Lloyd ColeLiterary-minded singer-songwriter
Brainy lyrics and consummate coolness.
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions emerged in 1984 as a sort of next-gen Elvis Costello; the band’s sound was informed by the aesthetic of the post-punk era, but Cole's roots as a singer/songwriter reached back considerably further. With his brainy lyrics and consummate coolness, Cole was ‘80s college rock’s own “Next Dylan,” with The Commotions providing a crucial combination of jangly pop and tuneful tension on their three albums together. Cole emigrated to the States and went solo at the start of the ‘90s, taking advantage of his newfound freedom by working with a diverse batch of talents, from Matthew Sweet to Robert Quine, and expanding his stylistic palette in the process. In the 2000s, Cole became more musically experimental than ever, dipping a toe into everything from folk to electronics, and briefly creating a band dubbed The Negatives, including fellow songsmith Jill Sobule. In time, Cole’s own influence on younger artists became more apparent, most overtly when Camera Obscura answered his Commotions-era tune “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?” with their 2006 single “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken.”
Lloyd Cole talks to Critical Mob's Jim Allen and Stewart Mason
CRITICAL MOB: It's been said that the original concept for the Commotions was an R&B/soul sound. How did that shift into what it became?
LLOYD COLE: This is true. I was interested in something like what Paul Weller [The Style Council] and Green Gartside [Scritti Politti] were doing. I just wasn't very good at it. I could sing, after a fashion, but when it came to writing songs I/we only really found our feet with "Patience," and then "Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?" Once "Heartbroken?" was written, I realised I was on to something, and I had found a voice. The one I still have. The resulting excitement and confidence made the subsequent compositions a very natural thing. "Forest Fire" and "Perfect Skin" came next and that was that.
Particularly on your early records, you were known for tossing quotes and pop-culture images into your songs. Were there any of these little homages that no one seemed to pick up on?
Some were. Renata Adler especially, and Jodie in "Rattlesnakes" is halfway between the main characters of [Joan Didion's] Play It As It Lays and A Book Of Common Prayer (which I just reread and it remains one of my very favourite books). But mostly I just liked putting proper nouns in songs as a device. I think it is very efficient when it comes to bringing an image or a feeling to a song. My favourite one, still, is "Grace Kelly car" [from "Four Flights Up," on Rattlesnakes].
What did you think of Camera Obscura's single "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken"? Are any of your other songs calling out for answer songs?
I think it is lovely. What a fantastic thing to happen! I was really happy about it. I want them to send me an instrumental mix so that I can use it as my entry theme when I play Vegas. Other songs? I'm not going to be greedy.
How do you suppose you managed to sneak as overt a drug song as "My Bag" onto radio and MTV back in the '80s?
I didn't. They made us change the lyrics to the video/single version. "Meet me in the john, John" was changed. I can't recall what to... [NB: a YouTube browse suggests that the line was changed to the oddly Lou Reed-like "Mimi's in the john-john," while the first verse's "Scuse me one moment whilst I powder my nose" was changed to "...launder my clothes."]
Was the start of your solo career the reason for the disbanding of The Commotions at the end of the ‘80s, or a response to it?
Not the reason. I wasn't sure if I could do it on my own. I just knew I didn't want to be in a band anymore. I was very happily surprised when I started to make demos that I had picked up a lot of skills that I wasn't aware of. I could program drums, play guitar and arrange strings (sort of). This led to an energy comparable to that which we had in 1983-4. Once it was clear that I was making a record, then, yes, there were certain songs I wanted to do because the Commotions would never have let me: "Undressed" and "Sweetheart" come to mind.
You're known to be quite the golfer. How did you pick up the habit, and how much time do you devote to it?
My parents took a job at a golf club when I was 13 or so. I play as often as possible, which is usually not enough. I just had my first hole in one, in Tasmania, playing with a broken rib.
Living and working in America, do you still feel like a British artist?
More so, I think. I am constantly reminded that I'm not American. I will not be naturalising, but I have no desire to go home, either.
You've worked with acoustic, electric, and electronic musical arrangements. Which do you feel most comfortable with at this point?
These days I like to figure out a palette for each project so that I don't get carried away adding ALL of the things I might like to the tunes. My problem is that I enjoy the sound of The Rolling Stones, and Nico, and Cluster. I think the one time that I tried to mix it all up (Bad Vibes) led to my least successful (artistically) album. When I created a very exact palette of sounds, I think I made my (and our) best ones: Rattlesnakes and Music in a Foreign Language.
The song "Writer's Retreat" feels very specific. Was there a real-life writer's retreat you had in mind, or were you thinking more broadly than that?
Well, once the song is finished I'm not really interested in what the artist was thinking, but since you're asking... I was just thinking about the artists who place their work above the lives of others (usually families and lovers) and feed off the conflict that they create. I know of a few of my heroes who have done this and I think it is a pretty low way to work. So I'm trying to make fun of someone like that. Again, I guess, as I've done for years, hoping that by writing it down and singing it I am prevented from becoming that character. Fingers crossed.
The first song on the album has one of the best opening lines in recent memory. What's one of your favorite opening lines by someone else?
Thanks - there are hundreds. Here are a few that come to mind today:
"The walls of this hotel are paper-thin
Last night I heard you making love to him"
("Paper Thin Hotel," Leonard Cohen)
"I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still"
("Da Doo Ron Ron," The Crystals)
"You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you"
("Don't You Want Me," The Human League)
"Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night"
("Waterloo Sunset," The Kinks)
Maybe the best of all:
God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61"
("Highway 61 Revisited," Bob Dylan)