NICK LOWE If Los Straitjackets fits

Over the past 50 years Nick Lowe has worn many hats. He has had considerable success as a producer, songwriter, author and pop culture icon. Lowe has has chart hits with Cruel To Be Kind and I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock And Roll, as well as writing (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love And Understanding for Elvis Costello & The Attractions. While those tunes are bound to feature during his first Australian tour in seven years, Lowe will be focussing on his recent collaboration with surf rock instrumentalists Los Straitjackets. Speaking with CHRIS HAVERCROFT, the witty and often sharp tongued Lowe promises an old-fashioned revue show when he and Los Straitjackets perform at The Astor Theatre this Friday, February 21. 

It’s been about seven years since you were last in Australia. Is there a reason for it being so long between visits?

Well, it is a long way away, and you need to be invited to tour. I am not exactly a household name, so you have to build up steam for some kind of demand for an invitation. I think that this time it is a bit different because I am coming with Los Straitjackets, who are so great in their own right. We have got a pretty good show that we do when we get together. I think Australian audiences are going to really enjoy it and think it’s a bit of a laugh. 

How did you team up with Los Straitjackets? 

I released a Christmas record about six years ago with my old band mates over here in the UK. Much to everyone’s surprise it did rather well, especially in the United States. Before I had a chance to capitalise on this success, two of the key members of my band – and very close friends of mine – both died, one after the other. It really took the wind out of my sails, and I wasn’t really interested in doing anything for quite a while. As is the thing with a Christmas record, time may go by, but every 12 months there is a chance to get it out again. A couple of Christmases went by and it was suggested to me to go and do a couple of Christmas shows with Los Straitjackets. I have known them for quite a long time, and we do share the same manager, so it made a lot of sense. 

We did these Christmas shows and it was really good fun. We did those for a couple of years and then put it away. Then we decided to get offers to do what you would call ‘out of season work’, and that is when it really got cracking, because I started writing songs with this group specifically in mind. It never felt like Los Straitjackets were my backing group. It felt much more natural than that, and we got on so well, we made it work for us.

There is obviously the songs you have written with this band in mind, but do they bring a different flavour to some of your older songs as well?

Definitely they do. When we first got together, they tried to copy the songs exactly as they were on the records. As you know, Los Straitjackets don’t have any keyboards and they are a surf guitar instrumental group. I said to them to forget about copying the songs, and for them to just approach it as an instrumental in the way that they would usually play it, and I would sing over the top. It is not a million miles away from the originals, but it feels more natural this way. I feel like I have joined their group for this tour instead of them just being a backing group. 

You have a career in music that has lasted 50 years. Your radio hits came quite early in the piece, and you have managed to reinvent yourself and continue to put out music on your own terms… 

The only time that it felt difficult was in the mid-80s when I realised that my time as a pop star was over. I wasn’t in mourning or anything like that. I was glad to see the back of it, to tell you the truth. I was in quite a bad way as I was miserable with the records I was trying to make, as I didn’t think they were very good. I was also drinking too much and doing all the cliches. I knew that the public were tired of my schtick. I had a pretty good run and I could tell that the public had moved on and were looking at new artists. There are some pop artists who are able to continue on and ride the waves – like Madonna or Elton John – but I knew I was not going to be one of them. Spanning the decades like they do takes a special kind of talent, and a special kind of person. 

At the same time, I thought that I hadn’t really started yet. I took stock. I had produced some good records for other people and written some pretty good songs for other people, and had a few hits myself, but why did I feel like I hadn’t really done anything particularly interesting or really good yet? That is when I started thinking that I had to figure out a way to deal with getting older in a business, which at that time, had no interest in anyone over the age of 30. I made a way to write for myself and present myself in a way where getting older was an asset and not something to be embarrassed about. 

It sounds like it was a relief for you to get your hit making out of the way early, and then you could put it behind you and not be driven by that continued search for success?

Yes it was. I also had a fear of being condemned to having to continue to only do the one thing that you were known for on the TV. For the five minutes when you are on the cover of magazines, and people want to get your opinion on everything and doors open for you – it is lovely when that happens, but when it goes away and you are condemned to only being known for that period – it would be hard. I have contemporaries that are in their 50s and they have  to continue to do the same act that they were doing when they were kids, because that is all they are known for.

I was lucky that I am a songwriter, so that means that you can keep moving and stay light on your feet. It’s easier to change the rules of the game, if you aren’t just known for the one thing. If you get a reputation of being able to write songs for other people, then that is great work when it comes along. I don’t get as much of that work now. It’s not just because taste changes, it is also because people now recognise that the publishing rights are where the money is. You will see now, that modern songs can have six or seven writers and they all have a piece of the pie. Classic pop songs are out of fashion right now, but things constantly change. 

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