Beat the Retreat:
Lloyd Cole Raises a Commotion About Krautrock, the Negatives and Bob Dylan
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions created a stir worthy of their name with their debut release, Rattlesnakes, in 1984. Fronted by Cole, one of the last (and best) of the “New Dylans,” the band arrived with their sound fully formed: two parts Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan to one part Arthur Lee’s Love. After two equally gorgeous followup records, the Commotions disbanded and Cole decamped for New York City and a solo career in 1988. 1991 saw the release of Lloyd Cole, a loose, rocking affair that saw Cole expanding his songwriting palette and collaborating with Matthew Sweet, drummer Fred Maher and NYC punk godfather Robert Quine.
Cole married and moved to Massachusetts to raise a family, but kept making records with regularity. Although the golden ring of pop stardom has remained elusive, his back catalog now includes some of the best songwriting of the last twenty years, including an excellent album with a new band called the Negatives and an experimental ambient record called Plastic Wood, released in 2001.
The last few year have seen Cole performing primarily solo, but in 2010 he released the fine, country-influenced Broken Record and toured with the Small Ensemble featuring mandolin and banjo as well as acoustic guitars. 2011 saw Cole collaborating with German avant-garde musician Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster. In 2012, he toured as a duo with his son Will Cole on guitar. The end of 2012 has found Lloyd working on a new electric album with one of his “favorite rhythm sections,” Fred Maher on drums and Matthew Sweet on bass. Cole has been keeping a studio journal of the proceedings on his website, lloydcole.com. We caught up with Mr. Cole by phone on Boxing Day.
So, it looks like 2013 is going to be a big year for you?
“Not sure about big, busy for sure.”
The Roedelius collaboration is about to come out?
“Yes, after all these years. It’s been kind of a strange story. Right about this time last year, I spent about 10 weeks devoted to that. I promised I wouldn’t spend more than a month on it, because it’s not exactly a financially rewarding project, but it was something I wanted to do.”
He came over to the U.S. last year and played the Moogfest in Asheville as well as a date here in Atlanta. Did the two of you meet then?
“I didn’t. We had a very strange pseudo-relationship in that we have only met once in person, but we have been in touch by internet and telephone for about 10 years, since Plastic Wood came out. Somebody gave him a copy of it and he liked it a lot.”
His work with Cluster was a big influence on Plastic Wood?
Yeah, on pretty much everything that I do that’s not so song related. I remember the first time I heard that Cluster record, thanks probably to Julian Cope and his book on Krautrock. I remember reading something about a rhythm section sounding like a coffee by deutsch and I remember thinking, ‘That sounds like something I might like.’ And sure enough, yes. Cluster is very much a duo and I tend to veer towards preferring Roedelius’ pieces where he is dominating. Certainly from listening to solo records, I get the feeling he is maybe the more melodious of the two and Moebius is maybe the noisier of the two. I thought it was wonderful stuff. Since I heard No Pussyfooting by Fripp and Eno when I was 13 I have been intrigued by this type of music but never thought I would do anything like that until I was invited to contribute to film music in the mid ’90s and deciding that I really, really hate it when pop songs are just dumped into movies. I much prefer the work of people like John Barry where themes are developed for the movie. So I tried to compose some things and found out I sort of lean towards the minimalists. It’s been sort of my hobby ever since.”
You’re going over to Germany early next year?
“I’m going to Germany, but not related to that. I am going to Germany to mix the record, which is more of what you might call a Lloyd Cole record.”
And Krautrock is an influence on this record as well?
“I have been a little more overt in my desire to get these songs to have a feel which is non-blues based. As far as I can really tell, the only thing that Krautrock means is rock music that’s not based on blues music. I probably actually learned as much from groups like Wire in the late ’70s than actual German bands, but I loved the drummer in Neu! who died recently. I loved the motorik beat, how incessant it is. I’ve got a couple of songs on the new record that I wanted to be incessant and minimalist. So, yeah, there’s a little bit of that, but it’s really the songs I’ve written and maybe trying to lean the production away from an R&B and folk background which is what I grew up with. Even bands like T. Rex are basically an R&B rock ’n’ roll band with pop sensibility. I’m trying to make a record which is songs that I write and trying to have the sensibility to be a bit more pop and if there is rock involved, I’m trying to remove the blues element.”
When you moved to New York City in the early ’90s, were you interested in hooking up with the downtown music scene?
“There was no scene. I arrived there in ’88. The scene was gone. There were slight scenes, like John Zorn had his scene at the time, the noise scene and the avant kind of jazz scene was still flourishing, but in terms of a downtown rock scene when Patti Smith and Television were making music, there was nothing like that.”
But you hooked up with Fred Maher pretty quickly…
“At the time, Fred might have still been in Scritti Politti, about as far from rock music as you can get, but he had been working with Lou and he had been working with Material. He was kind of a wunderkind, I guess. He was touring with Lou Reed when he was 18.”
That’s how you met Robert Quine, through Fred Maher?
“Yes, literally within a month of being in the city, I had met Fred, then had lunch with Quine. We got on and decided to do something together.”
Richard Lloyd never played on your records?
“Richard and Bob were a little bit competitive. They weren’t the best of friends and I became friendly with Bob. I love the stuff Richard does on Matthew’s records and I saw Television finally, about ten years ago in San Francisco. I was kind of blown away that every melody you can think of in Television, Richard plays not Tom. So, I am a fan of his.”
Fred Maher has turned out to be a pretty constant collaborator…
“Not really… Fred played a little bit on Bad Vibes and a little bit on Love Story to help me out. He hadn’t played on a record in five years when I said ‘I think you would be a good person to drum on [Broken Record].’ He is semi-retired these days. He has a day job these days, working at a surround sound company.”
I imagine having Fred and Matthew Sweet again as a rhythm section isn’t an attempt to recapture the glory days of the Lloyd Cole album?
“Most people would realize we are quite different people now than what we were then. I just like Fred and Matthew as a rhythm section. It’s my record and basically they follow me. We sat down in a studio for a week and they hadn’t heard any of the songs before. I deliberately didn’t demo them. We went through two or three songs every day and worked extremely hard. We did what came natural to the three of us playing together after I forced them listen to a bit of Neu! [laughs] or whatever else… I basically was producing, singing and playing guitar and they were then asked to come up with what they thought my direction meant and 90% of the time I was blown away by how great it was.”
How did you hook up with Tony Margherita (Wilco’s manager) and what are the plans for the new record? You have kind of been the distributor for your last few records in the United States, right?
“There hasn’t really been a distributor. Broken Record wound up being distributed by a company that Tapete (Lloyd’s German label) works with over here. Tapete are helping to finance the record and are releasing it in mainland Europe. Tony and I just met six months ago and we are trying to figure out whether or not we can make something work out between the two of us. I think it’s kind of dependent on how the record turns out. Fingers crossed.”
There has already been clamoring on your Facebook page from your fans for an electric band tour… That seems like something that would require label support in this economy.
“There’s no such thing as label support these days. Touring with a rock ’n’ roll band is something I really wouldn’t want to do unless it was the perfect band and that would be the Negatives. And they have all got other jobs. We have knocked it back and forth and everyone would like to do it one more time.
“The reality is, when the Negatives toured last, the only people who made money on that tour were the Negatives and the crew. I lost money, or maybe broke even. I certainly didn’t make money. The idea of doing something like that, somebody asked me on Facebook the other day and I said, ‘I hope you don’t like the idea of me losing money.’ I certainly have zero desire to play with any old rock band. I much more enjoy the idea of being on my own and being able to play the songs the way I feel at the moment is infinitely more attractive. Atlanta’s always been a good town for me.”
I saw you at Joe’s Pub in New York when you first started playing solo and again years later at Eddie’s Attic. At the first gig, you seemed to be still feeling your way around without a band, but by the Eddie’s gig you were doing these gorgeous re-arrangements of the tunes. Do you feel like you learned a lot playing solo?
“I do, and I feel more or less closer to some of the songs. In order to find a way to make them work with just the one guitar, you have to think a lot more about it. You can also isolate the songs which are stronger by breaking them down to just the chords and the voice. Not all of the songs are as strong as the others. It became my primary income was touring. Doing it acoustically made it more cost-effective. I actually grew to enjoy performing live. I never enjoyed playing live at all before the Negatives. The Negatives were assembled as an antidote to the way my career was feeling, which was make an album, do a tour, write some songs, do another tour. I formed the Negatives literally so I could go out and play for fun for a change. The Negatives were not created with a mind to be a full-time band, it was just something fun for us to do in New York. It was a surprise to find that I could enjoy performing live more, because I felt performing live was a chore up until that point.”
It was a surprise to me what a hot guitar player Jill Sobule is…
“[Laughs] She’s great, yeah.”
I saw you at Smith’s Olde Bar on the Negatives tour, it was an early show.
“That was a wild show! We had to play early because there was some kind of jam band for their anniversary party. That was the show Dave Derby took a pee behind the bass amp because he was so damn drunk.”
You had three guitarists in the band and I remember looking down and hearing a ripping guitar solo and looking up and realizing it was Jill. You played some great guitar, too.
“We had some fun. There’s actually a bootleg of the Negatives at the Bowery Ballroom in New York that I actually wound up putting some of it out. You can hear the guys recording it talking and they are like, ‘Man, that was quite good for him!'”
You seem to realize that a guitar solo can carry the emotional weight of a song…
“In the Commotions, we were a five-piece band and generally speaking, the guitar was the lead instrument. The keyboards were usually texture.”
You have said that you were influenced by American R&B, were you also influenced by the English bands like the Clash and the Jam from the generation before you?
“I didn’t really think about where bands were from. Rock ’n’ roll music is an American art form. Quite early on in my career, I realized it. Growing up, I was primarily driven by listening to the radio and the New Musical Express. If Nick Kent (of the NME) said something was worth listening too, certainly I would be more open to listening to something more challenging. But if I was a complete, whatever the word for opposite of Anglophile would be for someone interested in North America, I would have found a way to love Patti Smith, but I could never find a way to love Patti Smith. I must have bought Horses five times and said to myself, ‘Now, I’m probably ready to like this record.’ And every time I listen to it I go, ‘This record is rubbish, why do people like it?’ In the end I put it down to being the best album sleeve of all time.”
You recently reviewed the new Bob Dylan record Tempest for Salon.com and called it “the best record by a 70-year-old this year.” I was surprised you picked it over Leonard Cohen’s album Old Ideas.
“I didn’t write the headline. I was really blown away by how much energy [Dylan] was able to put into it. I only listened to Old Ideas once and it didn’t knock me over and I probably need to listen to it again. But certainly, Old Ideas is the best title by a guy of a certain age. In fact, I found myself putting it in one of my songs recently. It was put in there sufficiently nicely that I think it can stay there. It’s not a song that is going to be on this record, but maybe the next one. Old ideas is such a lovely flexible term, because you can see it in so many ways. It could mean wisdom or it could mean tired.”
It seemed like you were pretty inspired by the Dylan record. I think you mentioned on Facebook it helped you finish the lyrics this latest batch of songs?
“I think it did, I think it inspired me. When I saw just how much energy this old codger had put into this record, and I was finding it difficult to finish songs myself. Immediately after I finished writing this review, I said, ‘I’m going to look at this song I’ve been working on for the last six months and I’m going to finish it tomorrow.’ And I did. I basically knuckled down. Writing, however you look at it, the fun, inspirational part of writing — when you have an idea or a spark of an idea and you think, ‘Gosh, this could be something’ and you put it down in your notebook – the fun stops there. After that, it’s work. You take that idea and you work to make it into something great. And that’s work. That’s when deadlines are useful. I knew when I was going to be in L.A. with Fred and Matthew and I actually finished writing the songs about a week beforehand.”
Do you see yourself still at it at that age?
“I am definitely still at it for a while. I definitely still see things that I want to do. I am encouraged by several things this year. I am encouraged that I was actually able to sit down over the period of six weeks and complete ten songs and be happy with them and not feel like I was writing jingles. I think the thing that happened to me in the late ’90s that I didn’t like was the fact that I felt that I had to write these songs to make records because that’s the way the system worked and my life had been shaped by my job in a way that I wished could be the other way round. That I was the one calling the shots on how it worked. For a few years I deliberately tried not to write just to see what would happen. The long and short of it is I am a writer, every now and again I see something and I need my notebook to write it down. That’s just what we do. Whether or not it’s something that will be my primary career for however long, I have no idea. I am feeling fortunate that I am able to do this and be the way I’m able to make a living.”
Will you be playing some of the new tunes in Decatur at Eddie’s Attic?
“Oh yeah, I played four or five songs from the record the other day in Annapolis. One of my favorite songs from the record is called ‘Kids Today.’ It doesn’t feel like something I should be able to play on acoustic, but I did. I hope I can fine-tune it for when the record comes out, because it is one of songs I’m happiest with in a long time. I am extremely pleased with the way the song has turned out.”
What do you tell your son Will about the music business now?
“Oh, he doesn’t need me to tell him anything. He’s in college studying and he’s getting ready to do his own thing soon. He’ll have a record out, not quite as soon as me, but not too long thereafter.”
But it’s an entirely different landscape now, than when you were 20 and there were guys in satin jackets…
“Oh, absolutely. We just watched One Trick Pony last night and I can’t believe what an awful movie it was. I found myself sympathizing with the record company more than the artist. Because the music Paul Simon was doing on that record was pretty darn dull and frankly, some kind of shot in the arm would have been a good idea. It was very strange to watch that. We had to skip through a bunch of it because it was so awful. I remember when that movie came out and it was supposed to be a defense of the artistic position. I tell you what: I sympathize with my record company. There were many times when I fell out with my A&R man and I look back and go, ‘He was right, I was wrong’ at that point.
“To do my job, you have to be 100% sure you’re right all the time anyway, even if you are wrong. It’s not easy to do that when you know you have been wrong in the past. And I think I’ll leave you with that…”
Photo by Doug Seymour.