Ben Nichols of Lucero

While hoping for things to open up like the rest of us, Ben Nichols of Lucero talked with QRO....
Ben Nichols of Lucero : Q&A

Ben Nichols of Lucero : Q&A

While hoping for things to open up like the rest of us, Ben Nichols of Lucero talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer/songwriter talked about their new record, this year’s When You Found Me (QRO review), demos in the basement & recording in masks, making Long Way Back Home short film with his director-brother Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon, life in Memphis (and Ohio, and Arkansas), first upcoming live dates (including a drive-in show), livestreams, dive bars, festivals, and much more…

 

 

QRO: How are you holding up during all of this?

Ben Nichols: I’m doing extremely well, actually, given the circumstances. I’ve enjoyed the time at home, to tell you the truth.

QRO: Are you in Memphis?

BN: I’m in Ohio at the moment, actually. My wife is from up here; this is where my daughter was born.

The band, and the job, and all that life is still in Memphis; I still have a place there. But when my wife & I got married, we bought a house up here, so I kind of split my time. I’m in rural Ohio, outside of Akron, actually.

QRO: Did you go up there when everything shut down?

BN: Yeah, we got lucky.

We toured in January, February – until actually March 7th.

And then, I came back to Ohio. That’s when the lockdown happened, right there, about exactly a year ago.

So yeah, I spent most of my time up here, in the basement, actually working on the demos for the When You Found Me album. I was just kind of in isolation, at least from the other band members.

Usually, if we’re writing a record, we just get together in a rehearsal space. Maybe I’d bring in a skeleton of a song, and then they’d add to it, and we’d figure out parts.

But in this case, left to my own devices in quarantine. And I just kinda built these demos up, layered them up. Got them real detailed – maybe too detailed.

But that’s what I spent the first time of the quarantine doing, was just making demos.

And I just kinda built these demos up, layered them up. Got them real detailed – maybe too detailed.

QRO: Are things good out in rural Ohio?

BN: Yeah.

I’ve got two older stepdaughters, and they’re doing school from home. They’re in high school.

They both do school from home. And my wife works from home.

So yeah, it’s just me and a house full of women…

And the youngest is four. She goes to a small Montessori school. There are only eight kids in her class, and the teacher is very diligent about safety precautions, and just being as aware as she can about keeping the kids uninfected.

The little one is the only one who isn’t in the house that much; she goes to school five-days-a-week. The rest of us work from the house…

QRO: And how are your bandmates doing? Are they all in Memphis?

BN: They’re all in Memphis, and they’re all doing just fine.

Actually, three out of the four of them have already gotten their vaccinations. And our sound guy got his as well. I think he volunteered at the vaccination station, directing traffic actually. He put in two hours of volunteer time, and qualified for his vaccine.

One way or another, most of the band is vaccinated, actually. So, yeah, they’re doing alright.

We were able to record the album there in Memphis. We never had to deal with any COVID infections at all. I guess masks worked well enough in the studio.

 

It’s just me and a house full of women…

 

QRO: How was making When You Found Me? You said you did it all with masks?

BN: Yeah, like I said, I’d had a lot of time to work up the demos, and I e-mailed those to the guys. And so, that was the first time they’d really heard a lot of what I’d been working on.

And they kind of learned their parts via e-mail, which is 100% unlike anything we’ve ever done before. We’ve never worked like that.

We got to the studio, and they’d actually done a very good job kind of taking the parts I’d sent them, learning them, adjusting them and kind of adapting them to their own styles.

We went into the studio, and everybody wore masks. We were at Sam Phillips Recording Service there in Memphis, which is literally two doors down from our rehearsal space, so it’s very easy.

Matt Ross-Spang, being the producer & engineer, we’ve known him for a long time. We felt right at home. It was a very laid back atmosphere.

We’ve worked out of town before, a little bit. We’ve worked with out-of-town producers before, but just everything being right there, everybody in Memphis, everybody in the neighborhood.

We all wore masks, but other than that, it was just a really easy-going work environment.

QRO: I imagine that this wouldn’t be the time to go out-of-town, for this record…

BN: Yeah, no… [laughs]

The last record we did, Among the Ghosts (QRO review), we did it in the same studio, same producer.

Before that, we’d been recording in Memphis, but with a guy named Ted Hutt, who always flew in from California. I love Ted, I love the records we’ve made with him, but since he was from out-of-town, the time constraints were always more intense. He’s got this number of days in Memphis, and you’ve got to get it done…

With Matt Ross-Spang being a Memphis kid, we’ve got a little more flexibility. The studio’s right there. You know that, if you can’t get something right now, you can come back in a week or two, fix things here & there, and adjust things. It makes things a little bit less intense.

And nobody’s traveling with the pandemic anyway…

QRO: How much did the pandemic affect your writing? Like, did you try to keep it out, or just accept that it was going to be a factor?

BN: I don’t think I really thought about it too much, to be honest.

Maybe some of that, I don’t know, ‘anxiousness’ and ‘melancholy’ worked its way into the general tone of the record.

But the sound that I intended to use, those had been floating around for a quite a while, before the pandemic ever came about. I had a pretty good idea of what I was shooting for with this record, before lockdown, before the world went crazy.

But it just happens that the ominous tone of the record, the kind of dark sounds that are on there, they fit the mood of the planet pretty well, I guess, just by coincidence.

 

 

QRO: Are you bummed that you haven’t been able to do a big tour behind When You Found Me?

BN: Yeah.

We spend a lot of time on the road, and so it is awkward having this record released, and we’re still just sitting at home.

You can kind of get a general idea of how people are responding, by just reading comments online, but it doesn’t compare to seeing the response the crowd has at a live show. I’m still not sure which songs are going to work best, in a live environment.

We’ve done a few livestreams, where we played some of the new songs, but it’s funny: we’re actually still learning how to play them live.

We recorded them in the studio, and some of them were built up, bit-by-bit. And some of them had this instrumentation, keyboards, and synthesizers, and different things that we never really incorporated before. And still, months after the record’s been released, we’re still learning how to present these songs live.

And I think that’ll be kind of a process ongoing, throughout the year, as we start to play a few live sets here & there; we’ve got a few outdoor things lined up. But it’s definitely not the way we usually work.

QRO: I saw that you’re playing shows on March 26th & 27th. Will those be your first shows in front of a live audience since everything shut down?

BN: Yep, since March 7th. We did two nights in Atlanta, March 6th & 7th, and those were the last shows that we played before we had to cancel the rest of the year. We had a lot of stuff booked. It just got wiped away.

So, this will be the first time in front of a live audience. Which makes it a little almost like starting over again. I know we know how to do our jobs; I know we know what we’re doing, but it’ll be a little nerve-wracking, with people right there in front of you again.

I think the audience, and the listeners, and the crowds are ready for live music again. And we are, for sure!

It’ll be a bit of rust, but it’ll come back quick.

It just happens that the ominous tone of the record, the kind of dark sounds that are on there, they fit the mood of the planet pretty well, I guess, just by coincidence.

QRO: Will this be the first time that you’ve played some of the new songs in front of a live, in-person audience?

BN: Yeah, it will be.

And like I said, we’re still kind of figuring out how to do those songs in a live setting. We’ll see.

It’ll be interesting to see the crowd’s feedback. You never know which songs the crowd’s gonna gravitate to, especially at a show. At home, they might like one song, but in a venue… You never know exactly which songs are gonna connect, in which ways.

That’s another question mark that I’m curious to see how it pans out. But I don’t know…

I’m very proud of the songs that ended up on this album, and I’m looking forward to playing them myself. There’s a few of them that I just really feel like singing. The few times we’ve done them, online in a livestream or something. There’s a few that, I don’t know, there’s something about playing them live that actually makes them… They hit home with me, at least. So, I’m looking forward to trying them out.

QRO: The show on the 27th will be at Malco Summer Drive-In. Have you ever played a drive-in show before?

BN: [laughs] No, we haven’t.

I’ve heard of about some other bands giving it a show, and as far as I know, I think it’s all worked out pretty well.

You charge by the car, I believe. The capacity is 800 cars, or something like that, which is a completely different way of counting audience members, something we’ve never done before.

And I’m not exactly sure how the stage will be set up, how close people will be, if they’ll actually watch from their cars, or if they’ll get out of their cars and watch from outside? I have no earthly idea… That’s another thing we have to wait-and-see.

I think it’ll go great. I think it’ll be a lot of fun, no matter how it works out, but it’s definitely a new experience for us.

2021, there’s a whole lot of unanswered questions, but we’ll see how it goes. But I know we’re looking forward to getting back into it, in any form & fashion.

I think the crowd’s going to be pretty forgiving, no matter what. They’re just going to be glad, and they’re gonna be glad that we’re there.

Going into it with that knowledge, that everybody’s just gonna be happy to be there, at a live show. Even with socially distanced elements, and just all the precautions they’re gonna have to take, the extra hassle of some of this stuff, I think people are just gonna be so happy to be at a live show. I think people will be willing to put up with all that other stuff. I think they’ll be happy to just be there.

QRO: It will be new for the audience as well. And the people who go there, will want to be there.

If you go to a drive-in show, you’re committing to a drive-in show.

BN: You’re invested. You’re part of the team.

And that’ll be really fun, actually.

Lucero’s been lucky. We don’t have the biggest crowd on the planet, but the following we do have, Lucero fans have been extremely kind and loyal. The hardcore fans have been very supportive.

I think the folks we’re gonna see at these first shows back after the pandemic, the crowd that will be there, I think they’ll be on our side. It’ll be good to see everybody.

 

I’m very proud of the songs that ended up on this album, and I’m looking forward to playing them myself.

 

QRO: How was the February livestream from Memphis Magnetic Recording? How are doing livestreams?

BN: Man, it’s funny. Some of them work out great, and some of them… There’s always technical difficulties that can pop up, and you never know [laughs] when they’re gonna pop up. And unfortunately, sometimes you don’t catch them until after the livestream’s done, and once it’s out there, it’s out there.

And so, if something was going wrong with the mix, the mix was fine on your end, the mix was fine in the control room, but then you send it to the cameraman, and there’s something wrong going from the camera to the internet… And you never know quite exactly how it sounds on somebody’s computer, halfway across the world. And so, it’s tricky.

There’s some people that I’m sure have done it perfectly every time, and it sounds amazing, but… [laughs] Technology and Lucero don’t always get along…

We’ve done some livestreams that I think have gone off perfectly, and then others have been a little rough around the edges. Which I guess is kind of how Lucero’s done our entire career. [laughs] Some shows are fairly flawless, and other shows are train wrecks. With Lucero sometimes, you just don’t know exactly what you’re gonna get, and that seems to carry over to our online presence as well…

QRO: I’m sure the people who watched livestreams would want to know: Did you ever read the comments?

BN: We did one, and this is how I think this is how I actually prefer it, is where it’s not actually a livestream.

You record it like a livestream, and then you air it, you know, a week later or something. And maybe you have a little extra time to look at those camera shots, and edit it a little bit better. And maybe double-, triple-, quadruple-check that mix that you’re gonna send out, and make sure everything works. And it’s already downloaded, so there’s no buffering or anything like that.

And in those situations, and we’ve done that once, we recorded it in Memphis, and I was back in Ohio. I put my daughter to bed, and then it was time to get in the chat room and watch the livestream with everybody else.

And that was really fun. I was able to pour a drink, have a whiskey and just chat with folks, as Lucero was playing. That was actually a really cool experience. That was definitely different than anything we did pre-pandemic.

My love/hate relationship with the livestreams that we’re doing: I love that they’ve kept us alive, and they’ve kept us connected with our audience as best as we can, without being on the road. The technical stuff is a headache, of course, but it’s something that we’ll probably continue to do, even once the world kind of goes more back to normal. Once we start playing 100, 150 shows a year, once or twice a year, I think we’ll still do an online event of some kind, whether it’s a livestream or pre-recorded.

Because folks can tune in from Australia, or Germany, and you can be in the chat room and connect in a way that I can’t do in other venues. Even if I go to the bar and hang out before & after the show, it’s different than answering questions in the chat room, or connecting with people online. I like both of them, and I think we’ll continue to do both in the future.

I didn’t do many chat rooms before the pandemic. Now that I know that it’s not all bad… [laughs]

 

Lucero’s been lucky. We don’t have the biggest crowd on the planet, but the following we do have, Lucero fans have been extremely kind and loyal. The hardcore fans have been very supportive.

 

QRO: And you’ve got a September 29th Ryman Auditorium show. Are you holding out hope that indoor shows will be back by then?

BN: We are, yes.

Those shows have been moved I think three times now. Pushed back & back. But by September, I’m optimistic.

We might have to limit ticket sales. It’s a pretty big space. You can put a couple thousand people in there, so there’s room to kind of mark off socially-distanced areas.

I’m not sure if they’ve done any live shows at all yet. But maybe by September, they’ll have figured out a fairly safe way to do it.

And, hopefully by then, everyone in the band will be vaccinated, hopefully our country will be vaccinated by then. And so yeah, I’m optimistic that these numbers will start to go down, as far as infections are concerned, and hopefully by the fall, things will be going the right direction at least. I think people will still have to be vigilant, and I think people will still be wearing masks until 2022, probably, if not longer. We’ll see.

I had no idea that my career was one of the ones that would be most threated by a pandemic. You see movies about pandemics and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s awful.’ You think about the folks that are infected, and you think about the economic impact, but it never really crossed my mind that, ‘Oh, yeah, people sweating and basically spitting in each other’s drinks, standing in front of the stage. Our job’s in danger the most – there’s no way we’re going back to work any time soon…’ It never really crossed my mind before all this mess.

So, I’ve got no choice but to be optimistic. Hopefully things will turn around by then.

Technology and Lucero don’t always get along…

QRO: I know that festivals will be the last to open up…

BN: Festivals, if they’re outdoors, that’s one thing. It’s the little dive bars with stages where, if you’re gonna socially distance, you’re gonna only fit three people in there. They usually pack in a hundred people, but if you’re gonna put six feet between every person, you’ve got only a handful of people you can sell tickets to.

The small venues, I’ve been real worried about those. I know some legislation has passed recently. But hopefully places are getting help.

A lot of places have just shut down. Slim’s in San Francisco, I heard it was gone. It was a place we played for a number of years. Big places, to us, they hold a few hundred people, but what are you gonna do if you got San Francisco rent, and you can’t work for a year-in-a-half? It’s tough.

I’m hoping folks can scrape by and hold out long enough for things to at least get back to halfway normal.

QRO: I saw you at Riot Fest in 2019, and that’s one that I’m hoping can come back this September…

BN: Me too. I love Riot Fest.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the fall. We’re booking shows in the fall, like I said, just being optimistic, but obviously we’ll have to play it by ear. Another surge? It just all depends on how the world is working.

But I’m hoping we’ll play a lot of outdoor things over the summer, and then yeah, we’ll see what the fall is looking like.

We have no choice but to book some shows and hope for the best. We’ll cancel them, or move them, or postpone them if we have to. But we’re working on lining stuff up.

Riot Fest was great.

 

 

Jeff Nichols’ short film for “Long Way Back Home”:

QRO: How did the Long Way Back Home short film come about?

BN: That’s one of the coolest things Lucero’s ever been a part of.

That was me sending Among the Ghosts to my little brother Jeff, who’s a filmmaker. He’s made a lot of films with Michael Shannon. His first film, Shotgun Stories, they filmed it in Arkansas. So, the film crew & the cast, a lot of them stayed at my parents’ house. And I was in & out of Little Rock a bunch back then, so I remember eating at the dinner table with Michael Shannon and some other actors & crew. So, I’ve been an acquaintance of Mike’s for quite a while, but Jeff is really good friends with him.

I sent that album to Jeff and was like, ‘Man, anything on here you like, let’s try to make a video for it.’ And that’s the song he picked. Just because it was about brothers, I think? It reminded him of a story he might tell in one of his films.

So yeah, he called in favors from Mike Shannon, Scoot McNairy, Garrett Hedlund, the main actors in it. His producer came to town, his cinematographer came to town with his amazing camera that he had on loan from I-don’t-know-where, but some crazy, beautiful camera. And then we hired some local filmmakers and crew, and we spent a week making a short film.

It’s more than a video, for sure. A story, and dialogue, to kind of go along with the lyrics. Just the fact that I have an amazingly talented filmmaker little brother, that’s how we got that done.

And so, it was a really fun week, hanging out with those actors. And watching Jeff work, up close…

It was nice that everybody could be involved, but it could still be a really high-caliber, really well-made short film.

QRO: Oh, yeah – you don’t get to watch your brother work, as the filmmaker…

BN: Yeah. I’ve been to a few sets, here & there, not for very long. It’s impressive watching him work like that.

For me, I’m trying to tell a story in a three-and-a-half minute song, maybe. And just writing those, keeping focused enough to tell those stories in the best way, and then to record them, and then to perform them live, that’s tough enough for me.

But telling a story that takes place over the course of two hours, or two-and-a-half hours, and keeping focus on that from writing the first draft of the screenplay, all the way through directing, and then editing, and then doing publicity – I don’t know how he does it. That’s just focus, that’s just a scope that he has to keep in mind. That’s something I don’t think I could do.

But he’s one of those guys that’s just super laid-back, easy-going, nice to work with. I think all the actors that he’s worked with in the past would work with him again.

Scoot McNairy, I don’t think he’s ever made a film with him, but Scoot wants to work with him. So, he came to town and did our crappy music video [laughs], just so he could work with Jeff…

It ended up being really cool. That was a treat.

QRO: I have seen Michael Shannon at indie-rock shows, like The National and Pixies…

BN: He stands out in the crowd.

He’s a musician. He’s got a band in Chicago. He actually called me one time, to come up and play acoustic. His band was doing a benefit show for the theater company that he worked with there in Chicago, so he put on this benefit show at The Metro [where your correspondent stood next to Shannon watching The National – QRO live review]. His band [Corporal] played, Mike sang & played guitar – he’s the singer – and then I played acoustic. And then we got to hang out that night a little bit.

He’s a real nice guy. Real interesting character. But definitely a music fan.

We have no choice but to book some shows and hope for the best.

QRO: Did you tell your brother Jeff, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in it too, right?…’

BN: That was the idea from the beginning.

If it was supposed to be kind of a music video, we think it would have these really awesome actors, and the band would be the extras.

It worked out well, the way he structured the story. It worked out perfectly.

It had Mike Shannon driving around town, looking for his little brothers, and so he just stopped and asked random people in random spots, and Lucero were the random people.

It was nice that everybody could be involved, but it could still be a really high-caliber, really well-made short film. It worked on a number of levels.

QRO: Were your parents happy that the two of you were working together?

BN: Yeah. Jeff & I have always been close. When he was in film school, I would drive from Memphis to North Carolina – he went to North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for film school. He did the directing program there. And every year, all four years, he made a student film at the end of the year.

He was one of those kids that knew exactly what he wanted to do when he got to college. He didn’t do the undergraduate thing, and then stumble around for a little while, and then go to film school. He just went straight out of high school.

And his freshman year, he made this short film. There were three actors, and I was one of them. I was in three out of the four of his student films.

And then I did soundtracks for his student films, which was something I don’t think a lot of the other kids had, was homemade soundtracks. At least in the late nineties.

Jeff & I have worked together kind of all along the way. Obviously, he’s gone on to bigger & better things [laughs], but he’s used me in all five films so far. That’s nice of him, to keep throwing me a bone…

We’re both big fans of the state we were raised in. He wanted to make films in Arkansas, and I’ve got a lot of songs that are based in Arkansas. Arkansas will always be home.

There’s good & bad stuff about Arkansas, like anywhere. But our family’s there, so we’ve got a strong connection.

I think using family songs, basically, in these Arkansas movies, is something that he thinks is important. And I like that.

 

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