When Lucero guitarist Brian Venable daydreams, it isn't of his own episode of MTV Cribs. Instead, he dreams of owning his own coin-op laundry. Check that -- a punk coin-op laundry, with a space in the back for bands to play.
After seven years of toiling --three in local clubs and four of nonstop national club touring -- Venable and his bandmates are now spending corporate cash after signing a distribution and pressing (and, more subtly, development) deal with EastWest Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. And if you're looking for a reason why Lucero's interaction with a big, bad major label is likely to turn out better than most bands, think about the laundromat.
"A lot of it is the attitude," Venable says. "We can take it or leave it. If the deal wasn't right, we'd just keep on doing what we do."
"If Brian and I had started Lucero with the goal of getting on a major label and being a 'real band,' whatever that means, in 1998, then I don't think we would have lasted," lead singer Ben Nichols says. "There was no pressure except what we put on ourselves. We were doing shows for three years before we ever went on tour. Making [getting signed] your immediate goal would, I think, put a lot of stress on a band."
But even if Lucero, which also includes drummer Roy Berry and bassist John Stubblefield, never went looking for a major label, one eventually found them. Left label-less after the dissolution of indie Tiger Style, which released Lucero's last album, That Much Further West, the band recorded last fall alongside famed local producer Jim Dickinson with no idea how their music would get released.
While mastering an album that would become the new Nobody's Darlings, the band negotiated with a host of respected indie labels, including Jade Tree, Yep Roc, and Polyvinyl, with EastWest entering the picture relatively late in the game. What sealed the deal for the band was that the major-label deal actually gave them more freedom, allowing them to retain ownership of the record.
"The way it works is you start an imprint [in Lucero's case, Liberty & Lament], and they loan you the money to put the record out and work the record," Nichols says. "They manufacture it and distribute it. As records sell, you pay them back. But since you're functioning as a label, you retain ownership of the masters, and that's something that no indie deal lets you do. We've always kept the publishing, but usually with indie deals, they own the recordings. This way, we own both outright."
What Warner Bros. gets out of the deal is a chance to try out the band on a two-record deal without worrying about another major coming in to sign them.
"Warner Bros. sends their money through EastWest to these little imprint labels. Then they keep an eye on how the bands do, and they have first dibs on them," Nichols says.
The deal seems to be part of a new trend, with indie-bred bands using major labels to get more exposure while retaining a degree of independence. (Rilo Kiley has a similar arrangement with Atlantic.) If a band isn't desperate to "get signed," they can deal with majors from a position of greater strength. And the majors can make smaller, more calculated gambles on new bands.
Venable likens the situation to baseball's minor leagues.
What it means immediately for the band is better distribution ("Each record is getting easier to find," Nichols says) and more and smarter promotion. Stubblefield says that the arrangement will help sync promotion to the band's touring schedule more professionally than in the past. (They'll be doing record-store appearances on almost every tour stop.) Nichols estimates that Nobody's Darlings could have four times the promotional budget of That Much Further West.
Of course, it helps that the band is making this leap with a really strong record.
"It was a pretty easy process," Nichols says of recording with Dickinson at his Mississippi home studio. Lucero's first two albums were recorded there as well, but not with Dickinson as producer.
"I think we'd all gone into it thinking it was more of a rock-and-roll record," Nichols says. "We wanted to make a record that was representative of what those songs sounded like live, without a lot of overdubs or keyboards or added stuff. This is definitely the most straightforward record we've ever made. Mainly Jim's job was to make sure we stuck to the ideal of making a very simple, straightforward rock-and-roll record. His job was to keep us from messing it up."
After building That Much Further West track by track, Nobody's Darlings was recorded largely live. It's the only Lucero record where every sound is created by the band's four members.
The record also marks the return of Venable, who left the band before the recording of That Much Further West only to return when his replacement, Todd Gill, later called it quits. The title track of Nobody's Darlings is the last song Nichols and Venable wrote together before Venable's departure.
"Brian being back in the band definitely affected this record," Nichols says. "Brian's guitar playing makes us sound more like Lucero. That Much Further West is a good record by a good band, but there's not as much Lucero on it."
Nobody's Darlings also marks a slight thematic departure for the band's songs.
"The first two records, I was in a different place emotionally," Nichols says. "Those songs were easy to write. I had no choice but to write those songs. And then with the last two records, there wasn't the same amount of turmoil, personally. So it's become more about the songwriting and less about me. Which is much more difficult. Someone like Cory Branan is really good at that -- hearing a story and nailing it in a song. I'm not as good at that, but it's something I've been trying to get better at."
"Bikeriders" is Nichols' first step into the different writing process. The song, inspired by a 1968 book by Danny Lyon of photographs and interviews with people in the motorcycle counterculture, is the first time Nichols has built a song around outside source material. It also inspired the album's cover, an homage to a photograph in Bikeriders retaken with Nichols as the subject.
"I stumbled across the book one day, and I bought it because a lot of the people in it look like people I've lived with and friends I've had and people I've known. It's the late '60s, but they look like us," Nichols says.
Another somewhat atypical song is the album-closing "The War," a relative epic inspired by Nichols' late grandfather, a World War II veteran. The song is a sequel of sorts to the early Lucero song "The Blue and the Gray," built on new information Nichols learned about his grandfather.
Lucero will celebrate the release of Nobody's Darlings with a CD-release show Tuesday, May 24th, at Young Avenue Deli. Afterward, they'll head out for a couple of month-long tours, one with local singer-songwriter Cory Branan and one with local band the Glass.
How working under a major-label umbrella will impact the band remains to be seen, but there have already been some changes. The day before our interview, Venable signed up for his first bank account since 1990.
"We one day hope to make as much money in a year as a public school teacher does," Venable says to sum up his professional goal for the band.
"Once you sign to a major label you're either huge or you disappear," Nichols says, acknowledging the conventional wisdom. "But that's not the deal we made. Ownership of the masters makes it more possible for us to be a functioning small business. And, no, you're not in it for the $2 million advance. You're in it to establish a well-run small business that can support five or six people -- the band and a couple of crew members." n
Nobody's Darlings CD-Release Party
Young Avenue Deli
Tuesday, May 24th
with Cory Branan and
The Honorary Title