Lloyd Cole & The Commotions
Ricky Gordon fires questions at hot Cole
It's salad days for Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Their album Easy Pieces saw them mature from a green band to a seasoned outfit. They're staying as cool as a cucumber, however...
Every now and again, an album comes along that seems to capture the mood and spirit of your life at that particular moment. Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was, for me, one such album. Judging by the way that particular LP has been selling, it would appear that it has become a part of many other peoples' lives as well, and everything, to (mis)quote Brand New Friend, might not be so downhill for Lloyd Cole and the Commotions after all.
Despite the fact that they released three highly acclaimed singles last year, none of them achieved the hit status they deserved. Perhaps it was because of this lack of chart success that they chose Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to produce their new album, Easy Pieces. It is a formula that seems to have worked and at the time of writing, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions are poised to have their second big hit with Lost Weekend. Lloyd Cole explains.
"They've got an amazing track record for singles... and we didn't. We had an amazingly bad record for singles. I think it was important to have people we thought could make those as well. In order for an LP to have maximum listening, hit singles are a must."
In many subtle ways, the new album has a much larger sound than the last one and the range of these sounds has been increased to include Dobro (apparently you can just hear it playing a percussive type part on Rich), slide guitar à la Ry Cooder ("Paris, Texas. What? Never heard of it"), a real accordion, backing vocals and a drum machine.
One of the major differences on this album was that all the guitar sounds were live. On Rattlesnakes most of the guitars were DI'd through the desk and the only live guitars were on Perfect Skin and Forest Fire (more about that later). On this LP they mostly used amp sounds. Another difference was the guitars themselves: Lloyd bought a Gibson 330 just after the first LP was completed (because it was dead expensive according to Blair Cowan, the keyboards player).
LC: "I'd never heard a Gibson that had sounded like a Fender before and the fact that it had these single coil pickups meant that it was a bit deeper in sound than a Tele but it still had the same ring off it."
Neil Clark, the other guitarist, has also extended his guitar collection since the first LP. As well as the Fenders, he now uses an "all purpose utility" Gordon Smith and plays a mean five-stringed Firebird (a reference to their appearance on Swapshop with a broken string). Live, he uses a Boogie combo whereas he used to use a Marshall JCM 800.
"It's just a much better amp. It's similar in its specifications but it has a much bigger sound."
It also transpired that the fledgling Commotions used to be very keen on Sessionettes but there was one main drawback with these amps: if you weren't standing right in front of them you couldn't hear them! They were, however, "dead toppy" and this was a little hard on your ears if you were actually standing in front of them.
Effects on the guitars on the first album were kept to a minimum, and any that there were were usually put on at the desk. The main effect was, in fact, to play things twice, something that has been used again to great effect on this album with the added help of varispeeding to get that extra ring of confidence. However, Neil has also taken delivery of a "Steven Spielberg", a veritable Jodrell Bank of an affair to our poor heroes, who are not very technically minded, if we are to believe Blair. Neil's effects now consist of an Ibanez 2000 Digital delay, an Ibanez 1500 Harmonics delay and an Ibanez Tube Screamer. A harmoniser was also used to great effect on Perfect Blue.
NC: "That's Lloyd's 330 semiacoustic right up against the Marshall, harmonised twice with a fifth and an octave. We kept that track and the drum track."
LC: "Then they heard me sing it and said 'let's do it in D'"
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, as you may have gathered, are very self-effacing about their musical abilities ("Wouldn't you be?" they chorused). I wondered whether their musicianship came second to the songwriting.
LC: "Yes it does. Sometimes we work out parts which are really difficult because they are the right parts for the song and then we have to practise them for months before we can play them. There are a couple of things off this LP that I've really got to do a lot of practising on before we go out. 2 CV was a bit like that. I used to apologise before I played that. I was getting threats from the group that if I apologised once more, they were going to walk off stage. I really was frightened about it. I'd never even arpeggiated before the first LP. All I could do was strum and maybe play a few solo bars. I'm still not very good at it."
NC: "There are actually a couple of tracks on the new LP that are really quite difficult. There's a wee slide part on Perfect Blue on the acoustic which is tuned to a D."
Despite Mr Clark's modesty, there are some excellent guitar parts on both Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces. Listen to Charlotte Street, Lost Weekend and of course Forest Fire (yes I'm coming to that in a minute). Neil was the only member of the group to take lessons, Jazz lessons to be precise. (Lloyd does admit to having learnt Lou Reed songs but says he has forgotten them now.) He is, in fact, one of the few Pop guitarists to use the classical position with his thumb actually placed behind the neck of the guitar — something that might contribute to the degree of control he exhibits in his style.
NC: "It means you can play fast and things like that but that's neither here nor there. It's not going to improve your ideas if you don't have any in the first place."
LC: "It's been good from my point of view that Neil is quite precise. We've been quite quick in the studio. He can play things twice exactly the same. Marc Bolan used to be able to do that. You never thought he was a good guitarist but he used to quadruple his guitars which is the way he got that particular sound. He used to be able to play it exactly the same each time. Two Les Pauls and an acoustic — I suggested we tried that but we haven't managed to get it right yet".
The guitar solo on Forest Fire is, in fact, a combination of four or five tracks.
NC: "That was a strange combination. There are about five tracks on that. Two of them are Boogie tracks and the feedback was Lawrence's Peavey bass amp. We wanted a Gretschy sound rather than getting a Gretsch in to do it". So now you know.
Surprisingly enough, the drums were also double tracked on some of the tracks on the new album. Stephen Irvine explains.
"On some of the songs they are doubletracked so that they ring. On Rich they are, and on Cut Me Down. The doubletrack was done later after we had detuned them for another song. I took them down for Lost Weekend. I was just using the tom toms and I tuned them quite low then we doubletracked Rich and Cut me Down." This was apparently done on Amii Stewart's Knock on Wood too.
It should come as no surprise that Blair is also as modest as the others about his musical abilities. On the new album he plays a Settimio accordion as well as more common range of keyboards.
"The accordion is a much better instrument than I am a musician. We were using the DX7 to play the accordion parts and a couple of times the sound was too thick for what we wanted. It was awful. The first job for the sampler is to put the accordion onto it. On Lost Weekend the only thing I really do is play the accordion and to do that on the DX7 would really tax somebody's ears."
Blair has also been using some other new equipment:
SI: "They've got this new thing at Westside studios on the grand piano called a MIDI MOD which means you can MIDI up a grand piano."
LC: "You play the piano and suddenly you're in a mohair suit", adds Lloyd Cole helpfully.
SI: "It sits on top of the piano and triggers a lot of sounds. We used it once or twice. Ours is the first record it was on in Britain."
"I'd never even arpeggiated before the first LP"
BC: "On Lost Weekend there's a piano doubling a harp sound and instead of having to do the part twice you just do it once."
In an era when many musicians spend more time trying to wrench the most contorted rhythms out of their drum machines and even more contorted sounds out of their synths, it is nice to know that at least one band still aims to write good songs. If the musicianship does come second to the song writing, then what of the songwriting?
LC: "Three people wrote Lost Weekend which was a first. Lawrence and Neil were sitting around in a dressing room at the BBC and Lawrence was playing around with this chord progression when Neil just made up these two parts on top of it straight away and I thought, 'that's dead good' and got Neil to make a tape. A couple of days later I said we should do something with that upon which Neil said we shouldn't because it wasn't the most original chord progression you've ever heard. In fact it's the same as No Woman No Cry, but I don't think you can hear it. It's as obvious as you can get but the parts they put over the top of it I thought were really interesting, and it was Neil's arpeggiated part that encouraged me to write the vocal line. I went away and did that and then stuck in the bit in the middle where it changes key. We stuck it all together and then realised there were five verses. That was the only problem there.
"I think the reason why there is quite a varied type of song on our LP is because the ideas are coming from different people and I just put the finishing touches onto them, putting the words on and a structure. The raw material is coming from different directions which I think is really important. You can hear on other LP's by other groups when it's just one or two people writing the songs all the time"
However, unlike a songwriting partnership such as Lennon and McCartneys' where it is fairly easy to tell who wrote what, there is no set pattern to the way Lloyd Cole and the Commotions write their songs.
NC: "Perfect Skin is kind of strange because Lloyd came up with the lead guitar line."
LC: "But Neil wrote the arpeggio that keeps it going. Lots of lines that you thought he wrote, I wrote and conversely. That's quite good from my point of view because I quite often write tunes rather than anything else and Neil can usually play them better than me. The way that I played the melody on Perfect Skin didn't involve the low ringing note, and it sounded a lot better with it."
Similarly it is not always Stephen who comes up with the drum rhythms.
LC: "It depends. Sometimes somebody else comes up with the idea for the rhythms and Stephen has a go at it and suggests that it goes not quite like that, but I ike this."
SI: "If I see it one way and I play it and it jars with someone else then they tell me that's not what it should be like."
LC: "Stephen definitely has a certain style which is more evident on things like Charlotte Street and Country Music. A couple of toms that come in where you don't expect".
SI: "It sounds like I'm falling over."
Well I suppose it would.
You may have been surprised to have heard a drum machine on a Lloyd Cole record. However, this technology also helps the songwriting process.
LC: "That's what happened on Brand New Friend. When we were doing a guide we worked out completely new bits. When we thought we'd finished the drum machine carried on and we kept going because we thought it sounded good, then it started playing those stupid accents and we started again."
SI: "Actually Brand New Friend wasn't written as a drum machine part but I couldn't think of anything to do. Blair wrote the tune and we put the drum machine down as a guide and I was going to lay the drums down later but the pattern that I programmed into it sounded good and it's been there ever since".
LC: "A couple of songs that we had recently we thought about using drum machine on, but we ended up with the drums playing drum machine parts."
SI: "On the B-side there weren't supposed to be any drums. It sounded good but it was better when it was slightly out of time, stopping and starting in the right place."
One of the production techniques that Langer and Winstanley use is to cross-fade quickly between vocal tracks to produce composites. This often means cutting across the middle of a word, but this didn't phase Lloyd our hero. In fact he positively welcomed this.
LC: "It would be nice to do it all in one take but I think it would take you all day, whereas if I sing the song about three times it takes me about half an hour and it takes Alan another half hour to listen through and find the bits that are out of tune and to put something together that he thinks is a good composite of the lot. I come back through and listen to it, change another couple of words here and there and sing a word or a line again. That takes about an hour and a half. It strikes me as being very sensible. I'm not somebody who has to put their heart and soul into every song they sing. I just have to put a certain amount of personality into it. I would try and do that every time I sung it. There are great myths about that but I don't think that there are many people who do their vocals all in one take. I know some people who do but what it achieves I don't know".
NC: "It's a waste of time."
LC: "I mean I've learnt to swallow my pride in almost all departments of life. I'm quite happy to do my guitar parts in eight blocks rather than spend all day trying to do it. I tend to play ahead of the beat when I shouldn't be so they have to say 'Lloyd, stop... take a bow. You're ahead of the beat again. Try and concentrate on the drums'. There's not a lot of point in letting your weaknesses get to you.
One of the interesting things I noticed when talking to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was how often they answered each other's questions and how much Stephen, the drummer, knew about the other's guitars and equipment (he answered all the questions about the absent Lawrence's bass equipment).
LC: "He knows more about guitars than I do and tells me when I'm out of tune which is quite often. I don't have a very good ear for pitch which is quite sad considering I have to sing."
But then again, that is part of the magic of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.
Interview by Ricky Gordon
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