Veteran rockers Lucero return to Northwest Arkansas this week for a two-night stand at George’s Majestic Lounge. The shows kick off their 2017 November Tour. The band spent the lion’s share of this year working on the follow-up to their 2015 release All A Man Should Do at legendary Memphis studio Sam Phillips Recording Service with Grammy winning producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers). Lucero recently parted ways with Dave Matthews’s ATO Records and is currently weighing their options for the release of the new album.
Lucero formed in early 1998 and has spent a good portion of the last 20 years on the road. After self-releasing a short demo cassette and The Attic Tapes on vinyl, they went on to record and release nine proper full-length records, an EP, two DVDs, and several singles and live recordings for a variety of major and independent labels.
The last three Lucero albums have featured the “Memphis sound” complete with a horn section and consequently their live shows for the past several years have also included horns, not just on the newer songs, but also on their reworked older material. However, the players from their horn section recently retired from the road and their departure is taking the band back to its simpler roots. Attendees this week can expect to hear a Lucero sound more akin to their early 2000s work, complete with raw power, urgency, and probably a large amount of whiskey, courtesy of the classic line-up of vocalist and guitarist, Ben Nichols, guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John C. Stubblefield, drummer Roy Berry, and keyboardist Rick Steff.
Lucero will perform at George’s Majestic Lounge Thursday, November 2 and Friday, November 3. Last Chance Records (Little Rock, AR) recording artists Two Cow Garage (Columbus, OH) open both nights. Doors are at 7:00 PM and the show starts at 9:00 PM. Tickets are $22 and still available. 18+
Fresh off the inclusion by the Recording Academy of his solo song “Loving” from his brother director Jeff Nichols’s (Mud, Midnight Special) film of the same name in the first round of voting for consideration in the Best Song Written for Visual Media category for the 2018 GRAMMYs, front man and native Arkansan Ben Nichols was kind enough to speak with us about a variety of topics: the current state of Lucero, his personal life, pop culture, and even politics.
You’ve been working on a new record with fellow Memphian Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Recording Service. What’s it been like working with a new producer and recording at a different studio? What can you tell us about the record?
We’ve loved working with Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Studio. They’ve been putting a lot of work into that building lately and they’re getting it into great shape. The studio was built right after Sam sold Elvis to RCA and the place has a ton of history and character and it just feels right. It feels like a place where you can make a real rock & roll record. And it’s also cool that it’s right there in Memphis and we all live a few minutes away. It’s very convenient having such a world class studio right down the street. We made the last three records at Ardent Studios, which is also a very historically significant Memphis studio, but the two studios each have their own distinct vibe and for the kind of record we are making right now, Sam Phillips fits us perfectly. This will be a looser, louder, faster Lucero record. We are taking a step back from the Memphis sound with those horns and grooves and stuff and we are making a darker straight up rock & roll record. Sam Phillips is the right feel exactly. We went into the studio with barely any songs. Each day we would come up with new ideas live on the floor and they just kind of evolved naturally. I think that room is a big part of the songs.
And with Matt Ross-Spang as the engineer and co-producer we are in great hands. He has been working in Nashville quite a bit, but he is 100% a Memphis guy. He won a Grammy working with producer Dave Cobb on Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free record! But when it comes down to it, he is just a very talented guy who is very easy to work with, and we are having a lot of fun making a record with him.
Your last few records have featured horns prominently, courtesy of Jim Spake and some other fine players. For this record, you’ve gone back to the five-piece lineup you utilized on Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers. How do you feel about how the band has evolved over your career and what’s it like to have in some ways come full circle? Is this the trajectory you saw for Lucero when you started out?
Lucero has always been the kind of band that is going to work with whatever we’ve got. If that is just me and Brian, which is the way we started, fine. If it’s me and Brian and seven other guys with horns and pedal steel and whatever other instruments we can get our hands on, we will see what we can do with all that. The last few records have been very big records sonically. Lots of instruments and lots of parts. This record, like you said, is going back to a more streamlined lineup. That’s mainly because our horn section retired from the road and our pedal steel player is off playing in other bands, but it’s great because it gives us a chance to make a simpler kind of record and it’s time to change pace a little bit anyway.
I’m really excited about the feel of the record. More raw, more straight-forward, more distorted guitar. It will be very fun to play live. We are actually planning on going back and re-learning songs from the older records like Rebels and That Much Further West that will fit in nicely with these new tunes, so we can change up the live show when the record comes out. Think “Cass”, “Hate & Jealousy”, “All These Love Songs”, etc. So yeah, I love the trajectory that Lucero is on. It’s the trajectory of seeing where the road takes us and making records we want to make no matter the circumstances.
A lot has happened in your personal life over the last few years. You’ve gotten married, become a father, and moved to a different state. What’s it been like juggling your career alongside your family responsibilities versus your younger, wilder days? How do you think these changes have affected the band and your songwriting?
Yup. Married with a young daughter and two teenaged step-daughters. My wife and I bought a house up where her family is from, but I still have my place in Memphis. So yeah, I have to divide my time a bit, but really that’s the way it has always been. I used to spend half my time in Arkansas and half in Tennessee and half on the road. Now I just spend a good chunk of that time further north. More plane tickets are involved. But I love being a family man. I’d live anywhere or go anywhere to be with my girls.
You’ve been involved with a wide variety of labels, both major and indie, throughout your long career. Lucero is currently unsigned. Do you plan on releasing this new record through your own label, Liberty & Lament?
It is still up in the air as to how we will release the new record. That’s not a bad thing, though. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not a bad thing to not be tied down too tight. I like having options. And, yeah… releasing it on our own is definitely one of those options. So, we will see.
You released a new solo song, “Stormy-Eyed Valentine”, for an Amazon compilation earlier this year. You’ve also released several solo songs for the soundtracks of your brother’s films, and of course you did your solo EP back in 2009. How do you go about deciding what songs are going to be solo songs and what songs are going to be Lucero songs? Is there a full-length solo album in your future?
Man, I’d love to make another solo record at some point. Lucero and the family just keep me so busy though. One day. Right now, all the stuff I was kinda sitting on and saving for a solo record has been mined for new Lucero material. And I’m liking the way they are sounding so it works out. The other stuff like soundtrack work and the Amazon thing sometimes just comes down to timing. If they need a song real quick, as they often do, it’s usually faster if I just record something myself real fast.
Fayetteville was one of the very first “out of town show” locations for Lucero and you’ve been coming here for your entire career. You even played here on 9/11 with THE WHITE STRIPES at the old JR’s. What’s your favorite memory from a show here and what’s it like to be coming back?
Man. Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11 of course. And yeah, we played Fayetteville that night with The White Stripes. Everyone was just kind of numb. That’s one of those situations where nothing feels quite like the right thing to do. Do you cancel the show? Do you play the show and hope that it might help the folks there in the slightest of ways? We didn’t know what else to do but play. But we’ve had so many good times in Fayetteville. And this is gonna sound like I’m pandering, but if I could take my house and my family and pick it all up from where it is and set it right down there in the Ozarks my life would be absolutely perfect. I’d love to be living there in y’all’s neck of the woods. I really miss Arkansas. But that ain’t the case. Anyhow… yeah, we played at Clunk, the Lightbulb Club, Dickson Theater, and now George’s feels like home. It’s always fun to come back. Just wish I could stay. Ha.
A portion of the proceeds from all the merch for this tour is being donated to the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved with this particular charity and what it does?
We had talked about a number of different ways of giving back a little on the next tour. This seemed like a pretty good one that we hadn’t been involved with before. I played saxophone in junior high and I know for a fact that the things I learned in band class made writing and playing rock & roll songs in my own bands a lot easier. Music made a lot more sense. And music pretty much saved my life. So, instruments for kids is something I can easily support.
Game of Thrones is one of the biggest television shows of all time and at this point it is a singular pop culture phenomenon. However, you were a fan of the books long before all of that and even derived an album title from the series. Does anyone ever remark on the connection between Lucero and Game of Thrones vis-à-vis Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers?
Ha. No one ever really brings that up. I think most folks have seen the show, but I’m not sure how many actually made it through the books. And even if they did read the books, I’m not sure how many paid attention to appendix titles. I still think Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers is an excellent title for an album.
You’re a big reader and a lot of Lucero songs were inspired by literature. You’re also a fan of comic books and you have even talked about drawing a comic of your own. Have you read anything cool lately? Is there any chance you’ll take a stab at writing and drawing a comic in the future?
Writing and illustrating a graphic novel is that longtime dream that keeps getting further and further away. But damn I’d love to accomplish that one day. Haven’t completely written that dream off yet. I really like a comic called Head Lopper right now. I love the art in that book. And I’m still buying all the new issues of Love & Rockets as well.
Dungeons & Dragons currently enjoys a resurgence of enthusiasm, particularly due to it being featured prominently in Stranger Things. You’re a long time D&D player and you even dedicated an album to one of your player characters, Turk. Do you still play?
I really miss my Dungeon Master. He was the best man at my wedding, actually. I miss ol’ Turk, too. Don’t get to play nearly as much as I’d like to nowadays. But there has been talk about using new technologies to get the party back together if you will. I didn’t realize there was a resurgence. But that makes perfect sense. I too, like everyone else on the planet, thought Stranger Things was pretty darn good.
You and I did an interview a couple of years ago about the “Towncraft” era of Arkansas music. Are you going to the Trusty reunion at the LEGENDARY White Water Tavern on December 23?
That would be fun as hell. But probably a longshot. I’m gonna have to book a show at The White Water just to have a rock solid excuse to go drink there again.
Lucero has never been a particularly political band, but in 2017 everyone and everything is increasingly more so political. Care to weigh in on the Trump Administration or the current state of the world?
The night he was elected I sure threatened to become a political band and write political songs. But I have a feeling there are actually better ways we can use our resources to change things. I think everyone needs to focus on things locally. I know that I’ve become more knowledgeable about who my local politicians are since Trump became president. I don’t take things granted quite like I used to.