Nils Lofgren is genuine musical royalty. A member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a 46 year career, both as a solo artist and with various bands alongside, amongst others, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and Jerry Lee Lewis, Nils has recently issued a career-spanning ten disc, 189 track box set, Face the Music. On Friday 23 January 2015, Nils and his band bring their 16 date UK tour to Sage Gateshead.
I interviewed Nils earlier this month and I started by asking him about the box set and whether, 46 years ago, he’d had any idea that he’d have such a successful career.
“Err, no.” he replied with succinct honesty. “I was a classical accordion player from age 5 to 15 doing Beatles medleys at the ninth grade variety show and I really just picked up the guitar as a hobby. It was through The Beatles and Stones that I discovered Stax, Volt, Motown, the old blues, the whole floodgates of music. My brother Tommy was playing guitar and showed me a few chords. In Middle America nobody thought you could do what The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix did. When I was 16 I saw The Who and then later that same night in a different venue saw The Jimi Hendrix Experience and that night I was possessed with the notion of being a professional rock musician and a year later at 17 I hit the road with my band Grin. Of course at that time I was just worried about finding a few gigs on the weekend and making a few bucks to pay rent. I certainly wasn’t greedy enough to envision a 46 year run with some of the great bands of all time and be sitting here putting out a 189 track box set of 10 discs and a 136 page book illustrated by Dave Marsh. I’ve worked fairly hard but I didn’t create the gift of music, I got it from my folks and some higher power, God’s fine with me, I’m not religious at all but I like to think I’m spiritual and believe in some higher power.”
I was possessed with the notion of being a professional rock musician
I continued by asking Nils if he’d rediscovered any tracks when putting together Face the Music, and whether any of them would be played on his forthcoming tour.
“Yeah, many of them. I never really listen to my old music, so here I was presented with a wonderful project where I had to listen to all of it! There were hundreds of basement tapes and demos to plough through. There were unreleased tapes that we found that I’d forgotten about and it was really a great stroll down memory lane. My goal was figuratively to not have to get off the couch and move the needle on the record; I didn’t want to have to skip tracks and I spent months and months and months assembling not only the songs but a running order. Of course some albums I might take three songs from, some you might take six from; you wanted them to flow with each other and then from album to album and that was no easy task. I had a great mastering engineer, Billy Wolf, who I’ve worked with for years, who put all five decades of sounds together. Shockingly I can say that I could listen to this thing front to back and basically enjoy it, which really surprised me because I’m always thinking about the next chapter – at this point of course it’s a tour of the UK then my plan is to come home and start writing and see what comes up to make another record next year, a solo album. Looking back to this level for a year and a half was something I would have never done without the gift of a company willing to go find these tracks, which are mostly out of print, and allow me to share them in this box set.”
Nils continued by telling me what we can expect to see at the gigs next year.
“Well I’m with my buddy Greg Varlotta who was with me for the last three or four runs in the UK. Of course we’ve got the many acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, piano, synth, tap-dancing, trumpet playing, singing, harmonies but we’re going to change the set a bit especially Face the Music. I’ll be going back and playing some songs I don’t usually play, some of my favourites that I’ve forgotten about, and certainly do a selection of the bonus disc tracks, there’s 40 of them there, songs that I never play. So we’ll be playing a different selection of songs amongst hopefully the classics that people expect to hear and change up the shows and, of course, my improv guitar playing is always there. I love playing a lot of soloing and just taking chances to see where it leads. We were out of the Face the Music box set but we’ve got more and you can get them at nilslofgren.com and they come with a special pin that Amy, my wife, made, reflecting the cover shot which is me with my frizzy Jimi Hendrix hair at 16 in a band called The Shot when all we did was the Cream catalogue and the Hendrix catalogue. It was a power trio of teenagers in Bethesda Maryland.”
Sadly, however, Nils’ famous trampoline won’t make a tour appearance.
“My whole life I played basketball and of course I’ve been doing that trampoline flip since 1969 and I destroyed my hips, they were bone on bone for many years. I was in agony and six years ago I had both hips replaced and the surgeon assured me that if the trampoline didn’t go in the closet I’d be a cripple within weeks. So now I’m just happy to jump around and walk with no pain and I’ve taken up, of all things, tap-dancing. My buddy Greg Varlotta is a master tap-dancer and he gave me lessons. He taps in our show more like a percussion instrument and a couple of times we’ll have a little ‘tap off’ where we play against each other. I don’t overstay my welcome because I’m not very good but it’s kinda fun.”
Nils explained why playing in the North East of England holds special memories.
“I’ve been coming there for 40 years since the Tonight’s the Night tour with Neil Young in ’73. I flew there from London in the ‘80s to play a TV show of all things and jumping on an 11 o’clock flight back to London I bumped into Ralph Steadman, the historic illustrator for Hunter Thompson, and we’ve been friends ever since. As a very big fan of Ralph’s art it was a very historic meeting and it led to a great friendship and he’s done a couple of album covers for me, Breakaway Angel and Crooked Line. We’ve had some great gigs all over the UK and Newcastle is certainly no exception.”
I asked Nils to tell me about his first trip to the UK.
“I’d been there in ’69 to take a field trip to the historic rock town of London, England. Graham Nash was kind enough, from my connections with Neil Young, to let me come into the studio and hang out with them and have some tea here and there and just have a chat and kind of spend some time with him and also Greg Reeves, bass player on After the Gold Rush. Greg and I got together on a project he had that I don’t think was ever released. I just wanted to get to London and I had a great couple of weeks there and thanks to Graham Nash and Greg Reeves had some friends to hang out with.”
I continued by asking Nils about The Loner his well received album of Neil Young covers and whether he had any plans to repeat the formula with other artists.
“I don’t. It was not really something I’d ever thought of. Somebody mentioned it and I thought ‘why would I do that?’ Out of respect to Neil’s writing, and I think he’s as great a writer as we’ve ever had, I took about 30 songs and sang them to my dogs and cats for about 3 weeks. I didn’t go to the studio, I didn’t record anything, I wasn’t committed to the project, I just sang ‘em. And, you know, they sounded like karaoke for about a week or two and then all of a sudden there was a batch of about a dozen or so that sounded like I might have something and I decided that if it was all live, with no production at all and no fixes and they were just live tapes of these beautiful songs in the barest form with one guitar and one piano there might be something special there. I’ll probably sing one or two in my upcoming tour of course.”
With the forthcoming gig firmly in mind, I rounded off by asking whether the crowd-pleasing ‘Mud in Your Eye’ was based on true events.
“Way back in the ‘70s my brother Tommy and I were on the road together in my band and we were playing down south and I think Tommy started dating a girl that we met on the road. I took a lot of liberties; it’s kind of vague at this point as it’s so long ago. But it was loosely based and inspired by my brother and a liaison he had down south and it led to the song with upright bass by Scotty Ball, a classical bassist at the time and one of my first guitar teachers after my brother Tommy. Scotty went on to become a classical, extraordinary musician and now he’s a professor and teaches but he played that beautiful upright on ‘Mud in Your Eye’. It’s one we still do in the show. And of course it’s on the box set.”
Finally Nils, polite throughout, finishes with a ‘thank you.’
“Thanks for letting people know what I’m up to and spreading the word. I really appreciate it, we’re very excited to get back there and our intent is to do some inspired shows for everyone who shows up.”It was very much my pleasure, Nils, and there are very many people here who are equally excited by the prospect of seeing a legend in our very own back yard.
Interviewer: Neil Pace