- Backstage pass: Lloyd Cole
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions burst onto the scene with the stunning 1984 debut Rattlesnakes, replete with slashing, ringing guitars and witty, spot-on sketches boasting some of the best wordplay this side of Elvis Costello. After two more releases, the English singer-songwriter split from the Commotions and recorded a quartet of solo albums for Rykodisc and Capitol before escaping the spotlight for a time. He returned with 2003's low-key, slightly electronic Music in a Foreign Language, followed by 2006's masterful Antidepressant, which dissects midlife disaffection with clever precision. He's no longer a rocker, but Cole's dispassionate tenor croon has lost none of its lyrical bite.
When the Commotions started out, you conceived of them as a soul band, though they obviously never turned out that way. Could you ever see yourself doing R&B songs?
There's an approach to that kind of vocal delivery that I've gotten further and further from as I get older. I get upset looking at photographs of me singing because I look considerably more pained than I think I am -- I'm just trying to hit the notes. [Laughs.] I want my songs to come from my soul as much as my brain, but I don't want to go too far to one side or another. I'd certainly be hard-pressed to think of a white-boy soul project other than [David Bowie's] Young Americans that I actually like.
After leaving Rykodisc in '95, you released very little music for a while. What happened?
It took quite a few years to actually fall into writing songs again, to realize that I did still want to write music. By that time, I was living here in Massachusetts and had a workspace. I had an idea for a record, but I thought, "I'm just going to try to do it myself and see how I get on." I had assimilated enough studio knowledge by then that I was able to record it -- not for zero expense, but because it was mainly me working, the expenses were minimal. I sort of started the second leg of my career then -- around 2002, 2003. Since then I figure out budgets myself, I'm my own tour manager and I just make things work.
In 2009, you released Cleaning Out the Ashtrays, a boxed set of more than 60 unreleased tracks from across your career. What was it like going through all those old masters?
I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't suck as much as I thought I might with the stuff that didn't make it on a record. I knew some of it was going to be good, but there really were only a couple songs that were awfully embarrassing. To get the thing finally out there after the people had been talking about the idea of this box for about 10 years -- to actually get it done was very rewarding. Financially it's been a success, and also critically.
For the first time in years, you've assembled a band to tour with.
We're sort of an extension of the folksinger idea -- it's completely acoustic. Some songs it's three guitars, some songs it's guitar, banjo and mandolin. If you can imagine Music in a Foreign Language without the drum machine and the synthesizers, that's pretty much what the band sounds like. It's quiet, but we do get up and bang stuff occasionally. We actually almost get slightly jug-band-ish at times, which is maybe a little frightening. ... Some songs' existing arrangements translated easily to three guitars, and other songs we've radically rearranged.
Why start performing with a group now?
I spent a lot of my time on my own on stage. I almost feel like I'm too good at the solo shows now: I'm almost a bit too slick. I've got a lot of segues from song to song, I know them so well. I need a break from it. Also I have a bunch of songs that I'm looking at right now, and only a few of them seem to want to have just me playing. A lot of the new songs are going to be with a full band ... it's a bit like my very first solo record. There's some pretty loud songs, pretty quiet ones, really poppy songs, and some fairly dark ones. But overall there's a jaunt about it that the last couple records haven't had.
Lloyd Cole with Bill Toms. 7:30 p.m. Tue., Jan. 26 (doors at 6:30 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $15. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com