Until this past spring, Nick Lowe hadn't released a music video in 18 years. Then "Sensitive Man" landed on the Internet, starring alternative comedians Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) and Marc Maron (host of the WTF podcast). The video also featured cameos from Robyn Hitchcock and Wilco, with whom Lowe — the 63-year-old British pub-rock and new-wave icon who has gracefully evolved into a more elegant, Brill Building type of songwriter — recently toured. The cultural relevance of everyone involved seemed to indicate that Lowe's career might be on the brink of a verdant third act, one where a younger generation acquaints itself with such albums as Jesus of Cool or even his pretty 2011 album, The Old Magic.
Lowe stops in at Knuckleheads Thursday for a solo performance, along with Eleni Mandell. We caught up with the charming Brit last week while he was on a tour stop in Albany, New York.
The Pitch: You've been on Comedy Bang Bang and WTF, which are these kinds of niche comedy podcasts. Are you a fan of alternative comedy, or is that just a new part of the media landscape you cover in promoting a new record?
Lowe: I have absolutely no idea, really. I know quite a lot of people in that line of work, comedians, seem to like what I do. But I truly don't have any idea why or how I'm on those shows. Are they even shows? I don't really even know what they are.
Yeah, they're like these radio shows that people listen to on their computers.
Oh, yes, I think I know the sort of thing — my manager is really up on that stuff. I'm all for it. It's always good fun, but yeah, I'm no expert on any of that.
I do feel like a lot of your songs have some humor to them, though. Who are some people you think are funny?
Well, I'm kind of old-school, really. The comedians I like are British comedians. If it comes to American [comedians], I like Jack Benny and people like that. Chris Rock, I like him, although I haven't seen his act for some time. For all I know, he's retired and moved to Phoenix, into a condo. But yes, I wish I could drop some hip names, but I'm more old-school when it comes to all that.
There's this lovely song on your latest, The Old Magic, called "I Read a Lot." What are you reading lately? I promise this is the last question I will ask about things you like.
The last book I read that really knocked me out was Alone in Berlin, by a guy called Hans Fallada. He's a German writer, and he wrote it just after the war, but it's just been kind of rediscovered. It's an incredible book about living in Berlin under the Nazis during the war. It's not really a war book, more about working-class people in Berlin and how deeply unpleasant it was to be in Germany during the war. It's kind of this book about paranoia and unpleasantness. But it's fantastic. And since finishing that, I got another of his that I have with me on the road right now. But I haven't started it yet.
How exacting of a writer are you? I feel like your lyrics tend to be very concise and efficient. Do you agonize over every single line and make sure it's perfect, or am I imagining that?
No, I don't think you are imagining it. I think I do. I take a lot of care over my songs. But I try to make it so it sounds like I haven't taken any trouble over it at all. I suppose that's the trick that I've gotten from reading the authors I really like. They all seem to be able to write effortlessly, so you can't really see the craft. It's almost like they're having a conversation. And that can mean choosing one word, the exact right word, to convey a lot of information. At the same time, you don't want to be too precious, like it's some sort of literary exercise. It's got to sound bluesy. But I must say I do like to stick in a decent word every so often, if I can find an opportunity to put a really great word in that you don't hear in pop music. As long as it sounds swinging and natural, and not just a thing where it's about "Look what a clever boy I am."
That's all part of the craft of songwriting, I think. It's amazing, you know, when you think of the era of American songwriting that I'm most interested in, the golden era of American songwriting, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, these songs from the '30s and '40s — they were extremely sophisticated songs, considering they were writing for "Everymen," so to speak. It's very sophisticated language. I don't know if people were just cleverer back then or what. But anyway, yes, I think every so often, you can use a $20 word, and it will fit right in, and people will like it.
Can you think of a song where you did that, where you feel like you nailed it?
Well, modesty forbids me from blowing my own trumpet. [Laughs.] Sometimes these things can be really simple, but I think the song you were kind enough to mention earlier, "I Read a Lot." I think that's one that doesn't have much fat on it. The lyric is very straightforward and poignant without being, as we say in the U.K., "wet."
What does it mean to say "wet"?
Oh, sort of soppy or a bit sissy. Or precious. Too precious. But I think ["I Read a Lot"] sounds grown-up, solid.
Is there a noticeable change in what your audiences look like since you toured with Wilco last year?
Definitely. I've been sort of working on this for a while, trying to attract a younger audience without being embarrassing, without trying to pretend I'm down with the kids or something. And I've been working on it rather hard, really. And when I toured with Wilco, it was a really good experiment to see if I was getting somewhere. And it really did work.