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Nick Lowe's New Attraction

Post-punk legend redefines pop's parameters

February 14, 2002 12:00 AM ET

With the release of The Convincer late last year, Nick Lowe capped the strongest trio of releases in his twenty-five-year recording career. Starting with 1994's The Impossible Bird, Nick the Knife has eschewed the tools of the lyrical assassin that colored his early work and moved into a new sound that gently folds together the sounds of R&B, country, torch, pop and any other genre he sees fit to incorporate. It isn't so much that Lowe has changed directions -- he's still making pure pop for now people -- but rather than cement his feet in the cynicism of youth, Lowe has moved forward and found a formula for making said pure pop resonate for him and his listeners, no small number of whom are now in their forties.

The craftsmanship that marked Lowe's work is still intact. But the biting lyrics have given way to an experimental look at "love and the lack of it," as he says. If Lowe's work with Rockpile and Elvis Costello could be absorbed as post-punk, his new sound is gloriously post-post-punk. Nick Lowe's music remains defiantly clever, intricate and seaworthy, at a period in life when most musicians turn inward, pin their hearts on their sleeves and go for middle-age confessionals.

The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood and The Convincer have the feel of a loose trilogy. Did you set out to present them that way?
Unless you're kind of like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, you don't really set out to do a trilogy [laughs]. But that's sort of how it panned out. I wanted to explore a new way of recording and writing for myself. When we did The Impossible Bird we were really quite shocked by the results. So we thought we'd have another go and see if we didn't just imagine it. So we did Dig My Mood, and we liked that even more. And before it actually came out, the people who were involved were at my house having some dinner and we were playing it. And we were all pretty pleased, patting ourselves on the back and so on. And I sort of blurted out, "Well I think there's a third one to be done, boys." Of course I didn't have any songs.

So these weren't plotted years in advance?
No, I can't think that far ahead, I'm afraid. I'm not that prolific of a writer, There's a period, you find that your juices start working again. And when you've got three or four [songs] you record them, and the game is on. The other songs sort of attach themselves to them.

There's so many styles fused together here, but the seams don't really show.
One of the great assets of getting older in this business is that you lose a lot of your youthful snobbery about music. When you're a kid you tend to think, "This is cool and everything else is rubbish." But when you get older you start to think, "Well, what was wrong with Mantovani? He's not bad" [laughs]. That's probably a stretch, but you take my point. You don't care where it comes from. The example I always use, and I can't believe I can't think of another one, but it's like Supertramp. There's one element, a backing vocal that you heard them do one time, that one element, and you say, "Let's try the Supertramp trick and put it on there." And then people say, "Oh, you pinched that Gene Pitney move." It probably won't sound anything like Supertramp to somebody else. So as you say, it's pretty obvious that we love American roots music and all elements of that. But also, we dig film music and pop, real out and out bubblegum pop. If it gets you off then it goes in the pot.

In addition to the music, your lyrical style has also changed considerably.
Yes, definitely. If you manage to get to middle age, and you haven't had your heart kicked or haven't snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, then you have probably lived a sheltered sort of life. I don't sort of set my diary to music, I make it up. This is, after all, pop music. But I do know what I'm singing when I'm making up a character. It's a source of endless fascination to me at this stage in my life: love and the lack of it. There's a great scope for humor in that. Just how desperate you can feel and what it can make you do is kind of funny. I'm not a gloomy person by any means. I have a rather sunny disposition, but I live on my own and I spend quite a bit of time on my own, but I'm one of those people who's quite happy with my own company. Being alone in the Twenty-first century is almost a privilege.

Do have a regular recording site?
There's this old-fashioned village hall and the locals use it for Cub Scouts and aerobics class and little community activities and it's got fantastic acoustics. When I've got a few songs on the go I just sort of sing them out to this room and it's amazing how clear you can hear them come back to you, so much clearer than at home. Then I sing it until they almost feel like covers they've been taken apart so much. When you've got them like that, then I go into the studio with these guys, who are very sensitive to how I work and I show them the chords and we record them. I do the vocals live, so I know the things inside out and they hardly know it at all. And you stand a very good chance to get something almost atmospheric, almost accidental that comes along into the music.

Conversely, I'm not a very prolific writer, but even if I was, I always put one or two cover songs on my record, because it shows that you aren't self-obsessed. Even if you might be. But it's tough to find songs that people haven't heard billions of times before. But when I have a couple of cover songs I like, I'll do the same process until I think that they're my songs. And you can't tell where the covers end and where your own stuff begins.

The Johnny Rivers song had me stumped and hitting repeat.
Two guys who play with me heard that tune on the easy listening channel on a flight, and they thought I could do it. None of us had heard it before, because it was never released in England. Shortly after we recorded it, some American friends of mine came over and I asked, "What do you think of this?" and immediately they said, "Oh Johnny Rivers, 'Poor Side of Town,' not a bad call." And I was kind of pissed off about it, I said, "Wait a minute, this was my undiscovered gem." So I find out now that it's the bloody national anthem and everybody knows it. But I'm very lucky in that I have many music-loving pals around the world. Because you hear loads of great records that no one's has heard before. But it's not necessarily the same for great songs. Finding a song that hasn't been done to death is rare.

I once heard that Prince only listens to his own albums.
Does he really? That seems hard to believe. I know some people think he's a twit, but even his rubbish records are better than most people's big hits. But through the Eighties, there really wasn't anybody better than him. He just had great record after great record. But that would surprise me because there's so many elements of other people's music in his stuff. Maybe it's just nowadays, which is why he's gone off the board a little bit.

Speaking of which, the Nineties seem to have treated you better than the Eighties did.
Oh yeah, I had a pretty miserable time in the Eighties. I had my sort of brief career as a pop star in the Seventies, but I knew I wasn't one of those people like Elton John or Cher that have careers that span decades. I told myself that it would be over, to get ready. And then the time came where people weren't ringing me up for quotes and it still came as a bit of a shock. There's few things more wretched than a clapped-out pop singer. So I resolved to find a way to use the fact that I'm getting older in a business that doesn't value age and experience -- unlike jazz or blues, where you can't be too old. I mean, who wants to listen to a young blues singer? Not me. So I can use the fact that I'm an old guy doing this to make people envy the fact that I'm an old guy, and counting the minutes until they're old so they can be doing it as well. The only problem is that I've been so successful at developing this unique niche for myself that I'm not exactly sure there's an audience for it [laughs].

There seem to be so many disparate interpretations of "pop." Do you have a working definition?
My sort of interest in the pop music of the day started to tail off in the early Eighties and it's almost nothing now, but that's not surprising -- I'm fifty-two. I think if you have anything more than a passing interest in the pop music of today over the age of maybe forty, then you're probably a bit simple. But I keep a professional ear open. I know who's making waves in my neck of the woods. 'Cause there's so many strands, like the dance music thing. Which is fine. But it might as well be the shoe business or the cosmetic industry I know nothing about it or anybody in it except the real big people . . . like Puff Daddy. Whereas when I started out in the Sixties, the music business was just a branch of show business. There really wasn't a music business at all.

Do you keep up with your teen pop?
Those sort of boy band acts, that sort of thing has always been around. The thing that I think is amazing is the hundreds of groups that have their roots in Nirvana, and they are absolutely indistinguishable from one another. And that music to me, especially after September 11th, it's so redundant. In a stroke, it became totally dated and out-fashioned. Whereas the boy band thing . . . we could do with a bit more of that; quite refreshing and totally acceptable.

Do you plan to return to the U.S. and tour this album?
I think so, but I don't think it will be very grueling, because I really sort of can't stand touring anymore to be honest. I still love doing the shows, that's no problem and quite right too. I'm a songwriter. If you can't get up in front of a room full of people who are actually pleased to be there and sing a few songs for them, there's really not much hope for you really. But it's the other twenty-two-and-a-half hours of the day that are almost unendurable.

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