An Interview with Rick Steff

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Memphis country-soul rockers Lucero have been one of my favorite bands on this or any other planet since right around the time Rick Steff joined the band in 2006 and began gracing them with his exquisite piano and keyboard stylings (not to mention his awe-inspiring sideburns). Rick’s got a brand new solo EP, Rick’s Booogie, coming out May 7 on Archer Records, and was kind enough to speak to me in the midst of a tour with Lucero about his dad’s influence on his career, turning fifty, and how Ringo Starr inspired the misspelled title of Rick’s Booogie.

 

Where are you right now?

We are in Wichita, Kansas. The next date on the tour is Lawrence. We just did three nights sold out at the Bluebird in Denver and are taking a much deserved day off! And then we have another couple weeks before we get home.

I trust the tour is going OK and everything.

It’s been great. One of the best ones in memory, actually. It’s been a lot of fun.

I guess we’ll talk about the EP first. What made you decide to do this now with all the other stuff you’ve got going on?

You know, it was almost accidental. I had been playing a couple tunes at sound checks and stuff. This one boogie – I had always wanted to put out a little piano solo boogie like they did in, gosh, the 30s and 40s. Just an old boogie woogie kind of thing. I went to the studio where we’ve done a good bit of work as of late [Music+Arts Studio in Memphis]. We did the Mud soundtrack for [filmmaker] Jeff [Nichols]’s new movie there. I just went there and said, “What do you think of this boogie?” And before I knew it we cut it. I told the guys I had cut it, and they all said, “Well, we want to play on it!” It ended up being this really nice little accident that I was really happy about. It’s just three songs: a boogie by myself, a boogie with the band, and then a little instrumental tune that I wrote that leads into a song off of [Lucero’s 2012 album] Women & Work called “It May Be Too Late.”

The one with the full band [“Rick’s Booogie Pt. 2”] – you really captured the 50s/60s Memphis sound with that one.

Thank you so much. That was the goal.

The horn sound is just so grimy and awesome. I love it.

Yeah. They did a great job. Everybody did. We’re all real close. It’s a really familial band. Just having everybody want to be a part of it – we’ve been playing it live with the full band. So it’s just great. I’m tickled about it.

What’s up with the extra ‘o’ in the title?

Back in the 70s when you’d have Marc Bolan or Ringo talk about boogie, they’d pronounce it “booogie.” So I just always liked that. Just something a little odd. But yeah, that’s where that comes from. It comes from being an old 70s guy.

Those were the days.

Yeah!

Who would you say are your biggest influences as a pianist in general?

I do a lot of different records, I’ve done a lot of different people’s things, so influences come from everywhere. But for this particular kind of thing, I would say it would definitely be… I was thinking of Albert Ammons. And there’s an old boogie piano player called Meade Lux Lewis. And I always liked James Booker, the New Orleans boogie piano player. So I’ve always played that kind of music – the New Orleans piano music. Pretty much the straight boogie has always been something that I’ve just loved to do, and it’s something that doesn’t get done much anymore in lieu of just straight blues. It’s just a different feel that I’ve always liked. I think it’s a happy blues.

It must have been tough for you to find the time to do it because you’re on tour so much and doing session work. What have you worked on recently, session-wise?

I just played on Drag The River’s record. Drag The River is a band in Fort Collins that plays with us a lot. I also was asked to play on this record by this band I adore called the Dirty Streets, which are kind of a three piece, young kids playing this serious 70s rock. If you closed your eyes you’d think you were at a Grand Funk show or something. They’re great. I played some B3 on that. [Lucero drummer] Roy [Berry] and I just got through doing about 130 pieces of music for a TV series that this guy is trying to sell. So there’s always something going on. I like to stay busy like that. And of course we have a new EP out too, Lucero does. So there’s been a lot of activity. With the Mud soundtrack that comes out I think next week, that’s probably more Lucero music dropped at one time than any other time previous.

I was going to ask you about the new Lucero EP [Texas & Tennessee]. What can you tell me about it? I heard the stream on SPIN, it sounds great.

It was a really kind of immediate thing. We had a couple weeks in town and Ben had some tunes he’d been writing. We had wanted to go to Cody Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch – Jim Dickinson’s son Cody still records there. So we literally went out for a couple days, laid down four tunes, and that was pretty much it. Not a lot of overdubs, just a very immediate kind of thing, ostensibly to take out on this tour, but we didn’t get it until several weeks into the tour so we just saw it for the first time in Denver. But we’re jazzed about that.

It’s got that acoustic feel – more old school Lucero.

Absolutely. That was kind of the goal. We’ve been doing that in an acoustic set, like the whole EP, during the shows. So that’s been fun.

We should probably talk about your dad [renowned Memphis trumpeter Dick Steff]. How influential was he in you getting into music?

There was no bigger influence. That was who I wanted to be. Dad played on “Suspicious Minds” and Shaft and “In The Ghetto” and Dusty In Memphis and all these great records. I couldn’t have looked up higher to him. I’m sure that’s where the desire to play on so many records came from – trying to keep that family name going! But he was great. We played music together all the time, we did sessions together. He was the instructor who taught our current trumpet player [Scott Thompson] how to play. So it’s like having him with me.

He must have taken you to sessions when you were younger. Any particularly memorable ones?

I went to an Elvis one one time, and that was really cool. I went to a Frank Sinatra one but Sinatra didn’t show, so they just cut the horns. He produced a session one time that had the entire Elvis band, and that was a big deal. But less than it being just one isolated incident, it was just kind of like… if dad played a circus gig, I went to the circus gig. If he was playing a rock show, I would go to the rock show. It was a very beautiful and unique way to grow up in music.

You’ve played with so many people. I was just sort of curious… because you played with Hank [Williams] Jr. for a while…

Oh yeah, back in my youth, I did. I moved to London when I was 20, and I got this gig playing with Dexy’s Midnight Runners. And that lasted about eight months or something like that. And when I came home, I was looking for something to do, there wasn’t much to do, and some of my buddies were in his band and asked me to join. So I guess I did that from like 24 to 30. It was very wild, fun times. A good introduction to the road.

I was sort curious what you thought of the whole ESPN controversy with him.

He’s no stranger to controversy. He’s gotten into some controversy in Memphis. It was a great gig, I enjoyed playing with him. We’re very different in our way of looking at things. Is the ESPN thing something where he spoke out about Obama?

Yeah.

Yeah… we haven’t spoken in a very long time. I’m a little more of a peaceful guy. I’m a path of least resistance dude.

You’re older than the other guys in Lucero, aren’t you?

Sure I am. I just turned 50, which is kind of why I did this [EP]. Pretty much everybody in the band is in their mid-30s to early 40s, so I’ve got almost ten years on everybody, which is nice.

So how did you end up starting to play with them in the first place?

Through session stuff. John Stubblefield, the bass player, called me for a session. It was for a guy named Charly Fasano, he’s a poet. He had a spoken word, kind of beat poetry 45 he wanted to cut. So it was John and Roy and a guitar player from Athens named David Couser and myself. And over the course of cutting this single for a couple days, we kind of hit it off. There have always been keyboards on certain songs on Lucero’s records, and I guess they were looking to expand that. So when I did that single, they said, “Would you like to come and try to play and see what it’s like playing these new tunes that we’re about to record?” Which was the Rebels, Rogues [& Sworn Brothers] record, 2006. And I just never left. It was the band I’ve been waiting to play for my whole life. It’s funny finding something like that at that age, but [Lucero frontman] Ben [Nichols] is the songwriter I’ve always wished I could play [with]. He’s great.

I remember when you first joined the band, there was a reaction from some of the older fans who thought they were getting away from their roots. And then that increased 100 fold when the horns got involved. Are you aware of all that? What do you think about it?

I’m totally aware of it, and I get it. A lot of times when bands I loved changed and stuff like that, I hated ‘em! What I tried to do when I joined the band was keep that integrity and simplicity. I guess I tried to play keyboard parts that would fit the most and be the most supportive of the songs. Now people come up [to me] and go, “I like the early stuff like Rebels,” people that haven’t been around a real long time. That kind of has passed for me. Plus the whole band has been super supportive of me and everything. That’s not a problem any more. I’m aware of the horn thing. [Lucero guitarist] Brian [Venable] did a great interview with someone where he said, “This is what we’re recording now. If you want a record like [Lucero’s second album, 2002’s] Tennessee, put a band together and write some songs that sound like Tennessee, cause we didn’t know anything when we did that. This is just who we are now.” Live, we do a bunch of that old material. But Ben has progressed as a songwriter and has more things on his palette to choose from sonically, and that’s what he wants to do. So to some degree, you have to appreciate what those people say, but still do what you feel is the right thing to do, and I think the band has done that in spades.

It’s interesting you should say that about Ben’s songwriting, because when I interviewed him last year, he was gushing about how big an influence being able to work with you and Jim Spake and the horns has had on his songwriting. So what would you say his your role in arranging or bringing his songs to life?

One the big things Dad preached is, if you’re gonna be a supportive player, the two most important things are to serve the singer and serve the song. And I just try very much to do that. Ben’s a very complete writer. Sometimes he’ll have little keyboard figures, so it doesn’t take much, but sometimes it’s just saying, “Well, if you try this, maybe see what it sounds like.” When the horns first came, I did the bulk of the horn arrangements for [2009’s 1372] Overton Park. I did a lot of the arrangements on that, simply because [Ben] hadn’t really worked with them before. But really I just try to be an effective, supporting member of what I think is one of the greatest rock ‘n roll bands going.

So what’s next? There’s no Lucero dates scheduled after a couple weeks from now.

That’s right. We’re gonna take, for the first time, like six, eight weeks off.

That doesn’t happen for you guys very often!

That’s rare for us to take that kind of time off. I’m sure Ben’s got some writing he wants to do. Roy and I do a lot of side music on our own for fun. So I think it’s gonna be a nice little creative period, and we can be at home for a minute. We don’t get that a lot.



5 Comments

  1. victoid wrote:

    Really nice peek into the mind of a musician; good to hear from a musician with a mind!
    Lucero has really melded the sonic legacy of Memphis R&B into their unique blend of rock/country/soul.
    I loves me some Hammond B3 with a gritty tight horn section a la Stax/Volt. Steff has a clear vision of where he comes from and how he came to be who he is musically, and like Patterson Hood, he is the scion of musical royalty. His Dad played with ELVIS!, and Dusty In Memphisis one of the great LP’s ever.
    Thanks for a refreshingly relaxed interview with a candid (except about Hank, Jr.) dude. Whoever published your interview with Ben Nichols would be well advised to put this fine piece of work on their pages.

  2. […] The occassion has gotten some great love from the internet – check out Rick’s interview with Michelle Evans of The Vinyl District here and his interview with Jeremy Winograd here. […]

  3. […] Jeremy Etc. interviews Rick Steff […]

  4. […] The occassion has gotten some great love from the internet – check out Rick’s interview with Michelle Evans of The Vinyl District here and his interview with Jeremy Winograd here. […]

  5. […] voice carrying their overall sound. Seeing them in the flesh, however, made me really appreciate Rick Steff on the keys and accordion. You’d be in the middle of this very raw, tough sounding song and […]


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