Heartland punk? What’s a heartland punk?
Whether you call it orgcore, heartland punk, or just think of it as a bunch of bands who’ve listened to way too many Bruce Springsteen records, step right this way…
It can be hard for some bands to maintain a consistently high standard of output, especially after they’ve been together for a long time. While that’s understandable, it’s not necessarily inevitable – something Lucero are proving with their new record, Among The Ghosts. Their ninth record, it comes 20 years after vocalist/guitarist Ben Nichols formed the band in 1998 and is up there with their very best, if not right at the top. A stunning collection, it reflects the chemistry the five-piece – completed by Roy Berry (drums), John C Stubblefield (bass), Rick Steff (piano, accordion) and Brian Venable (guitar) – still have when it comes to creating dark lullabies that haunt your soul. But that’s not the only milestone it represents for the songwriter – it’s also the first album he’s made since getting married and having a child. Nichols is known for writing songs about his vices such as whiskey and women, and his lyrics have long been drenched in the existential after-effects of both – a reflection on the booze-drenched life on the road – but after becoming a father, it seems that these days, he’s something of a changed man. Don’t fear, though – while Ben’s priorities have shifted, Lucero’s music is just as dark and dusky, bruised and broken, as ever.
It’s been 20 years since Lucero started, which is incredible. What does this album specifically represent for you?
Ben Nichols: "It’s a nice record to release on our 20 year anniversary. I don’t know. I think in one way it’s a return to form – it’s kind of an old school Lucero record, with the added bonus of everything we’ve learned over the last 20 years on the road and in the recording studio and songwriting-wise. The best of everything we’ve learned over the years got put into this record, so it feels good to make what’s ended up being, I’m pretty sure, my favourite record we’ve ever done. That feels pretty good at the 20 year mark, so it’s significant for that reason."
You guys have often been described as country punk, but there’s so much more to you than that – something this album definitely shows. Does it annoy you that that’s what you’ve been lumped as?
"Yeah, there’s a lot more going in there. I could never be satisfied just being a country band – any subgenre is just too limiting for us, I think. I love old school classic country-sounding songs and I love alternative country songs and Americana songs, whatever that is. I love all that stuff, but I learned early on in the band that I couldn’t limit myself to just that. There was a lot more I wanted to do. And yeah, maybe that kind of storytelling and songwriting is still present in Lucero, but sonically we definitely go a lot of different places and really it changes from album to album. This one is more of a rock’n’roll record – there’s just a five-piece band: two guitars, keyboards, drums, bass. And we recorded it mainly live on the floor so it’s less polished, so there might be a little more urgency and intensity to it than the last few records. But it’s got a rock’n’roll feel – I don’t think anyone would listen to it and think it was a country record."
There’s always been a hint of darkness in your songs, but musically there are a lot of dark undertones on this album...
"Yeah. It’s the first record that I made since the birth of my daughter and getting married, and I think there were a lot of Lucero fans who got worried when I got married, who were like, ‘Oh no, Ben’s happy. He’s got a beautiful family – what’s he going to write sad drinking songs about?’ But apparently it’s not a problem. There’s plenty of darkness. That well runs pretty deep, I guess. As happy as I am – and I’m in a really good spot with my little girl and my wife and family, I’m happier than I’ve ever been – the flipside of that coin is now I’ve got something to lose. There’s a whole new kind of anxiety and fear that comes along with having a family. The stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been before. I have a reason for caring about the direction the world is going. In the old days it didn’t matter – just blow it all up, whatever, just go down with the ship. I didn’t have a care in the world and I could drink myself to death and everything would be fine. But now there’s a little more pressure. So yeah, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, but in a way there’s more to worry about now and I think some of that darker sound on this record is maybe a part of that. I don’t know. I like the dark songs. I’ve always liked the brooding, melancholy songs. So I’m still doing that!"
Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean you can’t write sad songs from an emotionally honest place. You don’t have to be going through the experience of everything you’re writing. You can write truthful things that aren’t necessarily an exact reflection of your own life at that very moment.
"Of course. That’s true. I think in the past Lucero has mainly been almost strictly autobiographical, and on this record I definitely tried to write from other perspectives and have the narrator be someone other than Ben Nichols. There’s still a lot of me on there, of course, but I was trying to write stories, or at least from a different character’s point of view. Which is something in songwriting that I’m not real good at and I haven’t done it a whole lot in the past. It doesn’t come easily. It takes a little more work. But I think it paid off on this record. I like the way it came out and I’m looking forward to doing more of that kind of writing."
You said it takes more work – was it a bit of a struggle to write these songs, then?
"Yeah. Sometimes it’s tricky getting that sincerity, and making those songs sound honest can be tricky sometimes. It definitely takes a certain kind of empathy and… well, it just takes good writing to make it seem true. When it’s pouring right out of your gut and the song’s about whatever situation you’re in right at that moment, it’s fairly easy because the emotional intensity is already there. But when you’re crafting from nothing, it takes a little more craft to make it stick."
Did you ever worry that these songs wouldn’t get written and that this album might not get made?
"I knew we’d get there in the end, but I had no idea how that process would work. With this record, we didn’t do any pre-production. In the past, on some of the last few records, there were a lot of acoustic demos and then we’d go over those with the producer and then he’d come into town and we’d do full band rehearsals with the producer and you kind of go back and forth on how songs are constructed and it’s a long process. This time, we just went in the studio and set up, and had a few guitar parts and we started playing them and figured out what worked and what didn’t and kind of let it go its own direction. Lyrically, I wasn’t sure what the hell I was going to do, but we found some guitar parts that worked and I started intentionally trying to tell stories that weren’t about me and it clicked. But it was all a very organic type of process – a lot of it was recorded on the floor at Sam Phillips [recording studio in Memphis] and then I’d go home at night and work on the lyrics and then come back. It was by the seat of our pants in a way, but it worked."
You mentioned your family earlier and a lot of these songs seem to centre around the idea of distance and being away. Obviously being in a band means you go away a lot – how does that affect you now that you’re leaving your family behind?
"It sounds clichéd, but it does change your perspective. Lucero has plenty of heartbreak songs – that was always a topic that was very easy for me to write about, but now leaving my family behind and leaving a two-year-old daughter at home for six weeks at a time is a whole new kind of heartbreak. It’s definitely tougher. Leaving your girlfriend behind is something that seems a lot easier. Leaving a daughter behind, a daughter changes and you miss more stuff and it's time that you won’t ever get back. So like I said earlier, the stakes are higher – so it’s rougher that way, but it’s very nice having a family to come home to. It’s two different worlds – being on the road and time at home are two completely different places and lifestyles, and I genuinely believe having a family at home keeps you alive longer. It helps you stay in a better place, both mentally and physically. So if we can keep doing this for another 20 years, I think I’d have to give credit to finding my wife and having a family."
You also mentioned drinking yourself to death earlier...
Alcohol has definitely played a part in Lucero’s songs – and your life – over the years. Has that changed now that you have this newfound purpose in life? Are you less inclined towards self-destruction?
"Definitely. Self-destruction has always been romanticised in rock’n’roll, from the very beginning almost. And then you’ve got songwriters like Townes Van Zandt who everybody really respects and his songs are beautiful and very special, but you look at how he lived his life and I don’t know if I want to go down that road. If that’s what it take, I mean, hell – nobody’s going to write songs as good as Townes Van Zandt anyway, so if that’s what it takes to write those kind of songs and my songs are not quite as good, then maybe I can take it a little easier on myself and spend more time at home with my wife and daughter. And maybe I’ll learn from some of the lessons that guys before me had to go through. It’s a romantic idea – all or nothing, going out in a blaze of glory in the bar, but the older you get, the more different stuff becomes more important, and yeah, it seems like a better idea to figure out a way to stick around a little bit longer."
Now that you have your family, do you in any way regret being hedonistic in the past? Because it seems to be so ingrained in who you are – or were – as a songwriter and you maybe wouldn’t have had the songs otherwise.
"Yeah, I don’t think it could have been any other way, really. So no, there’s nothing to regret. It’s just making the most of the time you’ve got now. But no, I wish I could remember a little bit more of the last 20 years, but I think it was a really good time and I’ve been very lucky to get to write songs and have this job. It’s been amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, I’ve been very lucky to get to do exactly what I want to do and yeah, I had a lot of fun doing it, but now I’m having more fun than I ever had before hanging out with the little one. She just came in. It’s a nice… I don’t know. Life goes all different directions and I’m glad I’ve been able to enjoy different aspects of it and all the aspects of it, from the craziness of the band to hanging out with a two-year-old toddler. Which is almost the same thing – there’s less booze involved with a toddler but very similar stuff happens. Lots of throw-up and puke involved!"
It definitely sounds like, lyrically – and maybe this is the characters, rather than you specifically – you’re contemplating life more.
"Possibly. Although it’s kind of like what we touched on earlier where you can write a song about anything without necessarily having to live it right at that moment. And yeah, I’ve racked up a fair amount of experience to look back on and contemplate. So yeah, in that way, that lifestyle, I can look back at the years on the road and use that for inspiration, but now the family is just as big an inspiration and that’s the life I’m living at the moment. And that’ll work into the songwriting as well. I think it all kind of goes together on this record – the darkness and the scariness of whatever’s out there plus the family back home. That kind of tension is good for the songwriting and I think it came out in a pretty good way on this record."
Lucero have always trod that thin line between partying and loneliness. Getting blind drunk to forget something can be a lot of fun, but then at some point it becomes less fun. It becomes sad. It’s one of the most lonely things you can ever do.
"That’s true. And I don’t know – it’s tricky. There’s not a right or wrong answer, necessarily. It’s where each person is, you know, in their lives and in their heads. One person’s getting drunk to forget – it’s fine and fun and they’re at the bar having a good time, or at the bar having a good time not having a good time, because wallowing in self-pity and drunkenness can actually be kind of entertaining. But the same situation for somebody else is a whole different thing and it could be sad and much darker. I don’t know. I’m glad I don’t have to do it every night."
Actor Michael Shannon read the spoken word interlude on Back To The Night. Did you write those words?
"I did. I hate to ruin the mystery, but they were mainly lines that had been edited out of other songs. There’s a lot of Everything Has Changed in there and maybe some stuff from Among The Ghosts as well. But they were lines that I really liked but couldn’t fit them into the other songs that I was working on. This song has a real cinematic feel to it and my first thought was to take a soundbite out of a film and put the audio in there, but I didn’t know what movie I’d want or if I could get permission. Then I was like, 'Wait a second!' I could maybe call in favour. So I called my brother and he got Mike to read the stuff and it was amazing. He did it in 24 hours – it was literally the night before the last day in the studio when I called my brother. And 24 hours later, Mike had done it. It was a very last minute idea but I’m really happy with the way it came out. I’m glad that those lines didn’t get lost, because I thought a lot of it was actually important to this record. I don’t think Mike’s heard it yet, but it was a really cool thing for him to do for us."
In addition to you working on character-based songs, has that given you another idea as to how you can approach songs in the future?
"Maybe. Yeah. I’m curious to see how the Lucero fans react to it. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before and I can see a little bit of pushback on something as different as that but I think most folks are going to dig it and understand it. I probably won’t do an entire spoken word album, but my brother just came down to Memphis with Michael and a few other actors and we filmed a video for Long Way Back Home. My brother is Jeff Nichols. He’s done five films and they’re all really good and Mike’s been in all of his films, and he was nice enough to come down and be in the video. It’s a short film really – it’s about eight minutes long and features the song in the middle and we were like “We could do a whole album like this!” So you never know – it did spark some ideas. And that sounds like a really fun project."
Beyond that, do you have any specific hopes for this record? It’s your ninth album, so it’s not like you’re pinning all your hopes on it...
"No. Not really. I gave up on anything like that a long time ago. Of course I want this record to reach as many people as possible and if we sell a few more copies of it than we did of the last couple records, that’d be great. If we could get a few more people out to some shows, that’d be awesome. But as far as this being the one that hits it big or whatever, no. I don’t think that’s really on the cards for us. And I’m just fine with that. I’m very comfortable with the level we’re at right now. We’re not rich or famous, but we can pay the bills and we’re doing just fine. I just hope everybody else thinks this is one of the best records we’ve ever done, just like I do. That’s really all I want."
Lucero's Among The Ghosts is out now, via Liberator Music. Stream it below.