“From Out of Nowhere,” the new album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO, doesn’t quite live up to its name; fans have had a few years now to get used to the idea of Lynne again being an active recording and touring artist, versus just producer. Still, he did basically disappear into the studio woodwork of his clients between the late ‘80s and mid-2000s, before he began touring arenas again behind 2015’s “Alone in the Universe,” so the sense of surprise implied in the title of the new record is a real and lingering one.
Calling this happy resumption a reunion is a misnomer. The name “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” covers Lynne operating as a DIY one-man show on record and with a large live ensemble that doesn’t include any castmates from ELO’s ‘70s/‘80s heyday. But as much as he loves maintaining his DIY credentials in the studio, he’s clearly also relishing being part of, well, at least a semi-orchestra on stage again. Variety spoke with him before Friday’s release of the new album.
We can start off by saying something we never thought we’d hear ourselves saying: “Jeff Lynne has just come off several years of touring.” Maybe you never thought you’d hear somebody saying that again, either.
[Laughs.] No, I didn’t think I would. I don’t know what happened. I just got talked into it (performing live), by somebody on the radio (in 2013, in England) — it was for charity, and we only had two numbers. That’s all we practiced for, so we had to do “Mr. Blue Sky” twice, because we hadn’t learned enough songs for the encore. But it went down so great that then the BBC invited us to the Hyde Park concert for Radio 2 (in 2014), and that’s what got us started, really. Then people started wanting us to tour and to go all around the world, and we have. The crowds have been just beyond belief, beyond what I ever imagined that it would be. The group is fantastic; they’re all brilliant players. And I’m in it as well, but that’s unfortunate. [Laughs.] But you can’t have everything. I hear it later each night, and it sounds really good — a big, posh sound.
It seems there was like a near miss back around the time of “Zoom” (the 2001 album where Lynne brought back the ELO name, after keeping it on ice since the 1980s). You did a TV taping that became a DVD, but the tour that had been talked about then never happened. There may have been other circumstances involved, but did you not know at the time how much of an appetite there was to hear this music on tour again?
Basically, at the time, I had me doubts about it, totally. I couldn’t see ever doing a tour with that lineup, as well. It just wasn’t the right lineup. But now we’ve got a 13-piece band that really sounds like the records of ELO. We can actually cover any song that I’ve ever done with this amount of people, with three keyboards, two cellos, violin, four guitars, bass, drums, percussion, backing vocals; everything’s covered. And it’s such a treat to play in it, because I used to have to do me own backing vocals in the old days. I’d do the lead line, and then I’d have to sing the backing bit, too — you know, the answer phrase. Which was always kind of a bit embarrassing, because it was like, “Oh, we can’t afford the other bloke who’s supposed to do that.” It wasn’t because of that, but it was just never thought about. This time, it’s just getting it right and see how it sounds. And when we played at Wembley Stadium, I found out that the PA system was 200,000 watts, and I thought, fuuuu-k, that is fantastic, I’ve never heard of anything like that. Because when you first start out, you’ve got like a 50-watt PA, usually. And this 200,000-watt PA is like a spaceship in itself.
On this new album, you have two songs that are about the joy of playing live. So that’s maybe another maybe bizarre development in the history of Jeff Lynne and ELO. [He laughs.] “Time of Our Life” references that Wembley show very explicitly, and then you’ve got “One More Time.” It’s fun hearing those songs, because when you play live, you’re not the most demonstrative performer in the world in terms of jumping around, so we think, “Well, we think he’s having fun up there.” But then to have you say in a song that you’re having the time of your life does confirm it.
Oh, I’m having the time of me life. Just because I don’t jump up and down and do somersaults and stuff, it doesn’t mean I’m not having a great time, because I am. I’m just not a dancer, you know; I’m not one of them blokes. I just sing and play, which I think is enough, because I’m trying to make it sound as good as possible. It’s trying to recreate the sound that I imagined ELO would have been, forever, really, from day one. It never has been until now. For the last the last five years, it’s been really good.
In the song “One More Time” you keep repeating the line “just one more time,” and fans might hear that and go, “I hope he doesn’t mean just one more time.” It’s a figure of speech and not any kind of announcement that you’ll tour one more time and then be done with it, is it?
No, not really. It was actually (written) before we went on the last tour, so that last tour was one more time, in that case. It’s just the fact that I actually started to enjoy playing live because of sound being so good, because of the in-ear monitors, which I can now hear me-self perfectly well through. I used to use those big floor monitors, like a wedge on the front of the stage, and you could never hear yourself in those things. So it used to get me mad, and I’d get a bad throat from shouting, because you can’t hear what you’re singing. All that stuff made me pack it in the first time — and because I wanted to produce other people. That was the reason I did quit the group, and disarmed it.
With this album, did you want it to have a different mood than “All Alone in the Universe”? Because with the two songs about touring we just mentioned, those are more sort of “Rock and Roll is King”-type rave-ups. You still also have some lonely or lost love type of songs, like the ones that dominated “All Alone,” that balance it out. But then “Going Out on Me” is almost a sort of doo-wop tribute…
The one thing that I had in mind was to make it more up-tempo, and make it more of a rock and roll album, really. I think I’ve managed to do that, because I’ve got the all the tempos up. I was trying to get a positive feel on it, and not too negative. Because it’s so easy to do sad songs. They’re always me favorite, because of people like Roy Orbison and Del Shannon, who always used to have sad songs in their repertoire. So I’m just enjoying me-self. I’m doing positive songs with a good attitude, I think.
There are a good number of guitar breaks on the album, in songs like “Going Out on Me” and “Songbird” and “Sci-Fi Woman.” You haven’t always focused on having a lot of those on an album, so it’s fun to hear more of your guitar.
Thank you. Well, I hope you enjoyed it. I felt like I wanted to play a bit of guitar, because I hadn’t done it much. And once I got involved with all them strings and stuff like that, I sort of forgot about the guitar a little bit. Now I’m really back into the guitar much more than I was before. So I think you’ll hear bits of guitar that are either uplifting or weird. I like weird stuff, and I like uplifting stuff. I like stuff that moves you. Chords are my favorite thing — lovely chord changes where they go from one chord to another in a really nice way, with an added note or a couple of added notes. I really like looking for them all over the keyboard, all over the guitar. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do is write songs that make me go “Ooh, that’s a nice one,” in where the chords are. That’s where the tune comes from really in the end is following those chords to their final conclusion, where the melody is.
There are lots of those in here. And we didn’t have to wait a decade and a half between albums this time (the lapse between “Zoom” and “All Alone in the Universe”) — just four. You’re getting very prolific.
[Laughs.] I’m always a bit late, I know. Fifteen years ago; I was still producing lots of people that I admire and working with all the guys that asked me to work with them. But then once I got back into me own world with this new band, with Mike Stevens is the musical director, it’s just tremendous because I’ve got all this help in translating the stuff to the rest of the band, because I don’t read music, and so it’s much better for me and much more fun, really.
But on the record, you’re still doing everything yourself, right? Other than having one guest appearance on piano by Richard Tandy.
Yeah, we had a guest solo of Richard, which I really enjoyed. But I do like playing all the things me-self. I really enjoy playing drums, bass, guitar, backing vocals, keyboards, piano. That’s me favorite thing, filling the machine up with all the bits that I’ve thought of, and then see how we think of it then.
You had the experience of re-recording a lot of your catalog (for 2012’s all-old but all-new “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra”). Recently Taylor Swift announced that she was going to re-record her catalog because she is unhappy with her former record company. When we think of people who’ve done that to any extent, we think of you. Do you had any advice for Taylor Swift going back in to re-record older songs?
Well, I don’t see any problem with it. If I’m going, “Awww, I wish I hadn’t done it like that,” one day I suddenly went, “Well, hang on. Why don’t you do it again then, and see if you can get it like you want it?” So I tried re-recording just one song, and I found that I had a couple of better ways of doing certain things. So that became a project, because I wasn’t making another album or anything at the time, and it gradually led to me doing a load of them. I really enjoyed having another go at ‘em, because it’s like, you don’t usually get another chance to do the same thing again and see what happens this time. When you’ve got your own studio, it’s just a real nice thing, because you can say, “Oh, I think I’ll do that today — I’ll get me engineer Steve and we’ll go and re-record that one, and see if we can get it better.” Luckily, some of them came out much better, I thought.
We saw you at the ASCAP Pop Awards earlier this year when you got a lifetime achievement award, and you played a few songs acoustically with Benmont Tench on the piano. You’d probably never like do anything like that as a project, would you, an unplugged or stripped-down thing?
Not really. I don’t think so. Only because I like the band so much that we’ve got. To me, to have all those great members of the band not playing and just me doing it on me own just seems — live, I’m speaking of now —like you can’t get the atmosphere, really, without the rest of the band. For me, you need to see ‘em all doing their stuff. It just makes the atmosphere better, I believe, because they’re all really great musicians and all rocking out.
You were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. You had kind of indicated that you didn’t care whether you got it, so when it happened, were you feeling like you could take it or leave it, or did that matter to you when it happened?
To be in the Hall of Fame? Oh yeah, absolutely, I was very pleased to be in it. It’s when you haven’t got one that you go, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, does it?” But it’s a really nice little statue. At the end of the day, it was like, oh, I’m actually glad that I’ve got one. Yeah, I’m chuffed with it. You know, even Elvis has got one of those. So it was a treat.
Your songs have been licensed for synchs so many times. Do you find that the synchs influence what’s most popular? “Mr. Blue Sky” seems to be one of your most popular songs now, but it wasn’t, necessarily, back in the day. (It reached No. 6 in the UK but only No. 35 in America.) New generations are exposed to things differently, so do synchs or licenses influence what turn out to be concert favorites?
I suppose it does help. But I’d never thought of an advert selling the song. I thought of the song selling the advert. If it’s a good melody and it’s catchy, that’s usually a good tune for an advert. So as far as the advert making the song more popular, I don’t know about that. If they didn’t feel like it was going to advance their commercial, they wouldn’t want to use it — or in the film, because a lot of films they use me songs in as well. I love it when they use it in films. Especially when they don’t talk over ‘em! [Laughs.]
I was just talking to Paul Thomas Anderson recently about “Livin’ Thing,” and we reminisced about the story he’d told before, about how having you into the screening room to get your approval for using that in “Boogie Nights” was the most nervous three hours of his life, sitting behind your silhouette, wondering what you were thinking. And then you jumped up when it came on the climax and said, “Yes!”
Oh, it’s a brilliant film. It was a wonderful piece. When that violin started playing at the end out of his big wally job, I thought that was hilarious. It looked like his willy… How do you say it in with etiquette? The violin looked like it was coming out the end of his thingy.