I'll keep my editorial comments to a relative minimum, and let Lofgren's words elegantly speak for themselves.
RGD: Nils, congratulations on the new record. I've spent a lot of time with it, and it is one of my favorite releases of 2011.
Lofgren: Oh, thanks so much, Tony. I really worked very hard on it. I took my time, and felt like I really did something I could feel good about!
RGD: I had read some reviews before I heard the record, and it seemed that many were focusing on your angst, anger, and concerns over the state of the world, and your personal issues (Nils had both hips replaced several years ago, and had suffered through the deaths of close friends and bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons). However when I heard the record, I was most taken, not so much by any sense of vitriol, but rather a lot of resilience and hope, both in the writing and your voice. Was this your intention?
RGD: The record has a great sound, very sonically satisfying and cohesive. How long did you spend writing, recording and mixing it?
Lofgren: Man, I chipped away at it for over a year, but it wasn't until the last four months that I really started getting into the twelve hour days - the focused tunnel vision, to get it done. Part of the record, the theme of it, is that I've been on the road for 43 years, and I do leave home too much. My family understands, but it does get harder as you get older, so I'm finding a balance between touring, keeping sharp musically, and just working - staying at home, and helping my wife, Amy, with our six dogs, and being in the studio, but with the doors open. I always told her, like, 'Look, it's not like don't bother me, I'm busy being creative.' It's like, 'Bother me! I'm home, I'm here to help. If a dog needs to go to the vet, interrupt me - I can turn the machines off, it's not a public studio, it's my own homegrown room.' So, I could just do whatever needed to be done, I can run errands, I can go out with my wife. If I felt like turning the machines back on and working a couple of hours, I could just pick up where I had left off.
It was a very balanced purity making this record. I wanted to keep it emotional, so I set out to not even try recording anything until I could sing and play every song as a performance piece, not a work in progress to be crafted later. As a result, I got a lot of live vocals - 10 of the 12 vocals are live in the studio with the main guitar. It was a lot more fun to fill in the blanks and produce around it when I felt like I had a really good performance as the core.
RGD: Historically, your reputation has been as a tremendous live performer, and as a remarkable guitarist, yet it is a subtle album in terms of guitar histrionics - there are lots of amazing and tasty licks, but they never intrude on the songs, or your vocal performances. Is this a result of having worked with so many great artists and songs?
RGD: You've said that Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen are your favorite songwriters. What have you been able to take from each of them?
Lofgren: Well, it began back in the '60s, really before I had heard those guys. I was listening to the whole explosion of the sixties - The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, the British Invasion, Motown, Stax/Volt, Holland, Dozier, and Holland, going back even to Burt Bacharach, all those great songs and songwriters, show songs even. My mom and dad danced and played big band show music as I was growing up. I studied and played classical accordion for ten years, and entered contests and competitions. I studied accordionists, and the best instrumental and classical pieces ever written - I got really inside of them as a musician, so I had a great background.
At this point, you want to do something that is authentic for yourself, but just the act of listening to the great songwriters in history, and certainly working in bands with Neil Young - doing records, crafting shows, and then performing them in front of people. Just by osmosis you get a very inside look at how a great writer presents his song. A lot of times, along the way, dealing with Bruce - he might have a song in progress, and you get to watch that from an inside track. But, it's no longer a thing of emulating or imitating. That's all gotten to be a part of my experience and inspiration, and just as a natural thing you look for stuff you like to go by, and you grab on to something you can be proud of.
RGD: Let's talk about a song on Old School, that you must be proud of, Dream Big. How did this one develop? The arrangement is brilliant, utilizing electronic sounding beats, a harp, strings that bring to mind Philadelphia soul via Gamble and Huff, and the mantra, "dream big, work hard, stay humble."
When you get older and you're an adult, you keep looking at the childish things, and they can really hurt or kill you - but child-like things, things that are joyous, that don't hurt anybody, and on the contrary engage people of any age are beautiful. To keep your head and heart open for experiences - especially as you get older.
RGD: Let's stay with the theme of aging. Since your hip replacements, are you able to still enjoy a little basketball?
Actually, this new song, Dream Big, that we were just talking about, I'm playing harp with my right hand, I'm tap dancing - the percussion you hear is me tap dancing through a gated reverb and an octave divider. It's a very unusual piece that I do live - then I pick up the guitar, play a solo, and then I go back to the harp. There's a lot of stuff going on there - it's all along the lines of dreaming big, Tony.
RGD: Speaking of plucking out notes, Nils, could you tell me how you developed your unique right hand technique of playing guitar, in which you utilize a thumb pick, fingerpicking, and touch/tap harmonics?
RGD: Last night, as I was doing some prep for this interview, I stumbled upon an old video clip of you jamming with Roy Buchanan, and as I watched, I noticed Roy was watching you play, and he was just smiling away. He seemed fascinated by your technique.
Lofgren: Well, I have a different perspective on that from some people, Tony. I think Roy, knowing he was my hero, realized that he had invited a 19 year old guitar player on to the stage who was so excited and over-amped that he couldn't shut up. All I did was to play hard and fast, and I was just too immature to even think, and too nervous to think, 'Oh, why don't you shut up, and let Roy play something.' Finally, near the end, I think you can see Roy just smiling at me, realizing that I don't have any maturity, and he just starts de-tuning his guitar like a sound effect - 'Well, there's no room for my licks, so let me just make some noise to accompany him, since I've only been playing rhythm.' That was a great honor, but when I watch that I just cringe, because I was just like, 'Man, you're just too young and stupid to shut up and to trade licks with Roy,' and I have to accept that. Yeah, that's right. I still do stupid things, hopefully less than I did back then, but it was still a great honor to be asked to participate with one of my heroes.
RGD: Going back to the new record, let's continue on the theme of maturity. 60 Is The New 18 is one of my favorite tunes on the record, but it sounds to me as if you're playing the role of commentator more than as the subject of the song, who seems to be having a rough go of things, am I correct?
RGD: Another poignant moment on the record is the song, I Miss You Ray - dedicated to Ray Charles, but it also has become a tribute to your friend and bandmate Clarence Clemons. You've been including mention of the big man in the lyrics at your recent solo shows. Had you written this tune before, or after the death of Mr. Clemons?
Lofgren: That was written months before Clarence passed, and again, in keeping with some passionate topics. Ray Charles was one of my heroes, and it was a rough loss a couple of years back, so I used it as a metaphor for that. If you stick around long enough, you start having to say goodbye to family and friends, and it's really tough. You have to realize, and I hope that some of us have family and friends left, that life can be grand, but you really have to once again temper the two. I used the loss of Ray as a metaphor for that, and certainly the great loss of losing my friend Clarence - I've been singing, 'I miss you, C,' in my live shows and unfortunately it's a very appropriate song in which to tailor the lyrics that way.
RGD: Old School features performances by three of the greatest vocalists in history, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Lou Gramm (ex-Foreigner), and Paul Rodgers. You still sing the lead on the songs, but they contribute tremendously. How did you go about arranging their parts, and putting the songs on which they sang together?
RGD: That is so cool. So, with the record now out, what does 2012 hold in store for you, Nils? More shows to promote the album? (This interview was conducted before today's announcement of shows this summer by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band)
RGD: Nils, it's a great record, and I'll do what I can to help you spread the word - thanks for making such a wonderful album.
Lofgren: Hey, thank you so much, man. I'm really very thrilled that you feel that way - I'm proud of the record, so it's heartening to hear that. It's great when what you're trying to do gets through. I appreciate your letting people know about it, because that's what I'll be doing for the next year!
RGD: Hey Nils, just one more thing before I let you go. What with you being right there in Scottsdale, why on Earth has Fender not yet done a Nils Lofgren signature Stratocaster?
Lofgren: You know what? They are always so very helpful. The Fender plant is just up the road from me, and they are all really, really nice guys, but that's a lot of bureaucracy and politics, and I'm not here to twist anyone's arm! If they want me to do it, I'd be happy to, but I'm not into....I'm into writing the next song and figuring out my next gig, but I would do that when they felt it was appropriate. All right, man, thanks a lot, and take care, Tony.
Nils Lofgren - dreaming big, working hard, and staying humble....
Much thanks to Nils and Jeff Allbright at The Allbright Entertainment Group.