I first tried to get hold of Lloyd Cole while he was on tour Down Under, enjoying a little respite from a harsh North American winter with shows in Australia and New Zealand. It was all a bit hectic out on the road though, and I think he did my phone bill the power of good by postponing our interview until he got back to Massachusetts, by which point he was home with ‘about a foot of snow’ outside his window.
Usually I prefer a face-to-face or voice-to-voice grilling, but it made more sense this time to opt for an exchange of emails. And while there was a little extra work in him answering ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS, the Buxton-born 56-year-old insisted he was ‘not shouting’. Besides, even if he never released another album after his late-’84 debut with The Commotions, Rattlesnakes, I’d have felt indebted to this master singer-songwriter and let that pass.
There were bound to be answers here that would usually prompt a change of direction in my questioning if done in person or by phone, but hopefully it works. I’ll say a big thank you to Lloyd here for helping in the first place, not least while enjoying a little ‘down time’ before setting out on the next leg of his ‘Never Ending Tour’, involving shows in Scandinavia, mainland Europe and the UK. And this tour has certainly been full of incident so far (not least losing his voice in New Zealand, no great proposition for a performer whose current live show alternates between solo slots and accompaniment from just his son, Will). “It’s all been a bit strained and hectic. Never a dull moment” is how he put it. That said, he was certainly looking forward to his European return, and at time of going to press more than half of his 17 UK dates are sold out.
So here goes – a little Mister Mal content, from the hip, courtesy of Lloyd Cole.
This can’t be a bad way to see the world, Lloyd. Are you still seeking out new venues, towns and cities around the world?
“It’s always nice to visit somewhere new, if I get invited. I’ve never been to Notteroy in Norway before, never performed in Lowestoft, or Preston for that matter. And I’m still hoping to get some shows east of the old Iron Curtain, and in Hong Kong and China, before I’m retired.”
I make it 28 years since you left the UK to settle in the United States. Will you ever return?
“Not sure. I don’t want to die over here. I sometimes fantasise about being a codger in East Lothian or Whitby.”
After all this time, what do you miss most about England and Scotland?
“Well, they can’t import Bovril anymore, and Bovril with a dash of sherry is maybe the best winter drink and definitely the best on the golf course … if it isn’t a flask of whisky mac. And jokes – we don’t get many over here.”
Well, your adopted countrymen seem to have elected one as President, but we’ll come on to that later. So, this Spring tour concentrates on reprising the first dozen or so years of your career. But why now? Are you a little easier with concentrating on a ‘retrospective’ set today than a few years ago?
“Because of the box-sets. In fact, I just spent half an hour signing a few, so they’ll be ready for shipping in March.”
He’s talking about Lloyd Cole in New York: Collected Recordings 1988-1996 there, set for release on March 17th, a deluxe limited-edition box-set featuring his four solo LPs on the Polydor and Fontana labels, plus Smile If You Want To, an unreleased fifth album, and a selection of Demos ’89-’94, his home and studio recordings.
Even with just the shorter period you’re concentrating on in the live show, it can’t be so easy deciding on a definitive set-list. So many great songs. Does it depend how you feel on the night as to what gets an airing?
“Not all work with one or two guitars, the two formats we have. Some work much better than others and there are maybe 12 songs which if I don’t play them, a few people will be disappointed. So with all that it wasn’t too difficult to figure out a set. The difficulty now is finding ways to make it seem spontaneous when we’ve been playing it for so long. I don’t want to change it for the worse just to keep us amused.”
That format he mentions involves a set of Lloyd solo, followed by one with him joined by his son, not least reprising those first dozen or so years as a performer, his tour press release suggesting he’s ‘playing and presenting rock songs from his past career remodeled as simple folk songs’. Yet I’m guessing most of those songs started with an acoustic guitar anyway.
“No. I don’t think I had an acoustic guitar until Easy Pieces (1985).”
Did you always have the confidence to chat away between songs, or has that come with age?
“I was never silent, but I am more comfortable with the idea of the show these days. Back when we started I thought of it as more of a recital rather than a performance.”
Have you kept count of the gigs over the years? And if so, how many do you think you’ve played now, in both band or stripped-down format?
“No. If I’d had the same agent over here as I have had in the rest of the world the whole time we might be able to figure it out. But, very quickly, on average every other year 50 shows … so more than 800.”
The Commotions’ days were only five years of around 35 as a performer and songwriter, yet touched so many of us. I know artists tend to say their last LP was their best, but if anyone out there has missed any since those early solo years, which would you recommend they start with?
“Music in a Foreign Language and Standards.”
At this point, I take a more ‘local’ line, having been intrigued for some time about this Derbyshire lad (with a strong Scottish identity from his Commotions period) and his Lancashire links. My better half was at Runshaw College in Leyland from ’81 to ’83, and when we first met (six years after she left) one of the first things she told me about where she lived was that ‘Lloyd Cole went to my sixth-form college’. So when was he there, and did he associate that with some good times?
“Good memories, yes. That was 1977/78 and I remember the day Never Mind the Bollocks came out. Two of us played hooky to get to the record shop first thing to buy it on the day of release. We both paraded our copies around college. Trevor Morris, however, ripped his up and then taped it back together first. That was how we met, and he pretty much taught me to play guitar.
“Our band – Vile Bodies -threatened to perform several times, but never did. We rehearsed in the front room of the Chorley two-up two-down I stayed in, gratis, courtesy of the lady who ran a funeral home across the street. She was a member at the golf club my parents worked at (Shaw Hill in Whittle-le-Woods) and when they moved to Glasgow, I needed somewhere to stay to finish my A-levels.”
Who else were you listening to then?
“All the good punk bands, plus Talking Heads, Television, and towards the end R’n’B – mostly Stax compilations I bought from the cheapo bin in Chorley. That’s when I first heard Isaac Hayes. Then there was Chic and Funkadelic.”
As you mentioned Shaw Hill Golf Club there, I’ll briefly touch on your sporting love. In 2007 you polled 11th in a magazine listing of musician golfers, with a handicap of 5.3. How about now? Are you still holding court over the likes of Justin Timberlake, Smokey Robinson and Alice Cooper?
“I think I was tied with Alice Cooper then. But I’m apparently dead to them now, as I’m not on the new list.”
Those early songs famously included many literary references. ‘Baby, you’re too well read’, as you put in on No Blue Skies. Are you still a big reader, and what’s the last great book you read?
“I’m not sure ‘big’ would be the right word, but I’m always reading something. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography on audio, narrated by him, is pretty good. I’m up to Born to Run at the moment. And the last great book I read was probably Pale Fire (1962, by Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov), which I hadn’t read when I name-checked it in Music in a Foreign Language.”
What was the last great album you bought or heard, or band that you were inspired by seeing live?
“The last great band I saw was The Walkmen, live. That was a while ago. The last great album was probably Robyn (the fourth album from the Swedish recording artist of the same name, released in 2005). I need to catch up with what’s been released the last few years that isn’t experimental electronic.”
Lloyd’s big break in music followed something of a divining moment in his education, having switched from a year studying law at University College, London, to the University of Glasgow, where he studied philosophy and English and happened to meet the future members of The Commotions. Has he ever consider fate played a part in him changing course, so to speak, and heading north of the border?
And on a similar life-changing front, how did you get to meet your beloved, Beth? And how long was it before you decided to head stateside?
“Not until I was over here. She was the room-mate of a friend I visited DC to see, to surprise Billy Bragg at his show.”
The days of major record company backing seem to have long since gone. You appeared to have the best of that world before Polygram were taken over. But at least you had a head-start in moving towards the current prevalent business model of smaller labels and crowd-funding schemes. Is that how you see it now?
“I suppose so. I’m not particularly happy about it. But I’ve survived, sort of …”
“It’s no different.”
As you’re concentrating on your ‘up to the mid-’90s’ period at present, I wondered if it took that spell between Love Story in 1995 and Plastic Wood in 2001 to assess where you were at and get back on track. Or did that spark never really leave you?
“That spell wasn’t as long, in terms of my life, as it was publicly. We recorded the 1996 album which was never released, and much of The Negatives. I just couldn’t get them released.”
You’ve always had a strong fan-base though. That must have been gratifying at times if you were starting to wonder if anyone was properly listening out there.
“Of course. Without them I’m nothing … literally.”
Do you record most of your material at home these days? And are you good at writing on the road? Do you carry a notebook wherever you head?
“No, no, and yes! I used to write well on the road. I don’t seem to finish songs anymore, unless I buckle down and work for a few weeks. Deadlines are good for that.”
You returned to America from the previous leg of the tour to find a new president (of sorts) in charge. Frightening times, both sides of the Atlantic, it seems. Anything you can add that hasn’t already been said?
“I posted Heaven 17’s We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing on Facebook at the time. I thought people might introduce their kids to it. And someone responded with Amateur Hour by Sparks, which was even better.”
And finally, when this tour’s been put to bed, when can we expect a brand new Lloyd Cole album?
“In a year or so, I hope”.
Lloyd Cole in New York, released on March 17th, features all four solo albums released on the Polydor and Fontana labels between 1988 and 1996 – Lloyd Cole (1990), Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991), Bad Vibes (1993), and Love Story (1995) – plus Smile If You Want To, an unreleased fifth album (including one previously unreleased track) and Demos ’89-’94, 20 recordings from home and studio made public for this release. For more details follow this link. And for all the latest from Lloyd, go to his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Lloyd’s 17-date UK tour starts with sell-outs at Worthing St Paul’s (March 20th), Exeter Phoenix (21st) and Leamington Spa The Assembly (22nd), continuing at Birmingham Town Hall (24th, 0121 780 3333), Lowestoft The Aquarium (26th, 01502 573 533), Sheffield City Hall Ballroom (27th, 01142 789 789), Wakefield Unity Works (29th, 01924 831 114) and Southport The Atkinson (30th, 01704 533 333).
Then there are sell-outs at Sale Waterside (31st) and Pocklington Arts Centre (April 1st) before he reaches Preston Guild Hall (3rd, 01772 804 444, as above) and a sell-out at Bury The Met (4th), before seven Scottish dates start at Inverness Eden Court (6th, 01463 234 234), Aberdeen The Lemon Tree (7th, 01224 641 122) and Dundee The Gardyne Theatre (8th, 01382 434 940). Lloyd then finishes with further sell-outs at Greenock The Albany (9th) and three full houses at Glasgow’s Oran Mor (11th-13th).