By Al Kaufman
Back in 1985, you really couldn’t be much cooler than Lloyd Cole, his album with the Commotions, Rattlesnakes, spawned the alternative hits “Perfect Skin.” “Forest Fire,” and “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”. He was a mod Brit who possessed Elvis Costello’s wit and gift for wordplay without the bile, and Bryan Ferry’s smooth sexiness and sophistication without the necktie. After a few more releases with the Commotions, Cole got weird with Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, an album in which one side was recorded with a full orchestra. Although an ambitious project that spawned some fantastic songs (“Tell Your Sister” and “She’s a Girl and I’m a Man” being just two) it spawned the battles with the record companies that made it difficult for Cole to get his music heard. He continued to record music in his home studio and release albums on small labels. In the meantime, he toured endlessly, played golf – he often looks for venues to play that are near desirable golf courses – and wrote some record reviews. When he reviewed Bob Dylan’s Tempest, he realized that if Dylan could still rock, so could he, and Standards was born. Although Cole had never lost his gift for clever songwriting, Standards is a return to form in that he plays with a full band and rocks in his distinctive smooth way. “Women’s Studies,” “Opposites Day,” and “Myrtle and Rose” are all cuts that would fit right in on Rattlesnakes, yet they sound 21st-century enough to be played on today’s modern radio stations.
Cole talked to Atlanta Music Guide about his new album, his feelings about the music business, why he thinks he would be a good bartender, why he might or might not do a soundtrack for Disney, and why he loves the Brick Store Pub.
You said Bob Dylan’s Tempest made you realize you don’t have to make “age appropriate” music and you can still rock if you want to. Did you mellow out because you wanted to, or because you thought that’s what your fans wanted?
I don’t really think of the records I made in the 2000s as being mellow, they’re just quiet, and they’re not rock and roll records. It happened quite naturally, to be honest. At the end of the ‘90s I had a falling out and ended my relationship with major record labels and I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the record business, and I really didn’t even know if I wanted to make music anymore. I certainly didn’t want to write songs anymore in order to just make albums. So I kind of went on a hunger strike for songwriting, and eventually the songs just banged on my head so loudly that I had to write them. But they weren’t rock and roll songs. In order to make a living I’d become more of a troubadour artist, traveling around the world with a couple of acoustic guitars, and I think it became natural to write for that format. So when it came time to make a record, I decided to make a record based around the acoustic guitar, but with a little electric ensemble that would go with it, but would still be a small sound. And that felt right at the time, but it’s always been in the back of my mind – I’m just terrified of the Joe Strummer Mohawk moment. Remember when Joe Strummer got a Mohawk when it was too late, and it was the last version of the Clash. It was one of the saddest looking photographs I’ve ever seen. And people who do my job, you see this awful desperation at certain points in their career to hold onto some kind of something that they used to have in terms of youth or connection to youth culture. I just sort of happily gave that up. And I thought at the same time as doing that that I had given up the desire to make rock music anymore, but I was wrong. When I started working on this last album, I wrote a bunch of songs that seemed to demand a treatment not a million miles away from what I had done beforehand. And to coincide with that, very fortuitously from my point of view, Salon asked me to review Tempest. I walked away from listening to that record with this feeling that Dylan has got no idea how old he is. Never mind if he thinks about age-appropriate music, which clearly he doesn’t. He’s just being Bob still, and I just thought what would happen to these songs if I tried not to worry about being age-appropriate. And this album is what happened. I don’t think it’s possible to really consider what happened without considering the ten or 12 years beforehand, where I had become comfortable in my aging skin. And I think what we have with this record is a bunch of old guys making a rock record not trying to be anything but a bunch of old guys making a rock record (with the exception of my son playing lead guitar on a couple of tracks).
“Diminished Ex” from the new album is about how relationships sometimes cannot live up to their high expectations. Is it also about the music business?
My songs are for you, they’re not for me. They’re for the listener. I would certainly hope there’s more than one way to listen to most of them.
So you don’t want to say what they are about.
I don’t think my opinion really matters. I’ve had people come up to me and talk about my songs with a perspective that I never thought of that I thought was cooler than what I was thinking. I’m very fond of David Byrne’s quote when it comes to this type of thing. He said, “I don’t pretend to know what my songs are about.” My songs are not messages. I’m not trying to tell people my wisdom. My songs are songs. They’re pieces of entertainment. They don’t have a message. They are songs. They are self-sufficient. And I think the best art is like that. You don’t have to think, “What is the artist trying to tell me here?” You just look at the art and it makes you think of something, and then you reflect part of your personality into the art in your appreciation of it, which is what makes art cool.
Speaking of those years when you were thinking of leaving music, I know you and former Commotion Lawrence Donegan are both avid golfers who have written extensively about the subject. You also write music reviews and your songs are very literary. If you were not a musician, do you think you would be a writer?
It’s hard to say because my writing these days is – I think I’ve done two or three record reviews, that’s it. Lawrence has written far more extensively about golf than I have. I’ve only written a few articles. I enjoy it, but it’s close to a vanity project from my point of view because, as you know, it’s very difficult to feed a family on what people pay journalists these days. I quite like the idea of taking a little time away from music and doing some writing, but I can’t afford to. Having said that, if I had become a writer when I was younger, maybe I would have reached the position where I could demand bigger fees than I do now, but it’s hard to say. There’s enough writing in my life with the bits and bobs that I do now. It takes as much free time as I really have. And if I wasn’t a musician, I really don’t know. A bartender I think, probably.
You like interacting with people.
I like mixing drinks. And I like watching people. As a bartender you don’t have to interact that much.
Watching drunk people can be even more fun.
It can be, but the older I get the less I enjoy it. I used to drink when I played music, and every now and then I have a little something or rather, but it’s not the most fun when I come off stage and I sign CDs and I’m the only sober one (laughs). It’s not as much fun observing drunk people when you’re sober. Maybe as a bartender, but trying to sign CDs for a bunch of drunk people, sometimes it’s a little wearing. Sometimes it’s great fun, but I can’t really drink and play music anymore. My show takes too much concentration. It’s just me on stage. It’s hard enough to play guitar sober.
You are friends with Jill Sobule. She was in your post-Commotions band, The Negatives. Before Kickstarter was a thing, she fan-financed her album, California Years. You have now fan-financed two releases, Broken Record and Standards, without the aid of Kickstarter. How much of an influence was Jill?
She gave me the idea to do it. It was her idea, but [for California Years] she was willing to do a lot more creatively. I think the best one on her list was donate $5,000 and you get your name on one of the songs.
She had a whole song of names.
Really? That’s great. I’m not that comfortable with that type of thing. I basically just said I’m making a record. There’s going to be a limited edition deluxe version that you can only buy if you help me kick start the record. And it worked a couple of times. It didn’t raise enough money to make the whole record, but it raised enough to fill the gap between what we had and what we needed.
How do you like this technique of making a record as opposed to being backed by a record company? Is this the future?
I think it certainly is the present for artists in that kind of middle ground; for people who have a following, but not that kind of following. There’s no middle class these days in anything. There’s no middle class economically, and there’s no middle class in music. Either you’re a superstar or you’re an indie band. I never started out to be an indie band, but certainly I am one these days. And [fan financed] is certainly a way to do it. You take the money from a record company and you make sure you have a contract in place that says you’re economically beholden to them, but you can make sure your contract, if you are in a reasonably strong position, gives you artistic freedom to do whatever it is you want to do, and I think with the fans it’s kind of the same way. I say, “I’ll take your money, but you don’t get any input on what the record is. You are basically buying into the idea that you want the next Lloyd Cole record. And if that’s okay with you, fine.” Mostly my relationship with the people that have helped has been great. Every now and again I run into somebody who wants me to thank them a little bit too . . . I’m not quite sure how to put it. But certainly there are a few people who enter into this thinking I’ll do whatever they want in terms of delivering the record. I’m a little uncomfortable with that. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again, because after Broken Record I said I’d probably never do it again, but with Standards we had a very small window of opportunity of when we could make this record because (drummer) Fred Maher was about to have a baby. And I just thought if we are going to do it, we are going to do it now. We need to pull together some funding. The crowd sourcing thing worked really well because we only had a month to raise enough money to do it. We were going to do it anyway, but if we raised enough money that would help, and it worked. To be honest, I’d much rather it wasn’t necessary, but the one time I invested a large amount of my personal income into making an album, I lost my apartment.
Which album was that?
Love Story/Bad Vibes. It was around that time. I had re-signed with my label. I went to one of the labels and said, “I’m not sure you’ll like this album. I think you should have a listen and if you don’t like it you should probably drop me.” And they said, “No, we love you.” And then the other label said they would sign me to what used to be called a two-album firm deal. I made Bad Vibes and, sure enough, Capitol did drop me. They didn’t want it. And then Universal and the rest of the world reneged on the second half of the deal, so I was left with a large bill, and all I had was an apartment in New York to sell to pay it. So I’m reluctant to be the sole backer of my own records after that experience.
You have said you don’t want to be a “niche” performer. Why do you think you are? Are your songs too literary? Is the mainstream too dumb? Are you not in enough gossip magazines? You write great pop hooks and fascinating lyrics, so why aren’t you more popular?
There are all kinds of ways to think about it. I think my big opportunity in this country came in the early ‘90s and I certainly made a few decisions during that time that didn’t help me. There is quite a large chunk of the record industry that encountered me that thinks I’m an arrogant English asshole who didn’t want to play the American game. I didn’t help my cause. The problem that I’ve had is the way the industry worked in Europe and the way it works here is so different, and we were successful in Europe, and I was somewhat successful as a solo artist in Europe. Coming over here, almost everything works the other way around. Everything’s backwards. You visit a radio station in Europe and they’re absolutely head over heels that you’ve come in, and if you visit a radio station over here you have to thank them for letting you come in (laughs). If sometime in early 1984 somebody had sat me down and said, “Look, Lloyd, it’s different over here. It’s not like back home. This is the way things are.” But nobody did. So I’d do a gig in LA in ’84-’85 and somebody would say, “We’re going to have a dinner now. Do you want to hang out with a bunch of industry people?” And I would say, “Fuck, no (laughs). Why would I want to do that?” So I think it’s possible that there were opportunities for me over here in the early ‘90s if I had been willing to play along a little better. But also, I don’t think my material ever quite fit. It was not indie enough to be called indie. It wasn’t mainstream enough to be called mainstream. But I can’t complain, because I’m still pretty well known all over the world. My career never really took off over here, but things are okay in the rest of the world. I am still very much a niche artist, but my niche is fairly big, and my niche got a bit bigger again with this Standards record in the rest of the world. So things are not terrible. It’s just that I started out making music wanting to emulate my heroes, and for a little while I sort of did, in regards to the success that I had. And I was comfortable in that area. I was comfortable making music for a wide audience. But my audience is not wide anymore and I’d love for it to be wider.
What would you give up to be more popular?
I don’t think there’s anything left for me to give up (laughs). I used to have a little joke that I used to say that was if Disney came to me and asked me to do a soundtrack album like Phil Collins did a few years ago I’d have to say yes, but I kind of hope they don’t ask (laughs). On the other hand, if Wes Anderson came and asked me to do a film soundtrack, I’d say yes.
Why is the new album called Standards?
I can’t really remember except that I’m the same snotty person who thought that calling an album Mainstream was cool. And there’s still a little bit of that snotty kid in her somewhere. I was messing around with the artwork and kept thinking I wanted to do something that looked like a [jazz and classical pianist] Keith Jarrett record, and then somehow I came up with Standards. And then I started working on the art work with my art guy, and he liked the idea. In the same way that I like songs to be malleable for the listener, I like an album title that can be a different thing for different people also. For me, there’s definitely a little bit of humor in there. There are different types of standards. It’s not just standards in terms of songs. There are standards in terms of decency, or standards in terms of purity of beer. There are all types of standards. But probably the spark came from the tiny bit of snotty kid that’s still left in me.
When I first saw the title, I thought, “Oh no, Lloyd Cole’s covering Gershwin.”
I would love to make a covers record one day. Maybe it’s too late, but I have determined whenever I do I’m going to call it Pinups.
I think you should call it Originals.
(Laughs) There you go. The Original Soundtrack is a fantastic title, isn’t it? That’s a 10cc album.
Yes. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
You as well. I’m looking forward to coming down there again. I know I’m going to be drinking beer at the Brick Store Pub. I do like Decatur. I must say it’s a lovely place to do a concert. Brick Store is the first place I ever had Arrogant Bastard by Stone Brewery. It’s a great place.
Lloyd Cole plays Eddie’s Attic on Thursday, February 12th and Friday, February 13th.
Tickets are $20 in advance, $26 at the door.