Lucero: Redefining the Memphis Sound for Two Decades

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Lucero - COURTESY OF LUCERO
  • Courtesy of Lucero
  • Lucero
The Lucero Family Block Party has become an institution here in their hometown, as has the band itself. Pursuing a relentless touring schedule, with a dozen albums under their belt, they've built a devoted national following and have become de facto ambassadors of Memphis. They're still close to the hearts of many Memphians, but it was nevertheless a little surprising to find that Mayor Jim Strickland had declared tomorrow, April 14th, Lucero Day, citing them as “a source of inspiration, encouragement, and strength for listeners all over the world.” They've come a long way for a band whose founders had their roots in DIY punk, even if their mission quickly became the pursuit of a soulful country rock hybrid that's all their own. As I spoke with guitarist Brian Venable today on the occasion of their 20th birthday party (tonight) and their block party (tomorrow), it became clear that there is still a healthy dollop of punk philosophy in what they do.

lucero_day_letter.jpg
Memphis Flyer: So today is the band's birthday?

Brian Venable: We played our first show on Friday the 13th, exactly 20 years ago. I've been, I guess you would call it hoarding. I have 20 years of notes and papers and art and snapshots and old flyers. So tonight from 6-9 there's a free party at the 1884 Lounge. We won't be playing. On the stage we'll have some old guitars, Roy's old drums, John's upright, and two display tables that'll have things like the notebook where I wrote "Lucero" for the first time, lyrics, and other memorabilia. There will be old Memphis Flyer covers, calendars from the 90s; we did skateboards and I have the original art. Just neat stuff. Not very many bands make it 20 years without breaking up. So it's kind of a milestone for us as individuals and as a band in Memphis.

We've got a new album coming out and it's done and it's bad ass. I think, for us, it's like, “Holy crap, how did we make this amazing record?” And so we're still doing new things. But looking back, and preparing for tonight, I was like, “I need to get all of this weird garbage out of my house and let people look at it. And put it somewhere else, maybe!”

Tomorrow is gonna be so hectic that tonight is just like, “Come! Hang out!” Tonight's our actual birthday. You can get drinks and look at stuff. It'll be nice just to breathe and celebrate for a minute, 'cos tomorrow we'll be running around like crazy.



Flyer for the first Lucero gig, April 13, 1998 - COURTESY OF BRIAN VENABLE
  • courtesy of Brian Venable
  • Flyer for the first Lucero gig, April 13, 1998

Where was y'all's first gig?


We played at a place on Huling Street, on the corner across from the Lorraine Motel. Some friends of mine lived there. It was an art space that had a little stage and they'd have shows. Today on my Instagram I posted the first flyer for the first show. It was me and Ben and Jeremy Freeze actually played bass and Shane Callaway played drums. It was a different lineup. They played two shows with us. Within nine months, though, we had Roy [Berry] and John C. [Stubblefield], the lineup that we have now. Which is kinda crazy. It wasn't a joke by any stretch; we just wanted to make a demo tape and maybe a 7 inch. I didn't know how to play guitar. Ben had only played bass in every band he'd been in up until then. So...talent is a wonderful thing, but perseverance is just as important.

Do you still include stuff from those early days in your set?

Yeah! Tomorrow we're playing "All the Same to Me," which was one of the first songs we played. Every once in a while we'll reach back. This next record coming out is our 12th. We play two hours & 15 minutes a night, on average, and we pull from all the records. But yeah, we'll drop down and play old shit left and right. It's amazing that people you know were not there, that never saw it, but I guess have the records, will scream out songs and we'll be like "How do you know that song??"

You guys have very devout fans.

They're wonderful fans... I'm glad they're ours. 'Cos they can be butt holes to other people sometimes. They are very rabid and very loyal. And very opinionated, it seems. Just like us, I guess.

So you guys were into punk and metal before you started the band?

I was raised on punk. But by age 25 there's a point where you're like, “This music sucks. I'm tired of all the scenester music.” It's hard to be thinking, "That girl broke my heart," when you're listening to [D.S. 13 song] "NATO SUCKS, RAWWWRRR!" or whatever. All of the sudden you buy that used Lynyrd Skynyrd record and you're like, "This isn't as bad as they say!" From there it was "T for Texas, T for Tennessee" by Jimmie Rodgers, and that led to the Carter Family, which led to bluegrass, which brought me back up to Hank Williams.

Now, everybody calls us alt-country still, and I'm like "Man, I listen to old rock-steady, freaky 70s jazz, and opera!" Literally that's all I listen to right now. After 20 years it's turned into a lot more than alt-country. But at the time, it was, "We wanna be the Replacements and Tom Waits and the Pogues." And then we proceeded to get annihilated for the next six years, play really shitty, write some really good songs, and self-sabotage. So we hit it across the board, we got all three of them. And then at one point you wake up and you're like, "Man, I love Tom Petty." You're okay with your embarrassing influences, so to speak. I think at some point it's like, you can drink yourself to death, you can fuck off, or you can buckle down and treat it like a business. Which sounds not very artistic, but I don't wanna work at McDonald's or dig ditches. I enjoy playing music. It allows me the freedom to hang out with my kid longer than usual. And I get to play good music, so, it's kinda cool.

Lucero on the cover of the Memphis Flyer, March 22, 2012
  • Lucero on the cover of the Memphis Flyer, March 22, 2012
And you guys have really grown and evolved.

Yeah. The last three days we've been practicing and we have this set list: there's a lot of new songs, there's a lot of old songs that we like, and a lot of the hits that might not be in it. And we're like, "We're gonna get in so much trouble. This might be the funnest set we've ever played, but they're gonna yell at us for not playing this or this or this or this." But, part of it is, you don't wanna play that song you wrote 19 years ago forever.

Would you say you all still have a bit of the punk influence in what you're doing now?

Whether it sounds punk or not, punk has informed every decision I've ever made. I'm not raising my kid punk rock, he doesn't have a Mohawk, but what I learned from punk rock and hardcore and going to shows — the medium and the message and all that — is what I'm using to raise my son or do this band. We still try to take people out on tour that need help. Like we've got Louise Page playing tomorrow, and she's a young woman who's killing it. She's playing everywhere right now and recording EPs. It's like, “Who can we help?” That's the punk rock now. Not necessarily $5 shows and all living in the same place. The part of the punk rock I liked most was discovering the new music. For instance, I keep talking about it, and everybody's losing their minds 'cos I keep buggin' them about it, but a month ago I just discovered opera! I'm like, "This is the greatest music ever in the world!" And everybody's like, "No! It's not!" But one out of every ten people are like, "Yes, it is amazing." But that's punk rock to me. I'm listening to music that everybody hates. It just happens to be 200, 300 years old.

Your guitar playing has come a long way...

I tell everybody I still can't play. I guess technically you can get worse. I had to start playing up to my pay grade, so to speak. When we brought Rick Steff and then Jim Spake in, and you've got all these amazing people around you, you're like "I gotta learn how to do this real quick." But also, whatever style I had early on, I just embraced it and kinda refined it, so I still play the same way, I just do a better job of it. And I'm old enough now to be like, "This is my style." Everybody's like, "Yeah, he's 46. Just go with that..."

Do you guys write collaboratively?

This whole last record, we went old school. We went into Sam Phillips and we had nothing. Ben had a few parts and we wrote on the floor. And in two weeks we came up with 10-11 songs. None had words, and Ben had to go write lyrics. Usually, he starts playing, him and Roy come up with a tempo, and then everybody locks in and I try to find some melody or lead line. We call it “doing the Lucero” to it. So we wrote all that stuff together, and then he put the words to it. Technically they're his songs. We're lucky that he's still writing phenomenal stuff. That's the whole thing. I'm not a lead guitar player. I don't need to be all like, "doodly wigggly doodly doodly," you know? We're all still playing around the song, which is what we've always done. Our job is to make that song sound amazing.

Do you guys still tour with horns?

Not so much. Jim might come onstage tomorrow, we're not sure. Jim was the constant.  He first came in to do demos. I said, "I want a song with a horn on it," and he played on one song, and we ended up putting horns on everything for 1372 Overton Park. And then all of the sudden he was like, "I'll go on tour." So we put a horn section together. We went through four trumpet players. For us, it became like Spinal Tap, but instead of going through drummers, it was trumpet players. It was like, “Golly!” 1372 was like, "We have a new toy, and it's called a horn section." And then on Women and Work, we were writing these songs with the horns. At one point, we just kept getting bigger. There were nine people on stage and we were like the frickin E Street Band, and we were hitting it heavy. Jim did it for five years, and then he was like, "I'm gonna stay home!" When Spake left, we kinda stripped down. We were like, “Oh, let's write some sad songs,” and we brought it back down to the five piece. Now, we're just real comfortable with where we are. We just signed with 30 Tigers, it's a brand new label. And we just went in and made the record we wanted to make. We're not really looking to prove anything to anybody. We're the old dudes now. And so you get comfortable and you just make the record you want to. I drink coffee, paint pictures, hang out with my kid, read, listen to music, go on tour for while, come home, repeat.

Lucero turns twenty today: in just one year, the band will be old enough to drink! Raise a glass to them this evening at the 1884 Lounge, starting at 6:00 pm.


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