MEET: Ben Nichols of Lucero

Music -

MEET: Ben Nichols of Lucero

Not every band can lay claim to having lived and rehearsed in Elvis’s old karate dojo. Nor is it run-of-the-mill for a band to have an official day named in their honour, as decreed by the Mayor in their hometown of Memphis. But such is the life of the five southern gents who make up Lucero.

With a couple of decades under their belt Lucero have served up their ninth studio album ‘Among the Ghosts’; a straightforward rock & roll record of heart songs and universal truths, steeped in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. 

We caught up with frontman Ben Nichols ahead of the band’s first headline Australian tour, their first “real trip” to our shores. 

What are you up to, what have I interrupted you doing today?
I’m hanging out with my daughter at the moment. I just got home right before Thanksgiving here in the States. We got home from a US tour, so we’ve been home for just a little bit. And yeah, in a couple of days I leave out for England but right now I’m at home. I’ve been watching my little girl all day while my wife’s at work.

So I wanted to ask you about what you’ve got to do to get the Mayor of your town to declare the day Lucero day??
[Laughs] Well yeah I don’t think just being a band for 20 years is good enough. I’m pretty sure we had to pull some strings, and call in some favours. I honestly think my guitar player’s next door neighbour used to employ the current mayor as their lawyer way back in the olden days before he was mayor and basically just sent him a barrage of emails that he finally just signed a piece of paper and gave us the one day holiday.

You’ve got an official document?
We do, we do. Signed by the mayor. And like I said, I’ll take what I can get. So yeah, it was a pretty big honour actually. It felt pretty special. And that’s when we hit the 20 year mark, the 20 year anniversary of the band.

That’s quite an achievement. Do you guys finish each other’s sentences?
We could probably but I don’t like to hang out with them that much, so. We’re not really around each other that much, I’m tired of hearing them talk. Or else I could finish their sentences. We love each other of course but that doesn’t mean you have to like each other all the time.

I heard that you used to rehearse in Elvis’s old karate dojo, is that still the case?
Ah no. I lived there for 10 years and actually everybody in the band lived there at some point in time. And for a little bit we all lived there. It worked out alright at the time, in the old days. The rent was $600 a month and we had the van, so for $700 a month you’d cover rent and utilities for everybody in the band. You’d just get in the van, pack up all the gear and go on tour and you’re good.

But then guys started getting girlfriends and moving in with them and finally I was the only one left. And I finally moved out, ‘cause it was pretty run down by that time. There was no air conditioning and lots of broken windows. Yeah, kind of like that house they lived in in Fight Club? It was a lot like that. So everyone moved out, including me. Then it actually became a karate dojo again, finally.

Again, really? It’s gone full circle!
Yeah, I think it’s a guy who was actually associated with the original Tennessee Karate Institute and I think he’s opened it back up in the original location. So that’s kinda cool. But yeah, it was pretty neat just knowing you lived in a place that Elvis hung out in.

You must just feel - I mean, obviously your most recent album’s called 'Among the Ghosts' but you just must feel those echoes of [musical history] in Memphis. What sort of effect does that have on the music that you make?
Oh for sure. It’s a cool feeling. It’s nice just being a part of that whole Memphis story. And you know we recorded the record at Sam Phillips Recording Service, which is the studio that he built right after he sold Elvis to RCA. And he moved out of the tiny little Sun Studios and just a couple of blocks away built Sam Phillips. It hadn’t really changed much since about 1960 when he opened it up and so it’s got a lot of ghosts of its own. Everybody from Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, a tonne of other folks hung out there and recorded there. We’d never done an album there before, so kind of a new experience for us. It was a very Memphis type place to record.

Would you describe that then as having a sense of place, that your music would have a sense of place?
Maybe, I don’t know. I think it’s quite personal. When it comes down to it, I’m writing these songs and singing these songs pretty much for myself, to get myself through the tough times and the long nights. So yeah it’s hard to say if some of that Memphis sound is working its way in to that, I’m sure it is…Big fan of all that music as well as a tonne of other stuff. There’s a bunch of new influences going in there. And each record we’ve done - this is about our ninth or tenth studio album - and each one’s been kind of a different experiment, none of them sound exactly the same. And it’s been nice to have that freedom to explore different directions throughout the history of the band.

I’d like to think some of that old school rock n roll spirit is still in there and I hope that folks can hear that. Because, yeah, I do still have a strong love for rock n roll. And that’s what this new record is, it’s pretty much a straightforward rock n roll [record].

I was interested in hearing about you referencing writers that you’ve been reading and the influence that they’ve had on 'Among the Ghosts' and I know that "The Last Pale Light in the West" was based on Cormac McCarthy’s 'Blood Meridian.' Could you talk a little bit about literary influences on your writing?
In the past a bunch of those [records] have been written from a very first person point of view and with this record I was trying to step outside of that a little bit and maybe write songs more like short stories. At least some of them, maybe from a different narrator’s point of view. And I was trying to kind of broaden my storytelling ability which - it’s a step in the right direction - I don’t know if I’m quite there yet. I think there’s a lot more work to do in my song writing.

But yeah, there was a bunch of southern short story writers, like Larry Brown and William Gay and Ron Rash. And my little brother actually, who writes films and he has a certain kinda tone to his writing, it’s very similar to some of those other guys. And yeah I wanted to kind of, I’d been reading a lot of their stuff and of course I’ve been a fan of all my brother’s movies. And I really wanted to try and work some of that in to the record. And the song that my little brother made a video for, called Long Way Back Home - that really kind of exemplified that attempt on my part, it’s definitely kind of a short story type song, with that kind of southern short story feel to it. And if you haven’t seen the video - it’s amazing, yeah you can watch it on YouTube, it’s really cool. That video is one of the coolest things Lucero has ever been a part of.


I was wondering if that was - you’ve talked a lot about becoming a father - if that was sort of linked. That you could talk about these universal themes but with a bit of distance or something?
Yeah my family ended up being a much bigger part of this record than I was even planning on it being. I think those songs I might have gone back to my first person kind of ways and that stuff was probably coming straight from the guts. And yeah there’s a whole lot of stuff about being gone from your family and being separated for one reason or another, kind of longing to be back home. Those are the kind of songs I feel like singing when I’m on tour for a month and I can’t see my daughter. It’s just what I’ve got to sing to get me through.

You’re obviously a musician, your brother’s a filmmaker - did you have a very creative upbringing? Or do you think there’s outside influences that affected you?
I don’t know, my dad took us to see lots of movies. And then from the age of 12, well I went to my first show by myself when I was about 14 and from that time on pretty much wanted to start a band, be in a band and travel around the country. My brother, he always knew from the time he was in high school, he wanted to be a director. And yeah I guess we got lucky that our parents were very supportive and let us get away with a whole lot. My other brother wanted to wear a suit every day, he wanted to work on Wall Street or be a lawyer. And he ended up becoming a Defence Attorney down in Texas, so yeah, we all did exactly what we wanted to do. I guess my parents get some credit for that, even though they weren’t actually that artistic themselves or anything, they were hard-working’. But they were hard working so we could do what we wanted to.

What about your daughter’s musical taste, is it heading in the right direction do you think?
She’s only 2-and-a-half, she likes all of it, she likes everything. Now, there’s a full size drum kit and she can’t reach the kick drum pedal but she loves to sit there and just bang away at the drums while I play guitar. And she’ll sing in the microphone. She’s saying words now and sentences here and there but she just likes to yell into the microphone. And she’ll bang around on the piano too. So she’s all over the place. And now she maybe wants me to play the Paw Patrol theme song, that’s a cartoon she really likes. But yeah, she likes everything and my wife tells me that when I’m gone she really likes listening to Lucero. She likes to hear Dad’s voice. That’s awesome to hear. So at least she’s a fan.

And so you’ve got your - is it your third - trip out to Australia soon?
I believe it is, but it’s honestly kind of our first real trip out. I was there ages ago with Chuck Ragan [of Hot Water Music] and Frank Turner on something called The Revival Tour. And Tim Barry [of Avail] as well. But that was just me acoustic, and I was the first guy every night so I was kinda low on the totem pole. That was like 10 years ago. We came back and did a festival here and there. But this will be there first time that the full band will be there and we’ll just be playing honest-to-god rock n’ roll shows and we’ll be playing full sets. I’m very much looking forward to that. I have no idea if anyone’s going to come out to these shows or not. I hope they do.

And, just finally, I always like to ask people about the first show that you ever went to.
I was 14, it was a bunch of mainly local Little Rock Arkansas punk rock bands and it was downtown at this old building called The Womens City Club, I guess they’d rented it out for the night. It was a band called Trusty, they moved to DC and ended up on Dischord Records for a little bit. And some young kids, like 14 year old kids - my age - and they were in a band called The Numskulls. And then some Texas band… And yeah, that’s when I thought, I want to go to shows. That’s the first real show I went to but before that I’d seen Huey Lewis and the News and Chicago, and those were at like The Colosseum or whatever. So basically, Chicago, Huey Lewis and the News and then this punk rock show.

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