Noise Annoys: Nick Lowe on touring with Elvis Costello and his Bangor solo show

Ahead of his solo appearance at Bangor's Open House Festival next month, Noise Annoys catches up with cult singer-songwriter and producer Nick Lowe to talk about touring the US with his friend and collaborator Elvis Costello and how he's ended up in band with four masked surf rockers...

David Roy

David Roy

David has been a features reporter at The Irish News since 2001, writing about music, cinema, comedy, theatre, books, art, TV, travel, motoring and more....

Nick Lowe will be appearing solo at the Open House Festival in Bangor next month. Picture by Dan Burn-Forti
Nick Lowe will be appearing solo at the Open House Festival in Bangor next month. Picture by Dan Burn-Forti

HE might be billed as the "headmaster of British rock" by the Open House Festival for his upcoming appearance at Bangor's Walled Garden next month, but despite Nick Lowe's dapper appearance and illustrious musical CV featuring stints as a pub rocker, alternative pop star, songwriter and Stiff Records-trained producer extraordinaire, even he is not immune to the grottier aspects of life on the road as a touring musician – like having to wash your smalls.

"It costs a small fortune to have a pair of socks laundered in most of these hotels," chuckles Lowe (74) down the phone from New York, where he and his backing band Los Straitjackets are opening for long-time pal Elvis Costello on the latter's We're All Going on a Summer Holiday US tour.

"I tend to take a little bit of travel wash and do it myself – so my room looks a bit like a tart's garrett at the moment, with items hanging off various surfaces to dry."

Needs must on the road in America, where 'days off' often actually involve travelling hundreds of miles to the next stop on the tour itinerary, as the singer/songwriter explains.

"This is a bus tour, and quite often we're chasing the Imposters' bus down the road – so what looks like a day off just means we're travelling to keep up with them," says Lowe, who produced Costello's debut album on Stiff, along with his next four albums: other notable production credits include The Damned's classic debut single and LP and Wreckless Eric's much loved (and covered) Whole Wide World single, also all issued by Stiff.

"We're in a minivan, and very often when we've done our show, we drive off and go 100 miles down the road and stay in a motel, and then drive a couple of hundred the next day to get to the next show."

Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Picture by Nils Schlebusch
Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Picture by Nils Schlebusch

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With their penchant for sporting Mexican wrestling masks while delivering a thrilling repertoire of twangy surf-rock instrumentals, Nashville-bred quartet Los Straitjackets make for a superficially odd pairing with this suave, be-suited Englishman. However, the US band actually bring an appealingly rootsy, grooving quality to Lowe's best-known tunes, such as his classic debut single So It Goes, his 1979 Top 20 hit Cruel To Be Kind, and When I Write The Book from his stint in 1970s pub rock outfit Rockpile.

"On paper, it sort of doesn't work at all," admits Lowe of this unlikely team-up, which has thus far yielded one excellent studio LP, 2017's amusingly titled What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets? – a play on (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?, the Lowe original which Elvis Costello has long made his own – and an entertaining live album.

"But I've known [Los Straitjackets] for a long, long time, and was a fan of theirs long before we shared the same manager.

"We came together because I made a Christmas record a few years back [2013's Quality Street], and shortly afterwards two of the key members of my little circle, Bobby Irwin and Neil Brockbank, who played on the record and used to tour with me, died.

"That took the wind out of my sails a bit, so I never promoted the record. But the one good thing about a Christmas record is that it's the gift that keeps on giving: after a couple of years, it was suggested that I do a few Christmas shows with the Straitjackets backing me.

"That seemed like a great idea, and it was fun, so we did it for two or three years. Then we started getting offers to do 'out of season' work, and that's when it really got cracking. So we've been [touring] a couple of times a year for about two years now and I've started writing songs for us.

"It doesn't feel like they're my backing group at all, you know: when we get together it really does feel like it's a group that we dreamt up together."

Certainly, the combo have been well received by the crowds who have been turning out for the recent US shows with Costello. In fact, the Walton-on-Thames-born musician has often been joining Costello on-stage to perform the aforementioned (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? and one of the headliner's own live favourites from his Lowe-produced years, Alison.

"Elvis has kindly invited me up to do stuff with him, and I sometimes do," says Lowe.

"Most of the people that come and see Elvis know who I am as I've got this form with him from back in the day. So we really get a pretty good reception.

"He's very generous with the crew and everyone helps us, you know? I've opened for a lot of people in the past and it's not always like that: for some reason the headline act can make make life quite difficult for the openers, but that certainly hasn't been the case with Elvis."Given that their professional lives have been intertwined for so long at this point, I wondered if Lowe could recall the first time he and Costello actually met.

"I can, actually," he reveals, "and it was quite romantic, in a way."In the 1970s, I was in a band called Brinsley Schwarz and Elvis used to come and see us play whenever we'd go up to Liverpool or north-west England. We'd obviously noticed him, as he was very distinctive looking."Then, one night we were having a drink in The Grapes pub across from The Cavern, when he walked in. I saw him and I said, 'Oh, there's that funny looking guy who comes to see us, I'm going to go and buy a round of drinks and talk to him.'"He remembers it slightly differently: he says he saw me buying a round of drinks at the bar and came and bought me one. But anyway, that's how we first met."After that, I sort of kept tabs on him. I knew he had a pub rock group, and the next time I met him was when he brought a tape into Stiff Records and they signed him."Naturally, Lowe could never have imagined that the pair would still be working together almost 50 years later:"I certainly never expected that I'd be working so long as this in the music business – because there was no-one doing it at such an advanced age back then. But there's plenty of us still going now."

Nick Lowe is Bangor-bound this summer
Nick Lowe is Bangor-bound this summer

Next month's Nick Lowe show in Bangor will find the evergreen veteran playing solo, offering up stripped-down versions of all your favourites from across his impressive career."It's always great to come back and play in Ireland," enthuses Lowe, who has been a regular visitor here since his Brinsley Schwartz days."I'm very glad that I can play the solo shows as well as this stuff with the Straitjackets, as it means I can play a slightly different collection of tunes."Some work better solo and some don't – but actually, it's amazing how many tunes work well in both formats."Proof, as if proof were needed, that Lowe and his canon are still in great nick after all these years.:: Nick Lowe, Saturday August 26, The Walled Garden, Bangor. Tickets via openhousefestival.com