Lloyd Cole is a little keyed up. When I reach him on the phone, he has been adrenalized from getting an invitation from friend Chris Hughes (a former member of Adam and the Ants who produced, among other things, the first two Tears For Fears albums) to record his next album at Hughes’ home studio.
“We got enough of a feeling with that last record," Cole says, "working the way I wanted it to work with the personnel involved, that we’ve just decided that, rather than all of us being on four different continents, the next time we’re all going to go to Chris’ house for a month and do it there.”
The “last record” that Cole is referring to is Guesswork, his 2019 solo album, and the personnel included guitarist Neil Clark and keyboardist Blair Cowan, two former members of the Commotions, the band that Cole fronted from 1984 until 1989. (Hughes served as executive producer of the sessions.) With his collaborators were scattered around Europe, the material was, as many modern records are, stitched together using, as Cole puts it, “remote files flying through the ether.” The prospect of occupying the same physical space and finding shared moments of inspiration is a understandably tantalizing one.
Not that Guesswork is any worse for the wear, having been constructed in such a piecemeal fashion. It fits in well with the temperament of the album, which finds Cole connecting his guitar-based compositions with the gushing warmth of synthesizers and programmed beats. Until now, the 59-year-old singer/songwriter had kept those worlds separate, with his modular synth albums 1D and Selected Studies Vol. 1 (the latter a collaboration with Krautrock legend Hans-Joachim Roedelius) arriving after 2010’s folk-inspired Broken Record and the chiming Britpop of 2013’s Standards.
But before Cole can fully concentrate on his next album, there’s touring to be done. He’s in the midst of a run of US dates that he’s calling “The Rattlesnakes to Guesswork Tour,” which means the setlist each night will be gathered from his 1984 debut album with the Commotions to his most recent release and everything in between.
In advance of his solo performance tonight at the Triple Door, Cole spoke to me about the creation of Guesswork, his long career, and making music in the Spotify Era.
The Stranger: You’ve worked with your former Commotions bandmates Blair Cowan and Neil Clark throughout the years since that band broke up, including a short tour in 2004, but this is the first time they’ve both appeared on one of your solo albums. What brought them together for this project?
Lloyd Cole: Blair was there anyway because I was already planning to recording two of his songs: “Remains” and “When I Came Down from the Mountain.” I’d had several of his songs sitting around for quite a long period of time. “Remains” had been in my head since about 2012 when he originally gave me a recording of the idea. I loved it but I didn’t have a project that it sounded like it would be correct for. I think part of Guesswork was me wanting to make a record that that song would sit on because I loved it so much.
When I started making the album... it’s one of those records that I knew was going to be a “me, in my room on my own for a very long time” type of record. And I kind of promised myself I’d never make one of those again because they’re so exhausting. It’s cliché, but it is an emotional roller coaster. One minute you think you’re brilliant and the next, you think you’re a fucking idiot. I was kind of putting it off until, frankly, I was in a position where it felt like “You’re either going to make a record or you’re going to stop making records.”
So at the beginning of 2018, I just started recording. The people I turned to with the first two pieces I recorded were Chris Hughes and Neil Clark. Both of them came back with very positive comments and both said that they wanted to be on board. I went from thinking Neil might play on two or three tracks to him playing on all of them.
In those cases of bringing other people into the fold, does your work change dramatically from where you started to what you release into the world?
Sometimes, but I would say rarely drastically. I have to have the essence of something in my head to want to do it. If somebody contributes a guitar part, which is fantastic but takes the song away from that essence, then I have to say, “Sorry, this can’t be on this [song] because it’s taking it to the wrong place.” That’s kind of been my job since day one in the Commotions. Even though I’m not the one playing a lot of the instruments, I’m one who who’s saying, “The song has to be like this.” My job in the Commotions was basically a fulcrum in the middle of everything. Thankfully, at least at first, everybody trusted me.
You’ve also talked a little bit about how the set up for recording Guesswork was a little complicated and you needed some time to learn it, in a sense. What were you working with at the time?
I was re-learning computer recording because after [2006’s] Antidepressant, I didn’t make a record on my own for about 10 years. During that time, I’d become more of a folksinger with my life show, but I’d also built quite a substantial modular synth in my attic that I made a couple of albums of instrumental electronic music on. What I wanted to do with Guesswork was bring my song world and my electronic music world together. The only time I’d tried to do that before was a record called Bad Vibes [from 1993], which I would describe as an unmitigated disaster. I know some people like some songs from that record, but the project was a disaster. I spent far too much time being a nerd rather than songwriter. I was more interested in studio furniture than songs. After Bad Vibes, I told myself, “Don’t ever do that again.” And I didn’t until I got to the point in my life where it was the only thing that was really exciting me. I was sort of diving into the deep end not quite knowing how it was going to work and not quite knowing what the system to make it work would be. Therefore, almost the whole year was kind of an experiment. And having done it and being happy with the results... that’s one of the reasons I’m feeling confident about diving into another record so quickly.
Do you imagine the sound of the next album will be similar to Guesswork?
I think it’s going to be using what we achieved as a starting point. But I’m very much hoping that we can go to greater extremes. More minimal on the minimalist tracks and more experimental on the experimental tracks.
You know firsthand how easy it is to record and release music these days, but how much harder it is to get your music heard. How do you reconcile that? Is that something you struggle with?
It's frustrating being basically a niche artist when one has, at some point, been close to being a mainstream artist. It’s frustrating. Knowing that when I play a concert that the new songs are less well known than the old songs. I’m going to be quite active in the next couple of weeks before heading out to the West Coast to encourage people to, even if they don’t buy my record, at least listen to it on Spotify so that the fairly radical acoustic version I’m doing of these songs makes sense. [laughs] The essence of my solo show is a bit like jazz music in terms of the jazz version of the standard doesn’t make sense unless you know the tune that the standard has. This show that I do is an acoustic show of songs, none of which were acoustic in the first place. It’s not essential for people to know the songs. And it’s always lovely when I meet people who say, “What’s that song you played? I really liked that song. Never heard it before.” But I think the show does make more sense if one knows the original recorded version of the songs?
With that in mind, how do you go about putting together a setlist for this tour, balancing out wanting to promote these newer songs while doing the fan service of playing old favorites?
I don’t really like to think about touring as promoting records. I like to think about tour as something that is legitimate in itself. And, to be honest, touring is how we make money these days. Making records is almost a vanity project these days. It’s complicated. If I’m being pragmatic and make my money from touring, my audience don’t want to think of me as being just an oldies/retro artist. So if I were to stop making new music, I think I’d be fine for a while, but I think I might lose some people who don’t want to feel like they’re just going to an oldies show.
When it comes to how to choose the material for the show, really the most important thing is that it’s not the same as the last tour. Even if that means you have to rest some of the songs that you think of as your best songs. And I think it’s important that you don’t just hear me making the same jokes and having the same segues between the same songs each time. I feel like I have to force myself to reinvent the set and force myself to play some things that I’m initially less comfortable with. It’s been lovely to revisit songs like “Ice Cream Girl” from the first solo record, which I never really figured out a good way to play acoustically until the last tour. And then maybe playing a song that people don’t expect me to play like “Down on Mission Street.” That’s a song I thought was done singing because I thought the lyric was a little too much of a young man’s lyric. But I found I liked the melody so much, I’m able to really think about delivering the melody.
You mentioned “Ice Cream Girl,” which as you said, came from the first solo album, which I did want to ask about because it was released 30 years ago. When you think back on that period of your career, what leaps to mind about that record and going out on your own for the first time?
I think it was very similar to the way the Commotions were when we started. I was incredibly naïve, but I had no idea how naïve I was. I was incredibly naïve and incredibly self-confident. I was self-confident once I’d spent some time in New York making demos. I really didn’t know, when the Commotions split up, if I could make music on my own. I didn’t leave the Commotions to become a solo artist. I left because I didn’t want to be in a band anymore. But I didn’t know what I could do on my own. Then I moved to New York and took a studio apartment and started making demos. And I went, “Oh, I can program drums. I didn’t know I could do that!”
Basically, I had learned quite a lot by being in such a great band with four great musicians for five years. I hadn’t realized how much I picked up until I tried to do it without them. I could play guitar but better than I thought I could. I could program drums. I could write string arrangements. As soon as I realized I was back in, I went into full on, “I’m going to take on the world” mode like I was when we did [1984’s] Rattlesnakes.
Do you have any plans to make another all-synth record like 1D or Selected Studies, your collaboration with Hans-Joachim Roedelius?
Absolutely. I’m sort of hoping that I might be able to make it in the downtime between working on the songs for the next album. I would say the majority of the compositions I’ve made like that that I’m happy with didn’t come from an endeavor to try and create something. They generally came when I was trying to learn how a certain synthesis technique might work or how a particular module worked.
I have a feeling that one of the things that Chris and I want to take into the studio as well as songs are textures and rhythms that might help the project. There’s bound to be stuff that are surplus to the requirements of the songs that might end up being the basis of an electronic record. Who knows? 1D... at least 3/4 of those pieces were deliberately unfinished pieces that I submitted to Roedelius. And after Selected Studies was finished, the record company came back to me and said, “Well, what about all those other pieces that he didn’t use?” I told them that they weren't finished, and Gunther [Buskies] from the label, in fantastic German fashion, came back and said, “Maybe it’s good that they’re not finished?”