Since turning professional at the age of 17 Nils Lofgren has enjoyed a lengthy career that has encompassed solo artist, band leader and stints as a member of Crazy Horse, Ringo's All Starr's and the E Street Band. Nils joined the latter when he replaced Steve Van Zandt for the mammoth Born In The USA tour during the mid-1980's and he remains a member to this day. 2011 saw the release of his latest solo album Old School that we described as being "a journey of anger, grief, purpose and quiet contemplation". As a long time admirer of Lofgren's work, Sea of Tranquility's Dean Pedley was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with him about Old School, memories of Clarence Clemons and the upcoming E Street Band tour.
SoT: Hi Nils and welcome to Sea of Tranquility...it is a real pleasure to speak with you today. I'm talking to you from Birmingham, England....hopefully you recall some of the amazing shows you've played for us here over the years
Oh yes many a time, I've had a great many shows in Birmingham. Nice weather and foul weather but always great audiences there and I remember that Ronnie Scott's was there for a while. And a few years back I remember it was the only night off I had for a couple of weeks and so I got to go and see Bruce on the Seeger Sessions tour and I got up to sit in with him during the encore. So Birmingham is a great town that I always feel comfortable walking around and really enjoy playing there.
SoT: Before we get on to talking about Old School I need to ask you about the recent announcement that the E Street Band will be coming back to Europe in the summer which is really exciting news for those of us over here
I was pleasantly shocked and surprised that Bruce decided to fire up the band and commit to shows in the UK and Europe. It's been two years now since we finished the last tour and had the horrible loss of Clarence who sadly I had to bury on my 60th birthday which made it a very unusual and bittersweet birthday for me. So I'm proud of Bruce and very grateful that he has done this; we certainly can't be the band we were but I think it's such an extraordinary cast of musical characters that I know Bruce will still want to challenge us to see what we can do.
SoT: You mention it being a challenge...the set lists have been so varied over the past few tours with fans bringing along requests and Bruce really testing the band which has made for some remarkable performances
It's a huge preparation because every tour we usually wind up doing 170 or 180 different songs. The last couple of tours we started doing songs that we never talked about or never even played together and Bruce would just pull signs out of the audience. It's great fun to be a part of a musical challenge like that where he'll throw a sign down the steps and the road crew has thirty seconds to find the lyrics on the Internet and get them into the teleprompter while we're working out an arrangement to a song we never played before. And at the same time we're standing in front of 50,000 people doing all of this.
SoT: And of course your own role has changed over the last decade or so with Steve coming back and having all those guitarists in the band
Well when Steve came back in 1999 I certainly looked around and thought well we don't need four guitar players. And I thought it was a good time to challenge myself and become more of a "swing" man and I took some lessons from some great teachers on pedal steel, lap steel, bottleneck and six string banjo. So I could throw in some different instruments into the toolbox because Bruce continues to be a master and his songs can go from having this roaring ten piece band to just folk guitar, violin, pedal steel and nothing else. So it's been a great journey to learn new instruments and the songs are so authentic that they require the real instruments instead of a simulated pedal steel for which there is no such thing.
SoT: Let's talk about your latest album which is Old School. For the past few years now you've operated without a record company and effectively become your own "cottage industry". What have been the advantages of working in this way?
It's been about sixteen years now since I parted ways with the record industry and I just realised that without having massive hit records and making the record company's lots of money they weren't really interested in me. I started in 1968 and by the 80's and in particular the 90's it started to become very oppressive and hands on. It took me about a year and a half to get out of my last record deal and at that point I recognised that I needed to be a free agent and maintain my freedom to do whatever I want. So I can share it through the website and take my time to craft records that I am really proud of. I did this Old School record here at our home in the desert where my wife runs the place and looks after our six dogs while I come and go musically. After the last two tours with E Street band I came home excited about my own new music but I was not musically rusty which was a good combination. So I took my time, continued to tour on my own, left the studio doors open and encouraged everyone to just wander in and out so if I needed to take a dog to the vet or run an errand I could just shut things down. I took a year and half to make a record I was truly proud of at the same time as participating in a family and a beautiful home that I leave a lot of the time.
SoT: The album starts with the title track which has a very angry lyrical theme and is almost like your "state of the nation" in 2011
Well just a part of it and certainly here in America my wife Amy and I have been screaming at the TV in recent years as we watch people who prey on children be given a second chance which to me is an abomination. So finally it just spewed out into this song where I finally said enough is enough and if someone goes after our kids they simply shouldn't have a second chance and shame on all of us and the government and the law-makers for not rectifying that. It came out in a torrent of rage at this particular situation that probably exists worldwide. Forgiveness is one thing and I think is admirable but forgiveness without common sense is ridiculous and there are some things that if you do you should not have the opportunity to ever do again and I think that preying on children is one of them.
SoT: Absolutely. Also throughout the album is a recurring theme of reflection and growing older on songs like "Ain't Too Many Of Us Left" and "60 Is the New 18"
I really wanted it to be an authentic snapshot of who I am today meaning how grateful I am for my journey, the surprising amount of anxiety and fears you might have as you get older. When you are younger you think well if I ever get that old I'll be fine – old, wise and sage – and the kids will be running around bringing me drinks and putting on my slippers as I watch football all day and of course nothing could be further from the truth. So there is a lot of anxiety and despair mixed in amongst all of the hope, excitement and wisdom and I just wanted to make an accurate record that reflected all of that; not just the doom and gloom and not just the look at me everything is great. I've been doing this for 43 years and it is a real mixed bag as you get older and as my Mum always used to tell me – and she was right – getting old is not for wimps. I don't have the physical aches and pains she does at 84 God Bless Her but I wanted the record to include all of the good and the bad that is circling around me at this point in my life.
SoT: You have one or two special guests on the record, Sam Moore, Lou Gramm and Paul Rodgers. The track with Paul, "Amy Joan Blues", is a stomping blues number with the two of you trading lines that makes for a great combination of your two voices
We're old friends and Paul has always been one of my musical heroes since the early days with Free who should really be in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But that fortunately doesn't stop us from enjoying their catalogue. Way back even on the fourth Grin record Gone Crazy if you have the album cover then on the back there is a stairway that goes off into another dimension and it looks like there is some graffiti down there...if you hold it up to the mirror it says "Number One Paul Rodgers"
SoT: Wow – I didn't know that
It was just my way of acknowledging something I felt since the 1960's and the first time I heard Free. We have stayed in touch and Paul has had me had a guest at his shows and as I got near to the completion of the record I thought why not ask him and sent him this funky bottleneck blues track. Ten of the twelve vocals are all sung live in my home rough edges and all and I though how great if Paul would be up for doing a duet. So he heard it and did an extraordinary job as he always does. In fact not long ago he called and asked me to put together a track called "Abandon Love", an old Bob Dylan track for a 50th anniversary Amnesty International Dylan record that is coming out and we talked over the phone and worked long distance so it was very old school meets new school because we could never really get together. So we did this very obscure Dylan thing with eight verses - and that's a lot of verses – which is coming out in January and I'm very excited about that.
SoT: Now one of the songs on the album "Miss You Ray" which you wrote for Ray Charles has kind of been evolving on stage into your tribute to Clarence Clemons
Yes unfortunately the last five months I've been singing "Miss You C" and changing some of the lyrics to reference Clarence Clemons who was a very dear friend that I stood next to for twenty seven years. We spoke every week off the road and we were very close. It is a terrible loss and I wrote that song before I had any idea that we were going to lose Clarence and I had to practice what I preach; grieve the loss but also focus on family and friends left and realise that life is grand even with losses like that but it certainly gets harder to navigate.
SoT: Thinking back to when you first joined the E Street Band was Clarence the one person you immediately felt close with
Right off the bat. Everyone was friendly because I was the homework guy and had to play catch up but for some reason I always had a friendship with Clarence that included speaking every week and even when we were off the road we would just check in to make sure everything was alright. It was a very natural, very powerful deep friendship and I still have the memories imprinted on me that will continue but it is certainly a terrible loss for all of us.
SoT: It certainly is. When you tour your own music now that is generally as part of a duo as opposed to going out with a full band; would you consider shows with a band again or is that in the past now?
No I wouldn't say it was in the past and I would like to tour with a band again; there are a lot of things that go with that but when the time is right I would like to do it again. Certainly I was thinking about it with this record and planning a duo trip this Spring which would be three or four weeks but until I get an E Street schedule I can't really commit to being in England for a month so I'll try to find some slots and work around it. I've been over almost every year since 1973 when I first came with Neil Young and the Tonight's The Night band and I just love coming over there to play.
SoT: I remember the first time I saw you live was in the 80's on the Flip tour when you had a full band, the trampolines and a couple of hit records over here at the time – that must have been a pretty exciting period for you
Certainly after the Born In The USA tour which was my first time in the band...that turned into about 165 dates and I got to be in the band as they went from sports arenas to stadiums which was something Bruce didn't want to do but he committed to it because of the ticket demand and of course he got great at it. So after a ride like that I was just buzzing and in good musical shape and it was just the perfect time to jump into my solo work. And it was a good time for me to get back to England, sing my own songs and with "Secrets In The Street" and "Delivery Night" I was blessed to get some airplay in the UK. It remains a place I love to come and play as long as I'm alive and singing and playing then I'll be back.
SoT: That's great to hear. Well we're getting towards the end of our chat now so looking back over your career so far what would you say has been your greatest achievement?
Just to have been on the road for 43 years and find myself in good health and with a passion for what I do. I grew up in a musical home where I was encouraged to enjoy music and practice it and my parents financed lessons on the accordion for ten years. For the last 16 years I've had this beautiful old 1935 desert home and my wife Amy keeps the place together; she is a professional cook and looks after my health for me as I get crazy and delirious and come and go and get to live my musical dreams. So I have been very blessed with a lot of support from my family and I just want to keep it going
SoT: Thanks Nils; before we finish was there anything else you wanted to mention?
At the website www.nilslofgren.com there is a lot of free music and also a guitar school for beginners and there are hourly lessons that you can download. They are designed for people with no rhythm but want to enjoy music as a hobby and I think that I'm a pretty good teacher as I've been studying music since I was five years old. So I would encourage people to check out the website and take a look around at what is there
SoT: It has been a pleasure speaking with you Nils and we look forward to seeing you over here again in the near future both on your own and with the E Street Band.
Thanks for letting people know about the new music Dean. I'm very grateful for that and appreciate the interest.