Living Colour were my stand out band of 2017. I managed to interview drummer Will Calhoun early on in the year (one of the highlights of my blogging career). Their Auckland show at Powerstation was incredible – easily my favourite gig of the year. A few months later, when travelling in America, I was fortunate enough to catch guitarist Vernon Reid put on a Chuck Berry tribute night in New York. And then in September they dropped the awesome new album Shade.
So imagine my pleasure when they announced another tour which included a Wellington date. I would have happily flown up to Auckland again to see them, but managed to save the money on flights and accommodation, and got to see them at a more intimate venue!
Curly’s Jewels opened the night with a bang, launching straight into the set with plenty of energy. They’re exactly as I remembered them from when they opened for Skinny Hobos in June, with colourful singer Jel Pollock injecting plenty of character into the show. I noticed that the crunchy guitar tones sounded especially good at times, and should come to the forefront more. There were a few slight hiccups, but they managed to deliver with their brand of fun rock music.
This tour marked the 30th anniversary of Living Colour’s landmark debut album, Vivid. It’s an album that still stands the test of time, both musically and thematically. I remember discussing the political nature of many Living Colour songs during an interview with Calhoun last year, and he suggested that the human rights issues that the band writes about will always need to be fought for – regardless of which government is in power. Issues like discrimination, racism and gentrification are still just as prevalent in society now as they were decades ago.
And of course, the music is still excellent. It’s fascinating how the songs have evolved as the band have played them over the years – speeding up parts, adding different fills and flourishes, adding and extending some sections, and breaking down other segments. Its only natural that the band would change how they play things over such a period. Heck, in a hilarious recent interview with May The Rock Be With You, guitarist Vernon Reid confessed that he plays completely different solos in different pressings of the same song.
Singer Corey Glover is phenomenal, no doubt about it. He can switch from soul to hip hop to hard rock with ease, and this was most apparent during “(Open Letter) To A Landlord”. He really broke the song down, showing off his impressive vocal range with powerful trilling. The crowd reciprocated towards the end, loudly singing the chorus back at the band. It sounded great.
Vivid was the name of the game, but that didn’t stop the band from visiting other albums. They played two tracks from last year’s Shade: “Freedom of Expression”, and my favourite from the record: “Come On”. It’s a shame that the cover of Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” got dropped from the set, because their hard rock interpretation of the hip hop classic is fantastic.
Not only did Glover have vocal chops, but good banter too. He had many comical exchanges with Reid throughout the night, the two of them sniping at each other like an old married couple. This is the third time I’ve seen the two of them together on stage, but it’s still just as funny now.
“These are old songs” Glover shared. Reid shot him a look. “No, they are,” Glover continued, “They’re really old and that’s the truth. Some of y’all weren’t even born when these songs came out.” I had a little giggle at that one, seeing that the statement applied to me.
At times it felt like the band verged on overplaying, to the point of doing a disservice to the songs by being too flashy. I guess it’s hard for musicians of that calibre to hold back when they have such talent they can draw upon. But they came here to put on a show, and they sure succeeded in doing so.
My highlight of the set was Doug Wimbash’s bass solo. Wimbash boasted the biggest pedal board I’ve ever seen a bass player use [ironically, master bass player Thundercat has the most minimalist bass pedal setup I’ve noticed]. He dedicated his song to his wife and the lovers in the crowd before launching into sounds I didn’t even think possible from a bass guitar. He created layers using a looping pedal, building it up to an expansive track that swept us away. It was fun to watch too, because he would act out the sounds as he played them, sweeping from side to side as he used his wah pedal, or mouthing the sounds as he accented certain notes.
Calhoun also had a solo later in the set. You can probably already tell I’m a big fan, but he deserves the praise. First of all: he’s just a fantastic player. He’s all over the kit, tastefully colouring in the sound with all percussive means at his disposal, and throwing in plenty of metal blast beats just to mix things up. Secondly: he’s innovative. He has all manner of weird and wacky custom cymbals, drums and hardware that he helps to design, but his solo takes him beyond drumming when he uses electronic hand drums and modulators. During his solo he took time out from behind the kit to lay down an electronic track with looping pedals, before returning to the drum set to play over the music he’d just formed. A truly next-level musician who thinks beyond the constraints of his instrument.
For the encore, Reid was about to launch into a spiel, but caught himself and just offered: “You’ll know when you hear the guitar line”. Sure enough, he played the recognisable chords to Soundgarden’s “Blow Up The Outside World” and nothing more needed to be said. Chris Cornell’s death impacted rock fans around the world, so this rousing tribute came as no surprise.
It was their second cover of the night, the other being “Memories Can’t Wait”, by CBGB’s contemporaries Talking Heads.
They finished the night reinforcing just how diverse and able they are, transitioning from the furious thrash metal of “Time’s Up” to the infectious funky call and response of “”What’s Your Favourite Colour?”. Both songs were extremely fun to dance to in their own ways.
I watched the crowd disperse after the show and noticed that a number of notable NZ musicians had been in attendance, such as Rhian Sheehan, Steve Bremner and Jakob drummer Jason Johnston. To me, that’s as good as any indication that Living Colour have got the goods – if some of the best in the game show up for the gig.
And it was damn good. Sure, there were a few technical hitches, but Living Colour are some of the best musicans I could name. I’m still shocked that they came to play a small bar in Wellington, but I’m stoked that they did.
It’s a shame that Living Colour haven’t been seen as current since the 90’s because they are immensely talented. But the eight year gap between albums has removed them from the limelight.
Hopefully their new album Shade will do something to redeem this because Living Colour deserve more attention. The quartet is composed of some of the best players I’ve seen. They take the best of rock, blues, hip-hop, metal, soul, jazz and funk, and combine it into brilliant music with a conscience.
Corey Glover. Photo by Will Not Fade
We already had a taste of the album earlier in the year with two covers featured on Shade. One is a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues”. This is the song that really laid the tone for the record, giving the band inspiration to take a bluesy direction. “What better way to talk to the world than through the blues?” vocalist Corey Glover asks. “We recorded ‘Preachin’ Blues’ several times to jump start the project and that got everybody fired up. After that, we were ready. Shade, in its final outcome, is more of a deconstruction of the blues than an interpretation. It was the idiom that gave us our voice.” The guitars are especially grunty on this track, and singer Cory Glover’s voice packs a punch.
The other cover is a rendition of Notorious BIG’s “Who Shot Ya?”, which the band put a hard rock spin on. They selected the song partly because Glover is a massive Biggie fan, but also because it raises questions about how prevalent gun violence is in America.
Rounding off the cover hat-trick is Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. The verses sound similar to the original with softly cooed vocals and light funky groove, but the rest is hard rocking. Gaye’s original was a commentary on the way of life for Americans at the time. Things appeared bleak, accentuated by the then-current war in Vietnam. Listening to the lyrics made me reflect on how the issues could be construed as just as relevant more than 30 years on.
Including so many covers is an interesting move. Almost a quarter of the songs on the album were written by other people – not something I would expect from such accomplished musicians. But it works, with the band placing their own mark squarely on each cover.
Vernon Reid has long been regarded as a guitar legend. His work on this album is punchy and dangerous. He’s a force to be reckoned with. And Corey Glover’s powerful voice matches him every step of the way. The two of them often pretend to bicker on stage, but their partnership is what gives the music that X factor.
Vernon Reid and Corey Glover. Photo taken by Will Not Fade at Living Colour’s Auckland show earlier this year
“Come On” is brilliant. The softer verses played on guitar by messing with the pickup contrast against the grunty choruses. We also hear glitches in a deconstructed beat, verging on dubstep territory. I attribute this inclusion to drummer Will Calhoun. Earlier in the year Calhoun told me about growing up during the birth of hip-hop, when drum machines were at their height of prominence. He had played around with drum machines and effects, trying to elicit alien sounds out of drums, much in the same way that Hendrix drew otherworldly sounds out of his guitar.
To continue the Hendrix inspiration, the track “Invisible” pays homage to drummer Buddy Miles, who played in Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. Miles was a friend of the band, who attended all of their Chicago shows when Living Colour started out.
“Always Wrong” is a more tender moment on the album, showing Corey’s diversity as a singer. By contrast, “Pattern In Time” reminds me of 1990’s “Time’s Up”, with a direct, thrashy feel.
Doug Wimbish lays down beautifully funky bass lines in “Blak Out”. The groove steps up for “Who’s That”, which includes trumpet and organ, taking me back to the Trombone Shorty show I went to a few weeks ago. Then, just to top things off, George Clinton lends his touch to album closer “Two Sides”.
Image: Will Not Fade
As always, Living Colour continue with the political content. Some obvious example include the hip-hop inspired “Program”, which explores how reliable the media are these days, in an age of click bait and fake news; or Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” which looks at gun violence, especially the way it is framed visually in the music video. And it’s great to see that the band stands by their values regardless of the current political climate. Shade has taken a long time to write, starting back when Barack Obama was in office. So sure, some songs may be in reaction to an orange man living in a white house, but Living Colour will always campaign for human rights despite who is in power.
When I interviewed Calhoun earlier in the year I raised that Living Colour often include social commentary in their work. He proudly agreed, sharing that “some of our songs deal with gender, discrimination, chauvinism, bullying, and those kinds of things. We write songs based upon what we experience in life. That’s what’s most fun about being a member of Living Colour… Our music and lyrics are very present and relevant. And we hope that the music reaches people and might be. As an artist you always want to have present impact upon your audience.”
Image: Travis Shinn
Shade is heavy. No doubt about it. When you think back to the band’s iconic track, the searing “Cult of Personality”, it makes a lot of sense. When I saw the band live in Auckland earlier in the year many of the songs felt like full-on thrash metal tunes. Of course the myriad of other genres work their way into the music, but Living Colour
The track “Program” commences with a sample of an interview with rapper Scarface. He’s humming the riff to “Cult of Personality”, trying to remember the name of the band who plays it. “Living fucking Colour!” he remarks when the interviewer tells him, “find me another rock band, seriously!”, implying that Living Colour are the only band that truly rock out.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Shade would deliver. The four musicians in the band are such talented veterans of rock. I’ve had the privilege of seeing both Living Colour and another band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid and singer Corey Glover this year, making my anticipation all the more real. And just like I expected, they nail it. The music is powerful in many ways, musically and thematically. I hope that Shade reinstates Living Colour back in place as rock legends.
w/ Low Cut Connie, Chuck Berry tribute band & The Jayhawks
The Lincoln Center, New York
Saturday 12 August 2017
It was my first ever time visiting New York. The sheer scale of the place is nothing like I’ve encountered, being from the tiny nation of New Zealand. On the bus ride in I decided to do an internet search to see if any gigs were on tonight. Surely there has to be something happening in the city that never sleeps?
I began to scroll through the search results, when something caught my eye: a free gig featuring Vernon Reid. Wait… The Vernon Reid? From Living Colour?
The show was a free event at the Lincoln Center, one of the last of a series that had occurred over the summer. There were three acts all working together to pay tribute to the late, great, Chuck Berry.
Low Cut Connie
First act – Philadelphia based Low Cut Connie – were fantastic. They excelled due to the energy they put into their performance. I arrived ten minutes late (turns out that the New York subway is far trickier to navigate than the Boston subway that I had ridden yesterday), to see singer standing atop a piano stool theatrically while singing. A few songs in he ventured out into the crowd to sing as he ran up and down the aisles.
Chuck Berry tribute band
Vernon Reid had pieced together a great band to play Chuck Berry covers. The stage was incredibly crowded, with a grand piano, three piece brass section, bass, at least three guitarists, and a revolving roster of singers and extra guitarists all playing their part throughout the night.
Of course, the talent Reid had handpicked for the event were all fantastic. It was clear that they were all having fun onstage, dancing around as the played the hits of such a legendary artist. Living Colour singer Corey Glover even made an appearance, pretending to bicker with Reid between songs to provide funny banter.
The band ended with the obligatory “Johnny B Goode”, before a naughty encore of “Ding A Ling”.
By the time The Jayhawks arrived onstage it was dark, making the stage lights stand out and set the mood. Compared to the first two bands, The Jayhawks were more relaxed, with a sound that reminded me of Calexico.
I was a year into my university studies and hadn’t been able to find much work over the Summer break. I was in the process of opening up a student account at the bank for when I’d need the interest-free overdraft for the upcoming year. I had to take 11 weeks off work that year to do the teacher placements as part of my studies and I couldn’t see any way that I could afford to do that.
So of course AJ Maddah announced the lineup for that years Soundwave festival.
It wasn’t the big names that drew me in. Sure, I’d like to see them, but I didn’t see them as major drawcards. It was some of the lesser known bands that I reeeallly wanted to see. You know, the bands written in tiny writing at the bottom of the poster that you have to squint to read. Like my favourite band: Scottish trio Biffy Clyro. Or Arizona act Jimmy Eat World. Or funk rock titans Living Colour.
There was no way I could afford to attend Soundwave, but there were a few sideshows that could have been viable options.I had friends I could stay with in Melbourne. Biffy Clyro played at The Corner Hotel, where I’d seen hardcore legends Terror play a few years beforehand. Living Colour were to open for Alter Bridge at The Forum. Dipping into the $1000 course related costs I was entitled to became veeeeery tempting.
Financial reason won in the end. Sad face emoji. No trip to Melbourne, no seeing awesome bands.
Buuuuut, I have been fortunate enough to see those three bands since. All at the Auckland Powerstation. And tonight, Living Colour proved that they were worth the wait.
Heavy Metal Ninjas
Local quartet Heavy Metal Ninjas came onstage dressed very much like Kora, which isn’t too surprising seeing as the two bands share members. As well as rocking the samurai garb, the two guitarists and bass player all had half face masks that gave off a Kylo Ren vibe. Maybe the drummer didn’t get the memo regarding dress code, choosing to opt for a bogan Jesus look instead.
Their music was sharp technical metal, full of double kick drums, guitar noodling and djenty riffs. They took Steve Vai worship to the next level. I counted 22 strings between the three masked men. As for the drums… well you can never really have enough cymbals can you?
The hard-hitting sci-fi take on instrumental metal delivered blow after pummeling blow, strengthened by the regular inclusion of strong sub bass that made me want to vomit. I’ll give them points for making an impact, and the crowd lapped it up.
Living Colour last visited our shores in 1993. A few people in the audience were rocking t shirts from that tour tonight. I, however, was merely an infant at the time, being born in 1992.
Not that this made a difference. Being one of the younger people in attendance made me feel as if I was in on a special secret.
The band weren’t scared to add a handful of covers to their set; they both opened and closed with a cover, as well as interspersing them throughout the night. Their influences range far and wide: Robert Johnson, Notorious BIG, Junior Murvin, Elvis, The Clash. Both familiar yet new, the songs all worked seamlessly into the set.
Living Colour are well seasoned pros. Their abilities are phenomenal. I don’t say this lightly. They. Can. Play.
The way Corey Glover sung, you wouldn’t know that he has worked those vocal cords hard for over 30 years. Not only is his singing great, but he has such range. He can bark during the thrash numbers. He can scream – you know, rock star style – like in “Hey Jude”. He has speed. I swear that even though I was watching his lips move, my brain couldn’t keep up with how fast he was spitting out words in some songs. And of course, he can do sexy soulful. He wore a paint splattered denim suit with gingham shirt, tie and a feathered hat.
Doug Wimbish was the centre of attention, playing up for the cameras. He may be the newbie in the band, but you’d never pick it. His bass solo was one of the highlights of the night. He played a tune – great in its own right. Then using a looping pedal, he added upon the tune, jamming with himself. His joy was openly visible as he expanded the sound during his solo. He employed various pedals to change his tone – deep, rich bass, higher guitar tones, alien sounds. And if the music wasn’t enough, he started playing with his mouth too. It was a wonder to listen to as he masterfully played his instrument.
Drummer Will Calhoun was just as mesmerising. His two kick drums sported Australian art. The first with a picture of Ayers Rock and a kangaroo, and the second depicting the Aboriginal flag (which looked like a pokéball when cropped into a circle). Situated around him were his many signature drums, cymbals, electronic pads and a large corrugated Hammerax sheet cymbal.
The way he approaches his playing is so outside-the-square that I doubt I’ll ever see another drum solo quite like his. First of all, he’s lightning fast. Living Colour have their thrash metal moments, but I didn’t realise how frenetic a lot of the rest of their works are. And then there’s his experimental side. He discussed it with me when I interviewed him a few weeks back. He takes electric drums and messes with the sound just as a guitarist uses pedals and effects to affect their tone. And on top of all this talent and creativity, he is highly educated in the ways of drumming from cultures worldwide. For me, his drum solo was worth the price of admission alone.
Which leaves Vernon on guitar. The unsung hero. He played the joker, cracking funnies to wind up Corey. He bore the blame when the band made a few mistakes. He referred to himself as the nerd in a band of sexy people. But he is the man responsible for forming Living Colour. And his guitar work is damn amazing. Humbleness is a virtue, but Vernon Reid is more than deserving of an ego.
When you consider the talent, the showmanship, the vibrancy of each of these four men, and realise that Living Colour is more than the sum of its parts, you come to understand that this show is one of those truly amazing nights that surpassed even the wildest expectations. After 30 years, you’d expect them to know how to own a stage. Which they did. The jokes and banter was funny. The music was immersive and compelling. The musicians were genuine. And just to prove it, they all came and met with the fans to take photos and sign merch after the show.
Will Calhoun laughs when I tell him how old I am. I was only three years old when his band Living Colour split back in 1995. I explain to him that because of this, Living Colour isn’t a known name within my peer group. However many of my friends do recognise their hit song “Cult of Personality” because of its inclusion in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He’s delighted by this.
“It feels great,” he tells me, “I have to say that I’m quite thrilled that it has transcended the rock and roll arena and has branched off into other arenas. It’s nice that the song transcended the music industry – which has come into an interesting phase – and is getting into the gaming industry and into television shows.”
Living Colour formed in New York in 1984, offering a unique fusion of politically charged rock, funk, jazz and metal. The band rose to fame, touring with rock heavyweights like Rolling Stones and Guns n Roses. They parted ways in 1995 with three records under their belt, but thankfully in 2000 the band regrouped. They are visiting Australia and New Zealand on tour in May and have a new record, Shade due out later in the year.
Despite the amount of time passed since Living Colour were at the height of prominence, the themes of their music remain as current as ever. Calhoun shares how the band wrote their biggest hit, ‘Cult of Personality’.
“We wrote that song in 1988. The fact that people still love it [is great]. I think it still sounds relevant today.
“The four of us have very strong ideals about the world and we talk about them. ‘Cult of Personality’ was written while we were setting up for a rehearsal. The topic of discussion was: what makes people follow people? What makes people follow Hitler, or Ghandi, or Dr King? Or Medgar Evers or John F. Kennedy? What is it about what someone is saying, or their charisma – that personality – that makes people want to follow them? And that was the conversation. And we were wondering: is it the same thing? Is it the same thing that made people follow Ghandi that made people follow Hitler? What are those intrinsic values? What are those definitions? How do you, as a person, identify with that person’s dialogue?
“And that was how the song was written. Vernon played a riff. I played a beat. And next we knew we had a song. All while we were setting up for sound check.”
Living Colour’s most recent release is an EP that centres around a cover of Notorious BIG’s song ‘Who Shot Ya?’. This track, along with another cover of Robert Johnsons ‘Preachin’ Blues’, are due to appear on Shade. I ask if there is a process that Living Colour go through to select songs to cover. Calhoun stops to think.
“We just covered ‘We Are Afraid Of Americans’ by David Bowie and I’ve been a fan of that song for so many years and it just felt so great to play it. We just cover songs we like as a band. We choose songs based on relevance to us, but often it is just playing homage to the person. It’s about paying respect to a person who, in our opinion, has done a creative amount of great work.
“As for Biggie Smalls… Corey Glover, our singer, is a massive fan of Biggie. Most of his hit songs he can rap to by heart. But it’s the impact. When you think of Robert Johnson verses Biggie… I just love that Living Colour has this wide open variety of songs to choose from. There’s no formula. We just pick what we like and we fool around with it and change the arrangement while still paying respect to the artist.”
So we already know two songs – both covers – appearing on Shade. Calhoun says that the rest of the record is the same Living Colour we know and love, but updated for 2017. He also adds that he loves the social commentary on the album.
He corrects me when I ask if the issues that the Black community faced 20-30 years ago are still the same today. He’s not rude, but informative. Clearly he is passionate about the themes that his band explore.
“These songs go beyond the Black community. They deal with the Māori community – down there where you live. The Aboriginal community in Australia. The Native American communities and indigenous communities around the world. They’re not relegated to black and white issues. Some of our songs deal with gender, discrimination, chauvinism, bullying, and those kinds of things. We write songs based upon what we experience in life. That’s what’s most fun about being a member of Living Colour.”
Again he corrects me when I try to rephrase my question, asking if the songs are for people of minority and those facing oppression.
“I think people of colour are not minorities. I think that they are a majority of people on the planet if you look at it in academic senses. I don’t like people using the term minority but I read that and I hear that all the time. In fact if you were to do the numbers or any real census of all the people on the planet, the people of colour are by far the majority. That’s neither here nor there, but when you use a term like minority, what you’re doing is you’re homogenizing a concept of people. You’re diminishing their value and painting a kind of a picture. That’s something that we want to break down in Living Colour – this homogenizing of culture. Even for black music.”
Image: Karsten Staiger
“When Living Colour first came on the scene in ’88 many people were surprised that we were black. And for us, we were shocked! Especially in our own country, to see that. Because black people invented rock and roll.
“The music’s for everyone – no doubt about it – but we are very careful with terminology and expressing ourselves in a way that’s all inclusive.
“We have a great song called ‘Wall’ that goes: ‘The wall between us all must fall.’ These walls that separate us by gender or by race, by skin colour, by financial interests. Ironically, that song was written mid-eighties. And here we are now in North America, with an administration that is discussing the possibility of building a wall.”
“Our music and lyrics are very present and relevant. And we hope that the music reaches people and might be . As an artist you always want to have present impact upon your audience.”
Calhoun is a nice guy. He comes across as friendly, and genuinely interested about me. I tell him that I’ve been up since before dawn for an ANZAC service, and that I play drums. When I mention that work as an early childhood teacher he showers me with encouragement.
Plus he’s patient. My calls kept cutting out annoyingly, but he remained accommodating the entire time. He tell’s me that this is the most interesting interview he’s ever had. This is possibly because I tried to come up with great questions, but it’s more likely because I keep having phone troubles.
As a drummer myself, I love Calhoun’s style. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Youtube videos with him playing, and explaining his approaches to drumming and the equipment he uses in his set up.
His interest in using electronics with drums started at a young age. Growing up in the Bronx, with his older brother’s generation responsible for pioneering hip-hop, meant that drum machines were commonly accessible. Seeing friends using the drum machines to programme beats and later hearing those beats on the radio prompted Calhoun’s desire to experiment with them himself.
“I didn’t want the drums to sound like drums,” he explains, “so I thought I could plug the drum machines into effect pedals and rack modules and delays and reverbs. And I thought about how I could manipulate that drum sound to get out of that idiom of being a drum? What would a drum sound like if it fed back? If it was looped? If it was sampled, or re-sampled?
“The same way a guitar player thinks about his or her guitar sound. Jimi Hendrix had a huge influence on me as an artist. Jimi was disconnected in a lot of ways. He was like an alien being. He took sounds and fed them into the guitar in ways that, as far as we were concerned, no-one had come up with before. And that’s the process I wanted to have with drums. So the influence came from both the increase in technology, and knowledge, experience and exposure with drum machines in my childhood and it just transcended.
“The experimentation with the technology forces you to create and change your sound. And that’s why I got into smaller drums. With my Nomad snare I wanted a bright sound, with a smaller drum for a smaller frequency response. I went to Sabian because I wanted cymbals that could work with electronic and acoustic music.”
This interest in combining electronic and acoustic sounds stepped up when he enrolled to study at Berkley, where he was a recording and engineering major. He had to choose a principle instrument – drums – but he chose to focus more on the stuff he didn’t know: learning about how microphones work and how to build consoles and create sound.
“I was a freak about sound. I wanted to know how Led Zepplin records sounded so amazing. What were they doing with the drum sound, the reverbs? The Old Columbia recordings… Why do James Browns recordings sound so great – so clean – today? We know they were great musicians, but how is it that they were able to make those great recordings with little 8-track recording studios?”
Later on in life he traveled around the world, living in places like Mali and Senegal where he learnt more about traditional drumming. Berkley was great as an institutional setting, but studying in various African nations gave Calhoun insight into thousands of years of teaching. Like his drum set uses electronic and acoustic elements, his style draws from both scientific and spiritual approaches.
It was fascinating hearing about the concept of ancestral beats. I asked him if he includes said beats in his playing, which launched him into an engrossing explanation. At first it sounded like something I’d dismiss, but Calhoun explained it in a way that made it sound plausible.
“I absolutely include them at all times. More so live because when playing drum solos I can introduce them to the audience in their traditional form. But at all times I include those beats. Sometimes it’s just pieces of the beats – a hit hat pattern, or a snare pattern or a kick pattern – but I’ll play them in their entirety in a drum solo because I can control what the beat means. Those beats have meanings and definitions. Those beats are like sentences. It has a subject, it has a verb… this kind of thing. So the beats are like a language, in a way.
“Those beats are part of rock and funk and James Brown style drumming. They are already borrowed bits and pieces. That’s the nature of music, with things able to be borrowed and transferred. I use them as much as possible, but they’ve been used by many great drummers before my time. If you listen to James Brown, a lot of the grooves on his records are Nigerian festive beats. And that’s why, in my opinion, James Brown’s music is loved by everyone – because historically it’s a celebratory rhythm being played.”
He explained how the body reacts to vibrations and tone. Certain sounds will make you feel happy, or relaxed, or upset. Think of fingernails on a chalkboard. Now think of waves lapping up on the shore at a beach. Our bodies have innate reactions to certain frequencies, so by extension it makes sense that specific alncestral drum beats can have particular effects on us.
He even takes the vibration concept another step, using a machine.attached to the drum throne he sits atop. The machine, called a BC2, sends vibrations up Calhoun’s body as an alternative to having a monitor. Calhoun dislikes monitors, comparing the act of a speaker blasting your own music back at you to riding a Harley Davidson and having the exhaust pumped back into your helmet.
Some Living Colour tracks are almost 30 years old. I ask Calhoun if he plays the songs differently now that has access to new equipment and technology. His answer revolves around a brilliant analogy of a hamburger.
There are formulas to the songs that he likes to keep, but he has changed as a parson over his career, living in different countries and using different technologies.
“A hamburger is a hamburger. You can put ketchup on it, or mustard or relish. You can make it well done, you can make it medium rare. But it’s still a hamburger. I look at my songs with Living Colour – my previous beats as a hamburger. I don’t want to eat it the way I used to eat it twenty years ago. I want to change it up and add different feels. A pocket or a groove or a feel is just a beat. But what are you adding to it? What spice or twist are you adding to it? Not pissing off the listener, but making it feel like it’s 2017.”
To conclude our chat I ask Calhoun one last question to make him laugh: does the British spelling of the name Living Colour ever lead to confusion? I can picture his grin down the end of the phone line as he answers. The band founder Vernon Reid is English, so made a deliberate choice to spell “colour” with the “U” included. But most Americans spell it incorrectly out of habit. It’s not much of an issue.
Before we finish Calhoun tells me how he’s looking forward to returning to New Zealand and getting another taste of our unique scenery, food and culture. I’m just as excited to see Living Colour play live for the first time.
Living Colour are playing the Powerstation in Auckland on Thursday 11 May.