On Oct. 11-13, Yep Roc Records will celebrate its 15th anniversary with YR15, a three-day extravaganza at Cat’s Cradle in Carborro, N.C., featuring performances by a slew of artists on their roster—including the legendary Nick Lowe. Paste recently caught up with Lowe to discuss his time at the label, why he doesn’t listen to his own music and what it feels like when inspiration strikes.
Could you walk me through how you first came into contact with Glenn and everyone at Yep Roc?
Nick Lowe: In the early ‘90s—I can’t remember when exactly—I’d just made a record called The Impossible Bird which was the first record I think of as my kind of new style, a sort of style…I sort of reinvented myself, you know. And this was my first real effort, and at that time my stock was really quite low. I hadn’t really put anything much out, I’d been laying low a bit and as a result, I couldn’t drum up really any interest in this. None of the major labels were interested in signing me. I’d sort of been with them all actually. So I thought it was a really good record, but as I say, no one was going to take a shot with me. And things were looking pretty bad until I heard about these young kids [laughs] who had a label called Upstart, which was a subsidiary of Rounder Records, and so I approached them and to my great pleasure, they were very interested in signing me. Back in those days if you couldn’t get a deal with a major label, it was a sort of kiss of death. It looked really bad. Nowadays, in the unlikely event that a major label offered me a deal, I would show them the door straightaway because I had started to suspect back then that the problem with being on a major label was that I didn’t want what they wanted for me and I started to realize that being on a smaller label was much better for someone like me because I was a big fish in a small pool, so to speak, and I’d be able to do things the way I wanted them done. Anyway, I signed up with Upstart and by their own admission, they made a bit of a hash thing, and actually what they said was if you’ve got a record label, the one thing you should do is not sign people you necessarily think are much good. It’s a very bad idea to do.
And why is that?
Lowe: Well, because if you just sign people that you think are good, your taste isn’t going to coincide with what everybody thinks is good. You’ve got to be a bit shrewder than that and sign people who you think you can sell. Obviously you use a certain amount of judgment, there’s a section of the public you’re trying to approach, but anyway, Upstart, it didn’t work. But one of the people involved with Upstart became my American manager, Jake Guralnick, and still is to this day, and Glenn Dicker decided to have another go and moved to North Carolina to Chapel Hill and started Yep Roc. And he contacted me and said “well I know things didn’t work out with Upstart, but you don’t fancy having another go with my new label do you?” and I said “I’d be absolutely delighted. Yeah, of course I do.” It’s a mere detail to me that they hadn’t figured things out quite right with Upstart, and they did it right the second time with Yep Roc.
You’re pretty familiar with the behind-the-scenes stuff of what goes into making a record dating back to your years as house producer at Stiff Records. Has that experience and knowledge affected your expectations of record labels at all?
Lowe: It hasn’t really, no. How you sell a record to people, especially nowadays, is a complete mystery to me. But the people at Yep Roc have got integrity, that’s why I like being with them. I mean, I hardly ever bother them. I hardly ever call them up and they hardly ever call me up. But whenever they say to me “look, I think this would be a good idea if you did this,” I never actually question it, because I trust them and they trust me as well. I hate to make it sound like a real awful love-in, but that’s the way it is, It’s a very simple relationship that we’ve got, and I suppose the fact that I’m a personal friend of the managing director is quite helpful [laughs]. But we’re not in each other’s pockets at all.
The music industry has changed a lot over the course of your career. How has it affected your approach to making music and what’s been the biggest change you’ve noticed?
Lowe: Let me think. That’s a good question, that. Well I think probably the main change from when I started out in the 1960s was the kind of—do you mean that, from when I started out do you mean?
Yeah. I mean, there’ve been plenty of changes even from just the time you’ve been at Yep Roc, but yeah, definitely from when you started out as well.
Lowe: Oh, well the main change from when I started out really is the fact that the music business—well, there wasn’t really a music business when I started out really, it was just a sort of branch of show business, but when I started out I knew sort of what everybody’s records sounded like, even middle-of-the-road people. I knew what Frank Sinatra’s records sounded like and Dean Martin’s as well as, you know, the cool bands because it was much, much smaller. And the current trend is the whole streaming of the music business. There are whole branches of the music business that I know absolutely nothing about, like I don’t know, death metal or something like that. I don’t know anything about that stuff. Or even rap music. I know nothing about it, and it might as well be the shoe business or the makeup business. It runs in parallel with what I do, but I know absolutely nothing about that part of the industry, and that is definitely something that’s changed in my time. In the last years since I’ve been with Yep Roc, well, part of the reason of me going with Yep Roc really was so that I could really not take any notice of what anybody else was doing. [laughs] And I could just sort of plow my own thorough, which is really what I was working towards. I could absolutely make up my own thing and do my thing and I wanted someone to trust me and help me do it.
You’re playing acoustically on this tour, and I read an interview recently where you said that doing that, the songs you do have to be really great songs. You don’t think “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass” is a great song. Why not?
Lowe: Well, if you play acoustically, you’ve really got a voice and a rhythm element and a melody. Those are sort of the three things you’ve got when you’re on your own. So they’ve all got to really be working for you. If they’re all working for you, then you stand a chance of holding the audience’s attention. Otherwise they’ll get sick of it, get bored, you know, one guy with an acoustic guitar. And many times, especially earlier on in my career when studio time was very cheap for one thing, one of the things we used to do was go into the studio with a real half-baked idea, you know, just a little idea. And you didn’t know quite how it’d go or what it would be, but you’d just get a couple of other people in there—a drummer maybe and a guitar player, you know, nothing too elaborate—and you’d fiddle around with this idea and see if you could whip it into some sort of shape. And “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” is one of those sort of things, where it’s a really great record, but if you strip everything away, all the overdubs and everything that are on it and all the little gimmicky bits, there’s really nothing to it at all, and if I stood up on a stage, people would give a nice clap when they heard me start playing it, but they’d very soon realize that it’s a very thin idea stretched out to the point of almost transparency, and that;s why I don’t do that one.
In that same interview you mentioned you never listen to your own records when you’re just at home listening to music. Why not? Do you ever get curious to revisit that material?
Lowe: Very occasionally, sometimes. If I hear someone talking about one of my old records, if I read somewhere that someone’s talking about it, I’ll dig it out and have a listen to it to see if I can see what it is they’re talking about, but the thing is, the process of making a record is so intense that you know every single scintilla of information on the record. You’ve heard and examined it, picked it up, set it, put it back down again, so you know it inside out. When you first make the thing and it’s all in order and it’s on a CD, there’s a sort of fascination to playing it, you know, and trying to imagine what somebody who’s hearing it for the first time might think. There is this sort of fascination, and that lasts for about a month after you’ve made the record and you play it constantly, and then after that you sort of can’t stand to hear it again, it makes you feel sort of slightly ill. [laughs] But the one thing I never get over is hearing my records on the radio because it doesn’t happen that often, and whenever they come on the radio, it’s always extremely exciting. [laughs] I never got over it. Even when I had a huge hit, my one and only big hit in this country, which was “Cruel to Be Kind,” and it would be on one radio station, you’d change the channel and it would be on another station when it was a big Top 20 hit. Even then it was a real thrill to hear it, so I’ve never got over that.
What about hearing other artists perform your songs? Have you heard Lowe Country, the country tribute album to you?
Lowe: I haven’t actually, no. Although I’ve heard Caitlin Rose’s version of “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide”...I favor it when people actually change the songs, they do the songs their way rather than doing a straight reading of the way I do it, because the way I do it works for me—it’s sort of the best I can do—but if a song is any good really, it should be able to be done in numerous ways. That’s why I always liked when Johnny Cash used to do my songs because he would just change them ‘round to suit him, and I find now that whenever I perform those songs, the ones that he did of mine, I always sort of tend to do his versions now. They were so good.
You’re on tour now, and beyond that are you working on new material right now, or what’s on the horizon for you?
Lowe: Yeah, I’ve got a few things I’m working on but I haven’t really got a plan to put out a new record yet. I’ve got a sort of rough idea of something that I want to try to do, and I’m just biding my time if I think it’s gonna work, but yeah I’m always working on new things. I’ve got three that I think are definitely alright, so we’ll see.
Tell me a little about your writing process. Do you generally come up with the music first and then the lyrics, or vice versa, or a little bit of both?
Lowe: It’s both really. In my case, I get sparks, like a title. Very often a title comes along and then a funny thing happens to you, you sort of like—I go into a kind of a trance really that lasts weeks, and I just sort of start thinking about the song and it’s almost like…well, what’s it’s like actually is if you can imagine you’re in your apartment and in the apartment next door you can hear through the wall this very cool radio station that’s tuned to this cool radio station, and then one day they start programming this new tune and you can hear it through the wall of your apartment and you never know when they’re going to play it, but when you hear it you go, “Oh man, that’s really good, I’ve got to learn to play that, that’s fantastic,” and when you do it, you kind of listen through the wall really really carefully. Each time they play it, you learn a little more of the song until finally the day comes where you’ve learned the song up. So it’s funny that you have to sort of listen to it rather than kind of make it up. It’s almost like a thing that’s been written before and you just have to sort of listen to it and not interfere. It’s a very funny thing. When you were asking me earlier on if I ever listen to my old records, sometimes when I do hear them, I can just tell that I’ve just rushed the process, like I’ve got a really good idea but I didn’t do this funny listening thing and I can tell that I rushed the thing and sort of messed it up, but that’s the best way I can explain it.
So you never really sit down and think, “I’m going to write a song today.” It just sort of comes to you and it’s a natural process.
Lowe: Well, I have done that, but they’re really lame, the songs that I do that way are really awful, stuff that I’ve heard a million times before and it’s really trite and hopeless. And they might be hit songs, but I so doubt it. It never works. I have to wait to be sort of inspired, and I only really like the ones I do that sort of sound like somebody else has written them. And also the other thing, it goes the other way. If I hear a cover song that I really like that I want to do, I work with that until I think I start to imagine that I actually wrote it. So I sort of wind up in the same place either way.