Living Colour: A Lively Conversation


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By: Dennis Cook

Living Colour by Bill Bernstein

Who says a jazz band can't play dance music?
Who says a rock band can't play funky?
Who says a funk band can't play rock?
Oh yeah!
We're gonna play some funk so loud
We're gonna rock and roll around
Watch them dance, Watch them dance

Rock music is a strange sausage. Originally stuffed with blues structures, jazz energy and country compositional sensibilities, the casing continues to stretch in the wake of electric fusion, hip hop, glam and countless other ingredients. And while some revel in trying to simplify rock's flavors there are those that savor its capacity for complexities and contradictions. Since their explosive emergence in 1988 up through their potent new album, The Chair in the Doorway (released September 15 on Megaforce), Living Colour has been a poster child for rock's expansive nature. Their latest release presents their intrinsic diversity with an overhanging cohesiveness that suggests the band makes more sense today than ever. As continents and cultures creep ever closer, Living Colour's disregard for borders and healthy engagement with the world as it is seems right on time.

Their first single, “Cult of Personality," was so striking, so unique and so forceful that it knocked one on their heels. It seemed a defining sound that a band could milk for ages but not long afterward they offered something as playful and humorous as “Love Rears Its Ugly Head" as single. The sense that Living Colour - Vernon Reid (guitar), Corey Glover (vocals), Doug Wimbish (bass) and Will Calhoun - could do anything lies at their core. This is a band that has truly freed their minds enough to embrace music outside of expectations or posted restrictions. For those of us in the late '80s who loved Bad Brains, Chic, Ornette Coleman, Pere Ubu and The Talking Heads with equal vigor, Living Colour's arrival seemed a beacon for heavy duty diversity. And absolutely nothing has changed since the group reformed in 2003 after an eight year hiatus.

Corey Glover by Greg Styer

“We don't live in a monolithic kind of world. We never did. We supposedly - at least they sold us the idea - live in a melting pot with all kinds of different people and things in it. Particularly for African-American and people of color, you've been told you're living in somebody else's world and you have to adapt. So, we've always tried to adapt our world into the world that exists, into the everyday world. So, we took from everything," says Corey Glover. “I will listen to an Eric Dolphy record right before I listen to some Creedence. It's all the same shit to me!"

This potentially sloppy, utterly enthusiastic embrace of wide ranging musics is what rock is all about. At its best, the genre welcomes all comers and sorts out the collisions as they occur.

“Absolutely! Some people will often look at [Living Colour] and say we're a funk-metal band. Well, that's very limiting in its scope. We're more than people who just play funk and metal. If you listen to the work you'll know that to be true. It's not the rote idea of what rock 'n' roll was," Glover observes. “Vernon and I are from Brooklyn, Crown Heights in particular, where there's a big African-American population, a big Caribbean and Latino community, as well as Hasidic Jews. So, who's NOT going to listen to ALL kinds of stuff coming out of people's car radios?"

However, not everyone has their big ears and after having spent close to a decade on the sidelines, Living Colour, a band whose debut, Vivid, was a Top 10 album with four high charting singles, found that much of their audience had dissipated.

“We came back in 2003 and nobody paid attention," says Vernon Reid, while acknowledging that the time out of the spotlight helped the revived group grow stronger creatively. “This is the point bands of our vintage make desperate attempts to regain their youth. They try to come back to what they did before or, God help us, try to become hip. I believe we sidestepped those pitfalls."

The Chair In The Doorway is certainly their most striking outing since Vivid, and perhaps their most cohesive, together album to date, working together from end-to-end in overlapping sonics and themes. It's the kind of record one can come back to in six months or a year and keep discovering new things as they unravel different passages.

Vernon Reid by Greg Styer

“I'm amazed at the way it turned out. Each record we've made has had its own circumstances, their own difficulties. I think I had the most fun making Vivid because we were riding a rush of adrenalin for even having come that far. To have gotten that far was pure gravy," says Reid. “Now, with The Chair In The Doorway, we're a band with history. We've been through a breakup. We've had an original member leave the group [bassist Muzz Skillings left in 1992]. We've had children; we're all fathers - it's a beautiful burden and you are dad forever whatever happens! We've gone through all the various emotional thingswell, I don't want to get too grand. Nobody shot anybody or anything! Nobody slept with anybody else's wife! There's certain places we haven't gone but we've had a pretty intense band experience, and to make this record was real work to realize it."

“We had a plan. The name of the record came before everything else, so each piece had to fit into that idea. That was the rubric we needed to figure out if a song worked or not for the record," says Glover, touching on the album's subtle interconnectedness. “That's what the title is supposed to be. Some of my conversations with Vernon going into this had a surreal or super-real quality to them. My idea with The Chair in the Doorway was really talking about the four of us [in Living Colour], and talking about how some things are obvious to some people and not obvious to others, on the inside and the outside."

The Chair In The Doorway is unique amongst our catalog because it's the first record where we had the title of the album before we had any songs. During the initial recordings for Collidescope (2003) we were putting ourselves through so much pressure, ill at ease having just come back together. In a way, 9/11 gave us something to make that record kind of about. The song 'Flying' is a direct result of 9/11. 'A Question of When' was written before 9/11 but became about 9/11," continues Reid. “So, we had a break during recording Collidescope and Corey and I went to see Spiderman 2. And there's the usual bellyaching afterwards and Corey says, 'You know, the chair is in the doorway.' That's one of the typical Yogi Berric type of things Corey will say. Then, later on we were in Paris doing press for Collidescope, waiting for a photographer in this lovely courtyard, and I turned to Corey and said, 'You know that thing you say about the chair being in the doorway? That's the title of our next album.'"

Doug Wimbish by Greg Styer

“What I love about it is it's the rarest of things, completely concrete - the chair is a physical thing - AND completely abstract. That's what's beautiful and terrible about language. That's why political language is never to be trusted. George Orwell knew very well that language has many layers and levels. With music it's often about who can come up with the phrase that pays," laughs Reid. “The Chair In The Doorway spoke to me. There's an obstruction. It's an obvious obstruction. Who placed it there and who's gonna get up and displace the obstruction? The chair is not supposed to be in the doorway. The chair's supposed to be at a table or desk. The Chair In The Door is an unintended concept album. The title exerted this weird energy on the whole project. It's so much about how we get in our own way and how something is so obviously in our way."

A big part of the new release's flavor is bassist Doug Wimbish, a veteran of industrial groove pioneers Tackhead, the revered On-U Sound label and former member of the Sugarhill Gang house band. His style is stealthy and lethal, a snake charmer with significant bite.

“Doug is really the catalyst for this new record. Without Doug Wimbish we wouldn't have made the CD we did in Prague. It was Doug that codified all this music. He took all the grooves we did at sound checks and gigs and put them on a list for us to listen to and figure out what we were gonna do. Doug was the man in terms of how this record came to be what it is," enthuses Glover. “There's these gypsy bands that come out of the Czech Republic that takes bits of funk and rock and really mix stuff together. That's how Doug really got involved in this scene and they introduced him to [Sono Studio in Prague, where The Chair in the Doorway was recorded]. These are people who appreciate music on all levels because this is a just-opening-up Eastern Bloc country that's taking in everything. The guys who run the studio were a major catalyst for cool things on the new album."

Race has been a pronounced issue for Living Colour since day one, but almost always coming from outside the band. Inside, these guys understand that rock is the child of multiple influences - some white, some black and some brown. The notion that black men playing rock is somehow unusual announces the ignorance of any critic speaking such nonsense. One would have to conveniently forget Arthur “Big Boy" Crudup, Buddy Guy, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and countless others to utter such stupidity.

“Rock was an amalgam of so many things. It was mutt music to begin with. It was a little bit of gospel, a little bit of country music, a little bit of classical, a little bit of everything just thrown in there and all of a sudden here's this new thing. That's the only way innovation occurs. Something new is born of several different mothers and fathers," says Glover. “The fact that we didn't come directly from the blues, that a lot of it came from fusion jazz, maybe set people back a bit. Unfortunately, I read a lot of blogs, and the so-called metal blogs think we're a metal band. We're not a metal band. There's aspects of metal music to it - we play HARD - but we're in no way a metal band. There's no particular category that suits us well. You couldn't say we're a jazz band or a complete rock band because we play elements of R&B. So, what are you going to say? We're a band. Leave it at that."

Will Calhoun & Corey Glover
by Greg Styer

Modern music culture has become very comfortable labeling things. It's easier to market and sell that way, but music itself is fluid and hard to contain. It is, by nature, liquid stuff.

“It should be fluid! Do you listen to your iPod that way? You're not going to go the 'Rock' category and just listen to rock songs. No, you hit play and whatever comes up you're surprised and delighted by because it's all the music that you love," says Glover. “The other day I was listening to [69 Boyz'] 'Tootsee Roll' and then something real dark like the Swans came on afterwards and it worked!"

Realizing that he wasn't alone in his struggles, in 1985 Vernon Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization formed in “reaction to the constrictions that the commercial music industry places on Black artists." The Coalition continues to this day and Reid is suitably proud and excited about the current generation of artists of color reshaping rock and popular music.

“Now we have great bands like TV on the Radio, Santigold and Earl Greyhound on the scene. And there's Afro-punk, which is kind of the snarky little brother to the Black Rock Coalition," says Reid. “I'll tell you what's really got me jazzed right now. A really good friend of mine, William DuVall, is the new singer in Alice In Chains and I'm so happy for him. I had a solo record, This little room, that was going to be the follow-up to Mistaken Identity (1996) and William sings on two of the songs on that (unreleased) record. In a lot of ways, I think this is a good time for rock, and I think it's going to become a better time for rock. When I look at say The Mars Volta, the complexion of what rock is has been fundamentally altered. And that's a good thing."

“One of the things I love about The Mars Volta is I don't get it! I listen to it and it's weird. It's partly in Spanish but it's prog. I love the fact that I didn't already know where it was going," continues Reid. “So much rock is a lifestyle, a factory produced thing. Led Zeppelin was still tied to the blues in a fundamental way, but the idea behind Led Zeppelin was still this experimental thing. You hear these bootlegs where they played 'The Battle of Evermore' for a half hour! There's this whole notion that they were the beginning of cock rock - and in a way it is - but there's so much more to it."

Will Calhoun by Bill Bernstein

One characteristic that runs throughout Living Colour's catalog is a pronounced love of interesting sounds. Beyond the stellar musicianship and compositional edge, their albums overflow with cool noises and interesting digressions. This passion extends to a breathless enthusiasm for old gear like Mellotrons.

“You're singing my song right there! There's something about an instrument, because of the nature of what it is, that lends an air of instant nostalgia to anything you do with it," offers Reid. “Hearing the sound of strings that sound like they're from an old movie instantly transports you. Psychedelia wouldn't have been possible without the Mellotron. The sound of those Beatles records is just[Reid trails off into a sigh of pure delight]."

“We recorded The Chair In The Door in a very different way. With all the other records we'd been hitting the tunes and playing and playing them in front of people. With this record we did overdubs with live skeletons, and a lot of this record was broken down into parts and components, which in a sense is how things are done now. There's parts of this record that are very live. You can tell that 'Bless Those' is just recorded live. There's a lot of tunes that are very dense, and what I like about 'Bless Those' is it's very stripped down, very rock 'n' roll band. We went 360-degrees with that tune, where one take was too bar-bandy, etc. At the end of the day it was right the first time," says Reid. “Other pieces like 'Behind The Sun' were found digging through an archive of things we'd done. I heard it and said, 'Oh, that's that crazy tapping riff!' We wound up getting into it and it evolved, like the whole project. I think album concept still has merit as an organizing principle. I think sequencing matters. I think having a body of songs that pertain to something - a real song cycle - matters. I think the fact that you can release a single song and not be tied to an album is cool, but people say the album is over or irrelevant and I don't believe that. Further on the convergence of various technologies are going to take the notion of albums and the experiential objects therein and change them."

“The [new album] was inspirational to me. When they heard me sing something new or in a different way it helped inspire us to do more stuff. I tried to get at things the best I could," says Glover. “Technically, I'd been schooled constantly by the time we got the studio because I'd been touring with Jesus Christ Superstar [playing Judas Iscariot] for two years (2006-2008). So, my voice was ready to go when it was time to hit play because I haven't stopped singing for two years! My vocal coach gave me a lot of good ideas if you want to keep doing this. You need to have a personal routine but also growth, because if there's no growth it becomes boring and uninteresting. The singer is the emotional interpreter of the song. If he's not able to tell you what the emotions are that the band is playing then it doesn't make any sense. It's just not worth doing if you don't throw your personality into it. It's the bravado or the angst or the melancholy of whoever is singing and those they're singing with. And with an uncategorized band it's going to be different every time."

Living Colour by Bill Bernstein

Regardless of anything else they may do, Living Colour will likely always be best known for “Cult of Personality," simply one of the great moments in late 20th century music. It's a piece that will be knocking skulls together and making folks question the celebrity driven nature of modern culture long after all of us are resting ashily in our urns. The song has become so ubiquitous - Guitar Hero anyone? - it's become part of the contemporary background noise through no fault of its own.

“What I really didn't want to be were the people I was singing about [laughs]. At a certain point it kinda got that way, but that's not what I was saying. There's a certain thing that goes on. Just watch the Sonia Sotomayor hearings to see it," says Glover. “What's funny about it is it's a phenomenon that occurs in every aspect of life. There's an insurance salesman that every other insurance salesman talks about. What we were talking about is rock stars. And I'm not a rock star. Mick Jagger isn't a rock star. Barack Obama IS a rock star! I'm not the one who can stop traffic. Michael Jackson is the biggest star in the worldnext to Barack Obama [laughs]."

“I read a book a while back that said that what people do to their betters is raise them up, bring them down and then raise them up again. And it's only after their death that they truly raise them up and the reality of their impact can be assessed. It's what happened with Elvis. He was the biggest thing in the world, then they said he was kind of corny and then he died and he was the greatest thing in the world again," comments Glover. “It's going to happen to every person of any note everywhere in the world. It happened to Bill Clinton. It happened to Ed Koch. It happens to your local community board member, who once seemed so new and young and hip. Look at John Travolta's career! That's the way it works. That's how [culture] manifests itself. You're hot shit one minute and then you're out. Like Frank Sinatra said, 'That's life' [laughs]."

“As long as there's a forum for social commentary - whether it comes from music or the arts or life itself - there's always going to be a conversation to be had. There's always going to be a conversation to what's considered infantile or sophomoric. There's going to be a real conversation about the world we live in. That's what philosophy is, and that's how these things come apart. That's how we deal with our music," says Glover. “This conversation is one we're trying to have with our audience. Of course, some people would love to hear Living Colour do 'Back In Black' and we'd love to get out there and do that, too [laughs]."

Living Colour is on tour right now. Dates available here.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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