Lloyd Cole,
The TVD Interview

From his stunning debut with The Commotions on 1984’s Rattlesnakes, Lloyd Cole has continued to make intelligent pop music for the last three decades. With lyrics referencing literary and pop culture figures as well as chronicling the ebb and flow of personal relationships, Cole touches the mind as well as the heart.

After a period as an acoustic troubadour, Cole has reunited with some early solo career colleagues to make Standards, a return to the jangly guitar milieu of Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe-era sounds. We spoke with Cole prior to his March 29th appearance at Nashville’s City Winery.

Your new album finds you returning to the electric guitar sound of your earlier albums. Was the title a conscious reference to that?

I don’t remember why I called it Standards, really. I just liked the sound of it and I knew that some people would think it was me being snotty or arrogant, calling it Standards, and I always like to rub those people the wrong way (laughter). I guess there’s still a bit of the snotty kid who titled an album Mainstream twenty-eight years ago still there inside me.

I was happy to see you reunited with Matthew Sweet. I’ve been a fan of his since the Buzz of Delight days in the ‘80s Athens, GA scene.

On (Lloyd Cole and The Commotions’) first tour of America, we had a great time in Athens. We wound up having about three days off there, just one of those scheduling things where there were no gigs and we were booked for three days in some nasty hotel. We met some local kids who had a big house and we moved out of the hotel and went to stay with them. I think we drank a lot, probably.

What was it like picking up the electric guitar and getting back together with Matthew and Fred Maher, with whom you had recorded twenty years earlier? Did it feel familiar, strange…

It was, strangely, exactly the same. It wasn’t even familiar, it was the SAME. After a couple of hours on the first day, we looked at each other and said, “Well, this works (laughter).” The combination of the three of us just works and it’s really hard to explain. Fred takes a week to remember the title of a song and Matthew knows how the song goes before I finish telling him. They learn in very different ways but they play together really well. They’ve played on Matthew’s records and on my records, they just play bass and drums together really well in a way that really suits with how I play rhythm guitar and write songs. When we were recording, I played the guitar and sang the songs live. Matthew and I were in the control room, Fred was in the drum room and it just felt weirdly identical.

Like a conversation you left twenty years before and picked up right where you left off.

Yeah. Fred and I have matured over those years but Matthew is exactly the same. He’s been with the same woman for a long time but he’s never had kids. He still lives the life of a carefree youngster. In talking with him it was like nothing had changed.

I was on “shore leave,” I suppose. My family was back in Massachusetts and I was living in a hotel in L.A., reverting to a younger mannish state like I was without responsibilities for ten days, at least. It was great fun and I must state how helpful Matthew was in the process. He was just a huge cheerleader for these songs. I had written them all before the session and I was pretty sure it was a good batch of songs. He just kept saying, “These are AWESOME songs! The record’s going to be GREAT!” Which really helps, especially at my age, because I am not without self-doubt.

He is certainly an enthusiastic person, especially where music is concerned. In addition to Matthew and Fred, your son Will was in the band?

Well, there was no band, per se. The only band was that week in L.A. when Fred and Matthew and I were together and everything else was overdubbed. Around Christmas 2012, when my son came home from school for the holidays, we recorded his parts. The band he was in just disbanded and I thought they had a real chance but they just ran out of steam, I think. He’s a great talent and there’s no way I would ask him to play on my record if I didn’t think he had a distinct way of playing guitar. He grew up listening to Robert Quine and Quine’s not here anymore. He also grew up listening to Keith Richards and groups like The Strokes so he brings a unique voice to the record, which I think is really important for a lead guitar player. Otherwise, I might as well play it.

Initially, Standards was issued overseas but Omnivore is releasing it here in the U.S. and I was happy to see that there will be a limited edition clear vinyl LP. How did you connect with Omnivore?

When the record was made, European distribution for it was guaranteed. My leverage in the U.S. was pretty low when I made this record. My last albums, while I am happy with them, didn’t exactly advance my career in America. Basically, I took a chance making Standards. Once it was finished, I planned to present it to labels and hope it was good enough for someone to take it. To be honest, it took awhile. A few labels said, “Oh, we really like it but it’s already been released in Europe, so we won’t release it in the U.S.”

Then an old friend from Capitol Records who now works at Universal stepped in. Universal had a relationship with Caroline Distribution, who at that point was distributing Omnivore. My friend said, “These guys are really enthusiastic about the record and I think they could be good for you.” At the same time, my manager also said that Omnivore might be the right label. They are enthusiastic and really putting some work into it. They’ve got a great PR guy (Cary Baker/Conqueroo), as well.

Yes, the clear vinyl is cool. I remember my horror in 1995 when my record company at the time told me that they wouldn’t be releasing my album Love Story on vinyl. I’d spent all of my previous life working toward these things called “albums,” which were 12” squares. After that, I went for fifteen years without having a release on vinyl. Fortunately, in that time we got to the point where we could make CDs sound great.

Now vinyl is back again. My enthusiasm for the vinyl resurgence is two-fold: first, it is helping small shops stay in business. Without vinyl, I think even more record shops would’ve gone bust. I have an internet store on my website and I know that it is difficult to ship vinyl. It makes much more sense for you to go buy it in your local shop. Second, the physical interaction between the listener and the album is even more accentuated with vinyl than it is with the CD or digital files. You have to pick it up and turn it over. You’re dealing with something that is corporeal as opposed to a bunch of files on a cloud somewhere. I just don’t like to think about my records as a bunch of files on a cloud.

Another thing about vinyl is its length. He’ll kill me for saying this, but when Matthew made Girlfriend, he made a just about perfect twelve-song record and THEN he added another three songs, originally meant to be b-sides, to the album. Those last three songs are good but not as good as the first twelve. He got away with it because everyone loved Girlfriend but he was able to do that because of CDs. On vinyl, you wouldn’t have been able to make a sixty-minute record. The cutting edge there would just say, “No, if we make this record sixty-minutes long, it won’t sound as good.”

Thirty to forty-five minutes as a standard for an album is a nice length of time, I think. An hour is bit long and longer that is too much to call an album. A lot of the things that we loved about the analog age was due to constraints. The sound we became accustomed to because of tape saw some of the high-end disappearing and when it came back (through digital recording), we didn’t like it. We weren’t smart enough for about ten years to figure it out, “Well, let’s just roll (the high end) off like tape did (laughter).”

Also, when we make an album, we spend a really long time deciding how to put the songs in the correct order. But when that album is in your iTunes library, there’s probably more than a 50/50 chance you’ve got shuffle turned on so you won’t hear them in the intended order anyway.

To be fair to Matthew, Girlfriend was released at a time when the record companies were going overboard adding things to CDs: hidden tracks, bonus tracks and the like. Matthew’s label at the time even released a promo-only, alternate CD of the album called Good Friend, with demos and live versions of the songs. It was the time of ICE Magazine and the height of CD madness.

Really? I didn’t know that. Actually, I titled it Girlfriend. He was singing “Good Friend” and he had just split up with his wife Susan. I said, “Matthew, for God’s sake, that’s a terrible title for a song. You’re talking about a girlfriend, so just call it ‘Girlfriend’.” I also titled “Winona,” because it was obviously about Winona Ryder. He was obsessed with her at the time, after that movie Heathers. My influence on the album was not that huge but I did persuade him to use those two titles.

Well, thank you for your input! Whether it’s twelve or fifteen songs, Girlfriend is a stunning, head-turning album. That was really a good period for intelligent guitar pop, with your and Matthew’s albums along with some like-minded contemporaries. A little further back, Rattlesnakes was a huge album for me. I know you recently did a reunion tour with The Commotions to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the album’s release. After two decades, is Rattlesnakes a burden or a blessing?

No, it’s not a burden at all. In fact, we just went back and remastered Rattlesnakes from the original half-inch tapes and I have to tell you that the new reissue CD of the album sounds better than the original vinyl. When we mastered it the first time in ’84, I didn’t know anything about mastering at all. There was still a certain attitude, kind of like at the BBC and Abbey Road, that you had to defer to the guys in the white coats, who dictated what the dynamic range on the record could be. We didn’t realize we could say, “No, it doesn’t have to be like that.” Obviously, having an extreme dynamic range on vinyl makes it more prone to the needle jumping out of the groove. Still, the amount of dynamic compression that tended to be put on vinyl was nowhere near as bad as things got with CDs in the loudness wars.

The engineers at Abbey Road gave me a flat 96k transfer of Rattlesnakes on cassette after we had finished mixing it. When the album came out and I listened to it, I remember thinking, “Wow, my cassette sounds better than that!” But I was twenty-three and I didn’t understand compression at all. In the mastering process, the album had been compressed to a certain point and while it still sounded great, it could’ve sounded even greater. For the reissue, I asked the engineer, “How close can we get to the original half-inch tape?,” and he said, “We can duplicate it exactly, if that’s what you want.” I said, “Do it!”

I played the remastered version of the album for the band and Stephen the drummer went out of his mind, saying, “THAT’S the record I remember making!” Neal the guitarist also loved it, everyone was massively excited. Ian Jones, who was the engineer, wrote to me the next week and said, “You are the first artist I’ve ever worked with who didn’t worry about how loud your album was, you’re more interested in how good it could sound.” So, I’ll probably put a little note up on the Internet when the reissue CD comes out, saying “The Rattlesnakes CD is going to sound a little quieter but if you turn it up just a bit, it’s going to sound great.” You’ve got a volume control, for Christ’s sake (laughter). We’ve remastered Easy Pieces as well, which always sounded a little hollow, but now it’s got a good punch to it.

Back to Standards, I’ve read that you had Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and Tempest in mind when you were making the record. You also got your fair share of “new Dylan” tags upon the debut of Rattlesnakes. How large an influence was Bob Dylan for you?

Dylan is a bit like Mt. Everest, you know, he’s just THERE. Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Ray Davies—if these people hadn’t come before, it would be impossible for me to exist as I am. I couldn’t possibly have become an artist without them. But do I think about it? I don’t really think about it. I think the only reason Dylan was mentioned in the press releases for this album was that I did a review of Tempest for Salon.com. I listened to it several times in one day and I was pleasantly surprised at how good the great songs on that record are. The good songs outnumber the bad songs so as far as I’m concerned, that’s a great record for Dylan these days.

The thing that struck me most is that there is nothing in Dylan that seems to worry about how old he is. I don’t think he even knows how old he is, I think if you asked him, he’d say, “Oh, I don’t know, sixty something…” Personally, I think I had been focusing a little too heavily on what type of music a man of a certain age should be making. So I thought, what would happen if I just make this record without worrying about if it was age appropriate or not? And that’s the record that happened.

Well, I guess you were so much older then…

(laughs) Yes, exactly! I was so much older then.

Lloyd Cole’s Standards is in stores now via Omnivore Records.
On (clear) vinyl.

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