Nick Lowe On His A2IM Independent Icon Award, The Indie-Major Divide, Not Being Bono (Q&A)

Dan Bassini
Nick Lowe performs at A2IM's Libera Awards.

At last week's (June 8) Libera Awards at NYC’s PlayStation Theater, The American Association of Independent Music bestowed upon Nick Lowe its Independent Icon Award. After nearly 50 years in the music business where he recorded for more than a dozen labels, released some fourteen albums, twenty-three singles (a number of which are now classic), six compilations, three EPs and one live album, Lowe's accolades are certainly well-deserved.

Lowe, however, was almost self-flagellating in his acceptance speech. “I am simply just another aging gent from across the sea who fell in love at a very early age with the wonderful music that this great nation has given the world,” he said. “I was lucky to have the opportunity to go out and try to make something out of my love and hobby and along the way managed to make one or two good records and hundreds of terrible ones, but of course no one remembers those which is why I am standing here this evening.”   

Though his speech elicited laughs, what the deserving “icon” failed to mention was that as a musician and producer in and out of the independent music, Lowe helped ignite UK’s pub rock scene with Brinsley Schwarz which bled into the formation of Stiff Records, one of the first DIY indie labels which he helped run and which helped ignite both the indie and punk rock scenes as the label put out music by the Damned, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury among others. Lowe's best known hits include classics like "Cruel To Be Kind," "So It Goes" "I Knew the Bride" "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" among others. He would go on to collaborate with a slew of artists including Costello (whom he produced 8 albums for), Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Graham Parker and Dave Edmunds among others.

Lowe is gearing up to reissue six mid-career albums this July starting with 1982's Nick the Knife through 1990's Party Of One. There's also something of a recent Lowe resurgence with Wilco just recording their version of "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" and just last week Los Straitjackets dropped a Lowe tribute album.  Billboard caught up with the newly crowned icon, to get his take on being an independent artist, the indie-major label divide, why he surrounds himself with "swashbucklers" and how his career would be just a bit different if he were Bono.

Billboard: Congratulations, how does it feel to be named an Independent Icon Award honoree by A2IM?  
Nick Lowe: It’s a curious sensation, I’ve never really had anything like this before. I suppose I would prefer to be receiving some kind of Most Promising New Comer Award rather than an Icon because that’s how I feel. I’m just getting the hang of it, but I’m really pleased and very humbled.

I was looking at all the labels you’ve been on, which include Columbia, Demon, F-Beat, Radar, Reprise, Upstart, Yep Roc, Stiff and Proper...
There’s also RCA, Warner Bros, United Artists, Liberty and Parlophone.

So that’s some 14 labels over the course of an almost 50 year career, what can you say about your experiences with major verses independent labels?
I remember when I’d run out of major labels to go to. They’d all given me a go and generally I suppose it was because I didn't want for myself what they wanted. I wasn't exactly an awkward customer, but I wanted to plow my own furrow. When I realized that I’d run out of major labels to approach it was sort of humiliating back then to admit that the only label you could only get a deal with was an independent label. But it didn't take long before I would practically fall to the ground and give thanks that I was on an independent label, it just always suited me better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

What was that first independent label was you went to and how long into your career did you make that transition?
I suppose Demon was the first one—well Stiff was the first independent label because I was involved in setting that one up but it wasn't quite the same because I was part of the management. I suppose Demon was the first one. I was the only person on Demon when I joined because it was a reissue label. And that really suited me fine. I could do what I needed to do.

How do you feel that Indies served you better than a majors?
They’re more up for a laugh, they’re more up for any idea at my level. I suppose ol’ Bono could go see his label boss and say “Look I’ve got a great idea I want do this.”  And they’d go, “Oh yeah, fantastic Bono.” If you’re at my level you can’t really do that with a major label. With a lot of the major labels I was on, they had me on as kind of a mascot. They didn’t really like the records I made or anything, but I had reputation as a bit of maverick so they could say, “We’ve got all these terrible old acts on here you know, but we got Nick Lowe as well so we can’t be all bad."  On a small label they’d be more up for trying their hand at something a bit more outlandish, it wouldn’t always work of course but it was more fun.

Didn't you name one of your albums Bowi in response to David Bowie naming his album Low [and not Lowe] and then named an album Max with The Rumour [whom Lowe produced] when Fleetwood Mac put out Rumours?
Yes, we used to do that kind of stuff all the time in 70s. It was fun and we could just kind of make up our own rules.  We would press up our album sleeves with total mistakes on them because we were all music fans so we liked pressings with the wrong labels on them and on occasionally you’d see one but we used to do it on purpose. I remember with the Damned record we printed the wrong group on the sleeve. Just a short run of sleeves but of course it increased its value. It was just a joke really.

In terms of you being on the other side of the record label divide, how did working at Stiff Records inform your perspective?.
Stiff was totally on the side of the artists. There was no difference, really. They could do whatever they liked -- but we just didn't have much money.

The Damned's Captain Sensible spoke about recording their first album Damned Damned Damned with you in Hackney and giving you the nickname Basher because you would "bash out the music" as fast as you could. 
It wasn't actually my studio, it was in a garage in North London pretty much Hackney I suppose— that’s the place were we used to record because it was so cheap. Also because it was such horrible place to be in—it was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer—you really had to work quickly to get the job done. You couldn't really lounge around in there. They used to call me Granddad and Uncle because I think was 26 at the time. I was much older than they were, they were 18, and I seemed like an old man to them.

I thought they were really great The Damned. I never liked punk music really very much at all. I liked the idea of punk, and the mischief and the mayhem, but the actual music apart from one or two people—I thought the Ramones were absolutely great, they were the best ones really. In the main I couldn't bear the music, but I thought the mayhem and mischief was fabulous.  

The Damned just got a label deal with a Universal subsidiary called Search & Destroy which followed a crowd-funding campaign on Pledge Music them helped land the deal after they reached 350% of their goal. Have you dabbled into any of the new tech approaches to music?
No, I haven’t, sounds like I ought to though.

Perhaps. How long have you been on Yep Roc?
I was with Upstart before I was on Yep Roc, Glenn Dicker who is the managing director of yep Roc, he and Jake Guralnick, who manages me now, and one other partner had Upstart which was apart of Rounder Records. They signed me and we did an album called The Impossible Bird. They did a fantastic job but unfortunately they made the mistake, as they always say now, of signing too many people that they thought were good. The secret of having a record label is not doing that. Be prepared to sign people that you don’t think are particularly good but you think will make you some money. They didn't do that so they went bust.

Glenn started Yep Roc and said to me, "Look, I know my label has just gone bust, but do you want to have another go?"  And I said of course I do and they were fantastic, they were really great. I’ve probably been with him 20 years or something. I think I was the first person they signed.

What was your best label experience and your worst label experience?
Oh well definitely Yep Roc is the best. And worst, I would think…they all did their best I suppose. I was on Columbia, I had some good hits on Columbia and also a fantastic A&R man on Columbia named Gregg Geller, they guy who signed me, he was great. Probably RCA wasn't great, I would think

What made it bad?
Because I never met anybody from the label [laughs]

It often seems to come down to your relationship with the people who work at a label and how responsive they are to your needs, rather than any indie/major divide, right? 
I suppose. I was at fault as well in quite a lot of cases. Sometimes you just don’t do good work, you try but it’s just not good enough. And there can be all kinds of reasons for it. You can’t really blame the poor old record company, there just trying to make hit records.

I was reading about when you were in Brinsley Schwarz and your management company Famepushers flew you and a plane load of British journalists to New York to see your band play the Fillmore East that was an utter disaster making your band “laughing stocks,” what happened?
It’s the most fantastic story actually but it takes some time to actually set the scene, but it’s all detailed in a book written by Will Birch called No Sleep Till Canvey Island. It’s the story of that trip that we took where everything went wrong, everything. It was a very ambitious idea we had back in the day, well we didn’t have it, we were just the hapless saps who went along with it, willingly, very very willingly. And it all went wrong and for some reason at the end of it we didn’t break up, we stayed together.

It was the beginning Pub Rock and in the sort of perverse way the British have, if you become a laughing stock — which we did become laughing stocks—everyone throws stones at you for a little while and then you go away, and then there’s a period of silence, and then people discover you and everything you did is forgiven. And then quite the reverse happens: Everyone suddenly thinks you’re real heroes. That’s what happened to us. It’s a very good read that story, it was really big news, no one really remembers it anymore now, but at the time it was very big deal.

Who is your core music team in terms of management, agents and others who have helped you over the years who you would like to shout-out?
I’ve had the same people for years and years and years. I can’t remember the people I’ve fallen out with really. People move on or retire, a lot of people I worked with are retiring. I had Peter Barnes who published my stuff, he’s a fantastic guy, he had Plangent Visions, which is the label I had been on but I’m with an American publisher now who are also great.  

Jake Riviera [who co-founded Stiff], he had Riviera Global and he managed me for years and years but we parted company. He’s great. I’ve had the same agent for bout 30 years, Paul Charles in the UK with Asgard. Frank Riley from High Road Touring here is a fabulous. I tend to stick with people.

What was it about these people that you liked working with them and made them part of your team?
They were swashbuckling. They were kind of pirates in a way, but they got me and I got them. And they’re characters and I’ve always liked people who are characters and will take a chance and try something out and will see it though. There’s plenty of people who have bags of ideas and they got big mouths, but it’s finishing something and seeing it though. It might not work, it might be a bit of a flop but it doesn't really matter in the great scheme of things. You just got to try stuff out.

What kind of advice for musicians starting out in the business who face these issues of having to find a label, manager, agent or publisher?
I don’t have the faintest idea. I don’t know how on earth you do it today, you go on the Internet or something don't you and hope that somebody sees it. It’s so much harder for anyone now because music doesn’t mean nearly the same as when I was a kid. It was all consuming, it was so important, it was kind of a language the music you liked and the music you followed.  But my little boy, I got boy who’s quite young, he’s 12 he came along quite late in life, he’s quite music crazy but he’s not sort of devoted to it. He’s interested in lots of other things and it doesn't fill up that huge space which it did for my generation. I don’t know how you go about it. The competition seems just gigantic now .

Speaking of competition, I know you’re re-releasing a bunch of mid-career albums, tell us about those.
I’m really please they’re putting the records out but it’s very hard to tell you something enthusiastic about those records because I never listen to them anymore. I’ve been talking about them quite a lot lately and when people tell me what tracks are on the records,  I always think, well  that wasn't a bad one, that was pretty good actually. The 80s was kind of a difficult period for me, I wasn't focused. So I think the stuff I did then really varies in quality. I was trying to get to a place I got to later on. I suppose if anyone was interested in my work they’d be quite interested in hearing those records. They’ve been out print for a long time, but I’m sure they’re probably better than I remember them.

Tell me about your band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds and how you guys worked around your different record contracts by putting out band albums together as “solo” records.
Well we only did one Rockpile record, it wasn’t bad, it had some good things on it, but it wasn't fantastic. Dave made about four, or at least three solo records, which were Rockpile with all of us playing on it, and I did two records I think. Altogether we made about six or seven records as Rockpile  but only one came out under the name Rockpile, the other ones were either Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe records.

What does that tell you about the music business that you had to do that?
Well you just sign contracts and once you sign a contract you got to put up with it. We didn't know what we were doing. You just got put up with it. There was no harm done, no animals were harmed.

I loved that you guys kept working as a band and fans knew what you were doing, but you just couldn't promote or market it.
No, we couldn’t do that, but it was okay we just worked around it.