Nils Lofgren Interview. Passionate, Intimate & Emotional.
Nils Lofgren has flipped in front of 100,000 people supporting The Who, ran joint headline tours with Tom Petty, at eighteen years old he played piano with Neil Young and has been guitar sideman for thirty years as part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. With a new UK tour coming up throughout October and November 2015 and memories of forty-seven years on the road there was a lot to get through. I asked about 6 questions in a forty minute interview. Nils is just so alert and his recall tack sharp that I just shut up and listened. If you want to know who gave him a D18 and who called him up at 4.30 in the morning, then read on
Nils it is wonderful to talk to you. Another UK tour in the same year?
Very exciting! It’s a long time since I did two tours in the same year but I used to try to come every year and the E Street Band has no plans after the High Hopes tour finished so that gave us a nice opportunity.
We decided to play a few more cities and stay a bit longer, it’s a thirty-one day trip with twenty-one shows and we get to go to some places I have not played in a while. Apart from London we are trying to do different towns and cities than the last tour.
My wife Amy suggested we record the last eight shows of the tour earlier in the year and we are working on a Live From The UK album that we hope to have on this run coming up.
What is the big difference for you between touring the UK and USA?
Apart from the proximity, its quite manageable to get to 21 cities (and some of my English friends tell me there are not even twenty-one cities in in England he jokes) so its towns and villages, whatever you want to call them. It’s also unusual because in America you cannot get hired on Tuesday or Wednesday night, they all want you to play at the weekend. In the UK you can manage to get to 5 or 6 cities’ a week on the tour bus and it is amazing that folk will come out mid-week, but if you put on a good show then they will come.
It is also a godsend to have a bunk to lay down in on the tour bus, when you are working that hard, have a great driver and a tour manager a great crew with a reliable PA so you know that it sounds good every night, a good monitor man, its just a little more quality control. As apposed to the haphazard approach I might have in the States, which is still great, the job and approach is still the same, you have to do a great show at 8pm tonight and it doesn’t matter if the PA is broke or the club owner is a jerk, I have been doing this coming up on 43 years in the UK.
I also get the chance after every show to dry off and come out to the merchandise table and meet the fans and I will sign things for quite a long time. It’s a nice home-grown feel, its about the only country (UK) where I can play that many cities and have a big crowd show up. We like to keep the bartender on duty if people are going to stand in a line waiting for me to sign something they can have a pint or a drink.
Me and my buddy Greg Varlotta work hard and practice a lot to try and put on a special show. We are not just sitting on a stool singing a few folk songs we try to do something that is aggressive, powerful, intimate and emotional. Hopefully through the music there is some inspiration that lingers that people can take out into the streets.
Is is also nice to be able to take your wife on tour, Amy is a professional cook and we have a family life that she helps organise, so it is not often she gets to come on tour and this is a place she loves to come. She designs the merchandise and the T-Shirts and she co-produced the box-set Face The Music with me.
It is now 40 years since your first solo album came out, did you tour the UK then?
I had been to London with other musician friends but my first tour experience in England was in 1973 with Neil Young and the Tonight’s The Night tour and two years later the promoter asked me to come with my own music. It was a long time ago but I am grateful for the history at this point, as daunting as the decades are.
Do you remember much about recording that first solo album also known as The Fat Man Album?
It has just been re-released by Real Gone Music and it was a very vivid part of my life. I was freaked out that my band Grin had to break up and we could not get a new record deal. We made four good records and were a good touring act. It was the harsh reality of the recording industry, I mean I don’t want to compare it to some personal tragedy but it was a rough time musically. I have always been a band person at heart so to be suddenly confronted with being a solo artist was very foreign to me. It was the only avenue forward.
It took a long time to write the record with David Briggs overseeing it at my manager’s cabana on the beach in California, a little cabana on the ocean, a funky upright piano, my acoustic guitar, the Martin D18, I got from Neil Young which he gave to me after playing piano on the After The Goldrush sessions.
It took months and months to write write write and when we got 15 plus songs that were really good, I bought in Wornell Jones a great bass player, we jammed in the cabana and then we bought in the great English drummer Aynsley Dunbar, he came in the studio fresh and would make little maps of the songs. So instead of the whole thing being formulated in a studio me and Wornell could present the songs as bass and guitar, vocals, I always like to do live vocals and Aynsley who had a little map to follow played carefree and wrecklessly and it really inspired all of us. It was great to complete the process and having an acoustic guitar at the centre of it gave me a new sound as a power trio, it just had a vibe to it that was really fun.
As an “amateur” piano player I worked out a piano arrangement of Goin’ Back (Goffin/King) and I wrote The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet which is an autobiographical refection on the time. David Briggs encouraged me to write more for the piano including If I Say It, It’s So and Duty.
…….you still use those two songs (Goin’ Back & Sun Hasn’t Set) in your set now…..
Not every night, we change the set list around. I like to do a lot of guitar “improv” I call it “going fishing” the solo might be two minutes one night it might be five minutes the next. If you catch a good wave and you just ride it you have a good sense of the energy of the crowd. Even though I might improvise I want to keep the core of the song.
Goin’ Back is a great version but one of my all time favourite songs is your version of Randy Newman’s Baltimore.
Ah! A record with the great Bob Ezrin producing. Many great things on that record (Nils) including No Mercy, Shine Silently that was more of a spiritual to begin with then Dick Wagner and I rewrote it to be the pop/rock song we know now. I still like to play that every night and I have tried to put the spiritual aspect back in to the performance.
One of the fabulous things about that Nils album was co-writing with Lou Reed and another offshoot was we talked about cover songs and Baltimore came up because Bob always thought I was from Baltimore, Maryland but I’m not I am from Washington DC area, but still Maryland. You say Maryland to someone they automatically think of Baltimore which is an hour down the road. As a kid I went to Baltimore a lot there were a lot of shows there in the late 60’s and a lot of great places to play, there was a night club called the Blues Amp we played it every month and also on the University of Maryland campus.
So we looked at the song, a great lyric, we started messing around with a very different treatment and came up with the record. Again we spent a lot of time in pre-production, we spent months, we wrote and wrote, I had a rental house in Maryland and would fly up to New York to meet Bob and discuss the album and he would look at the songs and say these are good or these aren’t great but have potential some keep working at them.
In the end we had a lot of songs that we liked and some where the lyrics were a little weak and Bob suggested co-writing and we both thought about Lou Reed and Bob knew Lou so we went by his studio, he was very friendly but he was right in the middle of recording but surprisingly to me he was open with the idea. We decided to meet at his apartment and talk it through, which we did and he loved American football and I love football, I love most sports, we were watching a Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins game on Monday night football. He was routing for the Cowboys and I was routing for the Washington Redskins. We had a few drinks and tried to figure out how to write together and we discovered that I wrote music all the time very easily and took a bit more hard work over the lyrics and he was the opposite. Lyrics flowed out of him all day long.
Instead of hiring a loft in New York City and working for eight hour sessions a day which we would have, he said “why don’t you send me a tape with the songs on”. I send him a cassette with thirteen songs on. Some full songs, some just melody some with lyrics I didn’t like and wanted to replace. A few weeks had gone by and I had forgotten about it as I was busy working on the record and wasn’t sure anything was going to happen and the phone rang at 4.30am in the morning, no cell phones just landlines, no internet.
He said “Hey, I have been listening to this”
I was so surprised and thrilled to hear from him. He said he had been up three days and nights listening to the cassette and that he loved it. Then he blew my mind and said: “I have finished thirteen complete sets of lyrics, if you want to get a pad and pencil I’ll dictate them to you.”
I put on a pot of coffee and sat there for two hours with the phone to my ear writing down these lyrics. It was a bit like cheating because myself and Dick Wagner would go and spend hours together writing and recording on a tape machine altering things and this was like a painless beautiful co-writing thing and all of a sudden I had just co-authored thirteen songs with the great Lou Reed. It was pretty hilarious and beautiful.
He said he wanted to use some for his Bells album, which was fine with us, and I spent the next few days putting the lyrics into the music.
Some songs didn’t appear until much later, on Damaged Goods we used a great song called Life with a great sax part by Branford Marsalis and there is a song on the Breakaway Angel album called Drifting.
It’s interesting because I have been thinking about Lou and of-course it is a great loss and I went and dug up the old notes books and finding the songs I had originally thought that Lou should deliver them but now that we have lost Lou it is my responsibility to try and find a way to present most of them on my next record or two. So I have actually begun that process.
You have played with so many people, is there anyone who you have not played with that you would like to?
Well just fantasising for a minute there are so many of those people who are gone, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke. But it would be fun to, as opposed to being a sideman, I would love to sit around and have blues jam session with Prince, keyboards or guitars whatever he wanted, he is one of the great musicians.
It’s funny because Jeff Beck, whom I like, and is by far the greatest living guitarist, I saw him on the Truth tours, I opened for him a lot in the 70’s when he had the Jan Hammer fusion records, every time I see him at Ringo’s parties or on a tour, I have a running joke and Jeff is quite public about it as he just does not jam, so I go up to him with a smile on my face and say “Can I please jam with you?” and I know the answer is “No, of course not!”
We talked some more about trampolines, sports, aching limbs and a love of ice cream. Nils was great to talk to, he just talked.
The UK tour starts at Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion on 27th October and takes in Croydon, Belfast, Dublin, Harrogate, Preston, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London to name a few. Full dates and ticket sales are here: https://rockshot.co.uk/16783/rock-show-nils-lofgren-uk-tour/
0844 844 0444 -Ticketmaster.co.uk / http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/Nils-Lofgren-tickets/artist/735529
0844 888 9991 -Ticketline.co.uk / http://www.ticketline.co.uk/nils-lofgren#tour
0871 220 0260 -SeeTickets.com/ http://www.seetickets.com/artist/nils-lofgren/120745
Nils also has his own great website here: www.nilslofgren.com
Interview and Photography by Simon Jay Price