In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wreckless Eric was a staple of the revered English punk and power-pop record label Stiff Records. The songwriter, born Eric Goulden, gave Stiff “lots of songs of no more than two fifty long,” as his old peer Nick Lowe once sang; Goulden’s were often boisterous and punchy numbers about the music business itself, though many of his best songs—think “Veronica”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, and the enduring “Whole Wide World”—involved beaming hooks and tender pleas.
A similar sort of duality colors his most recent album, amERICa. Since the late 1990s, Goulden has toured the whole of the country, both solo and in various ensembles, collecting details about America’s corporatization and sublime natural features alike. In 2011, the Englishman settled permanently in upstate New York with his wife, the songwriter Amy Rigby, and set his stock of observations and reflections to song in a newly built home studio.
That’s where Goulden, 61, took my call recently to discuss the album, mortality, and industry dolts, all while preparing to tour his adopted country once more. “I’ve got new tires on the car,” he said, sounding gravelly but chipper. “I’ve been to the dentist, repaired the amplifier. Now I’m just waiting for a box of guitar strings to delivered.”
The first song on amERICa, “Several Shades of Green”, echoes a lot of songs you’ve written about the music industry. Why does that remain an interesting topic for you?
It’s difficult for me to write songs about working in the factory because I haven’t worked in the factory for a very long time, not since I was like maybe 21. It was part of writing about where I’ve come from. It was an extension of describing myself at one point as an “ex-famous semi-name,” which I thought they could put on the bottom of a poster rather than “punk legend” or whatever.
The song, unlike old ones like “A Pop Song”, is unique because it’s written in hindsight.
[Singing lyrics:] I was nearly someone back in the day / I was in the lower reaches of the hit parade. Yeah, you know, I spoke to my mum at some point and she had all of these press cuttings. I said that I never kept any of that stuff and she said, “I did because I knew you weren’t in it for that.” I thought, god that was quite astute of her. In the end I really didn’t give a fuck about any of it; I wanted to do the music and I thought some of it was funny and some of it was important, even like art or whatever. But really, my career for a while was everyone’s attempts to make me into a pop star and I basically wasn’t very good at being a pop star.
Why do you say that?
Well, I thought the people were fucking stupid. A lot of the time, the people were uneducated, ill informed, and shallow. I met some great people, too, but that’s how it went.
In “Boy Band”, you narrate a band’s rise-and-fall, but in third-person.
With that, I had to deal with the topic of fame really, because fame has become this sort of currency. Fame has got into the vocabulary. You walk down the street in some fairly dull town, like in England in a town like Norwich or somewhere, and there’s the street with all the clubs and everyone’s fighting on the street but you can pay extra to be on the VIP list! It’s really quite a nasty thing.
With “Boy Band” I really just look at the cliché of what happens to a group: there’s always one that’s grown a beard and someone’s come out of the closet and it’s not a big deal; everyone already knew except the press, apparently. The story in there about holding up the filling station, that actually happened to a German boy band, Milli Vanilli I think, where one of them committed a robbery and was recognized on the CCTV.
It’s refreshing that the record doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic.
It’s nice to have a fond memory of the time but nostalgia is quite damaging. You have to make an effort to move forward as an artist and that’s one of my problems with the music business: sometimes they won’t let you. And it’s not a question of doing something that hasn’t been done so much as pushing yourself towards something you haven’t done.
What’s a proper studio? I could make a proper recording of my neighbor’s car revving up and give it to them and say it’s my new track.
Is recording at home part of avoiding the music business?
When I first started doing what I call homemade records it was really not the way of doing things and I was told once by a record company called New Rose—a French record company that I put two records out with—that I would never be happy until I made a proper album in a proper studio with a proper producer and a proper engineer.
What’d you think of that?
I kind of laughed really. What is proper? What’s a proper studio? I could make a proper recording of my neighbor’s car revving up and give it to them and say it’s my new track. They’d say that it’s not very good and I’d say, well, it’s perfectly recorded. In those days I didn’t like going to studios because it just cost a lot of money to have someone telling you what you couldn’t do all of the time. So, recording at home is about having control.
I have this deep belief that in music all you’ve got is sound. Songs, lyrics, vocals—they’re formalized arrangements of noises you make with your mouth. It’s sound. And unless you can amplify this and convey it, you’re basically mute. So you know, I wanted control of my sound. Does that make sense or sound stupid? It’s hard to explain. It’s all noise.
You’re reminding me of what Jim Reid told me in an interview about resenting producers.
A lot of producers are blokes who stand around and then put their stamp on it. And I don’t think anyone should put their stamp on it, really. I think you should get out of the way. That’s part of my thing. It’s important to let the song do the work. … Just be there. It’s enough. Don’t join in. You find yourself trying to make the drums sound amazing by putting it through this and this, but I’m like, put a microphone in front of it. If that doesn’t work I have another microphone, but don’t get too much more invested in it.
It’s funny that this album is called amERICa. I thought—I mean, Bono, he can’t do that. It’d be “amBONOa”.
What does your day-to-day recording process look like?
Every day I’d get up in the morning, look through the large glass door into the studio, see the sun shine in on everything, wonder what would happen in there that day—then I’d go get an espresso. I have to have good espresso every day. It’s my only real vice.
Sometimes you just create this monstrous thing and you don’t know what it is, then later you go in and prune it back. I like to edit lyrics, edit songs. If someone gives me a song that’s four minutes I’ll probably cut it down to two and a half. They might be appalled but I like to get rid of anything that’s not really to do with it. But then, you might have a guitar that whitters away in the background and think, “What the hell is that?” and keep it because it’s like real life, some strange distraction. Things like that I’ll keep.
When did you decide to write songs about the United States?
I didn’t set out to write song about the U.S. really. It’s funny that this album is called amERICa. I thought—I mean, Bono, he can’t do that. It’d be “amBONOa”. He can’t do that! So you know I kind of like the banality of it. And at the same time it’s kind of about America but it’s kind of about me so my name is in capitals in the middle of it. But “amERICa”? It’s gratuitous, it’s self-serving—it’s a disgrace really!
What was moving abroad like?
Well, we get this container and it’s on the back of a truck and it’s five feet up in the air. But somehow we get all of the furniture up there and we get all of this official documentation and then our whole home gets floated across the Atlantic in a fucking container. All of the furniture, records, books, recording equipment—everything we fucking own. We built our lives here. I bought this house. At first we had no money so we had to make a record, which was the last record I made with my wife, Amy [Rigby], called A Working Museum. … Suddenly I was touring America on me own, the lot of it, and I’m thinking about me and thinking about this place. That’s how it all came about really.
It’s definitely a travel record. Tell me about “Sysco Trucks”.
That’s literally about seeing Sysco trucks everywhere. We have a friend who started an ice cream and burger place in Nashville, all organic and locally sourced. And then Sysco came along and said, “We want you to order your ingredients through us.” He said, “Well, you don’t do the product I’m selling.” And they said, “It’d be better doing this with us.” They seemed to be hinting that otherwise life was going to get tricky for my friend.
I do not view the world through a weathered, a weary, or a jaundiced eye, but in their view I do, apparently, or I’m a cynic.
The Sysco mafia, huh?
It seems to me, you go on their website and it’s all about their great ingredients—but it’s all floating in high fructose corn syrup, which causes diabetes. … And then they put all of this money into a drug that will control diabetes, too. Seems like a good business plan, though—and I have to be careful, because they’re bigger than me—that’s not really what I’m saying in the song.
What do you make of the record’s reception?
I’m glad people seem to like it of course. You know, that it’s not just, oh, another old bastard putting out a record. … But some of the reviews, one of them says, “It beats me why he’d write a song about trucks in San Francisco,” and other people have gone, “A beautiful song about trucks and their drivers.” I mean, are you fucking stupid? It’s one of the things that’s depressed me, really. I wonder how some of the reviewers can be so dumb. I do not view the world through a weathered, a weary, or a jaundiced eye, but in their view I do, apparently, or I’m a cynic. They spout that crap.
On one hand the album points to this bland, corporatized imagery, but it’s also in awe of the American landscape.
Yes. Absolutely. The landscape. In music, I have this thing about it where you can see that huge Mississippi sky, you can hear it in Tammy Wynette’s voice. I keep thinking about this but I’ve never really found a way to define it, the connection between landscape and voice, landscape and music. I sound very woolly. But it’s a fascination.
I love the optimism in “Days Of My Life”.
See, I’m 61 and I’ll be 62 soon and I didn’t have any idea I’d get this old. I mean, fuck, friends of mine are dying. It’s like erosion. The edge of the cliff is getting nearer and there goes another one over the edge. And you start to think, oh god, you only get a limited time; when you’re ten, you think it’s going to last forever. Life is like school vacation; there’s this horrible time at the end of it when your mum is like, “Okay time to get ready to go back to school.” Suddenly, you need to try to make the most of it.