It’s not a new issue. When he and his wife Elizabeth Lewis moved out of New York to Massachusetts in 1989, he looked for somewhere within walking distance of a bar. He is, he says, “a good alcoholic”. He doesn’t drink and drive; he finishes work before getting drunk. He’s not in denial. He’s getting help.
“I’m functioning, as they say, which is not the greatest feeling, to go from being basically enthusiastic to being dependent.” Alcohol and self-loathing, he says later, are partners. “How could they not be, really? It’s a disease, we know that now, but we still feel – at least 50 per cent of us, anyway – that we have failed in some way.”
Back in the ’80s, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions shot to fame as indie darlings with Rattlesnakes, a mix of jangling guitars, cantering rhythms and Cole’s slightly strangulated voice delivering his peculiarly cinematic songs. There were two more albums before the band broke up in 1989; after launching a solo career, Cole disappeared for a while, then veered into electronica – an enduring love, ever since he bought Fripp and Eno’s (No Pussyfooting) at the age of 12 – that has in turn inflected his more conventionally structured songs.
He’s on a roll now, with a well-reviewed newish album called Guesswork and a touring show that is modest in scale – just Cole and his old Commotions guitarist, Neil Clark – but hugely enjoyable. “I make records because I have to. Thankfully, I still want to,” he says. Records don’t make money any more, but they provide a raison d’etre for touring. “My audience – I believe – still wants to think of me as somebody who makes new music, not an oldies’ artist.”
I see him play in the Union Chapel, a lovely 19th-century church in London built almost in the round. It is packed out with seasoned enthusiasts who do, in fact, seem interested to hear his new stuff as well as go one more round with that girl with cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin.
At almost 60, he thinks he has weathered the bleak no-man’s land of middle age. Britain, he says, is harder on its older artists than anywhere else.
“We like to have something new all the time. When it’s not new we don’t really want it any more. Until it’s old. And then we like it, because it’s a grand old something-or-other. So I’m now a grand old something-or-other, just about. I’m playing to four times as many people now at nearly 60 as I was when I was 45. My last two records have been better received critically than anything since Rattlesnakes, really.” It’s not just him. “Even Elton was ignored somewhat when he was in his 50s. It didn’t help that he wasn’t making particularly great records during that time, but I think it’s a thing. And it’s specifically a British thing.”
America is different, he says, because the music business is so compartmentalised. “In America I’m a singer-songwriter, an alternative artist: you can be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond there and always be that fish.”
In other respects, however, he has a prickly relationship with his adopted country. “You know, freedom fries? F—ing idiots. But it’s starting to feel the same in Britain with Brexit. I do think now the world seems to be split between people and idiots. And then there’s this awful thing that’s happening of ‘yeah and I’m proud of it and if you want to look down on me, that makes you one of the elite’. I say on my Twitter account, any person who uses the word ‘elite’ to me, you’re immediately blocked. The idea that people could sneer at other people for being educated is disgusting.”
When his younger son has finished college, he says, he and Elizabeth may rethink where they live. “Portugal, maybe. I do love the idea of living somewhere where I don’t know what people are saying when we go into a restaurant. I like the idea that their conversation becomes white noise.”
I had this marvellous combination of naivete and self-confidence in 1983 and ’84.
Back in the day, the adjective most commonly used to describe Cole was “literary”. He rolls his eyes at that now, but I remember him coming on stage carrying half a dozen leather-bound books to put on the drum stand, as if he might be able to find time to dip into The Odyssey between numbers. The songs themselves told stories that could have been scenes from films or chapters of novels his audience had seen or read.
“I wanted to be Tom Wolfe in 1983,” he admits. “To say ‘I’m doing the New Journalism in pop music’.” Did he say that aloud? “I’m sure I did. I had this marvellous combination of naivete and self-confidence in 1983 and ’84. That’s the reason we made that record, because I had all these ideas and I thought ‘we can do this’. But we got incredibly lucky. We could do that, but only once.”
And essentially, he says, they were only doing one thing. “We had two tempos, mid-tempo and up-tempo and that was about it. We stretched it about as far as we could. We didn’t – well, not all of us, but some of us didn’t want to go round in circles and do it all again.” Touring now as an economical duo, he has had to rethink both those older songs and the later ones, with their washes of electronic sound that could never be reproduced in live performance.
“When I started playing acoustic shows in the late ’90s it was out of necessity rather than desire,” he says. “I never wanted to be a folk singer. But I was broke and I needed to make money and I found when you broke the songs down to just one guitar, if the song is strong enough it will work.”
His Tom Wolfe days are past; rather than relate fragments of stories, he takes on characters’ voices and speaks to us directly. “I think it’s like method acting. I think you have to call upon your emotional self to try and think what the words for the character would be. It’s not always a pleasant experience – quite often it’s really gut-wrenching to write songs, to try to get them right.” He has thought of retiring many times. Taking a university job. Tenure, he says wistfully. It’s pretty much the opposite of what he has now.
There was a time in the ’90s when the British music press – his musical alma mater – alternated by describing him as a genius and someone who should pack it in. That leaves a mark. “I’m terrified of that time when you keep going when you should have stopped. A lot of artists, I think, feel that being creative is essential to one’s sense of self-worth.” Creativity can be an addiction – something he recognises – in itself.
“I don’t think there is anything cool about being creative. Creativity consists of blips we have to catch, little sparks, whatever they are. Once we catch them, the rest is just work.”
Lloyd Cole’s From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork tour is at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, Dec 7; Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, Dec 11; Brisbane’s Concert Hall, Dec 15; and Sydney’s City Recital Hall, Dec 20.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.