Like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Lucero guitarist Brian Venable has four-letter words tattooed across the knuckles of both hands. Not Mitchum's love and hate, but hero and fool. Raised on punk rock, the tats reflect the idealism that drove him to form a band in the late '90s, just a month after he started playing guitar.
"It was one of those things where you get into it. And you watch all the movies and read about your favorite bands. And you think it's like some pirate movie -- everyone against the world," explains Venable from Memphis, where he shares a pad with his girlfriend and her two children.
When Venable started Lucero with singer and guitarist Ben Nichols, they turned punk on its head in true contrarian fashion. "I wanted to start a band to play punk-rock shows that could play soft, pretty music -- just piss off people," says Venable. "I wanted to make it really normal just to be punky."
The band began playing traditional country with a modest bite. Bringing their mandolin, organ, and pedal steel, Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars contributed to the group's 2001 debut, an aching set echoing the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo, whom Venable and Nichols had never heard. The latter influence becomes more apparent on Tennessee, the group's more polished and melodic follow-up.
After supporting that album throughout 2002, Venable left the group. "We were playing our brains out, but just weren't getting anywhere. And I got to feeling almost defeated," admits Venable. "I pretty much took a year off and rode my bicycle, and drank and worked at the record store."
Eventually, guitarist Todd Gill also dropped out, deciding he'd rather design websites than tour all the time. The band scrambled to find a replacement in time to open for one of Venable's favorite bands, Against Me! "I was like, 'I'll do it. I'll fill in for the six weeks,'" says Venable, who realized he was doing nothing special with his life. "Then a week into it, everybody's drunk, and I'm finally like, 'Okay, I'll keep doing it.'"
Since Venable's return, things have been looking up for the band. Despite previous label troubles, Lucero has found a good fit with the East/West imprint, which released its last two albums: Nobody's Darlings and 2006's Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. Though neither has sold well, critics rank them alongside heavy hitters by Drive-By Truckers, Old 97's, and My Morning Jacket.
Rebels is a major step forward. Lucero added keyboard player Rick Steff (who has previously played with Cat Power). Steff brings a strong R&B/soul element to the band, earning it comparisons to the Boss, which "cracks up" a punk like Venable.
"All it is, is piano. Everything you play goes from sounding like four rock and roll/punk-rock kind of guys, bashing something out to -- when he adds in the organ -- it's like, holy shit! He makes it not necessarily legitimate, but he makes it bigger," he explains.
Steff has joined the band full-time. However, he won't be joining Lucero on its current 10-day, six-date Road Fools Rock 'N' Roll BMX Tour. Through mutual friendships the band has become a staple of PropsVisual's BMX videos, garnering Lucero a separate strain of fans, whose energy and attitude even outstrips Lucero's chaotic performances. They told Steff it wasn't worth it; he'd just get stuff spilled on his keyboard.
"It's going to be a war. We usually have to circle together and boot people off. If you heard audio versions of these shows, we have so many people banging into us and jumping around that it sounds like we're drunk," says Venable. "Every time we've ever played a BMX event, it's just been nuts, to be honest. These kids throw themselves off 20-foot ramps and jump off buildings."
The tour features a number of big-name riders, including Mat Hoffman, who has his own video game. An amateur rider himself, Venable is considering bringing his bike, so he can tell friends he rode with Hoffman.
However, Venable's still gun-shy after a serious wipeout not long ago. "I guess my cranks were loose, because the chain popped off. I spun around and went over the front. The handlebars caught me in the calf, and the top half of the bike swung around in a ridiculous circle and caught me in the chest."
Still, it barely compares to the carnage of a Lucero show, which can devolve into a riotous mess. "We said in interviews that if you're not throwing beer, we're not sure that you like us," says Venable. "It's fine when 20 people are throwing beer at you, but when 500 start doing it, you're like, 'Shit, everything I own is soaked with beer or broken.'"
Venable and company will always horse around. Yet their sound has matured without losing its punk spark. "We're trying to come into our own," says Venable. "It's taking a while, but everything we do now -- even if we think we're sounding like someone else -- it's still pretty much Lucero."
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