Bri Blahg: Lucero’s Ben Nichols. Restless, Rootless, and Rock N Roll

17 09 2009

by Brian Phillips (@BrianBlahg)

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Recently I had the pleasure of chatting via phone with Lucero front man Ben Nichols. For our readers in Central Ohio you’d better get your tickets now as the band is coming to town for a headline set at The Rumba Cafe Saturday the 19th. Never seen Lucero? You’re in for a treat. Rock n roll rarely sounds truer.

Nichols and I talked about their major label debut “1372 Overton Park,” which housed the band for ten years and, many years prior, Elvis Presley’s karate dojo. We chatted about Nichols’ acting on an MTV show called $5 Cover, about his visit to Walter Reed Medical Center too, and about his restless, rootless life pro and con.

I’ve broken this into three bite sized chunks.

Ben on his wanderlust, and living in Elvis’ Dojo:

Ben on the new album, and signing with a major label:

Ben on acting, and visiting with wounded soldiers:

Or if you prefer, hit the jump for the interview text…

BriBlahg: You’re never home are you?

Ben Nichols: Not for very long. We’ve been keeping busy for the last number of years.

BB: Yeah since the band started, you just left and never came home. You can’t have plants or a cat or anything can you?

BN: No, no pets, no plants … A girlfriend is tricky enough.

BB: And you explore that a lot in your music don’t you?

BN: Yeah relationships have been a big topic for our songs.

BB: There’s a lot in your songs about getting away, being away and trying to juggle that with a relationship.

BN: It’s those conflicting desires. You want the romantic side of leaving, traveling and the adventure. It’s romantic to get in car and head west. At the same time it can be a little lonely not having someone that’s more consistent, and having something back home that’s a little more solid, but it’s hard to have them both at the same time.

BB: Let me play shrink here for a second. Let’s suppose you had a job that kept you home. Do you think you’d be in an easy spot to have relationships, or do you think because of the way you are it would still be difficult?

BN: I think having a relationship might be easier, but I think I would still be extremely restless. It would be tough. Anytime I’m in a town for more than five days it starts to feel a little funny to me. Even when we are home for a good amount of time, if I’m in Memphis I’ll go to Little Rock. My parents live there and I have friends there so I’ll divide up my time in different towns even when I’m off of work. So yeah, if I had a job that kept me in one spot I have a feeling it would be difficult for me. I would always be yearning to hit the road.

BB: So we’ve learned something about ourselves today.

BN: (chuckles) It’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind, and I think it comes out in the songs.

BB: And speaking of the songs, you have new album coming called “1372 Overton Park.” Where is that? I didn’t Google map it, is that in Memphis?

BN: Yeah it is. It’s in the northwest corner of what folks in Memphis would call Midtown. That’s where I ended up when I first moved to Memphis. I guess you’d call it a loft space above a variety store. I’ve been there since ’99. I guess it’s significant because it’s our little corner of Memphis. Everybody in the band has lived there, we rehearse there, recorded some demos there. Since we all lived together it financially enabled the band to get out of town and do what we do.

BB: So for your major-label debut you put your address on the album.

BN: (chuckles) That’s true, that is true.

BB: That’s not very smart, Ben.

BN: Well some of the guys have gotten girlfriends, my guitar player just had a baby last year and so everybody has moved out except for me, and since I’m the last one it’s time for me to let it go too. I’m turning the key in at the end of September so that phase will be over.

BB: So you don’t have to worry about stalkers.

BN: No no, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us. I don’t see us being that kind of a draw for stalkers. If they want to stalk the building that’s fine, but I ain’t gonna be there. Actually the building has had stalkers before. It was a karate dojo. Elvis ran it. The Tennessee Karate Institute is what it was. We’ve had people come up knocking on the door wanting to see where Elvis did karate.

BB: Now that I did not know. You lived in Elvis’ dojo for 10 years.

BN: Yeah, yeah.

BB: Any ghost stories?

BN: No, that’s always a question we get. Even though we were out of town a bunch, the times I was there … no ghosts. You gotta worry about your car getting stolen or your catalytic converter being ripped off the bottom of the van. Our trailer got stolen twice from there so you gotta worry about crime, but not ghosts.

BB: I imagine though that there are lots of ghosts you and the band are leaving behind. Is that the significance of the title? It obviously has a great importance to you.

BN: With this new record we added a horn section which is all over this new record, and once we figured out we were going in that direction and we knew we wanted to tap into that Memphis soul it became a very “Memphis-centric” record to us. The title of the record is significant that way too. That’s our place in Memphis, or at least it has been for the first 10 years.

BB: I’m glad you brought up the horns. It really makes the record special I think. It gives it such exuberance. What was the thought behind it besides the Memphis connection for going whole hog with the horns?

BN: It’s kind of how we’ve done everything in our career so far. It was an accident, spur of the moment. We were doing some demos and our bass player said ‘I know this guy John Spake (legendary Memphis player/arranger with credits ranging from Al Green, to Solomon Burke to John Hiatt) and he wouldn’t mind coming over and putting some horn parts down.’ As soon as he did it we were all blown away and we said ‘yes yes we have to have more of that.’ It really solidified our thinking on the record. It gave us a direction, and it’s just really fun. We just had a blast doing it! We were able to go for this bigger sound, something bigger than we’ve done before.

BB: It gives me an early-to-mid-’70s Stones feel.

BN: It’s funny there’s horns on more rock-n-roll stuff than you realize. There are horns all over a bunch of things that you don’t consider ‘horn songs.’

BB: You’re calling the tour “The Rambling Road Show and Memphis Revue.” Are you bringing some brass with you?

BN: Yes we are and we’re actually just starting rehearsals with the horn players now. There’s the four original members on stage, then there’s Rick Steff the keyboard player, Todd Beene the pedal steel player and then we’ll have two or three horn players so they’ll be eight or nine people on stage every night. It’ll be a big production for us.

BB: Did you find people that could keep up with you guys? You go at it pretty hard when you’re on the road. Did you have any sort of screening process for this?

BN: (laughs) Basically the guys we got have done this before. They haven’t done it with us that’s true. If their livers survive they’ll make it just fine.

BB: Are you working up arrangements for the old fan favorites on the horns too?

BN: That’s the plan. I’m not sure which songs we would accent, but we would love to do some old stuff with horns just to experiment, just for fun.

BB: I was surprised when I learned you signed with Universal, but not because I thought it was a bad idea. I’m sure you get a lot of grief for it, but I actually thought it was a good idea. ‘Well we’ve done everything we can do.’ Was that kind of the thinking?

BN: Yeah, we felt like we have been working are asses off. Basically for us the deal that they offered us was a good deal. They didn’t touch our back catalog, they don’t touch our touring income, our merchandise income, all that’s completely separate. You don’t find that in a lot of major-label deals.

BB: No you don’t.

BN: And we’re not worried about getting dropped because we have established ourselves the last 10 years and we can go right back to doing what we were doing and still make it work. It’s going well so far.

BB: Beyond the obvious, getting the record into more stores, what is it that they’re going to do for you?

BN: With a name like Universal maybe we’ll get a shot at Conan O’Brien or David Letterman which we’ve never done before. We might get more satellite radio play. We might get a little more attention than we would otherwise.

BB: That’s the first thing that occurred to me, the TV stuff, that this will open those kinds of doors for you.

BN: That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to give it a shot.

BB: Speaking of TV, talk about this MTV thing ‘$5.00 Cover.’ How did that come about?

BN: Basically that was us being in our friend Craig Brewer’s new project. He’s always loved Memphis music and always wanted to do something with local musicians. When he asked us to be a part of it we said ‘yeah sure we’ll do whatever you want.’

BB: What is it exactly? I watched it but I’m not sure how to describe it.

BN: I’ve heard the words ‘pseudo reality.’ I’ve got a couple of speaking parts and I’m playing myself … ‘I’m Ben Nichols from the band Lucero and this is kind of what it’s like when I’m at home.’ I’m not in very many of them. There’s 15 of them I think and I’m in three for, thank God, brief amounts of time. I’m no actor.

BB: Enough time to roll around with … who is that?

BN: Claire Grant. She’s an actress with Memphis who lives in Los Angeles now. She’s had small parts in big movies and big parts in small movies. Yeah, that wasn’t a bad deal. That was a good day of work.

BB: Yeah (laughing).

BN: Actually I gotta admit, when he first called I said ‘we’re real busy I don’t know if we’ll have time to do that’ and he says ‘can you lay around naked in bed with Claire Grant and a bottle of whiskey’ and I said ‘yes I can do that … sign me up.’ Overall I thought “$5.00 Cover” was good. … It’s a little cheesy you know, it’s hard to do something like that without it being cheesy, but a lot of the folks though did a very good job.

BB: Did the boys give you a lot of crap for your acting?

BN: Oh God yes. I don’t think I’m embarking on a second career any time soon.

BB: What were some of the comments?

BN: They couldn’t watch it without laughing their asses off. I don’t remember anything specific except for the loud laughter … and pointing.

BB: And you were rolling around with Claire for the band. I mean you were doing it for them.

BN: Yeah I was comfortable with it.

BB: On a serious note, I was reading on Lucero’s blog that you dropped by Walter Reed (Army Medical Center) a few months ago.

BN: There was a couple of guys who had been at the hospital and they had come out to a show at The Black Cat (D.C. club) the night before and they invited me over the next day. I didn’t play, I just walked around and met some guys. I’ve got some songs on some past records that deal with my grandfather or with friends who were in the military and luckily at least with the guys I’ve met whether they’re Marines or Army guys, they like the songs. I’ve gotten really nice compliments from guys that have been overseas. It was a real nice opportunity, not a whole lot of people get to do that.

BB: I was thinking specifically of the song ‘Joining The Army.’

BN: That one is about my grand dad, and the fact that I never joined the army. I’ve always been fascinated by making that choice and about what my grandfather went through in World War II.

BB: What kind of soldier would you have made?

BN: I have no idea. I’m kind of scared to think about it. That’s part of what makes it fascinating; ‘How would I deal with that?’ ‘Would I deal with it as well as other guys I know?’ It’s a tough question. It’s one that I don’t think you can answer unless you do it.

-Lucero’s major-label debut, “1372 Overton Park,” comes out Oct. 6.

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