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Nick Lowe

The career path of singer, producer, songwriter, and bassist Nick Lowe has featured more zigzags and sidesteps than actual ups and downs. After a brief stint in Kippington Lodge (the late-'60s British equivalent of a pre-fab boy band), Lowe co-founded Brinsley Schwarz, a group featuring, and named for, one of his Lodge bandmates. Playing unpretentious pub rock in an era of prog excess, Brinsley Schwarz never found much popular success, but the band helped set the stage for punk. It broke up in 1975, and Lowe started a solo career on the United Artists label, but he quickly regretted the deal–and sabotaged it by releasing songs like "Bay City Rollers We Love You" (as Tartan Horde) and "Let's Go To The Disco" (as Disco Brothers). The ploy worked, freeing Lowe up to become the house producer for the new Stiff Records label, home to The Damned, Ian Dury, and up-and-comer Elvis Costello. Around the same time, Lowe joined his late-period Schwarz producer Dave Edmunds in a new band, Rockpile. Famous for its raucous shows, Rockpile became a popular live attraction, but contractual problems prevented it from recording under its own name for years. Meanwhile, Lowe and Edmunds released solo albums backed by Rockpile, and Lowe got off to an auspicious start with 1978's Jesus Of Cool. Had it been released a few years later, the album would been called "new wave," but its American title, Pure Pop For Now People, seems more appropriate. More recordings, and even hits, followed, as did a proper Rockpile release, Seconds Of Pleasure. But Pleasure was the band's last album before its acrimonious split. Lowe's production career remained successful, but his own music played to a dwindling audience, even as he explored new genres. After a period of alcohol abuse, Lowe cleaned up, but sobriety failed to keep the fickleness of the music industry at bay. Still, in 1992, Lowe received an unexpected windfall when Curtis Stigers recorded the Brinsley Schwarz-era Lowe song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" for the mammoth-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard. With his sudden small fortune, Lowe bought his own musical freedom. Released in 1994, The Impossible Bird signaled a new direction, and the spare, haunting albums Dig My Mood and The Convincer followed suit. Now touring the U.S. in support of The Convincer, Lowe spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about making music, post-pop-stardom, and how boredom might kill the music industry.

The Onion: It's difficult to age gracefully in the music industry, especially in rock music. It seems like your approach has been to hit the restart button and start playing in a different style. Is that the only way to do it?

Nick Lowe: I think for me, yes. I spent a lot of time working out what I was going to do when I got too old to be a pop star. I had my brief career as a pop star in the '70s, and things tailed off for me in the '80s. I was always trying to work out what I was going to do so I could use the fact that I was getting older as an actual advantage, really, and even stand a chance of having younger musicians say, "Ooh, I can't wait to be as old as Nick Lowe." As you know, in pop, it's usually all over for you after the age of about 30. In jazz, or blues, or comedy, or something like that, you can't be too old, but in pop it's not like that. So, yeah, I sort of reinvented myself, I suppose.

O: It's difficult to pin down your sound. If you had to give it a name, what would you call it?

NL: Well, I think it's pop music. It's just not very popular. I think of myself as a pop writer, even though I wear my influences on my sleeve. I've always liked country music and soul and blues and that sort of stuff.

O: Have you felt any pressure to keep returning to a classic style?

NL: No, I really have gotten myself into a situation where I don't have any pressure from anybody at all. I'm on a small label who are very pleased to have me there. I'm a big fish in a small pool, which is much better than being on a big label, where you're always only third-division, where there are always people that the record company's got more time for. I can take my time and do exactly what I need to do. A few years ago, I had this fantastic windfall with this song of mine that got in The Bodyguard. I got financial independence from that, so I can really just please myself and come up with a decent product, and take my time.

O: Other than musical independence, what's been the nicest benefit of the Bodyguard windfall?

NL: Well, that is the main one. The amazing thing, really, is that I probably scored a little under a million dollars from that one song, and it's amazing how not very far that goes. It's plenty: It enabled me to pay for The Impossible Bird, and to tour that record in a decent bus, and to pay my guys right and everything, and to make the next one, Dig My Mood. And after that, I bought a couple of suits and took a few people out to dinner, and that was it. That took care of it. When I get cover songs, that's really how I earn my living.

O: You must have agreed to that cover version, but did you have any idea it would be that big?

NL: Absolutely not, no. It had been in a few movies before, and it's been covered by quite a lot of people, and the only reason I knew that it was going into another movie was because you have to sign this thing nowadays. When they want to put your song in a movie, you have to sign this thing that says in the event of your death, your relatives won't come after the film company, saying, "You paid my husband or my dad peanuts for this tune. I'm going to sue you." So you have to sign that sort of release, saying that this is a full and final deal. I knew it was going in, but I had no idea it would be anything like that. Who would?

O: A lot of British rock stars seem to have an urge to immigrate to America. Has that been a temptation for you?

NL: I suppose I thought about it when I first got married. I thought about moving here, actually, but my wife at the time wanted to go to London. She wanted to get out of Nashville, because that's where she's from. So, no, I've always been in London.

O: Why do you think people have that urge when they hit it big? Do you think something else drives British rock stars to move to America?

NL: I think they get fawned over here, which they rather like, and that doesn't happen in the U.K.

O: It seems like the British music press is either in love with you or out to skin you alive.

NL: Yes, that's pretty much it. You've got to keep them at arm's length a bit. I've had a very easy time of it with critics, really. I mean, the sort of people who like my records are other people in the business or in the media: musicians, producers, people in advertising, people in the movies. The downside of that, of course, is that they don't actually buy your records. They get them for free, so you don't pick up many sales. But if your music is being played in those circles, that's when you stand a chance of picking up cover songs, or having them put your stuff in their cool new TV show, or something like that. That's how I got in The Sopranos, for instance. That's really how I earn my living. I'm not complaining about that, because it's fine. I sell enough records to enable me to make more, and I've got great word-of-mouth going for me. When people hear my stuff, they generally turn their pals on to it. Certainly my last three records have all increased in sales, bit by bit.

O: One of your trademarks used to be a very sharp sense of humor, but now it seems like there's more of a somberness to your music. Does humor belong in music?

NL: Oh, I think so, yes, and I try and keep it not too earnest and dull, and not to put my diary to music. The fact is, it's so much fun to sing songs about being blue. It just cheers me right up. And I do try and keep a human element in there in order to make the thing come across, but it's not necessarily what's happened to me. I make up characters. After all, it is just pop music, so I tend to make characters up, and your characters can say anything they want.

O: Billy Wilder used to say that when he was angry, he'd make a funny movie, and when he was happy, he'd make an angry movie. Do you find that you have to be in the right type of mood to write a certain type of song?

NL: Well, it's not quite the same process, because I'm one of those writers that has to wait for inspiration to strike. When I get a good song, I kind of go into a trance, which can last for weeks in some cases. The good thing about being a songwriter is, you can sort of take your office with you, so I can be writing away while I'm doing my shopping or driving my car. It's so great when you do get a good one that you don't really question whether it's happy or sad, and you don't go, "Oh, no, it's a happy one. I don't want this to come along." You just go with it and work with it. I mean, there's 10 of my songs on this Convincer record, and to get 10, you've got to write double that, or you've got to have double that number of ideas, even if some of them get cannibalized or just fall by the wayside. It's a strange process, and one that I don't fully understand. I've done it so often, but I could neither turn it on nor turn it off.

O: You got the nickname "Basher" from being prolific, though, didn't you?

NL: It seems like I'm much more prolific than I actually am. I don't actually think I am very prolific, but I think it was more about a production technique that I used to have. I used to say, "Well, what you do is, you bash it down and then tart it up later, and don't waste too much time messing around with it when you've got to catch it early on." I think that's what it was. People don't really call me Basher that much anymore, but that's still my belief, not to waste too much time in the studio. I don't like being in the studio much: I like to know exactly what I'm going to do when I get there, rather than have people lounging around eating Chinese food all afternoon. I like to get in there and go to work. But in order to do that, I put in loads of work, where I sing the songs over and over again. That's all pre-production, and I take a lot of time for that.

O: Has having too much time in the studio ever been a problem in your own career?

NL: Oh, yeah. Yes, definitely. Especially when I was younger, we used to just spend all night in there—and come out all hopped up on all sorts of substances, of course. You'd spend 18 hours in the studio and come out the next day, and you wouldn't actually have done anything. It'd be a load of old nonsense. I think that's just part of getting older. Apart from anything else, it's damn expensive using a real studio now, which is why everybody makes albums in their bedrooms.

O: It seems like they're making a big deal about the 25th anniversary of punk in Britain right now. The take on the style of pub rock that you helped start is that it served as a kind of John the Baptist to punk's Messiah. Is that an accurate assessment?

NL: I suppose, yes, in a way it was. The pub-rock thing really was a precursor to punk in England, because the bands who went back to playing in bars and playing their own brand of... We played Top 10 music and obscure soul tunes, and it was just throwing the rulebook away, really. But it definitely came about because people of my generation had suddenly found themselves in the front line. "Right, it's your turn now. You're the new generation, over to you." We sort of turned up and looked around and saw the pop business full of these unspeakable progressive-rock groups—Emerson Lake & Palmer, and awful singer-songwriters, drippy Californian nitwits, you know. And we said, "This is hopeless, this is bloody awful, we've got to start again." Then I was involved with Stiff Records, which was very much a pub-rock sort of thing, and that bled into when punk started, when the younger kids came along. And, of course, they had that good look, and it was altogether more exciting, and you could hang your hat on it, but I never saw it as a cool music thing. I liked the fact that it was causing chaos and causing the whole edifice to crumble. And the record-company executives who thought they were in a job for life, suddenly they're out on the damn street. You know, serves 'em right. It's all getting back to that now. Everything's back in place. I can see something like that happening again, I think.

O: Do you think the record industry will collapse in our lifetime, or do you think it will, as with punk, suffer a defeat and then crawl back?

NL: I think if it does collapse, it'll collapse because it's so hopeless and boring. I can't really see a time again when music is going to have the power to bring it all crashing down, because there's groups now that do the most unspeakable things on stage, and no one really cares. I would think it's only inertia that would. Suddenly, people just stop buying records and say, "I've had enough of this."

O: You discouraged last year's tribute album to you. Did you ever get around to listening to it?

NL: I did, yes.

O: Did you like the results, in the end?

NL: Well, I've got sort of mixed feelings about it, really, because I tried to put them off doing it when they approached me, but the blokes who did it wrote me this charming letter, basically saying, "Well, there's nothing you can do about it. We're going to do it anyway." And at that point, I thought, "Well, just stop bellyaching." And, of course, it is flattering when people spend their time and energy working on your thing, but my fear was really that I don't feel like I've finished yet. That was it, really, but I did like some of the cuts—quite a lot of them, really. The trouble is, when you're a songwriter, it seems funny, but the biggest compliment that you can be paid is when people do your songs and basically throw away your melody, throw away the way you did it, and just keep the words and make up their own music. In a funny way, that's a much bigger compliment than if they slavishly copy your version of it, because it's not necessarily the best way of doing it, I suppose. So my favorite cuts on there were the ones where people just went for it and did their own reading.

O: A lot of people do cover you. Do you think something about your music lends itself to covers?

NL: I think so. It's a certain kind of artist who covers me. I try to get my songs to be very easy to understand. I work quite hard on the lyrics, and to make it sound like you haven't worked on it at all is very difficult. When you read your own stuff and you can see the little tricks you've learned, and all the little conceits and things you do, and the little bits you've cribbed, it gets on your nerves. What you want is for your eye to read something that you've written and to actually believe that someone else wrote it. It just skims over the page, and that's what I try and do. It takes a lot of work to make it sound like you just made it up then and there. I suppose that's why I do pick up covers.

O: Do you think Rockpile might have turned out differently if the band had been allowed to record under its own name earlier in its career?

NL: It might have, but we had a real fame phobia. We just didn't want to make it, and the longer we held it off and sort of killed our own career, we had more and more fun. I mean, the best time to be in the music business is that time when you're just about to make it. Not when you do make it, because that's when it gets really boring and dull. And traveling around playing for pats on the back, crammed into a little van, is no fun either, unless you're really young and enthusiastic. But that time when you're just on the cusp, that's when you have the most fun, and we managed to keep that time going longer than almost anybody else, until we just ran out of steam. We opened for a lot of big acts, and had so much more fun than they did. We'd look around at these hideous stadiums that we were playing in, and the headliners would do the same act every night, and everything happened on cue, and we just sort of said, "Do we really want to do this and have some young kids come up and blow us off the stage?" No, thank you. So we sort of killed ourselves off, really.

O: You had a falling out at one point, but are you friendly with those guys now?

NL: I'm not really very friendly with Edmunds, because he's not very friendly to anybody else, but the others, yeah, sure. In fact, I just saw Billy Bremner, the other guitar player. He lives in Sweden now, and I opened for Willie Nelson in Stockholm the other week, and Billy came to the show. He's great.

O: You've been in four groups, and you've been solo in between all those. Would anything lure you back into a group again?

NL: It's hard to think of it. I've had my own groups, where it's been my act, which isn't the same as being in a band where you're just a quarter of the action. Even if you sing most of the songs or write them, you're very much just a part of the action. And it's really good fun, but I think I'm probably a bit past that now.