Last March, Ben Nichols found himself in the same predicament as every other working musician: at home with an unusual amount of time on his hands. Fortunately, the singer and principal songwriter of the venerated Memphis band Lucero had just wrapped several weeks of touring in January and February, giving him and the group a financial cushion.
“We would have been in a drastically worse spot if we would’ve taken the winter off and were planning on starting a tour in March,” Nichols says on a call with Rolling Stone. “That’s a spot a lot of bands got caught in.”
Instead, Nichols retreated to his basement and began working on songs for the follow-up to Lucero’s 2018 album Among the Ghosts, a knotty effort that showcased the strengths of his leaner, now five-piece band. When they reconvened in July to record at Sam Phillips Recording Service with Memphis producer Matt Ross-Spang, Lucero had spent virtually no time collaborating on music in the same physical pace. Nichols had emailed bandmates Brian Venable, Rick Steff, Roy Berry, and John C. Stubblefield his demos and they had all dutifully learned their parts, but it was dramatically different than the group’s typically freewheeling process.
“Usually you get together with the guys and you rehearse and you bash stuff out in the practice room — ideas pop up and get worked on and influence the songwriting,” Nichols says. “It’s more of a collaborative effort, taking the songs I write and turning them into Lucero songs.”
The resulting album, When You Found Me (out Friday), continues the darker trend started by Among the Ghosts and feels more intimate than raucous, horn-driven Lucero records like Women & Work and 1372 Overton Park. It also reflects Nichols’ life at home with his four-year-old daughter, wife, and stepchildren, and the changes his family — his young daughter in particular — have brought about.
The opening tracks “Have You Lost Your Way” and “Outrun the Moon” are more allegorical in nature — meaty, tense rockers that depict a little girl having to fight against dark forces that swirl around her. But “All My Life” and the title track address Nichols’ family and the sense of contentment and security he’s discovered in them. “When you found me I was drowning, I was drifting out to sea,” he sings, a change in tone that alludes to Nichols’ hard-living past.
“I didn’t get married until I was 42, so I spent a long time avoiding the issue of marriage and long-term commitment,” he says. “I was very content to waste away in bars and out on the road, living that lifestyle that takes a toll and makes you old really quick and wears you down. But then my wife came around and something clicked. As cheesy as it is, I do feel like it saved me in a way. It gave me that anchor. I’ve got a solid foundation that my life’s built around now.”
Nichols still has his share of wayward characters in his songs, but his range has broadened. “The songwriting is still coming from the same place, I’ve just got a little added perspective now, perspective that I was blind to in my younger age,” he says.
While When You Found Me is lean rock & roll, it also updates Lucero’s sound in interesting ways with the addition of synthesizers. Rick Steff, who always punctuated Lucero’s songs with honky-tonk piano and sunny Hammond B3, adds a chilly New Wave pulse to “Outrun the Moon” and dials up the gloom for a Disintegration-era Cure effect on “Pull Me Close, Don’t Let Go.” This was an extension of Nichols’ demo process, piling on instruments while he was writing at home.
“A lot of those synth parts are based on things I had worked on in the basement in Garageband,” he says. “Rick was a little worried about bringing synths into the Lucero sound. He didn’t want to get blamed for it. It was totally my idea. I think we incorporated well enough that it still sounds like Lucero.”
Even as Nichols folds his personal experiences of home and family into the songs, he also stretches his legs a little by telling the stories of others. “Coffin Nails” examines the experiences of Nichols’ grandfather, while the pounding “Back in Ohio” was based on the fascinating life of William Morgan, an American who ended up serving by Fidel Castro’s side during the Cuban Revolution. Inspired by Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” Nichols used Morgan’s story to pen a rock epic about a guy who wanted to make something of his life.
“He’s kind of a screw-up back home — he ran away to the circus when he was 14, he had a dishonorable discharge from the army after being a 101st Airborne paratrooper, ended up in Leavenworth, worked for the mob, worked for the circus,” Nichols says. “It’s one of those American stories that you would think would be made up. And the fact that he ended up in front of a firing squad, killed by Che and Castro because he’s not on board with their Communist connections to Russia, it’s quite a story. I feel bad because I couldn’t come close to fitting all that into a rock & roll song.”
Narrative experiments like “Back in Ohio” are also evidence of Nichols’ dedication to craft as a songwriter, looking outside himself for interesting stories.
“It’s something I would like to get better at,” he says. “My favorite songwriters, like Warren Zevon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, I’ve always wanted to emulate them and their storytelling abilities. Each time I experiment with telling someone else’s story it’s a learning process for me, but I enjoy it. They can make really good songs, you just gotta make sure the heart goes into it and it sounds just as genuine as a song you might write about yourself.”
That growth extends to the rest of Lucero as well, from the group’s punk-rock origins nearly 20 years ago when they were working on a shoestring budget. Nichols still incorporates some of those early songs into setlists — “A lot of those old songs, even the very simple ones, hold up alright, there’s a certain charm to them,” he says. But the group’s almost slick overhaul with producer Ted Hutt on 1372 Overton Park gave them the confidence to take risks and make the records they wanted to make without losing themselves in the process.
“In the old days we just made records and you got what you got — some of it was good, some of it was a little rough around the edges,” Nichols says. “Today, after 20 some-odd years, now we’ve finally learned how to ease back on the throttle and be a little more intentional with our choices and put a little more thought into the records.”