On pandemic recording in a legendary studio and getting back on the road
The label rock & roll has a wide spectrum attached to it. It could be a trio wearing suits and western button ups as if they just came out of the ’50s playing honky tonk, or maybe a bunch of scrawny kids wearing tattered jeans and worn out sneakers getting loud with distorted telecasters and a small drum kit.
Since the late-’90s, Lucero have abided by this timeless style in their own way. The Memphis outfit packs a mix of folk, country, blues and punk all wrapped in a sound that does the legendary musical history of their hometown justice. On Oct. 12, people can witness the magic in Boston for themselves when the band takes the stage at the Paradise Rock Club with Virginia-based singer-songwriter Morgan Wade opening.
I recently spoke with guitarist and vocalist Ben Nichols from Lucero about the band’s latest album, using an iconic recording studio to record in the middle of COVID-19, thoughts on the current live music landscape, and the band’s next record coming to fruition.
When You Found Me, which came out in January, has you guys incorporating synthesizers into your sound. What inspired the inclusion of this particular element? Were you listening to a bunch of new wave music or watching ’80s thriller flicks while writing the songs?
I’ve always been a fan of that classic ’80s sound and the television shows from that time period, it’s what I grew up on. I’ve never had a chance to really pursue that kind of sound and that kind of style before but part of the beauty of Lucero is that we’re not defined exactly by one genre. We’ve been able to experiment here and there with each new album and we’ve been working our way into more of a classic rock direction over the last few records I believe. With When You Found Me, we took it one step further and added those kinds of ’80s synthesizer sounds that really kind of take you back to that era. It’s something I grew up on, it’s stuff I love for better or for worse, and it’s something that I wanted to give a try.
I definitely noticed it while listening and I liked it a lot, it makes for a cool addition to the band’s sound. You guys recorded the album at the Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. How would you describe the recording sessions? Were you all separated from each other?
We were on tour at the beginning of last year and luckily that run of shows ended right when the lockdown started. We played our last show at the beginning of March and then we all went our separate ways with everyone in lockdown. We didn’t see each other for months and during that time I did most of the writing for the record. By the time summer came around, we had all been quarantined for quite a while so we decided to quarantine in the studio together. Everybody wore masks and we were the only ones in the studio while being as careful as we could be.
At the time, there was still no going out to eat at restaurants and there was no going out at all, so we were pretty isolated. It allowed us to be fairly focused on the album and we got a lot done in just a couple of weeks so we made it through and nobody got sick. We were able to accomplish something during that time of the pandemic and it’s a little bit of a different record because of it. Usually when we get together we rehearse and everybody kind of throws around ideas and we kind of hash it out as we go. This record I pretty much did all by myself with some demos and maybe I fleshed out the demos too much in my basement. Then I sent them to the guys via email and everybody learned their parts separately on their own, just from these demos. When we got together it was all there but it was a different type of Lucero record because of that, there’s more of a singular vision to this one. It was a cool experiment with the new sounds and a different kind of recording process. It was an interesting record made in an interesting time.
This was also Lucero’s second time in a row at that particular studio to make an album along with working with producer Matt Ross-Spang just like you did for your 2018 album, Among The Ghosts. What is it about the Sam Phillips Recording Studio and working with Matt that made you want to go back to that place and work with the same producer?
Starting with Matt Ross-Spang, he’s a Memphis kid and he’s been producing for a long time. He started at Sun Studios when he was 16 and he’s just a natural, he’s got a great ear and he knows gear, especially old, antique gear. He knows how to get cool sounds and he’s just a natural at it, he’s really easy to work with, and he creates an environment as a producer that’s really laid back and enjoyable. The studio, Sam Phillips, happens to be literally two doors down from our building where we store all of our stuff, rehearse, and practice, so we’re in the same neighborhood. It’s a no-brainer that you got this really significant and awesome recording studio at Sam Phillips basically right next door with Matt Ross-Spang, who could have moved to LA or Nashville to have a brilliant career but he’s very proud to be from Memphis and he’s very tied to the city’s history and the sounds that the city has produced.
It makes perfect sense to do an album there and it’s a perfect set up. We were very happy with how Among The Ghosts came out so we figured there wasn’t any reason to change that formula.
You guys started to get back to performing live back in July, so how has it been since you’ve been back on tour? Do you notice any differences in the crowd in terms of reaction or excitement because of there being such a long time without shows?
We’re just kind of getting back into the live show thing and from the crowds that we’ve seen, you can feel that folks have been ready to get out of the house and they’re ready to see live music again. They seem appreciative that there are shows happening at all. Most of the shows so far have been outdoors and a lot of them have had different protocols set up, whether it’s sectioned off six-by-six squares that people buy or they’re single tickets they buy for a little area. There’s of course the masks and the vaccines and all that. From town to town it kind of varies but the protocols don’t seem to get in the way of the enthusiasm at all and folks are still very happy to be seeing live music which is great, it’s how we make our living.
We make a little bit of money selling records but the bulk of our income is generated by going on tour and playing live shows. It’s nice to know that folks haven’t forgotten about us over the last year of the pandemic but at the same time we’re trying to be as careful as we can. We’re still approaching this very cautiously and each venue is slightly different, each town is slightly different. It’s a weird time still and it’s not over yet, but with the shows that we’ve done so far the crowd has not been a problem and their enthusiasm is still there 100% so that’s nice to see.
Lucero recently posted some photos of you guys back at the Sam Phillips Recording Studio working on new music. Can we expect a new album at some point next year?
We haven’t been touring as much as we would after the release of When You Found Me in January, which was when things were still pretty sketchy and you couldn’t hit the road. We haven’t been able to tour properly on it so we’ve all been at home most of this year and I’ve been writing more songs. We had a chance to go into Sam Phillips again for a few days while working with Matt again and what might become the new record is still rock & roll but it’s not as complicated this time around. It’s a little more straightforward, maybe a little lighter and a little more fun, but we’ll see. Right now it’s just demos but in the best case scenario we’re hoping to put out another Lucero record next year, that would be great.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.