols. “I started off playing at 14, 15 years old, learning Cure covers and REM covers. That kind of ‘120 Minutes‘ era stuff. That’s what I grew up listening to in high school and those are the first songs that I learned how to play when I picked up a guitar. That stuff, whether I wanted it to be or not, was actually more of a presence in that early Lucero stuff than I thought it was.”
When searching for musical inspiration, looking toward one’s roots can be a questionable decision if not handled appropriately. But with the right approach, and with twenty years more knowledge, skill and ability in the ol’ tool belt, it can bear productive fruit. Armed with little more than four or five basic guitar lines to work with, the band gathered in early 2017 at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis with a new locally-based producer, Matt Ross-Spang, who has a few Grammys to his credit from work with the likes of Jason Isbell, combined his attitude with the studio knowledge they obtained through the Hutt years, and took their time crafting a new record. The band set up on the floor in the studio and experimented, capturing new sounds and directions in real time, and allowing the product to build slowly and organically toward its eventual direction in real time. The Civil War letter home-inspired cadence and march of “To My Dearest Wife” came together fairly quickly, as did the album’s title track, an intense, angular rock song that also ranks as probably the most on-the-nose personal song on the album if not in the entire Nichols catalog. “Family ended up being a much bigger influence on the record than I thought it was going to be at first,” Nichols explains. “With Izzy and being married and having a house and a family (editor’s note: Nichols’ wife has two daughters from a prior relationship), those themes are obviously at the front of my mind, and those are songs that I feel like singing because that’s kind of what I’m going through at the moment.”
The album contains its fair share of running themes, many of which revolve around the protagonist not only having a battle to fight, literally or metaphorically, but a reason – in the shape of another person – to keep fighting for. Title track aside, Nichols explains that he was “intentionally trying to write more in a storytelling way, where the narrator isn’t necessarily Ben Nichols, and trying to work on the craft of songwriting, although that sounds pretentious.” Filled with straight forward mid-tempo tracks like “Everything Has Changed” and “To My Dearest Wife,” frantic, jagged rockers like the title track and “Cover Me” and tender ballads like “Always Been You” and “Loving,” the latter of which was also used in the closing credits of Nichols’ brother, Jeff’s award-winning 2016 movie of the same title, many of the images captured on Among The Ghosts are certainly inspired by very real events and historical tales, but they’re written in a way that makes the message translatable to the modern listener. “I wanted (them) to be applicable to whatever battle anyone’s fighting in their life. Whatever goals you have and whatever you’re fighting for, I wanted it to be able to apply to that.”
At this point, the bulk of Among The Ghosts has been played live over the course of the last half-year, with Nichols playing some of the tracks solo and acoustic in a one-off New Jersey date earlier this year, and the band playing a handful of tracks at springtime tour dates. Then, of course, came arguable the most traditionally “punk rock” decision any band will make this year, which found Lucero taking their 45 minute direct support slot on Frank Turner’s recent full US tour, sandwiched in between The Menzingers and Turner himself, and to using it to play 90% of the new album, months before its release. “It was a Frank Turner show, so we only had 45 minutes,” explains Nichols somewhat sheepishly. “Really when it comes down to it, I had so much fun playing those songs, and I’m away from my family and a lot of these songs are about missing my family, so I really just did it for myself! I think it worked!“
The one song that didn’t make it into that set, for reasons that’ll be obvious to the listener once they hear it, is “Back To The Night,” a track that’s jarring to listen to the first time out, as it contains a lengthy spoken-word element performed by Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals, Take Shelter, Mud, etc, etc, etc), who’ll also star in the band’s upcoming video for “Long Way Back Home. The band found themselves with the bulk of the track’s dark, haunting music completed, and Nichols had a surplus of lines that had been cut out of other songs that he didn’t want to necessarily discard. Inspired by the early-90s trend in which bands would insert movie or television dialog into their songs, what Nicholas also had was an idea. He explains: “I pieced together lines that I’d written that didn’t get used. A lot of them were from “Everything Has Changed,” some of them were from “Back To The Night,” some of them were from other things..that weren’t being used and were on the cutting room floor, but that I didn’t really want to get rid of. So I sent it to my brother, Jeff, and said “man, if you can just have Mike (Shannon) call us and leave a voice memo…” He was nice enough, within twenty-four hours, to recite those lines in a voice memo, and it was the coolest thing ever to get that voice memo.”
After a period of three-or-so weeks in the studio, stretched out over the course of most of 2017, Lucero completed work on Among The Ghosts. Though each of the track’s ten tracks are different, sometimes radically, it still ranks as perhaps the most complete and cohesive collection of stories in the band’s lexicon. “I think I’m pretty good at taking a step back and evaluating where the band is, at least for the last three records and how this new record fits into that arc,” Nichols affirms matter-of-factly. “I think we’re right where we want to be… (Among The Ghosts) ended up sounding exactly like the kind of music I was in the mood to hear right now.”
Head below to check out our full, extensive chat with Nichols. It ranks as one of our favorite conversations to appear on the pages of Dying Scene to date. While you’re at it, you can still pre-order Among The Ghosts here before it’s too late.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So just about an hour ago, a whole bunch of tour dates were announced!
Ben Nichols (Lucero): Yeah! Most of the fall tour…there’s a few that haven’t been confirmed yet but, most of it is up now. It looks like we’re going to stay really busy for the rest of the year!
Is that a good thing? Because I know you’ve got some new priorities now…
It is! It’s good to work, and I’m really excited about the new record. I really love these new songs, and I love playing them every night. I’m very much looking forward to the record being out and to being on tour to support the record. And yeah, I miss the family more. I like being home now more than before. So yeah, it hurts a little more to leave town, but I’m just so proud of the record, so it’s totally worth saying goodbye for a little bit and going out on the road.
I couldn’t agree more. Obviously I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I still get nervous when bands put new albums out… (*both laugh*)
I know what you mean, and especially with us, kind of, in a way. You never know what you’re going to get.
I was able to hear a few songs when you were up in New Jersey a few months ago with Jared Hart, and then in Connecticut you played a few more and in Memphis for the Block Party you played a few more, so I’d heard most of the album in bits and pieces live, but now that I’ve dug into it probably a thousand times since I got a press copy…
Oh man, you’ve listened to it about as much as I have!
It’s a really awesome album. I don’t say that to blow smoke up your ass because I’m capable of being critical, but it’s a really, really awesome album.
Well thank you. If I didn’t feel the same, I would know you were blowing smoke. But I agree. I think I’m pretty good at taking a step back and evaluating where the band is, at least for the last three records, and how this new record fits into that arc. I think we’re right where we want to be. We took the lessons that we learned with Ted Hutt, some of which was tough love. Those were not easy records to make; we were exploring new sounds and new recording techniques, and he was kind of putting us through our paces, for good reason. He was also very intent on bringing his own vision and his own sound to the band. It was rigorous. I love those records, and I’m very proud of making those records as well. Making this record was a different experience, and I think it benefitted from being a little more laid back. We weren’t trying to find a sound, we just let the songs dictate where the sound was going. We were working with a new producer, Matt Ross-Spang, who’s a Memphis kid and who’s really talented – he’s won a couple of Grammys engineering some Jason Isbell records. With his attitude and being in Sam Phillips’ studio, and kinda taking the knowledge that we’ve accrued so far, and ease back, take our time, and make a record. It ended up sounding exactly like the kind of music I was in the mood to hear right now.
One of the things that I was thinking is that it sounds in some ways very much like a Lucero record, and yet it sounds nothing like a Lucero record, if that makes sense.
There are so many different textures, there is a real…I don’t know if “cinematic” is the right word, but there are a lot of layers and sounds going on that we haven’t really heard before from Lucero.
Yeah, some of those sounds are things that, I don’t know, I think we were trying to do some of that way back on maybe the Tennessee record. And even That Much Further West. I don’t know if we really hit the mark on those. When I started the band, it was kind of a rejection of the punk rock scene. I wanted to play sort of traditional country music, which we quickly found out we were unable to play. (*both laugh*) We can’t play traditional country, it’s just not in us. So really quickly, influences from my high school years bubbled up. I started off playing at 14, 15 years old, learning Cure covers and REM covers. That kind of 120 Minutes era stuff. That’s what I grew up listening to in high school and those are the first songs that I learned how to play when I picked up a guitar. That stuff, whether I wanted it to be or not, was actually more of a presence in that early Lucero stuff than I thought it was.
For the last three records, I wanted to get away from that and go for that more Memphis sound, with the horn section and the boogie-woogie piano parts. It was fun to explore that. But with this record, I decided to go back to our roots, and I hate to say ‘80s and ‘90s alternative music, but to let some of that back into what we were doing. We kinda started that process with All A Man Should Do, but with this record, it’s all there. It’s a very consistent sounding record where everything fits together, and everything kind of has that same tone and sound and compliments each other. Records in the past have been a little disorganized, possibly, with one song that sounds like this and one song sounds like that all on the same album. That’s fine sometimes, and it doesn’t matter sometimes. But this record is kind of nice because it is very consistent and it seems like one complete vision.
It’s important to bring up, for people that haven’t heard it yet, that there is a consistent sound, but the individual songs don’t sound the same.
They’re all distinct, for sure. There’s some records, like Automatic by The Jesus And Mary Chain, where all the songs sound the same, and it’s awesome, because they’re great songs. And I can appreciate the other end of the spectrum, where everything is a little bit different, and I think we fit into that category, for sure. I was talking to somebody the other day, and we started off…the first two songs that really came together, we didn’t do any pre-production, I hadn’t written really anything, though I had four or five different guitar parts to mess around with. We just went into the studio to set up and I started playing these guitar parts and we were just saw what worked and what didn’t…
That’s different than how you’ve done it before, yeah?
Yeah, especially with Ted Hutt. I would do acoustic demos and send them to him and he’d critique those, and we’d tinker with the songs then. He’d come into town before the recording and we’d spend maybe a week in full-band rehearsals playing through the songs, picking them apart, rebuilding them…like “what if you use that chorus as a verse, write a new chorus, switch that part around…” really getting in there and being hands-on. Especially with 1372 (Overton Park) and Women & Work. We were all learning quite a bit through that process. No one had ever really bothered taking an interest in what we were doing before, they were just like “eh, that sounds fine.” We just kind of made the records as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Ted was really the first one who really was invested in it, which I thought was awesome. I loved working with him. Some of the other guys had conflicts. There was a lot of editing involved with those records, taking parts and chopping them up and making things fit exactly right, and taking some of the looseness out of it. That was refreshing to me for a little bit, but after three records like that, it’s nice to go back and set up on the floor and just play and basically capture everything live, at least the skeleton of the song.
That’s what we were doing for this one. I didn’t prepare at all. Basically I started writing some parts once the studio time was booked and I was like “oh, shit, I gotta start writing songs.” The first two things that really clicked: the first one was “To My Dearest Wife.” That came together pretty quickly on the first day. We tried a few different other parts, and I was kinda saving that one for last, in case things got really frustrating, I thought “at least I can pull this one out and I kinda know what I want to do with it.” And sure enough, that’s what happened. We started playing it, and I told Roy to play that rolling, kind of marching drum beat in the choruses, and it was like “Oh yeah, that’s awesome! It works!” Everybody got excited, and that one really got us going.
And then, the next thing that came together was “Among The Ghosts.” It didn’t have any lyrics, and I sang it completely differently, but the music was there. Those were kind of the first two that we got really excited about and that really worked. Every other song on the record I think kind of fits with one of those two songs. You’ve got the kind of traditional sounding “To My Dearest Wife” type of songs, and then you’ve got the more angular, rock and roll type “Among The Ghosts” songs. I wanted a record that sounded like all the good ‘80s classic rock and all the good ‘80s alternative rock records kind of combined. Once things started clicking, and once we had those two songs as anchors, everything came together. I’d go home each night after being in the studio and come up with a couple more parts and then we’d work on them the next morning, and then I’d go home and write lyrics, and try to push them out more.
It was a slow process, but it worked. We did ten days I think at the beginning of 2017, and then throughout the year we’d go on tour for a while, come back and do three days, go on tour together, come back and do four days. We probably did three weeks, maybe a little more, total in the studio, but it was all spread out over a year. Which gave us time for the songs to sink in and for me to soak them up and get to know them, and I had time to edit things and go back and change things. “Among The Ghosts” probably had four sets of lyrics with three different vocal patterns. And really, it wasn’t until I came upon the last vocal pattern, the last little melody and the way I sing it, that’s really when that one came together. It was a really fun process. It was kind of laid back and easy, and I really enjoyed taking our time with this one.
It’s interesting that those two songs came together first. I normally try to sit own and take notes with an album the first time I hear it to get a feel, but I had obviously heard so much of the album live, and then Brian played a test press for a few people the day after the Block Party in April, so I didn’t get to take notes at first this time. When I put it on again more recently when I got a press copy, it struck me that those two songs are sort of two sides of the same token, at least from a lyrical perspective. To me, listening to it, “Among The Ghosts” sounds more on-the-nose about yourself while “To My Dearest Wife” has that Civil War letter home quality. But those themes are perfectly overlapping.
Yeah, they have a lot in common. With Izzy and being married and having a house and a family, those themes are obviously at the front of my mind, and those are songs that I feel like singing because that’s kind of what I’m going through at the moment. Family ended up being a much bigger influence on the record than I thought it was going to be at first. “Among The Ghosts” is definitely the most personal song on the record. I was intentionally trying to write more in a storytelling way, where the narrator isn’t necessarily Ben Nichols, and trying to work on the craft of songwriting, although that sounds pretentious. Trying to write outside of my comfort zone a little bit. “Among The Ghosts” really is straight from my life, although I tried to use lyrics with maybe an older, timeless quality to them. But it’s still the most personal.
And “To My Dearest Wife,” I liked that title, because I had just gotten married. It came from the Civil War letters, but it’s all about my wife and daughter. It never mentions the Civil War, I don’t think, does it? No, it just mentions a battle and a field, and that could be Afghanistan, or it could be Viet Nam, or it could be World War II. I wanted to keep it nonspecific. The “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” kind of ties it to the Civil War, but I wanted it to really be applicable to pretty much anybody. And really, I wanted it to be applicable to whatever battle anyone’s fighting in their life. Whatever goals you have and whatever fight you’re fighting, I wanted it to be able to apply to that. It’s not necessarily only a war song; I wanted it to have a little bit more of a broad appeal, and it’s really more life than war.
I thought that about “Cover Me” the first time I heard it. The shows sort of blend together, so I don’t remember if it was in Connecticut or in Jersey, but I remember saying to my wife at the time “damn, that’s a great song.” Listening to the lyrics, it’s obviously Civil War-era, but that song could be pertinent now, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I wanted it to be kinda the same way. You mention ‘Chicamauga’ in the first line just to give it a little color and a little flavor, but really, I wanted that song to be a war right now, or a war in your past, but it could also apply to any struggle in anyone’s life. That “I’m not going back alone, I’m not leaving you here, we’re getting out” kind of theme. Even though I’m using the metaphors I guess of soldiers in the war, in my mind, it goes beyond that.
That’s a thing that I think you’ve done pretty well over the years, even with the Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian” stuff (Last Pale Light In The West) is specifically related to a book, but most of those songs still are relatable.
I hope so. I was hoping to try to capture everything I loved about the book, and the reasons why the book was really my favorite novel, and to put that on the record. I didn’t want it to just be a book report, I wanted it to be my perspective of the book as well. So yeah, that was a really fun exercise in stepping away from the autobiographical songs.
Speaking of which, the one song that people probably haven’t heard yet is “Back To The Night,” because that’s not a song that you can really play live, at least in a traditional sense. I have to ask where that spoken word part came from.
There were two reasons that that came about. It was the last song that didn’t have lyrics. The music was done and it was beautiful and like you said kind of cinematic. And I had that title, “Back To The Night,” which was kind of borrowed from the Nick Toshes book, Hellfire, the biography about Jerry Lee Lewis. There’s a line in there about him sort of rescinding back into the night, where the dogs bark and the sun never shines and it’s all whiskey and pills, and I was like “ooh! I can use that!” (*both laugh*) I was having trouble fleshing out the lyrics, and the song sounded like this sort of movie soundtrack, and I was like…back in the ‘90s a lot, like that Jawbreaker song “Bivouac,” I don’t know what it’s taken from, but there’s just a guy speaking, and they use a Kerouac song sometimes, and they use other readings here and there. A million bands would take little movie sound bites and put them in songs, and I was like “I could do something like that, that would be pretty cool, but I don’t know what to use or how to even get permission, blah, blah, blah.” So I was like, “eh, I could call in a favor possibly.”
So at first, I pieced together lines that I’d written that didn’t get used. A lot of them were from “Everything Has Changed,” some of them were from “Back To The Night,” some of them were from other things. So I pieced together lines that I liked that weren’t being used and were on the cutting room floor, but that I didn’t really want to get rid of. So I sent it to my brother, Jeff, and said “man, if you can just have Mike (Shannon) call us and leave a voice memo.” He was nice enough, within twenty-four hours, to recite those lines in a voice memo, and it was the coolest thing ever to get that voice memo. It was super cool. And we just got done filming a video for “Long Way Back Home” which Jeff was nice enough to come down and direct, and Mike was nice enough to come down and star in. Jeff wrote a script, and we had Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, who was in Boardwalk Empire with Mike, a kid named Garrett Hedlund, who was in Troy and Friday Night Lights, and he was the star of the remake of Tron. And we had a kid named Scoot McNairy, who’s awesome. He’s going to be in True Detectives Season 3, he’s in the new Tarantino movie, he was in Argo.
They were heavy hitters and awesome guys who knew my brother or had worked with him before. My brother has such a good relationship with folks and they were willing to come down to Memphis and work for free. We bought ‘em plane tickets and put ‘em up in this kind of AirBNB, and the worked their butts off for three days. Jeff’s cinematographer was there with this crazy camera that we got to use for free, because he’s got such a good relationship with Panavision. We called in all these favors. Craig Brewer and his crew helped us out, they’re a local Memphis crew. It should come out hopefully in August, right after the record comes out. It’ll be a short film with “Long Way Back Home” in the middle of it. So Michael Shannon’s actually a really big part of this record, and I owe him a lot, because we never paid him a dime!
That’s a kind of video that people in this world don’t really make anymore.
No, not really. I was telling people about it and how it would be cool to do it with every song, and they were like “oh, like Beyonce.” So yeah, I guess it is like Beyonce, but in our world it doesn’t really happen, and you know why? Because it’s crazy expensive. We didn’t pay anybody, but just flights and food and shipping costs for that camera alone were crazy. But with my brother’s help, it really came together. Even just looking at the still photos from the shoot, it’s going to be really impressive. It’ll be on the website, of course, but I’m hoping when it comes out that it gets a little bit of coverage, because it’ll deserve it, just because I know the quality of work that my brother did and the actors did. You don’t see that very often. There’s a lot about this record that kind of sets it apart, and it’s nice that it coincides with the twenty-year mark. It’s like “alright, we’ve done this for twenty years now. Now we’re actually figuring it out and running at full stride. It’s nice hitting that twenty year mark with this record because I just feel really good about it, and I would like to continue to make a few more records like this. That’s the plan.
I have to say, before we wrap up, that I was talking to a mutual acquaintance of ours in Dave Hause, and he has been up here a couple times this month; he opened for Frank Turner last week. And he was saying that, you know, the most punk rock thing you’ll see this year is Lucero taking a spot in between this super up-and-coming band (The Menzingers) and Frank Turner, and said ‘you know what, we’re just going to play our new fucking album!” (*both laugh*) Nobody else would really do that, and in the age of YouTube and all that, nobody wants anybody to hear anything before it comes out especially. And you guys said “fuck it, we’re going to play the whole goddamn thing, and you’re going to like it.”
Yeah, well, I’m not sure if that was a smart move or not…
Oh I thought it was great. From a punk rock sort of aesthetic, it was perfect.
My life would have been so much easier if I had just played punk rock songs at punk rock shows, but no. Or played country songs at country shows. But for some reason, there’s something in me that has got to play punk rock songs at country shows and country songs at punk rock shows.
But that’s one of the things that I think people love about the band. It’s the total “Lucero” thing to do, and that’s fucking awesome.
(*laughs*) I’m not sure…it is. I’m just glad that we can get away with that for twenty years and that people will stick with us. Really, it was just that I liked those songs so much, and they’re so fun to play. I think it was a good move, and it created a bit of a stir. It was a Frank Turner show, so we only had 45 minutes, and really when it comes down to it, I had so much fun playing those songs, and I’m away from my family and a lot of these songs are about missing my family, so I really just did it for myself! (*both laugh*) I think it worked.