You said that you'd explain your reasons for cutting your vocals with the band.
Well, I've been trying to figure out--ever since--you know, the received wisdom says that you do your best work when you're a kid, and then come thirty or so--thirty years old or so--it's all over, basically. Everyone only likes--you do your best stuff when you're a kid, and then you go off. Either you try to redo what you did when you were a kid, only kind of grown up--and it's a rather embarrassing, not very edifying spectacle--or you just lose it and give up. So when the--you know, I had a brief job--a job for a short while--as a pop star in the late '70's. And it seemed totally natural. I don't ever remember once going, "I've made it!" I never remember thinking that. It seemeed totally that me and my friends--my contemporaries--it was our time, and everything we did was totally current, totally bang up to date, they were all hits, no matter if it was records I was producing--even my own records were hits. Or if I played bass on someone's record, it was a hit. Rockpile was having hits. We made lots of records, and they were all hits. And then the wheel turns, as it does, you know, all the time. The wheel turns and suddenly starts turning away from you. And that's when some artists--there are some artists who quite mystifyingly manage to stick with the wheel, like Elton John, for instance. The man has had a career that just goes through the decades. Cher, she just goes on and on and on. And so now especially--Madonna's getting up there. Prince almost did, but he got fed up with it and jumped off. He sort of stumbled a bit. But some of these others seem to go on and on. So I have no interest in doing that, but the elements of being a star--you know, famous I mean--when you start out, that's all you're interested in. That's the only thing that interests you, being famous. But it's amazing how quickly that you soon realize that it's the worst part of doing this job--being famous and pointed out in the street, pointed out, noticed. That's a real nuissance. So when the wheel started turning away from me, I said, "Look, what am I going to do now?" But I realized thart what was falling away was being in the public eye. And I said, "Don't worry about that. You never liked it anyway. So who cares?" What was more worrying was that I was perceived--on paper my career was perceived as being all over, and yet I'd had hit records, but I was perceived as being all over. "Sorry, you're history, man"--by the music business in general.
What period are you referring to?
I think sort of '82--1982--something like that. But I felt, even though I'd had hits and things like that, I thought I hadn't done anything that was much good up to this point. I thought, "You've got your pop-star thing over now. Now you can get on and do something." I thought, "Well, what is it that I feel I haven't done? I know that I feel that there's something not working here, but I don't know what the hell it is." So I started to try and figure out what this was, and how to record and write--how to write songs for myself and record myself in a way that uses the fact that I'm getting older in a business that values youth sometimes more than talent, but certainly as much--how I can use the fact that I'm getting older in this business as an advantage, as a real asset, as opposed to its being this terrible hindrance, because it's coming along anyway, so you might as well get with it now. Well, it took me a long time to figure it out, and because I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't persuade anyone to kind of help me. I couldn't tell anyone what I wanted them to do so they could maybe give me a hand and help me out, because I didn't really understand it myself. But, bit by bit, things got revealed to me that--a great thing that happened was when I got to meet, and play with and make music with, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner and those guys, and John Hiatt.
You're referring to Little Village.
Well, not necessarily. The record, in my opinion, is not good. I think it's overfancy and fussed with, I think. But the experience of playing with those guys, in making that record--and the one before, the John Hiatt record Bring the Family--was a tremendous experience for someone like me, especially thinking the way I was. To suddenly be pitched into playing with these people--I learned a lot from that, and I saw a lot of the things that I thought were out of my reach, maybe, that I couldn't do, were possible. You've gotta have a certain amount of faith, you know, and things that I hadn't considered before. And I've gotta be really careful here because I love talking about this stuff, but it looks really pretentious in print. So you've got to be very, very careful (laughs) what quotes you use from me. But are you with me so far?
I think so.
O.K. So one of the things that bugged me was how I'd write a song--and putting aside whether the song was any good or not--and I'd sing it into a little thing like that [pointing at my tape recorder], a little Walkman, at home, and I'd play it back, and it would sound--again, putting aside whether it was a good or bad song--but it would sound great. You know, you have a guitar there and this voice sitting on top of it, and everything would make sense. And so I'd take it to the studio, and piece by piece this would be kind of chipped away and taken away, and it seemed that the people I was playing with, the people I was--you can't really blame them--but they were locked into a way of making pop records, pop band records. "There's a way of doing it. We all know how it goes. Let's get on with it." So my little song--well, suddenly it's a little too slow, so speed the tempo up. And when the tempo goes up, suddenly it's a bit too low down to sing in the key it's in, so we've gotta put the key up. So suddenly I'm singing it in a different way, a different character. A different character comes along now. And you're caught up in this, and suddenly your song is taken away from you and suddenly turns into something else. Occasionally it would be better--occasionally. But the overwhelming--
Can you think of an instance when a song got better as the result of those changes?
Well, I don't really want to do that because it could be something--a tune that people really like, and I don't want to spoil that. While I like talking about the way I make music and things like that, I don't want to spoil people's perception of--
You were saying that sometimes it would get better--
Occasionally it would get better--to my mind. This is all to my mind, all to my mind, it would get better. But the overwhelming number of times, I thought--after it happened about two albums in a row--not all the way through, necessarily, not every track--you know, it's an album full of things that I thought, "This sounds so tired and kind of not the--this ain't real. This sounds like it's too young for you or something. There's something not right here. It doesn't sound correct." So I figured out--I resolved that I had to find a way of writing songs for myself and recording myself so that it sounded like that thing on the Walkman, only bigger and with other musicians on it. And this all coincided again, as I said, with meeting Ry and all those people. But also I'd started doing solo shows. That was a real eye-opener as well, because when you stand up in front of a bunch of people and play your songs, you suddenly see your song in sharp relief, and you start thinking--as you're playing it, you think, "Why did I put this thing in, this bit in? This is hopeless! Why am I saying this again? I said it. Everyone thought it was really cool the first time I said it, but now you've done it again. It's sort of hopeless. No, no, no, you haven't done this right at all." So it started to make me write songs in a different way, because you use everything you've got. If you try to start writing songs, you use everything you've got. You've only got your voice and your guitar, but you make everything count--not too many chords, get on a nice groove and keep it there, and say something nice--and funky. Try and make it funky and uplifting in some way. I started thinking about all this stuff. And then, well, I started to sort of get it. I started to get it, although I suppose when I did Party of One--I did that with Edmunds, Dave Edmunds--he wouldn't have it. I remember saying to him, "Look, I really want to sing some of these songs when the boys are playing them. Give me a mic, and I'm going to perform it for you." And he said, "Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, let's just do it the way we know, all right? Just make the backing track, and then you sing on top of that." So I did it.
You did it his way?
I did it his way, and some of them came off.
"All Men Are Liars" sure sounds live.
Well, you know what? I think that might've been the only one that was. I've suddenly got a feeling that I did do that one live. In fact, there might've been a couple that I managed to do live, and that one might be one of them. There were some pretty good tunes on that. But after that record, I thought, "This is almost a good record. This is almost a good thing, but it isn't what I've got in mind at all." Then a few things more started dropping into place, and then I did The Impossible Bird, and by that time I'd had a few things that happened to me in my personal life, which had really made me blue. You know, I'd really started to know what being blue felt like. And, luckily, I'm an artist, and I can write some cool songs about it (laughs). I don't know how people deal with it if they can't do that.
They listen to your songs.
(Laughs) Well, that's pretty nice to know. But I know that's what I do. See, I listen to blues music, and it cheers me up. It makes me feel good. But at the same time, I don't want to put my diary to music. I want these tunes to be really good pop songs so that people will go, "Oh, I know--" Even though I'm saying, "I, I, I" all the time in the songs, it could just be a character saying "I, I, I." It's not necessarily my diary, you know. But the thing about atmosphere is really interesting and exciting. So I realized, as I say, that I have to sing the songs at the same time as we do the track. So what I did was, I started going to this--well, you'd describe it as a little kind of dance hall, a little dance hall which is near where I live in west London. And it's got a sort of wooden, sprung dance floor and a vaulted ceiling, and they have--it's a sort of community center. They have Cub Scouts meeting there, and they have aerobics classes, and they have a dramatic society--you know, all that. So I rent this place by the afternoon. When I've got a few tunes going, I go in there--to finish them off, I go in there and just sing them out into the room, just take a guitar there and sing them out into--because the acoustics are so great, really quiet, and it fills the room. When you sing loud, the room seems to absorb it, so it's a very inspiring sort of room to sing in. Then I'd let the songs kind of say where they wanted to go, you know? That experience would just take the uptightness out of it. And I'd sing these songs over and over and over again until--not so that I found one definitive way of doing it. Quite the opposite. It would get that I'd know these songs so well that they'd stop being my songs. It'd be like I'd be singing a bunch of covers. It'd be like I would open my mouth and sing "In the Midnight Hour" or "Bye Bye, Johnny" or something like that, something really familiar, so that when you open your mouth, you don't know how it's going to come out. You're going to interpret it different every time. But all you know is it works, and you know how it goes. So then I'd go to the studio with my guys, and they--as I say, they're really great musicians. I should say a bit about that because--especially being here at South by Southwest. Now, this town has been full of really good musicians all this week, and the world, in fact, is full of good musicians. You come from an area where particularly fantastic music comes from. And the people who've come here to this town are probably the best ones from their cities, the top guys who pack the places everywhere. When they come in here and they get with everybody else, it all levels out to kind of this--this level of talent, you know, this level of excellence which suddenly goes extremely bland. It seems to be like everybody can do it--except when you hear someone who is really good, and they just zoom out. They're so much head-and-shoulders above the average. And that's what I've found. I've been lucky enough to play with some really, really highly rated musicians in my time. And I won't name any names, but in my opinion some of these people are extremely overpraised. You know, they've got licks and chops and things like that that they do, but they don't really know how to open themselves up. And to find musicians who know how to do that, to open themselves up and reinterpret what they--different every time, is extremely rare, and so whenever I find people who are like that, I like to hang out with them. So I go to the studio with these fellows, and I show them how the song goes maybe once or twice, so they hardly know it at all. I know it inside out, but they hardly know it at all. And they know that they've got to listen to the vocal to get their cues, and they also know that I am going to be performing this thing, so they can trust me that I'm not going to be stopping it every two minutes and saying, "Oh, no! Not that!" They know I am going to be going for it. And I trust them as well. And they are good enough so that they interpret this song different every time, and if they make a mistake, well, a mistake is a mistake, and you stop and you fix it. But with this process, you just get these incredible little accidents and little clashes and things like that that come along, which you can't dial up because we're continually trying to trick ourselves into being like the way we made our first records--in other words, not having all the experience and knowledge that we've got. Because when you hear a record that's made by someone with bags of experience and knowledge, it sounds really dull somehow. The great artists that somehow transcend that sound have this great naivety and continually find ways of tricking themselves into doing stuff that you don't normally do. And then it sounds exciting and fresh and exhilarating. It doesn't sound like yours. It sounds like some other thing. This other element seems to come into the music. It doesn't always come along, but I've found that if you record like this, I get--I stand a chance of getting that element that I was trying to find when I listened to my thing on the Walkman--that naturalness--except it's with other people as well. I mean the sidemen, the musicians. And they're making these comments and kind of agreeing, you know, that sort of thing. These people, funnily enough, are--they can't really do sessions, you know? Not like session men do. The world is full of session men who've got loads of chops. A producer says, "Right, we need heavy metal on this bit." They bang a few pedals, and suddenly out it comes. "We want that!" And the world's full of those people, and they're very, very--that's admirable. Anyone that can make a buck out of making music has got my vote, but the people I'm looking for are the guys that--they play it one time, and the producer says, "That's great what you did in that--!" "What? I'll try. Uh, can you play it to me?" Because they don't really know what they're doing, but these people are great, great musicians in my book because they're not afraid to go into a studio and open themselves up. It's not a common way of making records. I can't help it if my records don't fit on the radio or anything like that. Too damn bad. It's too damn bad. I go through a lot of trouble to make my records sound the way they do, and I'm sorry, I can't help it if (laughs)--
Your hard work is paying off. These records, without sacrificing any naturalness, are so rich and detailed that some day--maybe in five years, maybe in twenty--someone is going to pick up on them and appreciate them in a big way.
Well, I really appreciate your saying that. That's really fantastic. I thank you very much. That was a very good compliment.
Pt. III: http://arsenioorteza.blogspot.com/2009/05/nick-lowe-sxsw-interview-pt-iii-march.html