Lloyd Cole's Dylan epiphany: "I thought that gentlemen of a certain age shouldn’t make certain records"

Lloyd Cole reviewed the last Dylan album for Salon, and it led him to make his best solo album yet. He explains how

Published November 7, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Lloyd Cole     (Omnivore Recordings/Kim Frank)
Lloyd Cole (Omnivore Recordings/Kim Frank)

Lloyd Cole has been a cult musician long enough that he now commands several overlapping cults. In the middle ’80s, he was the word-drunk power-popper who led the Commotions on songs like “Perfect Skin” and “Lost Weekend.” In the ’90s he was an heir to Leonard Cohen who announced himself as “Mr. Wrong” and decreed “No More Love Songs.”

And for much of the last decade or so, he’s been a folkie acoustic-guitar-slinging troubadour, sometimes with a country twang, who’s a bit embarrassed that he once “Tried to Rock.” But Cole -- an Englishman whose breakout came in Glasgow, and who now lives in Massachusetts -- has just made his first record in years that demands to be heard with a full electric band.

We spoke to Cole from his home studio about his rousing new “Standards” album, the economics of culture, how musicians age, the pros and cons of crowd-funding, and his longtime fascination with David Bowie.

Let’s start with the new record and then we’ll drop back and speak more broadly about your checkered career, your songwriting. So I think this "Standards" record took a lot of people by surprise. Your first records were sort of world-weary and sophisticated. You made them in your twenties. Now that you’re middle-aged, the album is sort of bracing and a bit raw. So what happened here?

Not sure myself, you know. I’m a songwriter and I work with what I write, but I think I got to the point where I was maybe overthinking things a little bit, concerning what type of music is appropriate to make at a certain age in one’s life, and I think I’d been focusing heavily on ideas like understatement and conciseness. That always made sense for me in my 30s because I know I’m sort of a naturally flamboyant lyricist, I guess. And so, you know, honing it back seemed like there was no way to go in any other direction, so it was interesting for me to see if I could be more concise.

I think I got maybe a little carried away with that. I mean, overall, I’m happy with most of the records that I’ve made, but I think I got to the point where I thought that gentlemen of a certain age shouldn’t make certain records, and then I find myself reviewing-- for Salon, actually -- reviewing “Tempest,” the Dylan record. And it was just immediately apparent that he has no idea of what age he is, even. I think if you asked him what age he is he’d go, “yeah, I’m probably 60-something…” and he certainly isn’t thinking about what’s appropriate.

And I just thought, well, what would happen if I tried to stop worrying about that stuff? And this is what happened -- I wrote some songs and it sort of snowballed on me; I wrote a couple of songs that sounded to me like they needed a rock and roll band. And looking back at the rock and roll-type records I’ve made, I’ve declared on several occasions that I don’t really know how to rock.

I think, ironically enough, that when you think you’re in your middle age and there’s something undignified about rocking, actually rock and roll sort of belongs to my generation. Young people aren’t interested in rock and roll. And so I think when it came to actually making the record and committing to making it, that sort of reinvigorated the writing process and gave me some momentum and maybe some excitement at the idea of doing something I either haven’t done for a while, or I personally don’t think I’ve done it before.

People talk about this record sounding like the records I’ve made before; I think it’s louder than anything I’ve ever made before, when it’s loud. And so I find myself in a place that I hadn’t expected to be, and I was quite excited about it. So I suppose that’s how it happened.

Let’s talk for a moment about the sound of the record. It sounds a little bit to me like the first self-titled record and the “Don’t Get Weird On Me” days, so who’s on this record and how was it produced and why does it sound different from the rest of your work from the last decade or so?

Well, if you haven’t read the press release, you’ve got a good ear. Because when I decided that I wanted to make a loud record, I thought, well, who’s the best rhythm section I know, and I thought of Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet, who played on my first two solo records. They’re both based in L.A. these days, and I called them up and said, “How about it, there’s no money in it,” and they both wanted to do it. So that gave me a deadline, because Fred was due to have a kid, so I guess it was September of 2012, that gave me about 10 weeks to finish all the songs by the time I had to go to L.A. to do the basics with Fred and Matthew; otherwise we’d have to wait another six months or something. So that made it quite fun -- deadlines are good for writers, I think, as you probably know. If you don't have one you just go on forever. But I’d gotten pretty bad with them over the past few years. I’d gotten to the point where I think, writer’s block is basically an excuse to be lazy, for myself. And you don’t have writer’s block if you’ve got no money and you’re a writer.

I was just looking back over your discography and there was five years, I guess it was in between “Love Story,” which I thought was a really good record, and “The Negatives.” So a full five years passed. So you’ve certainly had really productive periods and less productive periods.

That period between “Love Story” and “The Negatives” is -- there were three records made during that period but that was when I left Universal.

Right, it wasn’t writer’s block, it was sort of “music business block,” I guess.

There was music business block, but to be honest, after that whole thing happened, after I was no longer with a major corporation, I did definitely sort of retreat from the whole idea of being whatever it was that I’d become, and I did sort of self-impose a writer’s block on myself in terms of... I decided that I wasn’t going to go and sit down at the piano and just go looking for songs anymore. I spent the next few years actively trying to not write songs, to find out if I really wanted to do it still, and that was good actually. “Music in a Foreign Language” was the record that came after that, and it’s one of my best records.

Yeah, I just listened to that last night and I thought it held up really well. So just to stop on a point, you tend to write on piano rather than guitar, is that fair to say?

No, I write on whatever I’m sitting next to. I’m not really an accomplished instrumentalist on any of them. I basically learned to play guitar in order to write songs. So I write primarily on the guitar but I also use various keyboards.

Right. Well, you’ve managed to make records and tour for, I think it’s about 30 years now. Did you expect things would last that long when you started out with the Commotions? I think “Rattlesnakes” was 1984. Did you foresee a career of that length, or were you thinking ahead at all?

Wasn’t thinking ahead very much. I think for the first five or six years it felt like every record was the last one, and I didn’t really see what I was going to do after that. And then it got to a certain point where I had to ask myself, why, other than making a living, make any more music? Because there’s plenty of my music out there, and I guess then it became a question of, is a body of work something that’s worth trying to build, and eventually I started to like that idea, and I still like the idea, but a body of work is not enhanced by adding filler to it. Any addition has to be a worthwhile addition.

Right. Well, I think you’re probably typical in the 80s of not thinking in the long term. Rock and roll was really only 30 years old itself when you were starting; it didn’t have a deep history, and rock and roll has usually thought of itself as being youthful music, made by and for young people. It’s very different from the way blues, country, folk, jazz, that kind of thing works. Do you see rock and roll differently now? Does it seem like something that has a deep history and more possibilities, maybe, than it did in the early 80s?

I think it still has at least as many possibilities, and it seems that they’re not all exhausted. There might not be an entirely new genre to be found, or an entire new sub-genre to be found, but there are juxtapositions that can create new feelings, new sensations, and that is something worth pursuing, I think. Most people who’ve been writing songs as long as I have tend to say that we only have one or two songs that we write over and over again, but so long as it’s not the same protagonist every time, the same perspective every time, then you can tell the same story over and over again and still find new ways of telling it. If they excite me, hopefully they can still excite other people also.

But it sounds like you still think of yourself, 30 years on, as a rock musician. You’re not one of these people who say, well, I think I’m a folk musician now, or I’m the white equivalent of an old blues guy, which I think is the way the Stones see themselves, rightly or wrongly. You still see yourself as working in the tradition of rock and roll, I think.

Well I don’t, really. I feel that that’s one of the things that I do, and I feel that that is almost my day job, but I made a record that came out just a little bit before “Standards” last year with [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius from Cluster, and I’m sitting up here in the attic in my studio which is primarily modular synthesizers these days. There’s guitars up here as well, but… I still enjoy the idea of rock and roll music, but certainly if you’d asked me in the mid 2000s I’d have said “No, I’m a folk singer.” I’m a musician of some kind, and I think that the thing that I have that defines me is not the genre that I work in, and I think what defines me is my voice, which is not necessarily my singing voice but my aesthetic or my stamp that I put on the work that I do which makes it mine. Amazingly, I think that same thought process, that same aesthetic applies to solo acoustic music or instrumental synth music or rock and roll music.

I want to come back to some of those points in a minute, but let’s stay with the record for a minute. The first song on “Standards” is a cover of a song by John Hartford, the bluegrass fiddler, and you’ve released all kinds of covers over the years. Some of them I guess you haven’t released, you’ve played live, Dylan’s “Most of the Time,” T-Rex’s “Mystic Lady,” a lot of Leonard Cohen. What makes a song right for you, and do you feel the need to transform a song in some kind of way when you sing and play it?

I think I do think that there’s not a lot of point if you’re going to record a song, recording it in the same way that it was already done. You’re not adding anything to the world of music by doing that. I remember in the early ’90s I was working toward a solo record and I was working with Chris Hughes, the producer, and I was thinking about recording “Beauty Queen” by Roxy Music. I remember Chris just said “why?” and I didn’t have an answer; I just thought it was a great song and I wanted to do it, and he said “well, that’s not good enough.”

For me, generally speaking, the songs that I’ve actually recorded by other folk have been either songs that I’ve taken out into my live show and I’ve found a way to play them which is my own, like the Nick Cave song on “Music in a Foreign Language,” or, in the case of the John Hartford song-- I didn’t even know it was a John Hartford song to be honest, I thought it was a John Phillips song because of Mama Cass’s version, because I read somewhere that John Phillips wrote it, and I didn’t even know it was John Hartford’s song until after I’d recorded it. We were working toward this record and I’d had that song in the back of my mind and I loved the lyrics. Going to L.A. to record with Fred and Matthew and sort of force-feeding them Neu every morning to try and get this kind of insistent rock and roll. I wanted the beat to be insistent and repetitive and strong, and so the match between that song and that idea just seemed perfect. It was serendipitous, really.

And otherwise, what makes a song right for you, besides the fact that you just like the song and you think you can find a way to match your vocal range?

I need to feel like I can sing it, and find the right voice for it, but also most of the time I’m singing the song in my live set and I’ll try and choose something which is a break from my voice. I’ll try and find something that I couldn’t have written, so something like “Famous Blue Raincoat” is just… I wish I could have written it, but I don’t think I could. And similarly, with something like “I Threw It All Away,” which is the song I’ve been singing a lot recently --

Oh that’s a great song. Sort of overlooked Dylan song that’s not unknown but it’s not as well-known as “Lay Lady Lay” and some other stuff from that period. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is possibly Cohen’s best song -- that or “Chelsea Hotel 2,” which I think I also have a recording of you singing that somewhere…

Yeah, I’ve sung both of those. And I probably wouldn’t have committed the “Chelsea Hotel” one to recording, other than that I was asked to put something on a tribute record, which I think is a little different than saying I’m going to put a Cohen song on my own album. And also, that was 1991, when, to be honest, I was young enough to not think about whether it was worth doing or not.

Fair enough. That’s the way youth is, isn’t it? Well, your songwriting seems pretty influenced by Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I hear them as probably the two key influences on you, but you’ve had a real commitment to country music over the years, too, and you have a  great song from your second record called “Why I Love Country Music.” So why do you? What’s your connection to the stuff that was born thousands of miles away from where you grew up?

I think my relationship with people like Dylan and Cohen is very much sort of hero-worship, and I’m open to be able to not so much follow in their footsteps but to feel that genre of music that they helped create. Before Dylan and Cohen, whatever it is that I do didn’t exist before 1965. The importance of the lyrics in music was not… it was something that was generally regarded as secondary, aside from folk and country music.

I came to country music sort of late in my life, like most young people, I listened to it and went “Oh it’s sugary, and I can’t listen to it; the production values are too obvious,” but I found more and more that the actual quality of the songwriting and the ability to get something really substantial into two or three minutes, generally speaking two minutes 20 seconds, most of the great country songs… I found that that was something that I was aspiring to myself, and I felt that I had more in common with a country songwriter than with a rock songwriter.

And I remember you singing “She Thinks I Still Care” … have you recorded that song?

No. I’m not sure I could have a way to record that; I think I just sing it occasionally.

So anyway, let’s talk about where the music business is, and how the life of a musician has gone since you started out 30 years ago.

I hear from a lot of musicians, young and old, about the difficulties of making a living these days. You know, that we’re post-label, post-album, post-college radio, especially since streaming has replaced record sales. You’ve just put out one of the best records of your career, and you play around the U.S. and Europe, it seems, fairly regularly. So is it fair to say that this new world is working out well for you?

Well, there’s a confusion when people are talking about the music industry these days, I think. People are talking about the music industry and confusing it with the recording industry. The recording industry’s in trouble, and when people say there’s not as much money in the music industry any more, what they mean is there’s not as much money in the recording industry.

So what’s happened in the recording industry is that the top is still the same, there’s still a lot of multi-platinum artists, and the bottom is the same, the independent scene is the same -- there’s just nothing in between. There’s no middle anymore. The middle is where I used to live, somewhere. I’ve been closer to the top or closer to the bottom at various points, but I’ve never been at the very top or the very bottom. But the middle, the middle has contracted, but people seem to be quite happy to pay $170 for one concert ticket. Which is kind of astonishing to me, especially if it tends to be in really horrible stadiums where the atmosphere is awful and the sound is awful --

Especially if you’re seeing the Eagles or the Rolling Stones, or kind of AOR bands like that.

Yeah… so the idea that there’s no money in the music industry is wrong, but the money is going… All of us have had to respond in a Darwinian fashion if we want to survive. And so for me, obviously, I still make quite a significant amount of money from the fact that I get played on the radio around the world, but the money that I make from selling records is considerably less than it used to be.

The money that I make from touring, if I’m willing to get out there, is still substantial. The problem that I have is that I’m 53 and my body is not as strong as it was when I was 33, and I’ve actually been touring “Standards” -- “Standards” came out in Europe a year ago, I’ve been touring it for about a year already -- and, yeah, I’m pretty tired. I don’t think that I can keep up this type of schedule, and I’m going to be in a very interesting position in a couple years’ time because I’ve been basically going to people. People live in Philadelphia, I’ve been going to Philadelphia playing concerts in Philadelphia. People live in Chapel Hill, I’ve been going to Chapel Hill… and some people who don’t live in those towns are willing to travel to come and see me, but if I were to cut that down, and play less concerts, and ask more people to come and travel, will they do it? I don’t know, but I’m going to have to do it, and I’m going to have to find out, and I’m a little bit scared about it, but on the other hand, I’m not traveling on a tour bus. You know, I’m flying around on airplanes on my own, with a suitcase and two guitars, meeting the technicians that I work with in the various countries. That’s not a particularly comfortable life, but it is a fruitful one and for a young guy that’s starting, if you’re willing to get out there on the road, there’s money to be had but there is wear and tear involved, for sure.

And you crowdfunded this record, right? I think it’s the first time you’ve done that. Does that seem like something that you --

It’s the second time.

You did it with “Broken Record”?

Yeah, I did it with “Broken Record,” and after “Broken Record” I swore never to do it again, because, on the one hand, it’s wonderful because people become invested in the project, they get excited about it, and it doesn’t cost them very much money, I don’t ask for silly amounts of money, and they get something special that nobody else gets -- it’s a pretty simple deal.

On the other hand, it’s quite difficult to actually make sure that it goes smoothly. Even with just 600 people around the world, trying to make sure that the people in Australia get their deluxe edition before the record is in the shops… it’s difficult. It’s problematic, and for every hundred investors and helpers who are magnanimous about it, every now and again you run into somebody that you wish you hadn’t taken their money.

I’m not planning to do it again. The customer is always right, and I think that has to be the case. But I’m not planning on doing it again, and neither of the records were completely crowdfunded. They were still made with investments from me and investments from Tapete Records in Germany. [Tapete] didn’t have sufficient funds to fully pay for the making of a record like “Standards” or “Broken Record.” Both of those records involved going into recording studios with musicians, as opposed to sitting in an attic with a computer. It still does cost a fair amount of money to make a record if you want to work with musicians.

And this still depended on a label, then, it sounds like.

Well, I don’t have to be dependent on a label. There’s a possibility for my next record that I might be able to fund the entire thing myself, but that really depends on where I am at, maybe in six or nine months’ time when we can look back and see, well, how much money did “Standards” actually generate. And we have to consider, is distributing the music in the traditional way… is it worth it? This is the final test for me with this record -- this record’s done a lot better than my previous records in Europe, so when I total up the money, if it turns out that “Standards” didn’t really generate enough money to make a reasonable profit, then I’m going to have to consider plan B for my next record, which will probably mean that it won’t be in record stores.

You’ve talked about the wide range of music, the sort of broad field you see yourself operating in. How much do you listen to music outside rock and roll, jazz, chamber music, ambient music, that kind of thing, and to what extent do you listen to and connect with music by younger musicians?

Not very much, but I have a son who’s in a band in Brooklyn, so I’m sort of force-fed, to a certain extent. Which is good… but I do find myself -- you know, I’m about to drive down to New York, and it’s going to be about four hours each way, and I’ve got playlists in my phone ready to listen to, and it’s audiobooks, it’s not music.

So what are you listening to, or reading, these days?

I’m reading all sorts of things. I’m reading Hannah Albrecht’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” right now, I’m reading… oh gosh, Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer -- I’m terrible with names, it’s one of the things that is really frightening with age.

I mean, every now and again I hear somebody like Santigold and go, ah, that’s great. But I don’t put it on repeat. I listen to it and I go, that’s great. Whereas when I heard “Around the World in a Day” in 1985, I put it on repeat for the whole year. So my relationship with music is different; I feel it’s a little bit like you get with certain things after a certain age. I’ve digested so much that I don’t feel like I need to listen to [Wire’s] “154” again to know that I love it, and if it comes on the radio I enjoy it, but I don’t necessarily want to come home and listen to music. If I am listening to music, it’s probably closer to what people would call "noise" these days. Modern experimental electronic music that borders on classical music, really.

Right, stuff that comes out of a Steve Reich tradition…

Yeah, I would say that would be the right tradition.

Here’s my last question. You wrote a lot about Bowie for Salon not long ago, and there’s all kinds of things happening in Bowie records, as the 70s and 80s go on, all kinds of sonic experimentation. I wonder which of the records you think is most impressive from a songwriting point of view, if we took these songs and just stripped them down.

“Diamond Dogs.”


 “Diamond Dogs” is the most impressive for songwriting; it’s astonishing.

Over “Ziggy Stardust,” which seems to have --

I think if you go back, the beginning and the end of “Diamond Dogs” are quite rock and roll and experimental, but in the middle, songs like “Rock and Roll With Me” or “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead” and especially “Sweet Thing” … these are astonishing songs. I think what it was is that that was when Bowie was just starting to be interested in R&B and he was starting to find some chord progressions that were a little bit somewhere in between rock and roll and R&B, and that’s why “Young Americans” coming next made sense. But yeah, I think “Diamond Dogs," in terms of songwriting, it’s definitely the standout record. And I know I’m in a minority.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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