Ben Nichols Ranks Lucero’s Eight Albums
Ahead of the release of the Memphis band's new album, 'Among the Ghosts,' the frontman looked back on a 20-year career full of songs about women, work, and bad tattoos.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
The last time Ben Nichols was scheduled to do this interview, Lucero had just released a live album—a 32-song, whiskey-fueled journey through the expansive catalog of his Memphis band. But when it came time to rank the band’s albums, Nichols phoned last-minute with a hint of defeat in his signature raspy voice. “I’ve been sitting here trying and I just can’t do it,” the frontman lamented. But this time around, as Lucero is preparing to release their ninth studio album, Among the Ghosts, Nichols is feeling a bit more talkative. “It’s still tough,” he notes of putting his eight records in order of personal preference. “It’s gonna be tricky for me, but I’m glad we can give it a shot.”
Among the Ghosts is a change of pace from the rest of Lucero’s deep catalog. Although fans have endeared themselves to Nichols’ barstool confessional style of songwriting, he takes a step back on this record to try out some third-person storytelling, like on standout track “To My Dearest Wife,” which is modeled after letters home from Civil War soldiers.
“I think I was able to combine the same emotion and feelings—the sincerity and melancholy and loneliness—everything that was up front in those early Lucero records, but I was able to do it with songs that weren’t just diary entries from an angsty young kid,” says Nichols. “I was able to put those kinds of things into more crafted, short story-type songs.”
Among the Ghosts also distinguishes itself from the rest of Lucero’s discography geographically, being the first record Nichols worked on from Ohio following the birth of his daughter, Izzy, who he says impacted the album’s lyrics. The title track, for example, laments the life of a touring dad with lines like “The first word she learned to say was ‘goodbye.’”
“She ends up as a major presence throughout the whole record,” says Nichols. “There is kind of a seriousness to it. I’ve got something to lose now. I’ve got something I actually care about.”
Ahead of the release of Among the Ghosts, Nichols looked back on Lucero’s past works.
Noisey: What do you think you got right and what did you get wrong on this album?
Ben Nichols: One of the reasons I’m comfortable putting Women & Work last is because I actually think it’s a very strong record and it can hold up to being put last. What we got right was: that was where we were focusing on a Memphis rock and roll sound. We had the horn section going full blast and Rick Steff on the keyboards and everything was in place and we were focusing on that. It was really fun to explore that kind of sound and that side of what Lucero could do. One of the reasons it falls at the bottom of the list is that the lyrics are a little different than most of Lucero’s other stuff.
I was actually having fun writing more simple rock and roll-type lyrics—lyrics that could be in any 50s or 60s pop song, any kind of Chuck Berry or Bill Haley & His Comets, whatever old-school rock and roll. I thought that fit the music we were doing at the time, but I don’t think the record captures everything that Lucero is. It’s kind of a step outside our natural skin. It was a fun experiment and a fun record to make, and I’m very proud of it, but if you’re looking for what makes Lucero Lucero, I think other records represent it better.
One signature of this record is this sort of saloon piano. Where’d that come from?
That was just our piano player Rick Steff, who’s been a session musician in Memphis forever and played with a ton of different people. We were finding out just how versatile he was. Really, any idea we threw out there, he could tackle it. I wanted stacked horns and Jerry Lee Lewis Sun Records-type piano. And yeah, he nailed it, that honky tonk saloon-type playing.
There’s a song called “I Can’t Stand to Leave You” which is the one thing that doesn’t really fit on the record, in my opinion. It actually sounds like what we were about to start doing with All a Man Should Do and Among the Ghosts. It would fit much better on one of those records. But at the time, we needed it, because we needed as many songs as we could get for the record. So there’s a glimpse of what was to come. And that song was one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. But it’s isolated on this Memphis-centric album.
This was the first time you put your faces on your album cover. What prompted that?
A.) It was something new. We hadn’t done it before. And B.) I remember doing that photoshoot, and we went all over Memphis—it goes back to focusing on Memphis and our home. And we ended up using a photo that was taken in front of the Arcade Theater which some people might remember from the Jim Jarmusch movie Mystery Train. A lot of that was filmed there and the old hotel across the street from a train station that they tore down. So we wanted to focus on Memphis again and that was part of that.
It seems like the risk of putting your picture on an album cover is that it dates you. Were you worried about that?
[Laughs] We’ve given up any hope of looking cool. That’s out the window. And by that time, especially, in our catalog, no, we had nothing left to lose.
I’m surprised to see this so far down. It seems like it has a lot of fan-favorites on it.
It does, and actually, this part of the list is tricky. These next two albums I could flip-flop really easily, because you’re right, there’s a lot of really good stuff on Nobody’s Darlings. I think the thing with that record is: It was produced by Jim Dickinson down in Mississippi. He didn’t really let us experiment too much. He didn’t want us to add to it, he wanted it to be a very raw record, and basically sound like a live record, where it’s two guitars, bass, and drums. And this was before we had Rick on keyboards. So it was just a four-piece band, one vocal, and that’s what he wanted to capture, which is cool, but if I would’ve had my way, we would’ve spent a little more time on it and added a few things in here and there. He was very big on capturing our first take first thing in the morning, and I don’t know if I’m really a first take kind of guy. And I think some songs, like “The War,” which has become a staple and a very important song in Lucero’s catalog, it’s raw and you can hear the emotion in it, but I don’t know, I think it would be a little easier to listen to if it was a little more polished.
But its charm is being a very imperfect, straightforward rock record.
Definitely, and we hadn’t really done that and we needed that in the catalog. So it’s good to have.
Do you remember who you were influenced by at the time?
There was a lot going on in Memphis. The music scene was huge. It seemed like we were playing shows with Cory Branan every week or every other week. He and I had kind of a friendly—or I don’t know if he did—but I had a kind of competitive relationship with him as far as songwriting goes.
Yeah, because he’s such a fucking good songwriter.
He’s a great songwriter. So, having someone like that and playing shows with him constantly, every week he had a new song that was amazing, so I kept trying to one-up him. So that was definitely part of this era.
And you even shouted him out in “Tears Don’t Matter Much.”
Yeah, which was the record before this, I think. So yeah, there was a competition there that was healthy. But a lot of this record, I was trying to—[guitarist] Brian Venable will hate me for this—but I was trying to find this kind of classic rock kind of sound, like, Creedence Clearwater Revival. I wanted “Last Night in Town” to be “Fortunate Son” and I wanted “Noon as Dark as Midnight” to be “The Old Man Down the Road” or whatever. And I thought “Bikeriders” sounded like John Mellencamp or something, which it doesn’t at all, but that’s what was going through my head at the time. So I had all these ideas in my head, but when we went into the studio, I was forced to simplify everything. Like I said, I could change my opinion on this tomorrow or in two years, but for right now, yeah, I wish I could’ve made that record a little more finished-sounding.
So it sounds like this one was sort of a companion record to Nobody’s Darlings since it came out the next year.
How did the Nobody’s Darlings recording process affect how you planned to record Rebels and Rogues?
Rebels and Rogues is one of the only records where we left our Mississippi/Memphis area to record. We went all the way to Virginia and stayed there for a few weeks and recorded with David Lowery. And as hands-off as Jim Dickinson was, I think this one, we were left even more to our own devices, which meant we got to experiment a bit more, and this was the first record with Rick Steff on piano. And that opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the sound of the band. I think in between Nobody’s Darlings and Rebels and Rogues, I was getting pretty burned out. With the types of live shows we were playing, it was becoming a grind, and it wasn’t as fun as it used to be. Everything was a little too fast, a little too loud. It was getting out from under me a bit.
So you took a breath on this record?
Yeah, and if Rick hadn’t joined the band I’m not sure how much longer I would’ve lasted. With Rick coming in, it really reinvigorating us, me especially. It gave me someone in the band to really lean on. It took a bit of the pressure off because he was so talented—classically trained, professional musician—whereas the rest of us are kind of making it up as we go along. Rick Steff is a rock, and a solid foundation to build on. So that gave me a bunch of new ideas and a bunch of freedom to try stuff on this record—to take that classic rock sound I was going for on Nobody’s Darlings and get closer to achieving it.
So does it feel like the second phase of Lucero started here?
Definitely, yeah. And that second phase culminated with 1372 Overton Park which was the next record. We were able to do stuff I didn’t think we’d be able to do.
You have a song about San Francisco on this album. You have a habit of nodding to cities and states in your songs and albums. What effect does that have on your relationship with those places when you tour there?
Man, it’s usually a pretty positive thing. We don’t play that song a whole lot, but we usually play it in San Francisco. So yeah, it’s kind of nice to have these little things where, when you show up in town, you know you’ve got a little something special to throw in the mix. If there’s a lull in a set or things start to go awry, you can always toss it in there and it’s like, “Oh, OK, we’re back. Everything’s fine.” When I was a kid, I thought I would move there. I’ve always loved that part of the country. And yeah, I had a couple of girlfriends that lived there, or nearby there, so it’s always been a special place to me.
Tennessee seems like a very lonely album. Were you lonely when you wrote it?
I think I’d recently been lonely. I didn’t know a whole lot of people when I moved to Memphis, but then meeting Brian Venable, and starting to go all these shows and being in a band, yeah, I got to know a whole lot of people very quickly.
I imagine you get a lot of people telling you this album helped them through hard times.
Oh definitely. And this is a lot of people’s favorite record. So the fact that it’s this low on the list… when this article comes out, I’m gonna catch all sorts of hell. [Laughs]
I don’t ask this to be a smartass but can you please explain the opening lines of “Chain Link Fence?” It always reads off to me when I hear it.
Oh, I gotcha. We were talking about writing stories or being strictly autobiographical before, and this is sort of autobiographical to a fault, where I’m saying everything exactly how it was. “Chain Link Fence” is about the day that I met the girl who I would move to Memphis to chase and to date. We ended up dating for like five years, and this song’s about meeting her at a punk rock show in Arkansas. She was sitting on the fence, and I’d just turned 21 and she was still in high school, she was 16.
And when did you start dating?
About a year later when she was 17 and I was still 21. That’s when I moved to Memphis, I’d just graduated from college. The first place I lived in Memphis was with her and her family. It got real serious, real fast. That was a major relationship in my life. It’s definitely a true story. Singing it at the age of 44, though, you can see how it’d make people uncomfortable. But that’s one of those things where maybe it would’ve been better to not be so autobiographical.
The song “My Best Girl” is a love song for a guitar. I’ve seen you guys probably a dozen times and I’ve never seen you not make mention—sometimes right in the middle of the song—about how cheesy that sentiment is. Is it that embarrassing to play?
No, it’s not that. That’s more of a schtick. It’s not that embarrassing. It’s a little embarrassing to play, but not that embarrassing. It’s a well-written song, and folks request it all the time.
Yeah, you can’t retire it.
Nope, I can’t. And yeah, that song couldn’t be written by anyone other than a very young musician. It’s that type of song. There’s a certain sweetness to it because of that, a certain innocence. But also kind of a certain asshole quality to it. I wouldn’t write that kind of song again, but that’s about as mean as I get, really, is a song like “My Best Girl.”
When you look at these songs you wrote when you were younger, do you identify with that person who wrote them at all?
That’s definitely still me. It’s me at a younger age, but I remember exactly where I was when I came up with that line, feeling a little alone and left out, the same thing everybody feels when they’re 19 years old. It’s still a part of me.
Are you big on reminiscing about the old days?
Yes, I think I am, I just don’t do it in public as much. Although I can’t really say that because it ends up in songs all the time. And even though the songs on Among the Ghosts aren’t necessarily about me, there’s probably a good bit of that in there, even. I know that on Among the Ghosts there’s references to writers I’ve been reading my entire adult life. And there’s a certain nostalgia there, where I’m revisiting stories I’ve read in the past. I don’t think there’s a single Lucero record that’s not nostalgic in one way or another.
I remember I wrote a feature about you for a tattoo magazine that was entirely about the song “All Sewn Up.” That song pretty much single-handedly built up a Lucero tattoo cult.
Yeah. [Laughs] It’s weird, we’ve got a few different cults. We’ve got the military guys who come to the shows for “The War,” the tattoo guys, and the BMX guys—I’m not sure exactly how we picked them up. But we have these sort of subcultures.
Talk about “the tattoo guys.”
At the time I wrote the song, I didn’t know a lot of tattoo guys. That might be why I had so many bad tattoos. Once we started touring and hanging out in different cities, especially once our tour manager Jim Perlman got on board—he’s a tattoo artist as well—we started hanging out in a lot of tattoo shops. We met this guy named Oliver Peck, who a lot of folks might know from Ink Masters. This was way before that. He ended up being a really big Lucero fan. I didn’t know how influential of a tattoo artist he was at the time. Once he came on board, Lucero music started to spread through different tattoo shops throughout the country. I’ve gotten to meet some of the best tattoo artists in the world over the last few years, and that’s pretty cool that they listen to our stuff. But that song is extremely true. I was feeling like, “Oh god, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve really done something wrong.” But then the song came out of it and put a different spin on it.
It’s like a reclamation.
It seems like it’s done the same for a lot of fans.
It’s nice when a song can do that for you. The song did for me what I think it does for other folks. I sang it, and when I sang it, I felt better about making the mistakes I’ve made in the past.
Can you talk about the L-star tattoo? Brian gives those out, huh?
Yeah, he’s better at it that I am. I’ve given a few, and I finally gave one that was so bad that I decided to retire completely.
How bad was it?
It was really bad. Like, worse than a prison tattoo. I told the guy if he got it covered up, I’d give him one more, but he hasn’t covered it up yet.
What’s the wildest Lucero tattoo you’ve seen on someone?
The photorealistic portraits are a little crazy. There was a guy who had, I think around his calf and shin, maybe the whole band, a photograph of all the members.
This record has “Joining The Army.” Partly because of that and also “The War,” you’ve got quite a large audience of active and former military members. How does that feel?
I’ve always taken that as a compliment. No matter what your politics are, when someone says, “I listened to your stuff the whole time I was overseas,” or in Iraq or Afghanistan, that’s a huge compliment to any songwriter. I’d never join the military, but my grandfather’s story really struck me. He was younger than I was when the band started, when he was in Europe and World War II. That kind of just boggled my mind, realizing how young these kids actually are. So yeah, having them at the shows, there’s definitely the possibility of some clashing of cultures, but overall, the fact that they care about us and appreciate a song like “The War,” and don’t hate it on principle—because when it comes down to it, it’s an anti-war song. So the fact that there’s something in there that strikes them as honest and true, that’s the most I could ask for as a songwriter.
I remember interviewing Brian once and he was telling me that soldiers come up to him to say your music helped get them through tours of duty, which feels nice. But then they’ll say they were listening to your songs while getting ready to shoot people, which makes it much more heavy. Is it hard to reconcile that?
Yeah. And that’s part of why it’s an anti-war song even though it’s part of a war and it’s been listened to in situations that, honestly, I’m glad I’ve never had to be a part of. It’s something I don’t understand and don’t know that I could’ve done it. I don’t know that I could’ve survived what my grandfather went through, and I don’t know if I could’ve survived what kids have gone through recently. I’m not in a place to judge. It’s definitely a tough thing to think about. I have no idea exactly what they did over there, but I guess all I can say is I’m glad they’re back now. I’m glad that they’re at the shows.
You keep a lot of the things soldiers and widows give you, right?
Yeah, you get a lot of those challenge coins, and there’s the Killed In Action bracelets, the little black bracelets with their names and death dates. Yeah, I’ve got quite a number of those. For someone to go to the trouble of bringing those things to a show, specifically to give to the band, that definitely means something. All I can do is keep them all together and take care of them and hope I don’t get too many more of them.
The new record has a lot of Civil War references, but it seems like when you write about war, you always write from the perspective on the ground, and it’s more about the human element than any political agenda.
That’s very true. And yeah, someone was asking me about Lucero and politics, and yes, it’s truly never really been an outwardly political band. Our fanbase is definitely made up of the entire spectrum of political views. We’ve got a little bit of everybody coming to the shows. I don’t really think about that too much in songwriting, but I do shy away from overt political statements, just because that’s not what I listen to rock and roll for, myself. I listen to it for whatever emotional impact it gives me. Even without lyrics, whatever those chord changes make me feel, that’s why I’m invested. If the songs do address war or soldiers, I like songs that address it from a more personal side. I’d rather talk about the people than the politics.
It seems like all the Lucero albums before this about drinking and fighting and relationships gone bad led up to this one, like it’s an atonement for the past. Am I wrong on that?
I’ll buy that. An atonement is a good word, actually, and kind of a reconciling. This one, I really feel like it was the first mature record we’d made. We got to do all that fancy stuff with the horns and the keys. All the Ted Hutt stuff was very produced and very slick, and this was the last one we did with him—the third out of three. This one, it has all the production qualities that Ted brings to the table, but I was able to get out from that whole Memphis sound thing and go back to the more emotional style of the early songs. I felt like I was able to synthesize the early Lucero sound that was very raw, but very intense and honest, sometimes to a fault, and combine that with the things we learned on 1372 and Women & Work—the musical and production things I’d learned. And this was one of the first records where I thought we got closer to hitting that mark. And it took 15 years to get there.
You said that Lucero tries to write classic rock radio hits, which is something that I think gets lost on people. I don’t say this to sound rude, but you’ve never been a radio band.
[Laughs] No, hell no.
What do you think has stood in your way of mainstream success?
I think there’s two things. Well, a number of things, probably. I don’t think those kinds of songs—unless you’re already established as a classic rock artist—if you’re writing that style of song, there’s not really a market for new classic rock. People are just fine with their Boston and their Tom Petty, and I listen to a lot of that myself. It’s almost blasphemous to pretend you could write new classic rock.
It’s funny because if you slipped a Lucero song onto a classic rock radio station between Boston and Thin Lizzy, it would fit right in.
I hope so, but then, my voice has always been… for some folks, it’s their favorite part of the band. For other folks, they can’t stand it. And I don’t blame ’em, because on a lot of records, it wasn’t captured at its best. So a lot of our recordings have been rough around the edges. It’s been tricky. I think we’re just now capturing what we want to sound like on record. The whole catalog can be viewed as a learning process. We had no idea what we were doing when we started. And so as you listen to the catalog, you hear us figuring stuff out, and that’s not exactly the way to become famous. That’s what you do before you become famous.
But nobody can say you haven’t done the work. When I was listening to that live record, there’s 32 songs on it. I remember hearing that and it just struck me how many hits you have.
Man, well thank you, and I can’t complain about where we are. In fact, we might be exactly where I wanted to be. It’s a comfortable spot. We do have kind of a cult following. In the old days, it was stressful driving into town, because it was like, “Alright, is anyone gonna show up? Is it gonna just be us and the bartenders? How are we gonna be able to make it down the road?” Now we’re at a point where, yeah, usually we’ve got a core set of folks and you can count on them to be there, so that pressure’s off a little bit. We’re not getting rich, but we’re gonna have a fun show no matter what. But I don’t want to become Coldplay or U2 or... I don’t even know who the big rock bands are right now.
You don’t want to become The 1975?
Is 1975 a band?
[Laughs] But yeah, I don’t want that kind of pressure. It’s easier like this.
This was the first record we did with [Ted Hutt]. I think it’s higher on the list because for us it was a defining moment.
We had Rick Steff on keyboards for Rebels and Rogues, and then there was maybe three years between Rebels and Rogues and 1372. It was a lot of time trying to figure out what we were gonna do. When Ted Hutt came on board, we’d never worked with a producer who was that hands-on and intensive. He was there for pre-production, for songwriting, sort of the whole thing. And he really put us through our paces. It was like a montage scene from an 80s movie, like Rocky training, lifting trees. We all really had to step up. I think we accidentally ended up with this record that was really bold, I thought, and it just made such a statement.
It’s one of our more aggressive records. It’s a rock and roll record. The lyrics are a nice balance between autobiographical songs that I’d always written and the rock and roll lyrics that Women & Work featured. And there’s a few of the storytelling lyrics on there as well with “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo” and “Johnny Davis” and a few others. On 1372, and All a Man Should Do, everything was starting to gel, I thought. It was just the fact that 1372 surprised us all. I think Ted Hutt and the band realized, “Oh, we can actually get away with this.” It was a milestone for us, for sure.
And, personally, 2009 was a big year for you. That was the same year you also put out a solo album. Did you work on those concurrently?
Yeah, I was probably writing songs for Last Pale Light at the same time I was writing 1372. And that was really easy to keep separate since Last Pale Light was based on a novel. And it had more of a folky-type sound.
You based that record on Cormac McCarthy’s The Blood Meridian. Why that book?
It’s still my favorite novel. In fact, I just finished reading it a few nights ago for the fifth time. I fell in love with it the first time I read it. I loved the way it was written. What turned a lot of people off—the archaic way the phrasing is and the language he uses—I fell in love with it immediately. I was reading through it a second time and underlining things for fun, and noticing that everything I was underlining would make a great line in a song. So I realized there was a lot of good stuff to steal in there, so I just went and stole it.
One of my favorite lines is the opening line: “See the child.” I don’t know why, it just immediately grabs you in.
It’s like the Bible or something. It’s like reading the Old Testament, that’s how that language sounded to me. It’s very serious. It sounds very important.
Every few years a director throws their hat in the ring to turn the book into a film. I always cringe because it doesn’t seem like it can ever be done justice. But your brother’s had a lot of success as a filmmaker in the last few years. Would he ever take a stab at it?
He’s talked about it. But I don’t think he’s in love with the book the way I am. And it would be challenging for me because I know if he was making the film I would give him all these opinions and ideas and he would ignore them all and it would piss me off. So probably better to leave it be.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.