MERCURY: I'm curious: You're known as a songwriter's songwriter. Has the way you've written songs changed in the last 30 years?
NICK LOWE: Well, fundamentally I still like the same things I did when I started out. I suppose you sort of get better at it the more you go on and you strive and make things clearer and clearer. That's what I find: I want to make it simpler and simpler and simpler. In fact, sometimes I think I'll just do one chord and one word and that'll be the song. (laughs)
Do you force yourself to sit down at a desk and write, or is it more like you're working in the garden one day and suddenly you realize that "coincide" and "bona fide" rhyme together and you rush in and grab a pen and paper?
Yeah, that's more it nowadays, yes. I have tried kind of "going to the office," so to speak. You know, renting a place and going there every day and with some success, I suppose, but I found it very, very difficult. I forced myself because my old friend John Hiatt used to do that and he said, "Oh no, it's the way to go. If I haven't written two songs a day it's a pretty bad day for me." And that's... the thought of writing two songs a day is absolutely unbelievable to me. It takes me all my time to think of one. Months and months. I mean, to make it good and to make it sound like you just made it up in 10 minutes can take weeks of work. So I think that's all that's changed: I just got a bit better at doing it.
How do you know when you're done with a song? How do you know [when to say] "Oh, this one needs a little more work" or just to say, "Aw, screw it, I can't deal with this one anymore"?
There is a sort of a "screw it" element to it, but then something tells you to just put it aside, to sort of mentally put it in the cupboard. You sort of say, "It's finished, it's finished, it's finished." You put it in the cupboard and you find that some few months later if you mentally get it out again and sort of hit yourself with it, sometimes you can really just see the thing that was kind of bugging you about it—where you didn't think it was finished or you couldn't think what else to do. And it might mean something quite fundamental being taken away, something you thought was actually a major part of the song, and after a few months you take that bit away and suddenly it all fits into place. It could be something like that, but, in the main, to me, it's when it sounds like somebody else has written it. When I can't detect, really, any element of me in it at all and I think that I'm singing a cover—if it's as natural as me singing an old Motown song or an old Country and Western song or something like that... that I just like, that I've heard, that is in my record collection and I just like. And it's the same, actually, when I find a cover song that I want to record, I'll work away at it and work away at it until I kind of think I've written it. The opposite process takes place.
You bring up Country and Western and soul music. Obviously, your music has been inspired from the very beginning until this day by those sounds and I think [for] a lot of your countrymen, it seems that there's more of a love affair with Country and Western, and American soul music in Britain than there is here. Why is that?
Yes, it's a question I'm often asked, actually. Well certainly when I was a kid we never considered British pop music. We all thought it was complete rubbish, really, until the Beatles and the Stones came along, so we always looked to America. People from my generation always looked to America. There was one British guy called Lonnie Donegan who everyone cites, who's from my vintage and 'cause he was...
Yeah, that's right, he was skiffle. And he was doing sort of Leadbelly songs, and we didn't know that they were Leadbelly songs or anything, but he was the nearest thing to a sort of homegrown rock 'n' roll guy who upset grownups and things. He sounded very peculiar, but his songs are very simple and easy to copy and easy to play. But we all looked to America. We couldn't really take in the size of the United States. Nowadays, because my ear is attuned to it, I can listen to a record from back in the day—I'm talking about when people were making records regionally.
Like Motown or Stax.
Yeah, exactly. I could hear a record that I've never heard before that was made back then and tell you where it was made just from the sound of it and probably tell you who was playing on it as well. But back then, we had no idea. We knew America was big but we had no idea how big it was, so it all sounded the same, we thought it was all the same. In a way it was rather sweet, you know, we were kind of color blind.
The irony is myself and a lot of my friends have a romantic notion of Stiff Records and that whole era, of which you were a lynchpin. What was it like to be in the middle of that?
Well, I think, looking back on it now, the sort of precursor to that was the pub-rock scene in the UK, which was only... They tried to get it working in other cities, but it was really a London thing. But it attracted to it a lot of people who felt disaffected that they were the first bunch of people who could sniff the punk thing coming along in the air. We didn't know what it was, but we knew there was something mighty changeable coming, because we felt so disaffected by mainstream pop, you know, what was happening in pop and rock. We felt it was awful, you know, these awful progressive rock groups, you know, and drippy singer/songwriters. We thought it was really wet. As I say, we felt disaffected—real outsiders.
And then this scene started in the pubs and a lot of very eccentric and quite arty people all sort of came together, drifted together. And this coalesced into Stiff Records, which was started by Jake Riviera, who then, as now, he's still my manager, actually. Another fellow called Dave Robinson. And the Stiff Records thing... well, I was gonna say... "used" is the wrong word, but attracted to it a lot of these people from the pub-rock scene and that just sort of metamorphosed into the punk thing. But it was very exciting, 'cause we really felt like we were making it up—like we weren't copying anybody, you know, we were making something up and we could actually do whatever we wanted. And we wanted to cause mischief and pull the playhouse down as well, was what we wanted to do. And suddenly, to our astonishment, it started to happen. And for just a few weeks—it wasn't very long until control was regained—but for a while we were running it, and these very, very powerful (well, we thought they were complete, cloth-eared nitwits), but they were running the business and suddenly, you know, here they were losing their jobs in droves because of us.
You mentioned Stiff Records founder Jake Riviera. He definitely had a different way of doing things. I mean he kind of liked to take the piss out of all those guys, didn't he?
Yes, he did, yeah, he was quite a piece of work back then. Like all of us, he's kind of calmed down considerably by now, but back then he was quite a piece of work. He did some things back then that were quite revolutionary which, thankfully, I—and indeed he—is getting the credit for. For instance, having the copyright revert back to us, you know. Back in those days, that never happened. You signed to a label and they just signed you off to other people when they'd had enough of you, but now I get my records back after so many years and I can lease them to other people and things like that. That was unheard of, certainly for people at our level of the game. Maybe not to Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, but to us that was unheard of. And he got that by jumping on people's tables in New York City and swinging on the curtains and things. He got them to agree to that sort of thing.
Your first solo album Jesus of Cool (known in America as Pure Pop for Now People) was just re-released for its 30-year anniversary. It got rave reviews all over. But it's unique in that musically it's all over the map stylistically. How did you get all those sounds on to one album?
Well, I can't remember sort of working it out at all. I seemed to be working so hard at that time. I sort of set myself up as a producer, which anyone could do back then. All you had to do was say you were one and you were. If you could get anyone to listen to you, you were a record producer. So I'd set myself up as this and I'd had some luck because of my situation, really. I kind of walked into it with Stiff and I had all these ideas and things. So I made that record in down time, really, in between the other things I was doing. I didn't have time, really, to work it out. I'd have an idea and access to all these musicians so I'd be able to say, "Can you just stay on 'til after the session and just do this for me?" and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. It was more of a collection of sweepings from the floor, really, more than an actual project that I'd actually thought about.
Now you say anybody can produce, but the fact of the matter is that you produced some of the most groundbreaking records if not of that decade, of rock 'n' roll. I mean, Graham Parker's Howling Wind; the Damned; obviously, the Elvis Costello ones are probably the ones you're most known for. Why don't you produce anymore?
Two reasons, really. One was that when my career as a pop star came to an end in the sort of very early '80s, I was, frankly, I'd had it. I was an alcoholic pretty much and just exhausted. I'd had a very good time, you know, I'm not complaining, I'd had a wonderful time, but I'd just sort of had it. And also, because I'd been a producer as well as someone who made records in their own right, I'd had my foot in both camps: the backroom boys and the front room boys, so to speak. The glamour end, I suppose you'd describe it as. I knew what was happening. The public is very fickle, you know, and all the rest of it. I knew this would happen.
So when my time was up I knew there was a change in the air and I was a part of the old thing and it was time for me to go or figure out something else to do. And one of those things was in the recording studio my sort of anything-goes attitude—you know, get a bunch of people in the room and figure out where the power lay. It might not be with this singer who's had his picture on the front of all these papers—the actual power of the group might be with the sulky bass player over in the corner, so you make friends with him and you get things done through him. And you figure out that the singer likes to be told how marvelous he is, even when he's not, you know, or the other way around. Some people like to be told that they're shit and be shouted at and bullied. But you figure out all that sort of thing.
But I realized that all that was going out and in was coming this new, computerized style where the producer was an engineer, really, and I never really had any interest in learning how to work the studio. I liked talking to someone who did know how to work the studio and getting them to break some rules and that's what I enjoyed. I knew that that style was going out and I was not really interested in going with it. I had no interest in computers or anything like that. Don't get me wrong, I know there's plenty of great records that have been made with that stuff, but I wasn't interested in it. So I just bowed to the gallery and said, "Goodbye, now I'm leaving," and that was it. I still produce my own records but I've got quite an idiosyncratic way of producing my own stuff.
I guess the '80s wasn't your favorite decade just from a personal standpoint, because of, you said, the alcoholism and the music and whatnot. It was probably '92, '93, '94 when you went into this new renaissance period. What was it that snapped you out of it?
Well, I... What did? I suppose one day I had sort of a revelation that I had to do something myself. I had a sort of blinding revelation that I had to take myself in hand. That was the first thing. So I took myself in hand to sort my personal difficulties out. And I've always found I've always been able to do that. Once I've made up my mind to do something which a lot of people might find quite difficult, something clicks with me and I become quite astonishingly single-minded about it. So things started to get better in that area, and then really the next thing [was] I wanted to develop a new way of recording myself and I started working on this theory. I couldn't get anyone to help me with it or agree with me, or to say, "Oh, that's a good idea, I know what you mean." I couldn't find anyone who knew what I was talking about and I started to doubt whether I knew what I was talking about as well.
Just as I was wrestling with this and wondering what I was going to do, I got this call from John Hiatt asking me to do this record with him, the Bring the Family record with Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner. And that really was quite a breakthrough for me because I'd been very reclusive for about a year, I think, and he sort of got me out of that. I didn't realize how inwardly I'd been looking, you know, myself. So when I had to come out to play I realized that I had all these ideas and things had been gestating and suddenly, to my amazement, I was in a position where I was able to try some of them out and see what worked and see what didn't. And that was quite a breakthrough for me. Things started getting clearer after that.
"What's So Funny ('Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding)" could just be another in a long line of you having your tongue in cheek, like "Time Wounds All Heels," or calling your EP Bowi right after David Bowie released Low. But it doesn't feel like that now?
Yes, in a way, it was written tongue in cheek. The original idea was for it to be written from the point of view of an old hippie noticing that hippie-dom was on the way out and it was being replaced by people who'd rediscovered booze and cocaine and things like that, and everyone had a smart-ass answer to everything, and hippies were the objects of quite a lot of hilarity. And it was this old hippie saying, "Well, all right, you've got all the answers now, haven't you, and you think you know what's going on, and I'm a joke. Well all I'm saying is, what's so funny about peace, love and understanding, man? Answer that." And it was supposed to be sort of funny but I always think of that song as the first original idea I had.
Up 'til then the songs I'd written had been very derivative. And they always are, you know, everything has been written. It's the way you put together all your influences that gives you an original style. When you first start out, you generally rewrite somebody's catalog and it's very, very easy to spot. And then one day, after you've rewritten several people's catalogs, you find yourself putting together two or three of them, amalgamating these ideas.
On the day that I had this idea, I thought, "This is a really, really good idea." I thought it was a great title, a really fantastic title and I always think of it as the first original idea I had. And even back then—that was quite a long time ago now, '73 or '74, I think, when I thought of this song—I thought to myself, "Wait a minute now, don't be too funny with this. Don't be too clever with this because this could be really good," and I remember actually thinking to just leave a little bit open. Don't be too obvious about this old hip. You know, don't get into describing this disgusting old hippie, just leave a little bit open. And thank goodness I did, because along comes good old Elvis Costello who liked that song so much because he was a fan of the Brinsley Schwarz group, and he put the sort of anthemic thing in it that everyone responded so much to.
The five or six years that you were producing the first five Elvis Costello albums at such a breakneck pace, there must have been times where you guys wanted to choke each other, but those were some great albums.
Yes, I think they are. In fact, occasionally I hear tracks on the radio in the UK and I'm struck, quite often, by how good they are, really, because we worked so fast and there's a lot of ideas in there, you know, musical and lyrical ideas. It seems like there's a lot of work gone in, but I can't remember—I mean I can't remember doing anything, really. I vaguely remember turning up to the studio but I think I just used to sit there while they did it. I suppose I must've done something, otherwise they wouldn't have asked me back again. But they do sound good, those records. Especially some of them are really incredible and I don't quite know how we did it.
Do you have a favorite?
The one I have the most affection for—there's loads of them—but the one that always sounds great to me is "Watching the Detectives," because it's got such a peculiar sort of sound and yet it really comes across great on the radio.