“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.