By Marty Jones.
With a remarkable career spanning 35 years and following a sold-out tour of Australia in 2017, Lloyd Cole returns with a special concert series featuring his classic hits, and introducing his newest album Guesswork.
According to Cole, the album was recorded ‘mostly in my attic’ in collaboration with The Commotions bandmates Blair Cowan and guitarist Neil Clark.
“If you do want to break it down, yeah for the most part it is mostly German drum machine, Moog bass and an Oberheim,” Cole chuckles, self-amused at how his latest album, Guesswork, turned out.
So Cole might have lingered tellingly over the qualities of Neu! in our last conversation. Still, he gave no indication that he was contemplating an album constructed almost entirely with a vintage East German drum machine and a bunch of modular synthesizers. Most of us would have been caught off guard, and initially unsure, about all the bleeps and blurps accompanying that familiar voice.
It only takes a few listens to overcome that initial shock and begin to appreciate the beauty and depth of this new batch of songs.
It comes as further surprise to learn that Cole teamed up with Commotions band mates Clark and Cowan to conjure this largely electronic soundscape. Though it’s a long way from Rattlesnake, Cole attests that Guesswork could well be the album The Commotions would have made had they stayed together.
On the eve of touring Guesswork in Australia for the first time, Cole reveals that there won’t be a synthesizer or drum machine in sight… this time.
“No, no. No synths and drum machines this time. We’re maybe, maybe working towards that and investigating but we’re starting out with exactly the same format that I brought last time but with different personnel. Last time I came over I had my son with me, so I play the first set solo and the second set is with another guitar player. This time I have Neil from The Commotions.”
I would have loved a synth set, but I’m also looking forward to hearing you deconstruct these songs.
It’s been really fun and a lot of people have suggested that a couple of the rearranged songs they like ‘em better this way, and some have suggested that they’re the set highlights. I mean doing a song like ‘Violins’ without the synths was a challenge. But I think, you know, by this stage I’m not really frightened of deconstructing songs anymore because I’ve discovered that if a song is any good then you probably should be able to play it on almost any instrument or in almost any format. And if a song isn’t any good then you’ll find out that it’s not very good. People call out for certain songs from certain albums and occasionally I have to say, “You probably don’t wanna hear that song on just acoustic guitar.’ I’m pleased to say that it’s not very often that I find that, that songs are found wanting. But occasionally I think this one isn’t worth the effort there’s not enough song there, not enough meat.
Despite what they’re dressed in, these are very much Lloyd Cole songs. You could imagine most of them on guitar.
Most of them were written on a guitar. When I finally got around to making the record I did accept the reality that the probability was that I was going to tour acoustically again. As I said, we are sort of inching towards the idea of something that’s not acoustic but the economic reality is that if I’d decided to start this tour and try and throw all my eggs into the synth basket and it failed I probably could have gone bankrupt. I can’t really do that …
I’ve been working this last month I’ve been on the road figuring out how… there’s some amazing synths on the iPad there really are. And it’s a great little format so I can’t bring all my modular synths on tour but I could bring a couple and a couple of iPads. And Neil, every week he’s like, ‘We should get some synths and do a set.’ Not just yet, but maybe soon.
One step at a time. I imagine there must have been some trepidation releasing a synth album to long term fans.
There was a little bit. But I think I’m at that stage now where I am an old man of music and I’ve been around long enough that I don’t think an ambitious failure would damage my career. And I don’t think my people want me… I think my people want me to be ambitious. But yeah it was a bit scary. It was more the making of the record that was scary because it was one of those that had necessarily to be done mostly alone up in the attic. And really I promised myself that I would never do that again after I did that with Music In A Foreign Language. It can be depressing… it’s pretty lonely. I don’t want to sound sorry for myself but it’s exciting but it’s extremely wearing. And this time around I was lucky – I had Neil on board pretty early. I sent him one of the early rough mixes of the Over Under and I said, I think you might like this, you might want to be involved with this record. And he immediately came back with, ‘I love it, yes I really want to be involved.’ And Chris Hughes was the same way, I talked to Chris probably every week on either Facetime or Skype and he was incredibly supportive of the project. He wasn’t there with me but he was listening to rough mixes and giving me the confidence to know that I was on the right track.
You said you had some really positive experiences working with people you hadn’t worked with in a long time making Broken Record and Standards . Did that help prompt you to team up with Blair and Neil again?
Um…. The Blair thing was always on the cards for this record. I have a playlist, I don’t use iTunes but I use something like iTunes and I have a playlist of song ideas and the one that became ‘Remains’ on this record has been on my to do list to try and turn into a song for about the last ten years. So as soon as I started this project I knew this is the project that that song will fit ,that tune will fit this record. So I knew that Blair was going to be involved. And ‘When I Came Down From The Mountain’ was actually a cassette demo originally that I found from 1987, that was one of Blair’s cassettes that he gave me back then. And I was going through my old archives and I said, ‘Listen, why didn’t we do anything with this?’ So I said, ‘Let’s rework this one.’ So he was on board.
And then I’d written ‘The Over Under’ and I think I’d half written all of the songs at that stage. But then I’d written ‘Moments’ and Whatnot’ and ‘The Over Under’ and as I said I sent ‘The Over Under’ to Neil and he immediately wanted to be involved. And my initial plan was to actually call in a much wider group of – I actually know a lot of synth and electronic music nerds these days, I have quite a lot of friends from internet forums and people that I’ve met along the way doing my more experimental music – and my original plan was pull in a few of these people who aren’t used to working on pop records and get them out of their comfort zone. But it was going so well with Neil and Blair that about half way through the project I thought, well it would be really nice if the credit list was just the three of us and [drummer] Fred [Maher].
I was making it up as I was going along for at least the first three-quarters of the project in terms of how the end thing was going to be presented. It took about a year… it was quite a lot of work.
The last time we talked you said you weren’t happy about the instrumentation used on Broken Recordbeing labeled as Americana. Did that have anything to do with the instrumentation on Guesswork?
Um no, with Broken Record that was the record I wanted to make at that time and this was the record I wanted to make at this time. It’s maybe hard to believe, but I do still have one more fairly extreme hardcore country music project I wanna do before I’m done. I’ve got the songs that I haven’t used and the only format that I think would work for them would be to take them to a country band. So I like all kinds of music and I have fun sometimes trying to fuse – I use the word genre very loosely, but the idea of blurring boundaries that’s fun. But at other times it’s also fun to just go to the core and get the pure version of a certain type of music. And I think that applies to this record in that I think this is a pretty pure synth record. And the country thing I think will probably just as pure.
I’ve always wanted to make a great Krautrock inspired song like you did with ‘Violins’ with that looping heartbeat bass and drum hook. Much harder to pull off than it looks.
Well ‘Violins’, the basic idea was pretty simple. But finding a way to make it work over seven minutes, yeah that was… it took a while. The basic beat is tried and tested, it’s ‘Johnny and Mary’ by Robert Palmer. I knew that beat was a beat that I liked and there’s no shame in using a beat that’s been used before. Like making a rock record it’s not that different, it’s just getting the stuff right. And that requires you to just trust your ears and trust your own aesthetic. And I’m not much of a, I’m not, what’s the word, I’m not very skilled on any instrument and so for me it’s mostly about ideas and using the tools that I have. So for the drums and the beats, I mean I couldn’t do that stuff if I didn’t have a computer. I couldn’t do what Cluster did in in 1975. I need either people or I need computers. And on this occasion it was computers.
Obviously you went looking for a little bit of genuine German input too with Olaf Opal and Kai Blankenberg. What did they bring to the end result?
Well they both did Standards too, and they were both brilliant. I knew working with Olaf on Standards, well I was hoping that he would like this project, but I knew that he would bring a punch and a directness to it that I don’t always bring. And he would bring a German aesthetic (laughs). And luckily I sent him some of the songs about half way through the project and I said, I want you to mix this when we’re finished if you can, but I need to know that you don’t hate it. And again everybody involved was really supportive and everybody seemed excited to want to work on the project. And Kai is brilliant. As far as I’m concerned Kai is my mastering engineer.
The Commotions seemed your own sound from the very first single, it’s all there on ‘Perfect Skin’. Did it feel like that, that the group just naturally struck on its own voice from the beginning?
No not at all. I mean my original idea for The Commotions was far closer to something like what Scritti Politti or I was madly into Stax Records and I was also into Dylan and Cohen and obviously everybody growing up with parents who were relatively young in the early ‘70s were exposed to The Beatles & The Rolling Stones.
No I believe our sound came together when we were doing the B Side for an aborted independent single. The single was going to be called ‘Down At The Mission’, which the only bit of that that remained on Rattlesnakes was the guitar riff from the song. I managed to integrate it on ‘Down On Mission Street’ but it was very, very different. ‘Down On The Mission’ frankly sounds a bit like Duran Duran trying to sound like The Style Council. It’s pretty awful.
And we had to record a B side fairly quickly without a great deal of expense and Neil and I wrote ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ in about a day. I think we wrote the first bit of it in about fifteen minutes. Then we went into the studio and we didn’t have a second verse and we recorded it all in a day and I wrote the second verse in the studio. And I think it took us about, I don’t know, at least two months to come to come to terms with the fact that it was much better than the A-side (laughs). Even when you’re younger you don’t like the idea that something you knocked off quickly is much better in all respects than something that you labored over for a couple of weeks. So I think that was it. We did that song. We had some attention from some major labels and we decided not to release the independent single and the next bunch of demos that we did when I took the studio home was ‘Perfect Skin’ and ‘Forest Fire’, so that was it really.
So the creativity is still there together, there was still a natural sense of conjuring some magic?
They’re both remarkably unchanged in terms of the way they work, in terms of their strengths, their weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies, their annoying habits… yeah. And the reason that we worked as a band, and not just the three of us but Stephen and Lawrence, all five of us brought very, very different perspectives to the band. And I don’t see much point of working with somebody if they’re just going to be a mirror of yourself. We all brought different things to the table and at that time the other four were happy for me to me to be leader and said, ‘This is the aesthetic, I’m going to be the aesthetic nazi’. I had to say to Blair ‘Three fingers for the chords on the right hand. No fucking five finger chords because five finger chords sound like Steely Dan and I don’t want to be fucking Steely Dan on this record!”
And you’d obviously be a little conscious about nottrying to recreate that Commotions sound after all these years?
Yeah and I think to be honest, people haven’t really commented on this and not many people seem to agree with me, but I think if we’d stayed together as a band we might well have made something that sounds like this. Probably Lawrence wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it but he was bored with music by then anyway, he probably would have been going off to be a writer anyway. So obviously what did happen was that I ended up going to New York and going in a completely opposite direction. But yeah had we stayed together I think it’s quite possible that we could have ended up making this album.
But I think being a certain amount of years older and having maybe refined the aesthetic. Or maybe a little bit more aware of what the aesthetic was. But also being aware of things that I’ve done that have been successful and things that I’ve done that have been unsuccessful, I mean creatively, maybe it was a little easier to make this record now than it would have been make then.
A lot of people say it sounds like an ‘80s record. But to be honest I think they’re wrong. I don’t think it sounds like an ‘80s record at all. I think there are elements of the sounds which are synthesizers which have been around since the ‘70s that are still being used now. But there are also synthesizers that couldn’t possibly have existed then. The drum machine for nearly the whole record is originally an East German thing that was around in the late ‘70s and has been available ever since, from the Vermona company. On the other hand there are synthesizers coming out of the computer that would have been not at all possible. There’s a digital synth from Belgian called Modor which is fantastic.
But if you do want to break it down, yeah for the most part it is mostly German drum machine, Moog bass and a Oberheim (laughs).
Last time we talked you raised Joe Strummer as an example of how not to age gracefully, that you never want to be seen as someone clinging to their youth and not evolving naturally. How do you feel about that in the light of Guesswork?
You probably need a couple of years to have any perspective on a record. But the way that it’s been received and my excitement to follow it up quickly… I think I’ve just a vague feeling that we might have a trilogy to end my career. And this one would be the first of it.
I mean elegance, beauty those are the things I’m looking for. I want to make things which are beautiful. I’m not interested in shocking people with sounds. I do like the idea of presenting some kind of work which might take people aback, but I’m not interested in shocking them with noise. I’m not interested in music to upset your parents with. I’ve never been interested in that.
Guesswork is available on earMUSIC.
Lloyd Cole tours Australia this month.
6 HOBART Theatre Royal
7 BENDIGO Ulumbarra Theatre
9 CANBERRA Canberra Theatre Centre
11 MELBOURNE Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
12 ADELAIDE Dunstan Playhouse
14 LISMORE City Hall
15 BRISBANE Concert Hall QPAC
20 SYDNEY City Recital Hall
22 FREMANTLE Freo Social