Rock 'n' roll survivors Lucero are set to release their ninth studio album Among the Ghosts, due August 3. And to hear frontman Ben Nichols tell it, it’s an album about paring back, both spiritually and sonically. It was not only recorded in the old-school way, with the band playing live on the floor, eyeball-to-eyeball, but with a fresh perspective after the birth Nichols’ daughter, now 2 years old.
The change approach lent itself to a fresh look at Nichols’ songwriting process too. No longer charged up by hyper-autobiography or woe-is-me perspectives, it became important to imbue his songs with detail, giving them historical, political and personal frameworks. Suddenly, the message early Lucero songs like “Raising Hell,” “Drink Till We’re Gone” or “Fistful Tears” seemed to take on a new distance. When Nichols was prompted as to the darker, more complex songs on Ghosts, family was on his mind: “I think I’ve got something to lose now.”
We caught up with Nichols to discuss the familial and historical themes Among the Ghosts and how it fits into Lucero’s past, present and future.
Your new song “For My Dearest Wife” was inspired by letters from Civil War soldiers back to their families. How were you inspired to touch on the Civil War in a personal sense?
That song has more to do with me having to leave, missing my wife and family back home and being gone for work. Obviously, it’s a completely different type work than a soldier fighting a civil war. But that one probably has more to do with the wife than the war, for me. Although I do use “Battle Hymn the Republic” in the bridge. I wanted something there that kind referenced that time period. I wanted some sort folk song or traditional song. Something to give the song a time and place. We’re from the South; I’m from Arkansas originally and the band’s from Tennessee.
But yeah, you can’t sing Dixie in the middle that. It just wouldn’t be right. It would change the entire message the song. It had to be a Union song if we were to put one in there at all, you know? It definitely still has a little bit politics in there. We’re a band that could never use a Confederate flag in any our artwork or promo stuff. We just don’t agree with it. But when it comes down to it, that song’s more about the wife than the war. It’s written in a little more dramatic, hopefully cinematic way. I’m hoping it came out a little more interesting than me just saying “Hey, Nina, I miss you.”
Is it important for you as a writer to give a specific time, place and political context to a general theme? It would seem to make a song like a more well-balanced meal, with a starch, some greens…
I’m trying to get better at that. I think in the past, Lucero's songwriting was pretty straightforward; maybe autobiographical to a fault. Everything was just kind straight out my life. I love some the songs and we still sing them all the time; there’s hardly anything that we don’t play. But yeah, as I’m getting older, I think I’m trying to craft the storytelling part it and look outside myself a little bit into other times and places, other peoples’ experiences, and incorporate some that into there. It makes the songwriting more interesting for me right now and the songs more interesting, I think.
Sometimes, when I speak to songwriters who have gotten a little more life experience under their belt, they’re loath to go back to the heart-on-sleeve stuff. Like, “Oh, God, I’m just whining about my own problems.” Not that you ever did, I’m speaking generally.
Yeah, you don’t want to come across like that for sure. I don’t know. Like I said, I still think the old songs hold up. But I’m kind in a different place now. This is the first record I did since getting married and my daughter was born. She’ll be 2 this summer. It definitely changes your perspective on what’s important and what’s important to say in a song.
Parenthood is the ultimate perspective-changer, right? Do the new songs reflect that moment where you realize you’re not the center your universe anymore?
It’s cliché, but definitely true. I guess y’all haven’t heard it yet, but there’s a title track to the record called “Among the Ghosts.” She’s a really big part that one. Actually, she’s kind a presence through the whole record, whether I actually mention my daughter or not. Yeah. The stakes are higher now. Even though I’m in a happier place than I’ve ever been before, overall, the songs on the record are a little bit darker. I think I’ve got something to lose now.
Among the Ghosts is your ninth studio album. With that many records under your belt, do you see all your albums as having connective or unique qualities from each other? Is it like a family at this point?
For sure. You kind see phases and waves. The last three records were done with a guy named Ted Hutt, who worked with us at Ardent Studios in Memphis.
Soul music and Big Star!
Yeah, Big Star, for sure. With him, we were really exploring this Memphis thing, this Memphis sound. This kind boogie-woogie, Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano and these Stax-style horns. It was really fun, and something we’d never really done before. There was that arc records, and for this one, we actually moved to Sam Phillips’ studio with a producer named Matt Ross-Sprang, who’s been busy winning Grammys with Jason Isbell and folks. But he’s a Memphis kid, and we stripped everything down to the five-piece band, recorded everything live on the floor. It had a simple, straightforward vibe to it. It was a real natural, older version the band, kind going back to our roots type record. We had a lot fun doing it. I’m actually more excited about this record than I’ve been about anything in quite a while.
You seem to eschew overly politically divisive themes in your work, which is refreshing in an era in which art is seemingly judged solely on whether or not it takes a “side.” When you grew up in the punk scene, was there pressure to pick a side?
I grew up in Little Rock, where it was just kids making something out nothing. It was a very close-knit community. Memphis was very hardcore punk. His Hero Is Gone and some very political stuff. They had a whole lot straight edge there. And they were mean. They were just fuckin’ mean. So when I got to Memphis, it was a different kind punk rock, almost, than what I was used to. And that’s where Bryan Venable, my guitar player, was raised. So yeah, I got exposed to that and I’m like “Ooh, I don’t really want part that.” That kind skewed the direction Lucero was already going to go. It solidified it for me. I didn’t want to preach. I didn’t want to give any sermons. And I didn’t want to be mean to anybody because they didn’t think the way I did, or weren’t political enough. I was just always the other direction. A “live and let live” thing. And I sang about girls and rock ‘n roll. But yeah, politics? I’ve always been political, but that’s never been part the songwriting.
To me, it’s like a mental disease to feel like everyone has to take a side on everything.
Yeah. It’s about making sure to make room for that human side things. No matter which side the fight you’re on, you’re still worried about the girl down the street who won’t call you back, or your ex-wife and your kids. There’s these other relationships that don’t go away just because shit’s getting crazy politically. Real life is actually still happen. I think it’s important to keep those fires burning as well and not forget we actually have a lot in common outside politics.