At home alone
THE hair is gun-metal grey and the trademark black polo-neck sweater has vanished, but Lloyd Cole is still recognisable as the one-time centrepiece of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions. Nevertheless, sitting over an afternoon beer reflecting on his career, the singer notes how growing old can present something of a challenge when it comes to selling records.
“It’s very hard if you don’t have some novelty about you,” he says. “I’ve been around for ever, so why should anyone get excited about a new Lloyd Cole album? To my mind, my music doesn’t sound all that different from some of the popular bands around at the moment. The difference is that they’re in their twenties and have cool haircuts and I’m a grey-haired 45-year-old.”
Cole’s accent reveals both his Derbyshire roots and 17 years of living in America. He originally moved to New York for a “brief sabbatical”, but met his wife there and stayed on. Having been driven from Manhattan by rising house prices, the couple now live with their two sons in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. “It’s horrible weather, which I’m used to, but it’s nice countryside,” Cole remarks. “We’ve just moved to a house with a big garden. I’m now a typical suburban dad who mows the lawn at weekends.”
Cole is in London to discuss his new album, Antidepressant, though he’s been spending most of his trip taking his eldest son, William, on a tour of his old stomping ground in Glasgow, from the university campus (he left a note for his English literature tutor) to Nico’s bar, an old band hang-out in Sauchiehall Street.
“I like it in Glasgow a lot and I’d move back there in a second if it weren’t for my family,” he says. “I have great memories of the time I spent there. Plus, I prefer the weather – I like a more temperate climate.”
If there’s a sense of nostalgia about the old haunts, it no longer applies to the band that he led for five triumphant years in the mid-1980s. He got that out of his system two years ago when he reunited with the former Commotions – guitarist Neil Clark, keyboard player engineer Blair Cowan, drummer Steven Irvine and bassist-turned-sports writer Lawrence Donegan – for one final tour. The shows marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Rattlesnakes, the band’s best-loved record and one of the defining moments in 1980s indie rock.
“It was fun to do, but I don’t want to do it again,” Cole states. “The tour was great, but it was interesting how the same problems re-emerged. A couple more weeks together and we’d have been bickering again. I realised that I was quite happy having left the band. I think we all felt the same way.”
As a teenager in the 1970s, Cole was a self-confessed music nerd who prided himself on being able to complete the NME crossword in ten minutes, and was captivated by glam rockers such as Marc Bolan and David Bowie. An unlikely choice of idols, I note, given his penchant for sombre outfits and moody poses.
“I guess that’s true,” he replies. “I think during the Commotions years I had this idea of what a glamorous pop star should be, and it didn’t involve glitter. But I never wanted to look like the bloke next door. People used to say I had this sort of brooding cool. I think I just have the misfortune of having a face that looks miserable even when it’s not.”
When the band began life in 1982, Cole was studying at Glasgow University. Originally a sprawling soul band, the group eventually trimmed itself down to a quintet and alighted upon jangly guitar pop as its signature sound. Being the only Englishman in a Glaswegian band, Cole says he rarely felt like the odd one out, since the press and his fellow band mates dubbed him “an honorary Scot”.
Their 1984 debut, Rattlesnakes, was instantly appropriated by the student bedsit brigade, who worshipped Cole’s unashamed erudition. The songs came with wry references to his cinematic and literary heroes (“read Norman Mailer/Or get a new tailor,” he sang on Are you Ready to be Heartbroken?). The novelist Dave Eggers recently credited Cole with turning him on to Joan Didion (the song Speedboat was based on her first book), who, in turn, inspired him to start writing. Yet, despite the kudos, the Commotions weren’t the most commercially successful of bands. They never had a single in the top ten; their highest chart placing was at 17 with Lost Weekend in 1985. However, Rattlesnakes was in the top-selling 100 albums for a year, while their first single, Perfect Skin, landed them a slot on Top of the Pops.
“To start with, I thought the life we had was very glamorous and romantic,” says Cole. “To be living as a singer in a rock band and being on TV and appearing in magazines was exactly what I’d dreamt about as a kid.
“But then the day-to-day reality of it proved less exciting. It was a lot of work and we never really found a way to enjoy life on the road. Maybe we weren’t wild enough. We drank plenty, but we didn’t have wild parties. Instead, we’d all just sneak off and do our own thing.”
It wasn’t until Cole left the band and moved to New York in the late 1980s that he took full advantage of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. At one stage, he had four girlfriends on the go and – rebel that he was – even grew his hair long. “I got married with that haircut; it completely ruined our wedding photos,” he grumbles. But, by the early 1990s, his solo career was on a downward slide, with each record selling fewer copies than the last.
Eventually, in 1996, his record company, Mercury, rejected his new album and demanded that he put out a greatest-hits package. Cole refused, and instead negotiated his way out of his contract.
“I think I managed to escape being dropped by a few months, but it’s the same thing really. I was lucky that the managing director was someone with whom I was on good terms. We realised he was trying to sell records and I was trying to make records, but we both had different ideas about how that should be done. Essentially, we’d both failed. That said, I truly believe that I could have made (the Beach Boys’ masterpiece) Pet Sounds and they wouldn’t have liked it.”
Cole’s next two albums went by virtually unnoticed, having been licensed in the UK via an obscure French label. By this point, he was close to declaring himself bankrupt. Since then, he says, economic considerations have been at the forefront when planning his next move.
“There comes a point in your life when you have responsibilities other than yourself, and you just have to make a living,” he reflects. “Weird as it sounds, I found it quite liberating. The first gig I did purely for the money was this folk festival in Belgium in 1994 and it turned out to be great. I feel lucky that I got through ten years without ever having to consider issues of finance, but also a bit stupid that I didn’t think about it before. There were times when I singlehandedly employed about 20 people to help out, without making a profit myself. Now I make my bookings based on economics, and then I try and play the best show I can.” Now Cole is signed to Sanctuary records (“a haven for old codgers”), who seem happy to release the finished product as it is delivered. Antidepressant, recorded on an Apple Mac computer in a studio near his home, is his first release in three years. Though there are occasional bleak moments, it’s a warm and witty record that finds him in a comparatively chipper mood. The old literary references are notable by their absence, along with the learned wordplay.
“Antidepressant was certainly constructed with a light-hearted intention,” notes Cole. “Songs like How Wrong Can You Be? and I Didn’t See it Coming, I think they’re sad rather than bleak. I don’t necessarily rein in my melancholy moments, but, at the same time, I don’t want to make Blood on the Tracks. My life isn’t entirely unhappy, and I don’t want to give the impression that it isn’t worth living. My life experiences are always varied and I like the idea that the songs reflect that.” The album may reveal a more optimistic frame of mind, though there’s a discernible weariness in his voice when he talks about the rigmarole of touring. There are periods, he says, when he’s toyed with the idea of giving up music altogether and concentrating on his other passion: golf.
“I love playing it and I have this ridiculous dream that I could design golf courses for a living,” he says wistfully. “Apparently, you have to be good at numbers and I was a real maths whiz at school. But my overwhelming feeling is that, if I can keep on plugging away with music and adding to this body of work that I’ve been developing since the early 1980s, then in the future people might find it something worth treasuring. That’s really all I want.”
Antidepressant will be released on 25 September on Sanctuary records. Lloyd Cole appears live at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on 25 October.
A life of occasional Commotions
Born 31 January, 1961, in Buxton, Derbyshire, Cole grows up in nearby Chapel-en-le-Frith.
After school, he goes to University College London to study law. He fails the course and decamps to Glasgow University, where he studies philosophy and English. He never graduates.
In 1982, he forms the Commotions with Blair Cowan on keyboards, Lawrence Donegan on bass guitar, Neil Clark on guitar and Stephen Irvine on drums, all friends from Glasgow University.
In 1984, The Commotions sign with Polydor and their debut album, Rattlesnakes, is released.
In 1985 the band’s biggest album, Easy Pieces, is released, reaching No 5 in the album charts. More polished than Rattlesnakes, it includes the singles, Lost Weekend and Brand New Friend, both of which gain significant airplay.
In 1987 the band releases Mainstream. It fails to live up to the promise of the preceding albums.
In 1989, the Commotions disband over artistic disagreements. Cole moves to New York and goes solo. He records with Fred Maher and Robert Quine and releases two solo albums, Lloyd Cole in 1990, and Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe a year later.
Throughout the 1990s he releases a number of solo albums, and in 2000 records an album with the New York-based band, the Negatives.
In 2004, in celebration of Rattlesnakes’ 20th anniversary, Lloyd Cole, below, and the Commotions reform to perform a one-off, sell-out tour in the UK and Ireland
In 2006, the Scottish band Camera Obscura release Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken in reply to Cole’s 1984 hit, Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?
Publication: The Scotsman
Publication date: 18/09/06