The location is Dublin’s RTE studio; or more precisely, the dressing room toilet. How do you begin an interview when your quarry has just gone into the comfort station? Do you whisper through the crack under the door? Bellow over the cascading sound of a man excusing himself?

On mature reflection perhaps the best policy is not to think about it, and just wait for the subject to change.
When he finally emerges it’s a Lloyd Cole more reminiscent of his fey, floppy fringed early days than his last, self titled solo album. Last year he looked like something out of Barfly, a heavy lick of long greasy hair strafing his unshaven face, wild stories of all-night pool games; tonight the prodigal son has returned, an ageing student with immaculate taste in preppy casuals. And a look of relief on his face. Naturally enough. He has just completed his best album since his 1984 debut Rattlesnakes. Cole’s new album, Don’t Get Weird On Me is a record of two halves. The second half is very much old king Cole, almost a Cole and Commotions album to be precise. No suprise really, considering that longtime partner Blair Cowan co-write much of the album and, as of tonight, co-Commotion Neil Clarke has returned to the fold.

But it’s the other half of the album that explains why Cole is running through rehearsals with the ‘mature’ RTE Concert Orchestra, many of whom look like they would have been gigging round the Liffey when James Joyce was soaking up the Guinness. Cole recorded the album’s first half with a 46-piece orchestra in LA’s Capitol Studios where Frank Sinatra used to record. The result is a lush, evocative canvas, in parts redolent of John Barry, but best of all a confirmation that despite some disastrous attempts in the past – Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa – rock and orchestras can have a one-night stand and stay on speaking terms. Cole shrugs off the idea that it’s an unconventional combination. “Picasso said ‘I don’t give a damn if these two colours don’t go that way, I like both colours so I’m gonna put those in’.”

By coincidence Ireland’s RTE TV Channel were making a series called An Eye To The Music where special guests appear with the house combo. Among those also taking part were Paddy MacAloon and ’60s songsmith Jim Webb. When Cole’s management heard about the project he was an instant choice for the line-up.

The reason for the two different sides was a simple one – and nothing at all to do with the fact that the two-day orchestral sessions bit a $60,000-sized hole in the recording budget. Cole’s intention was always to mix his grand conceit with some basic pop, the real love of his life. “I like the idea of undermining any pretensions to being a sophisticated songwriter. The Beatles were always as important to me as Lou Reed.”

On the sound-stage, Cole is more than a little apprehensive. Standing languidly, he cuts a serious dash in front of the yellow and green blazered band. “I always wanted to do something like this. I was using strings back on Rattlesnakes. I love cellos and horns, the sound of those old Scott Walker songs. It’s so emotional the way a string section can swell up and out, dynamic.”

It’s not Cole’s first close encounter of the classical kind. “I was in the town band when I was nine. My parents forced me to play the cornet. I refused so I played the euphonium.”

There is the down-side to recording with an orchestra, a concept that reeks of early ’70s excess, but at least Costello did it and actually seemed able to add gravitas to his already weighty body of work.

Cole agrees. “I try to think of the good precendents, like the Phil Spector records. Not things like Emerson, Lake And Palmer. Around the time of Brain Salad Surgery they became total megalomaniacs. They did a world tour that coincided with an album that no-one liked and they went broke. Needless to say I’m not touring with an orchestra. The most nauseating thing recently was that Clapton thought he was good enough to improvise through Ravel’s Bolero. They end up thinking they are latter-day Mozarts and then morons like Melvyn Bragg tell Clapton he’s a genius. Hendrix could play better and he could write. Clapton’s only song was ‘Layla’.”

Having done his stint on-stage everyone is happy – except Cole, whose uncompromising attention to detail borders on the obsessive. He believes that the musicians were a beat behind. They wouldn’t have lasted long with Sinatra.

Afer a solo period off the rails he is well and truly back on course and bidding for posterity.

“When the Commotions started, punk was fading and we really wanted to be a soul group but we were too inept. Rock music that doesn’t like soul music is bad music. I think there are things I can still do in a rock format, but really we are a pop group. I’d like to get the Muscle Shoals rhythm section in and Charlie Watts on drums. But I’ve been in all the magazines I want to be in and I’ve been on Top Of The Pops. Now I’m interested in what people will be thinking about me in ten years’ time.”

Publication: VOX

Publication date: 01/01/91