Rick Steff of Lucero:
The TVD Interview

Rick Steff of Lucero has come out with a three-song EP on Archer Records, “Rick’s Booogie” (additional “o” an’ all). I caught up with him at one of the Illinois Lucero shows to talk about the makings of his EP, and what it was like to have his fellow Lucero members backing up one of his projects.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Steff is easily one of the nicest men alive anywhere, much less in music, and genuinely one of the most skilled and talented. 

What made you want to make an EP? How did it start?

Well, it started with just doodlin’ around on the piano and making these little boogies in down time and in the studio where we did Jeff Nichols’ independent film Mud, and Amy Lavere’s Stranger Me album. Roy [Berry of Lucero and Overjoid] and I had just done over a hundred pieces of music for a soundtrack for an independent TV mini-series called Head Shop, which is about a tobacco/ smoking shop that gets in trouble for selling bath salts. I don’t know if it’ll get placed. I haven’t heard yet.

So, anyway, this afforded us the opportunity to record a huge amount of music, which we’d be making anyway. So, we were in and out of that studio a bunch, which is a block from where Roy and I live, since we live only a couple blocks from each other, and there was just some down time in there, and I said, “I would like to lay down this boogie before I forget it,” so I played it, and they [fellow Lucero members] were like, “We should do something with that.” I had thought about doing a single at some point, like the old piano player EPs they did in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, ya know. I mentioned it to the band, and they all wanted to play on it, and I certainly wanted them all to play on it.

That’s pretty awesome.

Yeah. The one tune is an instrumental, and the other one… Well, we play “It May Be Too Late” off of the most recent Lucero record, Women & Work, live, and often, and that song requires a capo on the neck of the guitar, and when you do that, you have to re-tune, so it leaves a long dead time on stage, so over the course of just playin’ little melodies trying to bide my time to play the intro to bring up the band, this was just born out of that. He’s [Ben Nichols] always been incredibly supportive of… anything. Anything that any of us wanna do. I never would’ve thought of doing anything like this without that band of brothers being there and going, “Yes, you should!”

Sure, like encouragement.

Oh, more than encouragement.  Total support. Total, “What do you need?” So, it was done almost accidentally in a couple of days. The horns came in [Jim] Spake and Scott [Thompson], and Scott came up with what I think is a brilliant horn arrangement. It was just so good. So, anyway, we just crashed it out, and, ya know, I don’t have any, ya know, lofty goals or anything. It was just something fun to do, that I always wanted to do. It was lovely that somebody wanted to pay to press it out, ‘cause I wouldn’t have been able to do that, necessarily, myself.

Well, I’m glad you did. What roles did Roy Berry, Daniel Lynn, Kevin Houston, and you play in producing it?

Well, I wrote it, all by myself, and I, Roy, and Daniel produced it. Kevin Houston mastered it. Ya know, I find a lot of times, when people are doin’ stuff for themselves, and they don’t have a lot of experience doing things for themselves, that they can lose objectivity very quickly, and I’ve never been one to listen back, over and over, to my parts. I pretty much always tried to play the best, most serviceable part to fit the song structure, and then walk away. I don’t really listen to it over and over again.

So Daniel, who had engineered all the Head Shop stuff and assisted on the Mud soundtrack, along with Roy, just spent hours and hours mixing, and doing all this stuff. I wouldn’t even know how. I can’t really scrutinize myself. It’d be like looking in a theater mirror all the time and seeing every blemish. I just can’t do it.

I would think that would be difficult.

And Roy is the single-most inspiring instrumentalist I have ever worked with in my life. He is absolutely brilliant at a wide amount of things in which I have no skills. The mixing and the meticulousness from Roy—the knowing what to do—and the engineer who knew how to bring about those ideas, was totally them. On that level, they produced it, very much so. These days, though, most musicians produce their own parts. Like, I did mine, Ben did his, and so on.

For the techies out there, tell us about your equipment.

I play a Yamaha, and I play a Nord Electro. With Lucero, it’s very important that I maintain the integrity of the palette, which is the different aural colors that you choose from as a musician. In this case, classic instruments. Like, I would never have a Moog synthesizer or an electric piano, except for “Who You Waiting On?” It’s the only song that has an electric piano on it that I’ve ever played with the band, because it was trying to be a specific kind of thing. From that standpoint, I’m just an old-school pianist and organist kind of a guy.

What was it like to have the band backing you? Ya know, playing behind you, vs. the other way around?

It was the most honoring thing I could have eve asked for. The fact that Ben likes to do it live sometimes still makes me… Well, it chokes me up, and not because the tune is that way, but just because, you know, Ben as a songwriter and Lucero as a band, is what I’ve been waiting to do my whole life. You don’t ever get to play with people like that. So, from my perspective as a sound guy and a supportive guy’s role, I’ve got the best gig in the world, as far as I’m concerned. It just makes me feel incredibly honored and humbled, do you know what I mean?

Absolutely.

They’ve always been incredible to me. That’s family to me. I’ll probably do another little something at some point, just because it was so fun.

That’d be cool. Well, what is one of your most favorite songs to play of all time, and, I guess since we’re talking about them, what is one of your most favorite Lucero songs to play of all time?

Well, honestly, my most favorite songs I’ve ever gotten to play are, by far, Lucero songs.

Even when you were with Cat Power?

Certainly, if we are talking about the music that appeals to me, from my sensibilities and my background, which, while I’m a bit older—a bit older [laughs]—is still geographically the same set of influences as the rest of the fellows in Lucero. Cat Power was an amazing artist to work with—a very specific niche, and a lot of the work I did with her live, at least, was basically mimicking parts that she had played, in addition to the parts that I had played. In Lucero, I kinda come up with my own parts, ya know, in the songs, within the framework of what fits. With that said, no. There’s no songwriter whose music I’ve enjoyed playing on more.

I got to do this film, A Sideman’s Journey, with Klaus Voorman, the guy that drew The Beatles Revolver album cover and was the bass player on John Lennon records and George Harrison records, so that was a very exciting project to be on. It was, like, “dream come true” stuff, but the songs, still… to me… Ben is the best songwriter going. For what I want out of a rock ‘n’ roll song, for what I’m looking for, for it to reach me, he nails me every time. With that said, there’s lots of things I love playing. I love “I’ll Just Fall.” I think that’s just dreamy. And, gosh, “Last Night In Town” is incredibly fun to play. “Juniper,” off the new album, I adore playing.

Ben had said he loves playing that one too.

Yeah. I think that’s probably… Well, the bigger point is that, with most songwriters’ catalogs, there are tunes that you enjoy playing, and tunes that you don’t. I think that’s true across the board, but I’ve yet to find one with Ben that wasn’t a delight to play, and I’ve yet to find a song that the band did that they aren’t only uniquely capable of doing. Nothing tops it, to me, and I wouldn’t have been afforded to do this if it were not for Lucero and the records that I’ve done, and for people who have found whatever it is I do that they like, weren’t it for Lucero.

You had said Ben writes songs that reach you. What is it that you look for in a song that his songs fill?

Ya know, it’s not so much as something of a criteria. Sun Ra, who are great musicians, said, “If you could describe music with words, you wouldn’t need music.” I believe that’s very true, and I don’t ever go in going, “Gee, I hope there’s a modulation in this song. I sure hope there’s a double chorus and a bridge.” [laughs] It’s not like that. I think there are unique things that Ben brings compositionally to the table that I’m always prepared to be amazed by.

The same is true of everyone’s approach in Lucero. Ya know, you’ve got Brian [Venable], who is such a unique and unusual self-taught guitar player that does he things he doesn’t know he’s doing, and it’s perfect and primal, and the songs wouldn’t sound the same if they were without it. You’ve got Roy, who is incredible. You’ve got John [C. Stubblefield], who knows everything about Memphis Soul combined with his classical music background. The unique things they bring is what makes it that much fun.

Do you look for feeling, or is it all technical?

Oh, no, there has to be feeling! Technical, oh no. I don’t want … Oh, it’s totally emotive, and then you apply any technical skills you have to it. There’s one school of thought, and that’s that you should be incredibly knowledgeable of your craft in every way, but what I think is equally as important, is to look at every song with the wonder of a child, and to approach it from what your heart tells you what it should be, rather than out of a textbook. If there’s anything that I try to do, it’s to address it with that sense of simplicity before technique. With that said, yes, emotion, emotive, the feel of it, make ya tingle. On my EP, one is meant to be bouncy and make you smile, and one’s meant to make you a little bit melancholy, even though it’s done with notes instead of words.

Ya know, sometimes Ben’ll just have me sit and play little songs for him, and I love that.

I love you two on stage together. You seem to have such a great rapport.

Well, I love him, and that’s part of it. I love everybody on that stage. They’re kin to me, so it’s very easy for that to overflow on stage. We’re very lucky to get to do what we love for a moderate living. If you do what you love, you never really go to work.

It’s refreshing for me to hear an artist and a musician say that emotion matters, because as a writer about music, people sometimes want you to leave that out. They want you to write strictly objectively about something that’s mostly subjective, and that’s impossible.

Well, if you like the music.

True. That is a valid point.

If you don’t like the music… Well, there are critics out there who don’t like the music they write about, and that’s why they do it, and you get a totally different take.

Yeah, and I don’t write about what I don’t like, because there are plenty of people out there already doing that—already providing that service.

Well, I think what makes Ben’s songs what they are, is that he does mean it. He’s not writing about something he’s not intimately familiar with. It’s really a big deal to be able to be poignant and tough. It’s a lyricist’s dream gig, and he’s fortunate that he’s amazing at it. And, if when you watch a session or a show go down, everyone in Lucero is pouring everything they have into it.

Would you ever go out on your own? Tour?

[laughs] No, I don’t think anyone would come to a two-song concert.

[laughs] Well, I meant if you had more music to play.

If I had enough stuff that I felt like, “Hey, come and listen for an hour, and we’ll have fun,” absolutely, I would do that. This EP just sprung out of a really creative time with an amazing family of musicians.

Rick Steff is on a long-overdue and much-needed break right now, but you can see him perform with Lucero again starting in June for their summer tour. You can purchase his music at Archer Records.

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