Lucero: An Interview with Ben Nichols

Lucero: Blood in your veins is Rock and Roll
Lucero is a southern rock band that had their ears battened by Nashville swagger during childhood, then turned to the irreverence of Punk music in adolescence. While the styles of music seem polar opposites, the reality is they complement one another very easily. Lucero isn’t reinventing the wheel, but the band has busted its ass for rock ‘n’ roll, and the top of the hill is getting closer (relatively) because of perseverance and drive.

Ben Nichols (vocals, guitar), Brian Venable (guitar), Roy Berry (drums) and John Stubblefield (bass) call Memphis, Tenn., home the few weeks out of the year they are off the road. Although Lucero started off as a country music side project with Nichols, Venable and a violinist playing to a few friends, it later blossomed into the full-time touring machine it is today. Lucero’s 2003 breakthrough record, That Much Further West, proved the blood that flowed through its veins was full of vitriol and rock ‘n’ roll, even though many of the songs are doused in bar-room country twang and 3 a.m. beer tears. That Much Further West was lauded by folks at Rolling Stone and Pitchforkmedia, and had MOJO calling them the “Johnny Cash torch carriers.”

Of course, one could get all that extemporaneous info from their bio, and an even more intimate look into their life as a band by seeing the forthcoming documentary Dreaming In America by New York Filmmaker, Aaron Goldman, a story of life on the road with one of the hardest working indie bands on the tour circuit today.

The first time I heard Lucero was at my brother’s house in Colorado. We put Tennessee (released 2002 on now defunct Tigerstyle records) in the stereo and ruminated over every chord, finishing a bottle of Old Granddad or some such rot gut. What struck me most wasn’t the stripped-down, country-fied sound but vocalist Ben Nichols’ whiskey and cigarette-worn voice. He sounded like an old soul, pouring Rust Never Sleeps and Harvest era Neil Young through a Jawbreaker-Dear-You sieve.

There was a sincerity and honesty in his voice that spoke of long days on the road, working hard to play music, partying hard, and just scrapping by to make it to the next show-all while half-a-step short of hanging up the guitar and throwing on a tie to go work for a living (or to suffer some slow cubicle death, depending on the view). As the temps rise this year and the UV index increases to the point where going outside means entering a giant microwave, Lucero’s new record, Nobody’s Darlings, is sounding more like a great late-summer night, backyard barbeque soundtrack when you could get bit my a mosquito and not contract some terrible virus.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Ben Nichols over the phone while the band got ready to play in Little Rock, Ark. [This is an interview/feature I did for the I have since seen the band a few time but my favorite was in Austin, where I was approached by a heavy set gentleman at the bar who offered to buy my PBR Tallboy. At first I thought he was joking. He then assured me his intentions where good, “I’m the PBR rep for Texas. Just want to thank you for your support.” I smiled and said, ‘its good and cheap. Punk rock champagne.” Then I flailed my arms drunkenly to Lucero]

ME: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Ben: The first time I played some music with some other guys I was fourteen. I played bass-cause it was 4 strings instead of 6, one note at a time. I figured I could hack that. One friend got a drum set and another got a guitar for Christmas so I wanted a bass. So up until this band started I was a bass player. I wrote songs on the bass and I’ve been a songwriter since I was 14 too, just not a good one necessarily. I’ve always been working on songs.

ME: How much has your own song-writing process changed from the time you were 14 up until the last record? Are you pretty prolific, still writing right now while you’re on the road?
Ben: I actually have a pretty hard time writing on the road. I kinda have to be isolated, or I can’t get anything done and it’s tough to concentrate. I’m fairly self-conscious. Even when I’m at the warehouse where I live, the walls are really thin and when you know everybody can hear all the awful stuff you’re trying to sing through, trying to find the right parts, it’s distracting. Most of the songs I’ve ever written have been in the back room of a furniture store that my uncle and my father own. I have a key so I go up there and stay up all night long screaming my lungs out and nobody will ever hear it. That’s actually been really helpful. Finding a place where I can get away. That’s usually where I go to write songs. The process of it hasn’t changed much at all. When I started writing on the bass I always took the philosophy like: All right, I’m not the best musician in the world. You can make a good song out of really simple parts.

The most emotional impact of a song comes from the music going one way and the vocal going another way, and the contrast between the two is what really kinda communicates a certain feeling. As long as you don’t screw it up with really awful lyrics, that’s all it takes. A good two chords and a nice vocal melody and just words that aren’t bad and it can be really powerful.

ME: Once you get something down, something you’re pretty comfortable with, do you take it to the band and does everyone shape it and mold it?
Ben: Yeah Yeah. That’s kinda the process. Usually I’ve got a few different guitar parts and piece them together. Then you have your verse and your chorus and maybe a bridge, maybe a guitar solo. A lot of the times I won’t even have lyrics but I’ll have a vocal pattern. Get it hammered out. … Then I take it to the band, and I’ve got my ideas about what the song should sound like. It kinda grows and evolves as the band learns it. Sometimes it ends up completely different than I thought it would be.

ME: How did the movie get off the ground (Dreaming in America by Aaron Goldman)?
Ben: There was this guy that wanted to make a film, he lived in Manhattan, he saw us play in at the Mercury Lounge, and just by chance wrote us a letter that we looked like the kind of band he wanted to follow around for a while-and so he came out on the road with us. A friend of his followed us around in a car for about two months. They would come to a recording and when we were at home. Random interviews with different people and people that know us. Ended up a full-on documentary on the last year of Lucero’s existence. I’m looking forward to it. I’m kinda nervous. TALKING. Hopefully we don’t come out completely stupid.

ME: Did he start filming post-Tiger Style post-That Much Further West?
Ben: That Much Further West had probably been out for a few months. We were touring a lot. Actually I guess it was fall 2003. Then we toured all 2004 without a record. Now we just finally got a new record out [Nobody’s Darlings]. It might have been that long ago when he saw us. Then he followed us around for a lot of 2004, and a little bit of this year. It was a little bit of the tour for That Much Further West and a little bit of us working on new songs that are on Nobody’s Darlings. Then he came down and got a few shots of us at the barn recording Nobody’s Darlings.

*Nobody’s Darlings was produced by industry veteran, Jim Dickenson (The Replacements, Big Star, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) in a barn at Dickenson’s Zebra Ranch. Dickenson’s sons, Luther and Cody had helped Lucero record their previous albums.

ME: How did that session go in comparison to That Much Further West?
Ben: It was a lot more similar to the self-titled record, which was also done in Jim Dickinson’s barn, but Jim wasn’t the producer. It was us taking advantage of Luther and Cody Dickinson’s time. Both records, the new record and the self-titled record, were both recorded live with the drums and the two guitars done in the same room. The bassist was running directly into the board. We would just do four or five takes of a song and pick the best one. We went into this record with the idea of making a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll record with not a lot of extras. The idea was to make a record that sounded very true to the way we sounded live. We went in with that attitude, and Jim Dickinson’s job was to make sure we didn’t mess that up. So there are a lot of first takes and solos. Jim really wanted to capture the very basic core soul of the band. I believe in that somewhat.

To me, it sounds like a very good, raw and bare-boned record. So that’s what we went in to do and that’s what we did. There is still some stuff I would love to go back and add or change, but its good to have one of those types of records under your belt where it is just a band: there it is. We didn’t add anything to it; we added an acoustic guitar to a couple of songs. I’m very proud of it. I think with the next record, it will be a combination of [live recording and overdubs with more instrumentation]. I think we will take a little bit of time to add a few flourishes here and there. That Much Further West was basically recorded track by track. We did that all on our own. We engineered it all on our own and tracked everything on our own. We spent a lot of time on that. Now when we erred to the other side, I think some of it got a little bit out of hand. We are still learning how to make a good record. Eventually we will put all this we are learning to use. I don’t think we’ve done everything right yet but we are getting close.

ME: I read a quote somewhere by you that said you were inspired by a lot of the stuff that the Pogues and more specifically Shane McGowan had done.
Ben: Its just amazing music. What really puts it over the top, I think, Shane McGowan is a brilliant lyric writer. A lot of the songs just hit home effortlessly. He has a good way of telling a story. Even if it’s not his own story, he can tell a story in a very personal way. That’s something I’m trying to get better at.

ME: Speaking of writing, are you the type of writer that continuously writes even when you’re on a road; as far as lyrics and words or keeping a journal?
Ben: I wish I were. We are actually out on tour right now with a guy named Cory Brannan who is a really good songwriter. He is one of the opening acts on this East Coast tour. He is in the back of the van just writing away all day long, or whenever he has a break. I consider him more of a real songwriter. Myself, I kinda have to wait for something to pop into my head. Then I have to struggle for months trying to construct lyrics around that one idea or one phrase. Again, its like writing songs and writing music really takes getting away from everything else. Just staying up all night for a few nights in a row and bashing it out. Then going back and editing it and singing it back there in the furniture store all night long. Then coming back the next morning and realizing its all crap and doing it all over again the next night. It’s much more of a struggle with me. It may be good to exercise that part of my brain and write constantly, but right now I’m just trying to get to the next show on time. I got to get to sound check, then an interview with somebody, come back, make sure everything is squared away for the show, find a Bank of America so I can deposit the money for the checks I wrote before we left town with a balance, and that kind of stuff. So I don’t really write on the road, I’m too busy driving the car.

ME: Have things business been able to pick up for you guys a bit now since you changed over to East West?
Ben: We’ll see. We’ve had a very strong first week of record sales and all the shows have been pretty good. We’ll still see how that goes. Working with East West has been really nice. And the deal we made with them is a really cool record deal. So they’ve put a lot of work into it, and there has been slightly more money than there has been in the past. It’s definitely not a major label deal in any form or fashion. Its pretty much structured exactly like an Indie deal.

ME: That has bounced off your own label right? Liberty and Lament)? A partnership or something?
Ben: Yeah we started an imprint and started a limited liability corporation and got a business bank account. We started a small business. So basically under that, we own the master recordings. In most record deals you borrow the money up front and pay it back as you go, but when it’s over they own the master. With this deal it’s the same thing but in the end we own the masters. What we gave up for that scenario was basically to say to Warner Bros. that we wouldn’t sign up with any major labels. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t plan on signing with any major labels anyway. It’s an easy thing to give up in exchange for ownership of our records. Now if Warner Bros. comes to us and says, “We’ve been following you at East West. You’ve been doing great and we want to sign you,” we’ll see how it goes when it comes to that if it ever comes up. We might just go to the East West deal, through these two records, and the deal’s done. That’s that. It’s a really cool deal and we have that kind of infrastructure already built for the existence of our own label. We continue to put out our own stuff or maybe even do records for other people; I have no idea how far that’ll go. But it’s nice that it’s there.

ME: That’s awesome. Sounds like things have really picked up for your guys.
Ben: Yeah, we’re busy as hell and it’s going really well.