A Conversation with Lloyd Cole – HuffPost 11.7.14

Mike Ragogna: Hey Lloyd, what is all this about being too old to rock?

Lloyd Cole: I think sometimes, we think a little bit too much about what is age-appropriate. I’d got to thinking that I was done with making rock music, and I was kind of okay with that. Then I wrote a bunch of songs and I was like, “Well I can’t really see any other way to do these other than with a rock ‘n’ roll band, so let’s see what happens.”

MR: How did this tracklist come together as far as direction?

LC: I just write songs. One would hope that my songwriting has evolved over the years but I still feel like I’m pretty much the same songwriter that I was when I was maybe thirty years old. I’m just older. I still get turned on by the same kind of music. I still think Prince was the biggest genius that’s ever been. I’m not sure how much is different in myself, I just think that for a certain amount of time in my forties and maybe early fifties, I was over-interested in restraint and understatement. I think I’m naturally a fairly flamboyant lyricist and maybe I’ve just been reigning it back too much. I thought on this record, “What would happen if I just don’t worry about that type of thing?” What happened is I became more colorful again.

MR: Is this album a return to what you like?

LC: Not really. In the first four or five years after The Commotions, the first year was quite frightening because I had no idea if I could make music on my own. Then when I found out that I could make music on my own it was very much just like starting with The Commotions again, “Oh, my God, I’m going to try and do this, I’m going to try and do that,” and I was excited to try and do lots of things that would not have been possible with The Commotions. I think in my later years, after I had a fairly depressing end to my major label relationships in the late nineties I think I retreated somewhat. I found myself in a niche and I wasn’t particularly happy about it. I wasn’t willing to play the game to get out of the niche and I think I turned myself into a niche artist, which is not something I’m happy about.

MR: With Standards, you’re reunited with Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet. What was getting back together like?

LC: It was weirdly exactly the same. There’s no mirrors in the recording studio so we weren’t looking at what we looked these days–I guess we were looking at each other, but we weren’t looking at ourselves going, “I’m this older, grayer, heavier guy than I was when we were working together.” As soon as the three of us started playing together with the drums, the bass and the rhythm guitar it just felt exactly as it did before. Obviously, I wouldn’t have gone back to that recipe if I didn’t think it was the best rhythm section I’ve ever worked with.

MR: When you listened to the end result, did you have any revelations or discoveries? Any moments of, “Okay, this is what I need to do going forward.”

LC: You know, it wasn’t just with this record. Part of the steps going forward were with the one before, Broken Record. I worked with Fred again for the first time on that and that was the first album that I actually went back into the studio and recorded the basics live with a band. I’d always done that in the nineties and with the commotions. It was only in the two thousands when I was consciously trying to get away from rock music and I basically went into a room and made music on my own with acoustic instruments and computers. I’m very happy with that music, but it’s a lonely experience and it’s very difficult. After we made Broken Record I just thought, “I don’t want to make any of those records in a room on my own again.” This is more the way I want to work, and I’ve made those records, I don’t need to make them again. The way forward is definitely working with musicians as opposed to computers. Having said that I’m setting up my attic right now to find a way to try and get the best of both worlds from the next record, because I’m interested in things that I can do with the modular synthesizer. It’s integrated in Standards very, very slightly but I think that there’s a way that I can take the sound of Standards and augment it with some different textures which will make for a different next record. The computer is still unfortunately part of my life.

MR: But it was fun to re-explore the rhythm section as the element of a backbone perhaps.

LC: I just think there’s certain combinations of people where the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. I just think that Fred and Matthew and I have got something that’s pretty great in that way. We don’t have to think about it. What I was very conscious about on Standards was knowing that I had to be the producer of the record. Very rarely do I start recording a record when I’ve finished writing every single lyric for ever song. When the band is having pizza between takes I’m usually going off to the office to try and write verse three. It’s not a lot of fun. But usually what I’ve done is I’ve demoed the songs up to a certain stage so I can play the songs to the band and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want to do with them. What I decided to do on this record is I’ve decided to not make any demoes at all but to finish every single lyric before I start it so that I didn’t have to be worried about finishing the songs. I knew I was happy with the songs and I basically wanted to say, “Okay Fred and Matthew, here’s the song now, I’m going to play it on guitar,” and a few hours later we’d have the basic track recorded.

MR: I imagine that in the studio, things evolved and changed from how you wrote them?

LC: There was nothing to evolve from. A song is a blank canvas. You can do anything with a song. All I had were the words and the chords and the melodies. I had a few basic ideas, I forced them to listen to Neu! every morning before recording because I wanted to get that kind of insistent, repetitive feel to the drums. Fred didn’t need much help in that direction.

MR: And did you also play them Tempest?

LC: No, I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounded like Tempest, I was only inspired by them inasmuch as, listening to that record it was immediately obvious, I don’t think Bob Dylan knows how old he is. If you asked him old he is he’d probably say, “I’m sixty something.” It was that aspect of things, the fact that that Bob is still pretty much just doing what he’s always done and he’s never worried about whether his music’s age appropriate or not, that was the spark for me. That was what got me back to thinking, “What would happen if I made a record not worrying about whether it was age appropriate or not.

MR: Joan Wasser also joined you. Was it your idea to have her come on board? What elements did she bring to the creative process?

LC: Joan was a friend of a friend and now she’s sort of an old friend. She used to be in a band called the Dambuilders and Dave Derby from the Dambuilders was in my band The Negatives for a while so I used to see Joan around. When she released that record Real LIfe I must say I was completely taken aback because I think it’s one of the best records anybody’s ever made. She’s my favorite. Karen Dalton’s probably my favorite singer but she’s dead. Of the female singers living now, Joan is probably my favorite singer. I was making Broken Record and I said, “Would you sing on it?” and she said, “Yes, of course,” so she sang on Broken Record and as long as she keeps saying yes, she’ll be singing on all my records. She brings a harmony and something in the sound of her voice, a texture that she adds that just brings the song to life in a way that nobody else could.

MR: And you also have your son Will on the project plating guitar.

LC: Absolutely. Quine is dead. It used to be Fred, Matthew, me and Quine. Quine’s no more, but William grew up listening to Quine and Keith Richard and the Strokes and he’s got his own thing. He’s not playing on the record because he’s my son, he’s playing on my record because I was watching his development as a musician and he got to the point where I thought, “I like what you’re doing, how about trying to play some guitar on my record?” That’s him playing the guitar solo on “Blue Like Mars” and that’s the closest to a Quine feeling that anybody’s had on my records since Quine.

MR: Nice. When you look at the people who played on Standards it seems like an amalgam of many periods of your life. You’ve got people from the Commotions, you’ve got your son, you’ve got Joan and you’ve got Fred and Matthew. Did you find that this group of people was creatively inspiring or satisfying to you?

LC: All the projects are satisfying in that way. The ones that aren’t I don’t release. It’s hard for me to say because the process of making the record, especially the two weeks in LA doing basic tracks was great fun. It wasn’t even two weeks, it was ten days. That was invigorating and that made making the rest of the record a lot easier, especially with Fred and Matthew’s enthusiasm for the material. They reminded me a lot of when we were working in the early nineties because if I wasn’t sure about a song they were always very honest about stuff. Matthew just kept going on and on, “These songs are amazing! This record’s going to be great!” Frankly that’s nice. I needed a little bit of enthusiasm. There’s no need for another record unless it’s got a chance of being great.

MR: You created a nice circle of moments in your life. That must have had some sort of happy influence.

LC: I guess so. I guess that’s just the type of thing that makes sense as you get older. You can’t have your son playing on your record when you’re thirty.

MR: What’s out there right now that you like? New things that have got your ear.

LC: I don’t listen to a great deal of popular music. The last band that I was particularly excited about was probably The Walkmen, and they don’t exist anymore. It’s nice to see somebody like the black keys become popular. That’s exciting, I think. It goes to show that the market is not as constricted as people thought. I really like Santigold. There’s music I hear every now and again where I go, “Oh, what’s that? I want to hear more of that,” but I spend more of my time listening to experimental and classical music these days. I probably spend more time listening to music made with modular synthesizers more than anything else. There’s a guy who runs a record shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also makes music with synthesizers, I listen to a bunch of his stuff. The last couple years, I’ve been more of a student than a listener because I’ve been learning how to make music without computers but with synthesizers. That’s my side project.

MR: Do you use a sequencer at least?

LC: Yeah, but it’s not in the computer.

MR: Like the old days.

LC: Yeah, like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk.

MR: You have Somerville, Boston and Cambridge near you. Those music scenes may not be national but do you get out to the bars and check out that music once in a while?

LC: Not much. I’m not saying I don’t, every now and again I do, but I’m about an hour and a half west of Boston, in the North Hampton valley. It’s got a similar scene to it, there’s a lot of music going on. I keep a room in a local studio that I can go to when I need to do recording that I can’t do here in the attic, so I see music coming through. I used to go out more to see music, but I have to say I go out less because I’ve been working a lot recently, and I do like silence. I probably prefer reading to listening to music.

MR: That’s a lost art, too. What advice do you have for new artists?

LC: I have to think about this all the time these days because my son’s band is in Brooklyn, they’re getting started and it looks like they have a chance. I think that you need to find your voice. If you find a voice which is your own and you feel like you have something that is not a rehash of something that’s already been done then you can run with it. But if you’ve been playing music for four or five years and you haven’t found your voice yet then you’re going to be in a cover band. That’s fine, playing music for fun is also fine, but you have to find your voice and that’s it. The music that I made before 1983 sounds like a cover band. It wasn’t until writing “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken” that I suddenly went, “Oh gosh, this is what I’ve been wanting to do. How can I do this now when I couldn’t do this last week?” I don’t know, but I think you have to have that moment and you have to believe in it. I play golf also and you have to accept that there’s a great deal of luck involved. I got lucky in 1984, the whole band got lucky. There’s plenty of great bands that don’t get lucky but I think over all luck will even out and if you are a great band there’s a very good chance you will be found. I think if you don’t think you’ve got a chance to be great, we don’t need more music from people who don’t think they can be great.

MR: Can you see the evolution you’ve gone through over the years?

LC: There’s certainly not a linear evolution, that’s for sure. There are some terrible mistakes made along the way and certainly some dead end streets that were taken. My relationship with individual records changes. For many, many years I was very frustrated with the album Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe and kind of perplexed by why it was a lot of people’s favorite record of mine, but it’s now one of my favorite records of mine. For many years the album Love Story was the album I thought was my best solo record, I now think it’s probably my worst solo record. My relationship with things absolutely changes. I can’t sing certain songs because I don’t know where to start with them, I can’t remember what I could’ve been thinking to write them and yet other songs, maybe even older songs still seem perfectly simple, I don’t even have to think about why I wrote them and I still feel I can sing the songs. I’m not sure if evolution is the right term. I think maybe quest is better. I think I’m still trying to write beautiful songs and I think over thirty years there might be three or four songs that have absolutely nothing I would change about them. There’s maybe a dozen or twenty others that–I don’t like the term “proud of” because I don’t like pride, but I’m very happy with them. And there are a few things every now and again that I find myself looking at or hearing when I’m singing and going, “Well gosh, I think only I could’ve written that.” So maybe I am a valid addition to the canon.

MR: What advice would you have given yourself as a kid?

LC: I wasn’t really a musician, I was just kind of an ideas person. I did the right thing, I surrounded myself with musicians who were able somehow or other to invest some trust in my vision for what the band could be. I literally could barely play guitar or sing. When we were recording Rattlesnakes the only production that went into the recording of the vocals was, “Is it in tune or not?” When it was in tune it was regarded as being finished. As soon as producers started to try and direct me with how my vocals were presented, Jesus, things went terribly wrong for a while. I had no idea what I was doing, I was just some kind of savant. I got lucky. I guess I knew I needed musicians but I got lucky to find the right ones.

MR: So your advice would be stay the course.

LC: [laughs] No, I certainly wouldn’t say stay the course! If it’s not going well and you’re not sure that what you’re doing has got a chance of being great then do something else. I’ve always been pretty sure. I was sure when I was getting started and then I was unsure for about six months after the Commotions because I wasn’t sure I could do it on my own and then as soon as I started making demos on my own I was like, “Oh, I can do this.”

MR: What does the future look like? You’re going to be supporting Standards?

LC: Standards came out in Europe about a year and a bit ago. I’ve been all around the world promoting it already. We’re just sort of starting again over here. I’ve got a New York show and then some European shows in November and then probably some touring early next year over here. I’m actually getting ready to make the next record, that’s what I’m doing up here in the attic. I’m trying to reorganize it so that it’s a work space for the next record. I don’t think there’ll be a lot of work when we’re snowed in here so I’m going to try and get some recording done.

MR: Are you going to have your cast of characters back?

LC: I’m not going to record it exactly the same way as I did last time, I’m going to try and make some sketches and some recordings that can be overdubbed, or certainly sonic ideas. With Standards, the idea of the recording was more a philosophical, conceptual idea of how I wanted the bass and drums to be in terms of wanting it to be very driving and straight ahead and not even slightly jazzy. For the record, I’m thinking about I actually want to create a textural soundscape idea before I write the songs because I want to have a sound that I can then write for.

MR: Lloyd, I wish you good luck and a wonderfully creative snowed-in winter.

LC: [laughs] I hope so. You’ve got to try and get something out of it when you’re snowed-in here, it’s just grim. I’m not having too many more winters, I’m going to be somewhere else when I’m sixty, that’s for sure. Snow’s cool when you’re in your teens and you can go sledding, and it’s beautiful for the first week, but when it’s been there for three months, boy. I’ve seen enough of it. But my youngest son is in high school and everything’s going well in that respect so I’m not going to move to preferable climes until he’s finished with that. That is apparently why we’re supposed to look forward to my retirement, if my body can actually stay healthy long enough.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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