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Sunday, Nov. 3, 2002

Shift into Lowe gear

Special to The Japan Times

Nick Lowe, who is coming to Japan this week, was supposed to tour here a year ago in support of his latest album, "The Convincer," but canceled because one of his regular backup musicians wasn't available.

News photo
Nick Lowe says he has found a musical style that he's comfortable with.

"The guy who plays drums with me, Bob Treherne, also plays with Van Morrison, and Van wouldn't let him go," Lowe said recently over the phone from London. "Van is his main employer, so what Van says goes."

It was easy to discern a note of resignation in the statement. But though Nick Lowe has never been the star Van Morrison is, his position in the rock pantheon is assured, not only for the albums he made in the late '70s as a solo artist and with the seminal power pop quartet, Rockpile; but also for his work as one of the most vital producers of the British New Wave (Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, The Damned) and as cofounder of the great English indie label, Stiff Records.

Nowadays, Lowe cuts a more modest figure, which explains why he doesn't have dibs on Treherne's time, but it suits his new professional disposition. His last several albums have avoided the grab bag rock 'n' roll that characterized his best known work. They also mine a richer lode of R & B and country & western, music which he says was his first love and which his original band, pub rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, played with such polished aplomb.

"The accepted wisdom about pop is that you do your best stuff when you're a kid, and then you get worse and worse as you go on. But I think the opposite has happened with me. The records I make now are better," he said. "I made good stuff when I was young, but it wasn't consistent. And though you shouldn't be too careful, I feel that now I know what I'm doing more of the time. I've found a style I feel comfortable with."

It's a style, he admits, that probably won't win him a bigger audience, but that also seems to suit him. "I haven't been with a big label for a long time, and when I got dropped from my last one, it was seen as kind of a shameful thing. But it was definitely for the best. I'm not a greedy guy, I'm not after world domination. I sell just enough records to be able to make another one. It's a matter of scale. When I was on a major label, I was always on the 'D' list: the token quality act, but, actually, they thought of me as a nuisance."

When asked what he's working on now (he was talking from a recording studio), he answered, "Just some demos of songs I've got on the go. Nothing serious . . . well, I mean, it's serious enough, but it's not slated for consumption."

Pointing out that he's never been "a prolific writer," Lowe says he has become more focused on vocals. He explained at length how he occasionally hires an old dance hall near his home to try out new tunes. "The acoustics are fantastic. Basically, I just sing the songs over and over out into the room, no PA, and it's amazing how you get a real sense of what the songs are, much more than if you had recorded them. I go through them until I know them inside out, and at some point they stop being my songs. Then, when I go to the studio, I always record the vocals live. That way it doesn't sound slick."

It's certainly the singing that distinguishes "The Convincer" from his earlier records. In middle age, his voice has darkened to the almost deathly shades associated with his former stepfather-in-law, Johnny Cash, with whom he's still good friends. And despite his desire to avoid slickness, there's a pronounced "country-politan" lilt to his songs of heartbreak and betrayal. But whereas in the past he might have gone the George Jones route with a bit of tongue tucked in his cheek, he's become quite the romantic. Johnny Rivers' melancholy classic, "Poor Side of Town," proves a perfect fit.

"That was brought to me by my keyboard player, Geraint Watkins. He was on tour [a couple of years ago] in the States and heard that song for the first time on an in-flight MOR channel. It was never released in the U.K. He came back to England with a copy of it and said, let's do this. I got really excited. We recorded our version of it and about two weeks later some American girlfriends were in London and I had them over for dinner. I played them a tape of it, and to my horror, they immediately said, 'Oh, Johnny Rivers, "Poor Side of Town".' I didn't know it was a hit in the U.S. I thought I'd unearthed this undiscovered masterpiece." He paused, pondering the unfairness of it all. "But I went ahead and put it on the record, anyway."

Lowe won't have Watkins' and Treherne's assistance this week. He's coming to Japan by himself. "I did an American solo tour this summer. It worked really well, especially for the newer stuff," he said. "I also did some Canadian folk festivals. As you probably know, everything is folk now except heavy metal and rap, and I think rap eventually will be."

Touring solo is also cheaper, he's reminded. "Yes, but there's always a middle way. Bringing a band isn't a problem. The thing is, I don't do much touring anyway. I love doing the gigs. I'm one of those people who think when you play, you do it for free. What you get paid for is hanging around airports and having to feel seriously ill all the time. It's like the old hooker said: It's not the work that makes you tired, it's the stairs."

Nick Lowe: Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., Nagoya Club Quattro, (052) 264-8211; Nov. 6 at 7 p.m., Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka, (06) 6361-0313; Nov. 7 & 8 at 7 p.m., Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo, (03) 3444-6751. Tickets 6,500 yen in advance.

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