Inspired by This Is Spinal Tap, the rotating drummer has become part of rock-and-roll lore, but for Lucero the past year has been a carousel of guitar players instead. It all started last winter when founding member and guitarist Brian Venable called it quits.
"Brian just got sick of the road and sick of touring and wanted to stay home," says singer-songwriter Ben Nichols. "It was like making a little kid get up and go to school. It wasn't a bad split or anything -- I just thought, well, hell, I guess we'll be able to try something a little different now. There was never any thought of calling it quits."
Reduced to a three-piece of Nichols, drummer Roy Berry, and bass player John Stubblefield, the band initially recruited Stubblefield's old Big Ass Truck bandmate Steve Selvidge, who went on a couple of short tours with the band and seemed like a potential permanent replacement.
Selvidge has gone on to join David Shouse's Bloodthirsty Lovers, a better fit, and Lucero found their answer in the form of Todd Gill, a member of the Little Rock band the Paper Hearts who joined up with Lucero this spring to play with the band at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. What Gill had originally planned as only a couple of months of helping Lucero out has since turned into a full-time gig.
Nichols says it was an easy transition: "Todd and Brian have a similar ear for melody and sort of a similar style, but Todd's a little tighter."
Gill was in place in time to record the band's third full-length record, That Much Further West. But he wasn't the end of the band's guitar experimentation in the wake of Venable's exit. The band also worked some with local singer-songwriter John Murry, who ended up adding some memorable guitar parts to one song on the new record.
"He plays on 'Hate and Jealousy,'" Nichols says. "He plays this crazy rock-and-roll solo that I don't think either Todd or I could do. It's just a different type of guitar-playing than what anyone in Lucero's ever been able to do. In the past we'd bring in Luther or Cody [Dickinson] for that kind of stuff, but this time we had John Murry. I would have had him on more of the record, but there wasn't time."
But a new guitarist isn't the only significant change for Lucero on That Much Further West. The record also marks the band's departure from local label MADJACK, which released the band's first two records, and debut for New York-based indie/punk label Tiger Style.
Lucero made the decision to sign with Tiger Style -- whose roster has boasted bands such as Rye Coalition, Ida, and American Analog Set -- around the time of South by Southwest, and Nichols says the move has been good for the band.
"They're extremely organized and they put out plenty of records and they know what they're doing," Nichols says. "They're really on top of press and radio and retail. I think we'll probably get a little more attention just because there are people out there that listen to Tiger Style bands who'll check us out who might not otherwise."
But Nichols says that the band harbors no regrets about their stint with MADJACK. "They were the only ones who wanted to put out our record," Nichols says. "Yeah, there were differences, but it was good for us. I think [moving from MADJACK to Tiger Style] was a very natural progression."
Though the band's local release show for That Much Further West is Saturday at Young Avenue Deli, Tiger Style is giving the band a New York send-off this week. After getting into Memphis last Sunday off tour, the band flew out Monday for a three-day blitz that will include a listening party at the Chelsea Hotel, a record-release show at a club called the Pussycat Lounge, and a "press day." ("I have no clue what that means," Nichols admits.)
In addition to a new guitarist and new label, the third change for Lucero this time around was producing the record themselves after working with the North Mississippi Allstars' Cody Dickinson on the first two records.
"It was just time to do something different," Nichols says. "It was fun and I really liked the feedback we got from [the Dickinsons] and I was really curious to see how they did stuff, but I wanted to record this record the same way I did my four-track demos in Little Rock, in the back room at my parents' furniture store where I write most of the songs."
To that end, the band self-produced That Much Further West in May at a Madison Avenue practice space and recording studio owned by local musician Chris Scott. The result is an album perhaps less dynamic than the band's previous efforts, and certainly less produced than last year's Tennessee, but it communicates the band's rough, sincere charms as effectively as anything else they've done.
The album really finds its legs in the second half, when "Hate and Jealousy" interrupts a string of slower songs. "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good" pushes the tempo even more, and then the album peaks with one of the band's finest moments, "Tears Don't Matter Much," a warm, anthemic tribute to three of Nichols' musician friends --Arkansans Matt Bradley and Doug Deluca and Memphis' own Cory Branan. The song's refrain --"I'm just another Southern boy who dreams of nights in NYC" --would seem to be inspired by Lucero's regular New York sojourns, but Nichols says that it really comes from Bradley. "I'd decided to write this song about guys back home who I really liked and Matt has this record out with a song called 'Just Another Southern Boy Who Dreams of Nights in New York City' and I flat-out stole it from him."
Lucky record buyers --including those who pick up their copies of That Much Further West at the Deli this week --can hear the song done in an almost synth-pop demo version on a bonus disc of alternate takes Tiger Style has included in roughly 2,000 initial pressings of the record. The bonus disc also includes an "'80s rock" version of "Across the River" recorded with Selvidge.
"Tiger Style's idea was to think of ways to give people more reasons to buy the record," Nichols says. "And I'm glad, because I'm never 100 percent satisfied with anything I do and so this way we kind of get two shots at it. If you don't like the album version, maybe you'll like the bonus version. I figure some people will even take the two discs and burn their own version of the record."