With a striking new album in the bins, the Memphis band’s frontman talks about the “ghosts” of their past, present, and future… Incidentally, we official declare this to be Lucero Day at BLURT!
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been two decades since Lucero decided that marrying punk rock with country and playing those songs night after night – from cramped bars and sweaty clubs, to 1,000-plus seat venues – was a far better fate than getting real jobs. To celebrate their 20th year together, the boys from Memphis have turned in Among The Ghosts, a brilliant, aural Southern Gothic trip, and one of their most creative release in years.
Frontman Ben Nichols has already had a pretty stellar couple of years leading up to the release of the album; he got married, he and his wife had a baby and earlier this year, as the band was celebrating their annual Block Party, the mayor of Memphis declared it “Lucero Day”.
On the eve of releasing Among The Ghosts, Nichols spoke about that honor, the new record and how his band managed to stick it out for 20 years.
BLURT: You guys are coming up on 20 years together. Why do you think the band has been able to last this long?
BEN NICHOLS: We desperately wanted to avoid having to get real jobs. So much so that we were willing to put up with each other no matter what. And after 20 years everyone is basically family. We all know exactly what to expect from each other and everyone knows when to give people their space. We all know how to compromise. And it just so happens that right now we are playing the best songs we’ve written in a while and they are really fun to sing every night… so that helps.
At the Lucero family Block Party this year Memphis’ Mayor declared it Lucero Day. What did that mean to you guys?
It definitely feels good to be recognized like that by your hometown. Memphis has been such a big part of the band our entire career. I can’t imagine the band being what it is and being from anywhere else. The history and the studios and the musicians all make it a unique place. It is completely different from Nashville. It doesn’t have the money or the prestige or the traffic. Memphis has an underdog quality to it that suits us just fine. So, having the mayor declare our very own Lucero Day is an amazing compliment.
The new record sound is a little different than all the others, especially with the absence of horns. Was that a conscious decision?
Jim Spake shows up playing sax on the closing track “For the Lonely Ones,” so it’s not a completely horn-less record. He had decided a while back to not go on the road anymore so the band had kind of naturally gravitated back towards a more streamlined sound. With the last few records we’d been exploring a very Memphis-type sound: full horn sections and barrelhouse piano and soul-inspired compositions. On Among the Ghosts we took a step away from that and made a more classic rock inspired album. I wanted to write darker songs that were still rock & roll. I wanted them to be melancholy and cinematic at the same time.
There is a real strong southern Gothic vibe to this record. Are there themes or characters throughout that tie these songs together?
This is the first album I’ve written since getting married and the birth of my daughter. I’m happier than I’ve ever been but there is also more to lose now. I have to care about the future now more than I did. The stakes are higher. I think that led to lyrics that were more serious. Maybe a little darker. The idea of family is probably the strongest theme that runs through the record. Being separated from your family, fighting to protect them, refusing to leave them behind, doing whatever you have to do to make it work… that’s all in there. And I wanted to write about those things using words that had a timeless quality to them. Ghosts and spirits and deals with the devil; soldiers and brothers and thieves and lovers… nights where the dawn never breaks.
Can you talk about the significance of the album title?
“Among the Ghosts” is a lyric from the song of the same title. The full line is “No longer will I walk among the ghosts.” The song is about being away from your home and family and wanting more than anything to get back. Wherever the narrator is, he doesn’t feel like he’s among the living. The real world, the living world, is back home with his family. At least that’s kinda what I was thinking when I wrote it.
You recorded this one at Sam Phillips Recording. Have you recorded there before? Do you feel the history of the place when you’re there?
We recorded a couple tracks at Sam Phillips Recording way back when for the Tennessee album. But we’d never done an entire album there before. The fact that our co-producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang does a lot of work out of there made it exactly the right fit for us. Mr. Phillips designed the entire building with sound and acoustics in mind. Matt is the kind of engineer/producer that understands and appreciates something like that and can really use it to his advantage. I think he’s using that studio exactly the way Sam Phillips intended it to be used. And I credit the great sounding album we have 100% to his talent.
What’s next for the band?
Record release day is August 3, so the rest of the year is just lots of touring. We are used to that though. We are also very excited about the short film my brother Jeff Nichols filmed in Memphis and which will be released soon after the album. It’s a video for the song “Long Way Back Home” but in reality, it should more properly be called a short film. His amazing cinematographer Adam Stone came to town to shoot it and we had four amazing actors donate their time and effort. Michael Shannon is in it (he’s in all five of my brother’s feature films) as well as Paul Sparks, Scoot McNairy, and Garrett Hedlund. Amazing actors. The work they all did with my brother on this project is stunning. I can’t wait for people to see this. So: a short film, constant touring, and then I’ve already talked to Matt Ross-Spang about booking more time in the studio to just keep rolling and writing songs.
Any advice on longevity to newer bands just now getting together?
Don’t quit. Don’t stop if some random goal isn’t met within an arbitrary timeframe you’ve created. There are no rules. You can’t fall behind. There is more than one way to get there. As long as you are writing songs that you can’t wait to sing every night everything else will fall into place. It might not happen the way you thought it would or as quickly as you wanted it to, but if the songs are there and you are willing to go on tour and not quit, it will work out.