Rock Candy Interview: Ben Nichols of Lucero

Last week, I called Ben Nichols of Lucero to talk about the band's new album, "Women & Work."

For Lucero’s new album, frontman Ben Nichols wanted “an old school rock ‘n’ roll record.”

I think he pulled it off. Lucero’s latest, “Women & Work,” grabs you with the melody of “On My Way Downtown” and keeps going with a classic rock spirit.

Poignant at parts (“I Can’t Stand to Leave You”) and about drinking and meeting women (“Who You Waiting On?”) in others, “Women & Work” takes what the band did well with its previous effort, “1372 Overton Park,” (namely the horns and big folk-rock sound) and hits it out of the park.

Nichols talked to me about wanting to emulate Memphis heroes like Booker T and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley on “Women & Work,” and they pull it off on songs like the title track (Lewis), “Who You Wating On?” (Booker T)  and “Sometimes” and “When I Was Young” (Memphis blues artists too many to count).

(Is my review too glowing? Well, it’s because I love the record. Recall my review of this year’s SXSW where I named them one of the best bands from the festival or check out “On My Way Downtown” by Lucero and see for yourself.)

Lucero performs with Brad Hoshaw & the Seven Deadlies on Monday, July 2, at The Waiting Room Lounge. Tickets are $17.

Anyway, I called the gravelly-voiced frontman at his Memphis home and we talked about the band’s tour, the new album and forming a supergroup with some of his rock ‘n’ roll peers.

Kevin Coffey: Do you do a lot of rehearsals?

Ben Nichols: No, we don’t. We actually need to because we’ve got so many songs now that some of them kinda slip through the cracks. We need to go back and relearn some of the old stuff.

Especially now when we’ve only been off for like a week, nobody’s in the mood to load stuff into the practice space and rehearse. It’s better to kind of go our separate ways for a week. We’ll come back for rehearsal when we’re working on a new record. Right now, we’re in tour mode.

KC: How did you write the songs on the album? The way they’re sequenced on the album makes it sound like you wrote them in that order, but that’s probably not true.

BN: They weren’t necessarily written in that order, but we’ve got a new practice space and a buddy of ours has a studio in the same building. It was really easy to take the gear upstairs and setup. We actually did a lot of demos for this one.

As the songs were written, that was the order that I always listened to them in. The sequence did fall in place naturally.

“On My Way Downtown” was one of the first songs written for the record. I guess, “I Can’t Stand to Leave You” was probably the very first one that I wrote.

Then “Women & Work” came next. I wrote it really quickly. That actually might be the quickest I ever put a song together. I had random phrases written down, and I decided not to think too much and just write a rock ‘n’ roll song. It ended up being really fun and it set the tone for a lot of the rest of the record.

KC: I like the intro of “Downtown.” It kind of grabs you.

BN: The funny part about that is that the intro used to be the whole song. Or that was the main part of the song and then when it kicks it, that was gonna be a bridge. But that bridge was so good, I said, “No, we meed to take that and make that the actual song.” Then we used the other part as the intro because I didn’t want to lose it completely.

Once I had the tone of the record in mind with “Women & Work” and “Lightning” and “It May Be Too Late” — I just kinda wanted an old school rock ‘n’ roll record — the bridge to “Downtown” fit in perfectly.

KC: Do you sit down with a guitar or notebook to write songs?

BN: Usually fumbling around on the guitar and kinda walking around the house playing guitar until your fingers hit some frets that sound good. Then you follow that for a little bit. The music’s pretty much there and then it takes forever to write lyrics.

To find anything worth actually saying is not easy. Hell, it doesn’t have to be worth saying, but as long as it’s not too stupid. It’s really easy to mess up a good song with horrible lyrics, which I’ve definitely done in the past but I try to avoid.

KC: Has Memphis had a big influence on the band? I love a lot of stuff musically that’s come from there.

BN: Memphis, it’s not the prettiest city and it’s got its negative side to it. But I still have a very kind of romantic affection for the city just because of its history. Being from the same town as Booker T & the MGs and Al Green and Jerry Lee Lewis is pretty cool. You kinda stack all that stuff up and it’s an impressive legacy.

When you’re making a new record here in Memphis, you can’t top that stuff, so all you can hope to do is to do it justice. So, “Women & Work” and “1372” both were very much Memphis-influenced but mainly we wanted to show how much we appreciated Memphis’ musical contribution to the world.

And if you’re gonna steal — if you need a jumping off point — you can’t really get much better than all that stuff.

KC: The album sounds really big almost like the band is much more comfortable with the horns.

BN: I think so. We’d never played a live show with the horns when we recorded “1372.” Then we spent the last two or three years playing with them. Now, they’re pretty much part of the band. They’ve got the Lucero tattoos and they’re with us, part of the team.

I thought the horns were done very well with “1372,” but they’re integrated better on “Women & Work.” And there’s more pedal steel — Todd Beene from Glossary played pedal steel with us and he’s got a much stronger presence on “Women & Work.”

I think this one sounds more like Lucero whereas “1372” sounded like Lucero with horns.

KC: I read that you quit smoking.

BN: I did.

KC: Did it help your voice?

BN: It helped immensely. I pretty much smoked my voice completely away when we recorded “1372.” It’s really tough for me to listen to that record because my voice is in such bad shape.

I haven’t quit completely. I’ve been backsliding, which is dangerous
Everyone’s like, “If you quit smoking, your voice won’t be the same.” Well, if I don’t quit smoking, I won’t have a voice at all.

They’re like, “It won’t be gruff and gravelly.” Yes, it will be gruff and gravelly. It’ll be just fucking fine. I’ll actually be able to hit notes. That’s one of those things I most like about “Women & Work.” I was actually able to sing on this one, which I haven’t been able to do the last couple of records.

I need to get serious about that. I really need to watch myself.

KC: It’s probably a lot harder on tour.

BN: It is. If I can hide out at home, it’s fairly easy not to smoke. On the road, there’s just nothing to do but drink and smoke in bars.

KC: I like how the horns give a new feel to some of the older songs.

BN: My horn players and my keyboard player are professional as hell. They’ve done a lot of session work and played with a bunch of people for a lot of years. It’s amazing how they can take a song and write an arrangement for it and take it to a whole other level.

Lucero’s been around for 14 years now and (they’ve) kind of breathing some new life into some very old songs. You’re not rewriting them or changing them at all, but accentuating them in different ways — taking the old stuff and re-looking at it. I think it was healthy for the band, and I think it makes the live shows more interesting. I think it was good for everybody.

KC: You can also strip the songs down and do them with just you.

BN: Yeah, you’ve got plenty of room dynamically. You can get really big or strip everything away and get really quiet. I like having that flexibility.

KC: You did a solo album a few years ago. Do you think you’d ever do that again?

BN: Yeah. I would love to. It’s just finding the time and writing the songs. That solo record was all based on a novel, so it was easy to make it it’s own separate thing. “This song’s about this character for the book, so it’s not a Lucero song, it’s a solo song.”

Everything I’ve been writing recently has all been going into the band. I’d love to do another solo record. We’ll just see if I can find the material or the time. Hopefully not too far in the future, I’ll be able to sit down and do that.

KC: I talked to Craig Finn from the Hold Steady yesterday and you did some stuff with that band awhile back.

BN: Really? I sang on a few songs with them. I haven’t seen him in awhile.

KC: He did a solo album as well, as have a lot of other guys, and I think it’s interesting to see someone step away from the band and do that kind of project.

BN: Yeah, I think that’s healthy as well to kind of step outside of the usual working order. You get to play with different musicians and stretch your legs a little bit. I think it’s a good thing to push your boundaries. It gives you an opportunity to work with some different elements and things. It’s fun.

KC: When I talked to him, I mentioned that you guys should form a supergroup. He thought it was a good idea if you ever had the time.

BN: (Laughs) Yeah. Finding the time is always the tricky part with all this.

I had a friend the other day say that he wanted the singer of Deer Tick and Craig Finn and me and I can’t remember who else. He was like, “That would be awesome.”

I’m like, “That would be a train wreck.” But it would probably be a fun train wreck.

KC: That would probably be a fun tour.

BN: If we survived. (Laughs)

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