Ben Nichols is friendly with Michael Shannon. His brother, director Jeff Nichols, has cast Shannon in all five of his films. And the Oscar-nominated actor stars in a video ó a short film, really ó for Long Way Back Home, the new single by Nicholsí rock band Lucero.
But none of this means Nichols isnít cowed by Shannonís notorious intensity.
"He was absolutely terrifying," the singer laughed by phone recently. "Heís a little terrifying even at the bar afterwards, after heís gone home and taken a shower and heís wearing shorts and a T-shirt and his hairís all frizzy because itís not slicked back. But even at the bar when heís relaxed, heís still intense."
And this is Nichols talking, a guy knows his way around a dive. For the last 20 years, Lucero has soundtracked many a whiskey-soaked night across the Southeast, their gruff, Memphis-rubbed songs buying shots at the nexus of alt-country, gritty punk and straight-up American rock.
For Luceroís new album Among the Ghosts, Nichols rethought the way he wrote, composing darker lyrics that wrung emotion out of impersonal subjects like Butch Cassidy and the Civil War. What started as a songwriting exercise yielded, to his ears, one of Luceroís best LPs yet.
"I donít feel like weíre past our prime," he said. "Weíre possibly right in the middle of it. I feel like weíre actually getting it right for once, and thatís a nice spot to be in at 20."
Before the show, Nichols talked about working with his brother and how he keeps Luceroís lyrics fresh after 20 years.
Are you at home in Memphis?
Yeah. My wifeís at work, and Iím at home with the 2-year-old. Weíre eating some Goldfish and watching some toons.
What are we watching?
Paw Patrol. Man, she has a problem. Weíre going to have to go to some sort of Paw Patrol rehab. Sheís got all sorts of shoes and shorts and blankets. Thereís Paw Patrol everywhere.
The last time you were here, you played a song youíd written only a couple of days before, and you said you thought it should be in a movie. Would it have been Loving?
Oooh. Man. Yeah, that was probably it. I did just a demo version of it on GarageBand in my living room, and thatís the track that ended up at the end of the film my brother made. The way he works, itís always, "Try and write something that Beyoncť could sing." Then at the last minute, heís like, "Oh, we need Loving." He ended up getting in a spot where heíd just run out of time. And that ended up being for the best. Itís the first take of the song, and itís really beautiful as-is, and it worked. But I always wanted to go in and do a studio version, to let the guys all add their touches. So Iím really happy with the album version. And more people get to hear it that way. Iím glad itís getting another go-around.
Among the Ghosts seems like a more fiction-inspired album. When you do that, is it meant to be an escape from reality?
Yeah, it gives you a little buffer between the story of the song and your life. For me, most songs are strictly autobiographical and in the first person, and thatís really what Luceroís catalog is based on. But itís nice to try to branch out. Iíve got to push myself. I always thought it didnít sound as authentic, but Iím finding now that it can be just as authentic, possibly even more so; it just has to be written well. I think this record was a step in the right direction.
This being the 20th year of the band, did it prompt you to go back and listen to any of early stuff with a new ear?
Eh. Itís funny, weíve been playing songs from the whole catalog the entire time. There was nothing to revisit because it never went anywhere. Going back and listening to the old records, thatís tough. Most of them, I donít like the way they sound, which is another reason why Iím so happy with this one. Itís the best combination of songwriting and production. Weíve got some excellent songs on old records, but the production wasnít there. And weíve got some excellent production on some newer records, but the songs werenít quite there. This is a nice balance between the two, and itís a really nice place to be at the 20-year mark.
So that means we can start ramping up a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame campaign for five years from now, right?
(Laughs.) Iím sure weíll make a big push for that, yeah. Weíve never counted on any kind of recognition. And, in fact, we thrive on the underdog, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot philosophy of life. Being from Memphis, youíre kind of ingrained with that. Nashville is the fancy, more successful older brother, and youíre just Memphis. No one ever expects anything from you. We come from that, and we relish it to a certain extent. But weíre not going to stop. Hall of Fame or not ó I think itís going to be not ó weíll keep going.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.