Monday, November 21, 2011

Nils Lofgren - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Nils Lofgrens' latest solo record, Old School came out in November, and I called it maybe the best album I had heard in a year of great releases. In a year that has seen classic rock artists such as Leslie West, Glenn Hughes, and many others put out work that matched or even eclipsed their past glories, this is no faint praise. Old School is imbued with great songwriting, singing, and of course, heaps of tasty, brilliant guitar playing.

When the opportunity to speak with Lofgren came up, I was excited to hear his thoughts on the record - what I wasn't prepared for was being so impressed with the artist as a person. Not that I really should have been shocked - you don't get to work beside the best writers, and musicians of your day without having not only great musical skills, but also exceptional social skills. This interview turned out a bit different for me. Instead of being my usual semi-over chatty self, I was more than happy to allow Lofgren to speak with free reign, and I attempted to let his comments lead me to my subsequent questions. It was only when I listened back over our chat that it became apparent that I had followed the correct path. Nils Lofgren is a huge talent, but he has managed to remain humble. His 43 years on the road with the biggest names in rock, and as a leader of his many solo endeavors has made him a truly wise sage. He wouldn't use those words, but I feel perfectly free to do so. As I listened back to my recording of the interview, I realized that as I listened, I had learned, and for the I am always grateful.

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?

Lofgren: Yeah, I think that's very accurate. I just wanted it to be a very emotional journey through all the things that I was feeling at 60 years old. So I've got a little wisdom, a surprising amount of fear, anger, and concern about my planet and what's around me, but a lot of hope about the human spirit. I just wanted to write honestly about all of it. I'm very grateful to be in good shape - after two great tours with E-Street to come home, and I was excited to jump into my next batch of songs. I really feel good about how it came out.

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?

Lofgren: Well, thank you. As grateful as I am for my reputation as a guitarist and instrumentalist, I feel like I originally fell in love with music through The Beatles, The Stones, and songs. I still feel that I am a song player first, rather than a lick player. When I play music, I listen to the song and it kind of helps me to stay out of the way of the singer, and what's being said. There's always plenty of room to get to get licks in, but I think that is my main attribute, as opposed to being an instrumentalist looking to embellish the singer/songwriter - I'm a singer/songwriter playing an instrument.

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."

Lofgren: Yeah, thanks. That's an unusual piece! It all started when my wife, Amy, got me a harp - a lever harp, for Christmas two years ago. I was just picking out some early stuff on it, trying to find my way around a few simple licks, and you lean it against your shoulder and you play the harp with two hands. I was standing in our guest room, watching NFL football, and it just stands there, so I started picking it backwards - just plucking out notes, and I came up with that little riff. It's a very dark and haunting riff, and I just noodled in my brain, 'you gotta dance a lot....sing a lot,' you know, work hard, be humble. It developed into a song, and then it got a bit more ominous in the sense that, from my perspective it's not extracurricular anymore - I need to keep dreaming big, and try to find a way to stay humble and work hard. Even if you're crippled, dance in your head, dance in your heart, find a way to feel like you are still growing and learning. Otherwise, at 60, I'd be screwed. This was just a somewhat ominous presentation of these themes.

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?

Lofgren: I can go out and shoot around, and play horse, I just have to accept that I can't play the violent three on three games that I used to play. My new hips just can't handle that. I mistakenly thought that when I got my new hips that I had ordered the ones with Flubber, and that I'd be able to leap and fly, and dunk, and be good to go, but the doctor told me that the trampoline has to stay in the closet - no more flips off of drum risers, and I can't play basketball like I used to, unless I wanted to be a cripple. I was hobbling around for years with the pain, so I'm going to take good care of them. I'm jumping around and dancing onstage, I just can't do the violent impacts that I used to do - but, yeah, I can shoot around and re-live the glory days as I look for new and less harmful ways to use my new hips.

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.

(In an unintentional demonstration of his abilities as a multi-tasker, Nils sent me a link to the excellent Youtube video of the song, shot by Rose A. Montana at a Lofgren solo show in New Jersey back in October, as he gave his commentary on the song. I was not surprised, but I was impressed. He's one graceful cat.)

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?

Lofgren: Sure. When I picked up the guitar as a hobby, my brother started showing me chords, and then I took a few lessons from some great local musicians. One in particular, Bill Singer, had me learn a piece by Chet Atkins, doing The Beatles song, Can't Buy Me Love. It was months of hard work, learning to play a bassline that was static and never changing ( he hums the part to demonstrate), and while that doesn't alter rhythmically - it just moved through the chords, the different bass notes, and to pick the melody up on the higher strings, it was very difficult. One of the hardest things I ever did, and once I got to the end of the piece, I had a whole new key to the kingdom of fingerpicking that I still use to this day! To kind of keep some low grooves going while I do different rhythms with the higher notes - and to this day it is a huge part of my technique. I picked up a thumb pick one day out of a guitar case, and I didn't know any better, so I got the hang of the thumbpick down. My local players said I had to play rock and roll with a flat pick - I said, 'Look, I can't stand stinking up the joint for ten more months with a new pick, I'm gonna stay with the thumbpick. It's really more of a country thing, but I've applied it to rock and roll and harmonics, and just found a style that worked for me.

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?

Lofgren: I'm surprised at 60, how much hope and naivete I've still retained to survive, and that's mixed with some angst, fear, and anxiety about my planet. There's this vision when you're a child that when somebody makes it to 60, they're in a recliner watching TV, the kids are bringing the soup and drinks, and you are this revered character, when in fact, you're like a Rodney Dangerfield, and nobody gives a shit! You have to have a sense of humor about it, but the character in the song is, of course, having a much rougher time with it than I am. I took the liberty of expressing this for people that are struggling with an older age. The thing is, there's a lot of wisdom, but there's also a lot of fear and anxiety that comes with it, and you have to work really hard to temper it all - the guy in the song is not doing such a good job of it at the moment.

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? 

Lofgren: Sam Moore and I, we sang together here in the studio in Arizona, which was one of the highlights of my performing career as a singer. Paul and Lou did their own tracks, and I was so honored that they were game to do it. What I did was just send them the music - I sent them some ideas and encouraged them to come up with anything they would hear that would be different than my ideas. I can't sing like either one of them, so fortunately, they did just that. They took some of the groundwork of what I may have initially heard - coming and going, they came up with their own ideas in addition to mine, they crafted parts they were comfortable with, and the end result, to me, was just beautiful. I was thrilled and honored to have the help of three great singers like that, and they are good friends - they were very open to helping me, and I could call them up directly and ask for their help with my project. It really speaks volumes about the classy people they are, and they are three of the greatest singers of all time. It even surprised me when I got the tracks back, but that's what you want, isn't it?

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)

Lofgren: Greg Varlotta and I have two dates booked in February, on the 18th and 19th at The Birchmere Theater in Alexandria, Virginia. In the next few weeks I'll see about booking some more work - we'll get out next year and do our own shows wherever we can, and try to spread the word about my new record and keep playing.

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.

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