Dig His Mood

Putting the 'roll' back into rock 'n' roll: An interview with Nick Lowe

By John Milward
Published July 3, 1998 11:40AM (EDT)

Nick Lowe celebrated his 30th year in rock 'n' roll last February. But if you assumed this music veteran -- whose resume includes everything from playing in a British pub-rock band to producing Elvis Costello -- marked the occasion by taking in a big rock show, you're wrong.

"I've gotten to that age where I find it very difficult to go to shows," says Lowe, who is 49. "I try to go see my pals when they come to town, but going to those generally big places and standing in an unruly crowd and being jostled -- I just don't like it anymore. And it's too loud. Whatever the volume, it's always too loud. It's also too bright, with lights going on and explosions. It's just horrible."

Lowe's only slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of the concert experience is familiar to those in their "midrock" years -- which is to say, among music fans old enough to have bought Beatles' albums when they were first released on vinyl. And it goes partway toward explaining Lowe's transformation from a composer of bright but lightweight pop tunes to a much more serious and substantial songwriter. Lowe's most recent albums, 1994's "The Impossible Bird" and the new "Dig My Mood," are subtle, low-key affairs filled with songs that live where country meets blues and jazz meets rock 'n' roll.

"I'm not as much a fan of my ironic, smartass material as other people are," says Lowe, pouring himself a cup of coffee at his New York hotel the day after he and his trio concluded a brief tour of the U.S. "And I suppose I was waiting until I was old enough to have some sort of experience to sing about. When you're young, it's hard to sing the blues. Nobody believes you."

"These days," he continues, "rock 'n' roll is much more about rock than about roll. I don't do rock. But I'm interested in that roll part, because that's the funny little bit that makes it hip. And it's the roll part of the equation that lets somebody like me have a career -- as long as my body holds out, I'll be grooving when I'm 70, and not some sort of horrible spectacle."

Lowe has the kind of je ne sais quoi it takes to use words like "grooving," and to say that your elderly parents are "a very swinging pair." Lowe dedicated "Dig My Mood" to his mom and dad, who didn't always dig his music, but who were always supportive. "The only other profession I even thought about was being a fighter pilot like my dad," he says, "but I was too dim to do that. Be a military flier or be in a band; those were the two hippest things I could imagine."

Lowe was plenty bright enough for the music biz. He was a member of the British pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz in the early '70s, a prominent punk-era record producer (he recorded Elvis Costello's first five albums and the Pretenders' first single, "Stop Your Sobbing") and a quirky solo act with a handful of minor hits like "Cruel to Be Kind" and "(I Love the Sound of ) Breaking Glass." He also performed with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, and later joined John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner in a brief alliance dubbed Little Village.

Each experience taught him something new about the business of show. He learned the danger of hype when a planeload of British journalists were flown to New York to witness the Fillmore East debut of Brinsley Schwarz. Travel delays left the journalists drunk and surly by the time they reached the concert, and the band became lunch meat. The Fillmore show taught Lowe another lesson. He remembers watching headliner Van Morrison lead his "Moondance"-era band through an astonishing set that made him realize how much he still had to learn.

Then came punk. "When punk rock came along," he says, "the one thing you were not supposed to be was musical. All those years that we'd spent learning these chops, and all those gigs in Germany where you'd play all night, and on the weekends, where you'd play all day and all night. Along comes punk rock and it has nothing to do with that. And a lot of people went out of business."

Lowe found a new gig producing records, the first of which was the wonderful "Howlin' Wind" by Graham Parker and the Rumour, and helping to form a seminal punk label, Stiff Records. Naturally, he was a star of the label's "Little Stiffs" tour. Then came Elvis Costello.

"Elvis had a brand new bag," says Lowe. "He was a musician and wanted to be good, but he knew all about the attitude part of it, and knew that the world is full of musicians who can play great, and you wouldn't cross the road to see them. It's people who have this indefinable attitude that are the good ones. They've got the roll thing."

Lowe is not one to confuse record production with brain surgery. "When somebody like Elvis Costello comes along," he says, "anybody can make a good record with him." Costello's catalogue proves otherwise. His last production was two tracks by the Mavericks that appeared on a Buddy Holly tribute album and the "Apollo 13" soundtrack. "They tell me I produced those songs," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, I just stood in the back, wore a good suit and said, 'Yeah, that's happening.'" Lowe adds that maybe he should get back into production.

Working with the Mavericks was not Lowe's first exposure to country music. In 1979, he married country-rock singer Carlene Carter, a union that brought him into contact with another "swinging pair" of parents, Johnny Cash and June Carter-Cash.

"Going to Nashville to meet the in-laws," he recalls, "was the first time when I'd been in America and not been seen as some sort of eccentric character with a cute accent. It was the first time I'd been somewhere where I was a goddamn foreigner. Not by the Cash's, of course, but considering that everybody's nervous around their in-laws, having it be Johnny Cash and June Carter gave it an extra twist."

The marriage didn't last, but that didn't stop Lowe from writing "The Beast in Me" for Johnny Cashes 1994 record, "Cash." Lowe dealt with the beast in him in the '80s, when drugs, alcohol and career anxiety put him into a severe depression. After three-plus years of utter sobriety, Lowe toasted his success and returned to being a social drinker. Later, after meeting at a party for a mutual friend, former abuser Eric Clapton sent him a personal note and a 12-steps pamphlet. Says Lowe, who admits to being both touched and perturbed: "I thought, 'Well, you cheeky bastard!'"

Lowe's creative lethargy was broken by John Hiatt's invitation to help him record a 1987 album with guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner. "Bring the Family," recorded in just four days, is both Hiatt's best album and a superb example of ensemble playing. The experience made Lowe a great believer of recording live in the studio, with the instruments playing right alongside the vocals. Lowe says that when the same players were given an unlimited budget to record a 1992 album as Little Village, the magic disappeared under big-time expectations and unruly egos.

The '90s Lowe has adjusted his expectations -- "Anybody my age who worries about appealing to kids is not only out of their mind, but in for a brutal disappointment," he says -- even though he recently reaped an unexpected windfall for a song he wrote while a member of Brinsley Schwarz, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." He'd already earned some royalties when the tune was recorded by Elvis Costello for 1979's "Armed Forces," and it had even been included in a number of movies. But all that was chump change compared to the $1-million-plus he earned when Curtis Stigers sang it on the multiplatinum soundtrack to "The Bodyguard."

"The number of contemporary artists who appeal to me is infinitesimal, and I'm playing to the sort of people who like those same records," Lowe admits. Which is to say, he's playing to a pretty small pool. And most of them work in the music business and get their records for free.

Maybe that's why Lowe has come to look upon his records as demo tapes designed to lure superstar voices to his songs. (Both Rod Stewart and Diana Ross have covered tunes off his recent albums.) But that shortchanges the soulfully undercooked manner in which Lowe has rendered his most recent songs. There's a melancholy intimacy to "Dig My Mood" that goes far beyond the clever schtick of Lowe's earlier music. Pop artists typically peak early, but Lowe's just now hitting his groove.

John Milward

John Milward is a New York freelance writer.

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