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What’s so funny about Nick Lowe’s new band?

Nick Lowe’s career has never followed the prescribed path. From power pop proponent to punk rock producer and purveyor of restrained Americana, his journey has been full of unexpected turns. But even by his standards, the latest detour is unusual.

Los Straitjackets are a luchador mask wearing instrumental band dedicated to the twang-heavy genre of surf rock. And for the last five years they’ve been Lowe’s backing band. In fact, they’ve grown so fond of his songs they released an album of instrumental covers called What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets.

One of Lowe’s strengths has always been his ability to combine pop tunes with subversive lyrics full of barbed wit. So it was “an odd sensation” for him to hear his tunes reimagined as instrumentals. Add in a slick, highly polished sound that contrasts with his own ethos (as Stiff Records’ house producer, he earned the nickname “basher” for his no frills production style) and you have some odd bedfellows.

But for Lowe, the biggest change was the instrumentation of his backing band. With the exception of blues rockers Rockpile “in the past, I’ve always played with bands that have keyboards. Not elaborate keyboards necessarily, just a simple organ or piano part.” But the straight ahead rock and roll of Los Straitjackets only has room for guitars, bass and drums. “When they try to copy a keyboard part from one of the records, they’ll do it a really wonky way so the tunes have a life of their own” he says, and this adds a natural variation to the collaboration.

The record cover depicts the masked members of Los Straitjackets playing guitars while Lowe reads the paper in jacket and jeans. He’s the ultimate straight man, which is quite the gag for a songwriter known for his dry it and wry smile. This is, after all, a man who responded to David Bowie’s Low with an EP called Bowi.

Even when he does take on weighty subject matter, there’s always a touch of humour. “I’m really still a beat group guy at heart,” he admits. “I’ve never been one for the confessional stuff.” And in that sense, that means his collaboration with Los Straitjackets makes perfect sense. “It’s not a comedy show, but it’s certainly big hearted and funny. And I think all the best music is a bit like that.”

Their live shows bring Lowe’s vocals back into the mix and include “most of the songs people would expect to hear” along with “a few unusual ones from the catalogue”. And as an oft-covered musician (his website introduces him as the “songwriter of at least three songs you know by heart”), he also knows the joy of delving into somebody else’s songbook for a few well-selected covers.

Then, in the middle of the set, he leaves the stage so that Los Straitjackets can take over for some instrumentals. Does this mid-set break mean he’s slowing down as he enters his seventies? “No, it isn’t that,” he laughs. “It just seems to work. I rather like going off and having a glass of wine and doing the crossword puzzle for a bit in the middle. Then I change my shirt and come back, and it just seems to reinvigorate the evening.”

Lowe himself seems invigorated by his collaboration with the masked men of Los Straitjackets. In the last few years he’s returned with them to the recording studio and their most recent release is 2019’s Love Starvation/ Trombone. The flip side came about when “I was playing the guitar one day, as one does, and I started to get on this Neil Diamond trip.” Though he laughs that he’s not a big Neil Diamond fan, the tune seemed to work and so he started making noises as placeholders for lyrics.

“Suddenly” he says “the noises started to turn into words” and it became evident that he was dedicating a song to an instrument that’s never featured in any of his bands. “I remember playing it to a friend of mine, JD McPherson,” he recalls. “This look of horror came over his face. But it’s too bad, that’s the way it goes and I do like it.” And if one thing has become clear over the course of his singular career, Nick Lowe has never been afraid to go against the grain.

Nick Lowe’s Quality Rock & Roll Revue starring Los Straitjackets will perform at The Gov on Sunday 23 February

23 February

Nick Lowe

Alexis Buxton-Collins

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