By Mark Guarino
A girl named Jenny lights her cigarette, she’s on the wrong side of town, it’s Saturday night and Ben Nichols opens up his car door and promises her an escape before it turns dawn.
Will they drive down Thunder Road too? Most likely as Nichols of the Memphis band Lucero shows his serious Springsteen fetish on “I Can Get Us Out of Here,” one of many Boss-inspired songs on the band’s sixth album, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers (Liberty & Lament).
“Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. — you have everything you need right there. You have big rock and roll songs from Born in the U.S.A., you have really quiet songs from Nebraska and you have a nice in-between from Darkness,” he said.
As Springsteen has muted his sound through solo albums and a revisiting of the 1960’s folk revival, a legion of younger bands, from Marah to The Drams, have summoned the bravado of his earlier years through albums that capture that holy passion, irony free.
“You find it rarely in contemporary stuff,” said Nichols. “The majority of contemporary stuff nowadays, there’s a lack of honesty, lack of heart and a problem with over-production. Everything’s manufactured to sound the same because emo sells and the kids eat it up.”
Yet Lucero is the rare classic rock-minded band that plays to the emo faithful as often as it does to the Uncle Tupelo faction. The band has toured with torture punks Against Me!, Honorary Title and Taking Back Sunday even though Nichols admits “16-year-old kids just scare the hell out of me — they can be a very tough crowd.”
“We’re not getting those shows because of our draw, we’re getting those shows because (the bands are) fans of ours,” Nichols, 32, said. “They are fans of ours and we are fans of theirs.”
If Rebels is powered by that E Street vibe it’s partially due to the recent inclusion of keyboardist Rick Steff, a Memphis native whose flourishes and flaming organ fills frame the songs with urgency. Steff, a long-time session player who has worked on sessions including The Twilight Singers, Hank Williams III and James Blood Ulmer, is currently doing time on the train wreck otherwise known as Cat Power tour.
“We were lucky to catch him. He was just done with (the recent Cat Power record The Greatest) and preparing to go on tour,” Nichols said. Lucero bassist John C. Stubblefield, who moonlights as Memphis session player, introduced Steff to the band and Nichols was pleased to discover “he fit right in.” “He had a good sense of the type of songs I was writing, how to tastefully just lay right in there. It fit really well at the beginning that I got excited about it and wrote more stuff geared towards that classic rock E Street band type of sound. It’s something I’ve never been able to do before and it was really satisfying,” he said.
While Rebels indeed sound like it’s stuck on the FM dial during vinyl’s glory years (pick out the references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blue Oyster Cult and — believe it — Asia), it is lined with songs that, had they been recorded during that era, we would be listening to them today on car commercials. Lucero is primarily a band with hardcore roots, Nichols’ dark romance sears with the hard stomping rhythms of Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry while Brian Venerable’s chugging guitar matches their insistency. As for Nichols, his protagonists are continually underdogs (“you used to love me/a drunkard running wild out in the streets/c’mon baby, what else would you have me be?”) but his true vulnerability comes through his voice — a twin to David Baerwald, it is shredded with anxiety, you can almost hear veins popping with each syllable.
“It’s never been the most cooperative,” he said. When he was 15, he remembers recording songs for the first time and the revelation that came with the playback.
“It was just awful. I had to go outside and think how to get myself out of the situation. It took a little while to learn how to sing,” he said. “I think part of it came from playing with really loud bands and having to push it full blast to be able to hear anything.”
The idea of joining a band flickered when he was young. “That’s always been the goal since I was 14,” he said. It took him ten years. Until then he played music in high school and then at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., where he received a degree in history. He grew up in a household ruled by his father’s 45-inch record collection, a treasure trove of solely 1950’s rockabilly considering the elder Nichols had no use for anything after that point, believing that “The Beatles ruined rock and roll.”
Music was the family business too. Nichols’ father, grandmother and uncle opened the J and J Piano and Organ shop (the doors are still open) in Little Rock and pressure to join the family business mounted until just recently when his father realized his son’s musical ventures were “paying off.” “He’s starting to get it now. And we’re a limited liability corporation. I’m a small business owner and that’s something he understands,” he said. “We have stuff to talk about. We can respect each other in a way we couldn’t before.”
Nichols moved to Memphis in 1996, following a girlfriend. They broke up, he stayed in town. By that point he was in Red Forty, a hardcore punk band strongly influenced by Jawbreaker. Venable was at a show and was so impressed, he walked up to Nichols afterwards and told him his plans to start a band. He wasn’t that serious but thought that making the proposition to a total stranger might make it so. Plus, he told Nichols he played guitar.
“I lied to him,” Venable said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Venable, a Memphis native, also came from a home where music crept at the edges. His father owned Guy’s Shoe and Luggage Repair. His routine: fix shoes in the morning, play the blues on the Beatle Street tourist strip at night. Veterans from the Memphis garage rock scene were always underfoot in his house, so following in their footsteps seemed like the natural thing to do. It wasn’t.
“All he wanted me to do was be a musician. I was surrounded by music and guitars but I never fooled with it,” Venable, 35, said. It took his first sessions with Nichols for him to fake it. Nichols showed up with two songs written, Venable nodded, Nichols left. “Then I would go get all my guitar books and videos,” he said.
Venable had three essentials that made Lucero work in the early days: an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history and lore, a huge record collection and unbridled enthusiasm. Once Berry and Stubblefield joined, the band played single note punk rock until Venable said he “imagined it with some Buck Owens twang.” “I never knew there was punk kids playing country. I stumbled into a whole genre not knowing it,” he said. Thumbing through a Spanish-English dictionary one day, he spotted the word Lucero, which translated to “any bright star.” The name stuck. “I wanted to follow any bright star,” he thought.
Lucero made records and toured and earned a reputation as the type of live band where anything could happen. That was exciting and fueled their confidence. Between 2001 and 2003, the band released three albums, the third for Tiger Style that subsequently closed shop. They stuck to their Memphis roots for the fourth, enlisting town hero Jim Dickinson to produce. The following year came Dreaming in America, a film documentary that followed the making of the Dickinson album and probed into the hardships and compromised dreams that are inevitable for bands working in the rock underground.
The Tiger Style debacle led to the band forming a label, Liberty and Lament, which is distributed by East West, a Warner Bros. label group. Although Nichols said the band is open to negotiations by labels in the future, this current two-album deal (The Attic Tapes, a reissue album, was released earlier this year) gives them full ownership of the music. “There is not a lot of money upfront, but I own these songs,” Nichols said.
And Lucero certainly owns Memphis.
“Their shows are always big deals,” said Eric Hermeyer of Shangri-La Records, the city’s main indie record shop. “So many other Memphis bands are marginalized — there’s the garage punk legacy left by (lo-fi 1990’s rockers) The Oblivians but that’s not super accessible to other people. (Lucero’s) an accessible band. People from all different walks of life and all different age groups like them. High school kids come in and buy their CDs, fortysomethings buy their CDs. They have a broader appeal than any other band around here.”
Forming a band in the same spot where rock itself came to fruition creates its own set of expectations you may not encounter, say, in Dubuque. “You just don’t want to let folks down,” Nichols said. “When I came to Memphis I had a romantic idea of being the next Bruce Springsteen, the next Elvis. Then I learned there were all these old R&B bands that toured the circuit between Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas and no one knows what their names were. I could live with that. You’re a small part of it but you’re a part of it. No one knows your name but at least you can say you were there.”
Staying put in Memphis means the band can have the luxury of refusing day jobs. Since 1999, the band minus Venable live in a shared warehouse space above a variety store. Each bandmember has a corner to retreat to and the loft also doubles as a rehearsal space. Expenses are low but there’s a price: “It’s a shithole. It’s a crappy spot. It’s hot as hell in the summertime and cold as balls in the winter,” said Nichols.
To make Rebels, the band decided to physically remove itself from their rock and roll commune and go to Sound of Music, the studio owned and operated by David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) in Richmond, Va. The distance helped Nichols write more concisely. “It was like summer camp,” he said. Over two weeks he wrote lyrics, fleshed out guitar parts and summoned the band to record them on the spot. He discovered he could write more as a craftsman and center songs on characters, not necessarily himself. The detachment makes the songs of Rebels more universal, even having the details of every character and situation shaved to the barest essentials.
Lucero’s continual close quarters (they even shared sleeping space at the studio) helped solidify a band made up of four strangers when they first met. Touring for months on end with no day jobs to rush home tightened the screws. And that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Venable recalled drunken fight that turned physical, the toll of road haze. “We are very much a dysfunctional family and like girlfriend/boyfriend dynamics, you live in that constantly. You never know anybody until you get into a car with them for two months,” he said, adding: “It also builds bonds.”
The band’s desire to become part of a future classic rock soundtrack for a generation in their wake is excessive, but sometimes it takes individuals with nothing to lose — and no home to speak of — to accomplish such a task. Nichols noted that what brings Lucero together is simply lack of a life outside music. “For whatever reason, we have nothing better to do. Or deep down there’s a passion for it. The main reason I got them is they were willing to stick around,” he said. “And that’s hard to find.”