After living in Manhattan for almost a decade, Britpop elder statesman Lloyd Cole explains why it’s time for him to split

I’ve lived in New York for nine years and only played here three times,” says graying, cantankerous former Britpop star Lloyd Cole, who’s about to quietly exit NYC for western Massachusetts. During his time here, the thirtysomething Cole has become a dad, severed his ties with Polygram (he’s on the prowl for a new label), sipped a few boilermakers and toured the world several times over.

Cole emerged from Glasgow’s fertile music scene in 1984 with his sizzling debut LP with the Commotions, Rattlesnakes. Over the course of three albums with his band and four on his own, he proffered literate guitar-pop for college kids who get his jokes about Norman Mailer. Recently, he recorded an album with his new band, the Negatives, which includes Jill Sobule and Dave Derby. A few weeks before his departure, TONY drank coffee with the chain-smoking songwriter at a café on Carmine Street.

Time Out New York: Why are you leaving town?

Lloyd Cole: I don’t really like what’s been happening to the city since Giuliani’s been here. I don’t like Times Square anymore. I don’t like the fact that only millionaires are moving to the city. Plus, a lot of the structure of the city that you use when you’re single, you just don’t access when you’re spending a lot of time around your kids.

TONY: I suppose they have better schools in western Massachusetts.

LC: Yeah. I don’t like the school thing here. People are scrambling to find apartments in the three neighborhoods that have good schools. When it comes to the private schools, you have this almost limitless choice, [but] it’s a fallacy to think choice is freedom. Ultimately, I’m not satisfied with the school [my son has] been to, and it costs a lot of money.

TONY: So you’re not moving up there to become a professor?

LC: I have to confess, my vanity did actually make me think that I might be able to do some creative-writing teaching in a few years.

TONY: Is playing music less financially rewarding than
people think?

LC: Yeah, none of us make a penny from it. Music is very different now than it was 15 years ago; the difference between small and big is considerably more. If the Commotions were breaking through now, we might get dropped after one record. On the other hand, we might be Matchbox 20. You never know, but it’s one or the other. I’m glad I’m not starting out now.

TONY: Were you a victim of the Polygram-Universal merger?

LC: Oh, it’s over. I could see myself slipping through the cracks, so I left.

TONY: Who produced your
new album?

LC: Stephen Street, Bill Whitman and I. I’m kind of old and on the scrap heap, but I think I know how to make records at last: Just working on five songs at a time is so much easier than trying to make a whole record. The Negatives were the only thing keeping me in this city for a while. We have more fun playing than I could have ever imagined. We have all kinds of Negative dreams. We want to make a Negative disco record. When we’re messing about, we sound like New Order, 1984.

TONY: I played Rattlesnakes for a friend who’s 24—she’d never heard of you. She thought it sounded really new wave, though at the time, it seemed radically not new wave.

LC: That’s what we were trying to do. I’ve always consciously tried to make records that people can’t tell what year they’re made in. I’ve failed so often.

TONY: Will you make more orchestral music, as you did on Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe?

LC: I doubt it. Maybe when I’m 50 my voice will have what it takes, but I don’t think my voice had what it takes when that record came out. My voice is too weak to work with an orchestra. I’ve had some really grand failures
in my career. I wanted my best-of record to be called Failing Upwards, because I feel that pulling off artistic success is very rare. Very few people do it. I don’t think Sgt. Pepper’s an artistic success next to Revolver.
Revolver’s better. So are they both successful, or is one a slight failure? The White Album is just a big mess, but I love it. My first solo record is a big mess, and I’m very proud of it.

TONY: Are you content with your career at this point?

LC: Recently, I had to go through everything [I’ve recorded], because I had to put together this best-of record for the European market. I thought I’d be horrified at some old songs, and I wasn’t. Maybe I’m just mellow and resting on whatever I’ve got. I think it’s enough now, if I do dry up next year. That little thumbprint that you want to leave is there now. It’d be nice if it was a bit more substantial. You look at it next to a body of work like Elvis Costello’s—his is probably more flawed, but it’s more substantial.

TONY: Where are you most famous?

LC: Probably Stockholm or Lisbon, maybe Dublin. I’m still regarded as a
famous person in England, but 15 years is a long time in
the English music scene. It’s a longer time than it is almost anywhere else in the world. I’m a bit like an elder statesman of rock over there.

TONY: Do you keep up with today’s Glasgow music scene?

LC: Absolutely not.

TONY: There’s a lot of good music there these days.

LC: Glasgow’s always going to be good. It’s just such a perfect-size city. You can walk from one end of the
city to the other. You’ve got two universities and an art school all within kicking distance of each other. It’s got the great underdog thing next
to Edinburgh, because Edinburgh’s the capital and the supposedly beautiful city. So Glasgow tries harder.

TONY: You’re a smoker. Have you tried the patch?

LC: No. I smoke for three years, then I quit for three years, then I smoke for three years, then quit for three years. I don’t need patches. I have strange self-discipline.

TONY: Are you a drinking man?

LC: Yeah.

TONY: What’s your poison?

LC: Boilermakers—beer and whiskey. But I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never be able to drink like I used to. Within my limited circle, my first year in New York is semilegendary. Now, I’m certainly at the beginning of middle age, and moderation is essential. Also, people like me get fat quite easily.

TONY: What would you rather lose, your looks or your voice?

LC: I don’t rate either of them that highly. If I had a car accident, I could still make records. I don’t think I’ve ever been purely a pinup.

TONY: You make lots of jokes in your lyrics.

LC: I remember when I first tried to read Joyce, I didn’t get it, because I couldn’t understand that there would be jokes in serious literature. That’s been a problem with a lot of music like mine—people don’t expect
serious artists to make jokes, yet the best serious artists make jokes all
the time. To get the big picture, there has to be pathos, there has
to be irony.

TONY: Do you think now that you’re leaving, you’ll become hugely famous and
won’t be taken for granted
any longer in NYC?

LC: Think about it—in the past
ten years, who have been New
York’s premier songwriters? Me and a couple of other people. There’ve not been many.

Publication: Time Out

Publication date: 01/07/99