Nick Lowe is post-punk royalty. The acclaimed producer, songwriter, author and pop culture icon, will return to Australia in 2020 for his first tour in seven years. Lowe will be touring with Los Straitjackets, a band known for channeling the peak years of the guitar instrumental, and for performing in the famous Lucha Libre fighting masks. Lowe enjoyed much chart success in the late 70s and early 80s with tunes such as Cruel To Be Kind, So It Goes, and I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock And Roll. Nick Lowe also wrote (What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love And Understanding, made a modern classic by Elvis Costello & The Attractions and produced a number of successful albums for other artists including Costello, Pretenders, Graham Parker, The Damned, and Wreckless Eric. In the second half of his career, Lowe has become a songwriter of elegant, witty and sometimes quietly devastating songs that draw from the same well as pre-Beatles pop, early rock ’n’ roll and the classic songbooks of Britain and the USA, and are sung in a superbly relaxed croon.
Ahead of his February tour of Australia with Los Straitjackets, Nick Lowe spoke to Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips about his career, gear and the upcoming tour.
You are coming back to Australia early next year, along with Los Straitjackets. Do you recall much about first time you toured Australia?
The first trip was with Rockpile back in ’77 I think. I have been to Australia a few times since then and it really is completely different now. I have been shocked every time I go back as to how fantastic it is there now. It was pretty funky back in the 70s, which really wasn’t that long ago.
When did you first come across Los Straitjackets and what appealed to you about them?
I have known them for a quite a long time, just on the circuit. I met them sometime in the 80s and we share a manager, so it’s not that much of a stretch that we would do something together at some stage. It came about because around 5 or 6 years ago I released a Christmas record, which to everyone’s astonishment did pretty well, especially in the United States. Of course as the cliche goes, a Christmas record is the gift that keeps giving and you can put it out every Christmas. The first time we put it out, I couldn’t go because two of my very close friends and collaborators, Bobby Irwin who played drums with me for years and years and Neil Brockbank, they died one after the other unfortunately and it took the wind out of my sails. After a year went by, it was suggested that I might do some Christmas shows with the Straitjackets. They are very well known and successful in the US in their own right. They are by no means ‘backing me up’, it’s not like their big break! In fact I am very lucky to have hitched up with them. We did this Christmas thing for 2 or 3 years, a couple of US tours and one in Europe and we thought we’ve had enough of that. Then we started getting offers to do what you might call out of season work and that’s when it really started to get cracking. I started writing songs specifically for this project and it started to really get in gear then. Now, it’s really good fun, we love doing it.
You released a new EP with Los Straitjackets earlier this year. I’m intrigued by the track Trombone. How is one inspired to write a tune called Trombone?
Ha ha yes I know, it’s a really odd one. It’s one of those songs that come along and you go, this is real nonsense, are you sure about this? It just won’t go away. I did my best to bury it and occasionally I get it out and show it to somebody. Either they looked really horrified as I was playing it or they enthuse like mad. Eventually I just showed it to the Straitjackets and they said let’s go on this one. It’s a funny one. I always think it has a touch of the Neil Diamonds about it.
Has your method of writing songs changed at all over the years?
Yes definitely it has. It is such a weird process. If I knew how it worked I would do it all the time but I find it comes and goes and sometimes it’s just something you have heard yourself do lots of times before but you have got to get it out, you’ve got to let it out. Other times you can come up with something so incredibly good that you cannot believe it, you can’t believe you have done it. It doesn’t sound like you could be capable of it. It’s quite mysterious. The older I get the more I believe it is a listening process. I used to think you had to work it out like a mathematics problem but the older I get, I think if you get a good idea, you’ve got to not force it, let it reveal itself. It’s almost like you’ve heard it before and you are learning it off the radio or something. It comes along every so often and you learn a little bit more of it until finally it is finished. Those are the best ones. It’s all in the ear of the beholder. Some things that I don’t think are much good, the public is crazy for. What are you going to do?
What do you find you work harder at, the lyrics or melodies?
I think it is about the same. I think that the choice of lyric goes with the music and suggests itself with the music. I think of myself not really as an artist, I think I am more of a craftsman when writing songs, more of an artisan than an artist. More of a tin pan alley guy. I will turn my hand to any kind of song or advertising jingle or film music. I’ll have a go at it but I am not someone who puts their diary to music and wants to tell people about the way I feel about stuff. I mean, I know what it feels like to have your heart broken or to feel abused or humiliated or even to have behaved badly yourself, to be the guilty party and I use all of that. I make artistic decisions when I write songs but I don’t see myself as somebody who has a lot to say about himself I don’t think.
Is there a particular guitar which has given you more songs than others?
Not really. I have a few posted around the house that I pick up as I go past them if I have a song coming. There’s one at the top of the stairs and I will pick that up and play it for a bit. I haven’t really got a particular one.
Do you have an emotional attachment to your instruments at all or are they more just tools of your trade?
I don’t really. I’ve got an old Fender bass that I used for years and years I’ve had since Rockpile I think. It’s been played on a lot of records, so I’d be a bit sad if that went. It did actually get stolen once but I managed to get it back. There is a make of guitar that I favour, a particular Gibson that I use all the time now. If I see one for sale I will buy the next model up. I have a small collection of them because I am so paranoid that the airlines are going to lose it or smash them up.
Is it a Gibson J-200 you are playing on stage at the moment?
It is a J-200 but it is a reissue of the original model that was made for a fellow named Ray Whitley who was a superb singing cowboy in the 1930s. He was pretty successful actually but no one ever hears about him anymore but he sort of designed the J200. Gibson made it for him and the original is in the country music hall of fame. It had a big body and made a big full sound. At the time, everyone else was playing parlour instruments but he wanted a big sound. When his mates saw him play it they all said we’ll have one of those, so Gibson started mass producing them. They reissued it about ten years ago and I thought it looked so nice I would try to get hold of one. They are quite hard to get hold of but they are very nice guitars.
Did it take you a long time to find the live acoustic sound you were happy with?
Yes it did because they sound so horrible when they are plugged in, to my ears anyway. That awful scratchy sound. I can’t finger pick or anything like that. I play pretty rudimentary skiffle or rockabilly strumming. I have good tempo and can do it well but I am just thumping away on it and when you plug them in they sound really terrible. First of all I play with my fingers, I don’t use a pick, so that takes a lot of the scratch out of it. Also I put it through an amplifier and I mic the amplifier up in a particular way. You can make it sound pretty good if don’t play too loud. I would much rather just stick a microphone in front of it like a bluegrass player would but you can’t do that when you have drums and things.
Do you miss playing bass or electric guitar?
I was never really an electric guitar player but bass, that is a very good question. Occasionally I will pick it up. My lad has just started playing bass so he has my basses set up in the house. Occasionally I will pick it up but I have lost my chops a bit with it. I don’t know what it is but I just cant seem to do it very well anymore. It would probably come back again If I had the opportunity but I can’t say I really miss it.
You produced some classic albums back in the post-punk days. You were nicknamed Basher, apparently for the way you bashed recordings out. I don’t know how true that is but how would you describe your production style?
Well, up until recently, I used to record with a little firm of players, a club you might say and I used to tour with them as well. We had this band and two of them as I said at the beginning of our conversation died, Bobby and Neil. The three of us were particularly close and we used to collaborate very closely on how we would record the songs. I like to record as live as possible. In other words, do the vocal at the same time as everything else and we’d record almost like a jazz ensemble. We recorded quiet. I like to record quietly and turn the mics up loud and that seems to be effective. Ever since Bobby and Neil’s passing, the old gang has fallen apart a bit and also I am not that interested in making records anymore. There doesn’t seem to be much point in it. Nobody really buys records anymore, not at the level I’m at. Bruce Springsteen sells records and other stars but at my level it is a waste of time. It is so expensive to make them and with the Straitjackets we get together at the beginning of a tour and If I’ve got a couple of songs, we’ll book a studio and just knock it out in an afternoon. It really serves us now, these EPs we put out. You can sell lots of them at the shows, it’s a pretty good source of income. People like to take a souvenir home from a show. For me it’s like a business card. It shows that the shop is open and if anyone wants to commission a song or wants to know if you are still turning out quality work, people can see that. So that’s how I see it now, not the same way I used to make records. It’s more of a means to an end now.
You got pretty close to Johnny Cash, he was your stepfather. Was there anything about him that surprised you, that you didn’t expect?
Yes so much. He was the most charismatic person I have ever met. Whenever I saw him, obviously I was living in London and he in the United States but I would see him three or four times a year I suppose. Each time I would see him, for the first half an hour it took me a while to get used to him. As I say he was so charismatic but I would get over that and you would realise that it was sort of ridiculous but I couldn’t help it. But then we’d be back in the groove again. And then when that happened … I suppose what was surprising was how … I can’t use the word ordinary because there was nothing ordinary about him, but how down to earth he was. Sometimes we would listen to records together, pre-Cds and we’d listen to music just as I would with my pals. You know what it’s like, have you ever heard of so and so? I’d say no and he’d dig around and get the record out and drop the needle on the track he wanted and be really enthusiastic, just like me and my pals were when we listened to music. He turned me onto all kids of stuff, he was really something. I adored him … still miss him … and June.
When you look back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Oh man, I don’t really see it like that. In fact I don’t think anything I have done is particularly good! I am very hard on myself really. I suppose I like a lot of the stuff I did with Elvis Costello but there again I can’t really remember what I did on those records. I produced about six albums with him but I cant really remember what I did. I think I just hung around and watched him do it. I must have done something or else he wouldn’t have asked me back. I guess I am pleased about having written … I always think of the first original song that I wrote which was Whats So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding, which now has been recorded by so many people. Whenever I hear somebody do it, it almost feels like I had nothing to do with the song. It is a very curious feeling
Midnight Oil do a great version …
Yes they did. I have recordings of all kinds of strange versions. I have a recording of a little choir of Tahitian fisherman doing it. All sorts of people, so I suppose that’s pretty cool that that happened.
NICK LOWE’S QUALITY ROCK & ROLL REVUE, STARRING LOS STRAITJACKETS
SUNDAY 16TH FEBRUARY SYDNEY ENMORE THEATRE
TUESDAY 18TH FEBRUARY MELBOURNE FORUM THEATRE
WEDNESDAY 19TH FEBRUARY BRISBANE THE TIVOLI
FRIDAY 21ST FEBRUARY PERTH ASTOR THEATRE
SUNDAY 23RD FEBRUARY ADELAIDE THE GOV
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