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Nils Lofgren - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 9 / 2 / 2015

Nils Lofgren - Interview


Nils Lofgren, the guitarist with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, talks to Ben Howarth about his long solo career, forthcoming tour of the UK and 'Face the Music', his new ten CD box set

Chances are you will know Nils Lofgren primarily as the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. He joined in time to play the whole 'Born In The USA' tour and has been with the Boss ever since – in fact, on recent tours, his role has expanded to the extent that he now takes more than fifty different instruments with him on each trip. You will also doubtless be familiar with his contributions to some of Neil Young's finest albums – he began playing with him as a 19 year old and played on 'After The Gold Rush' and later 'Tonight's The Night', as well as touring as a member of Crazy Horse. Regrettably, hisown songs have not always got the attention they deserved. Lofgren's own band Grin were signed on the back of his work with Neil Young, but his biggest successes came after he started performing as a solo artist in 1975. His debut 'Nils Lofgren', containing his affectionate tribute to Keith Richards ('Keith Don't Go') and the classic 'The Sun Hasn't Set On This Boy Yet', came fifth in that year’s ‘NME’ Albums of the Year poll, and the follow-up (containing the exceptional rocker 'Mud in Your Eye') came tenth a year later. This was the peak of his success as solo artist, but he has continued to write and release a steady stream of albums ever since. Lofgren is a little harsh on himself when he sells the albums “didn't sell”. His sales didn't rival Springsteen's, but he was one of the more popular artists of his time – there was a reason Springsteen hired him! But, nevertheless, for many years those classic records have been out of print. I was introduced to him via a compilation album ('Don't Walk, Rock'), which was a good introduction, though my dad always complains that the mix never sounded as good as the vinyl originals. It has only been this year that his music has been available in a proper format, with the release of a comprehensive box set, 'Face The Music'. Lofgren has always particularly enjoyed touring the UK – and he will back for a run of sixteen shows in January (to put this in context, he has played only a short run of four shows in the US). He may no longer offer us the backflips and theatrics of his earlier tours now he's into his sixties, but Lofgren remains an irresistible guitarist – these shows promise to be a rare treat. In advance of that tour, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Lofgren from his home in Arizona. Having settled his dogs down, he duly answered our questions on his plans for next year's shows and on 'Face The Music'. PB: So, the obvious place to start is to ask what can we expect from the tour dates in January? NL: Well, it's a sixteen date tour and I'm really excited to come back over. It's the only tour my wife will agree to come on and we both really love to travel round the UK together. It's become almost a second home to to us. My first shows in the UK were on the ‘Tonight's The Night’ tour with Neil Young and since then, I've been back many times. I expect, at the time of year, we'll get some snow and some wind. We really enjoy that you can do the whole tour in the bus, and go from place to place, rather than needing to jump on a plane every day. I try and get over every year, but because I've been so busy with the E-Street Band tours, this is my first time playing my own shows there since 2011. PB: Are these venues you know from previous tours? NL: I think I have played most of the venues – I love the theatre venues. The audiences are always so respectful to me, and it's a great environment to perform in. You know, I started music as a classically trained accordion player, and then it was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – the British invasion – that allowed me to discover great music. It was from there that I went on to discover lots of American music, all my heroes from blues and Motown. So, coming to the UK is really important to me, because of that history. And then, because the audiences have always been so good to me, it's become a place with great memories. But on every tour, also the chance to create some new ones. I'm lucky that I have a great home and a pack of dogs – it's tough to be away from that. But as Amy will be coming along with me, it will be a fantastic tour. PB: Are there any songs you'd previously perhaps let slip that are coming back into the set list? NL: There will be some of my favourites that I will always play. But, after doing the 'Face The Music' box set, I have gone back and learned some songs that I haven't played on these tours before, and some of the rarities that I have never played before. In fact,a wealth of unheard material that I am really excited about playing. It's been a great experience putting that together, and it should make for an interesting show for the audiences. PB: Is it a different experience preparing for a run of shows where you sing, compared to rehearsing to tour with the E-street band or your other projects? Or does it come naturally? NL: It is different, mainly because of the need to learn the lyrics. There is also the need to sustain the show for the whole set. When I play with Bruce, he does so much to keep the crowed involved, and there are times when I can just look around and enjoy what the rest of the band are doing. But when I play solo, that's my job. It is hard work, but also something I love doing. Although this is the first UK tour in a few years, we did four shows in the States last month and, of course, we got right back at it. So, now we're in great shape to come and do some good work in the UK. PB: You've released a lot of live albums over the years, and I know that a lot of your fans think those are the best – I really love your acoustic live album from 1997, for example. Is it fair to say that the live shows are your favourite part of what you do? NL: Playing live is my main inspiration. I've worked with some great people in the studio, but I find it hard, you need the patience to play the same song over and over again. I really like to get to a show, have a bit of time to prepare and practice, and then go out and get the response of a room of a hundred or so people. People who have come expecting something special. I also like to read the room – sometimes you can just feel something and let the song expand, improvise something and maybe take the song out to twice its normal length. Other times, you try something and it isn't going to work, so you stop it. I've been doing this so long, I know when to do that, when is the right moment. PB. How did you first meet Greg Varlotta (who will be accompanying you on the shows)? NL: Well, it came from a recommendation. He'd been playing with the Side Street Strutters. He's had more than twenty years with them now, and I was looking for someone to accompany me. So I went to see him perform and it went from there. He is a trumpet player, but he can also play bass and guitar, and other horn instruments. And he does the tap-dancing onstage, that's the percussion, and that really works with the theatre. It's perfect for me. He has great musical instincts. When you work with someone, you don't want to be telling them what to play. I really enjoy playing with him and we have a good understanding. PB: Your box set has been a real labour of love – especially because you've signed every copy. When you first had the idea, did you always imagine such a complete package – or did that come as you worked through it? A: Actually, over the years I had called the old record companies - there is a handful of them - because I owed them money as I didn't sell that many records. I asked them, could I buy my music back because it's become extinct and they said no all the time. You know, it's a buck to make a CD now. I went to lawyers, and they said that they had the right to make me extinct if they liked – I signed a bad contract. That's not a unique story by the way. Unless you were the one percent of one percent who have hit records, your catalogue goes out of print. They don't make any more. I was very disappointed that they didn't want to make a little money, but they always said no. It was actually Fantasy Records and Concord Music Group-, Gene Rumsey the President, and Tom Cartwright, a really great A&R record company guy who I have worked with over the years that I really like. They approached me and shocked me with the idea of a really comprehensive box set, with a large amount of bonus tracks and rarities. We got serious about it pretty quickly – I did the homework on the out-takes and rarities. There's are forty of them. And it lead to a ten disc set – nine CDs and one DVD, and two of the discs are filled up with the forty bonus tracks. It was over a year and a half of work. My wife produced it with me, and we turned the whole house upside down. All the old photographers and Steve Smolen, a buddy who is a librarian, went through all my career to get all the old posters and 45s, stuff from my whole career. I didn't collect any of that stuff, shame on me, but he had it all, so we've collected all of that into a 135 page booklet with beautiful pictures and ephemera, which Dave Marsh helped me put together. And Dave was the one who prodded me to write the story myself, and he edited it. So it's in my own words, reminiscences from my forty-five years of recording career and all the side trips too and the stories. And we're really proud of it, it came out great. You can get it from nilslofgren.com at the best price so far. Apparently, Amazon in the UK doubles the cost. PB: Yeah, I spotted that... NL: I mean it's silly. Look, it's the bureaucracy of the music business. My old companies, even though they know I have a bigger following in the UK and Europe, wouldn't let it come out anywhere except North America. So, this is a way to get around that. You can get it direct from me and we'll ship it to you, and save you half the price UK Amazon will charge. I was horrified when I saw that, but I will have some with me at the shows and I'm trying to spread the word that you can get it at my website. PB: What was it like listening back through your entire songwriting career? Did it make you change your mind about anything? NL: I had been so wrapped up in moving forward. I'd been in some great bands, whether it was Bruce, Neil Young, Ringo, Patti Scielfa, I've done some things with Willie Nelson. A lot of great players – I've just been so focused looking forward with that. I think, psychologically, that when I was told my music was extinct and they were refusing to take my own money for my own music – “go away” - that was really hurtful and I kind of forgot about it all, and kept my focus on tomorrow, today. So to go through forty-five years of all that music... (Pauses) Well, figuratively, my goal was I didn't want to have to get up from my couch and move the needle, I wanted it to play through and feel right. So, I left off anything that wouldn't allow for that I was kind of shocked at how much I had done. Intellectually, I understood it, but I had kind of forgotten about the emotional attachment to it, I'm sure some of that was the painful idea that most of it was out of print and extinct. So, to resurrect the best of all of that work and to put it together in an order that felt right to me, handpick everything and have a company that put it all together and got the rights to it, which was not easy, put it all in a beautiful package which we crafted with some great art departments, with my wife Amy at the helm. It's a really classy package – and something I never thought would have happened. PB: I've seen so much great feedback to it online, some good reviews and even more from fans who'd been waiting so long to get all your music again. It must feel like a vindication... NL: It's still kind of shocking. I know it happened, I have it in front of me. But still, to have all forty-five years of music all together, and I got to handpick it. And Billy Wolf, god bless him, he had to master all these years of music and make it flow. He's a mastering engineer who's worked with for years, out of Virginia. His job was really important. He did it beautifully, really improved everything and made it flow. So, to be approached with an idea that I'd long given up on, and have the control to do it right, I'm really pleased. PB: You will be spending January in the UK, so I'm sure that's your main focus now, but after that, what do you have planned for the rest of 2015? NL: You know what, I'm hoping that, after my sixteen towns in nineteen days, I come home beaten up and inspired, and ready to start writing. I am going to start working on a new solo album. I really don't know what it's going to be, but it will be mine. I'm not sure it'll be all done and out next year, but that's my next big project. I'm going to get back into writing, and see what comes out. I'm excited about it. I'm so busy putting this show together, and memorising lyrics, and learning songs that I've never played before, just to make it interesting for the audiences there, that I'm kind of giving myself permission to do those shows, come home and then jump back into writing, with the idea of getting a new album together. PB: Thank you. Nils Lofgren will be touring the UK throughout January. More information about dates can be found at www.nilslofgren.com. and www.cmplive.com

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live reviews

Union Chapel, London, 15/1/2015
Nils Lofgren - Union Chapel, London, 15/1/2015
Ben Howarth watches E Street Band multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren play a magical masterclass from his extraordinary back catalogue of own material at the Union Chapel in London

digital downloads


Keith Don't Go: Live in London 1990 (2013)
Enjoyable but unexceptional live album from Nils Lofgren, recorded at the Town and Country Club in London in 1990

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