Nils Lofgren Interview
Nils Lofgren- solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as a member of the E Street Band, brought his solo tour to the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield, Ohio on Friday, July 10, 2015. Nils agreed to a phone interview to talk about his long and storied career.
Greg Drugan: Hello Nils! Where are you calling me from today?
Nils Lofgren: I’m calling from Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve been here for 19 years with my wife, Amy and our four dogs. So this has been home for me for quite a while.
GD: What or who inspired you to start playing music?
NL: Boy, that’s tricky. When I was 5, all the kids on my block in Chicago were playing the accordion so that seemed like a nice hobby, so I asked my parents for lessons. So really it was some anonymous local players, but Myron Floren was one of my favorites and the Lawrence Welk Show, of all things, had an influence when I was just a very young kid. That led to ten years of studying the guitar. Then, as a teenager it was The Beatles and the Stones initially who opened up the floodgates for everything. The whole British Invasion, Stax records, the old Blues guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. All of those guys I discovered through the Beatles and the Stones. Of course, once I started my band Grin, Neil Young and David Briggs were probably the two most influential people in my career.
GD: Do you remember the first record you bought with your own money?
NL: That’s a tough one! I have memories of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” 45 and every single Beatles single. I remember standing in line at the record store getting every Beatles record, even before it was released on the radio. It didn’t matter because it was the Beatles! I also remember buying “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” by Wayne Newton and “Lonely Bull” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and learning it on the accordion.
GD: You are a master at several instruments; you mentioned the accordion and the guitar, which is your favorite to play?
NL: First of all, I don’t consider myself to be a master at anything. It’s a work in progress. I’ve gotten good at Rock and Roll guitar. I’m a good beginner at all these odd ball instruments that I’ve picked up like the pedal steel, the dobro, bottleneck, the lap steel, and the six-string banjo. It was kind of a function in ’99 when Stevie Van Zandt came back into the band and we sorely needed him. At that point we had four guitarists, which you don’t need, so I challenged myself to throw some different sounds in the toolbox, which I did. But I consider myself just a beginner at those other instruments. So I’m good at many things, and a master of none. It’s still a work in progress. I forgot what the actual question was! (laughs)
GD: (laughs) What is your favorite instrument to play?
NL: I don’t think I could pick a favorite, but if someone said you are stranded on a desert island and you could only take one instrument, I would probably take a guitar. But I would hate to be roped into one instrument. My wife, Amy just gave me a Celtic harp a few years ago which was beautiful but it kind of stumped me. It’s like an exercise machine, either hang clothes on it or learn how to use it. I actually picked out a few riffs on the harp and I play it in my show.
GD: You mentioned working with Neil Young at a fairly young age. How did get to work on After the Gold Rush?
NL: I snuck backstage and got to meet Neil and Crazy Horse and he was very kind. He gave me one of his guitars and I sang half of the fist Grin album to him years before it was recorded. He liked it, and he ended up buying me a cheeseburger and a Coke. I got to watch four shows over two days and got to hang out with him in the afternoon. He ended up seeing us play out in L.A. and he introduced me to David Briggs, which was his best friend, and he helped us out. The next year, when I was 18, David told me that Neil was going to call and ask if I would play guitar and sing and play piano on this After the Gold Rush album. I told them “I’m not a professional piano player.” But they said my 10 years as an accordion player, and winning contests, they felt that I could come up with some simple parts on the piano. They had confidence in me that I didn’t have. I practiced all the time and I was able to come up with some simple parts that worked on that beautiful record.
GD: Absolutely! It's one of my favorites.
NL: Yeah, me too! At one point, Neil said we are going to do some acoustic songs so go get your acoustic guitar. I said that I didn’t have one, so he said borrow mine. It was an old D18 that we used on “Tell Me Why” and “Till the Morning Comes.” And then at the end of the project, he gave it to me as a gift and it’s certainly my most treasured guitar.
GD: You also mentioned your first band Grin. Have you been able to stay in touch with any of those guys?
NL: Of course, but tragically we lost Bob Gordon, our bass player, a few years ago. Bob, Tommy and of course my brother are in touch. There was a Tribute to Nils Lofgren DVD from a few years ago (2004) that included a Grin reunion. That was the only Grin reunion since we broke up. All the DVD sales go to charity which helps inner city kids get music instruments into the schools. You can get it at my website nilslofgren.com.
GD: Has there been anyone that you have worked with that you were in awe of or intimidated by?
NL: Hats off to Bruce. I was shocked at his eloquence and honesty in his speech about how he and Steve had a heart to heart about it when he was inducted. And Steve had a great point about how Bruce created the band and it was interesting to me that he shared that private conversation between him and Steve. And how he insisted the band go in with him but it didn’t happen. I think Bruce expressed some regret about the band not going in with him during our induction. I thought it was a very intimate moment for him to share it with the public.
GD: I’ve seen Bruce several times, and I actually saw you guys at Cleveland Stadium on the Born in the USA tour. Recently, he has been taking requests from the fans. How many songs do you have to learn for an upcoming Bruce Springsteen tour?
NL: Well, it’s a work in progress. You know you get a set list which won’t be followed. He might mention 6-8 songs that afternoon that you should learn, that you may or may not see. Inevitably, he’ll pull a sign from the audience and it will be something that you’ve never played before in your life. So you can only prepare so much. I go to the show two hours before the band and Bruce, to get my foot pedals ready and prepare. I take 50 instruments on the road in which my tech has to have 32 of them in tune. I work on a myriad of sounds that I can use because when Bruce shows up, it (the setlist) is a surprise. It’s like cramming for a test every night. There are a few songs you can never forget like “Ramrod” or “Cadillac Ranch” and you don’t need to practice those. It’s just the act of staying on top of things and guessing what might be coming around the bend. It could be that night, or next week or next month. It’s all good work for a band that does a lot of improv shows. You just need to do what you need to do emotionally, mentally and physically to do a good show. You have to trust your instincts and just roll with it because Bruce always brings his “A” game.
GD: Tom Morello joined the E Street Band on the last tour, what was it like working with him?
NL: I love Tom! He brought a whole other voice to the band. He would come early and do his homework. I was the go to guy for questions, because not only am I a guitar player, but I’m still the new guy in the band after 30 years. One of my favorite lines from Tom, during one of those crazy improv shows. I mean the opening song was changed on the way to the stage! At one point, Tom leaned over to me and said “This is the first song that I recognize after an hour and thirteen minutes!” I thought that was hilarious because he had stood next to Bruce for over an hour and he had no idea what he was doing. Be he faked it like we all do and he figured out how to make it work. Then jump in when you know what you're doing.
GD: You are coming back to Cleveland this week. Do you have any memories of the city from the early years in your career?
NL: Oh yes, Cleveland is a great town with a great audience.; playing the Agora there and a lot of great clubs and there was a hotel called Swingo’s. We were young kids on the road in the early 70’s having a good time. I’m excited to get back to Cleveland and play at the Hard Rock in Northfield because I’ve never been there.
GD: Have you ever been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
NL: Oh yeah, I’ve been there a couple of times. I haven’t been there since the E Street Band got in, and I’m not sure I can make it there this trip. I think it’s a great thing to pay homage but of course, like any bureaucracy, there are people who should be in there but aren’t. But at the same time, it’s a great marking of history commemorating careers that might otherwise be lost. I’m a big fan of the Hall of Fame and more importantly, I’m a big fan of Cleveland. I was rooting for the Cavaliers in the finals and hopefully next year they can win it. Not just for the team, but for the city of Cleveland.
GD: Thank you! I know, we haven’t had a winner in 50 years.
NL: No problem; I’m a big sports fan. I love the Redskins and it’s been awhile since they won and I’m not a fan of the owner.
GD: Tell me about your Face the Music box set that came out last year.
NL: Yes, it’s a ten-disc box set with the best 45 years of my recordings. A lot of my music is out of print and hats off to Fantasy Records for getting the rights to every song that I hand-picked for this. There are 40 bonus tracks and B-sides and songs that were never released. Dave Marsh wrote the forward and he insisted that I write the 138 page book, so that’s the closest thing to a book that I’ll ever write. I’m very proud of it. My wife Amy produced it with us and worked with all of the art directors, going over tons of photos and 45 sleeves. So I will bring the box sets with me and after the show, I will come out and sign box sets and T-shirts and cd’s for anyone who wants to stick around. I’m trying to keep it grass roots and homegrown which is challenging and fun after a 26-month run of E Street shows.
GD: Being a member of the E Street Band, and you mentioned a 26 month tour, how did you find the time to write your own material and work with other artists?
NL: I take being in a band very seriously, and I don’t do it (solo projects) that often unless I can really commit. Like the tour with Ringo, and I was in a couple of great bands with Patti Scialfa. But what I do is that I don’t do both. If I’m on the road with the E Street Band- I’m second guessing Bruce, I’m worried about my 50 instruments and I give myself permission to just do that. I don’t have a record company so there is no pressure to be visible. What I hope to do is this summer, is to get back to writing some songs and hopefully put out a record by next year. But I don’t try to do both when I’m on the road with the E Street Band. I just focus on that body of work. Right now, I can focus on my solo stuff.
GD: What can we expect from this show?
NL: For this show, it’s just me. I have some electrics and some acoustics and I play some piano songs. I tell some stories throughout the night. I have a lot of acoustic soloing and electric jamming, something that I call “going fishing.” You take the energy from the crowd and really take some chances and it only works live. Sometimes you take an idea or whole other melodic structure that can turn into a 3 minute run. One of the things about playing alone is that you don’t have to worry about people following you, so you can take some chances and go off on another tangent. So I’m real excited to get back to Cleveland!
GD: How long is this tour going to last?
NL: This tour is on and off. I did a couple of shows in the northeast, three shows in the Washington DC area; and I have four shows around here (Cleveland). In September I have some shows out here in the west. Then in October and November, I’m going to be in England. It’s a never-ending-part-time tour.
GD: Nils, thank you so much for giving me a call. I'm really looking forward to your show.
NL: Greg, thank you and thanks for getting the word out.
GD: No problem, I hope we pack the place for you.
NL: That would be great!
Interview and photos by Greg Drugan
This interview first appeared in July, 2015 at NEO Music Scene