Lloyd Cole is having one of those unusual periods in the life of any songwriter who endures – he’s receiving simultaneous praise and affirmation for both his past and current work. The Derbyshire-raised son of a Scouser has received critical acclaim since the turn of the century for a string of solo records that continue to display the wry, literate and intelligent pop with which he made his name with his first band, the Commotions, who ploughed the same resolutely arty and intelligent furrow as The Smiths, Aztec Camera and The Go-Betweens – making three excellent records between 1983-1987 – beginning with the still hugely beloved ‘Rattlesnakes’. Singles like ‘Brand New Friend’, ‘Perfect Skin’ and ‘Lost Weekend’ also remain certifiable classics.
After a number of solo records emerged in the wake of break-up of the Commotions, Cole withdrew from the pop industry for about five years, primarily to raise a young family, first in New York City and then in Easthampton, Massachusetts – which has been his home for a number of years. That child rearing has been successful in at least one way, as son William joins him on stage, and on guitar, on the tour which sees him take in a sold-out show at the Epstein Theatre in October.
In that time, Cole has provided a template for the modern artist by embracing the potential of the Internet, building himself an excellent website and fan community and touring the world with a stripped-down acoustic format in which his drollness and intelligence shines through. It also helps that his voice – a warm, hugely expressive baritone – has grown even better with age. This tour follows the warmly acclaimed 2015 box set ‘Lloyd Cole and the Commotions Collected Recordings 1983-1989’ and supports a new collection which spans Cole’s major label solo years, 1989-1996.
He joined us from the loft studio in his house, where the suffocating heat of the US summer meant the air conditioning was blasting in the background as we chatted…
The response to a show where you only play the old songs and nothing from after 1996 has been fabulous…
It’s great to talk about a sold out show! Every now and again you have a show that sells a lot worse and you think, ‘Gosh, is this the beginning of the end?’ But, something has always managed to keep the so-called career above water.
Your 2013 album, ‘Standards’, was very well received critically and an excellent performance with the Leopards on ‘Later… with Jools Holland’ seemed to fire you back into public consciousness after a few years out of the limelight. Do you think that you have been improving as a songwriter?
That might be so, but on this tour the solo shows are selling much better than the Leopards shows. To be honest, I am not sure whether I think ‘Standards’ is better than anything else I have done… but a lot of people do. It’s not really for me to judge my own work – Im just happy that I still have a career, because I still have kids to raise.
I think it’s wrong to see this part your career as a renaissance, you may have had to follow a different model of production and distribution, but you have been writing consistently good songs since you left Universal in the late nineties. There are some brilliant songs on (2006 album) ‘Antidepressant’, especially ‘The Young Idealists’…
I think that some of the records are better than others. ‘Antidepressant’ is strange record, I think the songs on it are mostly really good, but I was between places in terms of the deliberate, distinct idea of what I was doing on the album that preceded it, ‘Music In a Foreign Language’. What I ended up doing with ‘Antidepressant’ was what I have done a few times in my career, which I’m not sure is that smart. For example, with (second Commotions album) ‘Easy Pieces’, we knew we had something with this Rattlesnakes thing and we were not going to throw it out the window – we used it as a starting point and made it more electric and added some string sections, but basically followed the same idea… I did the same with ‘Antidepressant’ and I’m not sure that was the right thing to do. I think the records that have been most successful are the ones that have broken the trend with the record before.
‘Music in a Foreign Language’, from 2003, is my favourite of your records, it’s kind of bleak… the title track especially so.
I think it’s my favourite record, too. I’d not been feeling good about the way my professional life was after the fallout with Universal Records and I went on strike against myself – I just didn’t want to write any more songs, I wanted to have something to write them for and not just for the so-called career. I went out and played more shows acoustically and I anticipated what was happening to the music industry and started relying on live performance income, because I didn’t want to make a record. That’s the way the model is today, the money is in the live performance and you don’t make very much money out of the record unless you are in the musical 1%… which I’m not. I might be in the musical 6%, but I’m not in the 1%. With ‘Music in a Foreign Language’, I tried to let the ideas for the songs simmer for a long time, and when I looked at them, I wondered what are my family going to think about them when they hear them? Then I thought, well that’s my job, maybe depressing is the wrong word, but they are more honest than people would want me to be.
You continue to evoke periods of time and groups of people really well, for example, the recent single ‘Women’s Studies’ is a superb evocation of university life. ‘Period Piece’, from ‘Standards’, and ‘Late Night, Early Town’, from ‘Music in a Foreign Language’, evoke specific time periods and places. How do you achieve this vividness in you your songwriting?
‘Women’s Studies’ was a fun song to write… it’s taken me thirty years to realise that is the paradox that I am: I’m attracted to New York Dolls and I’m attracted to academia, and it’s very easy to make fun of someone like that. Also, in the couple of years leading up to writing ‘Women’s Studies’, I had read the Kingsley Amis book about academia, ‘Lucky Jim’, and it was fabulous.
As for how I can do this, I think it’s just down to hard work… the songs that you have mentioned took years to write.
The atmosphere in ‘Late Night, Early Town’ is very cynical, highlighting the decadence that can be seen in some people, especially the line: “You seem so full of cocaine, and self-belief”…
I’m not sure that cynicism is the right word. But, this is one of the things that I love about songwriting, I always thought that line was directed at Los Angeles, as opposed to any person. This is what I like about songwriting, if you are too precise, the songs don’t have the malleability that they need to have to be songs for different people. If they don’t have that, if they were too precise, you’d have to be me to understand them… this is one of the things that drive me mad about literature criticism: why are they still asking about what the author is trying to tell us? Writing isn’t about telling messages – it’s about creating something that can add to the lives of other people. It’s not about the message.
You write incredibly visual songs full of characters, what do you see in your mind’s eye when you sing those songs live? Do you see the point of creation or the characters in the songs?
I don’t think I see anything. Even though the songs are full of images, they are still words, and it’s still words that create a feeling – but I don’t see anything. The feeling is different from song to song – it would be strange to not get a feeling of melancholy in one song or great joy in another.
Surely you get a picture of a girl called Jane who’s wearing a turtle neck when you sing ‘Brand New Friend’?
No, not at all. Most of the time I’m just trying to remember the next line or the next verse… I think one of the reasons I struggled to be a proper pop star was because I had no ideas for videos after we did ‘Perfect Skin’.
In recent years there has been renewed focus on how people write songs – how do yours come? Is it in words, couplets or a feeling? Also, are you one of those that waits for divine inspiration or do you believe in the Neil Finn method of putting in a nine to five shift like any other job?
Not really, those are the two aspects to songwriting and one of them is the reason that we carry notebooks: these little fleeting ideas will come to us from time to time. Most of the time we will be away from the guitar or the piano… we will be out for a meal in a restaurant and we need to scribble something down on a piece of paper. I’m not going to interrupt a family meal for a song, but, when it comes, it’s always words and language… phrases. ‘Women’s Studies’ was in my notebook for ten years, just two words, but there was a feeling about it. If I was successful with that song, it was because it was playful in a way that ‘Perfect Skin’ was.
You were often accused of being arch, but…
What’s wrong with being arch? I don’t really understand what’s wrong with it.
Well, what I mean is that people like yourself and Robert Forster (of The Go-Betweens) and Morrissey were accused of being arch, but that ignored or willfully disregarded the wry self-deprecation that is in your work, especially.
In my case, I think so. I read a few essays on self-deprecation a few years ago, they were trying to get to the essence of ‘Englishness’. There was a lovely story about a British academic following an American colleague at a conference, and he started by saying “… I don’t think there is very much to add” and the Americans all left. I do think that self-deprecation is fun and it can be very charming, but to be self-deprecating one has to have a high self-regard. I’m not saying that I’m the best songwriter of my generation, but I think I am one of the best.
You and a few other writers of your generation are still writing great songs and getting plaudits for the songs you have written – is it all about the song, does the song always shine through?
Well, yes, but only if you can present them. People say that the song is the most important thing, but if you make a mess of it people won’t listen to it. The delivery of a song is still important – even when I’m doing my acoustic show I find that when you break a song down on the guitar, you find whether it stands up. I will fully admit to having songs, that when they are broken down on the acoustic, are not as good as I thought they were.
The aging process is something that is eternally fascinating to you…
I don’t know why. I started writing about it when I was 26 and I joke about it on stage most nights. The thing that amused me recently was that Neil Tennant and I were writing songs about when we were young when we were in our late twenties and early thirties.
You often write about outsiders and can be seen as the observer looking in from the outside. Were you an outsider because you moved around as a teenager?
I was never an outsider – I had nice school years and a circle of friends. I had a time in Derbyshire when I liked to dress up like a glam rocker, when some of the local hooligans called me a “poof”, as they put it, but it never really bothered me that much because girls liked me. The physical aspect of that was a bit of a drag for a while, but apart from that, I had a pretty happy childhood.
You clearly loved being a pop star in the eighties, but it’s the wandering troubadour that you have become that you are most comfortable with. Discuss…
I don’t think so, it’s probably somewhere in between. I don’t make enough money not being a pop star, so my life is too hard. When stardom came, even with the little bit we had for a couple of years, I behaved very poorly, I complained about stuff – “I can’t go shopping because people follow me around… ” – but I knew full well that I wanted that and I wanted not to be able to go shopping. If you want to be like Marc Bolan, you know that you can’t go shopping. The first day that I walked through Oxford Street and no one recognised me was particularly depressing. In the eighties you would get used to walking through cities and seeing heads turning… I still get it in Portugal and little bit in Dublin. I was pretty comfortable with stardom, I think that I pretended to be uncomfortable because I thought that I shouldn’t be happy being a pop star. I thought I should want to be more than that, but Bob Dylan was a pop star and probably still is. One thing I don’t miss, though, is traveling with a big group of musicians and waking up in a bus behind a venue in the morning. On this tour, for example, I have a day off in Leeds and I know the best curry restaurants I want to go to and I know where I’ll be playing golf – these aren’t things that you can do when you are travelling with a bus and a ton of roadies.
You’ve had artist in residence gigs in Portugal and played concert halls in Germany – you appear to go to nice friendly, arty, places. That must be great.
It’s the economics really, I go where my agent sends me. I have this other hobby career making electronic music which is taking me to some more interesting places where there is instrumental music. But, really, I am very lucky that my music has attracted people at places. I played with Rodelius in Berlin last year – my first instrumental gig. I was terrified, I wanted to cancel, in fact, I tried to cancel… I felt like I had bitten more than I could chew. But, it worked well in the end, and then I was invited to do another performance. The Rodelius show was in a big theatre and this second one was in small space of perhaps 40 people. Then I was approached by the Hamburg Philharmonic to play a show and I asked how did they hear me, and a lady said that she had been at the small show in Berlin and had really enjoyed it. Other than being a constant economic struggle, it’s great.
Do some songs go down better in different places?
I wish I could tell you that, but I can’t really. Other than perhaps in Scandinavia, France, Germany and the United States, they don’t place ‘Rattlesnakes’ head and shoulders over the rest of the albums, so, maybe it’s easier to play there – they are as rapturous. I was in Sweden, playing in this beautiful place, and my friend who was driving me round said to me: “There were a lot of men crying tonight.” I thought, ‘I’m doing my job’…
The coolest thing I’ve ever seen is you doing ‘Brand New Friend’ on a bed with a load of Swedish models lounging behind.
I have no recollection of doing that, no memory at all. I do remember doing ‘In Bed with Paula Yates’ (on ‘The Big Breakfast’) – when you met her in person you could see why men went mad for her. I was glad to escape, I thought, ‘that was really cool, but I’m glad that I’m leaving now’. I met Michael Hutchence, too, because I was friendly with the model Helena Christensen who was going out with him. She invited me to do a photoshoot with her and we went to dinner with Hutchence, who she was going out with, and he was one of the two or three brightest people I have ever met in pop… super bright. His intelligence might not have shone through in his music, but his charisma did.
‘Playing The Classic Lloyd Cole Songbook 1983-1996’
Tuesday October 11th 2016, Epstein Theatre, Liverpool
Pic courtesy Epstein Theatre