For reasons which will become obvious eventually, though not necessarily making complete sense, this conversation with Lloyd Cole begins and ends with clothes. And chest hair.
Neither of these are standard topics with the pan-continental, American-based Englishman who formed The Commotions while studying in Scotland in 1982 and has been known to drop in a French pronunciation or two.
But then Cole’s most recent album, Guesswork, was not your standard Lloyd Cole album, with its electronic undertow, its drone elements and a sense of settling into acceptance of the slippages of late middle age. Even with, or maybe because of the presence of old Commotions, keyboardist Blair Cowan and guitarist Neil Clark, synths and snaking guitar, not acoustic sounds and jangly riffs ruled here.
When some of the sounds that we hear on Guesswork (read the review here) were having their first flush of mainstream success in the hands of a swarm of sugared pop bands with ridiculous hair, Cole was playing guitar in what looks like an almost classic guitar pop outfit, The Commotions.
Given the jangle and hooks of the band’s first album, Rattlesnakes, it might have been assumed that he was letting that passing by, maybe even stoutly resisting it as part of the bastion of the traditional. You can see the texta scrawls on pencil cases and school bags: guitars rule; synths sux etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
However, even if you weren’t aware of two albums of electronic-based instrumental music from him in Cole’s long solo career, you can still hear some of those sounds sneaking in on the final album with the Commotions. Was he taking notes at the time?
“I was a fan. I’m a fan. Those ABC records, Soft Cell records were fantastic and I quite liked the early Spandau Ballet when they were more of a synth band type sound,” Cole says from Glasgow, where he had been rehearsing for his tour with Clark alongside him.
“You know, the band Blair and I had before the Commotions was synthpop, based on a kind of Soft Cell type.”
No way! Yes way. So how did they end up as a guitar pop band?
“The Commotions sort of fell into being the sound that they were because the five of us together seem to make that sound, naturally, together. But when you took us apart it wasn’t necessarily the case at all.”
That sounds too easy, Remember, it was a time that when making decisions about what kind of band you were — and what kind of fan you were — wasn’t a casual thing. Like being a dance/disco band in the mid-70s amidst a hairy chested cordon of rock bands, what you chose was almost a political, and certainly socially significant act in the early ‘80s.
“I think the focus ended up on the guitar after Neil and I wrote Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?,” Cole explains. “We were recording what would be our debut single, Down at the Mission — which wasn’t synth-based but in retrospect sounded a bit close to [Duran Duran’s exuberant if facile] Wild Boys or something — and we had to record the B-side. We had this little song idea, a half-finished thing, and it took us a month to get around to admitting that it was much better than the A-side.
“And that this was something that we did naturally, whereas the A-side sounded rather stilted. So we just took it and ran with it, and that’s how Rattlesnakes happened.”
An alternative universe opens up before us of Cole, Cowan, Clark, bass player Lawrence Donegan and drummer Stephen Irvine ditching the skivvies and jeans for satin-on-satin, swapping guitars for keytars.
“No, we would never have done that,” Cole says, mildly disturbed at my flight of fancy. “I think to be honest, the aesthetic, the way that the band presented, would probably have been similar either way around. Neil’s guitar playing and my singing were probably the two signatures of the band, but we really did sort of fall into it, and we did a few things quite well, but only a few things, and when we had done those things that wasn’t really anywhere else for us to go. Which is why we didn’t last that long.”
Today however, the guitar sound and style on Guesswork, mostly played by Clark, is something closer to the things Carlos Alomar was doing with David Bowie in the late ‘70s. Take the song Nightsweats especially, which has a sinuous, night-hued feel.
“Oh yeah,” Cole says. “We were specifically trying to get the feel of some of those guitars from [the Bowie-produced album for Iggy Pop] The Idiot. That was my guideline: let’s try and get something that’s got the same feel as those guitars at the end of Sister Midnight.
“I don’t think we sound like that, but the great thing about having your own voice [instrumentally or vocally] is you can try and sound like other people all the time but you never quite pull it off because you’ve always got your own voice getting in the way of it. Neil’s will always sound like Neil, but absolutely The Idiot was one of the main reference points for making this record.”
What was it about that record in particular?
“I felt like I wanted to make a record that might be able to sit alongside the kind of music I like to listen to these days. And these days and I don’t find myself listening to a lot of what you would call rock music,” says Cole, not sounding anywhere near as curmudgeonly as that might suggest. “I know The Idiot is, technically, a rock record, but I prefer the description of the time that it was Kraftwerk meets James Brown.
“And I find that my taste is more extreme: I am more drawn to pop or experimental music, not stuff in the middle. It’s like my attitude to food: I’m not particularly interested in okay food. I like street food and I like fantastic food.”
Speaking of extremes, this album was recorded in his Massachusetts attic, which I know from previous interviews with him is a place that can be unbearably hot in summer and appallingly cold in winter. Did he find that brief Goldilocks moment for recording?
“No,” he sighs. “I was singing with rolls of tissue paper next to me just wiping the sweat off, just getting through it. But fortunately, I was on my own so it didn’t matter.”
Think of it as his James Brown moment, sweat being mopped from his brow as he ploughed through.
“It was one of those scenarios it was necessary. It was the job you couldn’t make with anybody else because I was sort of inventing it as I went along. I vowed after [2006 album] Antidepressant never to make a record in a room on my own again and I think that’s one of the reasons it took so long to get around to making the record because in the back of my mind I knew it was going to have to be sitting in that room again for a year.”
Being alone, or at least isolation, is not always a bad thing for Cole. A couple of years ago he said to me that he was looking for disconnection, dreaming of a place where no one would speak to him, where he would not understand anything anyone was saying.
“I still dream about that. I still love the idea of living in a country where I don’t understand the language.”
Madonna did it in Portugal for her 2019 album, Madame X. Less James Brown, more Madonna could be the go.
“Unfortunately, I speak enough Portuguese to understand just a little. But yeah if you work in language in any way, it’s very, very difficult to be in a bar or something where people are talking, and not accidentally hear what they are saying and have that take your mind away from the present that you’re trying to be in,” Cole says.
“One of my favourite sounds is the kind of roar of a large French brasserie where there’s all this talking but he can’t really hear any of it because it almost sounds like a football crowd. It’s a wonderful sound and what’s lovely about it is it sounds like humanity but you don’t hear any of the details, like in impressionist painting or something.”
Like humanity but not individual humans?
Actually, yes, that one does sound exactly as curmudgeonly as you think. Though Cole is not a humourless curmudgeon.
A couple of years back, as he toured solo – with his son joining in during the show, on guitar and as the butt of dad jokes about his hair, which was maybe even more luxuriant that his father’s had been at that age - the songs owed something of a debt to ‘70s singer songwriters.
Seemingly in that spirit, he fearlessly went the double denim through his Australian shows. (Read the review here). Given the electronic basis on this new record, could we see finally him in a silver jumpsuit?
“I just bought new double denim,” he says with a chuckle. “But I am going on a limb. For the first time possibly ever I’m wearing a T-shirt underneath the denim.”
A t-shirt??? (Somehow, I’ve come over all Lady Bracknell.)
“I’ve spent my entire life on stage always wearing a proper shirt, but this touring regime I’ve begun is pretty intense [running from September to New Year’s Day] and if you can believe it, I’m actually quite a lot physically stronger than I was last time you saw me,” says Cole. “Making this record took a lot out of me, I looked like shit when I finished making it, Now I look … better than shit.”
Right, so a muscle T-shirt then?
“Maybe I’ll take it off, who knows? It could be the double denim open to the waist,” he says enthusiastically as I dissolve into laughter. “But that is obviously a joke because grey chest hair is probably the least favourite thing on my body. Something about grey hair is okay on your head, but on your chest, it’s disgusting looking.
“So that’s not going to happen.”
Lloyd Cole plays:
December 6 - Theatre Royal, Hobart
December 7 - Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
December 9 - Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra
December 11 - Hamer Hall, Melbourne
December 12 - Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide
December 14 - Lismore City Hall, Lismore
December 15 - QPAC, Brisbane
December 20 - City Recital Hall, Sydney
December 22 - Freo Social, Perth