When Lloyd Cole burst onto the world music scene in the mid 80’s with his band the Commotions and the album Rattlesnakes he was hailed as one of the most brilliant songwriters of his generation. Cole’s lyrics were loaded with literary and pop culture references, the kind that had you knowingly smile at his wit and irony while he casually dropped names like Greta Garbo and Simone de Beauvoir into his songs.
The band’s follow up album Easy Pieces was even more successful, though after a disappointing third album the Commotions called it a day with Cole embarking on a solo career. His self titled solo debut was a stunning record that had the critics falling in love with Lloyd Cole all over again, but despite a steady stream of releases since nothing has lived up to the hype and excitement of his earlier recordings.
In the past year a number of retrospective releases have reignited interest in Lloyd Cole’s work with a world tour focusing on the first half of his career. Trevor Jackson spoke to him on the eve of his return to Australia.
Does the renewed interest in your back catalogue surprise you?
The warmth and response to it has been lovely, though what I’m really surprised by is the momentum of this tour. I thought it was something that I’d only be doing for a little while this year, but now it looks like it’s going through until the end of next year.
I get the impression that you’re enjoying touring these days more than ever before, would that be right?
You know if I was of sound body I’d be in great shape! Yeah, I do – being on stage is something that I’m relatively comfortable with now. Certainly the only time the Commotions came to Australia I wasn’t really a performer at all, I was almost willfully not a performer – I just felt like I wanted to get up there and recite my songs. Now it’s quite different, I enjoy it and I like the idea that I make my living doing something that is dependent on people enjoying it.
It used to be in the early 80’s and 90’s that the record company would give me a big advance to make an album. I would make that album and then I would do tours because I got paid first, but now I don’t get paid first, I only get paid if I do a decent show and if I don’t do a decent show people won’t have me back. So I feel like I get graded for my work these days and it feels like a more honest way to get paid. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still love to be getting big advances to make records, but not many people are getting those advances any more.
So now that you find yourself at this point in your career doing a retrospective tour I’m reminded of the opening track on your debut solo album after leaving the Commotions. The song was called Don’t Look Back – does that suggest a little wry irony on your part with this tour?
Absolutely! I didn’t quite say I hope I die before I get old, but my feelings about these things are completely different to the way I would have thought abut it back then. And to be honest I played the very first of these retrospective shows in Atlanta in late 2015 – I knew I was going to be doing the retrospective tour in 2016 and wouldn’t get back to Atlanta on this tour to do it, so I thought why not do it now? I didn’t really have a set list, I just made it up as I went along and nominated a cut off point of 1996 and it was remarkably easy. In fact when you’ve got a body of work like mine and you cut your career in half just working to that time frame it makes choosing the set list so much easier.
When you now sing a line like “she’s been sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan” from Perfect Skin how does that resonate for you in the digital age where so much of our awareness is realised online?
Well it probably does sound a little ridiculous in this day and age so I do have a solution as to how I get around it when I perform the song live now, but I don’t want to spoil it for those in the audience so you’ll just have to come to the show to find out! Really though, that line was just braggadocio! (laughs).
Rattlesnakes was lauded around the globe. Easy Pieces followed the year after and was an even bigger success than its predecessor. Yet the critics weren’t thrilled with it and you were one of them, expressing a certain disappointment with the record. When you revisit the songs from that album now do you see that work in a more favourable light?
Yes, but not the rotten ones. We were really lucky on Rattlesnakes because we managed to avoid putting a stinker on that album. We were not so lucky with either of the next two records, but then I think gosh, you know you look at the very best albums and it’s very rare that every song is as good as the next. So in hindsight Easy Pieces is a pretty good record and the good songs on it are very good, there’s just a few that aren’t so good.
Our disappointment with the record was more to do with the fact that we’d allowed ourselves to be rushed into making that record to come out in time for the Christmas of 85. I mean we were paid very handsomely for having managed to do that and we did the big tour the following year including Australia so we did very well out of it financially. But I think if we’d had just a few extra months to think about that record it would have been a much better result. We weren’t aware that the record company were desperately trying to get it out before Christmas, they were just telling us that we had to get the record out now, otherwise people would forget us. Unfortunately we believed them.
Upon going solo you made the decision to move away from the lyrical style in your songs to a more direct form of song writing. The gorgeous No Blue Skies was a great example of that – a simple, “love gone wrong scenario”. Could you not have written a song like that for the Commotions?
I don’t think the Commotions would have wanted to do anything as straight as that. That’s one of the things that I wanted to do on that record, I wanted to do things that were not clever. I think the Commotions were wonderful for the band that we were but straight we weren’t good at.
But then you did use the line “baby you’re too well-read” – in that song. Was that a gentle dig at the literary references to your immediate past as a songwriter with the Commotions?
Oh yeah, I’m absolutely making fun of myself (laughs). It’s very different writing with another songwriter or being in a band that became a democratic band. We were a benign dictatorship to start with and I think ultimately we were better as a dictatorship, but to be honest I needed to do better to keep it that way so in the end we became a democracy.
This tour is being defined by a particular period in your life but you continue to make some wonderful music – 2013’s Standards for instance was a brilliant album. Do you see this retrospective tour as the one that will put much of the past to bed?
I don’t think it will be the last opportunity for a majority of the songs, but there’s going to be a few that will be put to bed on this tour. There’s a few songs that I’m singing even though I know I’m far too old to be singing them that I don’t sing on a regular basis anymore. I know that many people are fond of them and I’m fond of them in my own way, I just don’t think they should be regulars in my sets.
*Lloyd Cole plays QPAC in Brisbane January 10 and City Hall, Lismore January 11.