the AU interview: Nils Lofgren (USA) of the E Street Band

American musician and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren chats to us about his latest album, working with two Rock and Roll legends and how he went from playing classical accordion to playing three minute solos in front of packed out stadiums.

So you have just come off tour, how was that for you?

Well it was great, of course I have been out a couple of years with the E Street Band, but it had been quite a while since I had done my own shows, so it was quite an adventure musically and professionally getting back to being the band leader, singing my own songs and just constructing a show.

There’s a duet with a friend Greg Varlotta, where there was just two of us, so you know it puts a good pressure on you to sing and play a lot and stay in touch with the audience. But it was great, a great 3 months, just got back now. The next big project is to get another record recorded by spring and get a new CD out by next summer on my website.

On your latest record you’ve covered Neil Young throughout, how did you
decide which songs to perform?

Well you know it was not really an idea I would have come up with. It was my manager Anton’s idea. At first I really didn’t think that much of it, but just out of respect for the songs and the content I picked about 30 songs and sang them for 2 weeks mostly to my dogs and cat in the mornings, I’d just sing for a couple of hours, I wouldn’t record, I would just sing and play on a piano or the guitar; and for a while it just sounded like karaoke you know. After about 2 weeks there were a groups of songs that felt like they might have a little bit more special that was more my own, at least more my own version of the song. It was as this point that I realised that it might make a good record.

There were some great songs I wanted to get on the record but didn’t, there were some songs I was surprised that worked. I really let the performances dictate it wasn’t like I had a list that had to go on the record. I just kept singing these thirty songs until they started feeling like they’d work.

A very fluid process then?

Yeah, I mean really some songs I really loved, but they didn’t really feel special with me singing them, they just kept sounding like good karaoke, or bad karaoke depending on how you look at it. But that was really my main goal, was to make it feel like with the songs there was something special going on and with the live performance. Also I knew it had to be performed live, with no production, no overdubbing, no other instruments, just the live performance because you know that was the only way it was going to work. But it came out OK I think.

You have worked with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, could you talk a little about what it was like working with both of them?

Other than certainly the sound of their voices, there are a lot of similarities in the sense that they both love the live emotional performance even in the recording studio, they tend not to be too technical, and their approach is an emotional one. They tend to leave you alone to come up with your own ideas they may have some direction for you but they are very hands off, they give you a lot of room musically just to create and to bring your own flavour to the piece, whether it’s the studio or the live work.

But anyway they are both fabulous guys to work with and to be in a band with and certainly very passionate live performers and I’ve had a chance to do quite a bit of work with both of them which has been an honour, it’s just been kind of part of a musical journey for me. It’s nice sometimes to not always be the boss and the bandleader but you know still be really involved in music and get a different perspective,of course play different instruments and it’s just been a really healthy part of my 42 years now on the road.

You have played some of the biggest venues in the world, are you more
at home on these large stages or with smaller stages?

Erm I enjoy both, I will say it takes a bit more almost concentration in the big stadiums not to get distracted by the event, the spectacle nature of it. The audience is so much further away so sometimes you tend to work a little bit harder to just stay involved and establish a connection with the audience in the bigger venues. In the little clubs of course they are right on top of you, and it’s pretty easy to get right down in it right away. I enjoy both, so long as you feel like you’ve got a good group of people and a great batch of songs to present they’re both fine and have their own technicalities to them, but it’s still, the bottomline is your job is pretty much the same, you need to kinda get lost in the music, stay really passionate about it and trust your instincts and really kinda you know do some improv and react to the emotional energy you get from the crowd, which is spectacular; and that’s the case in the big places and the little places, sometimes there’s an even more immediate connection in the smaller venues.

Any memorable concerts, any that have stuck with you?

Oh man they’re all memorable, I love playing live in front of an audience it’s just my favourite thing to do. I just spent a couple of months on the road with Greg Varlotta, just a good friend from here in Scottsdale, and we had just the two of us, so there was lots of guitar playing, a lot of jamming and I’d go over and play the piano. There was a lot of intimacy and urgency to the performance and it was good for me, and good for us, I thought we did some very special nights just everywhere, but then that’s the goal. My job is to do that every night.

Certainly there are some nights that are more unique than others, but they have all been very emotional and fun to do and approach, in the big places of course with the E Street Band. I wound up with my solo groups going into stadiums, I think in ’79 I wound up doing a stadium tour with The Who all through Europe and then ’82 or ’83 we did a stadium tour with Trans (Neil Young) so I was really familiar with the bigger venues when the E Street Band finally moved into the larger places on the Born in the USA tour.

But I like the little clubs they are great, really emotional when you get a great audience surrounding you, there’s something exciting about that and kind of unique for the smaller venues.

Guitar wasn’t you first instrument, what was it that inspired you to
switch across?

Well of course I was a classical accordion player, I studied classical accordion from age 6 to 15. It was really, there was an old beat up guitar case my dad had in the house, and my brother Tommy, who ended up going onto being a professional musician and play in my band Grin and did a lot of solo work with me. But he started playing guitar first in the house and you know by now I had fallen in love with Rock and Roll, with The Beatles and The Stones, and discovered all their heroes who were mostly these
American RnB, Blues, Stax, Motown artists.

Suddenly I just started learning, Tommy started showing me guitar chords and I really loved it and worked hard at it and after a while I found some local teachers alongside Tommy getting me started, took a few months of lessons, but really it was my brother Tommy that got me started.

For a couple of years it was just a great hobby, but I used to play all the time, fortunately by the time I was 16 in 1968 I was able to put the band Grin together and hit the road, and that was 42 years ago, so it’s been a great long journey and I’m certainly grateful its continued up to this point anyway.

You are pretty well known for ‘epic’ solos, where do they come from? Do you plan them out or just go with it?

A bit of both, I mean certainly my own shows I improvise all the time, but then of course I am in charge of how long it is, when it breaks down, how to build it, how to get out it and I found working with Bruce one night when he sent me out to do a longer solo, some of the pieces in particular as they got longer, like ‘Youngstown’ in particular, when we started doing that, it just started out as a brief solo at the end of
the song, and then every night it would get a little bit longer, and then after
about a month, it was really becoming a really long piece. Even though I was improvising and jamming and the energy was there, of course it’s a fabulous band and a great song to play.

I just decided there was a consistency missing, so I would sit down and make some touchstone themes, so that I could go from one theme to the other, knowing I could improv inside the theme, so that no matter how well the improv was working after x amount of bars I could lift it up into this next kind of theme that would lift the piece a bit. So I came up with a handful of themes that I could walk through, and it took the
Youngstown solo to what I thought was a better place; where there was a consistency
for my own sake that was better for the song and the band in front of an
audience.

And I applied that to some of the other pieces, basically ‘Tunnel of Love’ started getting long on the last couple of tours, that was all improv, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ kind of the same thing. ‘Because the Night’ was another one, once I started doing the solo it got so long I put down some touchstone themes together that I could go through, that would give it greater consistency but let me improv around it, but still have these themes to walk through; that I thought more consistently lifted the piece as it got into two and three minute solos. Which is a long time to just be soloing away in front of an audience.

They are probably some of the longest solo’s out there most of the
time…

Yeah, listen, I just love playing with the E Street Band and really it was just a kind of accident. Half the time Bruce, Steve and I, well Steve and I’ll just watch Bruce, because you never know. He’ll point at Roy, he’ll point at Steve, he’ll point at Danny or Charlie
on the organ, or point at me. There’s really not much, you don’t plan out a lot of it. Some nights Bruce will have played the solo for months, and then that night he’ll point at you. He doesn’t talk about it, he doesn’t warn you. It’s just your turn and you jump up and do your best, you got to be ready.

Nothing quite like getting put on the spot…

Well it’s good for you, you know, but you do have to pay attention, but it’s part of the nature of being in a giant band that does a lot of improv, it’s exciting, and of course the last couple of years, the E Street Band have started improv-ing whole songs and set lists, which is unusual.

After so many decades of being on the road together it’s something we are able to do, which is exciting. And I know it’s challenging for Bruce as a bandleader, it’s one thing to improv a show, improv songs, call songs you have never played before, but to do that and still want a three hour concert to build and keep building that is very difficult thing to do. And I’ve not really seen anyone try and do that or accomplish it other than Bruce.

Other than you latest album The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, you also
recorded a couple of tracks with the author Clive Cussler, how did that come
about?

Clive’s an old friend. Way back in ’89 I did the first Ringo Starr All Star Band tour and I was reading one of Clive’s books, I was a huge fan of his writing and still am, the Dirk Pitt series. And, so anyway, I tracked him down, we became friends, I got him to come to the shows with his family. I was living back, well I’d jump between LA and Washington D.C, so I kept in touch with Clive and when I moved to Arizona 14 years ago, it’s almost 15 years now, with my wife Amy, of course Clive lives here, he’s literally
lives like ten minutes up the road. So we got to see more of each other, which
is great for me I was always a fan of his, as a writer and a friend.

One night a couple of years ago he said he’d always wanted to write a corny country song, I kind of jokingly laughed about it, said I’d be happy to help, anyway we started writing the song together, and it really wasn’t corny at all, it was this cool concept that he had about famous liquors gone by the wayside, some of these rock out liquors we used to drink and enjoy In our youth.

We started maybe every couple of weeks I’d get together for three or four hours in his writing studio, you know I’d bring my rhyming dictionaries and he’d have his computer, and we’d do research, just kind of like how he’d write a book and how I’d write a song. It was really a true collaborative effort, which was fun, even though Clive doesn’t play an instrument per se, he likes music a lot, I would bring a couple of themes in, A B C for instance, and I’d play them for him as an idea and ask which one feels right to you? He might chose A and we’d go down that road, and you know we hit
a fork in the road if you will. I’d give him two or three options quicker, sadder, brighter, darker and he’s pick one with his instincts and we’d go from there. It was a collaborative effort over almost a year or so, just slowly chipping away at this piece ‘Whatever Happened to Muscatel’.

When we finally had the song written, I recorded it in my home studio, Clive came down and did a sing-along, I talked him into singing a couple of lines, which even though he’s not a singer he’s very game for it. After all he’s an underwater explorer, treasure hunter and archaeologist, so he has a flair for adventure that he brought to
the project and it turned out great. We have his notes, some of the handwritten notes we did together in the studio, and video footage of the actual sing-along sessions and the recording sessions, so it became kind of a nice package, certainly if you’re a fan of Clive Cussler’s – it’s his first official songwriting efforts and I believe duet singing performance. So it’s really cool, it’s at Nils Lofgren.com and it’s certainly an obscure item, but we are very proud of the song.

Just quickly touching on the new Darkness on the Edge of Town box set,
you weren’t in the band at the time; but were you involved in the finishing of
any of the extra tracks on The Promise, and what are your thoughts on the set?

No, that was you know just a project for the guys you originally made the record, I think most of it, of course obviously I am sure they tried to retain as much of the original stuff from back then, and do a little finishing as possible. But I was not involved with that.

I just, certainly have been involved in performing and presenting those songs for decades on the road. I just got my copy last week and it’s a beautiful package, with the whole notebook, it’s kind of like what I was talking about with Clive, the handwritten writings and musings and different ideas and such. It’s just really really well done, and I thought they did a great job putting it together, and certainly a great lot of old music that hasn’t been heard before. Which for someone as prolific as Bruce of course is a great gift for all his fans to have all that new music out. So I thought they did a great job with it, but no I wasn’t involved with it.

There has been a rumour floating around that Bruce will be touring
Australia next year, can you shed any light on that?

No. Actually there are no plans at the moment. I’m certainly getting ready to start recording another record of my own, I’m going to start making plans myself to go on tour next year. At the moment there are no plans for the E Street Band to tour anywhere. Now I certainly hope that somewhere down the road that all changes, as I’m a big fan of the band, but at the moment, I think everyone is getting ready for the holidays and there are no plans to reunite the band at the moment.

Have you toured here solo before? Or are there any plans too?

No, you know, it’s such a long way to go for me. I’ve often talked to promoters and tried to put something together. I do have this great acoustic show, just two of us. So I would like to look to get over to Australia and do some playing next year.

I’d just have to reach out to a local promoter and see if that would be possible. Again I have mostly of course been playing in Europe and America here, but I’d love to get to Australia and play, even on my own with an acoustic show, maybe that’s something I can organise next year.

Any plans for the future, other than the new album?

Well, I’ve got a guitar school, for beginners and intermediate players, so I’m going to continue recording lessons. They are hour long lessons, my beginners school is really for people, for so many years people have told me they wanted to play guitar but they’re not allowed to because they have no talent and have no rhythm, so my beginning school is really for people who want to learn how to play music for fun. Try
and give them shortcuts I’ve picked up through all my studies of the accordion,
the guitar and all these other instruments I have learnt through being with the
E Street Band.

Certainly I’m a beginner at them, but I continue to learn new instruments so I think I have a good idea on how to make learning music fun, and focus on the enjoyment part of it, instead of the hard work of practice, which you need to do. But the theme of my beginners’ school is here’s stuff to do with one finger, and right away it feels like music, and I’ll back you up, you don’t have the pressure of needing talent or rhythm, if you have a love of music it’s a good place to start. I’m trying to make it more of an enjoyable journey, because traditionally learning can be frustrating, you lose a lot of
students, so the theme of my beginners’ school is to have fun whilst you’re learning.

Thank You very much for talking to me on a weekend.

Yeah, well I’m hoping by next summer at any rate to get a new record out, and I’d love to get over to Australia to play some shows, with a promoter there and accomplish that. I’m certainly grateful for all the support and thanks, I haven’t had a record deal in fifteen years, I’ve just got my website NilsLofgren.com. There’s a lot of free music there, guitar school. I notice that thanks to the internet of course I can stay in touch with people all over the world. I hope I can get there to play for everyone. But meanwhile  thanks to everyone there in Australia for your continued support.

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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.

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