Lloyd Cole: When a pop star hits the wall

His days as lead singer of the Commotions far behind him, Lloyd Cole has been out of the limelight in recent years. Fiona Sturges listens to the loneliness of the long-distance strummer
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The Independent Culture

If Lloyd Cole weren't so innately Lloyd Cole-esque, you might just mistake him for a banker, an accountant or even a stockbroker. He's looking all sensible and smart in a suit jacket and, for a split second, as I try and catch his eye across a busy central London restaurant, I wonder if I've got the wrong man. Not for Cole the silly, rock-star affectations. He's a man who likes to blend with his surroundings, to watch rather than be watched.

Nowadays Cole's hair is a glistening silver-grey and his eyes seem to have receded even further into his head. His accent betrays his Derbyshire roots, as well as 14 years of living in America - first in New York, more recently in New England. Other than that, he looks much as he did 20 years ago: thoroughly miserable in a good-natured sort of way.

Certainly, he doesn't seem to have developed a sense of humour in his time away. Cole has always been a serious man and, like the majority of born-and-bred Englishmen, he loves a grumble. In the space of half an hour he complains about the snow in New York, the mosquitoes in New England, George Bush, British licensing laws and grubby London pubs. He even has a little moan about the music playing in the background as we eat.

Get him on the subject of the music industry, though, and there's no stopping him. In the Nineties, after splitting from his long-time band The Commotions, Cole hit the commercial wall. Noting the dearth of a major hit, his record label Mercury rejected a 1996 album despite the fact that his previous release, 1995's Love Story, was a critical success. Adding insult to injury, they decided to release a greatest hits compilation to which they asked Cole to contribute two new songs.

"They said they had to be hits," he complains. "As if a songwriter can just click his fingers and produce a No. 1 record. It was all down to the next single and whether you appeared on Top of the Pops. I got nothing but doubt from them. They'd say things like 'If your next single doesn't succeed, you're over.' When you hear it that often, after a while you start to believe it. Even during the Commotions period, when we were doing extremely well, there still seemed to be this feeling that the record company knew better than us about what was going to sell. They were never right. Never."

Cole is in town to promote his new album Music in a Foreign Language. It's his first proper British release in eight years - his last two albums, The Negatives and Etc ... went by virtually unnoticed, having been licensed to the UK via a French record label. But unlike the majority of his previous LPs, Music in a Foreign Language was presented to his new label, Sanctuary ("a haven for old codgers") as a finished piece of work. "Now there is no discussion about what does and doesn't go on to the album," he says. "I wrote every one of these songs because I felt like it, not because I had to fulfil an obligation. It's my grass-fed, organic record."

The album, recorded on an Apple Mac computer in an office a few miles from his home, contains wryly-observed, sadly-sung reflections on love and middle age set against simple acoustic arrangements. "It's about being older and the feeling that your heart is full," Cole explains. "I suppose it's quite bleak because in the last five or so years I've had bleak moments. I've definitely experienced some mid-life ennui. There have been days when I didn't particularly feel like doing anything I was supposed to do in my life, like make music or be a father. Now I feel I've come through that and I have a good relationship with my work. I've reassessed my priorities and how I feel about being involved in music."

While Cole's singing is as deep and doleful as ever, the archness in his lyrics has disappeared. "When I started out as a musician I was in this vaguely maverick position," he reflects. "I introduced a way of singing and an attitude to songwriting which was not earnest, and was generally quite ironic. But I feel that since Beck, irony's been done to death, so now I try to write songs that don't have any."

Cole describes his schoolboy self as a "music trainspotter. I could do the New Musical Express crossword faster than anyone in my class and I knew every record that every cool band had made between 1970 and 1980. It was sad really but that was my life. I had two ambitions - one was to be on Top Of The Pops and the other was to be on the front cover of the NME."

Cole started a punk band called The Vile Bodies in 1977 while he was studying for his A-levels. After leaving school he went to read law at University College, London, but decided that it wasn't for him. He eventually relocated to Glasgow University where he met the guitarist Neil Clark, keyboard player Blair Cowan, bassist Lawrence Donegan and drummer Stephen Irvine, otherwise known as The Commotions. The band was quick to take off - "My dad lent us £500 to get started and we were able to pay him back in four months" - and abandoned their studies in order to sign a record deal.

Their first single "Perfect Skin" drew comparisons with Lou Reed and The Byrds and flew into the Top 30, while their 1984 debut album Rattlesnakes was a hit among the pseudo-intellectual college crowd. This was followed in 1985 by the gold-selling LP Easy Pieces but the band seemed to lose their way soon after. Their third album Mainstream was a critical and commercial disappointment and the band finally called it a day in 1989.

Cole insists that he left England initially by accident. "I went away for a six-month sabbatical. I wanted to get away from London and just never came back. I met my wife and we got married and there seemed no reason to return."

There are times, he says, when he misses England. "If I could live anywhere I'd live in North Wales. I'd like to live by the sea where there are no insects. Or maybe Whitby. It's beautiful there. I guess when you don't live where you're from, it makes you more aware of who you are and what you've left behind. I don't really so much miss the place as the weather. And the politics. I know Blair's in trouble and I'm glad about it but at least there's a debate here."

Cole may claim to have got over his mid-life despondency but there remains a weariness in his voice when he talks about the rigmarole of touring. He admits to periods where he has considered giving up music altogether; at the tender age of 42, retirement is clearly on his mind. "I have this ridiculous parallel existence where I'm a golf expert," he confides with a hint of embarrassment. "It initially came from the fact that we lived next to a golf course. Only in the last 10 years or so have I started reading golf literature. I was reading this book about it where it said to design golf courses you needed artistic flair and mathematical talent. I was a maths whiz at school so I really think I could do it."

Golfing aspirations aside, Cole says he's keenly aware that a musician's shelf-life is short. "I know that my place in musical history is very fragile," he says blithely. "They're just records and they don't last forever. I think that the more time goes by, the less important certain things become to people. I'm not going to give up music for the sake of it but one has to be realistic about things. I'm at the age where most people who do what I do dry up. It's better to accept that than to carry on regardless."

'Music in a Foreign Language' is out now on Sanctuary Records. Lloyd Cole's UK tour begins on Sunday at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1 (020-7388 8822)