What were you doing at 17? Chances are it wasn't half as rock 'n' roll as Nils Lofgren. At that tender age, he was playing on Neil Young's seminal record, After the Gold Rush, plopped down at a piano, which he had never spent much time playing, but where his experience on the accordion came in handy.
From there he formed Grin and issued a few solo records before joining up with Bruce Springsteen's legendary E Street Band in 1984.
With the E Street band off the road for a bit, recovering both from the Magic and Working on a Dream tours, not to mention the tragic passing of longtime saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Lofgren has turned his attention to spending time at his home in Phoenix, and has just issued a new record, Old School.
Part rumination on growing older and part ass-kicker, the album finds him paired with Lou Gramm of Foreigner, Paul Rodgers of Free, Bad Company, and Queen, and legendary soul man Sam Moore (another Phoenician).
"I've been singing and playing 43 years. What the hell is going on?" Lofgren laughs as we discuss the new record, the passing of Clemons, and his new set of hips.
Up on the Sun: I feel very lucky. I got to see you with the E Street Band in 2009. I am so glad I got to see Clarence. His shadow looms over this record.
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, of course, I stood next to him for 27 years on stage, but we had an even deeper friendship off stage. We used to speak every week, and from the day I walked in to the band, he was always right there as a best friend. Three years ago, I had my hips replaced, and he's been through that. For a lot of reasons he was a very close dear friend. Certainly going to miss him for the rest of my life. But, it's a tragic part of life: as you get older you have to start saying goodbye.
The record seem to have two themes: there's an angry, axe-to-grind theme on songs like "Old School" and "60 is the New 18," and a more melancholy side. "Ain't Too Many of Us Left," which features Sam Moore, seems to be about learning to say goodbye.
Well, it's reflective and passionate. I just turned 60, and it's hard to spin that number, even for a young-at-heart rocker who's been on the road for 43 years. At the moment, I've been out touring, I was just on the east coast with my acoustic trio, and I was at the Rhythm Room twice in the last year. You know, partly you're sitting there playing loud rock n' roll, and it's working and you're feeling good about it, and the other half [of the time] you're like, "Damn, I'm sixty. I've been singing and playing 43 years. What the hell is going on?" [laughs]
You know, you have to deal with it with a sense of humor and levity, but also some reality. Sometimes I have to remind myself -- I walk around and my hips don't hurt. They were killing me for a decade. I got both replaced three years, not that I've forgot. It was a huge experience and I'm not a fan of doctors or hospitals. But just trying to keep your head in the game. You think you're going to live forever as a kid, and mistakenly you still think that when you're in a good moment as you get older. Which is probably healthy, but you've got to temper it with reality.
After the last E Street run, which was so great to do, two albums back-to-back, but I knew it was time for another solo run. I also knew it was time to find a balance between performing live, which is healthy, cause you pay some bills and you hone your craft as a performer, and an experience that you bring home to the studio to make a record. I tried to find a balance between my six dogs, and my lovely wife Amy, and the beautiful home she's made for me, but leaving home to play and just trying to help my family out at home and work on a record in my home studio.
The record features some prominent guests.
There's a lot of technical stuff involved in that. Lou and Paul sang from their respective homes in Vancouver and Rochester. We stayed in touch over the phone, and sent tapes with the computer. We mixed the record at Studiocat Productions, that's where we did the final phase and mixing. Sam Moore thankfully lives here, we were able to look at each other across the way, a couple mics in front of us and sing to each other's faces. It was intimidating, because I can't sing like that. [laughs] I am a big Sam Moore fan.
Those aren't artists I would have typically associated with you. It's a little out of the world I think of you in.
Lou Gramm and I go way back. I started playing on his solo records. Paul Rodgers remains one of the great inspirations as a singer, with his band Free, long before Bad Company came along --another great band. [Rodgers] was a huge influence on me growing up. In fact, the fourth Grin album has all these Salvador Dali-esque paintings on the front and back by this local guy in DC, and if you turn the album on the back, there's a little stairway that goes into another dimension, with seemingly graffiti on the bottom, and if you put it up to a mirror it says, "Number One: Paul Rodgers." I kind of semi-stalked him down a couple decades ago. We're friends; I've played guitar for him at some festivals and things. He's a kind, soulful man, and he helped me out.
My voice is a little on the gentler side, but if you go back to the Grin albums, we've got the dreamy side, country and folk based, and pretty rough nasty vocals, [me] doing my Paul Rogers imitation. I've always been a kind of schizophrenic love it all kind of guy.
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I grew up an accordionist, so I got a lot of melody in me, but I fell in love with the rock n roll through The Beatles and The Stones, and immediately through them discovered Stax, Volt, the old blues. I snuck backstage on Muddy Waters one time and watched him play cards. I was just a teenage fan, he let me stand in there and watch him and his buddies playing, throwing the cards violently on the table and yelling. It was beautiful, you know?
It was a great time to be a kid. I've been blessed to make some friends along the way. [Old School] is a very homegrown lyrical record. I'm complex. I'm 60 I'm like partying, but it's a nod to growing old, too. All us old guys are are like, "What happened?" Nobody gives a heck about me. I thought up until about two decades ago I was the old guy in the chair, kids running around me, in my slippers, kids bringing me drinks. And being nice to me. Now, nobody gives a shit about me [laughs]. I get it, but I don't have to like it. I'm singing and playing best I ever had. I'm grateful for my journey.
Old School is available in record shops and online now.