Lucero frontman Ben Nichols spoke to The Natural Aristocrat® about “The Last Pale Light in the West” known as ‘The Governor’s Theme’ in Walking Dead circles. Originally, it was the lead song of Nichols’ solo album by the same name released in 2009, preceding the TV series by a year.
Along with composer Bear McCreary’s ambient track for The Governor, Ben Nichols’ “The Last Pale Light in the West” remains one of the show’s most electrifying & recognizable character themes. Painting a vivid picture of The Governor’s Mad Hatter-like mindset on a canvas that’s halfway gone in the old west.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT [NIR REGEV]: There’s Film & TV music like the Pink Panther’s Theme where you hear the track and relate it to a certain character immediatley. Obviously, I’m sure you’ve seen on all over YouTube (3.6 million views) that Walking Dead fans refer to “The Last Pale Light in the West” as ‘The Governor’s Theme’ now. They visualize the eyepatch and everything that came with it. I was wondering what that means to you as a musician?
BEN NICHOLS: I think it’s super cool! Obviously, that’s something I didn’t plan on. The Walking Dead didn’t really exist when the song was written. I was a big fan of the comic book & the TV show and then this song that I’d written that has nothing to do with it becomes so intimately combined… Yeah, it’s The Governor’s theme to some people, and that’s great!
I wrote this song to be ambiguous in a way to where it could fit numerous stories for different people. It happened to fit The Governor’s story perfectly. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. It’s cool that these worlds can come together.
Something that started with Blood Meridian worked its way into this kind of acoustic Western album and then worked its way into one of the biggest TV shows around at the time.
The fact that something kind of crazy can happen like that makes life kind of fun. I read the comic book when it first came out and I loved Tony Moore’s art. Then I was a fan when they made it into a TV show and I watched pretty religiously for the first few seasons. So yeah, the fact that it’s The Governor’s theme is really cool!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: How did AMC first approach you to license the song?
BEN NICHOLS: I got a call from my manager saying that Scott M. Gimple had a question about a song and I remember I was running around doing errands. I got that phone call and I was in a parking lot, just kind of walking around, talking on the phone to Scott M. Gimple, the Showrunner of The Walking Dead.
And I didn’t really know what a Showrunner was at the time. But later I kinda figured out they’re kind of in charge, its their vision. There’s writers and there’s directors, but it’s the Showrunner who’s kind of keeping the whole thing on track.
He gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever had. He said he’d written a lot of scenes for The Walking Dead listening to The Last Pale Light in the West record. With me being such a big fan, that was just a really cool thing to hear.
He had written this scene for The Governor, that was really tied to this song in a very specific way. The fact that he was listening to the song that closely and that it inspired him to write this scene, man, as a songwriter, it doesn’t get any better than that!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: The lyric “In my veins, black pitch runs” is that supposed to indicate pitch black as in being ruthless runs in my veins or some kind of drug like tobacco or heroin? Especially, since with The Governor losing everything by his own hand, it kind of relates to the drug idea of self-inflicted pain.
BEN NICHOLS: Yeah, self-destructive. When I wrote the song, I wanted to leave it kind of vague.
I wanted it to be a little bit ambiguous, so that it could fit different listeners’ stories. So that each listener could kind of make it their own.
“In my veins, black pitch runs” could mean one thing to this person and something else to another. I think the song as a whole kind of captures this feeling of, maybe being willing to give up possibly being beyond redemption. Being un-savable.
That ‘black pitch in your veins’ lyric to me, when I wrote it… I was thinking just like the life force that runs through you is rotten, spoiled, contaminated even maybe. There’s an evil possibly that’s inside of you.
But yeah, obviously it would be a natural assumption to think it might reference drugs. But I wanted it to go beyond that and be more timeless and more ambiguous. In the end, it suited The Governor’s situation perfectly. It kind of summed up exactly where he was at that time when The Governor’s theme plays.
The whole song is originally based on a line out of the Blood Meridian novel by Cormac McCarthy, which is a very apocalyptic Western written in the ’80s. One of my favorite novels, probably my favorite novel!
“The Last Pale Light in the West” is written in this voice where you don’t know if the narrator really cares if he lives or dies. But there’s a glimmer of hope still, which comes from Cormac’s novels. I think he leaves that little bit of hope in a lot of his stories like No Country for Old Men.
That’s exactly the state that The Governor, finds himself in, kind of beyond redemption. But then for some reason he attaches to this kind of gentle vision of a a little girl in a window, like his daughter and follows that for a little while.
For better, for worse. It made perfect sense for the scene. I thought it was a really great idea on Scott’s part to underscore. He was really listening to the song and knew exactly what I was shooting for.
I also wrote a song called “This Old Death“, which actually ended up on The Walking Dead soundtrack. Even though it was never used in the show, I wrote it for the series and they were nice enough to include it on the soundtrack. And I’m proud of that song too but he’d (Scott) already had this scene kind of written in his head and he knew exactly what he wanted. It was hard to top “The Last Pale Light in the West” as the song for the scene.
“This Old Death” was good but the scene was written around “The Last Pale Light in the West”. It’s spot on. It’s one of those situations where everything just kind of clicks together, real naturally.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Did you get to meet David Morrissey personally?
BEN NICHOLS: No, I wish! This was all done via the internet and sending files back and forth. Obviously, Scott M. Gimple had already heard the song and written the scene. So, really we went through a process of me working on “This Old Death”, which we thought we might use.
But once he decided on “The Last Pale Light in the West”, it was just all in his hands. It was just a matter of editing the song into the scene appropriately. So no, I never met Scott personally.
It was all done over the phone and online. I never met any of the actors, unfortunately. I would have been very starstruck.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Really, starstruck?
BEN NICHOLS: Yeah, I would have been a little giddy. Oh yeah! I was a big fan of the show for sure. I haven’t kept up in the recent seasons but for the first five or six seasons, I watched very religiously.
At that point in time, that was one of the coolest things I’d ever been a part of in my musical career! Having a song featured on The Walking Dead, was that was a real big deal for me.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What was the recording process for “The Last Pale Light in the West”?
BEN NICHOLS: I think that album came out in 2009. I want to say it was 2013 when this episode aired. So the record had been kind of floating around for a little while. It was my first solo album.
I’m in a band called Lucero and I’ve done a lot of records with them, but this was my first time doing a solo project.
It was kind of a concept album in that all the songs were based on the Blood Meridian novel. It’s a very stripped down song, the whole record’s the same way. It’s just mainly acoustic guitar with some piano, accordion and some pedal steel guitar.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What did you use to create that rustling noise at the beginning?
BEN NICHOLS: Ah, that was my guitar player, Todd Bean. He had the pedal steel guitar, but he also brought in his electric guitar & he’s one of those guys that has a gigantic pedal board with all sorts of effects. There’s some delay and some distortion.
He used those pedals and the guitar to come up with these almost synthesizer type noises. Just atmosphere, kind of echoing rumbling, cinematic type sounds. This is five years before we ever knew it might be used in any kind of film or TV show or anything but I wanted it to have that kind of cinematic quality from the beginning. Yet, he accomplished that through his wizardry of guitar pedals.
I don’t know what royalties are like these days considering songs are on every streaming service now and practically available for free. I actually bought “The Last Pale Light on The West” on iTunes right after The Walking Dead episode (“Live Bait”) broadcasted on TV.
Let’s say live music doesn’t return in the way with the same crowds… It’s hard for me to imagine doing online concerts earns the same kind of money as a live gate for a band. What are you feelings on the business side of that & the lost art in 2020 of a live concert with an audience?
BEN NICHOLS: It’s not the same, right? The experience is different. Money-wise, we’ve been able to coast by. We’ve only done a handful of live streams but our audience has been supportive enough, to where we’ve been able to continue to pay the bills.
In fact, we wrote and recorded a whole new Lucero album and released it, just a couple months ago called When You Found Me.
That was all done during the pandemic during quarantine. We actually wore masks in the recording studio. Of course, unless I was singing.
But, we made it work. That record is out now and usually we’d be on tour but we’re not yet.
We’re starting to book some outdoor shows and kind of thinking about the best way to move forward as safely as possible. There was enough money in the live streams to keep us afloat.
But yeah, we took a hit for sure. It’s not like a normal year. But the thing I miss most is you don’t have that connection with the audience.
I miss playing in sweaty, dark little dive bars where everybody’s just right there together and you’re practically spitting on each other! Which is unimaginable right now.
Everybody’s just sweaty and singing along and I miss those days quite a bit. I think we’ll get back to them. I’m just not sure how long it’ll take. I’m very optimistic about the vaccines & hopefully we can kind of stay the course and everybody can continue to wear masks and be responsible and safe.
The more diligent we are now, the quicker things will return to normal. And I do think they’ll return to normal, one day.
Will the crowds be there? Hopefully. I think so. I think the audience and the listeners miss the live music just as much as performers do.
I think everybody’s kind of missing that connection, so hopefully it comes back as soon as possible.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What’s the origins of the band’s name Lucero?
BEN NICHOLS: It just came from a Spanish English dictionary, it was the nineties! We started in 1998.I think my guitar player was working on an eZine, a book of poetry and photographs and stuff that you photocopy. There was no photoshop, it was Kinko’s back in the old days before we all had computers & printers.
But yeah, he was looking for pretty sounding Spanish phrases, none of us speak Spanish actually. He had a list of these phrases and Lucero was one of the words that had been written down. I think we’d already booked our first show and we didn’t have a name and we needed a name right then. And we looked at the list and we picked Lucero.
Here we are, around 23 years later, still using it. So, there might be some confusion. I think there’s a Mexican singer named Lucero. But if you go online and you see two Luceros, it’s pretty easy to tell which Lucero you’re looking at.
She’s got a much prettier voice than I do. Mine’s much rougher around the edges. She probably doesn’t smoke cigarettes and drink as much whiskey as I do! (laughs)
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: When you’re working on a track and it’s just not working out. Do you think if you continue working on it for enough time, it’ll eventually become great? Or is it usually just better to scrap the track and start over?
BEN NICHOLS: It depends on the track. I’ve had some things,
Little like bits of music or one line of a lyric and I’ve had them written down on a piece of paper for years & years. Or this little piece of music recorded. And I’ve tried to work it into a song or try to fit it onto an album and it never quite matched up. But you never want to throw anything away because they do find their own space in their own time.
Some of these little things that you didn’t think were worth much, they can come back and be exactly right for this music & can match this lyric and this sentiment perfectly.
Or you can just find another piece of music to go with it that then completes it. The artistic process is real sloppy. Yeah, you want to keep all those little bits and pieces, cause you never know when you’re going to need that exact piece right there that you thought was worthless. It’s good to keep all the pieces.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Like a jigsaw puzzle?
BEN NICHOLS: Yeah! Even if you’ve lost the rest of the puzzle, keep that one piece… You might find a place for it to fit one day.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Would you like to have your music on more film and TV projects?
BEN NICHOLS: Definitely. If it’s the right project for the right thing, the music can definitely fit. My little brother is a filmmaker actually, his name’s Jeff Nichols.
He’s made five films already and he’s doing pretty well. One of them, one of the biggest ones was Mud with Matthew McConaughey.
Lucero worked a lot on Mud’s soundtrack. He’s got a guy David Mingo who scores all his films as well. Jeff tends to use one of my songs somewhere in each film, even if it’s just on the closing credits. Mud was a really fun experience.
I’d love to do more of it but the band is always keeping me so busy. Usually, touring around the country playing live shows, not so much in 2020 but that’s usually what we’re doing.
But I would definitely like to do more work in film, it’s a learning process for me. I think I’ve got a lot of songs that would be great in different scenes.
Whether it’s movies or TV, I’m just waiting for the folks that are writing those TV shows to come and discover them. They’re there, and I would love to have more songs featured. I know it’s some people’s jobs to pitch songs, to filmmakers and writers. I mean, it’s such a personal thing.
I was just looking at Scott M. Gimple. He was a fan already and was just kind of listening to this stuff, writing, and then it struck him that wait, ‘I could maybe use this.’ That’s the right way for it to work, for it to be pitched like that. Because then it’s coming from the heart. That’s kind of cool, and that’s the way I like it too.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Did your brother Jeff Nichols record the music video for “The Last Pale Light in the West”?
BEN NICHOLS: I’m not sure who made the music video for “The Last Pale Light in the West” actually. I wasn’t involved with it at all.
I just saw it on YouTube one day. I have no connection and don’t know where it came from or who did it. But it’s fine.
I am really proud of the video my brother made for “Long Way Back Home”. It stars actor Michael Shannon and he works with a whole bunch of talents. Scoot McNairy, who’s one of my favorites now and Garrett Hedlund.
My brother called these guys and they all came to Memphis! He had his production crew there and cinematographer that he works with him on every film.
They all came to Memphis and we spent a week making this music video. That was really more like a short film. Jeff wrote a script.
So there was some dialogue at the beginning & at the end and the song plays in between. He shot this short film in Memphis for this song.
It’s a toss up, which is my proudest moment, either The Walking Dead using “The Last Pale Light in the West” or this short film being made by my little brother with a Lucero song. Those are two of the coolest things Lucero has ever been a part of, and I’m not sure which one’s cooler. They’re both pretty bad a**!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Thanks Ben!
BEN NICHOLS: Thank you!
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