Lloyd Cole: From England, by way of the Valley.

Portions of the Talking Music interviews can be heard at www.valleyadvocate.com.

Speaking to Lloyd Cole is rather like listening to his music — his articulate, philosophical bent eventually warms to laughter, and his no-holds-barred opinions are couched in such sensical terms that you might not mind that, though he heaps on praise where he thinks it’s deserved, he slags everything Lou Reed did past 1971, or that he thinks Elvis Costello sings like a strangled cat.

Cole’s more recent music, which critics seem to enjoy labelling “understated,” might seem plainspoken, but the ideas that occasion his stripped-down songs are large-scale, and the melodies bubble into your consciousness later, suprising but no less gripping in their ability to get stuck in your head. It’s a slow sort of pop by assimilation.

Cole, who grew up in Manchester, England, but now resides in the Valley, made a successful splash in the ’80s with the pop/soul band The Commotions, then went solo. His music since has ranged into more subtle territory, with both instrumental tracks and the kind of music that’s playable with a guitar and a voice. His latest release, the first in several years, is Music in a Foreign Language . I caught up to Cole before his U.K. reunion with the Commotions.

Advocate : Who are your favorite songwriters?

Cole: There are many, but mainly, I’d say the thing I’m devoted to is [Leonard] Cohen. Even though his bad stuff is terrible! Maybe people say the same about me — I don’t know.

Why “Music in a Foreign Language”?

I remember when I heard Station to Station by David Bowie, when I was 15. His diction on that record’s not that good. And I remember seeing the lyrics printed about a year later, and they were nothing like what I thought, and I was really disappointed. I’d found my own understanding of that record. … I think there’s something magical about that, finding your own feeling and meaning from music. I think, when music’s in a foreign language, you can infer meaning from the the tone of the voice and the feeling of the music … I like that. That’s why I haven’t done lyric sheets myself for years.

How has listening to foreign-language, to world music affected your songwriting?

I don’t really think about it. … I’m a little disappointed actually — the songs I’m working on right now are actually slightly perky. Slightly perky, slightly more New Wave-y sounding than I’d really thought. I was quite resigned to the idea that I was just gonna do fairly solemn, quiet records from now on. … The next record’s going to have more electric guitar, but it’s still not going to have a drummer.

Will you use a drum machine?

Yeah, I used one on the last record. But when I say “use a drum machine” — I’ll probably just have something like a thud in the background.

You like the minimalist approach?

Well, I try to! I just don’t feel that, even if I’m writing songs that are a little bit perky, upbeat, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a rock combo anymore. I’m thinking about trying to have a trio-type thing, the size of sound you’d expect from a jazz trio, but without a jazz aesthetic.

How much of a role does music theory play in your songwriting?

I don’t really understand any theory. I know that I don’t know stuff. I know when I’m doing string arrangements I’m not supposed to do parallel fifths, but it sounds good to me, so we do it. But no, I didn’t have any musical tutoring. I was in the town band when I was ten years old, and I hated it. So I could read and play music then, but by the time I started playing bass I’d forgotten how to do it.

So how do you do something like a string arrangement?

I’ll figure it out on the computer, and then I’ll get somebody in to transcribe it. Or I’ll just play it on the computer and pretend it’s real strings. All the strings on Music in A Foreign Language are just me and a computer, which is fine by me.

Could you tell me about writing the title track?

That’s a song I wrote here [in his studio] with a dictaphone … I called a friend and I sang it down the phone to him.

Some of the songs on that record took literally years to write. “Music in a Foreign Language,” I don’t know what it was — I remember sitting here thinking that I’d found some scenario that expressed something I’d been wanting to express for a while, which is about the sort of dampening of passions that happens in middle age that seems to be relatively universal in most people. … I just think it’s like — your hair goes gray. You can’t stop it. I think it’s quite sad to see people my age getting very excited about youth culture, and referencing pop music, people getting into TLC or Justin Timberlake or something.

… I’ve changed, and I’m one of those hideous people who prefer to listen to world music rather than punk rock music. I don’t care — it just happened. I remember looking at David Byrne maybe ten years ago, going, “He’s gone South American, that’s rubbish!” And here am I, listening to [Ryuichi] Sakamoto’s South American project.

I found myself thinking that these days, you go to the bourgeois dinner party, and half the records are in different languages. …Hearing some guy in his early twenties saying something that I myself already said half a dozen times and everybody else from my generation already said half a dozen times is not going to add anything to the richness of my life.

I think it’s OK to get old. I just thought, “Well, maybe that is a direct correlation between why middle-aged bourgeois couples start listening to world music.” Because there’s no English words, you don’t have to know what they’re talking about. You don’t wanna know what they’re talking about. You just go, “It sounds nice.” That’s good enough for me.

Publication: Valley Advocate

Publication date: 19/08/04