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No Rules: As Alt-Country Goes Mainstream, Lucero Finds New Ways to Raise Hell 

Tuesday, Nov 18 2014
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Ben Nichols' voice has been the soundtrack to 1 million sad solo drinking sessions. There are deep, rusty scratches around the edge of its drawl, the scars of punk heartbreak mingling with Tennessee dust — so much so that your throat hurts for him sometimes. But closer to the center there's an almost-hopeful clarity, an unshakable sense of self, and the feeling that it's all probably going to be okay, no matter how endless this particular low might seem, as long as you still have the ability to drive around in a car late at night by yourself and sing along.

So it's no wonder that fans take Lucero, the band that provides the twang-soul backdrop for Nichols' wail, kinda personally. Combine the weight of those personal associations — breakups gotten through, parental angst overcome — with the fact that, since 2001, Lucero has been on tour more often than not, and you get a fanbase that goes well beyond memorizing lyrics. You get fists in the air, feet leaving the ground. It's the alt-country version of a mosh pit. At Lucero shows, this very closely resembles a regular mosh pit.

You can imagine this, surely, while playing any of the band's nine full-length studio albums from the past decade and a half, but it's not really the same. Enter the live album.

"I thought it was important to capture the way the songs are being played live now, what we've been doing the past few years with the piano, the horn section we added a few years back, the bigger sounds," says Nichols by phone, on a rare day at home in Memphis, when asked why it felt like the right time for a live record — some 16 years into being one of the hardest-working, hardest-touring bands in existence. "Also, I'm trying to write the next [record]. And that process is coming along very slowly. So this buys me a little bit of time."

Regardless of his intentions, Live From Atlanta, a sprawling double album featuring 32 songs recorded over three nights in November of last year at that city's spacious Terminal West and released this August, sounds like anything but stalling. It's a confident-sounding retrospective, equal parts a proud romp through the band's history, as sparse older favorites like "Sweet Little Thing" get new life from the full-band sound, and a showcase of what it's become, with rollicking, dance-ready keys and horn sections on 2012's "Women and Work."

The crowd is with them from start to finish, and the obvious relationship between the band and its fans builds something immersive — slap some headphones on and listen to it at work on a Tuesday morning and you're suddenly in the middle of the best whiskey-soaked party you've ever been to. Guitarist Brian Venable shreds. Nichols takes requests. Others take solos. They ask for whiskey. Lucero almost always closes out with the anthemic "Tears Don't Matter Much" (see: fists in air), but then comes back for a six-song encore. Everyone sounds like they're having an okay time.

"We've got a very friendly crowd, and it's very nice that they get it. The connection is always there. That's what makes it rewarding to keep touring as much as we do," says Nichols. Even though, he adds, he's not the kind of guy who can write while on tour.

"I pretty much have to be back home and alone before I can really get anything done," he says. "I'll take notes out on the road, just if something crosses my mind, but for actual writing, I've got to be by myself. And I'm never by myself on the road. It's tough for me; that's part of why I haven't written as much these past few years."

Case in point: Last week, the band played three nights in New York. Before that, three nights in Boston. Come this weekend, they'll be flying out to L.A. for three nights at the Echo, followed by three nights in S.F. at Slim's. At each of these stands — all of them in fairly intimate venues — Lucero will be opening for itself, playing an acoustic set (in S.F. with an upright bass), then breaking to gear themselves up before coming back out in electric, full-band glory. "It's kinda ridiculous to open for yourself, but it gives us a chance to revisit some songs we haven't played in a while," Nichols says.

But for now? Ben Nichols has about a week at home, and he just wants to be left alone in his goddamn house.

"I bought a house five years ago, so I've really been enjoying my living room," he says with a laugh. "I like beings solitary, being a homebody, listening to records, watching Netflix, trying to write songs. Reading comic books ... I just got back from the comic book shop, actually." Love and Rockets is his go-to favorite, but today he picked up some Parker comics, based on old crime novels. "I haven't drawn as much lately because we've been so busy, but one day I'll write and illustrate a graphic novel."

As for that next record, the singer says even he doesn't know quite what to expect. It's hard to imagine now, but in 1998, when Lucero first started playing together, Americana and alt-country somehow weren't oversaturated playing fields. The band's blend of punk defiance and country aesthetic, in particular, was something very few people were doing. Sixteen years later, every twentysomething urbanite with a tattoo, a flannel shirt, and an acoustic string instrument inspires dollar signs in the eyes of A&R execs nationwide. Who cares if those songs about swilling whiskey down by the river in the heart of Georgia don't have a real river as inspiration? Who cares if the songs are written by people who have never been to Georgia?

Nichols is diplomatic about the bands that have sprung up in Lucero's wake. "There are definitely more bands [making this kind of music] nowadays than there were in the late '90s. Some of it's good, some of it's ... um, not." He's excited for friend-bands, folks Lucero has been out on tour with, like the duo Shovels & Rope (which, he was happy to learn, sold out the Fillmore for the first time earlier this month).

Regardless, it's an interesting backdrop for considering Lucero's evolution, its shifts toward more laid-back blues and rock 'n' roll over the past decade and a half, especially as they're condensed so neatly (if that word can ever be applied to Lucero) on the live record. Nichols acknowledges that not everything the band does is, well, for everyone.

"There are old-school fans of the band who hate the horn section, hate anything that doesn't sound countryish enough. They want the old Lucero back," he says. "But I like doing it all. When we started the band, there were just too many rules at punk rock shows, and we wanted to start a band with no rules. I think we're still conducting business that way.

"We just kinda do whatever we feel like doing. The new record might be quiet and countryish; it might be really loud and obnoxious," he says. "I gotta finish writing it first, so I'm just gonna work on that part for now."

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About The Author

Emma Silvers

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Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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