The story about alt country, alt soul, alt punk, alt genre Memphis band, Lucero, is that at the beginning it was the creation of an emo kid and a hardcore kid.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ben Nichols was the emo kid. Guitarist Brian Venable, who’d barely learned his instrument when the band started, was the hardcore kid.
In the nearly 19 years since, the band has built a following on the backs of its live show and an ever-changing sounds from southern rock to soul to country. They have added keyboards and piano and then horns (“because everything from Stax soul to Rocket from the Crypt that we grew up on had horns”), then stepped away from the horns on their latest album.
They started out as a quartet, grew to nine on stage, and are now back to a band of five who will be at Shaka’s Live with Esme Patterson on Feb. 6.
“We learned that all of our sad bastard country songs when you put horns on them become sad bastard soul songs,” Venable says by phone from home before the band heads out for its first tour after a paternity leave for Nichols. “Johnny Cash turns into Al Green if you put horns on it.”
“That’s the beauty. We can do whatever we want,” he adds. “Whatever we do sounds like Lucero.”
He grew up that hardcore kid listening to Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys but at some point he started to rediscover other music. Lynyrd Skynyrd was pretty good, a band he overlooked. That sent him towards Jimmie Rodgers and soon he was on to the Carter Family and bluegrass and Townes van Zandt. He and Nichols love The Smithereens, Tom Petty and Huey Lewis and the News. Yes, that 80’s guy. There’s no longer a need for only the cool references for them.
“I love the Pogues. I love The Replacements. In the same breath I can listen to Huey Lewis “Sports” with just as much excitement,” he adds. “But it doesn’t have as many cool points, maybe.”
Last year, he says he spent six months listening only to classical music.
“The fun one (to ponder) is who’s the emo kid and who’s the hardcore kid now,” he says.
Both kids will be back on the road after playing only about 80 dates last year, about a third of the gigs during the band’s most barnstorming days.
Nichols had a child over the summer so they took a break. This winter it was drummer Roy Berry’s turn. Venable was happy for the break with his son, who’s eight. “This has been like a vacation,” he adds, “a well-deserved vacation.”
They slipped into Sam Phillips Studios in Memphis in January to “see what we got” and maybe record a few songs, probably Nichols’s “Loving” from the movie of the same name directed by his younger brother, Jeff, about the interracial Virginia couple prosecuted for marrying. “It might be an EP. It might just be…We don’t know,” he says. “We’re just knocking the rust off.”
Venable says there’s no telling whether fatherhood will change their songwriter’s writing. Then he pauses and notes that Nichols got married before the last disc and promptly wrote a song about it. “Ben’s always been a pretty literal songwriter,” he adds.
“All A Man Should Do,” their latest, was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with Ted Hutt on the knobs, their third collaboration with him and the studio. Venable remembers walking past the brick building with no windows for four years when he worked in a deli, not realizing its importance. Now, he does. Now, the band embraces being part of the Memphis canon. Jody Stephens of Big Star sang harmonies on the band’s cover of “Fell in Love with the Girl” on the last album.
“The older you get, the more involved you are, the more you meet these people,” he says. “At some point, Memphis defines us. You realize the heritage and want to become a part of it.”