Take Pride; An interview with Lucero’s Ben Nichols

Two decades, nine albums, and more miles in the van than most any other band, Lucero is back tomorrow with their latest album, Among the Ghosts. Scaling back from their hometown-inspired horn sections of the last few albums, it’s a raw album that revisits their roots with all the grit they’ve earned since then. Showing no sign of slowing down, the band’s commitment to the road, their fans and their music is worn on their sleeves like a rolled up pack of cigarettes.

Ghettoblaster: When we hit big numbers, these milestones tend to be times for reflection. Celebrating your 20th anniversary, how do you feel about where Lucero is?
Ben Nichols: Seeing as we are releasing what’s in my opinion the best album we’ve ever recorded, 20 is treating us very well. Over the last 20 years we’ve been on the road a long time and survived. We’ve built a small but extremely loyal fan base and we are adding new folks with every new tour. We’ve learned a lot in the studio over the years and I think we’ve finally learned the best way we can make a record. We haven’t figured it all out yet but I guess that’s what the next 20 years is for.
GB: How did it feel to have your hometown of Memphis declare it Lucero Day?
BN: It’s really nice getting that kind of recognition from your hometown. And being Memphis, there is an important musical heritage in the city… and just being a part of that history is amazing in it’s own right. The city has been a big part of the band’s sound since we started, and the city has always been very supportive of us, but the fact that the Mayor would actually declare an entire day “Lucero Day” is beyond anything we ever expected.
GB: Back when you started, had you envisioned hitting 20 years of playing together? Did you have a fallback job that you thought you could slip into if you stopped playing?
BN: No plan other than whatever the next step was. So the first goal was writing some songs. Then the goal was to play a show. One show. Then maybe play as many shows as we can. Then the goal was to buy a van and go on tour. Then the goal was to make a record. And we’ve kinda been taking it step by step ever since. No fallback jobs. That’s part of what kept us together and on the road so much over the years. If we don’t play shows, we can’t pay the bills. No better incentive than that.
GB: Since the beginning you’ve been one of the hardest touring bands out there, building a fanbase show by show, market by market. Touring that much has to be exhausting, what keeps you at it?
BN: Other than paying the bills, I think we actually enjoy playing these songs every night. I know part of the reason I started writing songs in the first place was because it made me feel better. It helped get me through the long nights, putting this stuff into words and screaming it out through a microphone. I think it still helps. And the songs on Among the Ghosts are exactly the songs I want to be singing right now when I’m on tour and away from my family.

GB: Do you still think there’s the same importance on the album as there used to be? As streaming continues to chip away at album sales, could you see it changing your relationship with recording and releasing new material?
BN: We never planned on selling a lot of albums. One of the few plans we ever made that worked out exactly like we thought it would. So the fact that album sales are down for everybody else doesn’t really affect us. But I think even if the idea of an album is no longer important to a listener, it will always be important to most artists. There’s nothing wrong with simply putting out one single after another, but I think for a lot of writers, the idea of having each song be a part of something bigger is inspiring. The idea that each song has a context and a place to exist beyond itself can be important. I also think it gives the listener more information about the artist. It gives them context as well. And often times I’ve found myself discovering my favorite songs by an artist because they are sequenced right after the popular single that everyone else is listening to.
GB: Among the Ghosts is a much more stripped down album than the last few, what made you want to go this way?
BN: We had made the last three records exploring a very big Memphis-inspired sound. We had a full horn section and barrel house piano and soulful Stax-style B3 organ. And the songwriting went a more old-school 50’s rock & roll direction along with that. It was a lot of fun making those records and learning what all we were capable of as a band. We learned a lot making those records. For Among the Ghosts I wanted to take a step away from that. I wanted a more classic rock sound. I wanted the songs to be more cinematic. Possibly more serious. This is the first album we’ve done since I got married and my daughter was born. As happy as I am, things have changed a bit. The stakes are higher now. There’s much more to lose. I have to care about the direction this world is going now. I think all of that worked it’s way into these songs.

GB: Do you think the stripped down sound will be a new direction for the band?
BN: Lucero has always been excellent at making the most with what we’ve got. If everyone quit on me I’d do it all by myself. If we came across an entire string section that wanted to go on tour we would probably find a way to bring them along. Right now we are a 5-piece band. That’s probably the way it will stay for a while. It’s more than enough for a rock & roll band. And if we can keep making albums like Among the Ghosts then that is just fine by me.

GB: How did the idea of Michael Shannon doing a spoken word on “Back to the Night” come together?
BN: My little brother Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker. He’s written and directed five feature films and Mike has been in all of them. It was the night before the last day in the studio and I still needed lyrics for “Back to the Night” and I decided to call Jeff for a favor. The song had a movie soundtrack feel to it and I thought about overdubbing a sound clip from a movie scene but decided it would be a lot cooler if I could get Mike to read some lines I had actually written. Jeff got him the lines and less than 24 hours later Mike had sent us a voice memo and it worked out perfectly. We owe him a lot. Especially since he also came to Memphis and starred in a short film written and directed by my little brother that functions as a music video for the song “Long Way Back Home.” We owe him twice-over.

GB: With so much energy and passion still apparent on the songs of Among the Ghosts, do you ever envision an eventual end of Lucero? Are there any things that would make you want to hang it up?
BN: Nope.

GB: An uglier side of America has been brought out over the last few years. Though it’s always been there, it’s harder to turn away from now. With your strong roots in the better parts of southern culture, how do you deal with having pride in something that for all its goodness, can still let you down?
BN: Do you mean pride in being an American? Or pride in being from the South? I’m proud of both. Lucky to be both. And I don’t think America or the South have let me down. I think some people in our leadership positions have let us all down. But America hasn’t let me down. I’ve got a lot of faith in our institutions and believe that they can weather this assault. But in order to do so we all have to be extra vigilant. Now is no time to be slacking on our civic responsibilities to each other. Right now we need more than ever to take pride in where we are from and insist that those fucking it up stop fucking it up.

Photo: Dan Ball

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