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The amenities are sparse backstage at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis. There's a cold plate of half-eaten Tater Tots, a bottle of whiskey and some plastic bins filled with ice and beer -- nothing to get too worked up over. The real excitement tonight is waiting on the other side of the green room, where close to 400 people are standing shoulder to shoulder, stiff drinks in hand, ready to bellow along with every line sung by Ben Nichols -- again.
This show's a rerun. Lucero, the Memphis quartet that Nichols fronts, just played the club 24 hours ago. Touring in support of their latest effort, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, Nichols and company -- guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry -- sold out both shows in advance, an affair not uncommon for Lucero. So how did a group of thirty-something Southern boys with no direct major-label backing end up with such a fervent following?
"It's just been five years of touring," Nichols asserts. "I think that's really the only answer."
But Lucero's story goes back a ways before that -- and, as with most self-professed great tales, it all started with a girl.
"I grew up in Little Rock," Nichols begins. "When I graduated from college, I met a girl. She was a sixteen-year-old girl from Memphis" -- he pauses and laughs at himself, like he's just accidentally confessed too much -- "and I moved up there with her mom and her stepdad and her little brother. She was seventeen by the time I actually moved to Memphis. That's how I ended up there."
If this sounds familiar, it's because Nichols echoed these words in the song "Chain Link Fence," from the band's 2002 release Tennessee: "She's down at the park with the rest of her friends/And she looks so pretty but she's only sixteen/Didn't know that when she smiled at me."
Nichols is an honest guy, a songwriter who pens lyrics of heartache and hard luck. And it's all true. Even the war stories, where he places himself in his grandfather's army boots, are based on the impressions that the young Nichols had of his gallant elder. For Nichols, writing and making music comes as naturally as breathing.
"It was just something I always wanted to do," he confesses. "I don't know if you need a reason better than that, necessarily. I mean, it's not bad to have other reasons. It's not bad to want to change the world. It's not bad to want to tell people stuff. I think part of my thing is that I'm not sure if I have anything worth telling. I don't know if I could teach anybody anything; I just wouldn't presume that. I don't know enough about a lot of things in the world to try and change someone's political views. I don't think that's my place."
It was this sort of bare-bones sentiment that first attracted the attention of local record-store owner Paul Kane. Until about a year ago, Kane ran Double Entendre Records on South Broadway. The store was an indie haven specializing in small-label releases and DIY-fueled bands. Kane had a natural ear for music and a talent for persuasion. If he liked a band, he would turn all his loyal customers into fans, too. This is how Denver fell in love with Lucero. The Attic Tapes, the band's 2000 self-released vinyl debut, became a local sensation; its alt-country-esque twang and relationship woes resonated with the punk and hardcore kids who were growing up and out of circle pits and slam-dancing.
"All the stores in Memphis, I could sell ten copies to or three copies to, and then Paul Kane would be like, ŒI'll take 25 of those,'" recalls Venable. "It got to a point where I was basically making them just to mail to Colorado."
Venable silk-screened the covers himself and printed the inside booklets. With all of the expenses, including paper and ink, each record cost about twelve dollars to make. But Venable, a kid weaned on punk-rock principles, couldn't stand to charge more than ten dollars per album. "That was stupid and bad business," he now admits. "It was idealistic, and, yeah, it sucks. It's heartbreaking."
Venable has been with Lucero since its inception, but he left briefly in 2003, before the release of the group's third full-length, That Much Further West. Still entwined with his Attic Tapes idealism, he couldn't make amends with the aggressive nature of being in a full-time touring musical act.
"At the time, I had a romantic vision of the band," Venable remembers, "and then I found out the inner workings, and I realized that this was not at all like I had thought it was going to be. It's logistics. It's business, and you're like, shit, this isn't fun -- this is work."
"He didn't want to deal with money," Nichols adds. "He didn't want to deal with record labels. He didn't want to deal with anything. And so he quit."
When Venable left, Todd Gill, who plays and sings backup on Further West, was recruited. But Gill exited after about a year or so, and the band was once again short a guitarist. The timing couldn't have been worse: Lucero was about to hit the interstate with politico-punkers Against Me!, and it promised to be one hell of a road trip. And so Venable made his big comeback.
"He wanted to go on tour with Against Me!, and I was in a spot where I needed somebody bad, so it made sense for him to come back then," Nichols explains. "And three days into the tour, we're drunk and he's telling me he's back for life and that he loves it and all that. And, you know, three weeks later, he's sick of it again. That's just kind of the way it goes."
Venable has since been able to rationalize being involved in a creative project that at times feels like a small business. He has a girlfriend at home, and she has kids. They recently moved into a house together, and he's become somewhat of a family man. Now playing guitar is a way to make a living, to pay the bills and support his loved ones.
"I think -- especially Roy and I -- that we both approach it differently than Brian," Nichols contends. "For us, we'd be doing it no matter what. There is no taking it or leaving it. And for him, it's the easiest way to make money. But with gas being as expensive as it is and the cost of living being so high, it's really difficult to go home and have anything at all. We're lucky enough to have gotten to a point where we can just barely do it."
"We're fairly unskilled to do anything else but play music," he admits with a laugh. "Really, I guess it doesn't matter too much, because we all have the same goal in the end, which is to try and be a better band -- and to try to make everything grow and to keep everything going. We've just got different reasons for wanting the same goal."
"I don't think of it as a business," Berry interjects. "I know we do business and we try to make smart business decisions, but I think of it as a band."
"I think John made a really good point the other day," Nichols concludes, "in that it would be the ultimate sellout for us to quit and get real jobs."
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