Will Lucero's newest release propel Memphis' darlings into the national spotlight?
Six years and six albums into their recording career, local rockers Lucero are taking a big step this fall. The band that started when singer/guitarist Ben Nichols and guitarist Brian Venable decided to abandon their punk roots to form a country band has evolved over the years into a solid Southern rock/indie rock outfit, years of hard touring building up a strong fan base around the country.
But on their late September release Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, the band's second for major label East West Records, Lucero debuts a sound big enough to fill the arenas they don't yet play. The drums boom. The guitar riffs reach for the rafters. And, in an unexpected twist for what has for years been a four-piece guitar-bass-drums band (with drummer Roy Berry and bassist John C. Stubblefield), rock-and-roll piano comes rising out of the mix like vintage Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.
Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers marks a new path for the band in any number of ways: new means of recording, new musical style, new quasi-member.
After recording each of their previous five albums in the Memphis area, the band traveled to Richmond, Virginia, this past summer to record with alt-rock notable David Lowry, who founded the '80s cult band Camper Van Beethoven before moving on to '90s college-rock favorites Cracker. The band met Lowry through their tour manager, Memphis-based Gary Crump, who sometimes works for Lowry when he isn't on the road with Lucero.
"It was nice to be able to concentrate," Venable says of the out-of-town sessions he dubs "Lucero's rock-and-roll summer camp."
"We'd never actually recorded a record and had it mastered and done before we left. It took three weeks. It was semi-professional."
The four-month time frame from the first sessions to the album's September 26th release is the quickest turnaround ever for a band that's taken a year and a half to get their product on the streets in the past.
"Every other record, we came in with an idea and came out with something a little bit different," Stubblefield says.
"And then the way you record the next one is based on your experiences before that," Berry says. "We liked the way we did the last one [2005's mostly live Nobody's Darlings] but we wanted to dress it up more."
"We had told [Nobody's Darlings producer] Jim [Dickinson] we wanted a stripped-down rock record, and that's what we did. Nobody did overdubs," says Venable. "On this record, we recorded all the tracks live, but then went in and worked on it. I got to build solos up from scratch. People [who've heard the record] ask me, 'Wow, when did you learn to play guitar?' Well, I had a whole day to play that two-minute solo. We got to take our time. We got to play with it more."
"They allowed us to make a record," Stubblefield says of the freedom Lowry and his engineer Alan Weatherhead afforded the band. "We started with six or seven songs and an overall concept and went from there."
But even more important than the recording environment was the addition of a "fifth" Lucero member in the form of Memphis session ace Rick Steff, who plays piano, organ, farfisa, and accordion on the record and will tour with the band this fall.
Steff, who has played with a wide variety of artists, from a recent stint in indie-rocker Cat Power's Memphis Rhythm Band to time spent on the road with Hank Williams Jr., fit easily into a band that seemed to have aspirations of Springsteenian grandeur even back when they were a relatively quiet alt-country band.
"It was having an amazing piano player, that's really the biggest difference," Venable says of the new record's fuller sound. "We've always talked about keyboards, but it's been hard to find someone. We wanted to fill out the sound with that fifth element."
"I envisioned a larger, more epic, almost orchestral sound," Stubblefield says of the decision to bring Steff out to Virginia for the sessions.
Not all fans of the band's more modest, more rootsy earlier sound are happy about the changes, according to Venable, who says some fans have complained on the band's Internet message board.
"It's your-favorite-band syndrome, where some fans want you to make the same record over and over," Venable says. "But we want to be a rock band. We don't want to be in the country section. We want to be there with Lynyrd Skynyrd and R.E.M., etc. I was reading an article in All Music Guide on the best records of the past sixth months, and we were in there [via the re-release of the band's early Attic Tapes demos]. We're there now. We're not rich and we're not famous, but we're [established] and that's what we've always wanted."
"Our real influences are starting to come through now," says Berry. "And Ben is starting to write outside of himself more. The songs are less first-person."
"Really, our abilities have been raised," Venable says. "When we started, it was our version of a country band, and we stayed true to that vision for a while. But eventually you're like, you know what, I want to play music and have fun. We're playing bigger venues now and fans are paying more. We still play two hours and though we don't want to wear costumes and dance around, we do want to put on a bigger show, with more dynamics. We want people to say, 10 years from now, 'The best show I ever saw was Lucero.' And you don't want it to be because Brian got drunk and naked and Ben threw up onstage."