GUITAR LEGEND NILS LOFGREN TALKS 50 YEARS OF LIVE ARTISTRY COLLABORATING WITH LOU REED ON ‘BLUE WITH LOU’ (INTERVIEW)
When you have been in music for fifty years, you might wonder if the well of creativity might be on the brink of drying up. But an artist is an artist to the end and that creativity never really goes away. Guitarist Nils Lofgren is a good case in point. He has been on the road making music for a half-century, he’s worked on songs with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, he’s made stage life interesting with backflips and cool chords, he’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and he’s made interesting and rocking solo albums since 1975. This is a man who couldn’t suppress his talents if he tried.
Although nowadays Lofgren loves spending more and more time at his Phoenix home with wife Amy and their menagerie of dogs, he always has time to spawn some new tunes on his guitar. And come April 26th, his latest batch will appear on Blue With Lou. Featuring originals and six compositions he co-wrote with the late great Lou Reed, this album is not only an homage to a legend who left us too soon but a vision into what Lofgren has had on his mind. “I’m really not ashamed to be honest about the things that are exciting me or scaring me because I think something to impart is to just not pretend that you have it together and that you know it all, which I don’t. I never did,” Lofgren told me during a 2012 interview for Glide.
Blue With Lou again follows along those lines: “The theme of the record is about being expressive, keeping it live and raw, and moving forward, trusting your instincts.” But Lofgren really wanted to showcase more of the songs he co-wrote with Reed in the late 1970’s. “Years went by and it kept nagging at me. I thought, look, Lou’s not here to deliver these lyrics. He was inspired when he did this. It would be a shame not to share it.” Of the thirteen songs Lofgren sent to Reed for lyrics, three were featured on Nils, three were on Reed’s The Bells, both albums released in 1979, and two more showed up on later Lofgren solo records. That left the five unreleased songs and Lofgren has newly recorded them with drummer Andy Newmark and bassist Kevin McCormick for Blue With Lou; plus a new version of their “City Lights,” which Reed had included on his Bells album.
Lofgren, known for his thirty-five years as part of the E Street Band and his work on a handful of Young’s albums in the early seventies, was once a kid who played accordion before he got turned onto the guitar. “I got to be a hot shot local guitar player and I started playing with some of the guys in The Renegades,” he told me previously. With his band Grin, he opened for one of his idols, Jimi Hendrix: “The night we opened for Jimi Hendrix in Ventura was my nineteenth birthday, June 21, 1970. I got to go back and knock on the Winnebago door and shake his hand and thank him for letting us be his opening act, which he probably had nothing to do with (laughs) and just let him know how much his music and playing meant to me.”
“I’ve been very blessed, had a lot of ups and downs, but the highlights have been spectacular, getting to see all those bands [in the late 1960’s],” recalled Lofgren in 2012. “I ran around and soaked it up everywhere I could and I had a pretty formidable dance card when it comes to going to see live concerts back then.”
With a tour beginning on May 10th in Minneapolis and running through early June, Lofgren is looking forward to playing his new songs for everyone. “It’s exciting to have a new album and actually take the band that made the record on the road to promote it for a month and travel America and play shows everywhere.”
I caught up with Lofgren recently to talk about the new album, hanging with Lou Reed, the importance of pets and the impact of Ray Charles.
I understand that you’ve been on the road for fifty years
Yeah, last September was fifty years on the road
Do you remember the first time you went on a real tour?
Yeah, my band Grin, which was a big Washington DC band and we eventually made four albums, but like most bands we had a rocky start and it took a few years of getting a record deal. We finally had our first official tour when our first album came out and it was very exciting and otherworldly. You know, back then, it was 1969 or 1970, and every motel room door was exciting, every airport terminal, we traveled with our band and crew, we lived together, and we were an opening act for anybody and everybody. We did a lot of opening for J Geils and Edgar Winter’s White Trash, just a myriad of people.
That was the good thing in that era, there was no video, no internet, so the record companies would offer tour support. They helped you travel around the country and be an opening act and they charged that against your royalties. But we didn’t care. I mean, we didn’t have to pay it back unless the record sold and we were happy to have some help to go play cause we were good at it. I remember how just fascinated and wide-eyed in wonder I was just to be on the road and travel from town to town and play for groups of people. Of course, they came to see the headline act but it was great to have twenty minutes or half an hour to open the night and try to get some people to like what you did.
A lot of times we were hopping around so much we had to fly occasionally but most of the time our crew was in a big Ryder truck and we were in a van. We’d just pile in, drive around, stay in a cheap motel and just get from town to town. Even now as I’m getting ready to tour in May, you have to route it correctly. You make sure the drives are doable. Some are quite long but you want to be able to safely get from the town you play to the soundcheck the next day and sometimes you have to put some hours in after a show to get halfway there. But it’s still exciting, more than ever actually, for me to play in front of people. It’s my favorite thing to do.
I don’t like leaving home anymore. I have an incredible wife, Amy, and our three dogs, and leaving home is kind of traumatic now (laughs). But it actually gives me a deeper focus and gratitude once I’m out there singing and playing cause it’s the only reason I’m gone now, for the performance.
I think a lot of people are going to be really excited about your new album, not only because of the music that is on it and it’s your solo record, but Lou Reed fans are going to be interested in this as well because half the record is songs you co-wrote with him. What provoked you to do this project now?
You know, I was always a big fan of Lou’s and way back in, I think 1979, Bob Ezrin, a great producer and friend, was working with me producing an album and we had a lot of music we liked and then we had a lot of music where we thought the words were subpar. And rather than me keep trying to improve them, he suggested co-writing. And I said, “Sure, if it’s the right person.” We went and talked to Lou Reed – they were friends and he produced the Berlin album – and he was very friendly and open to the idea and said, “Why don’t you come to my apartment in New York and we’ll talk about it next week.”
So we got together for a long night. Unbeknownst to me, he was a big NFL football fan. I grew up in Washington DC as a Redskins fan and the Redskins were playing the Dallas Cowboys, he loved the Cowboys, so it was fun to root for our teams, we had some drinks, we talked about writing and I had mentioned that writing music is very natural and I write a lot of music that is pretty good but I struggle a bit more with words. And he said, “Hey, I’m the exact opposite. I write words all the time. I feel pretty strongly about it. Music takes a bit more elbow grease.”
So with this in mind and the fact I had so many things written, he said, “Before we book a loft with a piano and a couple of guitars, why don’t you send me a tape, let me listen to what you have.” And I said, “All these songs have titles, some of them have la-di-dahs, maybe there’s a verse here or a chorus there, but I don’t like any of the lyrics. I like the titles but you can change anything you want. Maybe I will just la-di-dah everything.” And he said, “No, no, no, send me the titles, send me everything you have. I know you want to replace the lyrics, I get it.” So I sent him a cassette of thirteen songs and a few weeks went by. I was busy working on the record, pre-production with Bob, going from Maryland to New York. And one night about 4:30 am, the landline rang and I answered in the dark and he said, “Hey Nils, it’s Lou Reed. I just want you to know I love this cassette you sent me.” I thought, wow, that’s great news. And then he said, “I love it so much, I’ve been up for three days and nights with no sleep working on your tape and I literally just now finished thirteen complete sets of lyrics.” That woke me right up. He said, “If you want to, get a pad and pencil and I’ll dictate all the lyrics to you right now.” He was excited, he felt good about his work and I said, “Let me put on a pot of coffee.” I got a pad and for two hours I sat there meticulously writing down everything, getting every single syllable and word right and he dictated thirteen finished sets of lyrics. I was on cloud nine.
He said, “Look, I’d like to use three of these songs for my album The Bells.” I said, “That sounds great.” So I spent the next two days working with a guitar and a piano putting the lyrics he’d now written into the songs. And of course Bob Ezrin was thrilled. We used three on my record called Nils, he used three, and since then I’ve released a couple more. One of my favorite Lou songs that I wrote with him, “Life,” is on the Damaged Goods record. We were actually in New York City mixing it and he came down to the studio to hear it and it was so exciting because he loved it. Branford Marsalis played beautiful sax on it and just a great song and lyric. Then I made an album in the early 2000’s, Breakaway Angel, that had the song, “Driftin’ Man.”
So that was like eight of the thirteen and I always thought in the back of my mind, well, some of them got left behind, maybe someday Lou will call and want to dust them off and take a look at them. That was always a distant thought and I’d go see Lou play and say hello. He was always friendly and of course I was so grateful for the help with the co-writes. Then tragically he passed away [in 2013] and it’s a great loss to not have him around anymore. But I thought in the back of my mind, man, you’re the only person now that can share these songs. Lou is not going to be singing them, even though I thought maybe he would someday. And it was gnawing at me.
Then a couple of years ago when I really had the seeds of some other songs of my own, I thought, you know, it’s time to make a record and start writing in earnest and one of the goals was I have to get those songs left behind that Lou and I wrote and turn them into records for this project. That was a must. So here I am two years later, got six songs I love of my own and the six songs – five no one ever heard and I did a version of “City Lights,” a song that Lou used on The Bells album. In fact, he said, “I love your chorus. I’m going to keep your chorus in ‘City Lights’ and write a story about Charlie Chaplin.” And it was beautiful. The music reflected my melody but he chose to narrate the lyric, which was great, and I thought, someday I want to do the song with the original melody. So that is one that I did my own version of and I got Branford Marsalis to play as a favor and he played a beautiful sax to it, just reminiscent of the song “Life,” where I was so taken by how Branford would illustrate Lou’s words and the music I wrote.
How did the recording sessions go?
I have some dear old friends – Andy Newmark on drums and Kevin McCormick on bass – and the goal was to record live in the studio, at least the trio, and get live vocals and my guitar parts in. We worked very hard and took our time to become a band, learned like eighteen songs and we could go from song to song and play everything live in each other’s faces, with leakage, which means we’re not in little rooms closed off from each other to isolate sound. It was very organic. We banned the click track. I didn’t start that way so I said, “No click track ever. We’re just going to play like the old days.” Then Cindy Mizelle, an incredible singer and good friend to me and Amy, came in and sang beautifully over the record. I had some men’s choirs from the Phoenix College come and do some beautiful old-time harmony, like the Elvis records and the Ricky Nelson records, where this gentlemen’s choir is in the background, a sound I always loved.
I didn’t add a lot of guitar, you know, or censor any of that. I kept it very simple and it went down live to hang onto the core of that feel and I’m proud of it. My wife Amy is always on my merchandise and she’s been in meetings to design t-shirts, she worked on the artwork and put the packaging together and oversaw that, and we’re real proud of the project. It’s very homegrown but I think it came out great and I’m excited to share it.
And these guys will be out with you on the tour coming up?
On the tour it will be Andy Newmark and Kevin McCormick, who recorded the record; Cindy Mizelle will be there to sing; and my brother Tom Lofgren, who was in my early band Grin and countless shows and my solo work, and who is a great keyboard player, guitar player, singer, writer. He’s going to come and be what we call our swing man. I always have another guitar player or keyboard player and singer. So there will be five of us, including the people who made the record and I don’t even remember the last time I was able to tour with people that made the record with me. So it’s very exciting on a lot of fronts. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to find a spot where I can tap dance in the show (laughs). I picked it up as a hobby and it’s kind of a hoot anyway, but it’s going to be a colorful, entertaining night with some great musicians and cast of characters.
When you first walked out onstage to a massive sea of people, what was that like?
I’m trying to remember when that might have first been. I mean, my band Grin, we played in bars to 200 people, 100 people, 300 people, and then we started opening for anybody and everybody and it’d be like 2000/3000 seat theatres sometimes, colleges. In the sixties there were these human rights/Martin Luther King big gatherings, and one time there was a gathering on the Mall for a civil rights demonstration and we were the first band to play and the PA wasn’t even working (laughs). But we were up there and we didn’t have any illusions. The people weren’t there to hear us but we were there to provide live music. And at some point we realized, well, this PA is not going to be working for hours and now is our time slot, we got power to our amplifiers and we just kind of played. But there was probably 300,000/400,000 people in front of us and as far as the eye can see.
It was very comical in a sense that we weren’t even able to sing our songs, right, and kind of a nod to show business like, hey man, this is your slot, we’re not going to push the show back two hours till the PA is working, do you want to play or not? But it was also like good to see this sea of people and go, you know, we can’t even sing our songs but we have our instruments so let’s just play and see if we can emote something to someone out there that it might mean something to cause that’s our job.
Of course years later, in 1979, my solo band opened for The Who, a six week tour all over Europe; giant festivals with AC/DC back when Bon Scott was their lead singer – still one of my favorite songs is “Highway To Hell;” The Stranglers and we were the core bands and we’d travel around Europe and of course loved The Who. Actually, just recently, the last couple of years, I played acoustic shows in England, and my last two trips Roger Daltrey has come down to see us play and he’s a really sweet guy and comes back and visits and just down-to earth. He came to the merch stand and my wife Amy gave him and his wife some shirts. Amy had this cool pink vintage Grin shirt that she redid with the old Grin logo and “Fifty years up the road” on the back and Roger took a couple of those for him and his family. It’s really neat after all these years that despite all the people we’ve lost, there are some great ones still around. And it’s nice to come see you play and talk to you and just let you know we’re all in this together, which is very heartening.
Of these songs that you wrote with Lou, which one would you say changed the most from the original that you wrote?
You know, it’s been so long, they’ve kind of morphed around. There is one in particular, a bit of a tender song for Lou. Although he’s done plenty of those, he’s known for a bit more aggression but it’s a beautiful lyric he wrote called “Talk Thru The Tears.” I’ve been kind of evolving the music on that. It changed from the original cassette demo a bit more than most but it came out beautifully and I just love that it’s one of the more tender songs on the record that Lou did write the lyrics to and I just thought it was a beautiful sentiment. But you know, I dusted them all off and kind of refined where they started to get to a point where I could make a record out of them.
You also have a song for Tom Petty
Yeah, Amy and I are enormous Tom Petty fans and we went to see him at Red Rocks on their last tour and it was a beautiful gift to ourselves, cause we love them, and I never imagined it was the last time we’d see them. And one day, just a song about Tom came through me, kind of a tribute, and I hadn’t intended to write it but it just kept coming, the words kept coming and I realized, man, I have to get this on the record. So there is a tribute to Tom & The Heartbreakers on the record too.
Again, you appear to have a lot on your mind that you have integrated into your lyrics.
Yeah, you know, we’re in a troubled planet, and it’s a beautiful planet, but we’re kind of in a crisis of the collective soul of humanity. Technology is running way ahead of us and plays a big part in that. But in general when you look around and see all the art and beauty and kindness and amazing things great people do, I mean, there’s people in the middle of nowhere that have nothing that will create a school for girls that are like second class citizens or worse but tragically the great people that are very cognizant of the soul of humanity and moving it forward and enlightening it aren’t in charge. In general, you have these very rich powerful men all over the planet that have lost sight of humanity and they’ve developed a mental illness from power and money that is really damaging our planet and our human race as a whole and we have to change that. And of course, we all have to do our individual part to do that.
But I have faith that we’re going to pull out of it and I believe in humanity and have great hope but we are at a dangerous point where we really got to look around and make some huge changes and I think all the solutions are there but I think the people in power have lost sight of them, tragically. You often see when you look at the music business or the sports business, you’ll see how fame can quickly become a mental illness. It can be a dangerous thing. Same thing goes for money and power. And now with TV and 24/7 news cycles, when you add fame, all the cameras are in these people’s faces and they’ve got makeup artists and they’re worrying about their donors and raising money. Look, doing their job is a part-time thing and in my opinion a lot of them have decided to change the job description. And it’s very tragic and it’s causing deep problems to the entire human species. I do believe there are good people and solutions out there. We just have to get them in power to start implementing that. We’re doing our small part towards that goal, me and Amy.
But yeah, they are all autobiographical emotionally. I mean, one thing is it’s kind of a message to the soul of the human race but when I met Amy twenty-three years ago, we were both at the end of divorces and I really was in a relationship retirement of sorts for two years. All my friends were worried about me. They said I should date and I said nope, the peace of mind I have and my career is kind of hazzardly to a relationship so I’m just happy to be alone and have the peace. I make music and play. But I met Amy twenty-three years ago and we had a night together at the Stone Pony fifteen years prior to that. It was fifteen years between the first and second date and because of that, she came up and said hello at the show in Scottsdale and I took her number and started calling her and we started dating. But right away, we were both like, look, if this is going to work we can’t spend months presenting a façade, we’ve got to be brutally honest at all times. She had a four year old and she said, “Look, I’m a mother for life. That comes first.” I’m like, “I’m a performer. I’ll be leaving to sing and play to make a living and I can’t give that up.” So we were always very honest about it.
You know, I had this title that is one of my favorite songs on the new record called “Too Blue To Play” and the theme was, look, I’ve been through too much, we’ve been beaten up, let’s just lay all the cards on the table and if there are some cards that are deal breakers, let’s look at them now. Let’s not wait till we’re falling in love for six months and love being together and find out stuff about each other that’s going to make it impossible to stay together. Let’s put all that good, bad, ugly stuff down now and look at it and that was the theme of the song “Too Blue To Play.” But I wrote the song from the perspective of a Special Forces Ranger that had many, many tours of duty and gotten brutalized and PTSD and ripped up and finally left the armed forces, tried to find a quiet place and just be alone and have whatever life he could. Unexpectedly, despite his own vision, which reminded me of me, just that feeling of being alive and having the peace of being alone is enough, he meets someone and falls in love in this little rural town. And that’s the story of “Too Blue To Play.” Life is challenging. Being an adult can be a real pain (laughs). But you hang onto your childlike things and let go of the childish things which can get you in deep trouble and has for me occasionally. So I wrote the song from the perspective of a Special Forces Ranger that finds himself discovering something beautiful despite his giving up on that notion, which was kind of where I was at when I met Amy for the second time. It’s one of my favorite songs.
What about “Rock Or Not”?
That is a protest song, which is really more speaking about the plight of women and all the madness going on now where these kind of mentally ill rich fat cats are losing sight of humanity itself. What’s the point of being rich if you’re on a toxic planet, you know. We could talk about that for hours and we’re going to be watching it the rest of our lives. Hopefully, we can heal our planet and human race and all that toxicity and anger and rage that we have to breed out of ourselves and find some peace and love and understanding, which if we just listen to our animals and watch them, they live on a higher plane than us and we could learn from them.
And your pets, your dogs especially, are a major part of this music as well
Yeah, we lost Groucho a year ago and we’re still not over it. He was our first dog and Rain, who we rescued from a pound shortly after Groucho, she’s still with us. She’s fifteen, slowing down quite a bit. But we’re down to three dogs and we love them dearly: Rain, Gail and Peter. We take great care of them and they give us a lot more love than we could ever give them. I mean, they live on a higher plane than people do, I think, and we learn a lot from them. We’re trying to.
My son Dylan, who is just fifteen minutes down the road, about fourteen/fifteen years ago he saw a beautiful, lovely pit bull chained up to a sign and obviously was abused, and he demanded my wife pull over and he jumped out and untied her and rescued her and we just had to say goodbye to her last weekend; it was brutal, but she kind of saved Dylan and Dylan saved her and that’s the way me and Amy feel about our dogs every day. They’re kind of loving us and saving us and teaching us, if you just keep your heart and eyes open, which of course we do for all animals.
What can you tell us about the title track, “Blue With Lou”?
I was writing songs and didn’t have a real clear vision of the record other than getting Lou Reed’s songs out and ready, writing songs on my own. But at the ending of The River tour with Bruce and the E Street Band, I was onstage with my Jazzmaster and a bottleneck. I wear a little slide brass bottleneck on my little finger and I was just messing around waiting for the band and Bruce. I was there early, which I like to be, and I came up with that slide riff and I thought to myself, oh, this is a cool riff, someday this will be a song. Over the weeks, if I was alone onstage, I’d just mess around with it and then one day I just started singing, “Blue with Lou” and it had a nice rhythm. So now I thought, oh great, I have a title for a song; I didn’t know it was going to be the title for the album. But I just kept messing with it and singing it and that’s kind of where the backbeat came for that.
Then slowly but surely, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, you open your notebook and kind of chip away at it over months. I took my time with this record, I didn’t force it, but I would write for an hour on something and if I was bogging down, I wouldn’t walk away, I’d just start writing on one of the other jigsaw puzzles, if you will. So I chipped away at that lyric to write kind of an homage to Lou and what Lou meant to me and still does, in the sense of wanting to kind of just be free and brave and reckless but headed towards some kind of solution, at least for your own soul, and that’s what that song meant to me; not just be self-destructive and have the hell with its and go around reeking havoc, but actually kind of not being self-conscious, being brave and trusting your instincts and going with things. And that is what I always got from Lou’s attitude and lyrics for the most part.
And now here I am caretaking six of the songs we wrote together. So I had that great riff that led to the title and eventually I looked at everything I’d written. We’d recorded about eighteen songs and these were the cream of the crop to me and I realized there was no better title for the record than Blue With Lou, cause it’s also kind of a statement about being free and following your heart, which is what I did with this record.
Which guitar did you use predominately?
There were a few of them. I used a black Gretsch Falcon for a bunch of them. I used my old trusty Fender Stratocaster. And for a couple of songs, “Rock Or Not” and “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” that one is a Lou Reed song that I wrote, I used my Fender Jazzmaster. I put heavier strings on it, it’s got a little richer, thicker sound. But those are the three main ones. Then on “Blue With Lou,” I actually used an old Zemaitis guitar that Jimmy Scott, the original guitar player in the Pretenders, it used to be his guitar and he gifted it to me, his wife Peggy did. We lost Jimmy years ago tragically. He was a dear friend and I went to his funeral and she insisted I take one of his guitars and I cherish it and use it every record.
I used a Carter pedal steel for a solo in the song “Pretty Soon” and I used the Takamine acoustic guitars. I would play some extra guitars and overdub. There’s a really old, in “Rock Or Not,” acoustic rhythm guitar on it, a great old Gibson L-10 from the 1920’s is on one side and on the other side I play this great Martin D-18 that I used on After The Gold Rush that I borrowed from Neil Young and he actually gave me his guitar at the end of After The Gold Rush when I was eighteen years old. So those are two of the acoustics I used on there.
When you first started playing guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
Well, it was like gymnastics for my hands. Even though I played accordion for ten years, forming those chords was quite a challenge. I’m also left-handed and I didn’t know it but I kind of learned right-handed and I had a thumb pick. My dad had an old guitar case with a guitar in it. My brother Tom started playing and he showed me my first chords and I was using a thumb pick, not knowing it was a little harsher and thicker than flat picks. It took me about nine months to do anything musical that I liked and then the young players would say, “No, you must play rock & roll with a flat pick.” And I thought to myself, “Guys, I can’t start over and sound awful for nine more months with a different pick. I’m just going to stick with a thumb pick.” And that led to more fingerpicking style, like country artists. But now some are like, why don’t you play left-handed? But I don’t really see much weight in that cause both sides of your body are faced with an unfamiliar task and whether you are left or right handed, that side will have a little bit easier time with things. So I don’t put a lot of stock in that left-handed/right-handed instruments but it helps some people and I’m glad I learned right-handed, if you will, because then I can walk in any place and jam and pick up anyone’s guitar and know what to do with it.
Last time, we talked about what big influences Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck were. But what did you get from Ray Charles?
Ray Charles had this guttural, earthy, raw feel that somehow was always beautiful and melodic. I grew up playing all the classical melodies on accordion and studying great melodies, which was a big help for me. But I loved singers like Sam Cooke, who was so smooth and soulful, and what I loved about Ray Charles, and still do, was he mixed a very guttural, rough vocal sound and somehow made it beautiful and melodic. I just thought that was so brilliant. He’s still one of my favorites that I listen to regularly. He used that famous album, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, you know, “Born To Lose,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Don’t Know Me,” and had these big choirs behind him and they had this beautiful kind of soul/country piano and that raw voice and that was an extension of the smaller men’s choirs you hear in Elvis Presley records, Ricky Nelson records back then. To this day, almost a day doesn’t go by where I don’t listen to a song of his cause he has that inspiration of mixing the beautiful and melodic with the raw and soulful.
Did you get to meet him?
No but I did get to see him play a couple times live. But you know what, I feel like I know him just from his music and hearing it so many thousands of hours over the decades.
What about BB King?
I saw him many times as a kid in the sixties, seventies. He played in Phoenix the night before his museum opened. Me and Amy went to see him and actually got on the bus and had a great visit with BB King. He said, “Yeah, tomorrow I’m driving to the opening of my museum and I’m all excited about it. Who’d have thought?” He was a very humble guy and I’d met him off and on through the years, at Bruce shows, and he knows what a big fan I am of his. But we had this great chat in closed quarters in the back of his bus. He loved Amy and he was trying to flirt a little bit with Amy in a good-natured way and we kept talking and then he was having a good conversation with Amy and I broke in with some guitar question and he looked at me with a smile and he put his hands on my knee and leaned in and looked me right in the eye and said, “You know Nils, you could leave now if you want.” (laughs). It was a hilarious moment, like, I’m doing just fine with your wife, why don’t you take off. We really don’t need you for this conversation anymore (laughs). He was a very sweet, kind guy.
To this day, thankfully, music is my hobby and somedays I don’t feel like being a professional and creating and analyzing and being hard on myself and it’ll just be my hobby and I’ll get my little phone and I’ll call out like a BB King album and just let it play and plug in in the guest room off the kitchen, very quietly with a tiny little amp and a guitar and just play the blues with BB, just play and not worry about performance, judgement, none of it; just play along with BB King. And that’s where I learn a lot is seeing those greats play all those years all the times I’d gotten to see them in person and just playing along with them. You can always go to a nightclub and get up and jam with the band but sitting around jamming for fun with the masters is always very inspiring.
Are you going to be doing anything with Bruce this year?
There are no plans. Bruce finished his wildly successful Broadway show, which was beautiful, and Amy and I got to see opening night. But for the time being, this year the band is not going to play. There are no plans for next year at the moment but of course we all hope down the road there will be another chapter. But as of today, there are no plans.
You end your record with a song called “Remember You” and I wanted to know what that song meant to you?
You know, Amy and I went up to a great town, Sedona, and there was this hotel in the middle of these kind of Indian burial grounds. We went there and it actually kind of spooked us a little bit. But not too long before that we had to say goodbye to our first dog, Groucho. He was a shepherd/shar pei mix and he was just a real hero of mine. He went blind the last three and a half years of his life and had some cancer behind an eye. The traditional vet said you’ve got to do these awful chemos every day and knock them out, you’ve got to do eighteen of them, otherwise he’s not going to last three weeks. And we’re like, we’re not doing that to Groucho, no way. We’re just going to love him. And he had three great years ahead of him even though he was blind. He was a fierce part of the pack, he knew his way around and he was like a hero of mine. It was brutal to say goodbye to him.
So I was up there in this kind of spooky place and there was a little side room so if I was restless and couldn’t sleep, I’d close the door and not bother Amy. But I started working on this song and it was basically kind of a homage to Groucho, saying how much he meant and I’ll always remember you. There is one verse too where I’m just speaking about our dog. I mean it’s metaphorical for anybody and anything, but it was really written about Groucho. Then one verse there was a time when Rain, our second dog who is still with us, she came in limping with this awful thorn in her paw and it was really stuck in deep and we couldn’t get it out and we were like, what are we going to do? Finally, we got her to lay down and got her to be calm, Amy did, and she just gently grabbed Rain’s paw and put it in her mouth and got this thorn between her teeth and yanked it out with Rain’s paw in her mouth. Ever since then, she just follows Amy around and I just thought that was beautiful, that bond that goes beyond anything, and the fact that Rain knew she was in trouble and that Amy wasn’t trying to hurt her and that happened. So I made a verse about that.
But it really started as a tribute to Groucho, the loss, the remembrance. I feel he’s with me every day. I do believe we’re going to see our lost animals in some kind of Heaven or afterlife. I’ve lost my mom and dad, who were like my heroes, and I feel like they’re with me every day, and I feel like Groucho is with me, but it’s still a great kind of hole in the soul that they are not walking around, looking you in the eye. So it’s from that perspective that I wrote this song about Groucho, and even though it was a spooky stay, those few nights I was up most of the night alone working with my acoustic guitar, that song came out and I knew it had to make the record.
Photographs by Carl Schultz