In 1984, Lloyd Cole and his band the Commotions released Rattlesnakes, an album that for many could stand as one of the best debut albums of the era. With references to Jules and Jim, Simone de Beauvoir, and Greta Garbo (all within the first three songs, mind you), the record served as a benchmark of smart, literate, and funny rock'n'roll. Lloyd did not stop there, and in the almost thirty years that have followed his debut, Mr. Cole has released a slew of great and diverse records, from his fantastic 1990 self-titled album (with the wonderful kiss-off "No Blue Skies") to the lovely, mostly acoustic Love Story in '95 to 2001's ambient/electronic experiment Plastic Wood.
I conducted an interview with Lloyd Cole via phone back in September. You can read it after the jump. He will be playing several shows in the New York and New England area in the next month. You can read about that here.
The first question I had was about your latest record, Broken Record. I've always noticed an American country influence throughout almost all of your work, but it seems on this record you deal with it more directly. Would you agree with this?
I don't think there's a lot going on in the songwriting in that direction. I think it's probably due to a few things, really. One, I decided to learn to play the banjo. The minute you stick a banjo on a record you are basically being identified as non-European. And there's a pedal steel! So banjo and pedal steel together definitely makes you think country, bluegrass...
The other thing is, the records I've made in the past have been generally recorded with at least a modicum of European musicians. But on this record, Blair [Cowan] and I are the only two Europeans. So I think you've got all these American musicians, you've got a couple of quintessentially American instruments to the fore... Sure, I think the decisions to do all those things, I guess I'm making a record which is more of an American record, but I still think (and Dave [Derby], who is the producer has agreed with me) I have, as you said, my whole career been making some kind of music which is derived from an American folk art form. You know, just like the Rolling Stones have been, they're Europeans and they've been making American music forever.
But I still think that I apply European aesthetic to decision making... I just think there is a conciseness to European art and there is a rambling quality to American art. I still feel like a European, and I think that's one of the reasons I find my job fun and interesting.
I know there was the one lyric your 1990 record, on the song "To The Church", where you said: "Can I just listen to George Jones on the radio?" When I heard that lyric, it made a lot of sense to me... especially on that record because the sound is so together and clean sounding but it approaches that rambling, American aesthetic and then when you say that line about George Jones, it sort of ties everything together.
It does, but I think it also puts a certain distance in there. George Jones, or another real country artist, would have never thought of saying that. It is because there is a distance between me and country music that those things probably occurred to me. I mean, I listen to a lot of country music. I listened to a lot of music the last couple of years and I don't think I've heard anything better than Barbara Mandrell singing "The Midnight Oil." I've been going back and playing it all the time, I think it's a perfect piece of music and it's classic 70's country.
In Broken Record, I also detected some of influence from the Silver Jews' record Natural Bridge, and I thought this was coincidental until I saw in Magnet magazine you wrote an essay about the band. Did this record have an influence on yours?
I wouldn't say so, other than that he's probably been listening to the same records I've been listening to. [David Berman] moved to Nashville and sort of embraced the idea of being a shambolic country singer. I do like those records, but I kind them kind of frustrating because they seem like they have that same Pavement watermark where maybe some of the performances seem deliberately sloppy.
My wife was talking about this the other day, as we were listening to some new band I can't remember the name of... but they had this great song, and... the singing was perfect, therefore, they felt like maybe the guitar had to be kind of "slightly off." Sometimes you get something like that right and it sounds completely natural, and sometimes it makes you sound a little mannered. I love the Silver Jews, but I think once and a while Berman's singing sounds like it's deliberately bad. We all have limitations, and as singers, we are what we are, but I think being out of tune on purpose is a bit like wearing ripped jeans, you know?
I remember one interview where you said you were influenced in your singing by the trumpet playing of Miles Davis, as in not applying vibrato. It seems that removing the vibrato, in a way, would make the act of singing much easier.
No, it's harder to do it. Vibrato is the perfect way to hide that you are out of tune. Wobble up and down... if you don't have the vibrato it's either in tune or it's out of tune.
But I also do sing [with vibrato]. I worked with a producer one time and he tried to stop me sliding between notes. He felt those slides would be out of tune, and he was right, but that's something that I do and I don't seem to be able to not do it. When I try not to do it I sound like I'm somebody else singing. We all have these certain, I think you can think of them like watermarks, where you listen to them and you go "oh, that's so and so that couldn't be anyone else." We've all got those things.
For your music, I'd say a big watermark would be the lyrics, and it seems like when you started, in England there were a few other groups, like, say, Prefab Sprout, where there would be these very literary, referential songs. Why do you think that happened, at that time?
Quite often there are what are seen as "movements" in music, and it's more like a conflict. A bunch of people at the same time... If you set up a sort of scientific experiment and apply A, B, and C to a scenario and see what follows on, the same thing's gonna happen in Durham and Manchester and Liverpool as it's going to happen to other cities in the north of England or Glasgow. The way the music scene had been going, the dominance in the early 80's of very synthetic Stock Aitken Waterman pop music... it was sort of inevitable that people would react in an opposite direction.
Some of the people decided to go in a manner that was clearly sort of revoutionary, like Jesus and Mary Chain, and other bands were saying, "Well, we still want to make pop music, we just want to make pop music that's got maybe something to it." For Prefab Sprout, the Smiths, and us.... it was not a bad time to be in the U.K. in '84, '85.
For all these groups with such rich lyrics, there are a lot of people who don't pay attention to lyrics in songs. How do you feel, as someone who puts a lot of time into the words, to have them be unappreciated?
Well it's very simple. If you're going to put energy into it, if you're gonna care about the lyrics being elegant, at least elegant, then... you have to do it, you have to put the work in, and if people care about it, they will appreciate it, and if people don't care about it, you still have to put the lyrics together in a manner where by being used to carry the melody, they're just like any other lyric.
So I don't think there's any reason not to do it the way I do it. I have some people that I've worked with... you can hear, you can hear on certain records that the songwriter doesn't value the lyric as much as he values the melody because you can tell that they're moving words around in a very uncomfortable manner just to carry a melody, and you can tell when people care about it also. There's room in music for all kinds of songwriters. I'm just one of those guys who wants the lyrics to be.... elegant is the word I like.
Have you ever considered writing a novel or short stories?
Not really, no. I've been doing some journalism recently, to try and see if I can write prose, and it's been going reasonably well. I don't know where that's gonna lead me. I just think there might be a point in time where I don't really want to write music anymore. I might want to write something else. What I did discover, inadvertently, doing that is I like the idea of the commission, I like someone giving me a job and saying "I want 3,000 words on this." We'll see where that goes.
Does this commission happen when you make records, working with a producer?
No, not really. I've never been in that position. I'm sure you could be in a position where a record company might say "we want an album like this" or "we want you to work with a producer like that" but really, as long as I've been a solo artist, I've basically just made records with the songs I write. That's basically all I can do.
On the subject of production, I remember you expressing interest in producing other groups. Is this something you'd seriously pursue?
I would. If the Walkmen asked me to produce their next record, I would jump at it. But I don't think I'd be very good at being a producer just to make a living. One of my best friends was a producer for many years and... you have to work, you have to say yes every now and then to a project that you don't particularly think is going to be fantastic. I'm not sure if I have the business acumen to think that way.
What would you do, if you were going to produce, say, the Walkmen?
I think I would approach it like making any other record. Look at the songs, look at the arrangements, try and see what the strong points are, try and see if there are any weak points... and try and get rid of the weak points, and emphasize the strong points. I find the Walkmen to be a fantastically frustrating band to listen to. I think when they are good they make the best rock music anybody makes in the world.
And yet, you go two tracks further on on the record and they're kind of rambling, and maybe that makes them charming but I think that the Walkmen have got the potential to be massively, massively huge... everything they do is fantastic. It's just a question of putting all the pieces together. Maybe they'd prefer not to be U2.
You've been doing a lot of shows with the Small Ensemble, where you have taken your songs and put them into these acoustic arrangements.
The Small Ensemble was very intricate arrangements, and an awful amount of work, not easy to play in any scenario. It's very easy to pick up the guitars and play them in my front room or in the basement, and for it to sound great, but transferring to stage, it was difficult. When we were in a good room it was fantastic, and when we were in a bad room it was really difficult.
Fortunately for the audience, it was about the same at each show, but for us it was quite difficult. It was a very interesting experiment and I'm hoping we can do some more Small Ensemble shows in the future. With the Negatives [Lloyd's rock band], you've got drums and bass and guitars on stage, so it doesn't really matter how it sounds. As long as you can hear the drums and you can hear eachother play guitar a bit, you can play.
Does it make a difference in hearing the audience? When you are playing acoustically, you hear the sound of the audience a bit more... so if someone's talking...
If people are talking loudly at the table near the Small Ensemble, it makes it quite difficult. One of the things that is interesting is that when people are at the other side of the P.A. I'm sure they think that we cannot hear them, as they are in the audience, but we can hear them quite clearly and if they are speaking in a language that we understand then it will grab your ear...you know like if there is a television in a bar and there's some kind of TV show going on that's speaking in English... it will grab your attention. It will pull your eye and it will pull your ear, and distract you from what you're trying to do. But if they're talking in Spanish, and you don't understand it, it doesn't have the same effect. So for us, if people were talkjing at the table when we were playing in Sweden, it was less distracing than when it occurred in an English speaking country. It quite interested me.
Which crowds around the world were the most receptive?
That's not fair really. Almost everyone was... just once in a while you'd get a room... sometimes, you know, it's the venue that really defines how the atmosphere is. If there's a bar really near the stage and the bartenders are noisy and making cocktails and shaking stuff and talking to their friends then the rest of the audience feels that's what is appropriate for what to do.
I spend a lot of time before we do the shows talking to the venue managers, talking to them about how quiet our show is and if the bartenders and staff could actually lead by example, we could have a good show. And, you know, probably 18 shows out of 20 were all fine and every now and then we ran into a difficult one. I don't think there is any correlation between countries as to where that is more likely to happen.
Did you have any direct influences in the acoustic arrangements of the songs?
No, basically I just found two musicians who played guitar in a manner that I liked, who were very different from each other, and just sat down and tried to figure out some arrangements to my songs. Sometimes we would play parts that were on the record and other times the parts that were on the record wouldnt be apportiate or maybe, for example, in "Margo's Waltz," the guys took a basically orchestral arrangement and played it on guitar, which was amazing.
Other times we would find that certain aspects of the recorded arrangement would work acoustically and other parts wouldn't, so we'd work something else out. The arrangement of "Why I Love Country Music" is... I don't think any of the parts from the recorded version are on it except for the vocal melody. Similarly for a song like "My Alibi," Mark managed to play one of my guitar parts but in a totally different way... almost like out of sync from me, but it made the song work in a way as we didn't have the synthesizers that were on the recorded arrangement.
The one thing I would say about the Small Ensemble is that the time and effort for a song to get them to sound the way we wanted was more for any band, because when you've got a recorded version of a song that has bass and drums on it, then you are gonna pretty much want something like that to play live... you play it to the musicians and say "we are going to do it like this." Obviously there is leeway for the way different people play, the guitarist might say, "Can I take it a bit this way?" and you go, "Sure, whatever." But that doesn't take a lot of time. I would say each Small Ensemble's arrangement took a couple of days each. It was an awful lot of work. And I think it was worth it, as when we went on stage it's not like we could be powerful with bass and drums, we were quiet, and to try to win people over, we would try to win them over with beautiful arrangements.
I think an audience can always appreciate a nice reworking of a song, too.
I think so, I mean every now and then I'd run into people who would say "when are you going to play with a real band?" That's not the best opening line to me.
When you play a song like "Like Lovers Do," I know it's a lot slower with the Small Ensemble, do you ever have anyone say "Why isn't it more like it is on the record?"
People didn't. And "Like Lovers Do" was one of the most popular songs. Eventhough we basically abanonded playing the chorus for the live version. We plaed the chorus once on the Small Ensemble version whereas it happens maybe five times on the recorded version.
I wanted to talk to you about the humor in your music, as I always find these great funny elements in your songs. I wanted to know how you felt about this relationship.
I think it's between humor and all art really. Art without humor... I think you could possibly get away with no humor if you are working in visual arts, static visual arts, like sculpture or painting, maybe you don't need humor, but... I think humor almost never hurts if it's done deftly... if it's done deftly. Certainly the idea of a major piece of work aimed at adults that doesn't contain any humor... I think you are looking at Cormac McCarthy and I want no part in that type of art. I actually tried to read The Road recently and I laughed out loud about how bad it was... or how I found it incredibly funny that someone could think that people would read this and just go... "This sounds like the diary of a goth."
You don't find humor in that kind of bleakness?
I didn't think there was any humor in it. Maybe he thought there was some sort of dark humor in there but I couldnt see it, so I think that art for adults necessarily has to have an element of humor and if it doesnt youre making art for teenagers.
When you are writing a song and you have a humorous line, do you go about writing it like any other line or is it more important to resolve that kind of line?
I don't really think about that. I don't really understand how I write songs. When a song is almost finished, I go over and over and over it and think, "Could anything be better? Could anything be worse?" but I don't think I treat humorous lines like any different to any other, I guess I know what they are. I suppose I would be weary of being "funny ha ha" in a song that wasn't a funny song. I don't do too may "funny songs," I just think I have a bit of humor in most of my songs.
My favorite humorous line is in "Famous Blue Raincoat," the Cohen song, where he says "I hear you've got a cabin deep in the desert/I hope you're keeping some kind of record." It sounds on the one hand like he's being... the thing I love about it is, it's quite snotty. It's nasty sarcasm that if you don't expect the humor to be there you won't see it. I remember listening to Cohen when I was a teenager and not seeing any of the humor and it's obviously there. But I also love the fact the sarcasm seems like it's aimed solely at himself as well, I think he's making fun of himself.
It seems like Leonard Cohen is someone who, as you grow up with music, sort of changes for the listener, as there is so much depth to it.
There is. The best music, I think, can be listened to at many different points in your life, and you get different things out of it. You can listen to Cohen when you're a teenager, I guess, and you'd probably get into "Avalanche" and "Last Year's Man," what-have-you... and then, as you're older, you'll say "well, there's actually more" and I think that's the sign of making great art. When you go back to something you thought was great when you were 25 and now you're 45 or 50 and you listen to it and go "eh, it's really not that good, isn't it?"
It's disappointing to think that you would have been enjoying it so much when you were 25... but everyone's got music like that, right? You're listening to it in 1990 and thinking "this is fantastic!" and you are listening to it now and going "eh... not really that great." But on the other hand it's great to go back to something you were listening to around then that you were worried might not sound as great but it sounds as good or better.
Do you find a wide group of ages at your shows?
Yeah, huge. Depending on where we are. We usually have three generations. I remember playing San Francisco and there were teenagers and there were septuagenarians in the audience, which is cool. I'm lucky! For many years I got the younger-sibiling kick-on effect and now I get some kids. I get parents bringing their kids to shows. And occasionally, parents bringing their parents to the shows. People of an age close to mine bringing their parents... as when Rattlesnakes first came out they were 20 and their parents were 40 and they liked it then, and still do.