Usually, when a popular rock band breaks up, it issues forth a statement to the effect that "the split was amicable," so as not to give fans the impression that the band members grew to dislike each other. "We split to pursue different musical directions" is another common comment.
Rockpile didn't fake it when they broke up in 1981. From the start, the reason given was that guitarist/vocalist Dave Edmunds had had a major disagreement with manager Jake Riviera, and that Nick Lowe, the bassist/vocalist who shared the leadership with Edmunds, had sided with the manager. None of that "We're still great friends" baloney for Rockpile.
The reason Rockpile, one of the great — and perhaps only — pure rock and roll bands of the 70s didn't give a snowjob to the press and fans was most probably because they didn't know how to be anything but honest… like their music. Rockpile was never a frilly, slick, rehearsed outfit. If anything, they embodied the opposite traits — rawness, looseness and even a good-spirited sloppiness.
From the start, Rockpile was an informal group, given to covering rock and roll, R&B and country tunes of the 50s and early 60s with the same reckless abandon practiced by the originators of that music… before big business and high-tech production overtook the spirit of the music itself As Nick Lowe says about the group in the following interview, Rockpile rarely even rehearsed; in fact, the band didn't really have a formal christening — it just sort of grew from various Lowe and Edmunds solo projects until suddenly everyone — the band included — seemed to realize Rockpile had a life of its own.
And so it was that that slow evolution ultimately caused the death of Rockpile. After a handful of Lowe and Edmunds solo albums (all actually Rockpile LPs in every sense except title), the group finally released an LP under its own name, only to break up immediately after its release and the tour in support of it. As Lowe says, Rockpile wanted to be like the "Beatles in reverse," to get all of the solo albums out of the way first and then become a group.
In the wake of Rockpile, both Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds have released solo albums reflecting and refining their distinct yet complementary interests: Edmunds has continued in his 50s revivalist vein (his latest effort is titled D.E. 7; Columbia Records), while Lowe has put together his latest exercise in pure pop, Nick The Knife (Columbia).
In the following interview, Lowe discusses his solo album, his theories on pop-rock and the art of ripping off others' riffs with style. He also talks about his much-heralded production work with such luminaries as Elvis Costello (Lowe produced almost all of the "Big E" 's LPs), Carlene Carter (his wife), the Damned, Graham Parker and others. He relates the history of the pre-punk pub-rock scene in England, with which he was greatly involved, and how he and a few cronies started the independent record company revival by forming Stiff Records, only to get tired of it after it had a hit record. Modern Recording & Music's Jeff Tamarkin was a willing audience for these tales of highs and… Lowes.
Your current tour consists mostly of one-nighters. How do you feel about keeping such a hectic pace at this stage of your career?
I can take about four or five hundred miles, but after that I come off the bus vibrating.
After spending years as an opening act in the U.S., Rockpile finally reached headlining status on its last tour. How does it feel to be opening act again, this time for the Cars?
I love being the opening act, because you can never lose. If you go down badly, you can say the audience is a bunch of idiots, they only came for the Cars anyway. If you come out ahead, you can say, 'Hey hey, we blew 'em off the stage!' Also, you can get to the bar earlier. I don't know if that's the correct attitude to have. They've [the audiences] been very good to us, though. But even if I did get to the stage where I could draw the number of people these places [20,000 seat arenas] hold, I don't think I'd want to play them. There's nothing worse than coming to these places to see somebody, and especially having to sit down.
Does your approach to playing change when you perform in the larger halls?
Oh yeah. You have to jump around and wave your arms a lot more, sort of do a Bruce Springsteen thing. Except we have to knock it off in 40 minutes and he does four hours. Also, in clubs you can afford to relax more and talk to the punters a little bit. I've played clubs all my life so I'm not really used to the big places.
Another difference between headlining and opening is that when you open, it's possible that half the audience doesn't even know who you are, while if you headline they're there to see you.
That can be a challenge, though. The Cars are so incredibly popular, and I've done three or four tours in the U.S. with bigger acts [Blondie, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, among them], but I've never heard anything like the reaction these guys get. Taking that into consideration, we do very well. I think there was only one place they started throwing things at us. I told 'em to stop it and they did, so they couldn't have been too mad about it. We always have a joke where we say, "If you keep throwing things we'll leave the stage," and then they throw a barrage of things at us. It reminded me of the [punk] thing back in England when they used to throw things.
Who are the members of your band for this tour?
I have Martin Belmont on guitar, formerly of the Rumour. Paul Carrack is on keyboards; he's formerly with Squeeze and did the song "How Long" with Ace in the 70s. He also did "Tempted" with Squeeze and is doing that with us. The drummer is a bloke called Bobby Irwin, who was with a band called the Sinceros. I did a lot of session stuff with him in the early days of Stiff Records. The bass player is James Eller, who's the youngest member. It's essentially the group that was playing with my wife, Carlene [Carter, the country-rock singer, step-daughter of Johnny Cash, etc.].
Why did you switch from bass to guitar?
I didn't want to do anything that could be vaguely compared to Rockpile, if I could help it. I mean, obviously it was no chore for me to play in Rockpile. It was great; I love that sort of music. I wanted to do some songs that Rockpile never did, and some of them were too difficult to play bass to and sing at the same time. Also, James was in the band already, and I play guitar the same way I play bass.
Did you play guitar before playing the bass? A lot of bassists begin with guitar and switch later.
Yeah. I'd never win any awards for my playing. I learned the chords and then I never really learned anything after that.
In Rockpile, you shared the billing with Dave Edmunds, but now you're the front man. Do you find it difficult to be the leader and the sole focus of attention?
Yeah, at first I did, because I was a fish out of water playing guitar. Also, in Rockpile, it was mostly Dave's group and he used to sing most of the stuff. Now I do most of the singing. But now I'm used to it and there's no problem.
I've seen two different names for the band: the Chaps and Noise To Go. Which one is correct?
At first we needed a name in a hurry, so Jake [Riviera, Lowe's manager] said, "Just call it the 'Chaps.' " I thought Nick Lowe and Noise To Go rolled off the tongue better. But it doesn't really matter. It could be Led Zeppelin.
Sorry, but I think that's taken. How would you compare this band's "live" show to Rockpile's?
It's not so much heads down and let's go. Rockpile was sort of "take off and moving through the gears." With this band we do some lower key things as well. Not that much, because I don't think it's good for an opening act; you want to keep it snappy.
This is the first time you've played with a keyboardist, right?
Yes. I never really liked them because I don't like the way they look, especially when they're surrounded by those bloody banks of wires and lights; I think it looks horrible. I also don't like monitors in front of the stage; the audience can't see people's feet on stage and they should be able to. But having keyboards helps. It's not as important for us to be in tune as it is with an all-guitar band. Paul's great; he has a piano and a Hammond organ.
If you're not tired of talking about it yet, can you tell us why Rockpile split up, especially considering the band had finally released an album under its own name after all those solo projects.
Sure. The thing with Rockpile was that we were formed overnight. I've rehearsed more for this tour than Rockpile did the whole time they were together in five years. We hated rehearsing. We had an initial rehearsal and then everything else we learned at the soundcheck or on the bus. The people that liked Rockpile liked the fact that we were scruffy and unrehearsed. Also, I think it came across that we were having fun, that we were very good friends. Then that started to go. Some groups can carry on pulling the wool over people's eyes, especially when there're dollar signs all around, but with a group that has a good time as part of its act, it shows. We did the last tour and maybe people didn't notice, but we noticed. That happens to every group, and you have to make a decision whether to pack it in or work at it. Other groups can work at it and get a new lease on life. But we weren't committed enough to it. It seemed to people that Rockpile had just started out, that we'd just done the album, but actually we'd done seven, with the solo albums and other projects. I thought that Dave didn't really have the balls to say, "Hey fellas, it's not really happening. Let's knock it on the head; we've had a good time." So he engineered this silly argument with Jake, and that annoyed me. I thought, why did he have to go and do this? I thought we were all mates. He's probably got a completely different version of it. I was always more volatile than he was and I'd say what was on my mind, so I believe me. So I said, "Hey we've had a great time, let's go do something else." It was easier for me because I've got a few other irons in the fire. But Terry and Billy [Williams and Bremner, respectively, drummer and second guitarist of Rockpile] it hurt more. But that was over a year ago so I'm not exactly burning up with rage right now. Dave's doing his thing and I'm doing mine.
Are things ironed out between you?
No, we just don't see each other. The funny thing is that while I don't harbor any animosity towards him, I don't miss him at all. It's kind of strange after all that time.
Kind of like a divorce…
Yeah, it's sad, really. But I think it was the manly thing to do [break up] rather than grind away at it and become a shadow of your former self. We were all far too proud to ever let that happen. We used to take it lightly — "Hey, we just have three chords and we hammer it out" — but we were extremely proud. We were about the only group that was playing straight-ahead rock and roll that wasn't like a cabaret thing: "Hey, remember those good ol' 50s."
It took the band a long time to build a reputation in the U.S. as Rockpile. You and Dave were both known, but it wasn't till the end that Rockpile itself became known as a band.
Yeah, but then it's even better that we broke up, because people say, "What!" It's better than if we just went on and burned up like a little squid. We probably scored more attention by breaking up than if we carried on.
What do you think of the Rockpile album [Seconds Of Pleasure] in retrospect? A lot of people were disappointed with it when it finally came out.
We couldn't record as Rockpile up until then because of contractual reasons. So our theory was that we'd be like the Beatles in reverse. I never liked any of their solo stuff after they were the Beatles. So we thought we'd get all of our solo stuff out of the way and then when we come together as Rockpile it'd be really good. But when we actually came down to doing it, the fact was that there was no one actually in the chair, either Dave or myself; there was no one to lead it. So that led to a mish-mash of things. I think it's a really good record, but our expectations of it were so much higher.
How long did it take after the breakup before you began assembling songs for the Nick The Knife album?
I had a few songs knocking about. I started recording it before Rockpile broke up, whenever there was some free time. It took a year to record, but in actual studio time it was probably about two or three weeks. I did most of it on my own or with just Bobby. I wasn't using the band yet, although they do play on a couple of tracks. I just borrowed a drummer and fiddled about until something came out. As a result, there wasn't any continuity. If you do it sensibly, and book three weeks of studio time, or three months, you come out with an album with a thread running through it. With me, I just kept doing it until someone said, "Okay, you can stop now." But I'm not nearly as interested in making my own records as I am in making records with other people. I'm involved with the other people I work with, so it's not like I'm making an album and then bye-bye. I'm just lazy about my own stuff; it's a chore for me.
Do you have any system you use for writing? Any set methods?
No, I have no idea how I write. I don't ever have a time when I say, "Don't disturb me; I'm going to be writing all day." Somebody will say something or I'll hear a beat and I'll just remember it when I'm walking down the street or going to do my laundry. Then the next time I get a guitar I'll plunk it out and see if it works. Some songs just seem to appear; I can't remember writing them. I feel as if I've got a day job and I just do this in the evening, like it's a hobby.
In a lot of your songs you borrow riffs or rhythms from older songs, say a Motown song or whatever. Is that consciously done or do you think you just happen to have all these bits floating around in your head and they come out in your songs?
Sometimes I do it consciously and other times I do it by accident. But unfortunately, because I so cheerfully admit to pinching things, people tend to look at my stuff much more closely. But everyone pinches things from all over. Sometimes I do an obvious thing to make a point. There's a difference between, say, that guy that blatantly rips off Michael McDonald, and the Beatles singing, "Oh, the Ukraine girls really knock me out" and doing an obvious Beach Boys thing. I hope that the things I do are more like the obvious Beatles thing.
Do you feel like you're carrying on and updating a tradition when you do that? When the Beatles and Stones started out, they'd take an old Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry thing and do it their way. Is that what you're doing?
No, I don't think I think it out that hard. I love all that music so much that I just get off on playing it. I'd rather write my own version of it. It's almost like a fan, really.
Critics have often used terms like "disposable pop" or "throwaway" when discussing your music. It's not in a negative sense that they use those terms, but does it bother you when they call your music disposable? How seriously do you take your own music?
No, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. I don't take it very seriously at all. Like I said, I feel that I do it for a hobby. I'm glad that I make a living at it, but I honestly can't work it out.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you collect records?
No, I hardly ever listen to music; I'd rather go watch boxing. I have hardly any records. I manage to listen to a lot of records because my friends are fanatics. I go around to their houses and they say, "You've got to listen to this." But I'd rather go to the theatre or a boxing match or watch horse racing.
Do you have any particularly important influences?
No, I was a Forces brat, so I was raised on Forces radio — my dad was in the Air Force. It was very odd to hear any rock and roll on British Forces radio. There was a guy named Lonnie Donegan, who played skiffle, and he did old Leadbelly stuff, Negro spirituals. I guess like most people when the Beatles came along that did it for me; I became a lifelong Beatles fan. It was through reading articles about them, when they talked about Chuck Berry and Martha and the Vandellas, that I found out about a lot of other people. Then, when I was about 16, they had the Mod movement in England. I was a Mod. Mods liked Tamla-Motown; it was all word-of-mouth. You were cool if you knew all these records. They were never hits, but in your hometown they'd be hits.
Do you think your perspective on American music would've been different if you'd grown up in the U.S.?
Yes, I do. But I don't think you're as encouraged to be an individual in America as you are in England. The thing that surprises people like me, who like indigenous American music — R&B, country, rock and roll — is not only how little you hear it over here, but how little people know about it. It's a shame. People who are household names in England, like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, if you mention them here, you get back a blank stare. But when you hear it over here, what a thrill.
When did you start writing your own material? Was it early in your career?
I suppose it was shortly after I started smoking pot, which must've been around '67 or '68. I thought, well, I can have a go at this. My first attempts were absolutely shocking, really frightful. I suppose I got used to doing it.
What do you recall about the pub-rock scene in Britain, and about your years in the Brinsley Schwarz band?
Oh, that was terrific. It was the forerunner of the punk thing. It was a lot of people who didn't know each other coming together in London to revolt against what was going on in the music business — the bloated excess. We wanted to get back to playing R&B for an audience who was mad for it. Everyone was rediscovering drink at that time, as well, and thinking that it wasn't so bad after all. You got to hear all these people — someone would say, "Have you heard that guy from South London who plays great slide guitar like James Burton?" We'd find out where that slide player was playing and go introduce ourselves: "Hi, I'm Nick and these are my mates Elvis and Graham." It was a big movement. For the first time you could be original in a pub. You could have someone like an Ian Dury or a Graham Parker, and they wouldn't have to do the top 10, or Irish country & western. It was exciting, and out of that came the punk thing, which was younger and got at adults' noses much more.
Did you feel a part of the punk scene?
Oh yeah, I did, but I loathed it at first. I went to see the Sex Pistols and I said, "Gosh, this is crap!" But at the same time there was something in the air which was really exciting. I met the Damned and I didn't like them either. But to me music is always the second or third most important thing when it comes to making records, and I started to get interested when friends of mine who liked the same traditional stuff that I did, started getting really annoyed with me, saying, "What are you doing hanging around with all those little snots?" So I thought, you bloody snobs! It was that whole snob attitude that we were trying to get away from. Suddenly I became totally enamored with the Damned and said, "Okay chaps, let's go do an album." They were the same as any other group, they were just younger and inexperienced. We had a terrific time doing that album. I've always liked people like that; I think they make better records because they're slightly out-of-sync with the rest of the world. Unfortunately there's all too few of them in this business. It's supposed to be the wild business of rock and roll. That's nonsense; they're boring, self-centered twerps, most of them.
How did you become involved with Stiff Records?
Jake and I started Stiff, really. I was sleeping on his couch at the time, after the Brinsleys broke up. He was trying to get me a deal, but the record companies came up with ridiculous offers. So Jake thought, "Well, sod this, let's go start our own label." Everyone said we couldn't do it, that the majors had it all sewn up. Jake is a bit of a genius when it comes to doing stuff he's set his heart on. So we did it and for awhile it was tremendous fun. But then when we had a hit single — top 20, I still think of a hit as top 20. I don't go for that, "It's just come in at 82." I say, "Tell me when it's top 20." Anyway, when we had a hit single, which was Elvis' [Costello] "Watching The Detectives," some of the fun went out of it. We accomplished what we'd set out to do, and then it was just another record company.
How did you become involved as a producer?
Again, with Stiff. I never wanted to be a producer. I had no interest in that. But when Stiff started, I was literally the only person in the company who'd ever been in a recording studio. So suddenly I was the house producer. Then I started getting interested in it: "What would it sound like to slam a door and put it on a tape loop?" We could use that as a drum track, a slammed door with some echo." People said "You can't do that." And I said, "Well, why not? If you can make something repeat, and you've got a door over there..." I started getting interested in the fact that no one was taking any risks, and that anyone could do it.
How did you get involved with producing Elvis Costello? And did you know what you wanted to do with him in the studio?
I'd met him ages before he recorded. It was in the Cavern club in Liverpool, as a matter of fact. I ran into him on the day that "So It Goes" [Lowe's first Stiff single — in fact, the first Stiff single] came out. He was getting off at the tube [subway] station and had his guitar with him. He was having trouble finding a record company. So I told him to try Stiff, and he said, "Well, I've just been up there to get a copy of `So It Goes" and I left a copy of my tape with them." I went up there and Jake was listening to it, and he was really excited. He was saying, "There's a song on here that Edmunds would do great. It's called 'Mystery Dance.' " I thought that was a good idea too, then Jake said, "Well, sod this, this guy can do the whole thing by himself." I was pretty skeptical; I thought it was all a bit too chordy. So anyway, we went in to start recording, and it was then that I changed my mind and thought, this guy is really hot. "Alison" Ion the first Costello album] is just the rough mix. I heard that and said, "Well, we can't get it any better." After that, I was a stone fan of his.
How have your ideas about producing Elvis changed over the years? He's really evolved from album to album.
He's very keen on changing each time. After the first album, I said, "Okay, that's it," because I only really like doing one thing with somebody. So I said to him that he should try it with somebody else for the second album and he said alright. Then he phoned me and said, 'I've just put the Attractions [Costello's band] together and I don't know them very well. You know them from before, so could you just do this album? You could be like the catalyst." So I said, alright, that makes sense. So we did that, and I said, "Okay, that's two, who are you gonna get for the third one?" He said, "Well, we really want to change completely for this one, and we can't really be bothered getting someone who isn't on to what we're doing. So can you do just this one?" So I did that one and then he said, "Well, I want to do a soul album and you know about that Stax stuff, so can you do this one?" It went on like that; it was just laughable. It wasn't that I didn't want to work with him, but I thought it was for his own good [to get a new producer] or he'd wind up with a lot of rules. And the first rule of recording is that there are no rules. I did one more after that and then he went to Nashville for the Almost Blue album.
How do you change your approach to production from one artist to another? For instance, do you have a different way of working with Elvis than you do with, say, Graham Parker or Carlene Carter?
You have to treat each one differently. Some people like to have their ego stroked; some people like to be made fun of; some like to be bullied, believe it or not, actually shouted at. It gets them going; if you make them get uptight it gets them going. They don't like it, but it's the best way to get them to work. I generally work only with people I like. I can't work with someone if I don't like them. Of course, if I had to pay the rent, all these artsy-fartsy theories would go right out the window. Don't get me wrong; I'm an absolute horror when it comes to that. At the moment, fortunately, I only have to work with people I like, so I can get away with more murder than I'd be able to with people I didn't know.
You've earned the nickname [no pun intended] "Basher" because you supposedly like to go into the studio and bash 'em out. Does this method still hold true for you?
Not especially. I do like to get them [recordings] done quickly. Sometimes it does work out better if we say, "Okay, it's not working, let's go to sleep on it."
MR&M: Working in the studio with your wife, Carlene, did you find that the personal relationship with her got in the way of the working relationship at all?
Yeah, it did to start with. After I did the first album, I started on the second but then I found I just couldn't do it. I did the third album because she did it with Rockpile, so obviously I was the catalyst. But yes, sometimes there's a problem that you have to take home. Nothing major, though.
You also produced one track with Johnny Cash. How did that come about?
He came over to spend Christmas day with Carlene and me. I have a studio and he wanted to do one of my songs ["Without Love," which can be found on Cash's Rockabilly Blues album]. So I rounded up some people who were glad to get away from what they were doing. I didn't think it was much good, but he went mad for it. There's talk of us doing an album together, which would be good fun.
MR&M: Do you get involved with the engineering when you record or produce?
No, not at all. I like to get an engineer who understands my language, so I can say, "Can you make the guitar go KRANG" and he won't make it go KRUNG. If they start saying, "Oh, do you mean 5 dB of this and 2 dB of this?" I just have to say, "Don't ask me, just make it go KRANG!" If I get a guy who understands, I'll just leave him alone. I don't like when they start getting all silly about the drums and start taping things [dampening or muffling the drums] and all that.
Would you ever consider an outside producer on your records?
That's funny, someone else asked me that today. I would, but obviously I'm fussy about certain things. If I did get someone else I think it would be someone odd, like an actor, or someone who doesn't really know a thing about it, but whom I respected, more than a Jack Douglas or a Ted Templeman.
What's in the future for you?
I'm going to be producing the Fabulous Thunderbirds in Austin, Texas. I'm also going to finish up Paul Carrack's solo album. I have to mix it.
Do you see your current band being a permanent or temporary situation?
Well, I can't see touring with anybody else, but when we're not in use I don't know what we'll do.
But it's not a Rockpile situation, is it?
Oh no. No, no, no.