A decade and six albums into their career, Memphis country-punks Lucero made the leap late last year from their own indie label, Liberty & Lament, onto Universal/Republic Records. The band's rabid, boozy following may have been hesitant at the time of the signing, fearing a dilution of the band's sound at the hands of corporate handlers. But anyone who has given last month's 1372 Overton Park a spin will instead hear Lucero venturing into stranger territory only hinted at on previous albums.
This weekend, Lucero hits Texas to play Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin ahead of their date Monday night at the Meridian. They are currently touring the country behind 1372 with fellow Memphis act Cedric Burnside & Lightning Malcolm and punkier kids the City Champs and the Dirty Streets. We talked with lead singer Ben Nichols while Lucero was getting ready for a gig out in Cleveland, Ohio. We discussed the bands new direction and some of the ingredients that are shaping their new, soulful tone.
Rocks Off: 1372 Overton Park seems like the next logical progression after the past two albums, 2005's breakthrough Nobody's Darlings and 2007's Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. What's been the biggest thing defining this new direction?
Ben Nichols: With Darlings, it was just the four of us, the four original members. Then we added Rick Steff on Rebels, Rogues and just the addition of Rick on piano and organ allowed us to expand the idea of the band a little bit. It allowed us to do stuff we weren't able to do before. It was more fully realized on 1372. We went into the songwriting process more intentionally, if that makes any sense.
RO: You had to do demos this time, right?
BN: We ended up doing nineteen demos. And that's where we started to experiment with horns, and brought in Jim Spake, a really talented Memphis session musician. He's played with a lot of different people. That's when we found out the horns would work very well. With the addition of even more talented local musicians, it helped our sound grow. It's still Lucero, but we are just adding more stuff to it.
RO: From listening to this first new-major label album, it seems that your sound didn't get so muddied by trying to be accessible. If anything it got grander and much more intricate. Most bands get diluted after signing on the big corporate dotted line.
BN: It's actually great, because signing to Universal doesn't affect our day to day business at all. They wanted to hear demos before we started really recording, but aside from that we still have a lot of independence in that contract with them. They let make the record the way we wanted to make it. It's funny that some people think the horns were the major label's idea, but that was just us making the record we knew we could make.
I think they knew when they signed us up that they weren't going to pretty us up or change us in any way. They knew what they were getting. We aren't a huge band by any means, but we have been established for ten years.
RO: What outside musical influences helped spawn 1372? We have obviously been hearing more Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements in the last few albums, but what flame is leading the way now?
BN: To tell you the truth, we went back to a lot of old Stax recordings. That was our inspiration for the slower and more soulful songs like "Goodbye Again" and "Darken My Door". Those two were definitely influenced by old Otis Redding recordings. Booker T. & The MGs, Rufus Thomas, all the classic Memphis soul stuff. There's a ton of it and it's all really damn good. Throw that in with the kind of The Replacements' Pleased To Meet Me attitude, and you get a new Lucero record.
RO: Did touring with Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears this past summer affect the new album at all? Things must have seeped back and forth between you guys.
BN: That was a really great tour, and they are a really fun band to have out on the road while we were writing these songs. We actually ended up with one of their horn players on tour with us now. They ended changing horn sections so we snagged him up.
RO: Do the older songs get a new soul revival on this tour? We can assume some would already lend themselves to that extra sheen of brass.
BN: Jim Spake went back and picked a few songs, our live standards, and began to write and add horn arrangements to some of them. That's been really cool and brought new life to the old songs. "That Much Further West," "Nights Like These," "All Sewn Up" all ended up getting the horn treatment.