Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 1

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions debuted onto the music scene in the 1980s, a period that dovetailed nicely with my college years. Their debut Rattlesnakes came out in 1984, and Mainstream, their third and last album (not counting posthumous live and compilation sets) was released in 1987. Cole went on to a highly regarded solo career, releasing ten albums of new music between 1990 and 2010. His eleventh studio release, Standards, was released in the UK and Europe in 2013, and in 2014 Omnivore Recordings released the album in the USA.

Concurrent with – but not strictly in support of – Standards, Cole mounted a series of live solo dates. “I don’t feel that I’m really out here supporting an album,” Cole says. “I’m just letting people know that I’m still here.” That tour brought him through Asheville NC in late March. I attended the lightly-populated (but well received) show, and met Cole for drinks and conversation afterward. We quickly discovered that we’re both serious music fans (and fans of serious music), and as a result our time together was less an interview than a freewheeling conversation.

We discussed the evening’s show and its light turnout. “Am I wrong? This town has got something of a modern hippie-punk feel to it,” he observed. “Which is not really my audience.” He related a quick account of a lunchtime stroll he had taken through town earlier in the day. “On that particular walk,” he chuckled, “I saw examples of stereotypes, people who I knew would not be interested in my music.” He noted that he lives in Northampton Massachusetts, a place “with a similar vibe,” but smiled wanly as he recalled becoming “filled with loathing” and dread about the evening’s show. But then he walked into a popular and informal local eatery, looked around, and thought, “These are my people. This will be nice.”

Cole wasn’t being flippant; the people he first encountered – a small but vaguely menacing lot of semi-homeless types dressed in ragged military fatigues – do indeed give off a certain vibe, and not one of them did in fact come to The Grey Eagle for Cole’s engaging one-man performance. It’s fair to say that those who attended the show really enjoyed it. And Cole agreed with that assessment. “It was a nice gig. It was a little bit more spontaneous show than my normal ones, because I usually play two sets.” This one-off paired Cole on the bill with Peter Mulvey. “This is the only show we’re doing together,” Cole said. “We’ve never met before. He’s a nice guy. I’m kind of glad I went on before him,” Cole said. “Because his guitar playing is…he’s much more of a musician than me. I’m more of a songwriter.”

At Cole’s leading, our conversation quickly turned to an abiding interest of his, one I had no idea was part of his musical makeup. “Make Noise is located here in Asheville,” he said. “They’re a synth company founded by a guy called Tony Rolando, who used to work for Moog Music” [also in Asheville]. The company hand-builds synthesizer modules and systems for the serious musician and hobbyist alike. “They’re an amazing company, and world-renowned,” Cole said. But what, I wondered, does that have to do with a transplanted Briton who sings his songs while (mostly) playing an acoustic guitar?

“I’ve been making music with modular synths for the last three or four years,” Cole told me. “There’s a tiny, tiny bit of modular synth on Standards, too. And I visited Moog and got a Moog guitar the last time I was here,” he said. “’Period Piece’ has modular synth and Moog guitar on it. But the record I’m working on making next will have a lot more of both.”

I mischaracterized his albums prior to Standards as mostly acoustic. “They weren’t really acoustic,” Cole replied. “They were just quiet. And they weren’t even all that quiet, at times. They just weren’t electric rock records. Standards is the first electric rock record I’ve made since Negatives in 2000.”

“Why? I just wrote some songs that needed to be treated this way,” he said. “The choice I had was either discard these songs and make quiet music, or I follow the lead of the songs.” For awhile, Cole expected the resulting album would be “half loud and half quiet.” But he contacted Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet (“they had played on my first two solo records in the late ’80s, early 90s”), telling them, “I’m thinking of making this rock record. Would you be interested in playing on it?” Happily, both said yes. Standards was cut in Los Angeles, since both Maher and Sweet live there. “I got into a groove, finishing writing the songs for the album,” Cole said. “Knowing that I was going to be working with them – knowing what kind of record I’m making – seems to influence my songwriting.”

“So,” Cole said, in the end, “what I thought was going to be an album of half quiet, half loud songs turned out to be loud and slightly-less-loud.” Cole reflected on the development of the album that would become Standards. “I had ten weeks to get all of the songs finished. And I knew I had to finish, because once I got to L.A., I would have to be the producer as well as the singer. And it’s just a nightmare to be the producer when you haven’t finished writing the songs.”

That restriction affected the creative process. “I decided, I’m not making any demos for this record,” Cole said. “I’m just going to finish [writing] the songs, and then present the songs to Fred and Matthew. And then the three of us will figure out how to do them.” The approach yielded a collection of finished songs that have an energetic, band-oriented feel. “Basically what I did every morning was say to them, ‘Listen to this. I want it to be as insistent as this.’ I made them listen to Neu! every morning.”

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