Lloyd Cole’s New Album: Standards

Chrissy ON Jul 17, 2013 AT 9:48 am

by Chrissy Iley

I’ve always liked Lloyd Cole. I’ve got hundreds of random tracks from the past 28 years on my iPod. I like the fact he sometimes tries to write a song lyric as if he’s Raymond Carver. I like the rusky velvet of his voice which does go very well with a full-on rock guitar. But it’s also nice with bleak acoustic guitars.

When Rattlesnakes came out in 1985 he was a pop star. I’m not sure if he was ready for that but in later years when he dressed like a geography teacher in his forties he had a secret hankering to be that pop star and also a self-loathing, a fear of being mutton dressed as lamb when he was in fact mutton dresses as mutton’s grandfather.

He has come up with a new album – Standards. People are saying it’s his best since Rattlesnakes. People love it. People are saying where have you been all these years. People say this is a return to form. He thinks when was he not on form!

Lloyd Cole

I am supposed to meet Cole in a café on Marylebone High Street but it’s full and there are only seats outside. It’s a warm day. ‘I despise outside,’ he says as we slope off to the pub next door for cappuccinos.

He is tall, stubbly with unwashed greying hair and his eyes rimmed in pink tiredness. He is wearing a black zip-up top and black cords. He stares into space a lot, stares away from me through our whole conversation even though we’ve met several times before. He’s comfortable with awkwardness and distance.

His accent is part Derbyshire where he grew up, part Scottish where he went to college, and part East Coast, USA, where he now lives.

Does he feel happier in the USA? ‘No, I’m just there.’

He wasn’t intending to make a record. The impetus came in an odd way. He was reviewing a Bob Dylan record. He likes to do part-time journalism. He enjoys a deadline.

‘The energy of the record, the intensity, impressed me. He probably never worries or doesn’t even know what a 72-year-old man should be wearing and I thought I’ve been spending too much time worrying what is appropriate for a man of a certain age.

‘I never wanted to be Joe Strummer who got a Mohawk but it was too late to get one. I’ve never wanted to be mutton dressed as lamb. All you do is undermine your legacy and make us love you less. But Dylan doesn’t fall into that category.’

So it was something about the fact that he didn’t care that made Cole think perhaps he would be happier if he also didn’t care. Some people just lose it but they’re out there and I didn’t want to be one of them. And I also felt my songs stopped reaching people at a certain point. I’m starting to think that some of that was my fault.’

Cole doesn’t usually think things are his fault. He usually does everything with intense thinking, certainty, which people mistake for arrogance.

‘It’s frightening getting old and working in this business. You look around and people are putting out records that they should not be putting out. You worry that that will happen to you. I try to worry much less so I got to the point where I was thinking I have to do something similar to what Bob Dylan had done. I’m not an icon but I have something and why should I stop.

‘Over the past ten years I thought too much about elegance and understatement. I’m naturally flamboyant in language. I like having fun. I think I toned myself down too much.’

Standards is not toned down at all. Lush lyrics that paint interesting pictures and energetic guitar.

‘The songs were from entries from an old notebook. Sometimes just one line. I just began looking at the entries completely different. You know like crosswords. Sometimes in the morning you can’t do it at all and then at night when you’re tired and something in your brain is not awake you do it naturally.’

Cole had spent years rebelling about doing things naturally. He decided he would only write a song if it knocked him on the head. ‘Now I think that was an excuse for just being lazy.’

It also took him a while to process the way his relationship with Universal Records ended in the 90s. ‘Breaking up from a record company is not so different from breaking up from a marriage. You can have a great marriage for 15 years, divorce and get married again. But people frown on people who have been married many times. They see it as failure.

‘The record company sign you and are excited but after a while the honeymoon phase is over. If an opportunity comes to switch record companies it might be a smart move but I didn’t do it. I was worried they wouldn’t want me. I was an idiot.

‘In 1985 when I had one of the best records of the previous year, we were persuaded that if we did not bring out a new album people would forget us, which was ludicrous. People waited seven years for the next Blue Nile record and they would have waited for us.’

The result was he lost faith in the records he was putting out and the record company lost faith in him. A later album he made was never released. Instead they put out a best of.

‘I persuaded myself that that industry had perverted me. That I was writing songs to make records when I should be making records because I write songs. I thought my purity had been breached and I decided to stop writing songs. I would only write them if they were knocking on my head. I stopped looking for ideas.

‘The records I made in the 2000s I was happy with. I just feel a bit silly about the way I behaved. It was my anger with the industry really…’

Our cappuccinos arrive and mine comes with chocolate after I’d asked not. He says to the waitress very forcefully, ‘She said she didn’t want chocolate.’ The waitress recoiled.

While he was spending his time being angry and being his own worst enemy he stopped listening to music. ‘It’s because I listen to so much music I felt I don’t need to listen to it because it’s in me. Diamond Dogs for instance is in me.

‘I’m happy that David Bowie is healthy and I’m happy that he’s happy to bring out another album. But he’s not the man who wrote Sweet Things is he? That said his achievement from 1971-77 surpasses all achievements in rock including The Beatles and the Stones.’

The fact that Dylan and Bowie put out albums at all brought up so many questions and tapped into some of his own fears and that’s when he decided he was ready to be a pop star again.

‘It’s easier to be a pop star in your fifties than your forties. I’m happier with the juxtaposition of my voice with electric guitars. I’m happy with this album.

‘There was an opportunity for me to work with some of my friends (Matthew Sweet and Police Woman) and I wanted to take it. I worked for ten hours a day for ten weeks. The songs were ready. There would be a great rhythm section and I would not be having panic attacks in the studio because things weren’t ready. First time ever. It was a good feeling.

‘All the songs are original apart from California Earthquake (by Mama Cass) which I think is a great song. I wanted a crowd rock feeling to it.

‘Lots of people have been saying that this record reminded them of The Commotions (his first band). I tweeted the other day that I’m not thrilled by this return to form business. Tell me I’ve made the best record since Rattlesnakes and I’m annoyed, although  also I’m amused by that. I see both sides.’

The funding for the record came partly from his German record company and partly from crowd funding. He sold deluxe editions for the album for $100 to 600 people. But I made a fatal miscalculation and had to put in about another third myself. The whole thing came to $100,000 and I put in 30-35.’

His face seems to pale as he says this. ‘My overheads are substantial. I don’t live in NYC any more, I live in Massachusetts. But still it’s a worry.’

He moved out of the city because school fees were high. He has one son who is 14 and still at school, the other plays lead guitar in his band. How is that?

‘I wanted him to play on the record but having him play on my record is a pain in the arse because he thinks he knows better.’

What sort of relationship does he have with his own father? Could he imagine being in a band? ‘No. My father was a driving instructor who taught me to drive. But I never had anything like that kind of relationship with him.’

When he met his American wife she was a fundraiser for charities. He described her as fierce. Now she looks after the house and the son that is still living at home and helps run their online shop. Half the year he is on the road and that’s the main source of his income.

‘The way the model for people who are no longer stars but still make records is to get a negligible amount of income from selling records and most of the income comes from tours. This tour is going to be a very big one. Going back and forth is difficult for me. My 14-year-old finally wants a father. He’s noticed I am missing. He’s a great academic. He’s into maths and physics. I was an academic too. I was good at maths, but he’s way surpassed me.’

Cole is known as a thinker. He is a prolific reader, has all of Didion and Dickens on his Kindle. Nothing worse than buying a book at the airport and hating it after three pages. Much better to re-read things.’

He takes another sip of his coffee. ‘I’m worried about the tour. I’m tired now at the end of a three week tour and this will be there months. I do three shows every four days, one day off for my voice. I don’t have both ends burning. I still drink, a glass of wine with lunch, and a bourbon after the show, but I’m always sober on stage and these days if I’m tired I take Red Bull.’

Is it hard to have a long distance relationship with your wife? ‘No, we are used to it. We talk about not doing it forever. If my career was in better shape it would be different, but it isn’t. One thing that I know is that this album is either the start of something or the end of something. IF IT does not do well I am never going to do tours like any more. I will be focusing on reaching the fans I already have.

‘I have massive financial worries all the time. The last ten years of my career one would have to say the model we used was not working. I’m at the point now where I’m thinking that it’s a vanity project if we do it in the traditional manner with paying so much for the distribution of records.

‘If things don’t turn around I’ll make records in a different way only distributing them on the net. I’ll be making more money per record so I won’t have to sell as much, but by doing that it will be giving up the idea that I have my own life, that I want my records to be where the Dylan and the Bowie records are. If this record does do well I will have those opportunities. I have more work in me. I don’t want to retire from making music. My voice has not given in.

‘My body feels it when I travel but last year I went on a diet and I carry my own golf bag in extreme heat. Most of the guys in a tournament I played in a month ago had caddies or used the buggy. I didn’t like those options.’

He does look pop star slender but he points out ‘still with a round face. My diet secret was that I counted calories and gave up beer. I did not give up wine. I like all drink except tequila because it sends me crazy.

‘At one time I tried absinthe with a couple of my friends in the Groucho Club. They didn’t like it so I drank both of theirs so as not to waste it. At the end of the night I asked the Groucho staff to sit with me. I felt really weird and not in a good way.’ He laughs about it now and says, ‘The only rock star thing I do now is have a nice lunch.’

Lloyd Cole’s album Standards is out now.

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