On March 29th of this year, Memphis, Tn.’s Lucero kicked off a headlining tour in support of their fifth and latest album Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers.
Produced by Cracker frontman David Lowery, and featuring the soulful keyboard work of the infamous Memphis session man Rick Steff (who has occasionally been joining the band on the road when not backing up Cat Power), that record seemed to mark a turning point in this critically-acclaimed band’s career.
The rough-hewn Americana group has spent the better part of the past decade writing, recording, releasing and touring behind a steady stream of beguiling albums that fit somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s middle-period everyman rock, Steve Earle’s bleary-eyed internal journalism and the liquor-soaked laments of The Replacements (which makes sense, as producer Jim Dickinson —who helped craft some of that band’s finest work— was behind the boards for Lucero’s last album, 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings).
As their profile increases, and they now regularly sell out dates at such prestigious venues as The Troubadour in L.A. and The Bowery Ballroom in NYC, the group continues to hit smaller rooms in secondary markets such as ours, and this will be their third visit to The Jinx. That’s fueled in part by the fact that Susanne Guest, who owns that club, is apt to describe the group as her favorite band. In fact, the night before this public gig, they’ll perform a rare private show for her own wedding reception.
I caught up with guitarist Brian Venable by phone the morning after a two-night stand at The North Star Bar in Philly.
The first time I saw you at The Jinx, the last song of the night literally went on for something like twenty-five minutes because your singer Ben was so drunk he couldn’t make it through the first verse without screwing up. It went from sad to boring to hilarious and then back to sad again. Then boring and hilarious. You guys actually came back out at one point and tried to get him to stop.
Brian Venable: Oh yeah, that happens. Not all the time, but it happens. That song “The War” is about Ben’s grandfather, and it has a tendency to get emotional. Savannah’s turning into a drinking town for us.
What does that mean exactly?
Brian Venable: It’s hard to explain. There’s some towns where you go and people want to welcome you with rounds of drinks. The Denvers, the Louisvilles, the Orlandos. Now add Savannah to that list. You just feel like, ‘Man, I’m gonna be drunk before I even step onstage!’ And sure enough, that’s what happens. It happened to me the first night we played England. You can tell that you’re drunk enough to watch a show but too drunk to play one. (Laughs) We play more if we get drunk. Our shows in those circumstances might not be better, but they are definitely longer! (Laughs) You just don’t want to quit playing, even though you probably should. Ben is especially bad about that. He’s like, “I’m gonna finish this song, and I don’t care if it takes all night.” In Boston on the last night of the last tour, without realizing it, everybody bought each other bottles of whiskey, and we all got so drunk. Ben actually threw up onstage and then he tried to play “The War,” and he was about fifteen minutes’ into it when the soundman pulled the plug on the PA. Ben got pissed, smashed his guitar and ran off the stage.
Do you worry at all about the band’s rep?
Brian Venable: Sometimes we’re staring at each other playing the wrong thing. The problem is you’re still sorta sober and you think, “Hey, this is a spectacle.” But ninety percent of the crowd is as drunk as we are! I figure most people who don’t drink as much as us see eighty minutes of the gig and go home thinking, “I wonder how long they played after I left.” They see us at our best, playing a great show, and miss the part where the alcohol kicks in. There’s a moment when things start to come apart, but generally the audience is hammered too and they say it’s the best show they’ve ever seen. I guess that’s a long way of saying we do have a rep as a drinking band.
You just completed a two-week tour of Spain. What about Americana appeals so much to Europeans?
Brian Venable: I don’t really know. It’s weird. We were pulling in between a hundred and two hundred people each night in Spain, and it would just be folks who’d heard of us through Cracker or Jim Dickinson. Then we did four days in London, and it was almost exclusively young BMX-riding punk rock kids. Then we went to Italy, and it was almost exclusively twenty-eight to forty-eight-year-old men wearing boot cut jeans and checkered shirts who dig Springsteen. They loved us every bit as much as the kids, but they didn’t try to burn the place down! We’re going back to do a tour of the whole U.K. in November.
Cracker’s playing here this Wednesday, and your last album was produced by their singer David Lowery. When you listen back to that record, what stands out to you as something he brought to the table artistically that wouldn’t be there otherwise?
Brian Venable: I think we don’t need a producer as much as a mediator. Even with Jim Dickinson, we go in there pretty much knowing what we want to do. We don’t work with the kind of producers who tell us how to completely rewrite our songs, or act like they’re in charge of the band. We wanted to go away from Memphis for a few weeks and concentrate. David had this amazing three-story studio complex with everything you’d need to live there. You basically didn’t have to leave the building if you didn’t want to. As far as his production style goes, he’d just sit there playing with the internet while we’re recording and it looks like he’s not paying attention. You start thinking, man, I gotta be a producer. That’s good money for nothing! Then the song would end and he’d hum the whole thing back to us and offer all kinds of solid suggestions to make it better. Turns out he was paying a whole lot of attention. When everyone is arguing about their parts, you need that fifth voice of someone not in the band that everyone can listen to and do what they say. Alan the engineer was as much a part of producing the record as David. They were both bouncing ideas off one another, helping the creative process.
Lowery’s a hero to many because he’s been around for decades and stayed fairly true to his indie roots. Does Lucero have the potential to craft that sort of a career for itself?
Brian Venable: We’re lucky in a way, because we were a bit older than most when we started the band. Our songs aren’t based around some rash, bold statement we made in our youth that we’ll regret later. We could still be singing these songs when we’re sixty. It’s like Crosby Stills Nash & Young or any of those old guys playing hippie rock. We might play a lot slower when we get older, but it’ll still translate well. We don’t have to be a balls-out hard rock band getting beer thrown on us! We can just play the songs in an “age appropriate” fashion. You see these metal or hardcore bands trying to change their style late in their careers, but it’s really hard to write something when you’re seventeen that you can sing with a straight face forever. It’s like The Who: “I hope I die before I get old.” Well, you are old, you know?
So, do you guys play many weddings?
Brian Venable: I’m pretty sure we’ve played a total of four. We’re not what I’d call the best choice for a wedding band, in that we’ve got a lot of songs about cheating and leaving! However, someone told me that Susanne was having a Star Wars themed wedding, and I hope that’s true. That’ll make it all worth it! The last three weeks of this tour have been so crazy. I got a tattoo from Mat Hoffman, who’s a BMX racing legend. He’s like the Tony Hawk of that sport. He’s broken every bone in his body twice and is just a ridiculously gnarly dude. Getting to meet him was just as exciting as getting to meet Dinosaur Jr when we co-headlined a bill with them in Denver, or seeing the Bad Brains when they closed out a festival we just played. I’m hanging with Mat and he’s dancing at our show. Then I’m in a hotel room and he’s giving me a tattoo! Then, I’m right next to a 2,000-person mosh circle in front of (Bad Brains frontman) H.R. To be able to wrap that up with a Star Wars wedding might go down as the most amazing series of life experiences I’ve had in the past several years. Those will be the four stories I’ll tell for the next decade, and they will have all happened in the past three weeks.