In Conversation with Nick Lowe
I first saw Nick Lowe in 1979 when his band Rockpile opened up for Blondie at the Sunrise Musical Theatre in Sunrise, Florida, about a ten-minute drive from my childhood home in suburban Fort Lauderdale. Until that time, I think the only concerts I’d been to were Boston and Styx, so this was a bit of a turning point in my life as a music fan.
Since then I’ve seen Nick many times, either as a solo act or with a band. In 1987, I drove many hours to Atlanta to see him open for Elvis Costello, whose first six albums were produced by Lowe. After that show, I waited by the stage door to meet him and Elvis, and watched as he signed autographs and joked with fans. So when the Believer asked me to interview someone, Lowe came to mind. I was a fan, but not a seasoned journalist, so I wanted to talk to someone who was talented and friendly.
I interviewed Nick in his hotel lobby after his show at Maxwell’s, a great little rock club in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the last stop on his recent U.S. solo tour. Before we met, I went online and checked out a few interviews with him. They seemed to follow a similar pattern: the interviewer would name a song and ask what it was about, or what led him to write it. That seemed like an awful thing to ask a songwriter, and personally, I almost feel it’s none of my business why someone writes a song. So I tried to ask more questions about live performance and touring, probably because it’s something we have in common. My biggest regret of the interview was not following up when he told me he spends his downtime on the road watching Judge Judy. I think we could’ve talked about that a bit longer.
As we were wrapping up the interview, Nick said to me, “So I really want to see you work.” I told him I was actually doing shows in London in a few months. He said, “Let me give you my number.” I took his number, but as the shows approached I felt odd about calling him. So I sent an email to his publicist. Shortly after, I received an email from Nick’s wife saying they’d love to come to the show. So on opening night of the run in London, I poked my head through the curtain, and there he was!
I. LETTER WRITING
NICK LOWE: I suppose I’m a bit sort of embarrassed to be interviewed, because I think what you do is really tough.
TODD BARRY: Oh, stand-up?
NL: Yeah. Because if I have a bad gig, then I can sort of say, “Shit, these people are all idiots,” you know. But if you don’t actually make people laugh then it’s obvious that it hasn’t worked. So I think it’s really, really, really tough. But I know how intoxicating it is if you do make people laugh, because even my own pathetic—this little stuff that I say, my couple of jokes that I do every single night, exactly the same—when people laugh at it, it is extremely intoxicating.
TB: Right. Yeah, well, you’ve always had funny songs as well as serious ones.
NL: Sort of, yes. Yes—I do some songs that people roar with laughter all the way through, and I think that they’re rather sad.
TB: What would be an example of that?
NL: Well, for instance, I do a song called “Man That I’ve Become,” which is sort of a Johnny Cash–style thing that I do, and it’s about a bloke who’s just sort of growing old and grumpy and nobody likes him and he doesn’t like anybody, you know, and I think it’s really rather sad, and people absolutely rock with laughter all the way through it. [Laughs]
TB: What do you do when you’re touring and you have days off? I was curious—do you explore the city you’re in?
NL: No, not anymore. I used to when I was a younger man, yes, I used to do that. But no, now I just watch Judge Judy.
TB: Do you really?
NL: Yes. Or any of the other judges.
TB: So you just stay an extra night wherever you are and—
NL: Yeah. My wife really loves me to write to her on these tours and I’ve always, um—we’re starting to see writing paper less and less—
TB: Yeah, you can’t find it. I think you have to go downstairs and ask for it. Or an envelope or something.
NL: [Laughs] Right. But she expects me to do it at least once, maybe even twice—I set a precedent, you know, and she becomes very upset if I don’t write to her. So on the occasions when we do have these odd nights off, I generally try and do that.
TB: That’s lovely.
NL: I haven’t actually got a—you know, a computer.
TB: So you don’t travel with a laptop? And you haven’t got email?
NL: No, I don’t have any of that stuff. I don’t even have a mobile phone. But I almost feel that I’m being excused, though. I feel almost—what’s the word I’m looking for—like it’s a privilege, I don’t have to have one, you know.
TB: Yeah, I don’t know how I toured without a laptop. I guess I read books, mainly.
NL: Well, I’ve got friends who all swore that they weren’t going to—even mobile phones, you know, they could fly into a rage if they heard someone talking on one at restaurants, and now they’ve all got ’em.
II. “IT WAS GOOD TILL LAST RECORD.”
TB: I noticed you meeting with some fans—I actually met you another time, after a show in Atlanta, and you were opening for Elvis [Costello]. He was doing the Spinning Songbook.
NL: Oh yeah, that one. That was good fun.
TB: I only met you briefly, but you seem to genuinely like meeting people after shows. Is that fair to say?
NL: I think so. There’s generally not that many. I think it would be different if it was huge—you know, unmanageable. But generally they’re—most people who like me seem to be pretty nice people. I don’t really get any trouble, you know, with people freaking out if they see me in the street, you know, anything like that. Especially in the U.K., where they don’t really go for that, anyway.
TB: They don’t acknowledge that? Are the British a little too cool for that?
NL: Well, they might sidle up and say, “It was good till last record,” you know, and they sidle away again. And occasionally you can see people nudging each other if they see you. But, you know, I’m not exactly a household name. When I was a pop star in the ’70s, yeah, I used to get lots of people coming after me, but that’s a long, long time ago. It doesn’t happen really at all anymore.
TB: Did you get people handing you a demo of their band or their brother’s band or something?
NL: Yeah, there’s quite a lot of it still—I don’t know what they think I can do about it. I mean, it’s different when I used to produce records, but I don’t produce records anymore. I do my own, but I’m no longer in that line of work.
TB: Did you just lose interest?
NL: I did really, yes. The way people made records changed in the ’80s, when so many computers came in. What I used to enjoy about it was sort of what you’d describe as the “man management” aspect of it, you know, where you’d figure out where the power lay. A group would come in, and the power might not be with the glamorous lead singer that everyone thought was so interesting. It might be with that rather sulky bass player in the corner, he might be the guy who ran things. So you’d try and find out what made him tick in order to get the singer to do what you wanted.
I think it’s sort of the same with most business, you know. But it used to be fun in those days, so you’d try to get people to do things by making them think it was their idea and that sort of thing. I thought it was really good. But when computers came in of course they don’t—it’s not necessary, you know. And also I’ve never—I know there have been great records that have been made with drum machines and computers—they’re fabulous records, like Prince, for example, I’m a huge fan of his. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone who was any better than him in the ’80s, actually. But in general I like music that speeds up and slows down, you know—the human touch. That’s the reason why I’ll never be a household name, because the records that I make are—I really like the sort of homemade kind of thing that they’ve got about them. I love it when I hear it on other people’s records, but it makes the general public nervous. As soon as they hear that they think it’s going to fall to bits and spoil their day.
TB: Just too spare, or—
NL: Yeah, sort of spare—they like that metronomic thing that makes them know that everything is going to be OK. But I can’t stand that, that thing where it just stays the same tempo all the way through.
III. “THE BLOKE”
TB: So this was the last show of the tour. Do you have the urge to do five more shows now? Or are you ready to catch the first flight home?
NL: No, not really, no. Sometimes I find that I have this sort of… this sort of other—I have this person or this thing which I call “the Bloke.” The Bloke is, I suppose, a kind of inspirational thing that—I used to say that when I, you know, was writing songs—I have written a couple of songs, but since I’ve had a little boy, it’s very, very difficult to devote time to it, so I haven’t written much for a while. But I always used to talk about how the best songs that I write are written when the Bloke comes ’round. And it’s this sort of person who I never know when they’re gonna come, or how to get in touch with him, or anything like that, but when they come along, it’s almost like they’re not interested in doing any interviews, they’re not interested in being on the TV or doing any tours; they’re this fantastic songwriter to show me their songs and I write, I do their songs, and claim them for my own. And sometimes the Bloke doesn’t come ’round for months, you know, and I don’t know how to get in touch with him, but I’ve seen him work so many times that I can do a very good impersonation of the Bloke, you know. And I know the difference, I know the difference between my songs, the ones I do and I write, and the ones the Bloke writes. But also the Bloke comes along on the live gigs, too, and sometimes we find that near the end of the tour, the Bloke goes home and leaves me to do the shows on my own.
TB: So does that mean you’re sleepwalking through the show?
NL: Sort of, yeah.
TB: Really? Wow.
NL: Well, I wasn’t sleepwalking through it tonight, but it has happened in the past. I mean, the Bloke goes home and leaves me—
TB: So do you do anything to shake it up, or do you just wait?
NL: I just wait. I used to fly into a terrible panic about it, but I find that if you wait it comes back.
TB: So you’ve never said, “I wake up at nine and at ten I start writing songs”?
NL: No. I have tried that, because my friend John Hiatt told me once, he said, “I’ve got an office”—it was when he was living in Nashville—he said, “I’ve got an office in town, and every day I would go to work. I’d have a piano in there and a guitar and stuff, and I’d go and work in there from nine—take lunch off, you know, and work through the afternoon—and write songs. If I didn’t write at least one, and preferably two, a day, I’d think it’s a bad day.” Well, that is absolutely—I cannot understand how anyone could do that.
TB: Two songs a day sounds like quite a bit of songwriting.
NL: It’s too many! It’s too many. It takes me months to write one two-and-a-half-minute song. Months! Not always, but—weeks, it can take me weeks to get it, to go over and over it. But I do it when I’m driving my car or I’m doing my shopping or something, and I just think about it and think about it and hit myself with it, you know, “How’s this?” And you jag on a bit, “Woah, hold on, that’s not good,” and then you smooth it out, maybe employ a clever use of a cliché, you know, just to smooth it out, and then you do a clever bit later. So I work on it like mad to get it to sound like I haven’t written it. That’s when I think it’s good—when I can’t see any vestige of my influence in it.
TB: So you see your talent as a completely separate entity?
NL: Yeah, I think it’s almost like a—if it’s not the Bloke, the other thing that I always think about is that I am living in an apartment, and next door they’ve got their radio tuned to this really fantastic radio station, which is on all the time but I can hardly hear it. And then they start playing this really cool new tune in their programming, and I can’t hear it, but every time it comes on, I stop and I try and listen through the wall, and it’s very muffled and every time it comes on I can just get two or three words or I get the tune and I really want to hear it played, you know, because it’s a really great new tune. I never know when they’re going to play it, but every time they do play it, I stop and I get a little bit more, a little bit more. And the trick is to not rush it, to wait until you’ve learned the whole song, because the temptation is—because you want to play it so quick—is for you to finish it off the way you think the song is. But the trick is to wait and listen for the way it actually goes, and then you’ve got it. And I find that that’s how I write songs. It’s something I hear, and it’s not me doing it, it’s something that I hear—so it’s always somebody else’s work, you know. I don’t think that there’s barely anything original about what I do at all. Maybe how I put shit together is original. But I think that that’s the way it is for everybody—Johnny Cash always used to say the same thing—that it’s just bits and pieces that I’ve picked up. The way you put it together suddenly becomes your style.
Why am I telling you this? You must know this better than anybody.
TB: I heard an interview with a writer, and they asked her how she writes—and she says you don’t know when the muse is gonna strike, but you should be there when it arrives, or something like that.
NL: Yeah, it’s the same thing.
TB: But I think she was sort of saying that she does what John Hiatt does, but maybe not to that extreme.
NL: Right, so she’ll go and look at a blank piece of paper and sit with her fingers in front of the typewriter. That’s so—I just cannot do that. I wish I could.
TB: So what if the Bloke visits you while you’re shopping? Do you pull out a pad and write something down, or do you hope you remember?
NL: No, no, you want to think that if it’s something really good you’ll remember it. A good title is really half the battle. A really good title. If it’s not too original, it’s just got a little hook in it somewhere, and it just grabs you. And if you forget it, then it probably wasn’t as good anyway.
TB: Really? OK.
NL: But I don’t think that’s particularly an original thought in itself; there are plenty of ways that people have described being inspired so that you’d write something. That’s my latest.
IV. “PICKING THE POCKETS OF THE CORPSE”
TB: Yep Roc recently reissued Pure Pop for Now People with the British title Jesus of Cool. Does that feel weird, then—’cause there’s reviews, and they’re all glowing, that I’ve read—but is it weird to see people review this album again? It’s been thirty years—is there anxiety, like, I’ve gotta go look at reviews of something I did—
NL: It is sort of weird, yeah. Well, I read my reviews religiously. Because if they’re bad reviews, then very often they’ve got a point, and sometimes I can—no one likes being told that they’re rubbish, but at the same time you think, I think he’s got a point there. I could maybe change that.… Or it’s something where you just say, “This guy’s a sort of cloth-eared ninny, he just hasn’t got it at all.” And that makes you feel pretty good, so I don’t get suicidal about that. So I do read them. But yeah, it’s very strange, because I never thought that that record would be—I didn’t even think that there would be a pop business in thirty years’ time. It came out in ’78, this album, thirty years ago— I didn’t even think there’d be a pop business, let alone people re-releasing this record. I thought people would listen to it because I was having so much success at the time producing other people, like Elvis, so people would check out my record and see what it was like, but because it was sort of irreverent and cheeky… I thought people would remember that. I didn’t think they’d remember the music at all, which I thought really wasn’t that great; it was filled with really obvious steals from other people’s records, which at the time was considered a terrible thing to do.
TB: Like “Nutted by Reality” has a little Jackson 5 in it, right?
NL: Yeah, exactly, yes. There’s stuff all over.
TB: Yet it doesn’t sound like a Jackson 5 thing. That’s the idea, right?
NL: Yeah. But I thought that I was very anxious to acquire this reputation as being something of a maverick and a non-player of the corporate game, you know, and I thought that this record would add to that—but that by the end of the year, no one would remember the music. But they’ll remember the attitude, I thought, and that would help me, and so I can build this reputation that I was trying to get for myself at the time as being a kind of a bad boy. And then I could do something good in the future. So I never thought I would even consider it in thirty years’ time.
TB: Is it selling better now than it was back then?
NL: Well, it did pretty well back then.… I mean, it was top—I don’t think it was a top-twenty record, I think it got in the top—over here—I think it got in the top fifty. It did pretty well. But in ratio, I suppose, it’s done really well. I think like the quantities it did first time round. But nobody’s record sells like they used to back then. But it’s done amazingly, and as you say it’s picked up these incredible reviews. People have talked about it in the most glowing terms.
TB: Yeah, it’s pretty much all, like, five-star reviews that I’d say that I’ve read.
NL: It’s quite surprising. I thought that at that time, the sort of punk-rock time which I was involved in, the records I was making, I really thought it was all over. Lots of people talk about punk as being the sunlit uplands, you know, bursting out of gray paths, the sunlit uplands of the future. I thought quite the opposite. I thought it was all over, and we were all, I and my colleagues, were just picking the pockets of the corpse, dancing around the corpse of pop music, giving it a kick, before we were all back in proper jobs by the end of the year. In a way, I think I was right. I think that that’s when it started recycling itself, you know, and in my view there hasn’t really been anything original since then. I couldn’t stand the punk-rock music. I thought it was awful, but I loved the mischief it made, the mischief I thought was fabulous. That absolutely was right up my street. But the music, that awful… it was so… white.
V. THE CHEESE SHOP
TB: What’s the ideal venue for you? Do you have as much fun in a small place playing for, like, two hundred people as you do for five thousand?
NL: Yes, I can, really, yes, I can, though five thousand is a bit—that’s getting up a bit, for me. I’ve very rarely played for that number. The biggest shows I play, really, are in London. I haven’t played very often in London, so when I do, I can play a fancy room. But even then, you know, it’s only about fifteen hundred or eighteen hundred maybe, tops. That seems like a real lot of people to me. But in the main I suppose I’ve played between five hundred and eight hundred. Tonight was a sticky-floored rock club, you know, which I am no stranger to at all, so I can do that sort of place. I really don’t mind it at all. It does you good, actually, to do that. But I have been spoiled on this tour, we played some really, really nice rooms, had some really good shows. Tonight was about the smallest that I’ve done on this tour.
TB: Do you ever have just shitty crowds or do you not even want to admit that you have shitty crowds?
NL: No, actually, I have big ones and small ones and sometimes I play a place which is too big, not enough people turn up. But they all generally nowadays seem to be really pleased to be there, and that’s why I think your gig is much harder than mine.
TB: So you don’t really get a lot of curiosity-seekers, or people who maybe just know “Cruel to Be Kind” and then are shitty except when you’re singing that?
NL: No. For instance there was a woman who came here tonight, and she had come because she read this—I got this unbelievable review in the New York Times after that last show I did, I think it’s probably the best review I’ve ever had, and she had come on the strength of that. So, you know, a few people come along to see you expand your base.
TB: I don’t know if I have much more, I don’t even know how long this is supposed to be, but like I said, if you’re—
NL: Well, we could have another drink.
TB: Does that seem like enough for an article? What do you think?
NL: [Laughs] How long has it got to be?
TB: I don’t know. They shouldn’t have any expectations from me, because I’m not a real writer. I asked about shitty crowds, Aspen, sing-along…. Oh, here’s a weird question: my manager, for some reason, used to be in touch with Robyn Hitchcock, and he said—somehow your name came up in the conversation—and Robyn said you guys shop at the same cheese shop.
NL: [Laughs] He’s very keen on cheese, Robyn. Yeah, he and I are neighbors. We’ve known each other professionally for quite a long time, since the ’70s, but we’ve been neighbors, he lives around the corner from me, so I see quite a lot of him. He’s a very good fellow.
TB: I don’t think I’ve ever been in a cheese shop—that’s why it made me laugh. We can stop, I think. You want to stop?
NL: You can pad it.
TB: Yeah, we can pad it. You know what? They can draw a big picture of you, fill out the rest. It was forty minutes, I guess. That was good, right?
NL: Oh, that’s all right.
TB: I didn’t talk a lot, but you know what? It’s supposed to be about you, it’s not me.
NL: Well, I did quite all right, I thought. I was just sort of indiscreet enough to keep it interesting.
TB: No, you were good, you were a good interview. I am a bad interviewer, though.
NL: I bet you’re a good interview.
TB: I’m actually a—I think I’m a shitty interview. A lot of people who interview me don’t even know the first thing about me, or they’ll say things like “So, what can we expect from your show?” And it’s like, “I tell jokes.” For comedians, there’s a lot of expectation for you to launch into what you do, and it’s like, Well, I’m not going to do it over the phone to some guy who doesn’t even know who I am to begin with. They’ll do that; they’ll go, “Why should people come see you in Minneapolis?”
NL: So do you think that you have to be a writer first and foremost, or a performer first and foremost? Because obviously—I guess you write your own material?
TB: I do, yeah. Usually, for a comedian, if they say he’s a good writer, it’s sort of a backhanded compliment. Like it usually means shitty performer, but not that they wouldn’t also compliment a good comedian on his writing. I think I do get complimented on my writing, but if they just go, “Heyyy, good writing,” that’s a little jab.
NL: That’s the equivalent of “Sounded great.” Which means that you sucked.