It’s hard being a thinking popstar. One whiff of grey matter and the music press will have you consigned to the bedsit forever. But with the Commotions’ auspiciously named new album, “Mainstream”, thing popstar lloyd Cole hopes to see the back of his burdensome “cult” status. He talks to Ruth Wallace.
When a man’s songs are littered – as Lloyd Cole’s are – with references to such topics as Norman Mailer, Brando films, and unfinished novels, it’s only predictable that the music press should indulge in some heavy teasing and consign them to the record collections of bedsit students. And not only do the Commotions have to labour under the labels of ‘pretentious’ and ‘cult’ band, but Cole himself finds that he is personally lumbered with the image of a humourless, oversensitive and depressive wordsmith.
Strange really, when in actual fact Cole is such a cheery, witty, straightforward and just plain nice boy. But then the world always did find it hard to know how to deal with the phenomenon of the thinking popstar; those musicians who have something to shy about their music or even – God forbid – something to say in their music.
All the same, Cole denies he is some sort of an intellectual pop guru. ‘When I started I believed I was some sort of prosaic songwriter and now l just think I’m a pop writer. I’m not trying to do anything other than entertain, possibly enlighten a little, but certainly not to tell anyone what to do. There are no lessons to be learned in my songs.’
The Commotions’ latest album, ‘Mainstream’, is released this month. It is their first work in two years – the result of a long period of meticulous writing and recording. The band will soon start a British/Irish tour and next year comes a bash at the world.
Of ‘Mainstream’ Cole says that he is ‘very pleased’, confident that it will bring them the recognition he believes they deserve. ‘It’s ridiculous that we should be on this kind of cult level” he sighs. “I don’t think you have to sit down and study our music. You don’t have to treat it as a different kind of music from Michael Jackson or Madonna.’ Modest perhaps, or maybe just honest – after all, it would be no bad thing, for people to have their Commotions album wedged in between their ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘Thriller” LPs.
Lloyd Cole may be critical, but he’s no snob. He even generously admits, “I quite like characterless pop now and again if it has a good tune. There’s a definite an to writing hollow pop music.” It’s not that he wants to push the Wet Wet Wets and Five Stars from their pop pedestals, just that he’d like to be allowed to get up there too. ‘I think people have just got into the habit of accepting the charts as it is, and there’s no reason why it can’t change. I just think that there should be a place for us somewhere.’
His music and the band take up most of his time and concentration. “The only life I have other than pop music is here at home with Elaine’ – his long-standing girlfriend, a film critic. His spare time is spent studying computer manuals (he is learning to master music’s electronic gadgetry), playing golf (he pauses to putt an imaginary ball across the carpet) and reading (“at the moment Raymond Chandler by day and John Pilger by night). He has had little time for any television lately but watches ‘Newsnight’ (‘when I’m feeling serious”), ‘Floyd On France (“I love him, the way he always makes the meal look a total mess and really doesn’t give a damn!).
As for music, it may come as no surprise to learn that he has just bought the new Smiths album, feeling as he does some sympathy with the Smiths ‘cult’ status abroad. This gets the Cole seal of approval, while the new album from another fellow bedsitters’ songsmith, Black, he found disappointing. ‘Tom Watts is about the only hero I have left,” he says wistfully.
Home for more than a year has been a flat in Highbury. It’s dark and comfy and stylish with a kind of ’30s feel; the large sitting room has polished floorboards and mottled walls, Lloyd (sic) loom chairs, period lamps and huge arched, shuttered windows.
Cole himself is taller and leaner than his photos always suggest, with beautiful hands and the longest fingers. He is dressed in a black poloneck, cords that hang perfectly and long black cowboy boots. He has the kind of undernourished good looks to go with those intense songs, the kind that somehow make you imagine that he’s done some heavy mileage on the romance front. Not true, says Cole. Only ‘2CV’ and ‘Charlotte Street’ on the first LP, are based (and loosely based at that) on specific relationships, events that happened in his late teens. ‘I haven’t had a lot of relationships. Certainly when you notch things up in terms of rock and roll’ he grins, ‘I’d be quite low down.’
One of the plus points of his success so far is that it has allowed him to ‘glimpse’ various cities of which he gives delicious, almost childlike descriptions, San Francisco was ‘the best place in the world. The whole place just looks like an Edward Hopper painting and all the hills are so steep- just like in the ‘Streets of San Francisco’!’ he laughs. ‘It’s a city full of character and it’s got the best bookshop in the world.” That’s very Lloyd Cole, that is. In comparison, Los Angeles was uninspiring. ‘It’s just a massive sprawling city which you can’t do anything in unless you’ve got a big car – well any car really, but you feel like you’ve got to have a big car!” Iceland seemed like one huge party because they arrived at the time of year when it doesn’t get dark. And Paris is where he’d like to live.
His media image disturbs him a little. ‘It’s as if I am just this depressive character. It’s just not true.’ He suggests that he is a pessimist rather than a depressive – ‘I hate optimists; there’s nothing worse than someone being optimistic when all the signs point in the other direction’ – but he does claim that even if he doesn’t reduce people to hysterical laughter, at least he is “able to be amused which I suppose is a sort of sense of humour!” There is quite a lot of humour in his songs too, if you’re prepared to look for it.
His faith in his own music is so blatant it’s unnerving, but it’s oddly attractive too. His personal favourite track is ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ – partly because it was the start of a period when everything went right for the band, and partly because he believes it was ‘the first fabulous song we wrote… I think we’ve written a couple that are as good as it now, but not a better one. In fact I don’t think anyone!s written a better song than it. I defy anyone to tell me what’s wrong with it. I think it’s perfect.’
Publication: Girl About Town
Publication date: 01/01/87