Lloyd Cole's still keen to cause a commotion for music lovers
His biggest success may have been in the Eighties, but that doesn't mean Lloyd Cole, who plays here this month, is ready to call time on his career, he tells Edwin Gilson.
Lloyd Cole has just returned from an extensive tour and, it would be fair to say, it's all catching up with him. "I'm so full of aches and pains it's unbelievable," says the 52-year-old with a wry smile.
"That's the thing about all this touring; I can feel my body deteriorating. I'm not comfortable with my body changing the way it has. I wish my hair was darker and I was thinner. My brain is fine, my voice is fine, but physically ... well, I know how Tiger Woods feels. You can have the best will in the world but if your body isn't willing then it can be very difficult." Despite these complaints, he reassures me that he'll be raring to go on August 29 for his slot at Bangor's Open House festival.
Rewind to the 1980s, and Cole was an unlikely alternative pin-up boy. Frontman and brain of his indie-pop band The Commotions, members of both sexes were drawn to his cherubic looks as well as his way with words. His tales of youthful romance, best witnessed on 1984 debut album Rattlesnakes, were gleefully whimsical yet always grounded in a vivid, relatable reality – edgy cultural references included. Whether serenading a girl with Perfect Skin or documenting the dismal end of a relationship (Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?), Cole's lyrics allowed him to connect with a certain ilk of literary youngster.
Nowadays, he is only too aware of the cruel passing of time. Cole, who is thoughtful and articulate throughout our interview, has obviously passed a few hours contemplating his current status as an ageing musician and is determined to remain dignified while also retaining the vibrancy and singular wit that has come to define his career.
"I always had the vision of the last days of The Clash, when Joe Strummer decided to get a Mohawk, and it was one of the saddest things I ever saw," states the singer, down the line from America where he has lived for 26 years. "He was clearly so desperate to cling onto this idea of youth culture, and I'm always terrified of appearing that way myself. Music made by old codgers isn't undignified in itself; I'm just not sure I'd want to see a picture of myself doing that at 50 years of age."
One only-too-obvious marker of Cole's middle-agedness is the presence of his son William, who has toured with his father in the past and also played on Cole's 2013 record Standards. When the two are on stage together, Cole Snr likes to joke about the fact that William bears a striking resemblance to himself as a young man. It's undoubtedly true, although recently William "has had a Joy Division haircut that is worlds away from anything I ever had", according to Cole. "William's actually better looking than I ever was to be honest," adds the proud dad.
In Cole's video for Period Piece, the lead single from Standards, William plays a younger version of his father, reliving memories of Cole's past while the singer himself peers in like a mere flaneur in his own life. The choice to cast his son made perfect sense, says Cole.
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"Otherwise we would have had to find another kid that looks the same as I once did! The only problem was that in the original video all William seemed to do was smoke, drink and have sex. When his mother saw it she blew the roof off! So I asked the director to soften it up a little."
It remains to be seen whether William will follow his father into the world of music, but he could certainly pick a worse role model.
After The Commotions made three albums and went their separate ways, Cole embarked on a career as a full-on pop singer in the 1990s. Cole has never apologised for his desire to be popular and sell records aplenty, and he's not going to change that stance anytime soon.
"My ambition when I started making music was to be in the same place as my heroes, and that was on the cover of New Musical Express or on Top of the Pops. I've never been embarrassed about that." And, after a string of chart-bothering solo records in the early 1990s, Cole was finally able to live out his fantasies of fame – even if he was never a definitively mainstream musician.
"Initially I dealt with my level of fame in exactly the same way every stupid pop singer does; that is desiring the fame and then complaining about it non-stop when it happens," he chuckles. "For a while I couldn't walk down the street without being noticed and you can't live as much of a normal life as you
did before. I have absolutely no sympathy for my younger self now, though."
The urge for popularity still exists within Cole now, and throughout our chat he refers to a term that is important to him: prominence. He wants his modern-day records to be as visible as releases by the likes of Nick Cave and David Bowie, but he's having difficulty deciding how that feat should be achieved.
"I've considered alternative methods of selling my albums, like having fans purchase them directly from me, but if I do that I'm basically retreating from the mainstream completely and confirming my status as a niche artist. I'm going to have to choose a path over the next 18 months or so. I'm happy that Standards received greater publicity than my previous records though, and of course I care about critical reviews. I mean, more is certainly not less when it comes to positive reaction."
Cole is humorously self-deprecating when I ask him about a possible youth presence at his shows nowadays. "Quite a lot of children turn up with their parents and I ask them 'Are you just here because your parents forced you to come?' They usually look embarrassed, smile and say 'Yes'. Some kids definitely discover my music through their parents, though, no doubt."
He's performing a solo acoustic show at Open House, the reason being that he finds life in a band 'difficult' sometimes. "In a group, the two hours when you're playing on stage are great, but the other 22 hours of the day can be tough. When assembling a band, there's always one person in the
line-up that turns out to be wrong, but you only realise that seven months down the line when you're stuck on tour with them. It can be hard to be around them. When it's a real band, though, like The Commotions were, you don't even have to think about how you present yourself when performing. It's easy."
The mention of his old backing group leads Cole onto thinking about this next project: reissuing large sections of his back catalogue. "Sometimes I think it'll be painful listening back to all my old records, but in truth I've only made two or three rotten records," he ponders. "I'm happy with my body of work generally. It's a waste of time thinking about changes you would make. If I was 26 when I made a certain record I certainly didn't think like a 52-year-old would! There are so many great things you can do when you're young and stupid and think you know everything. You just can't pull that off when you're older."
Although Cole clearly spends a lot of time considering his career up to now, and plotting new ways to move his music forward, he's confident in his assertion that he has "absolutely no regrets". Niche artist or pop star, the singer continues to plough his own furrow.
"Many times in my life people have told me that if my next single wasn't a hit then my career would be over. It's quite amusing really, looking back on it. I'm still here and everything's alright!"
- Lloyd Cole plays at Bangor Abbey as part of the Open House Festival on August 29. For details, visit www.openhousefestival.com
Going solo... life after the band
Other Eighties indie stars who decided to go it alone after group success include:
Edwyn Collins – sharp of tongue and attire, the singer of Glasgow post-punk band Orange Juice later embarked on a solo career, gaining worldwide fame for his hit A Girl Like You.
He suffered a stroke in 2005, but has bounced back with two albums
Roddy Frame – another intelligent Scottish singer, Frame was frontman of the group Aztec Camera, who had a string of hits during the 1980s and first half of the 1990s.
After the band split up in 1995, Frame went solo.
His latest album Seven Dials was released in May this year
Morrissey – the iconic singer began releasing records under his own name after The Smiths, who included guitarist Johnny Marr, dissolved in 1987. Despite being somewhat of a recluse, and amid constant rumours of a Smiths reunion, Morrissey has 10 solo albums to his name including this year's World Peace is None of Your Business