Lucero’s songwriting is distinguished by its physical and emotional restlessness—the sense that the protagonists of their songs never quite feel at home or have the answers they’re looking for, whether they’re wrestling with gruff heartache or dealing with life’s other prickly roadblocks. Still, there’s always been something redemptive about the Memphis band’s music, perhaps because the group has never stopped evolving. In recent years, Lucero has incorporated soulful horns and ruminative piano into their whiskey-driven punk and biting twang-folk.
Long-time fans might be even more surprised by the band’s latest album, "All A Man Should Do," which is by far the moodiest—and most genre-agnostic—release of their career. The grimy soul of “Can’t You Hear Them Howl” gives way to the piano-and-organ-burnished “I Woke Up In New Orleans” and bawdy, sax-featuring “Young Outlaws,” before ending with the uplifting, us-against-the-world anthem “My Girl & Me In ’93.” Still, "All A Man Should Do" might be Lucero’s best record yet, precisely because it is so poignant, meticulous and even sophisticated.
The band plans to explore the various dimensions of their sound on a fall tour where they’ll be doing an acoustic and electric set each night. “That’ll kind of give us the opportunity to show both sides of the band and hopefully that’ll make it easier to fit in some of more delicate, quieter stuff,” says frontman Ben Nichols. “We’ll see. It’ll be kind of an experiment, but I’m hoping that it works.” Prior to the start of the tour and the release of "All A Man Should Do," Nichols talked to Salon about the record’s unexpected musical inspirations, collaborating with Big Star’s Jody Stephens and finding the light within a period of emotional darkness.
This is the third record in a row you guys have made at Ardent Studios with Ted Hutt. There’s definitely a different feel on this record, however, than on your other previous two records.
Yeah, it is different in a few ways. When we started working with Ted a number of years ago, we started on a record called "1372 Overton Park." When we were working on that record, we had just added a horn section, and not too long before that we had added a keyboard player, a really great piano and B3 player named Rick Steff. And so when we started working with Ted, we had all these new instrumental elements in the band, and we were really pushing and seeing how far we could go with these new sounds. And so we made some very Memphis-influenced records with almost, you know, Stax, R&B horn parts, and these big rock ‘n’ roll B3 parts and actually kinda Sun Studios boogie-woogie piano parts. All of this stuff was kinda new to us, and new to the band, and it was our first time working with Ted, so we had a lot of fun just pushing everything in that direction and seeing what came out.
Then with "Women & Work", the second record we did at Ardent with Ted, we refined it a little bit. It was a little more cohesive of an effort, but it was in the same kind of direction and the same kind of Memphis-influence style. And so having done those two records, we really enjoyed working with Ted and we’ve got a good working relationship with him. He gets very involved in the songs right from the beginning of the process, from the writing process all the way through to the end, and I’ve just really enjoyed working with him.
So we knew we wanted to do a third record, and Ardent is just so convenient for us and such a classy studio, we saw no reason not to do a third one there. But [musically] we wanted to go in a slightly different direction. We’ve kinda been going the same direction for two records, and on this one, I don’t know, it just seemed like it was time to take the elements that we’ve come to know better and see what else we could do with them. With this record, we actually toned everything down a little bit and made a more understated record with other influences… I played acoustic guitar on the whole thing, which kind of automatically gives it a quieter feel and kind of a softer touch, and so then as we wrote the songs, they kind of dictated the direction. Song after song, it just kinda seemed to lend itself to this lighter touch that maybe was a little more nuanced than the last two records. I was really pleased with the way it came out.
I tend to really love moody music, and this is exactly what it is.
There’s definitely a dark side to the record, and then there’s kind of a lighter side. It’s actually almost literally side A of the record is dark, and you flip it over and side B is lighter. And that kind of parallels what I was going through personally—just relationships and general attitude to the world. [I was in] kind of a darker place a couple years ago, and then as we were writing the record, I came into a better place personally. I think that shows through on the writing of the record, actually. But I’m a big fan of moody, darker songs and, yeah, I think we definitely hit the nail on the head there with some of the stuff.
The first half of the record in particular, there’s a lot of searching and like being in other places and trying to figure out what’s right—and then it all seems like all roads lead back to Memphis. What is that old saying—everywhere you go, there you are?
Right. And there’s definitely a lost element, I guess, to the first half of the record—a waywardness to it, a searching for the light, [with] the light being whatever’s just less self-destructive. And yeah, I guess there’s definitely some self-destructive elements floating through those first five songs, and pulling yourself out of that could be one of the themes of the record. Pulling yourself through that and maybe healthier space. I don’t know, nothing’s too literal. There’s not exactly a theme to the record. It’s not like a concept record. The songs kind of came about naturally, and we grouped them as we saw fit, but I think it works out and it has a nice kind of symmetry to it.
The single “Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles” is such an evocative song. It’s almost like a daydream, like one of those Hollywood flashbacks of the era that doesn’t exist.
Totally. All of the places the song mentions, most of them don’t have anything to do with Warren Zevon. They’re places that I saw, and places that I went when I was there. That was part of the darker time. I was dating a girl out there and spent a lot of time in L.A., and Los Angeles has a certain romantic appeal to me. I’ve always liked the west, and the idea of the west and that kind of seedy, you know, Los Angeles that, like you said, isn’t really there anymore even. And so yeah, I kind of soaked that up and it all ended up in that Warren Zevon song. And of course, I’ve always been a big Zevon fan, and I literally drove around looking for some of these places. And I was like, “Ooh, yeah, that’ll work in a song.” So yeah, it came out pretty good. I ended up liking that song a lot.
Were there any other particular writing or musical influences or inspirations that you can really pinpoint that really influenced you personally?
I had a quote somewhere else before talking about this record: This was a record I would’ve loved to have made when I was in my first bands when I was 15 years old, which would’ve been, you know, 1989, around that time. And I was listening to stuff like the Smiths, the Church’s “Under The Milky Way,” the Police and Crowded House. I’d have loved to have made a record like this way back then, but I just wasn’t quite capable of it. And now I can, and so I was able to tap into some of those influences.
Those have that real… like I was saying, a lighter touch, kind of a softer approach. But it’s still really catchy and kinda moody songs. And all those bands were really good at that, and so actually I would listen to a whole lot of that stuff when we were working on this album. And yeah, Lucero’s known for kind of Southern rock, whiskey drinking, bar room songs, but this one’s a little more… I don’t know, I don’t wanna say delicate, but it has more of a certain restraint to it that some of those late ’80s bands might’ve had.
I happen to be a massive Crowded House fan.
Oh, me too! That “Something So Strong” record is one of my favorites, oh yeah. I still listen to it all the time. [Laughs.] For all the punk rock and country music that we listen to, my guitar player and I have a bunch of other influences, and we both agree on Crowded House. And you mention that to some people, and they have no idea what you’re talking about and it’s not what they expect would influence a Lucero record, but it was actually a pretty big influence.
You guys also have Big Star’s Jody Stephens on the album on a cover of Big Star’s “I’m In Love With A Girl.” Do you guys just know each other from being around Memphis?
Jody works at Ardent, and so we’ve known him just from being around and recording there. We were there again for a third record, and Jody was there, and he’s always super supportive and just a really sweet guy. And we were discussing that we’d never recorded a cover song for a record, for an album. In fact, live, we rarely play covers. I have a tough enough time remembering my own songs [Laughs], much less someone else’s, so we don’t do a whole lot of covers, but we’re like, “Man, we’re at Ardent, we’ve got Jody here—what about a Big Star song?”
It was kind of a last minute decision, and we ended up picking “I’m In Love With A Girl,” which on a Big Star record is just… I think it’s just Alex Chilton and an acoustic guitar. It’s a very simple song. And so we took it and lengthened it a little bit, and rearranged it a little bit and came up with a keyboard line for it and a drum pattern—kinda made it our own. But then we were really, really lucky that Jody was performing with…I think it’s Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies. They were playing with Alex and Jody as Big Star, and then Alex passed away, of course, but those Posies guys were in town to do a Big Star show with Jody, and they happened to be in town while we were recording. So we actually got them to come into the studio and actually do Big Star-style harmonies on our Big Star cover with a guy from Big Star in Ardent. [Laughs.] It just doesn’t get much cooler than that. We were like little kids, just you’re all giddy, jumping around the studio watching them sing these harmonies. It was definitely a cool experience.
We’ve never had anything like that on a Lucero record before, and so I think that kind of fits in actually with [the direction of the current record]. The last two records that we did in Memphis at Ardent were more kind of Sun Studios and maybe Stax Studios influenced, whereas this record is more of a…it’s our late ’80s, alternative record. And so it’s more of a Big Star influence. They’re from the south and they’re from Memphis, but they don’t sound like Johnny Cash or Otis Redding necessarily. They sound like Big Star. And so yeah, this is kind of our nod to that—the other side of Memphis music.
You guys have been a band for so long, it must be nice to have the freedom to do something like that.
Yeah, that’s kind of always been the main thing with Lucero. We started off playing punk rock shows and we were playing really soft, quiet, pretty songs. The only shows we knew and the only places we knew to play were punk rock shows. “No rules” was one of our mantras, so I like having the freedom to play as fast and as loud as I want to, or as slow and as pretty as I want to, and not be trapped in any one genre.
You still want it to sound like Lucero and you hope that it still sounds like the same guys, but being able to experiment a little bit and stretch the boundaries a little bit and not being tied down to one sound—yeah, it is really nice. I think we may have paid the price for that a little bit, just because we’re hard to identify. We’re hard to, I don’t know, stick into a category. And I think we might’ve gotten a little further, a little quicker—business might be a little bit better—if we were more easily categorized. But it’s been a whole lot of fun just being able to do whatever the hell we want to do.