After a steady but low-profile solo career that involved spending the last eight or nine years touring like a folk singer, former 80s pop star and long-time Massachusetts resident Lloyd Cole has linked up with two backing musicians and is touring under the guise of the all-acoustic Lloyd Cole’s Small Ensemble.
“It’s hard to describe what we do,” he explains over the phone when quizzed about reports that the new outfit sound like a bluegrass trio. “I would say that the music is somewhere between bluegrass and what I do on my solo records. It’s a small but expansive sound in terms of harmonics but it means that some of the early Commotions songs have to be radically rearranged.”
Thus far, no Commotions fans have come away from the shows disappointed.
“If I was to go out there with a band that looked like the Commotions but played the songs completely differently, then people might have reason to complain. But with the Small Ensemble they don’t expect us to reproduce the sound of the Commotions because we couldn’t possibly do it even if we wanted to.”
The 49-year-old singer-songwriter who delivered three era-defining albums with his first band – and who claims he still finds it impossible to smile to camera – is bringing the Small Ensemble to Beck’s Music Box as part of the Perth International Arts Festival on February 17.
Back in the mid-80s Lloyd Cole was the brooding Jean-Paul Sartre of his generation. While still at Glasgow University he formed the Commotions and wrote memorable songs that recalled mid-60s Dylan. Fans salivated over the group’s subtle, intelligent retro pop-rock songs about modern love that were scattered with name-droppings and references from Penguin Classics.
Then in 1990, after six years of hitting the top of the charts with a succession of singles such as Perfect Skin, Forest Fire, Rattlesnakes and Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? he gave his gold discs to his local cafe to use as tea trays, pulled the rug from under the Commotions, packed up his family and golf clubs and set sail for America to embark on a solo career.
Now, a little over 20 years later, does he feel more American than English?
“Not at all,” he snaps back defensively. “I’ve never taken out any kind of American citizenship. I operate on a Green Card which has to be renewed every 10 years and is entirely discretionary.
“If they decide there’s anything at all wrong with me they can throw me out at the drop of a hat.”
Managing himself and based in his suburban home in Easthampton, near Massachusetts, he recorded his last two solo albums in the attic. He then hawked them around the world, playing a seemingly endless succession of one-nighters that were part one-man-and-his-guitar and part stand-up comedy shows. He describes his last album of new songs, Antidepressant (2006), as being far too gloomy, having been written in Germany during a freezing cold winter.
“It had almost got to the point where I’d taken the solo show thing as far as I could. I’d refined it and refined it and I was always trying to figure out new arrangements and new songs to do. I’ve only got 30 songs I do live, so I felt like I needed a change,” he says. “Working with the Small Ensemble has been great. To have a different way to arrange the songs and for it to feel like a band without having to have bass and drums on stage is ideal for this time of my life.”
To cement his transformation from solo to ensemble, Cole has issued a new album called Broken Record that’s complete with drums and electric guitars played by some of the musicians he was associated with in New York in the early 90s. The guest line-up includes former Lou Reed drummer Fred Maher, Joan “As Police Woman” Wasser and long-time collaborator and former Commotions keyboardist Blair Cowan.
But for his Australian shows, it’ll be Cole and his Small Ensemble – Mark Schwaber on guitar and mandolin, and Matt Cullen on guitar and banjo. “They’re both different,” the singer-songwriter says. “Mark’s guitar technique is extraordinarily good. He can do anything . . . unlike me. Matt on the other hand is more of a field player and reminds me of the way Keith Richards plays guitar.
“The early songs sound good because, after all, I always thought the music I have made over the years is derived from American folk, blues, pop, whatever you want to call it, with a European aesthetic applied to it.”
“If I was to go out there with a band that looked like the Commotions but played the songs completely differently, then people might have reason to complain.”
Publication: The West Australian
Publication date: 04/02/10