Lloyd Cole talks to Alan Jackson about the album that he hopes will end his days in the pop wilderness
SOMNOLENT post-lunch hour at the Groucho Club in Soho. Keith Waterhouse and friends debate at the bar; tardy diners thread their way through the lobby and then linger on the threshold, as if reluctant to return to the oppressive Soho afternoon.
Inside, like a shy teacher relishing a free period in a suddenly empty staff room, Lloyd Cole sighs softly and puts down his glass.
‘They’re very good to me here,’ he observes, with a vague heavenwards nod that indicates his temporary resident’s status in one of the guest rooms upstairs. On cue, a serious-faced waiter arrives to inquire after his possible needs.
What would serve Cole best is a whopping, chart-trashing hit. Instead, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter of such past glories as ‘Perfect Skin’ and ‘Brand New Friend’ asks for a beer of obscure origin and settles down to a conversational stroll through his particular dilemma, that of a much-celebrated Eighties pop star anxious to assert his relevance in a subsequent, less respectful decade.
‘All I really want to do is make records and have success, to end up with a good body of work behind me – I don’t have any great ambitions beyond that,’ he allows at one point.
A breath later, he counters my belated praise for Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe (1991), his previous LP, with the dry observation, ‘You’re pretty much on your own in that.’
Cole is at something of a career watershed, and one that is partly of his own making. Though he freely admits that each LP he has released in Britain since Easy Pieces (made, in 1985, with the Commotions, his now-defunct band) has sold less than its predecessor, Cole is unwilling to settle for being a big fish in a small pond. ‘I’m Anglo-Saxon, and I write songs from a resultant perspective,’ he observes. ‘If my career were over in Britain, I don’t think I could be one of those artists happy just being big in Sweden or France or wherever. Nor am I particularly interested in trying to sell records in America . . . ‘
So what is Cole, an Englishman married to an American and living in New York, with a young son to support, to do if Bad Vibes, his new LP, fails to cut the commercial mustard here. Cushioned in a corner of the Groucho, Cole shrugs off the problem. The tenth anniversary of his professional musicianship is due any day, and he feels justified in taking a sanguine view of his situation. After all, many of his contemporaries are long forgotten, while others struggle on the comeback trail. But Cole is also a sentimental man, eager for the
approbation of his native peers. So much so that, for the new LP , he has swapped record labels within the giant PolyGram multinational. ‘Status Quo wanted to get off Phonogram, because they felt it too snobby, while I needed a decidedly more snobby label than Polydor,’ he explains. Thus, in the precise calculations of the music industry, are three denim-clad veterans exchanged for one pop-rocker currently dressed down to the point of anonymity in grey cords, shirt and woollen slipover.
Bad Vibes is a particularly good example of the singer’s clever, wordy, grown-up brand of pop. ‘I’m pleased to be at a stage where other things are now being described as Lloyd Cole-esque, rather than my still being compared to Lou Reed,’ he says, with a dry laugh.
Cole now juggles the concerns of pop with those of parenthood. ‘He’s everything you could want a child to be,’ he says of son William, now one year old. ‘He looks like some ad-campaign baby.’ But Cole the father is also having intimations of mortality. ‘All of a sudden, I realise that if this record doesn’t do quite well, it might be the end of the road. And I don’t want it to be. Already, I’ve written down some good ideas for the next one. Nor, with the boy to look after, could I just summon up another job which would allow me to maintain this kind of income, even though I don’t earn a ton . . . ‘
After considering the property pages of the New York Times, Cole and his wife, Beth, have abandoned the idea of moving away from central Manhattan. ‘We want our children to be rounded people. I’d rather they grew up with the offspring of the people I play pool with than with the children of stockbrokers and lawyers in New York State,’ says Cole.
As the Soho afternoon draws on, Lloyd Cole sings a verse from a bath-time song made up to entertain his son: ‘He’s a lovely boy but his knees are dirty./ Got to have him clean by 7.30./ If we don’t he’ll be taken away,/ ‘Cos the bogey-man loves a dirty baby . . .’
‘I’m surprised at how much of a boy William is already,’ he says. ‘He has lots of furry toys but he’d rather upturn his stroller and spin the wheels around. He loves anything that goes round. He can’t say ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ yet, but he can say ‘wheel’ .’ Cole suddenly becomes self-conscious. ‘Next time I’ll show you the baby pictures,’ self-mocks the man with a new sense of the importance and foolishness of a pop career.
‘Bad Vibes’ is released through Phonogram later this month. A single, ‘So You Want To Change The World’, is currently available
Publication: The Observer (London)
Publication date: 03/10/93