Lucero frontman Ben Nichols talks just like he sings, his voice crackling with the same tobacco-infused rasp he has used for the last 14 years to sing about women, whiskey and heartbreak. “We’re not flying by the seat of our pants quite as much as we were in the old days,” he tells Rolling Stone while discussing the Memphis sextet’s new album, Women & Work, out March 13th. “There’s another level of refinement that goes into it.”
Back in “the old days,” Lucero made stripped down alt-country records that earned them a small but exuberant fanbase. Then, in 2009, the band signed a deal with Universal/Republic and released 1372 Overton Park, which saw Lucero embrace Memphis’ rich musical history by adopting a heavy soul influence and adding a horn section to their sound. It was their biggest, best effort yet.
The Universal deal didn’t last. “It was kind of the classic story of an A&R person falls in love with you, gets you signed to the label, and then almost immediately gets fired,” says Nichols. But the Memphis country-soul sound cultivated on 1372 Overton Park – horns and all – stuck around. And now backed by a new deal with Dave Matthews’ label, ATO, Lucero are doubling down on the momentum they amassed on 1372 with Women & Work.
“To me, it still sounds like Lucero,” says Nichols. “The songs are still coming from the same place.” But he admits that working with veteran Memphis session musicians like saxophonist Jim Spake, who worked with the band during the demo process for 1372, and keyboardist Rick Steff, who joined the band in 2006, gave them the confidence to explore new musical territory. “It was just the opportunity to play with such talented guys who are part of Memphis’ musical history. Once you know that’s at your disposal, you start writing songs with that in mind, knowing what you can do.”
Women & Work was produced by Ted Hutt, who has also worked with the Gaslight Anthem, and the tracks range from aching Memphis soul to rowdy, old-fashioned barroom boogie rock. The album closes with “Go Easy,” which employs a full-on gospel choir on its drunk-at-the-pulpit refrain. “Ted Hutt pushed it more into that gospel sound,” says Nichols. “We ended up re-writing the chorus for it with a more traditional, gospel feel.”
Meanwhile, the lyrics to the album’s first single – the nostalgic “Sometimes” – draw inspiration from Nichols’ family, which the singer says is close-knit. His younger brother Jeff is an emerging filmmaker and his next directorial feature, Mud, stars Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey and is slated for a 2013 release. “My little brother’s kicking ass,” says Nichols proudly.
As for Lucero, they are generating buzz of their own. The band netted an unlikely spot on the 2011 Warped Tour, and they are set to hit Atlantic City for Metallica’s Orion Music + More Festival in June.
“We’re in the best spot organizationally than we’ve ever been,” says Nichols. “We’ve never had any delusions about being big-time rock stars. But like my dad says, ‘Just get a few more people through the door, sell a few more records.'”