Q&A: Lloyd Cole

UK rock legend Lloyd Cole prefers intimate, acoustic gigs these days over the stadium-storming days of performing with the Commotions. He tells What’s Hot New Zealand on the eve of his nationwide tour that breaking a song down for acoustic performance exposes just how strong or weak it is.

This is your eighth visit to New Zealand – what keeps bringing you back? It’s what I do. The model for making a living as a musician these days is exactly the opposite of what it was when I started making music. We used to make money from selling records and then we would go on tour to promote those records. Now it’s exactly the opposite.

Do you still enjoy touring? I do. The only thing that’s sometimes a little worrying is that obviously I’m not getting any younger and it’s tiring. So I like to try to schedule it properly and I’m also now taking action and working on my fitness so I’m a little stronger than I was last time I was there.

Your new album, Guesswork, is proving a commercial and critical success – do those things still matter to you? What does success mean to you these days? Critical success has always meant something to me – I read the newspapers, I used to read the New Musical Express when I was a kid. I always wanted to be in that position of making music that would please all types of people, so it matters to me. I wish there was a way we could feel more optimistic about selling more copies of this record than we sold of the last one but it’s a challenge.

It’s just you and Commotions guitarist Neil Clark on this tour – that must be a long way from the scale of those early tours? It’s very different. I don’t mind playing with a band these days, I occasionally do play with a band doing this or that. But touring with a large group of people I don’t miss at all. There’s a great freedom you’ve got when there’s just two or three of you on the road, it’s a lot easier. We can enjoy it a lot more and we have a lot more flexibility in how we handle things. And what I’ve learned over the years is that band shows have got … there’s an impact from loud music that you have that is different to what you have with acoustic music, but if the songs are strong enough there’s a lot more spontaneity possible in an acoustic show. In a perfect future for me I would continue to play acoustic shows but I would play band shows every now and again.

With such a wide and diverse catalogue, how do you decide what to play? Will be it be a mix of old and new? Yes, it’s a mix of old and new for sure. The last time I was on tour it was called The Retrospective Tour because it was based on two boxed sets that Universal released and the boxed sets covered 1983 to 1996, so I didn’t play anything from after ‘96. So on this tour, From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork, we are probably going to feature a lot more of my solo material just so it’s quite different to the last tour. I don’t want people to come and see me again and say he played mostly the same songs as last time. I did a couple of solo versions of the tour last weekend – I played 32 songs and only 10 of those songs were on the previous tour.

Your songs ‘Perfect Skin’ and ‘Rattlesnakes’ are anthems for your fans – do you feel pressure to keep playing them? I don’t feel pressure to do all of them. The songs that I play every single concert there’s probably only about five. I play ‘Are You Ready to be Heartbroken’ and ‘Forest Fire’, but I’ve rested ‘Perfect Skin’. I’m resting ‘Brand New Friend’ right now. I was very pleased with the audience response to the set last weekend, given that there were fewer Commotions songs than maybe a usual set would contain. And maybe that’s appropriate now – I’ve been making music for 35 years and the Commotions was only the first five years.

Do you choose different songs because it is acoustic? When you break a song down to acoustic format, it really exposes the strength of the song, whether the song is strong or not. If it can stand up on its own with just a couple of guitars then it’s going to be a strong song for sure. One of the songs that really surprised me that way and the one that made me realise this is the case is ‘Forest Fire’. I didn’t play it for a long time acoustically because I thought, how can I play that acoustically? It’s all about the drums and the guitar solo. And then I was on stage in Dundee in Scotland one time and they literally held siege to the stage until I played it. It’s very simple but it’s a very strong piece of music and it doesn’t need the guitar solo and it doesn’t need the drums. On the other hand every now and then you’ll think I quite fancy playing this song from this album and you’ll break it down on the guitar and go, aah, actually there’s not much of a song there, most of that recording was really just musicianship and production.

Do you have a pre- or post-show ritual? I do – the clothes that I wear on stage look like the clothes that I wear all day, but they’re not. I always dress for the stage. If my schedule allows, after soundcheck I go back to the hotel, probably even try and get an hour of sleep, and then I take a shower and then I dress for the show, because I feel I want to get my stage hat on and I want to start feeling like a performer. I don’t think anyone wants to come and see me wearing dirty clothes I’ve been wearing all day. I have a very strict routine and me getting dressed for the show is the start of me becoming focused, to get my mind in the right state. Because when I’m on stage, the thing about these solo shows or even the duo shows, there’s only me up there so I have to be completely on and completely focused. Otherwise if something went wrong and I couldn’t react to it quickly enough or smartly enough, I could lose the audience, I could lose the show, and I don’t want that to happen. So I want to make sure I’m thinking only about doing the show.

What is one thing that you hope audiences take away from your performances? I just want people to enjoy it, you know, it’s a show, I’m a performer. The show isn’t about me having an agenda or anything, the show is meant for enjoyment and I hope the body of work that we choose to present and our presentation of it is good enough for people to have a great night and hopefully want to come and see something similar another time.

Lloyd Cole: From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork tour

November 22, 2019, Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin
November 23, 2019, James Hay Theatre, Christchurch
November 24, 2019, 4th Wall Theatre, New Plymouth
November 26, 2019, The Glove Theatre, Palmerston North
November 28, 2019, The Opera House, Wellington
November 29, 2019, Sky City Theatre, Auckland
November 30, 2019, The Vic, Devonport